Once upon a time I thought that the Pope was the Antichrist. Sharing this deep dark secret is a little like sharing the fact that one has six toes: it is embarrassing; most people with six toes would rather just keep their socks on and say nothing. But that was not the whackiest thing I ever believed. Prior to that I thought the Antichrist was due to arrive more or less anytime, and that he would have emblazoned on his forehead the number “666”. It would function like the name-tag that one is given to wear at large social functions: “Hello! My name is: Antichrist ”.
Everyone else would have numbers on their foreheads too. But before this all the Christians would be “raptured” or suddenly plucked out from the earth in the midst of their daily occupations. Thus the bumper stickers on cars warning of this imminent miracle: “In Event of Rapture, Driver Will Disappear!” We believed that The End was at hand, that we were the Terminal Generation, and that the Rapture would happen by 1988 (i.e. 40 years after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948). At that time I thought that the Church had always believed such things. It took a little time to discover that such views were odd, and that I was living in a kind of exegetical ghetto.
My first clue that other views existed came through contact with a Pentecostal pastor, the Rev. H.A. Maxwell Whyte, who in addition to having “a deliverance ministry” also championed the classic Protestant view that the Pope was the Antichrist. In this reading of the Bible, the Great Harlot, the city built on seven hills which reigned over the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:9, 18) was not pagan Rome, but papal Rome. On the principle of 1 day=1 year (compare Ezekiel 4:5) it was argued that the 1260 days of persecution mentioned in Revelation 11:3, 12:6 were actually 1260 years of papal persecution against the true church.
How this worked out in terms of beginning and ending dates was (to say the least) historically arbitrary, if not outright bizarre. But at least this view had a pedigree of sorts: the Reformers believed it, and it was a common enough view to find expression in the Dedicatory Epistle of the King James Bible (which identified the Pope as “that Man of Sin”), and in the Westminster Confession (25:6).
What finally cured me of all this nonsense was my discovery of the Didache in my final years of seminary. The Didache was a church handbook dating from about 100 A.D. Its final chapter summarized the eschatological expectation of the first century: “In the last days false prophets and corrupters will abound…And then the world-deceiver will appear as a son of God and will perform signs and wonders, and the earth will be delivered into his hands, and he will commit abominations the likes of which have never happened before. Then all men will come into the fire of testing and many will fall away and perish, but those who endure in their faith will be saved…Then the world will see the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven”. From this it was apparent that the earliest Church believed that the Antichrist would be a single man appearing just before the Second Coming, deceiving the world with lying wonders and persecuting the Church. So much for Hal Lindsey and the Westminster Confession.
I mention these embarrassing bits of autobiography only to illustrate the immense amount of nonsense that is still out there regarding the Antichrist. Such stuff is to be expected: as the days grow crazier and people more frightened, it is comforting to believe that we can have some kind of insider trading information about the future. That is why many Christians scan the newspapers to find current events that they imagine were predicted in the Bible (such as the Chernobyl disaster being predicted in Revelation 8:10-11, since the Russian word “chernobyl” apparently means “wormwood”). There is no evidently end to such fevered questioning and excited searching: what does Iranian quest for nuclear power mean? What does the European Union mean? What does the Covid pandemic mean? I suggest that instead of searching the newspapers or the internet, we search the Scriptures.
In fact the Scriptures say very little about this final world-deceiver, though arguably he is foreshadowed by any number of previous persecutors and deceivers. But first we examine a few passages in the Bible which are not about the final world-deceiver.
First of all, the Book of Daniel does not contain predictions of the final Antichrist, but focuses upon the persecution that arose in Israel under Antiochus Epiphanes in about 168 B.C. A blog is not the place to elaborate at length on this; those wishing to know more are invited to read this book.
Secondly, the Book of Revelation speaks primarily about the persecution that raged against the early church prior to the Peace of Constantine (hence those references to Rome being “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” in Revelation 17:6). This persecution, however, does offer a paradigm for all the persecutions the Church undergoes throughout this age, including the final one under Antichrist. So although “the Beast” cannot be personally identified with the final world-deceiver, there is some legitimate application of Rome’s first persecutions of the Church to the Antichrist’s final one. Once again, those wishing to learn more are referred to a commentary.
Thirdly, the New Testament references to “antichrist” all come from the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18-22, 4:1-3, 2 John 7). A quick perusal of these texts reveals that St. John is not here talking about a final persecutor of the Church from the outside, but the heretics of his day who endangered the Church from the inside. The term “the antichrist” in these epistles referred to any roving teacher who denied the truth of the incarnation, saying that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh. History knows this heresy as “Docetism” (from the Greek dokeo, “to seem”), since those heretics taught that Jesus only seemed to have a truly physical body, and that He did not actually come in the flesh. The term itself does not refer to the final demonic persecutor at the end of the age—St. John was quite clear that in this day there was not just one antichrist or false teacher present, but many antichrists (1 John 2:18). The term “antichrist” however was a handy one, and it soon attached itself to the final persecutor (as we see by its usage by such Fathers as Hippolytus in his book On the Antichrist).
Mention of the final persecutor and world-deceiver is taught by St. Paul only in 2 Thessalonians 2. The notion of final eschatological showdown between light and darkness has deep roots in Second Temple Judaism. (For a good survey of this background, see the article by Fr. Stephen De Young here.) St. Paul was telling his excited and excitable new converts that the Second Coming was not imminent and that therefore they should not quit their day jobs and wait around for it. In fact Christ would not return until after the final apostasia or rebellion had occurred and the “man of lawlessness” (in some MSS, “the man of sin”) was revealed. This rebel would claim divine status and perform lying demonic miracles to deceive the whole world. But he would not arrive until after “the restrainer/ what restrains” was removed: according many Fathers, a reference to the Roman Emperor/ Empire. The point was that, as things then stood, the Second Coming was not imminent, and they should all get back to work.
This is, I believe, excellent advice and perennially pertinent. It is too easy to become “quickly shaken in mind and excited” (2 Thessalonians 2:2) about the Antichrist and the last days. What we need are balance, sobriety of spirit, and calm—all the better to have our hearts “directed to the love of God and steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5). Whether or not the arrival of Antichrist is imminent is irrelevant to a mature Christian. The mature disciple will live in the light, not sleeping in sin, but daily putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope, ready for the spiritual conflict that is always at hand (1 Thessalonians 5:6-7).
In short, we should always be ready to endure persecution, to recognize and resist wicked deception, and to meet the Lord. Whether or not we live in the “terminal generation”, we are all of us terminal, and will all die soon enough. Our readiness to meet God should have nothing to do with calendar or current events. It doesn’t matter when the Antichrist will come; we must all be ready to die today.