1. When Shall Antichrist Come?
The Holy Scriptures do not specify the exact time when Antichrist shall come; all that they say is that he will not come before the Gospel has been preached throughout the whole world, that the Roman empire shall have passed away.
I. The Gospel Preached Throughout the World.
It is of Faith that the Gospel shall be preached to all nations before the end of the world, that it may bear testimony against the wicked. (Mat. 24:14; Mk 13:10). But will that take place before the coming of Antichrist? It is, if not impossible, at leastextremely difficult to see how it should be otherwise. According to St. John (in Apoc. 14), the reign of the man of sin will be the second last scourge of the world. He will abolish public worship, and the Church, instead of being consoled by the efforts of her children to achieve new conquests, will see with poignant grief many of them abandon her to follow her declared enemy and persecutor. The diffusion of the Gospel will therefore be universal before Antichrist will appear on the scene.
It is true that from the very birth of Christianity the Apostles preached the Gospel to all the nations then living upon earth. (Ps. 18:5). But when Our Lord spoke, He had in view not only the preaching of, but also the diffusion of the Gospel and its acceptation by all nations. The royal prophet (Ps. 21 :28) says, "All the people of the earth shall remember and shall be converted to the Lord; and all the kindreds of the gentiles shall adore in his sight." St. Prosper (de liber arbit, ad Rufinum) challenges anyone to point out a single nation in which the standard of the cross will not have been planted and received. He founds the truth of his assertion on the following passage of Holy Writ: Did not God the Father say to His Son: Ask Me and I will give Thee the nations of the earth for Thy inheritance, and Thy possessions shall be limited only by the extremities of the earth? St. John in the Apocalypse (7:9) says, "I saw a great multitude, which no man could count, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands."
That the Gospel must be preached and received everywhere does not imply any more than what can be morally done, since the doctrine of the Church will be morally opposed till the end of time. But when will the Gospel be sufficiently diffused? When will it have borne sufficient fruits in the designsof God to require no further delay to the second coming of Christ? These are questions which cannot be answered at present. This knowledge is the secret of that divine wisdom which alone has built the tower of heaven, penetrated the depths of the abyss, walked on the waves of the sea, and traversed the extremities of the universe. (Ecclesiasticus 24:8).
II. The Roman Empire
The complete destruction of the Roman Empire is also an event that must happen prior to the coming of Antichrist, but it remains to be examined what is meant by the Roman Empire and what is the authority upon which the assertion of its destruction is founded. Commentators of the Bible contend that this empire is explicitly pointed out and described by the prophet Daniel under the form of a statue, the head of which is gold, and represents the Persian empire; the body and thighs are of brass and represent the Grecian empire; the legs being of iron, the feet partly iron and partly clay, represent the Roman empire. (Dan. 2 :32, etc.).
The feet of this statue had ten toes, which represent the ten kings who will divide the kingdom among them. The same prophet also saw four kingdoms under the form of four beasts (Dan. 7), the latter of which had ten horns, which were broken and divided among the despoilers.
According to some commentators, when Rome relapses into idolatry, it shall be destroyed and burned by those ten kings by order of Antichrist. (Cornelius a Lap. in Apoc.). St. John gives a description of a beast with seven heads and ten horns. On this beast is seated a woman, who represents the city seated on its seven hills, which in turn are represented by the seven beasts.(Apoc. 17:1,3,9). The ten horns are ten kings, enemies of Rome, who will pillage and destroy it. (Dan. 7:8, etc.; Apoc. 17:12 & 16). Such is the manner in which the Fathers have always interpreted the foregoing prophecies.
In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul, wishing to disabuse them of a false notion they had relative to the immediate coming of Our Saviour, says to them (2 Thes. 2 :2-3 & 6-7): "Let no man deceive you by any means; for unless there corne a revoIt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, the day of the Lord is not yet at hand. . . And now you know what withholdeth, that he may be revealed in his time, for the mystery of iniquity already worketh; only that he who now holdeth, do hold, until he be taken out of the way, and then that wicked one shall be revealed." This text, obscure in itself, has been interpreted in the same manner by St. Ambrose (in 2 Ep. ad Galat.), by St. Jerome (quae st. 2 ad Algarium), by St. Chrysostom (ham. 4 in hanc epist.), by Hippolytus (de Anti-christo), by St. Irenaeus (lib. V haeres, C. 25 et 26). All the Fathers hold as apostolic tradition that St. Paul wished to designate the Roman empire in the above passage and which they explain as follows: Let the hands which hold at present the reins of the empire hold them until it is completely destroyed. The Apostle did not wish to express himself more clearly than he did, as he did not wish to wound the Roman pride. At Rome the city was believed to be eternal, and it was deemed blasphemous to deny it - a crime that merited the severest punishment. Hence it was that the surest means of securing the Christians' condemnation was to accuse them of being enemies of the Roman empire. The first apologists of Christianity labored assiduously to refute this calumny and remove the public prejudice which it created against the Christians. Tertullian (in Apologet, C. 32) says that the Christians pray for the preservation of the Empire, the ruin of which would entail so many frightful disasters.
It appears certain, then, that the Roman empire will be completely demolished by Antichrist and that he will substitute another in its place. The Scriptures affirm it; the Fathers almost unanimously assert it; St. Augustine (lib. 20 de Civit., C. 19) explicitly says that he cannot see how the text of St. Paul can be otherwise interpreted, nor how to give to Theodoret's opinion another meaning. Lactance says that the Roman empire, which today governs the world - terrible to say, but true for all - will be swept from the face of the earth. The empire shall return to Asia; the oriental countries shall reign once more and lord it over the Western nations. (Lib. 7, 15). But it is as difficult to understand what is meant here by the word "empire" and to determine its duration as to find the solution to Jacob's problem relative to the permanency of the scepter in Judea. (Gen. 49:10). Some are of opinion that the destruction of the Roman empire and its division among the ten kings will not be the immediate prelude to the apparition of Antichrist. Those ten kings may have successors whose reign may be indefinitely prolonged till the advent of the last conqueror. St. John seems to favor this opinion when he says that "those kings shall receive their power for an hour."
While others believe that the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers explicitly teach that the coming of Antichrist will take place immediately after the destruction of the empire by the ten kings. According to this opinion, some theologians maintain that the temporal Roman empire has never ceased to exist. In the beginning of the Christian era its sway prevailed over the known world. And if in some parts it has been deposed, it has always existed and still exists, at least virtually, under some shape or form, and shall thus continue to exist till the end of time. To prove this assertion, they compare it to the legs of the statue mentioned in the prophecy of Daniel. When one of the legs of this statue fell, the other did not fall, and the one that fell represents the downfall of the Western Empire, while the standing leg represents the Eastern Empire, which still exists. But it shall fall, as stated in the prophecy. Through the intervention of the Popes, Providence has long since restored the Empire in the person of Charlemagne. It passed from France to Germany, and hence the temporal succession of the Roman Emperors has been perpetuated to our time. (Bellarm. de summa Pontit.). It is true that the title of Roman Emperor exists no longer; there is, however, as yet a temporal monarchy at Rome which is quite sufficient in the esteem of the supporters of this opinion to save the truth of the prophecy.
If this opinion be true, we might perhaps say that the end is near at hand. We say "perhaps", for Almighty God has not yet said the last word relative to this redoubtable Roman question on which hangs the destiny of the world.
But other theologians maintain. that the prophecy refers to the spiritual power of Rome. The Roman Empire is not destroyed says St. Thomas (in 2 Thes. 2); it is only transformed, that is, the temporal power has become spiritual as St. Leo remarks in the feast of the Holy Apostles. Hence, the disaffection of which the Apostle speaks is a revolt not only against the temporal empire, but also against the spiritual empire. that is, against the faith of the Roman Church. And further on he adds "that many must yet receive the faith, and many shall lose it to such an extent that the Church will be desolated and devastated by the great apostasy before the coming of Antichrist."
By spiritual empire, we do not mean the religious government of individuals alone, but also the introduction of religious principles into the social order. Europe, though divided into several kingdoms, has felt the religious action of Rome in its laws and public institutions. The great ancient pagan empire of Rome has become the Christian empire governed by the law of Christ and the law of the Church, which represents Jesus Christ upon earth. This "law" emanates from Rome, the new Sion. (de Sian exibit lex; Is. 2:3). At present the evil tendencies of men lead them to arrest as much as possible the action of the Roman Church on mankind. Were we to form our judgment from the signs of the times the conjured perversity of men who band together for the sole purpose of subverting the Catholic Church, or at least to destroy its influence throughout the world - we feel inclined to think that we see in them the commencement of the final apostasy foretold by St. Paul. (2 Thes. 2:3). However this may be, it is a known fact that God has made the nations curable. The present blindness may be only a transistory evil to which shall succeed a more perfect development and ready acceptance of the Catholic doctrine among the nations of the earth.