Points of revision (2 of 4)

The first part of this series can be found here, and it should be consulted before reading this one.

 

This part of the series will examine the concept of “the Antichrist”.  I mentioned in the first post that the common assumption is that this figure is linked with “the man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2 as well as the “beast out of the earth” in Revelation 13.  The first problem with this is that it assumes what cannot necessarily be proven.  Those who hold otherwise have to do some interesting logical gymnastics—not to mention some painful theological contortions. 

FIRST THINGS FIRST

On a basic level: the terminology used when speaking about these figures is exclusive and unique to where they are found in the texts of the New Testament.[1]  In other words: in 2 Thessalonians, no mention is ever made of “the Antichrist” (using that specific term).  Likewise, in the letters of John, no mention is ever made of “the man of lawlessness” (using that specific term).  And, for good measure, in Revelation (as a whole), no mention is ever made of “the Antichrist” or “the man of lawlessness” (using those specific terms).  This exclusivity continues in that these references are not found anywhere else in the whole Bible.

The common way around this dilemma is to see the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness, and the beast out of the earth as sharing the same essence.  Because they share the same function—i.e., they all oppose God in some way, they all cause havoc and persecution for the faithful, and they are all (assumed to be) end-times figures—the distinct references must necessarily be talking about the same individual (or, entity).  This then allows for flexibility in the language used when referring to these (apparently) distinct individuals in the individual texts.  With this logic, an “unholy trinity” is proposed.

However, if we were to examine the biblical texts that speak about these three individuals, we would quickly find that the overlap simply does not work.  In fact, it would become immediately apparent that references about one cannot be used in the same way to refer to another one of the three.  This post will consider the references to the idea of “the Antichrist” and will use these as a basis for examining the other terms—i.e., “man of lawlessness” and “beast out of the earth”.  

THE ANTICHRIST” (OR, ARE THERE OTHERS?)

There are four passages in the New Testament that speak about “the Antichrist”.  I’m not trying to hide the truth in any way by saying these are the only four.  I am simply saying what is.  In many ways, this makes matters easier because there is not a massive amount of material to cover.  In other ways, this makes matters rather difficult because there is not a massive amount of material to use for comparison.  So, we will deal with what we have.  (Just for clarity: all of the New Testament texts cited are my translations from the Greek).

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour (1 John 2.18)

First of all, before dealing with the obvious, it is important to see that the writer[2] views himself (and the body of believers) as already being in “the last hour.”  The more modern version of this phrase: “the last days” or, “the end of days.”  The reason why this is important to see is because it places the beginning of the end right in the time of the early church—i.e., the first century CE.  In other words, for the early church, “the end” was not something well off in the future; it was believed to be not only on its way (in full) but also something that was already starting (in part).  This is generally the reason why I tell people (if they ask) that we have been in the “last days” for almost 2000 years–we don’t have to wait for it it start.  

Second, there does appear to be a belief within the early church that some “antichrist” figure was meant to appear, which would be the telltale sign that “the end” has begun.  The obvious question is therefore: where is this mentioned if the letters of John are the only places (in the whole Bible)–much less earlier Jewish writings–that talk about this “antichrist”?  The honest answer is: we really have no clue.  At best, we have theories but nothing ironclad.  

There is a slim chance that this belief is a modified version of something that Jesus taught in Matthew 24.23-28 (or, the writer of John is correcting a misunderstanding of what people believe about Jesus’ teaching).  In that reference, in response to the (boneheaded) question of: “When will we know that the end is about to happen?”,  Jesus teaches that many “false Christs” and “false prophets” will emerge in order to lure the faithful away from the truth.  (He says other things, but we’ll deal with those in another post).  The reason this is slim is because “antichrist” is not the term used by Jesus—he uses “pseudo-christ”, which is not really the same thing. 

Finally, and this addresses the obvious dilemma, the writer of this passage in 1 John explicitly says that there is not just one antichrist—there are many.  This, by itself, creates problems for those who seek a singular person who will kick-off “the end”–a person who also happens to be the embodiment of evil, treachery, infamy, etc.  If anything, the fact that so many antichrists are present—from the writer’s perspective—simply (but massively) justifies his initial point: the “last hour” has already begun.  The fact that there are “many antichrists” is not a theological problem when we keep in mind what an antichrist really is, which takes us to the next couple of passages. 

Who is the liar if not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist—the one denying the Father and the Son (1 John 2.22)

I would like to say that this passage is clear and simple, but its really a bit vague in some respects.  However, this is the first passage where we see what it is that the antichrists teach, promote, stand for, etc.  This begins to set the boundaries for how someone is labeled an “antichrist.”  The teaching of the antichrists—in this passage—is a denial that Jesus is the divine-Messiah (or, Christ); or, to use Wolfhart Pannenberg’s terms: “the God-Man”. 

However, there is an even bigger denial at work in this passage.  This bigger denial is related to the sovereign will of the Father.  God’s plan, as promoted throughout the early church (and still today), was to send his Son as a substitutionary sacrifice, which would bring about the salvation of mankind and creation.  For the early believers, the reality of this overarching sovereign will of the Father began at the incarnation of Christ (or, the infleshing—a lovely neologism).  Therefore, to deny that Jesus was the divinely appointed incarnate Messiah would be to deny the validity of God’s plan.  The teaching of the antichrists does precisely that.[3] 

Beloved, you are not to believe every spirit but you are to test every spirit [to see] if they are from God, because many false-prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you will know the Spirit of God: every spirit that is from God confesses Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh, and every spirit that is not of God does not confess Jesus—this is the spirit of the antichrist, the one you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 John 4.1-3) 

Now we get to the more detailed version of the antichrist message.  Here we have the gist of the condemning statement that would definitely affix a, “Hello, My Name Is: Antichrist” sticker on someone’s shirt.  However, lest we become too ambitious, these is still a small degree of vagueness in this passage.  It is best understood in light of what has already been said–not only here in this post but, more importantly, what has been said in the letter itself.  It is also worthy to point out the re-emphasis of the fact that these antichrist figures are already present in the world at the time of the early church.

The controlling idea here is the issue of truth versus falsehood.  In typical dualistic fashion, there is a strong either-or at work.  On the one hand, there is the Spirit of God; on the other, there is the spirit of the antichrist.  There is no overlap.  On the one hand, there is an admission that Jesus Christ came in the flesh; on the other hand, there is a denial that Jesus came in the flesh.  There is no overlap–it’s either-or. Those who confess Jesus as coming in the flesh have the Spirit of God; those who deny Jesus coming in the flesh have the spirit of the antichrist.  This winds up being a question of status before God.  This is when matters get interesting.  

Now many deceivers have gone out into world—those not confessing that Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh: this is the deceiver and the antichrist (2 John 1.7)

The reason things get interesting with this passage is that it becomes another implied reference for the “origins” of the antichrists.   The implication is supported when we think back to the idea of false prophets, which can be found in 1 John 4.1 (quoted above).  By and large, false-prophets come from within the faithful.  It is when their falsehoods are made known that they are ousted from community of believers.  (Think back to the either-or dualism).  

So, in light of that, we can see here in this passage that the antichrists are those who emerge from within community of believers and their falsehood is that Jesus has not come in the flesh.  It is because of this falsehood (or, heresy, if you like) that they have “gone out into the world.”  They are removed because truth and falsehood cannot coexist–with both claiming to be truth.  If we are paying attention, this is why there is a slim chance this is a reference to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24.  The false-prophets in the letters of John nearly mirror (in what they do) the false-prophets in Matthew.  

SUMMARY OF THE ANTICHRISTS

So, is the antichrist–or, I should say: are the antichrists–some mysterious, evil, treacherous, infamous, apocalyptic (end-of-the-world) figure yet to appear in the world’s stage?  According to the common assumption, yes; according to what we see in these texts, not a chance.  An antichrist is nothing more than a false-teacher who deceives people into believing that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh.  Instead, these false-teachers present “another Christ”, which is the literal translation of the Greek word, antichristos.  This is not to say that they did not believe in Jesus Christ, period; it simply suggests that they believe that Jesus did not come to the world in the flesh.

This belief is also why this group of false-teachers were ousted from the community of believers.  If the community stands for what is true, and if they adhere to what is true; then anyone in the community who speaks what is not true (regarding the person of Jesus), and yet they believe that what they speak is true; they must be removed because truth and falsehood regarding the person of Christ cannot coexist.  There is no, “Let’s just agree to disagree” (which is really a logical impossibility).  Either Jesus came in the flesh, or he did not.  If one believes that Jesus did, that person is of God; if one believes that Jesus did not, that person is an antichrist.  And guess what: there are plenty of antichrists–even today.  

Throughout this brief look at these four texts, I have been implying something that needs to be made explicitly clear.  One of the key features about these antichrists is that they are always defined as being human.  More importantly, with respect to how we are to understand these figures: these antichrist figures are never described as having divine or supernatural characteristics and they are never described as taking political office and having some Messiah-complex.  Also, they are never described as doing any of the things that are attributed to the “man of lawlessness” and the “beast out of the earth.”  Antichrists are simply false-teachers.  They simply profess that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh.  That’s it.  

____________________________________________________
[1] “Antichrist” is only found in 1 John 2.18, 22; 4.3; 2 John 1.7.  “Man of lawlessness” is only found in 2 Thessalonians 2.3. 
[2] There is a massive debate over the authorship of the three letters bearing the name, “John.”  I am not going to get into that debate—don’t really want to—so I will use the ambiguous title of, “writer”. 
[3] See also, John 15.23; cf. 5.23; 8.19; 14.7, 9; 16.3.

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