Monday, May 9, 2022
Bible & Archaeology (University of Iowa)
Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist painting by Signorelli
Luca Signorelli (1450–1523), Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist. Fresco. Cappella di San Brizio. 1499–1502. Current location: Orvieto Cathedral. (Image credit: Alonso de Mendoza via Wikimedia)

Most of us have heard of a figure called "The Antichrist." It sounds like the name of the ultimate evil nemesis we'd find opposing all things good in the Bible. But is that what the Antichrist is and is the Antichrist actually mentioned in the New Testament?

First, when I say "Antichrist," what images come to your mind? History is littered with theories and ideas—from Peter the Great and Napoleon, to the pope and secret societies, to Presidents Obama and Trump—all depending on where someone stands on the political or religious spectrum. But moving beyond conspiracy theories, the general belief of most people is that the Antichrist will pretend to be Christ (the Greek word for the Jewish "Messiah"), performing signs and wonders while taking over the world at the time of the apocalypse.

But what does the Bible actually say? This seems kind of important since the Bible is supposedly the origin of the Antichrist tradition.

The "little horn" of Daniel 7 and "the Beast" and "false prophet" of Revelation 13 have been popular representations of the Antichrist, but they have other names, and are never called "Antichrists" in the Bible, although church leaders in the second and third centuries CE attempted to merge these texts with the Antichrist tradition.

2 Thessalonians describes one potential candidate:

Passage

Name

Quotation

2 Thessalonians 2:3–12

"Man of Sin, Lawless One"

"Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one/man of sin (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας; ho ánthrōpos tēs anomías) is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God … And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one (ὁ ἄνομος; ho ánomos) will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed in the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned."

This being possesses many of the perceived Antichrist characteristics—rebellious, exalts himself, declares himself to be God, works with Satan, and agent of deception. However, this being is never called "the Antichrist," but instead is referred to as "the Lawless One" or "the Man of Sin" (ὁ ἄνομος; ho ánomos).

Jesus's apocalyptic discourse describes another candidate:

Passage

Quotation

Matthew 24:4, 15, 23–24

"Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will lead many astray … And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray … So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand) … Then if anyone says to you, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'There he is!'—do not believe it. For false messiahs (ψευδόχριστοι; pseudóchristoi) and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect."

Mark 13:5–6, 14, 21–22

"Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray … But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand) … And if anyone says to you at that time, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'Look! There he is!'—do not believe it. False messiahs (ψευδόχριστοι; pseudóchristoi) and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect."

We have what appears to be another presumably accurate description, and this time we even have a name that includes the word "christ." However, this individual is called a "false/pseudo" (ψευδόχριστοι; pseudóchristoi) christ, and not "anti-christ."

 

The New Testament Antichrist

Before we decide that pseudo is close enough, a quick search of the Johannine Epistles reveals that these are the only five appearances of the word "antichrist":

Passage

Quotation

1 John 2:18

"Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist (ἀντίχριστος; antíchristos) is coming, so now many antichrists (ἀντίχριστοι; antíchristoi) have come. From this we know that it is the last hour."

1 John 2:22

"Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? That is the antichrist (ἀντίχριστος; antíchristos), the one who denies the Father and the Son."

1 John 4:2–3

"By this you now the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist (ἀντιχρίστου; antichrístou), of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world."

2 John 1:7

"Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (ἀντίχριστος; antíchristos)!"

So here we have our answer: the word "antichrist" does, in fact, appear in the Bible. And we read several things about this figure that we've come to expect by now—it comes in the "last hour," it is a "liar," it "denies Jesus is Christ," and it is a "deceiver."

But, note also some odd facts about the term antichrist. First, the term only appears in 1 and 2 John. Second, it doesn't appear to refer to a singular, apocalyptic being. Interestingly, 1 John 2:18 doesn't even employ a definite article; it just uses "antichrist" to describe someone. In fact, the author sounds like he has a specific group in mind because 1 John 2:18 says that there may be many antichrists.

Let's look at 1 John 2:18–19 again a bit more closely:

1 John 2:18–19

"Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist (ἀντίχριστος; antíchristos) is coming, so now many antichrists (ἀντίχριστοι; antíchristoi) have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.

The author is focused on a division within the community that has caused some to leave—which means that the first documented use of the word "antichrist" in the Bible is slander used by Christians directed at other Christians. We call this group that split off the secessionists, but this clarification raises another question.

Above the author argued that the antichrist denied that Jesus was the Christ and obviously sees an antichrist as a threat to the community. You wouldn’t immediately assume that someone who simply denied Christ would be a threat to any Christian community, but we get further clarification in 1 John 4 and 2 John 1:

1 John 4:1–3

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist (ἀντιχρίστου; antichrístou), of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world."

2 John 1:7

"Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (ἀντίχριστος; antíchristos)!

Here we see that these antichrists also deny that Jesus came "in the flesh." This sounds like an odd accusation, but it helps explain some characteristics of 1 and 2 John. Notice how often the beginning of 1 John stresses senses of physical perception like seeing, hearing, and touching:

Passage

Quotation

1 John 1:1–3

"We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."

You obviously cannot touch what doesn't have flesh, but was this really a debate among early Christians?

Actually, yes it was. There were several different beliefs about Jesus's relation to his body, but the most relevant one for us was called docetism, from the Greek verb dokeō, meaning "to seem or appear." Docetists believed that Jesus only appeared to take human form, since as a divine being he couldn't enter an impure human body to provide the teachings that would enable his followers to escape from an evil world that was created as a type of prison. So the author of the Johannine Epistles appears to define an antichrist (again, there can be many according to 1 John 2:18) as anyone who denies that Jesus, the Christ, had a fully human body.

But what does it really matter if Jesus did or did not have an actual body? Here, two other recurring themes from the Johannine Epistles explain:

Passage

Quotation

1 John 1:6–7

"If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

1 John 2:1–2

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

1 John 4:9–10

"God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins."

1 John 5:6–8

"This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: The Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree."

Notice the emphasis on both blood and sacrifice. The blood is the life-force that is the essential element of the sacrifice (cf. Genesis 9:4 ff.). According to the author of 1 and 2 John, in order for Jesus to act as the atoning sacrifice for sins, his blood must be spilled. But in order for his blood to be spilled, Jesus had to have a physical body.

This remained a significant debate among early Christians—Christians who possessed varying positions on the matter. Some agreed with the docetists that a divine being couldn't die, but they solved this by arguing the divine being of "Christ" possessed or inhabited the human Jesus at the moment of his baptism, and then departed his human body at the time of his crucifixion.

There were also some that went a completely different direction, agreeing with 1 and 2 John that Jesus was born with a physical body, but added that he was divinely "adopted" by God at his baptism.

A middle position (that would eventually lead to the doctrine of the Trinity) is what I like to call the "politician's answer" to the question. Was Jesus fully human or fully divine? Yes. Even after the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, when St. Nicholas (better known as Santa Claus) punched Arias for believing that the Trinity was only of a similar substance ("homoousias") and not the same substance, they would continue debating the technicalities of this "politician's solution" by arguing how Jesus could at the same time be fully divine and fully human, while praying to God as a human, and dying as a human, but resurrecting (or being resurrected) because of his divinity—something that a typical "full human" cannot do.

Later on, those Christians that ultimately embraced this view of Jesus as sacrifice would struggle to answer whether he was sacrificed to satisfy God or Satan, but that is a discussion for another day. What concerns us in this study is that the "antichrist" was not initially some supernatural apocalyptic figure in the Bible; such figures are given different names and are described differently in Scripture. Antichrists in the Bible are simply those who deny Jesus was the Christ, and that he came "in the flesh." Everything else is a much-later conflation of other words and verses into the concept of "antichrist" that was originally limited to the author of 1 and 2 John.