What Is Babylon?

Babylon’s story spans the tower of Babel to the fall of Babylon. And we’re warned to come out of the Babylonian system, before the fall of Babylon the great.

Babel (Hebrew), or Babylon (Greek), was one of the cities of an ancient kingdom established by Nimrod early in mankind’s history (Genesis 10:10). It is considered by some to be the place where life began and was the site where humans attempted to build a tower that would extend up to heaven (Genesis 11:1-4).

The Tower of Babel

God had commanded the people after the Flood to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). He did not want a repeat of the downward spiral of sin that had led to the Flood.

But instead of obeying God, the people who settled Babel said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (11:4).

This attitude of rebellion and of humanism—exalting humanity above God—has pervaded the Babylonian system ever since.

Seeing what humans were trying to do, God confused their language so they could not complete the tower they had begun. “Babel” means confusion and was a fitting name for this city whose residents were not obeying God. This same city became the epitome of all idolatrous worship and the capital city of an empire with its name.

The fall of Babylon

Some 1,500 years after its founding, God spoke of Babylon through the prophet Isaiah, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen! And all the carved images of her gods He has broken to the ground” (Isaiah 21:9).

The kingdom of Babylon would continue for another 200 years beyond the life of Isaiah until 539 B.C. Then Isaiah’s prophecies came to pass, and the fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire is recorded in Daniel 5. Read more about this in our article “The Fall of Babylon.”

The city would continue to be inhabited up until the Islamic invasions around A.D. 650.

The prophecy of Isaiah had a dual meaning. It not only referred to ancient Babylon, but also to a second Babylon, the Babylon of the book of Revelation (Revelation 14:8; Revelation 18:2).

Another Babylon: end-time Babylon the great

When students of the Bible come to the book of Revelation, they find a Babylon much different from the one described in the Old Testament. In addition to being a great kingdom like the Babylon of the Old Testament, this Babylon is described as a woman who sits on a beast.

Recording the vision he had seen, John wrote: “So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. … And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (Revelation 17:3, 5).

To understand this Babylon, we must first understand the symbolic language being used in the book of Revelation. What is represented by a “woman,” a “beast,” “seven heads and ten horns,” and “Babylon the great”?

There have been different ideas and opinions about this Babylon, in large part because men have read their own interpretations into these symbols. This usually results in false conclusions.

What does a woman symbolize in the Bible?

It is important to understand that when the Bible uses symbolic language, the Bible interprets its symbols for us. We do not have to guess at the meaning.

For example, when a woman is used symbolically in Scripture, she represents a church—a group of people. Paul uses the symbol of “a chaste virgin” for the Church that will be presented to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2), and Christ refers to His bride in Revelation as a wife or woman (Revelation 19:7).

This immoral woman, called Babylon the great, is an apostate church that has been responsible for the martyrdom of many true followers of Jesus Christ.The woman in Revelation 17 is a church, but not the Church that was established by Jesus Christ. Notice what this church does to those who obey God and follow Jesus Christ: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement” (Revelation 17:6).

This immoral woman, called Babylon the great, is an apostate church that has been responsible for the martyrdom of many true followers of Jesus Christ.

The identity of Mystery, Babylon the great

The Bible identifies this woman clothed in purple and scarlet and sitting on a scarlet beast in the last verse of chapter 17, “And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (verse 18).

At the time John wrote this verse, and in the centuries that followed, the city that reigned over the kings of the earth was Rome. And the church associated with Rome is the Roman Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Vatican City in Rome.

The Adam Clarke Commentary adds this statement, “It has already been shown that the woman sitting upon the seven-headed beast is a representation of the Latin [meaning Roman] Church; here we have the greatest assurance that it is so, because the woman is called a city, which is a much plainer emblem of a Church, as the word is used unequivocally in this sense in so many parts of Scripture that we cannot well mistake its meaning” (notes on Revelation 17:18).

Who is the beast?

The Bible says the woman rides or sits on a scarlet beast (Revelation 17:3). This beast is described in Revelation 13:2 as being “like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon [Satan, Revelation 12:9] gave him his power, his throne, and great authority.”

This scarlet beast is not a description of a church. Instead, it represents the civil government of the Roman Empire. (See our article “Who Is the Beast?”)

This beast was “mortally wounded,” but later this “deadly wound was healed” (verses 3-4). Historically, the Roman Empire was overrun and came to an end in A.D. 476. Ten horns (Revelation 13:1) representing restorations of this empire were predicted to occur. The first revivals included the Vandals (429-533), the Heruli (476-493) and the Ostrogoths (493-554).

The next revival was the “Imperial Restoration” in 554 when Justinian, emperor of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, restored the western provinces to his domain.

Through succeeding restorations, Catholic popes conferred the title of Holy Roman Emperor to Charlemagne (800), Otto the Great (962), Charles V (1520) and Napoleon (1804).

The most recent revival was the German-Italian alliance (under Hitler and Mussolini), which tried to unite Europe by force in the 1930s and 1940s. Adolf Hitler considered Nazi Germany an extension of past German-dominated revivals of the Holy Roman Empire, while Benito Mussolini saw himself as a modern “Caesar” over a revived Roman Empire.

Who is the second beast?

How did the revived Roman Empire receive the title of “holy”? We are told in Revelation 13:11-12 about a second beast. “Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.”

This beast is the woman (church), Babylon the great, that appears as a lamb like Christ, but actually speaks “like a dragon”—Satan. This beast, through its head, the pope, crowned the various heads of state as emperors of the “holy” Roman Empire.

This church designed its ecclesiastical government in the image of the Roman system (verses 14-15). To learn more about this second beast, read “What Is the ‘Image of the Beast’?

Two beasts prophesied by Daniel

The book of Revelation is not the beginning of the prophecy of this union of church and state. The prophecy begins in the seventh chapter of Daniel. The first six verses of Daniel 7 recount the dream Daniel was given, symbolizing the first three great empires of the ancient world. Babylon was represented by a lion; Persia, by a bear; and Greece, by a leopard.

In verse 7, Daniel continues: “After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.”

History has shown that the fourth great kingdom, which had “iron teeth,” was the Roman Empire. (Compare this with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:40.)

Daniel then wrote: “I was considering the horns, and there was another horn, a little one, coming up among them. … And there, in this horn, were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking pompous words” (verse 8). This little horn accompanies the beast and its 10 kings that “arise from this kingdom” (verse 24).

This little horn is described as “making war against the saints, and prevailing against them” (verse 21). This is what the woman called Babylon the great will do to true Christians (Revelation 17:6).

The “little horn” of Daniel 7, the second beast of Revelation 13, and the woman of Revelation 17 are all describing the same New Testament Babylon, which is the Roman Catholic Church.

Future actions of Babylon the great

So far, we have looked briefly at the prophecies of Babylon that have taken place over the last 2,000 years and at what it will do in the future. But what else does the Bible say about the future of this apostate church that is called Babylon the great?

Jesus, speaking of events before His return, said, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). He followed this by saying there would be strong religious deception so as “to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (verses 23-24).

The apostle Paul explained how this deception would come about in writing to the church at Thessalonica.

He wrote, “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). The popes have claimed the title “vicar of Christ,” which means “to stand in the place of Jesus Christ.”

God reveals that prior to the return of Jesus Christ many will be deceived by this coming individual and the false religious system that is behind him.The Adam Clarke Commentary describes this “man of sin” in verse 4 as “having the highest place and authority in the Christian Church, he acts as God—taking upon himself God’s titles and attributes, and arrogating to himself the authority that belongs to the Most High” (note on 2 Thessalonians 2:4).

God reveals that prior to the return of Jesus Christ many will be deceived by this coming individual and the false religious system that is behind him.

“Babylon the great is fallen”

Babylon the great with its entire system centered in Rome and the final pope who is called a false prophet (Revelation 19:20) will come to a sudden end when Jesus Christ returns.

Revelation 18 says in “one day” and “in one hour” “that great city” will come to an end (verses 2, 8, 10, 17, 19, 21). It also reveals that God will hold Babylon responsible for having martyred the true servants of Jesus Christ (verses 20, 24).

God has decreed harsh judgment on Babylon the great because of her rebellion against God and her cruel treatment of God’s people.

As Albert Barnes explains, “The idea is that of utter desolation; and the meaning here is, that spiritual Babylon—papal Rome will be reduced to a state of utter desolation resembling that of the real Babylon” (Notes on the Bible, Revelation 18:2).

A final warning: come out of Babylon

The end of Babylon comes with a warning to all believers to act before it is too late. “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues’” (Revelation 18:4).

Coming out of spiritual Babylon includes coming out of her sins and false doctrines and not compromising with the truths taught in the Bible.

May we all heed this warning so we will not share in the sins of end-time Babylon or receive her plagues described in detail in the book of Revelation. (These include the seven last plagues.)

For more about the end-time Babylon the great, see our article “Mystery, Babylon the Great.” For additional study on the false religious leader prophesied to appear at the end of this age, read our article “Antichrist.”

About the Author

Jim Haeffele

Jim Haeffele

Jim Haeffele is a church pastor in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He currently pastors congregations in Fort Myers, Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida. He has served in the ministry of the Church of God for over 46 years. During those years he and his wife, Lois, have served congregations from Portland, Oregon, where he grew up, to Utah, Ohio, North Carolina, and now Florida.

Read More

Continue Reading


Discern is published every two months and is available in digital and print versions. Choose your preferred format to start your subscription.

Print subscriptions available in U.S., Canada and Europe


Please choose your region:


Discern Article Series

Christ Versus Christianity
Walk as He Walked
Christianity in Progress
Wonders of God's Creation
Ask a Question