Who or What is the Antichrist? A reflection on the Biblical teaching.

blog-011016There is much lore about the antichrist, especially among certain Evangelicals that is often out of proportion to the attention scripture pays to the concept, and more importantly is at possible variance from what is actually and certainly taught. It easily becomes the stuff of movies and novels wherein the antichrist figure steps on the scene, deceiving many and mesmerizing the whole world with apparent miracles and a message of false peace.

But is this really what or who the Scriptures call the antichrist? I would argue not, for in order to create this picture, its artists must splice in images from the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Thessalonians which do not likely apply to the mention of antichrist(s) in Scripture.

In fact, the use of the term “antichrist(s)” occurs only in the Johannine epistles. It does not occur in the Book of Revelation at all though many have mistaken notions that it does. There are plenty of beasts and dragons and harlots, demons and Satanic legions there, but no antichrist(s) is (are) mentioned there.

As mentioned, many also stitch the teaching of antichrist together with St. Paul’s teaching on the “man of lawlessness” who is to appear just before the end. The lawless one may well be the stuff of movies. But calling the “man of lawlessness” the antichrist may be to borrow too much from a concept that is more distinct. While it is not inauthentic to make a connection (some the Fathers seem to), neither is it necessarily correct to do so.

In this reflection on the antichrist I would be of the school of thought that it is improbable that the antichrist and the man of lawlessness are the same. In order to explain why let’s first look at the occurrences of the term antichrist in St. John’s Epistles:

  1. Little children, it is the last hour: and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. (1 John 2:18)
  2. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)
  3. 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, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world (1 John 4:2–3)
  4. 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! (2 John 1:7)

Note here, two things about the antichrist. First of all, St. John, writing in the First Century teaches “he” has already appeared. In calling this the “last hour” St. John and the Holy Spirit do not mean to indicate that the second coming will take place in the next 60 seconds, or even in the next few years. Rather it is a teaching that we are in the Last Age, the “Age of the Messiah,” also called the “Age of the Church” where God is sending out his angels to the four winds to gather all the elect from the ends of the earth (cf Mark 4:21) Sadly as well, St. John teaches that “antichrist” has come.

But secondly, in saying that “antichrist” has come, he immediately clarifies saying that (actually) many antichrist have appeared.

And thus, St John does not seem to present the antichrist is a solitary figure who comes, but notes that there are many antichrists.

And what do these antichrists do? They perpetrate heresy, error, and false teaching. He notes in particular that heretics who deny that Jesus is the Christ, (the Messiah) are antichrists. He also terms antichrists those who deny Christ having come in the flesh.

What does it mean to deny Christ having come in the flesh? It means that these antichrists reduce the saving work of God to mere appearances, that Jesus did not actually take up a human nature but only appeared to do so. These same antichrists, by extension, reduce the Christian moral and spiritual life to mere gnostic ideas rather than a true flesh and blood, body and soul change in our lives.

Many today extend these denials of the incarnation by undermining the historicity of the Gospels, doubting or outright denying what Jesus actually said and did, his bodily resurrection, and so forth. Some of them will say that his resurrection was not a bodily resurrection, but rather that his “ideas live on.” Now of course there can be no more fundamental heresy that to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. As St. Paul says, And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain….if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….[and] we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:14-17)

Thus, St. John along with all the early Church emphatically upholds an incarnational faith. We could actually touch our God and he touched us taking up our human nature. He suffered on the cross and died. And though his suffering was tied to his human nature (for his divine nature is impassible), but the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus, hypostatically united to his human nature suffered and died for us. It was this same human nature that God raised from the dead, gloriously transformed.

John takes this theme up elsewhere when he says the Christ came in water and in blood, not in water only (cf 1 John 5:6); for a certain heretic of that day named Cerinthus, held that the second person of the Blessed Trinity departed just before the passion of Jesus set in. John says, “No!” and insists that just as at his baptism the divine Nature of Jesus was affirmed “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” it is no less true during the shedding of his blood on Calvary, for the inspired word of God records the Centurion, on seeing the manner of Jesus’ death as saying, “Surely this was the Son of God!” (Mat 27:54). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, though of two natures is one person, did in fact die suffer and die for us.

Thus the essence of antichrist or St. John was anyone who denied Jesus come in the flesh; any who would relegate his presence among us to mere appearances, or his teachings to mere abstractions or ideals rather than transformative realities.

By extension it can be argued that the term “antichrist” refers to all deceivers, though only logically, not textually. St. John does not specifically indicate he means it this broadly. But in this wider sense all heresy pertains to antichrist since Jesus Christ is the truth. And to deny the truth Jesus teaches through his apostles is to deny Christ himself, who is truth itself, and thus to be “antichrist.”

Perhaps this is not the stuff of movies and novels. Sorry! And too bad because the title “antichrist” is so catchy! But this brings us to the man of lawlessness (also called the lawless one).

What or who is the “man of lawlessness” that Paul mentions and how is he related to the antichrist? As already stated, I do not think there is a connection. To see why lets consider what St. Paul teaches:

  1. As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the Man of lawlessness 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. (2 Thessalonians 2:1–4)
  2. 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 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. (2 Thessalonians 2:7–10)

Note the following crucial differences between antichrist and the lawless one:

  1. John speaks in the plural of “antichrists” whereas St. Paul speaks in the singular of the “Man of lawlessness,” or “lawless one.”
  2. The Lawless One’s deceptions are far less specified as “every kind of wicked deception” whereas the antichrists are more specified as related to a denial of the incarnation of the Son of God.

Jesus too speaks of those who will lead many astray, though he speaks in the plural and is likely referring to the First Century and the travails leading up to the War with the Romans in 70 AD: For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:24)

So, as you can see there are a lot of moving parts here as well as a lot of singulars and plurals to sort out, and time frames to consider. Permit the following conclusions from me.

  1. Antichrist is more restrictive notion that most think today. Antichrist is not a single person at all, but any number of people. The concept of antichrists seems limited specifically to those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh, and can possibly be applied to heresy in general.
  2. Jesus warns of false prophets and messiah’s but the context of his warning seems to be the First Century and the looming destruction of Jerusalem. Not the end times per se. Further he speak of many false prophets, not a solitary figure.
  3. It is the “man of lawlessness” spoken of by St. Paul that most fits our “movie script” of a charismatic figure, able to unite the world in a false peace by mesmerizing and deceiving the nations. This lawless one will signal the end times. And while not saying these are the end times, it is notable that the advent of instant worldwide communications has made possible the lawless one as never before. One individual could actually mesmerize and deceive all the nations right on the world-wide-web.
  4. All that said, to equate this “lawless one” with one of the beast of Revelation, or with antichrist, may be too speculative and possible inaccurate for all the reasons stated.

I hope I haven’t toyed with your movie script version too much. But Scripture is nuanced in these matters and we do well to avoid reducing its teachings to popular concepts and catchy notions.

Scripture does speak to us of end times and of difficult times preceding them. But the information given is often in general, even cryptic terms. It is as if Scripture wants to say, be ready, you don’t need (or want to know) all the details. Just be ready and know that when they set in, Christ has already won the battle! Viva Christo Rey.

13 Replies to “Who or What is the Antichrist? A reflection on the Biblical teaching.”

  1. Very good, Msgr. No, not a single ‘antichrist’. I used to speak of these things with many who held, to my mind, rather strange notions, especially of Apocalypse. The 80s and early 90s were interesting, when I oft heard of a computer ‘beast’ and I responded “Nero”. To say Gog and Magog were rise in paganism found little agreement. Anyway, all I can ever do is express how I see the *lessons* of the whole of Scripture, past, present, future at once, pertaining to all. This is why I see spirit of antichrist wed to mystery of iniquity. I’m not much help, I think, for lack of proper terms. But it does seem ‘the dragon’ or Devil has been loosed. I lack expression, but the Catechism 675-677 makes sense to me. Oremus…

  2. I’m reading “Elijah in Jerusalem”, the sequel of O’Brien’s “Father Elijah”, regarding the Antichrist. Excellent books.

  3. Thank you for tackling this issue. I think the spirit of anti-Christ is best described by the broad definition – heresy. And that spirit is running rampant all across the world today, both in the material and spiritual sense. If you look at the perpetrators of the horrors we see in the news every night, they all have one thing in common, which is the denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ and His teachings passed on through the Church.

  4. An interesting analysis of the Scriptural texts… however, as Catholics we also look to Tradition and the Magisterium to investigate Scriptural and theological terms/concepts.

    What do these sources tell us about the antichrist(s) as presented in the Johannine literature, and about the man of lawlessness of St Paul?

    1. This is not a treatise, just a blog post. I treated elsewhere of the Catechism’s teaching on eschatology. you can use the search bar to find that by entering eschatology

      1. I like your posts, but on this topic, I don’t think they agree with the majority of early Church Fathers. They are your own personal reflection.

        The expression, “man of lawlessness,” (which means to be against the religious moral law) which Paul uses very early, well before John 1 which has other community concerns as well, precedes the Gospels, and goes back to Qumran’s tradition about a figure who is called there at Qumran a man of “lawlessness” – an “antichrist” figure, someone opposed to Jewish moral law.

        You are giving your own private interpretation, based on very limited background.

        It is widely believed that Paul, who wrote before any of the Gospel writers, including John who wrote last, were familiar with Jewish “contrarian” tradition at Qumran.

  5. Although what the Msgr. has said about the antichrist being anyone who denies Jesus is the Messiah come in the flesh is by definition an ‘anti-Christ’ is logically sound; Cardinal John Henry Newman disagrees with it also not being a specific person in his “Advent Sermons on the Antichrist” where he takes great pains not to give his own personal thoughts/speculations but relies on the Church Fathers and Scripture.

    Also ‘the lawless one’ or the “Man of lawlessness” could be argued to be plural, in the sense that throughout Scripture, ‘man’ which is singular is used by God to be plural as in ‘mankind’ or ‘man’.

    In that respect, when in our history has ‘man’ made himself to be ‘god’ more than now? The ‘same-sex marriage’ laws attest to it as is the way ‘same-sex marriage’ is spreading like wildfire throughout the world. More people are agreeing with it being okay than ever before too because they’re unwilling to admit that active homosexuality is a sin because they don’t want to admit that their loved ones are disordered and sinning. We are also living in a time when the individual has set himself above the natural law. Just look at how many people are suing each other because they are ‘offended’ that another other person holds a conviction that active homosexuality is a disorder and a sin – and they’re winning! It is quickly becoming illegal around the world to hold the belief, based on God’s word, that active homosexuality is disordered and against God’s law.

    “Man” has very much become ‘lawless’.

    1. Yes, I mention that others, including the Fathers do connect the concepts and thus it is not inauthentic to do so. However, textually I prefer to hew more closely to biblical verse. John mentions antichrist but thereafter uses the plural. So I think to singularize antichrist is problematic. But I hope I make clear that I represent “a” view, not the only view.

  6. I am often fascinated at how tense discussions about eschatology become. In a discourse about a more average topic a discussion might go something like:

    “I don’t know if I subscribe to the interpretation (or theory) you advance here. I have a different understanding and here is why.”

    But in this discussion, I have put forth an interpretation that I fully disclose, in the title and in the column, that is looking only at the biblical text. I also state that I am less likely to make a lot of the connections that others make between antichrist and the Lawless one etc. BUT I ALSO say that it is not wholly inauthentic to do so and that some of the Fathers and others have done so.

    OK. So far?

    Apparently not for some who rather tartly note that I ought to reference the Fathers and Tradition etc. (The Tradition does not take an absolute stance on this topic). It doesn’t seem to be enough that I state a view admit that it is a minimalist view and that others have other views. Oddly there seems almost to be an irritation (fear?) by some here that the whole antichrist thing might be a little less movie-esque than some (pet?) theories they hold.

    It seems to me that a more reasonable sed contra might go something like:

    “I do connect these biblical themes, and here is why.”

    AM I missing something? I think the Protestant factor has caused many to be too loaded for bear when it comes to these discussions. Eschatology admits of a lot of uncertainty and the texts speak in highly symbolic and nuanced ways. The Lord seems to want to alert us that the end will surely come, but he cloaks the details lest we become to smugly confident we have it all figured out and lose our spirit of readiness. IMHO

  7. Monsignor: you (and most responses) focused on the “anti-Christ”, as do movies. Fine.
    I would say the passage, “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. (2 Thessalonians 2:7–10)” is the more important topic today because it gives the reason why so many are perishing: “because they refused to accept the love of truth so that they may be saved”. To combat the “lawless one” and to help people be saved, we must focus on helping them “accept the love of truth”!!!! What does a person do if they have accepted the loved of truth? What do people not do if they refuse to accept the love of truth???? Perhaps you could write a blog with a start at these two lists?
    If someone accepts the love of truth and still holds to an error because they honestly do not yet see that it contradicts the TRUTH,but they are sincerely seeking to believe everything God wants everyone to know and believe, are they still saved by their love of truth? If we help Muslims, and Jews and Christians accept the love of truth, is that not what Jesus is asking?
    I have an idea on my blog at eternalvisionfarmer.blogspot.com on “to help all parents be better parents” that I believe is the best way I have seen to encourage all people, of all faiths, to accept the love of truth because (once this idea is put into practice) ministers of all faiths will remind those in their churches that there are people in that church who are eager to help everyone do what they should be doing, seeking to believe whatever it is that God wants everyone to know and believe and understand the way God wants it understood, without pointing a finger at anyone in particular. Does anyone know of a better way to encourage people of all faiths to accept the love of truth than my idea on my blog? please send that way to me.
    The only people I see not supporting my idea are those who do not want people to accept the love of truth and who fear where God will lead everyone, which might be “some” ministers in all faiths because the devil seems to have succeeded in “duping” some shepherds in an attempt to lead the sheep astray.

  8. Monsignor Pope, thanks for shining some light on a dark subject. In this day, we have any number of political and non-Christian groups that are truly “anti-Christ”. One of the world’s major political-religions worships a god that denies Jesus Christ is his son (which, given that THAT ‘god’ is not the Triune God is true enough) and claims (falsely) the prophet for that religion is exalted above Our Lord, Jesus. There is no salvation outside of He Who is “The Way, and the Truth and the Life”. And there is no salvation in any other name than Jesus. Amen.

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