This past week, I read a rather popular (but two year old) blog post over on Patheos: “7 Important Verses About the Antichrist.” You’d think a post like that made during the first gearing up of the candidates who would be participating in the primary elections would be making a certain statement, but it was also published by the sort of people who probably voted for the winner, so I’m not sure what to think about all that. Maybe “The Antichrist” just came up in the topic rotation or whatever.
In any case, they were the usual suspects. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. Daniel 7:25. Revelation 13. So on. All of them were from the point of view that these disparate passages in very different books written at very different times by very different people were all talking about the same person – an apocalyptic figure in the distant future who will catalyze the events that usher in the end of the world.
I even had to chuckle a bit, because 1 John 2:18 was included in the list, and the author reflected how horrifying it was to contemplate that other, lesser antichrists had come into the world, all foreshadowing the Big Bad Future Antichrist. Talk about bringing your assumptions to a text. It reminds me of when I heard one of my premillennial brothers talking about the Olivet Discourse, and he looks up and says, “This sounds just like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So, we know these future events will be just as bad as that.”
If you are a regular reader of this blog, I probably don’t have to explain to you the inherent weaknesses of taking passages from such very different time periods, authors, and concerns, and assuming they are all talking about the same person. The same person who will not be around for 2000 years and counting, no less. Sometimes, I catch a little flak for making a big deal about the dis-unity of the Bible, but I think in conservative circles, we really need the constant reminder that the Bible is a collection of assembled texts. Whatever your doctrine of inspiration is or isn’t, there is no denying that people wrote these things at different times with different events on their horizons, and it was only much later that these writings were collected into canonical groupings. That’s not to say those collections are wrong; but it’s just – these are the facts of how the Bible came into existence. The Bible as a book has more of the characteristics of an anthology of writings around common topics and themes than it has as a textbook or novel or something else we think of a single, continuous work.
Likewise, when we have Daniel talking the coming political turmoil for Israel through a succession of four empires, or Paul talking about a “man of sin” whom the Thessalonians “know what is now restraining him” (nobody ever quotes that part of the passage), or the author of 1 John telling his readers that they, specifically, are in the last hour because antichrists have come who “went out from us,” or one of the heads of the Beast who also urges worship of the Beast – it is seriously problematic to assume all of these are talking about the same person. In fact, there are exactly zero reasons to think these passages are all talking about the same person. There are less than zero reasons to think these passages are talking about the same person in the far distant future long after all the original readers would be dead.
It goes to show how powerful our stories are in shaping the narrative of Scripture and not the other way around. The only passages where the word “antichrist” is even used are the five in 1 John and 2 John, and both passages identify the “antichrist” as someone who denies that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has come in the flesh, and that the people who did this were the people the early church was currently experiencing.
That is it. End of story. Fin. There is nowhere else in the entire Bible that an “antichrist” is ever mentioned. The only way we get an Antichrist with a capital A is by cobbling him together like Frankenstein’s monster from a loose collection of passages that span literally centuries between them.
Our preterist brothers and sisters would probably want to close with that comment. Anyone portrayed as some prolifically evil, age-ending character in the Bible has come and gone. For Daniel, it was Antiochus Epiphanes. For John and Paul, it was probably Nero or Trajan or Domitian or really take your pick depending on when you think those writings were actually written and by whom – most of the Caesars around that time would fit just fine. The passages about “the antichrist” are very well defined by the message of the persecutors of the early church. The whole thing is over with, can we please talk about something else?
And I would say that, speaking strictly from the scope of the biblical writings, that is more or less correct.
But as we think about the story of the church in the world, today, we also need to take into account the fact that these socio-political forces at work in post-exilic Israel are still at work in some form or fashion. There are still empires that still run according to the values that make them run – greed, ruthlessness, the strong crushing the weak, the “haves” getting more and the “have nots” getting less, fame, wealth, prestige, esteem – whatever. And these empires will have their leaders and their figureheads. And these people will want your loyalty, all in the name of loyalty to the empire they represent.
And will they spout blasphemies against the Most High? And will they afflict the saints? Yes, they will. Some of them will do it overtly. Some will do it covertly. Some will even pretend to be saints themselves so that they can more effectively deceive, if possible, even the elect. While the characters described by Daniel and Paul may be in the ground, the animus that drove them is not done yet and is alive all over the world in big and small ways.
I would offer that it is part of the prophetic ministry of the church to identify this, call it out for what it is, come out of it, and fight it not with swords, but with the sword of the Spirit – being a new creation community that shows the world that people full of the Spirit can voluntarily live in a system that does not need fear or violence or selfishness or arrogance.
Will everyone want to get on board with a community like that? No, in fact, its very existence will be an affront to those who love their empires of Nothing and have made themselves powerful in them. But as the years go by, more and more people see the endless risings and fallings of these empires and the devastation they leave in the world and in the lives of individuals. They will come if we have built it. Bit by bit over time, until the mustard seed that became a tree becomes a forest.
But first, we need to be it. Are we? That is how we will fight our antichrists.