How’s that for a clickbait title?
A good friend of mine is an attorney, and recently he was working with a deposition where someone submitted Exhibit 666, which the deposition jokingly referred to as “the Devil’s exhibit.” He suggested it might be interesting for us to discuss various ideas about things like the antichrist and the beast the next time we got our friends together.
I agree, but do you know how hard it is to get a group of adults together? So I thought I’d put some preliminary thoughts down as a post.
One thing to get out of the way is that there is no biblical text that refers to a single, apocalyptic figure as “the Antichrist.” For those who think of some future figure, that image comes from splicing together some disparate texts.
After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.Daniel 7:7-8 (NRSV)
Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.Matthew 24:9-12 (NRSV)
Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.Mark 13:6 (NRSV)
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one 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. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. 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 2:3-10 (NRSV)
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.Revelation 13:1-8 (NRSV)
You will notice that these passages do not call the figure or figures “the Antichrist.” To get that label, we have to go to the only places in the Bible where the term appears, and those are in the first and second epistles of John.
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth. 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 2:18-22 (NRSV)
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 (NRSV)
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 7 (NRSV)
Depending on a person’s disposition, they may find in other passages veiled references to the Antichrist.
If we take a look at the passages that specifically call someone or someones antichrist, it’s hard to make the case that they are describing a singular, future, apocalyptic figure. In fact, the 1 John passage indicates that the presence of many antichrists shows them that they are in the “last hour.” Although we don’t know exactly when 1 John was written, this “last hour” would be towards the end of the first century or beginning of the second.
While the author alludes to the fact that the community had heard that this was coming, he also points out that it was happening right at that time, and that’s how they knew the end was near. And it was not a single figure but many. The future expectation of “antichrist” was happening at the time of the writing.
This is something we always need to keep in mind about predictions in the Bible – the “future” means anytime after the book was written. The “future” from a biblical passage’s point of view could easily be in our distant past, but it was still the future at the time of the writing.
That leaves us, then, with a body of texts that seem to describe a future, evil figure who shares common characteristics like arrogantly setting themselves up in the place of God and oppressing believers. Maybe it could be argued that the main thing is that this person exists and calling him “the Antichrist” is just as good a name as any.
And if we look at the passages in isolation from their respective books and the history of their generation and paste them all together like this, it certainly does sound like we’re talking about the same person.
But the problem here is that these writings were written by different people in different genres at vastly different times to address different historical circumstances. It just so happens that people like this rose to power at several different points in the history of God’s people.
For instance, let’s say someone wrote a passage right before the American Revolution about a great military leader who would lead several nations against another to liberate the oppressed and achieve a great victory that would forever change the world. They might be writing about George Washington.
If a very similar passage had been written prior to World War II, they might be writing about Winston Churchill.
We could have had two, similar passages that sounded like they might have been talking about the same person but actually were not. How can this be? Because singular historical figures tend to emerge that share characteristics.
So when we read passages like this in Scripture, we have to ask ourselves what the proximate historical circumstances were that they might be describing.
For instance, the Daniel passage is likely talking about the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes who seized the Selucid throne by outmaneuvering and outright murdering three of the legitimate claimants. Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews was legendary.
In the Matthew and Mark passages, Jesus is predicting the destruction of the Temple, so it is likely he is talking about the increase in rebellious activity sparked by false prophets and messiahs among the people that would eventually bring the retribution of Rome to Jerusalem.
In 2 Thessalonians, it may be talking about Nero, who tradition holds not only targeted Christians for persecution but Paul in specific. Note too the language in the passage that reflects that the readers know that this figure is currently being restrained, which speaks to this figure being alive at that time and just waiting for the opportunity when they could unleash their wrath but were being held in check for the moment.
The Revelation passage is also likely talking about Nero. The idea that Nero was empowered by Satan and would come back to life was very prevalent at the time and shows up in other apocalyptic literature of the time as well.
And after it has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of the world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand. This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish…. And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, ‘I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.’ And all men in the world will believe in himTestament of Hezekiah, IV.1-8
This belief that Nero who apparently died would come back to life and resume his persecution of the saints continued to be popular not just through the first century but still referred to by commentators such as Augustine in the fourth century as a view that people had, even referring to Nero as “Antichrist.”
Some think that the Apostle Paul referred to the Roman empire, and that he was unwilling to use language more explicit, lest he should incur the calumnious charge of wishing ill to the empire which it was hoped would be eternal; so that in saying, ‘For the mystery of iniquity doth already work,’ he alluded to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist. And hence some suppose that he shall rise again and be Antichrist. Others, again, suppose that he is not even dead, but that he was concealed that he might be supposed to have been killed, and that he now lives in concealment in the vigor of that same age which he had reached when he was believed to have perished, and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom. But I wonder that men can be so audacious in their conjectures.Augustine, City of God, XX.19.3
So, Augustine is not a fan of the view that Nero will come back to life (now hundreds of years after Nero’s death) but it shows how pervasive this idea and expectation was that it was still an active view in Augustine’s day.
Nero is also the sixth emperor of Rome starting with Julius Caesar, as did ancient historians. This lines up with the description of the beast given in Revelation 17, where each head is a king. Five have fallen, one now is (this would be Nero) and one is yet to come.
This brings us to the number of the beast, which most manuscripts have as 666 although our earliest manuscript has 616. The diverse manners and languages in which the numerical values of Nero Caesar add up to 666 (and 616 for that matter) takes a while to explain, and I’ll refer you to the paper Nero as the Antichrist if you want to see how it all goes as well as historical takes on it. Interestingly, Nero is the only name that works for both 666 and 616, making it unlikely that some other emperor or leader was intended.
As for the dragon empowering the beast, we have to keep in mind that the worldview of the day was that the mundane events you could see on earth were physical manifestations of what was happening in the spiritual realm – a worldview that Revelation uses narratively. The oppression of the Roman Empire is the physical manifestation of the oppression of Satan.
If the Bible contained more apocalypses, we would see that this genre of “apocalypse” was a reasonably common way of writing about the world powers of the time and their destiny in the near future. Many apocalypses written at the time are much better at explaining themselves. Revelation rarely does this, but many apocalypses at the time will spell out what much of the symbolism means.
But since we only have the one in our Bibles, most people lack a point of reference for how this way of writing worked.
I realize that some might chafe that such dramatic imagery could use used for something as mundane as rulers near to when the biblical writings were created, but consider this: if these images could represent world leaders in our future, why wouldn’t they represent world leaders in the future of the writers? Furthermore, what would be more helpful to the original audience – things to look out for in their immediate future or the characteristics of a world power thousands of years from then?
This is some of the egocentrism that comes from an orientation to the Bible where it is directly about you and your situation. You are the only person the writings need to be good for, and it is about your life, your world, your questions, and your concerns. The immediate audience including the writers themselves are just not relevant.
The irony of this is, if we can accept that these writings were referring to despots of similar characteristics over time, then we have a key into how such things might be valuable to us. We can see these people keep cropping up in the history of the people of God, and while it may not be accurate for us to keep our eyes open for THE Antichrist, perhaps we should be wary of antichrist in our day and age.
Who are our oppressors who deceive the world and set themselves up in the place of God? Who are the ones who speak arrogantly garnering worship for themselves? Who pretends to be a friend to the people of God while secretly blaming us for their troubles? Who are the ones who promise to save us but are bent on leading us to ruin? Who should we take care not to ally with?
These figures keep on coming in our history, and there’s no reason to think that will end anytime soon.