Atheism / Christianity / Religion

Antichrist and the End of the World

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli, ~1499-1502 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s look at the Christian concept of “antichrist.”

Using my bible software to search the term I came up with four verses: 1 John 2:18, 1 John 2:22, 1 John 4:3, and 2 John 1:7. Let’s start with 1 John 2:18, RSV:

Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.

Right away you see a problem for Christians, at least if you want to apply notions of the Antichrist to current events. The anonymous author of this passage was probably writing somewhere around 1,900 years ago yet claims to be living in the final hour before Christ’s return. He’s not talking about some date way off in the future. To any honest reader the last hour can only mean one thing: the author assumes he and his readers were living in the end times.

Also note how he claims “many antichrists have come.” In using the plural of the word, 1 John is likely referring to Jesus’ own predictions of the tribulation in Matthew and Mark:

For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22 RSV)

Most biblical scholars see 1 John as being a theological corrective against gnostic teaching spreading throughout the early Christian community at the time. While many variations existed, most Gnostics denied that Jesus had actually been a man, either he never really existed on earth or, if he had, only appeared human (Docetism). They could not accept that God, a perfect, all-benevolent being, would take the form of imperfect, evil flesh.

The obvious anti-Gnostic tone of 1 John and its relation to the idea of antichrist is obvious later:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3 RSV)

The author is speaking of a schism, a break within Christianity, occurring at the time he writes about the antichrist and false prophets, not some distant evil force to come much later. For example, immediately after mentioning the “many antichrists,” he says of them:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19 RSV)

He is clearly talking about a group of Christians that have split from his own community, a doctrinal dispute, not future leaders.  As well, the author speaks of anyone denying that Jesus is the Christ and who denies the Father and Son is also the antichrist. (1 John 2:22 RSV)

Following on this theme of equating the concept of antichrist with Gnostic Christians and those that deny Jesus is the Christ, the fourth and final mention of antichrist in the New Testament is 2 John 1:7. There the author, now calling himself the Elder, addresses Kuria, or Lady, usually assumed to be the Christian church but seeming more like a reference to an actual person (Kuria would not have been an uncommon name at the time). In his brief letter the Elder further warns Kuria against accepting docetist Christians into her community out of Christian hospitality:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.

Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son.

If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greetings; for he who greets him shares his wicked work. (2 John 1:7-10 RSV)

Clearly, antichrist here refers to those wandering false prophets, the docetic heretics of early Christianity, not current day Islamists as Glenn Beck would have you believe.

Yet, Beck doesn’t mention the actual passages in the New Testament about the Antichrist; he and his guest instead talk about The Revelation of John. Unfortunately, and contrary to most people’s understandings of the Antichrist, Revelation never uses the word. The best apologists can do is try to make the Antichrist be one of the two beasts (or both) written about in this apocalypse. But it is a futile effort.

Any honest historian will recognize – following the same techniques used in analyzing other apocalypses – the Revelation of John is clearly attempting to explain the times it was written, not some far-distant events and certainly not a future Islamic empire. For example, many apologists think the first beast of Revelation is the Antichrist.  It is a ten-horned, seven-headed creature described by the prophet as being “like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.” (Revelation 13:2 RSV)

The argument would be that the dragon is Satan, the dreadful beast rising out of the sea, the Antichrist. A second beast “which rose out of the earth” is the forceful, militaristic servant of the first. (Revelation 13:11-14) Furthermore, this second beast inflicts upon all humankind a mark, “that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (Revelation 13:17-18) We all know that number. It’s six-hundred and sixty-six. Here’s what the footnote of that passage in my copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible says: “Since Hebrew and Greek letters have numerical equivalents, the number of the beast (666) is the sum of the separate letters of his name. Of countless explanations, the most probable is Neron Caesar (in Hebrew letters), which, if spelled without the final n, also accounts for the variant reading, 616 [which other ancient biblical authorities claim and attest]” ( The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ft. nt. 1505).

In Hebrew and Christian communities at the time the use of numerology would have been widely understood. In this case the second beast is the hated Roman empire, if not the emperor himself.

Later on the first beast, or Antichrist, appears again, in Revelation 17. Here we are introduced to “the great harlot who is seated upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication, the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” (Revelation 17:1-2 RSV)  This woman is clearly symbolic of the city of Rome, the center of imperial power in that region at that time. (“And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of earth.” [Revelation 17:18 RSV])  The many waters she is seated upon explains Rome’s geographical and maritime dominance, as does the statement that the kings of earth fornicate with her and their people have become drunk with her power. These are client leaders of the territories of Rome, subservient slaves to her biddings. The harlot rides upon the Antichrist – or the beast with seven heads and ten horns – she is dressed in riches, exemplifying Rome’s wealth.

English: Satan as Antichrist

English: Satan as Antichrist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Revelation 17:9-11 (RSV) the Roman character of the beast and prediction is clear:

This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition.

Here – and not lost to the reader of the time – the seven mountains are undoubtedly Rome, the city on seven hills: Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palantine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Some scholars argue that the seven kings of this passage are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (“five of whom have fallen”), Vespasian (“one is,” meaning at the time when apparently written) and Titus (“has yet come”). The eighth that “belongs to the seven” is Domitian. Interestingly there is evidence that some Christians felt Domitian was Nero (666) reincarnated.  For example, in this passage the predicted beast (Domitian) once had been, or “was” (emperor Nero) as the passage states, yet now “is not,” at least according to this so-called prophesy, but will be.

Like all apocalypses of the time the author places himself further in the past than the time he is writing in order to add credence to his prophesies. This can be seen by the fact that his predictions are very accurate until he actually begins to make predictions about things that are yet to come; there he fails.  John is most likely writing during the reign of Domitian (81-96 C.E.), the eighth king, because his visions of things to come after the emperor’s reign fail or run dry. He never mentions that Rome will eventually become a Christian empire. Wouldn’t you expect that? In fact, John prophesies the second coming of Christ under Domitian or immediately after, which obviously never happened.

Also his description of the fall of Rome (Babylon) is way off the mark. Here he writes:

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.” (Revelation 18:9-10 RSV)

In fact, Rome never actually fell, especially immediately after or during the rule of Domitian, much less in an hour. Following the adoption of Christianity as the official and only religion of the empire a few hundred years later, Roman authority moved its headquarters to current-day Istanbul, then Constantinople. Rome as a city continued, while Roman administration moved east. The prophet John in Revelation is way off the mark in his prophesies of Rome’s downfall. Rome, the beast/Antichrist, became the center, protector, and promoter of Christianity  (i.e., Christendom), not its prosecutor.

Seeing that New Testament claims of the Antichrist and the Beast are little more than easily-explained writings addressing and describing the time when written – be they anti-Gnostic doctrinal letters or pro-Christian arguments prophesying the collapse of Rome – we have no reason to ascribe current events to these ancient documents.

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