It was clear to true Christians (often called Anabaptists) until the late Middle Ages, that the Church of Rome was the Antichrist foretold by the apostles. In the sixteenth century Menno Simons made it very explicit. The following are only a few of the references to Antichrist in his writings.
Since Christ has commanded that believers should be baptized, and not infants, and the holy apostles taught and practised thus, in accordance with the instructions and commands of Christ, as may be seen in many places of the New Testament, all reasonable-minded men must admit, that infant baptism, although alas, practised by nearly the whole world, and maintained by tyranny, is nothing less than a ceremony of Antichrist, open blasphemy, an enchanting sin, a molten calf; yea, abomination and idolatry.
Beside this, the use of the cup is withheld from the people in the Roman church. If it were the Lord’s Supper, as they pretend, they would, in every respect, use it according to the ordinance of the Lord. But this custom shows that it is not the Supper of Christ, but a deluding seduction of Antichrist.
In short, they preach and lay before the poor people, lies for truth ; darkness for light; death for life, and Antichrist for Christ.
Behold, beloved sirs, friends and brethren, we openly declare that the sending and calling of your preachers are neither of God nor his word, but are from Antichrist, the dragon and the beast ; that they are not called to preach the word of the Lord, by the Spirit of God, and the church, but they are called and lured by their lusts with the priests of Jeroboam, to worship the golden calf, 2 Chron. 13: 8, 9.
Antichrist rules through hypocrisy and lies, with power and sword; but Christ reigns patiently with his word and spirit.
After the Reformation, the Protestant churches took up the refrain, even though they continued to practice many of the characteristics of Antichrist. They baptized babies, claimed that salvation was ministered by means of the sacraments and enlisted the sword of secular authorities to attack all who did not conform to their teachings.
Finally, the Roman Catholic church felt it had to do something. With the advent of the printing press it could no longer conceal the Scriptures from the people. The Jesuits, masters of sophistry and disinformation, came to the rescue.
The first was Francisco Ribera, a Spanish Jesuit, who published a commentary on the book of Revelation in 1590. He proposed a new interpretation of Revelation, saying that the first part applied to ancient pagan Rome, and the rest referred to a future period of 3½ years, immediately prior to the second coming. During this 3½ years the Antichrist, a single individual, would appear He would persecute the saints of God, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, deny Jesus Christ, pretend to be God and conquer the world. Immediately afterthis Christ would return to judge the world.
Other Jesuits added to this line of thought, the most influential being Manuel de Lacunza, His book, The Coming of the Messiah in Majesty and Glory was published in Spanish in 1810, under the pen nmae of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra. He differed from Ribera’s interpretation in that after the 3½ years of tribulation Christ would return and rule from Jerusalem for 1,000 years and then the Judgment would come.
Edward Irvine, a Presbyterian minister, discovered Lacunza’s book and translated it into English. The book appeared in 1827 and Irvine’s preaching began to be mostly focused on this millennial teaching. He was excommunicated in 1830 and a new denomin ation formed, the Catholic Apostolic Church. In 1830 Margaret MacDonald, a 15 year old Scottish girl in Irvine’s congregation, had visions that a secret rapture of the church would occur before Antchrist would appear. Irvine accepted this as a divine revelation and added this new wrinkle to his millennial teaching.
John Nelson Darby was first a lawyer, then a Church of England clergyman and later the most prominent figure in the Plymouth Brethren movement. He was a regular attender of the prphecy conferences that began in Powerscourt, Ireland in 1830. Here he was exposed to Irvine’s teachings, heard of Miss MacDonald’s supposed visions and went to hear them from her at her home in Port Glasgow, Scotland.
Darby added the dispensational teaching to the mix, saying that God has offered salvation to mankind in six different ways in six dispensations, all of which have failed. The seventh and final will ne Christ’s millennial kingdom. Darby popularized this dispensational pre-tribulation premillennial doctrine through extensive writing and preaching. C.I. Scofield learned the doctrine from Darby and gave it a major boost in North America with his Scofield Reference Bible. Lewis Sperry Chafer learned the doctrine from Scofield and went on to found Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, from which many well known prophecy teachers have graduated.
Chafer taught for many years that Benito Mussolini was the Antichrist and would establish a new Roman Empire that would lead to the Great Tribulation. There have been numerous other failed attempts to identify some well known figure as the Antischrist. Despite this, the doctrine has now so pervaded Evangelical Christianity that to question it seems almost heresy.