Of all the “signs of the times” mentioned in the Scriptures, none is better known or more commonly the subject of speculation than the sign of the coming “Antichrist.” The temptation to go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture and to fall prey to an unbiblical curiosity about the signs of the times and the unfolding of God’s purposes in history, is no more acute than in respect to this particular sign.
Though a recent writer on the subject of the Antichrist has spoken of an “evangelical fascination” with the game of” pin the tail” on the Antichrist, this fascination is not new in Christian history. Among the early church Fathers there was a great deal of interest in the identification of the Antichrist, and during the period of the Reformation the issue of the Antichrist was quite prominent. There have been many attempts in history to identify a particular person and/or historical movement with the biblical references to the Antichrist. Of all the signs of the times, this one seems the most concrete and capable of being identified with precision.
Those who are anxious to identify the Antichrist with a particular historical figure, or who hope to determine a precise time-table for the future based upon the emergence of the Antichrist, will likely be disappointed with our treatment of this sign both in this article and in a subsequent article on the Reformation’s identification of the Antichrist with the papacy. However, just as we have issued words of caution in previous articles on the signs of the times, so we wish to do so here. We need to exercise a biblical discipline when it comes to identifying the signs of the times, and this is especially necessary when it comes to addressing the sign of the Antichrist.
THE GENERAL BIBLICAL TEACHING ABOUT ANTICHRIST(S)
It is remarkable to notice that, in those biblical texts that speak expressly of an Antichrist, none of them fix our attention exclusively upon one figure or person. Nor do they speak of the Antichrist so much as a figure of political power and influence. Rather, they speak of various Antichrists whose anti-Christian teaching will be their outstanding and defining characteristic.
In only four places in the epistles of the apostle John is the language of “Antichrist” or “Antichrist’s” used. In the now familiar passage on the signs of the times in the gospel of Matthew 24, the language used by our Lord is that of “false” or “pseudo” Christs who are associated with “false” or “pseudo” prophets. Before drawing some preliminary conclusions from these passages, these passages need to be considered individually.
Within the extensive discourse in Matthew 24 on the signs of the times, we read these words in verses 23-25 (compare Mark 13:21–23): “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance.” These words are a solemn warning to the disciples that the coming of Christ will be preceded by the emergence of false Christs, figures who will claim to be or to speak for Christ, even performing signs and wonders, but in truth enemies of Christ and the gospel. They constitute a warning to the disciples, and the church of all ages, to beware the claims of those who are not genuinely Christian, even though they bear Christ’s name and represent themselves to others as though they were of Christ.
Only within the epistles of the apostle John do we find the express term “Antichrist” used, and that in four different places. In 1 John 4:2–3, we find perhaps the most extensive of these references: “[B]y 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.” This passage speaks of a kind of false teaching, “the spirit of the Antichrist,” which denies the coming of Christ in the flesh. According to the apostle John, this anti-Christian denial of Christ’s incarnation was already present in the early history of the church. A similar thought is conveyed in 1 John 2:22 (“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”) and 2 John 7 (“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the Antichrist”).
None of these three passages speaks of a specific Antichrist. However, in 1 John 2:18 we also read: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that Antichrist is coming, even now many Antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Though this passage echoes some of the themes of the earlier passages that there are many Antichrists, some of whom were manifest already in the period of the early church, w hose anti-Christian character was evident in their denial of Christ’s coming in the flesh1—it adds the further thought of a specific person in whom the spirit of an anti-Christian denial of Christ’s coming in the flesh would be embodied. It supplements the teaching of the other passages by speaking of a future personal Antichrist in whom the spirit of these Antichrists would have a striking expression.
If these general passages speaking of Antichrist and Antichrists are considered together, then there are at least three preliminary conclusions that may be drawn concerning the biblical teaching regarding the Antichrist.
First, as with the signs of the times considered in previous articles, this sign may not be relegated to some brief and unusual period of time just prior to the end of the age. The references to the Antichrists we have considered thus far all refer to figures contemporaneous with the writing of the New Testament. They are figures of the past time, so far as the church of today is concerned, though of course these past figures continue to be typical of new figures who arise throughout history to deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. These passages clearly teach that we live in that period of history known as the “last hour,” and therefore a period of history characterized throughout by opposition to the gospel and the emergence of figures hostile to the gospel, even at times from within the fellowship of the church itself. Thus, any teaching about the Antichrist that misses this emphasis cannot be said to be faithful to the Scripture’s teaching.
Second, there are several, even many, who are Antichrists. Frequently today, there are those who teach that the Antichrist is only to be understood as a single figure, and as one who could not have been known to the writers of the New Testament. Much of the New Testament’s emphasis regarding the Antichrist or Antichrists aims to arouse the people of God from their stupor and complacency. The teaching regarding the Antichrists is not intended to provide an occasion for armchair reflections or the writing of many books, most of whose content is unBiblically speculative. This teaching aims to warn the church not to be deceived. Not all those who bear Christ’s name are truly His servants. Some are wolves in the garments of sheep. Some may even be anti-Christ, that is, opposed to the truth regarding the person and work of Christ.
And third, the tell-tale evidence of the presence of Antichrist is the presence of anti-Christian teaching, not the presence or exercise of governmental or political power. This needs to be noted, especially in the context of so much emphasis upon the alleged political power of the Antichrist. Though this emphasis is fueled by descriptions of the “beast” or the “mark of the beast” in the book of Revelation, descriptions which are thought to be parallel to those pertaining to the Antichrist, the predominant emphasis in the New Testament is upon the false doctrine associated with the persons of Antichrist.2 Those who deny the incarnation of Christ, call into question the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity—they are as likely to fit the biblcal picture of the Antichrist as figures who wield political power in opposition to the cause of the Christian gospel.
WHAT ABOUT “THE” ANTICHRIST?
When the apostle John speaks in 1 John 2:18 of the “Antichrist [that] is coming,” the question begs to be asked—does the Bible also teach that one particular person is coming who will be the Antichrist, in distinction from the many Antichrists that have been present throughout the history of the church in the present dispensation? It is commonly believed by many Christians that this is what the Bible teaches, but where is this taught and what is the nature of the Bible’s teaching regarding this figure?
We have seen already in 1 John 2:18 that reference can be made in the New Testament to a particular figure who is, in some unique sense, the Antichrist. However, there is another important passage, usually taken to refer to the Antichrist, in 2 Thessalonians 2 where the apostle Paul speaks of the coming of a “man of lawlessness.”
Old Testament Antecedents
This passage has antecedents in the Old Testament and calls to mind some of the description in Matthew 24 regarding the “abomination of desolation” that will be set up in the temple in Jerusalem. Though this passage does not speak in so many words of “the Antichrist,” it is commonly (and I believe, appropriately) taken as a further description of the coming of an Antichrist, a particular figure or person in history who will appear prior to the return of Christ. In order to appreciate the teaching of this passage, it will be helpful to begin with some comments regarding the Old Testament antecedents for the coming of the Antichrist, as well as the reference in Matthew 24 to the “abomination of desolation.”
In the Old Testament book of Daniel there are two passages which speak of an “abomination that makes desolate” or “causes desolation.” The first passage speaks prophetically of the coming of those who will “desecrate the sanctuary fortress, and do away with the regular sacrifice. And they will set up the abomination of desolation” (11:31). The second passage speaks similarly of how “from the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days” (12:11). Most interpreters of the book of Daniel take these two passages to be a reference to the profaning of the temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes.4
However, as we have seen in a previous article, when we looked more carefully at the description of the signs of the times in Matthew 24, this expression, “the abomination of desolation,” is also used by our Lord in His discourse on the signs of the times. In this discourse, Christ speaks of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem as a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy regarding the “abomination of desolation.” Certainly, in this passage Christ is speaking about the events that occurred in 70 AD., at the time of the destruction of the temple (now for a second time) in Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus and his conquering legions.
Interestingly, these earlier fulfillments of prophecy, both at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes and later by the emperor Titus are themselves types or prefigurements of a coming event in which the temple of the Lord, the church, will be invaded by another figure and the house of the Lord will once more be profaned. This is the teaching of 2 Thessalonians 2, in which the apostle Paul employs under inspiration language reminiscent of the prophecies of Daniel (chapters 11 and 12) and of our Lord (Matthew 24) to describe the coming of another “man of lawlessness.”5
II Thessalonians 2:1–10
The importance of the description of this “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians warrants quoting the passage at some length:
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accordance with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. (Verses 1–10)
There are several observations that may be made about this passage and its teaching regarding the Antichrist. Though these do not exhaust by any means the teaching of this passage, they have a direct bearing upon the question of the identity and nature of the Antichrist.
First, the coming of this “man of lawlessness” is associated with the period of great apostasy and disobedience that will plague the church and people of God in the period immediately before the return of Christ. This sign of the Antichrist, accordingly, confirms some of the themes that we have considered in earlier articles on the signs of the times. This sign of the Antichrist belongs not only to those signs which bespeak opposition to Christ and His cause. But it also, like those signs which characterize the whole age prior to the return of Christ, expresses in a peculiar way the intensification of these signs as the end approaches. Just as there will be many Antichrists, so also there will be toward the end of the age an Antichrist.6
Second, the language of this passage suggests that the Antichrist will be a particular person in history. Though some have sought to argue that the “man of lawlessness” may only be a figure of speech, using “personification” to lend urgency to the appearance of a principle of lawlessness and disobedience, it seems obvious that the apostle Paul is describing a person in these verses.7 He is called “the” man of lawlessness, “the” son of perdition, “the one who” opposes God and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship. This language implies the emergence of a single person in whom the spirit of Antichrist will be pre-eminently displayed.
Third, one of the striking features of this man of lawlessness will be his claim to divine status and worship. Just as with the earlier fulfillments of the prophecy of Daniel, instances in which the temple of the Lord was profaned and an “abomination of desolation” set up, so the coming of this man of lawlessness will be evident in his profanation of the true temple of the Lord, the church of Jesus Christ. Like those Antichrists before him, this Antichrist will be a deceiver and an imposter, one who pretends to be a friend of Christ though in reality he will be Christ’s deadliest enemy. Furthermore, his appearing and work will be aimed at the people of God themselves, from among whom he will arise and whom he will threaten to lead astray.
Fourth, the man of lawlessness will test the church’s loyalty to Christ and His Word. As with the other signs of the times which are characterized by their expression of opposition to the gospel and person of Jesus Christ, the sign of the Antichrist will be an occasion for the church to stand its ground, to resist temptation and to persevere in faithfulness. What will make this testing peculiarly poignant is that the Antichrist, like the “false” christs of Matthew 24, will perform many powerful signs and wonders. These signs and wonders will tempt the people of God to be deceived. As Christ says in Matthew 24, the “false” Christs would deceive even the elect, were this possible. And for this reason the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians stresses the church’s obligation, in the face of the temptations of this Antichrist, to “hold fast the [apostolic] traditions” she has received.
And fifth, though there has been much unsatisfactory debate and speculation about the identity of “that which restrains” or “he who restrains” the coming of the man of lawlessness, the eventual defeat of this enemy of Christ is certain.8 Like the other signs of opposition to the cause of Christ, the sign of the Antichrist is not a sign of defeat but of sure and certain victory for Christ and His people. Not for one moment should the church fear that Antichrist will be able to frustrate the fruition of God’s purposes in Christ.
AN INITIAL CONCLUSION
In our introduction, we mentioned the temptation to which many have succumbed in history, to speculate about the identity and nature of the Antichrist. Many different attempts have been made at various points in church history to determine the exact identity of this mysterious figure. One such attempt, the common identification of the papacy with the Antichrist in the period of the Reformation, will capture our attention in our next article. Here, however, we want to draw our consideration of the Bible’s teaching about this figure to a close by reaching an initial conclusion.
Our conclusion is that the Bible does teach that the Antichrist will appear prior to Christ’s return at the close of this present age. This Antichrist will he a person in whom the growing opposition to the gospel and truth of God’s Word will he concentrated. Whereas during this “last hour” there will be many Antichrists, figures who falsely claim to represent Christ but deny the truth concerning His person and work, there will emerge toward the end of this age one person in whom these Antichrists will find their antitype.
Furthermore, in a pattern we have observed before, the Scriptural teaching regarding the Antichrist calls the church not only to vigilance but also to renewed hope. However difficult may be the circumstance of Christ’s church, however close to home (even from among her own ranks!) may be the opposition to Christ’s person and work—Christ will not fail to return in power to consummate His saving work! The true people of God do not tremble at the prospect of the Antichrist. They do not become anxious whenever someone reports that he may have come. No, they remember the sturdy words of the apostle Paul, written to comfort the church and steady her hand—that, when the man of lawlessness is revealed, Christ will return and “slay him with the breath of His mouth and bring [him] to an end by the appearance of His coming” (2 Thes. 2:8).
And so the church waits, not fearful at the prospect of the coming of the Antichrist, but “with heads uplifted” anxiously awaiting the return of her Lord and King! Here too the church finds her hope nurtured by the teaching of the Word of God.
1 Many commentators on these passages surmise that the apostle John may have had in mind an early form of what later became known as “Gnosticism,” a movement defined by its unwillingness to confess the incarnation, the coming into the world and the assumption of human flesh by the Son of God.
2 The language employed at various places in the book of Revelation to describe the “beast” out of the sea, suggests a figure who personifies and exercises dominion over Babylon and all those forces in history arrayed against Christ and His people (compare Revelation 13; 17:8; 19:20; 20:4). This figure exercises political and economic power, though his aim is, in the narrower sense, “religious”; he opposes the cause of Christ on the earth.
3 By this standard, a noted liberal theologian with great influence might more plausibly be regarded as “Antichrist” than a political figure like Hitler, whom many Christians earlier in this century regarded as the Antichrist.
4 We have mentioned Antiochus Epiphanes in an earlier article on the 4 signs of the times, especially in connection with the language used in Matthew 24. Descriptions of these events are found in the apocryphal books (compare 1 Maccabees 1:45–46, 54;2 Maccabees 6:2). In the first of these passages, the language, “the abomination of desolation,” is derived from the Greek expression used in the Scripture to translate the references in Daniel 11 and 12.
5 Many manuscripts of the New Testament read man of “sin” rather than of “lawlessness.” Whatever the reading, the same thought is being suggested: this man will be characterized by active rebellion and disobedience to the law and will of God.
6 The emergence of a figure like the Antichrist fits with the biblical picture of a relatively brief period of heightened apostasy and opposition to Christ in the period before the end of the age. The Antichrist is the kind of figure who fils the character of the “little season” of Satan’s rebellion at the end of age (Revelation 20:3) and the description of the “beast” in Revelation 17.
7 E.g., G.C. Bcrkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972),chapter 9.
8 The language of these verses suggests that the restrainer may be a person and/or a historical power. Some have identified this restrainer with the preaching of the gospel (e.g. Calvin), the institution of government (e.g. Hendriksen), or the Person of the Holy Spirit (e.g. many dispensationalists). It is notoriously difficult to choose between these alternatives, though I continue to believe that Calvin’s suggestion—the preaching of the gospel—has particular merit. For our purposes, it is most important to see that God through Christ holds providential dominion over the rising and falling of this Antichrist.
Dr. Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.