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Who or What Is the Antichrist? A Reflection on the Biblical Teaching

January 3, 2018 25 Comments

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli (1499)

There is much lore about the antichrist (especially among certain Evangelicals) that is out of proportion to the attention Scripture pays to the concept, and more importantly is at possible variance from what is certainly taught. It easily becomes fodder for movies and novels: 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 whom the Scriptures call the antichrist?  I would argue not, for in order to create such a picture one would have to splice in images from the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Thessalonians that do not likely apply to antichrists.

In fact, the use of the term antichrist occurs only in the Johannine epistles. It does not occur in the Book of Revelation at all, though many have the mistaken idea that it does. There are plenty of beasts, dragons, harlots, demons, and satanic legions in Revelation, but no mention of antichrists.

Many also stitch the teaching about antichrists together with St. Paul’s teaching on the “man of lawlessness” (also called “the lawless one”) who is to appear just before the end. The lawless one may well be the stuff of movies, but calling him the antichrist may be to borrow too much from a concept that is more specific. While it is not inauthentic to make a connection between them (some of the Church Fathers seem to), it is not necessarily correct to do so.

In this reflection I take the position that it is improbable that the antichrist and the man of lawlessness are one and the same. In order to explain why, let’s first look at the occurrences of the term antichrist in St. John’s Epistles.

  • 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).
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • 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 two things about antichrists. First, St. John (writing in the first century) teaches that he has already appeared. In calling this the “last hour,” St. John and the Holy Spirit do not mean that the Second Coming will take place in the next sixty minutes or even in the next few years. Rather, the teaching is that we are in the Last Age, the Age of the Messiah (also called the Age of the Church), when 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, St. John also teaches that the antichrist has already come as well.

Second, after saying that the antichrist has come, St. John immediately clarifies by saying that actually many antichrists have appeared.

Thus St. John does not seem to present the antichrist as a single figure who has come. Rather, he says that there are many antichrists.

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

What does it mean to deny Christ having come in the flesh? It means reducing the saving work of God to mere appearances by claiming that Jesus did not actually take up a human nature but only appeared to do so. By extension, these same antichrists 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 historic authenticity of the Gospels, doubting or outright denying what Jesus actually said and did. Some of them say that Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily one, but rather that His “ideas live on.” 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 by 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), Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, 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 up this theme elsewhere when he says that Christ came in water and in blood, not in water alone (cf 1 John 5:6). A certain heretic of that time, Cerinthus, held that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity departed just before Jesus’ passion. John refutes this, insisting that just as at His baptism Jesus’ divine nature was affirmed (This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased), so also was it affirmed during the shedding of His blood on Calvary (the inspired word of God records the centurion, on seeing the manner of Jesus’ death, saying, Surely this was the Son of God (Mat 27:54)). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, though of two natures, is one person, and He did in fact die suffer and die for us.

Thus to St. John, the essence of the antichrist is denial that Jesus came in the flesh. An antichrist is one who would relegate Jesus’ 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 specifically in the text. St. John does not indicate that he means the term antichrist this broadly, but in a wider sense all heresy pertains to the antichrist because Jesus Christ is the truth. Jesus teaches through His apostles that to deny the truth is to deny Christ Himself; it is to deny truth itself and thus to be an antichrist.

So perhaps this is not fodder for movies and novels after all; sorry! And that’s a shame because the term antichrist is so catchy! This brings us to a discussion of the man of lawlessness (or the lawless one).

What or who is the man of lawlessness whom St. Paul mentions and how is he related to the antichrist? As I stated above, I do not think there is a connection. To see why, let’s consider what St. Paul teaches:

  • 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).
  • 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 antichrists and the lawless one:

  1. John speaks of antichrists in the plural whereas St. Paul speaks in the singular: the man of lawlessness or the lawless one.
  2. The lawless one’s deceptions are rather general (every kind of wicked deception), whereas deceptions of antichrists are more specifically related to denying the incarnation of the Son of God.

Jesus also speaks of those who will lead many astray, though He speaks of them in the plural and is likely referring to occurrences in the first century during the time leading up to the war with the Romans in 70 A.D: 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).

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 me the following conclusions:

  1. Antichrist is a more restrictive term than most people today think. While the antichrist is not a single person but rather any number of persons, the concept of antichrists seems limited to those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh. However, the term can possibly be applied to heretics in general.
  2. Jesus warns of false prophets and messiahs, 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 single one.
  3. It is the man of lawlessness spoken of by St. Paul that most fits the charismatic figure of our “movie script,” a person able to unite the world in a false peace by mesmerizing and deceiving the nations. This lawless one will signal the end times. While I am not saying that these are the end times, I will note that the advent of instant, worldwide communication has made things easier than ever before for the lawless one. One individual actually could mesmerize and deceive all the nations—right on the worldwide web!

All that said, I believe that equating this lawless one with one of the beasts of Revelation or with the antichrist may be too speculative, and possibly inaccurate.

I hope I haven’t toyed with your “movie script” 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 the end times and of difficult times preceding them, but the information is often given in general, even cryptic, terms. It is as if Scripture wants to tell us to be ready and to let us know that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t want to) know all the details. Just be ready, and when those times set in remember that Christ has already won the battle. Viva Christo Rey!

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Comments (25)

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  1. Nick says:

    Antichrist is a Jewish teaching – an obscure one, too. There are four different antichrists:
    – the lawless one (or belial), who will fool people into rebelling against God
    – Emperor Nero, who will persecute God’s People almost to annihilation
    – Armilus, who will fight the Messiah, Elijah and Moses
    – King Gog of Magog, who will fight Israel

    In all four cases, the scenario is the same: Jews are exiled to Egypt and make a second Passover. Messiah comes with Elijah, and they lead Israel out of Egypt to Jerusalem. God redeems Israel and the world, the Antichrist vanishes, and the Messianic Age begins. Messianic Age lasts for a 1000 to 7000 years before ending with the Antichrist’s return. God kills Antichrist on Judgment Day.

    Whichever of the four Antichrists comes, Christ has already defeated him on the Cross, and granted us justification in the Resurrection.

    Antichrist in Judaism: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1577-antichrist

  2. nl says:

    Thank you for debunking and informing in this essay.

  3. Howard says:

    This is a disappointing article, because it is written in an entirely Protestant style: You see something in popular culture you don’t like, you go to the Bible, and you give your own interpretation of it. You only mention “some of the Church Fathers” to disagree with them. There is zilch, nada, nothing about Tradition or about what Popes, Saints, and Doctors may have said about the Antichrist over the centuries. For good reason, it appears.

    • Dominick says:

      I am not in a position to opine on Monsignor’s subject, but “running to Scripture” should not be written off as “Protestant style”. The Holy Spirit went through the trouble to reveal certain truths in Scripture, and the Church went through the trouble to compile the canonical list of authentic Scripture into the Bible.
      “Running to Scripture” – Old and New –is always commendable. It should rather be considered the style of Catholics, who can read it properly through the lens of the Real Presence.

    • John says:

      From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      « 132 “Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too — pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place — is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture.”

      . . .

      141 “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord” (DV 21): both nourish and govern the whole Christian life. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105; cf. Is 50:4). »

      Catechism of the Catholic Church, Accordance electronic ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vatican, 1997), paragraphs 871 and 881.

    • Peter Aiello says:

      It gets tiring to often get accused of being Protestant just because you pay attention to what is in the Bible. It was compiled by the Church in the fourth century to regulate subsequent teaching. It is the most reliable source of information about original Christian teaching.

  4. I agree with Howard. Certainly St. Augustine (along with the common opinion of the Fathers and Doctors) hold that the Antichrist will be a real person. Elias and Henoch will oppose him (the two witnesses of Revelation). They will be martyred, then the Antichrist will be destroyed by Christ.

  5. Richard Connell says:

    This reflection had a great insight in pointing out the precise connection between the term ‘antichrist’ and the denial of God taking on flesh, in the epistle of John, something we all do well to remember. There was nothing about it that appeared especially protestanty (my own term–don’t expect it to catch on) to me. Because the Book of Revelation and the Epistles of John are attributed to the same Apostle, it make sense to me, also, that people apply the term antichrist to the beast of Revelation.

    The Catechism clearly connects the term Antichrist to the views in this reflection, that is with a heresy: from Paragraph 674: “The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.” Note well, the Catechism connects the term Antichrist to pseudo-messianism, not to a pseudo-messiah.

    Because of Hollywood’s indifferent attitude toward remaining faithful to scripture, one realizes that Mel Gibson did singular service in cementing in the popular imagination, at least for now, the Catholic/biblical iconography of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.

  6. JOSEPH says:

    Father, I have considered that what John was saying also was that antichrist would be people who deny Christ true presence in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul an divinity.I understand that the church fathers don,t consider this the case.I do consider the “Bread of life discourse” John 6, to be in play here
    Would you please comment
    thank you Father.

  7. Steven says:

    The many antichrists that have already come prefigure the final Antichrist.

  8. Michael B Rooke says:

    Msgr Pope
    Thank you for the instruction.

  9. Michael B Rooke says:

    @Howard

    @Howard
    The Catholic Encyclopaedia lists St Irenaeus, St Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem,

    St Gregory the Great; Book VII, Letter 33
    http://www.newadvent.com/fathers/3602.htm

    Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is from God, and every spirit which puts Jesus asunder is not from God, and this is Antichrist.
    The Council of Chalcedon – 451 A.D.

    Summa
    Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says in the same place, the works of Antichrist may be called lying wonders, “either because he will deceive men’s senses by means of phantoms, so that he will not really do what he will seem to do; or because, if he work real prodigies, they will lead those into falsehood who believe in him.”
    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1114.htm

    5. When all this is considered there is good reason to fear lest this great perversity may be as it were a foretaste, and perhaps the beginning of those evils which are reserved for the last days; and that there may be already in the world the “Son of Perdition” of whom the Apostle speaks (II. Thess. ii., 3). Such, in truth, is the audacity and the wrath employed everywhere in persecuting religion, in combating the dogmas of the faith, in brazen effort to uproot and destroy all relations between man and the Divinity! While, on the other hand, and this according to the same apostle is the distinguishing mark of Antichrist, man has with infinite temerity put himself in the place of God, raising himself above all that is called God; in such wise that although he cannot utterly extinguish in himself all knowledge of God, he has contemned God’s majesty and, as it were, made of the universe a temple wherein he himself is to be adored. “He sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God” (II. Thess. ii., 2).
    E Supremi On the Restoration of All things in Christ
    Pope Pius X – 1903

    Haurietis Aquas Draw Refreshing Water From the Sacred Heart
    Pope Pius XII – 1956
    39. For the Word of God did not assume a feigned and unsubstantial body, as already in the first century of Christianity some heretics declared and who were condemned in these solemn words of St. John the Apostle: “For many seducers are gone out into the world, who do confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. Here is a seducer and the antichrist,”[35] but He united to His divine Person a truly human nature, individual, whole and perfect, which was conceived in the most pure womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost.[36]
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_15051956_haurietis-aquas.html

    The dangers of a theological study which is divorced from life in the Spirit, and the harm caused by a pseudo-theological culture devoid of a genuine spirit of service to the mystery of the Redemption, are, in a sense, evoked by the solemn words of Saint John: “Every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist . . .” (1 Io. 4, 3).
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1985/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19850818_inaugurazione.html

    In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul changes his perspective. He speaks of the negative incidents that must precede the final and conclusive event. We must not let ourselves be deceived, he says, to think that, according to chronological calculations, the day of the Lord is truly imminent: “On the question of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we beg you, brothers, not to be so easily agitated or terrified, whether by an oracular utterance, or rumor, or a letter alleged to be ours, into believing that the day of the Lord is here. Let no one seduce you, no matter how” (2: 1-3). The continuation of this text announces that before the Lord’s arrival there will be apostasy, and one well described as the “man of lawlessness”, “the son of perdition” (2: 3) must be revealed, who tradition would come to call the Antichrist.
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20081112.html

    In fact it is impossible to interpret Jesus as violent: violence is contrary to the Kingdom of God, it is a tool of the antichrist. Violence is never useful to humanity but dehumanizes it.
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20120311.html

    The Bishop of Rome concluded, “the Apostle John calls the corrupt the antichrist who are among us but not of us. The word of God speaks of the saints as of a light: they are before God’s throne in adoration. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to know that we are sinners — truly sinners. The grace not to become corrupt… the grace to follow the way of sanctity”.
    http://m.vatican.va/content/francescomobile/en/cotidie/2013/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20130603_model-holiness.html

    We cannot be “Christians who think of the faith as a system of ideas, as an ideology,” Pope Francis said. It is a risk that “also existed in Jesus’ time” and was set forth by the gnostics. “The Apostle James says that ideologues of the faith are the Antichrist”. Thus, the Pope explained, “those who fall into casuistry or ideology are Christians who know doctrine but who lack faith. Like the demons, with the difference that the demons tremble, whereas these do not: they live in peace”.
    http://m.vatican.va/content/francescomobile/en/cotidie/2014/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20140221_faith-not-casuistry.html

    This is the future that awaits us”, the Pope emphasized, “and this leads us to put up great resistance to the transformation of our body”, but “resistance also to the Christian identity”. And, he added: “Perhaps we do not have much fear of the Apocalypse of the Evil One, of the Antichrist who must come first; perhaps we do not have much fear. Perhaps we do not have much fear of the call of the Archangel or of the sound of the trumpet: but, the victory will be the Lord’s”. Yet we have “fear of our resurrection: all of us will be transformed”. And “that transformation will be the end of our Christian journey”.
    “This temptation to not believe in the resurrection of the dead”, the Pope explained, “was born in the early Church, in the first days of the Church. Paul, in about the year 50, must clarify this very thing to the Thessalonians and speak about it once or twice”. And “at the end, to console them, to encourage them, he says one of the most hope-filled phrases in the New Testament: ‘At the end we will be with him’”. And it will be “to stay with the Lord, this way, with our body and with our soul”. This is our “Christian identity: to stay with the Lord”. It is an affirmation which, the Pontiff remarked, is certainly not “news”. Indeed, “it is the first thing said by the first disciples”. In fact “when John the Baptist signals Jesus as the Lamb of God and the two disciples come with him, the Gospel reads: ‘and they stayed with him that day’”.

    http://m.vatican.va/content/francescomobile/en/cotidie/2014/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20140919_fear-of-resurrection.html

  10. Howard says:

    Perhaps I should have been more clear. I was not asking for a random sampling of statements including the word “antichrist”. I was instead suggesting that a truly Catholic understanding of the Antichrist / the Man of Sin / the Son of Perdition would incorporate such statements woven into a coherent narrative. The problem is that in order for such a narrative to fit with Msgr. Pope’s idea that the term Antichrist is not particularly applicable to one single individual (the Son of Perdition), the list of comments from Saints and Doctors has to be carefully restricted.

    • Bender says:

      There is zilch, nada, nothing about Tradition or about what Popes, Saints, and Doctors may have said about the Antichrist over the centuries.

      This is twice now that you have taken issue with a lack of quotes that you would have preferred be included. Instead of simply complaining — which contributes nothing — why don’t you instead advance the discussion, posting yourself whatever statements you have in mind?

      Don’t keep us all guessing as to what is going to satisfy you. You got something to add? You add it. Don’t demand that others do it.

    • Michael B Rooke says:

      Apostolic tradition is a continuum and can never be random.

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_PK.HTM#56

      Catechism of the Catholic Church on the antiChrist

      675, 676.
      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/4/TU.HTM

    • PETRVS says:

      Don’t wait to be spoonfed. Do your own homework. Many commenters have answered your question beyond what would be adequate for a forum like this.

  11. Robert says:

    “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.”

    Hi Monsignor, who restrains it and will be removed?

    Thanks. God bless you.

  12. Leo says:

    Anti Christ authorized lists

    1. Caiphas
    2. Mohammed
    3. Henry VIII
    4. Elizabeth I
    5. Hitler
    6. Stalin
    7. Mao
    8. Pol pot

  13. Isaac says:

    I would like to comment on one of the comments made that Protestants run to Scriptures and not to the Popes and early Church Fathers for clarification.

    In this regard, Christ refers to Scriptures in his teachings and in his answers to the Devil’s temptations. Christ certainly did not expound on rabbinical teachings to support Scriptural interpretations. He went direct to the Scriptures.

  14. Joseph says:

    The ‘man of sin’ or ‘son of perdition’, will surely be another Antichrist, because he will deny Jesus is the Christ. That’s a ‘no brainer’…

  15. Donald Link says:

    It matters little whether one speaks of Satan as the antichrist or his human minions through the ages. The effect is the same; opposition to Christ’s message. It would seem that we are to be afflicted by these opponents until the end of the world and would be well advised to act accordingly.

  16. Icefalkon says:

    That seems a very convenient list. lol

  17. Janice says:

    Noting that Jesus “goes to the Scriptures” and not the “rabbinical teachings” (i.e., Church authority/teaching), Jesus used the OT Hebrew Scriptures to refute the unbelief of the Jewish religious leaders by their standard – the Scriptures.

  18. I found this article to be very well written and I got a lot from it. Thank you.

    Hey ‘Bender’ – pls be kinder to ‘Howard’ – we are all Catholic/Christians after all and entitled to our own opinions. I certainly believe we are in the end times – what I read of it I find to be fearful but Christ surely is the victor. One thing I don’t understand is the Protestant obsession with the Rapture. I have never once heard it spoken of in any Catholic forum or any Sunday sermon. Is anyone enlightened in this area? Why would God whisk away to Heaven ALL Christians when surely many will be needed to evangalise the lost souls who remain on earth to face the Tribulation? God bless you all and by the grace of God may we all meet in Heaven.

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