Antichrist
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Antichrist

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Introduction

‘Antichrist’ typically refers to an oppositional figure associated with the End Times who must be overcome before the full inauguration of a Golden Age. In popular religious and secular discourses, this figure is often referred to with the definite article as a singular and emblematic personification of evil: ‘The Antichrist.’ While the term ‘antichrist’ is Christian or Christian-influenced, the concept of a fearsome eschatological opponent or opponents is found across different traditions. The term ‘antichrist’ is derived from the Bible and appears in only three passages, all from the first and second letters of John, in the New Testament (1 John 2:18–27, 1 John 4:1–6, 2 John 7; for discussion, see, e.g., Lieu 2008, 97–116, 161–75, 252–56).

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New Testament Origins of ‘Antichrist’

The English word ‘antichrist’ comes from the Greek ἀντίχριστος/antikristos, a word made up from ἀντί/anti (‘against,’ ‘in place of’) and χριστός/christos (‘Christ,’ ‘messiah,’ ‘anointed one’), and used in the sense of ‘in place of Christ’ or ‘against Christ.’ In 1 John 2:18 the word is used in the singular and the plural, which has contributed to the idea in the history of interpretation that an antichrist can be one figure, or a typological concept used for multiple figures: ‘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’ (all biblical quotations are taken from New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise specified). This verse and its context in 1 John 2 suggest the audience would have been familiar with a cluster of ideas relating to antichrist figures. Though it is not entirely clear that in 1 John 2:18 we are dealing with the Antichrist, the fact that important textual variants add the definite article (see also 1 John 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 7) indicates the significance of this text for the development of the idea of a distinct and emblematic oppositional figure of the End Times.

The opposition of Christ and antichrist is made explicit elsewhere in 1 John, at least in the sense that ‘the antichrist’ is someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ, as well as denying the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22; see also 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7)—hence the label can denote a type of behaviour or wrong belief rather than one specific individual. First John 2:18 explicitly indicates that antichrist behaviours are a sign of the End Times, and the chapter goes on to refer to the appearance of Jesus, which can be interpreted as the second coming of Jesus (1 John 2:28), though this reading is debated in critical scholarship. In 1 John, the idea of the tribulations is associated with ideas about correct and incorrect belief which function as markers of insider and outsider, in-group and out-group, respectively (1 John 2:19). Vigilance is required as the ideas associated with antichrists and those ‘who would deceive you’ (2:26; cf. 2:22) remain a threat to the in-group, echoing a dramatic phrase in the book of Revelation referring to ‘that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’ (Revelation 12:9).

Right belief is marked by having the ‘truth’ and in 1 John this is grounded in divine authority and ‘anointed (χρῖσμα/chrisma) by the Holy One’ (1 John 2:20–21; cf. 1 John 3:9) (the language of ‘anointing’ is also linked to language of ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’). Similarly, it is understood that the in-group will stay firm in their convictions with the promise of ‘eternal life’ (1 John 2:24–27). This idea of a divine mandate for authorising the insider and their beliefs also involves the delegitimising of opponents and their pervasive influence through the construction of two opposing spirits, one associated with Christ and the other with antichrist:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 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. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1–6)

This supernatural, cosmological, and eschatological contextualisation of localised disputes over correct beliefs can be seen as part of an established Jewish phenomenon of qualified or soft dualism, i.e., ideas about a cosmic battle between Good and Evil and their accompanying spirits but with a known and definitive winner (Collins 1997, 43–51).

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Early Jewish and Biblical Influences

Christianity, with its focus specifically on Christ as agent of Good, developed the idea of the Antichrist based on ideas in early Judaism about a cosmic, end-times battle. Indeed, the biblical letters of John may provide the first uses of the term antikristos, but the concept of a lawless eschatological opponent or opponents and accompanying expectations were familiar in early Judaism and found in other biblical texts from a period before the letters of John were written. In addition to common themes of trials, persecutions, and battles between good and evil, other biblical texts warn about a false prophet or prophets and a false messiah or messiahs and laud those expected to overcome them or their influence (e.g., Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; cf. Acts 13:6; Revelation 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). After Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV’s actions in Jerusalem and desecration of the Jewish Temple in the 160s BCE, the prophecy or vision in the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54) helped generate the expectation of a figure who would again commit an idolatrous act in the Temple (e.g., Mark 13:14; Matthew 24:15). This expectation has since had a long history of eschatological interpretation and reinterpretation. A similar and very influential expectation is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 and a prophecy about a ‘man of lawlessness’ 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, declaring himself to be God’ (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4). Second Thessalonians 2:1–12 has been further influential in the common interpretation of the Antichrist as a specifically human agent of Satan.

Biblical texts have provided other characters or labels influential in the history of the interpretation of antichrists and oppositional figures, such as ‘Gog, of the land of Magog’ (Ezekiel 38:2–3), or alternatively Gog and Magog understood as two figures (cf. Genesis 10:2). In the book of Daniel, Antiochus IV was also the inspiration for symbolic visions concerning four imposing beasts and a warmongering ‘little horn’ who would eventually be defeated with divine help (Daniel 7:7–8, 19–22; Daniel 8:9–14) and who would likewise become a recurring feature of eschatological and apocalyptic thinking. Gog, Magog, and the ‘little horn’ have featured in both Jewish and Christian understandings of oppositional figures; more specifically Christian ones include the Beast (or beasts), the False Prophet, and the Whore of Babylon associated with the book of Revelation (Revelation 13; 16:13; 17; 19:20; 20:10), whose relationships to the Antichrist has been the subject of debate in the later history of interpretation.

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Ongoing Influence

The texts referred to above have formed the basis for Christian or Christian-influenced understandings of the Antichrist or an antichrist, whether an individual, group, or idea. These understandings are typically accompanied by expectations of a cosmic or final battle between Good and Evil and sometimes with calculations about the timings of the arrival and reign of the Antichrist. Identifications of Antichrist or antichrists in the history of interpretation are, as we might expect, long and varied, and include emperors, monarchs, popes, bishops, reformers, popular leaders, invaders, pop stars, presidents, entrepreneurs, churches, denominations, sects, political institutions, religions, philosophies, ideologies, historical epochs, and so on (see, e.g., Hill 1990 [1971]; McGinn 1994; Wright 1995; Ryan 2009). Biblical texts and the ideas about antichrist behaviours and the Antichrist as a figure were interpreted and harmonised in the works of the early church fathers (e.g., Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Augustine; see McGinn 1994, xv, 57–78), and by the Middle Ages the Antichrist was a common topic in discussions of heresy and End Times (McGinn 1994, 79–199; Ryan 2009). Identifying the Antichrist with the pope became a significant theme in Reformation rhetoric, including in the works of the leading reformers, such as Luther and Calvin (McGinn 1994, 200–230). The earliest use of ‘antichrist’ in English appears to be in the fourteenth-century poem “Prik of Conscience” whose fifth section (‘Of the Day of Doom and of the Tokens That Before Shall Come’) uses the term in a general sense to refer to an opponent of Christ, and as the title of a powerful individual confronting Christ before the eschaton (OED Online, ‘Antichrist, n.’). Some secular reactions against this broad Christian tradition—from Nietzsche to the Sex Pistols—have sought to valorise the Antichrist as a hero of individualism.

A number of contemporary apocalyptic and millenarian movements have taken up established biblical themes of antichrist in their eschatologies. Christians United For Israel believe that God promised Israel to the Jews and Satan promised it to the Antichrist; following persecution of the Jews by the Antichrist, Jesus is expected to return and defeat the Antichrist at the battle of Armageddon, then establish a world government ruled from Jerusalem (Durbin 2021). Children of God/The Family International has taught that an End-time Antichrist will emerge demanding to be worshipped in league with Satan—before the return of Jesus and the initiation of the Millennium (Barker and Harvey 2021). Outside Christian and Jewish apocalyptic and millenarian movements, analogous terms are likewise found. The mystical and occult Order of Nine Angles (ONA), which aligns itself with disruptive Dark Gods, includes an analogue for the Antichrist in the person of Vindex (Shah 2021). Islam has had a well-established tradition concerning the sequence of events that will occur before the Day of Judgement, including the appearance of an Antichrist—‘Dajjal’—who engages in a struggle against Jesus and the Mahdi (Cook 2011; Sells 2013). The arrival of the Dajjal is one of the principal apocalyptic signs within Muslim eschatology (e.g., the emergence of the beast from the earth, the rising of the sun from the west, the appearance of the two tribes of Gog and Magog [or Yajuj and Majuj], and other great events) (see, e.g., Cook 2011). Recent appropriations of this longstanding tradition can be observed in the Islamic State (ISIS), a Sunni militant movement which emerged in the mid-2000s, and which characterises its Shia opponents as the Antichrist or Dajjal.

Ideas of antichrist have continued to thrive in popular culture, from the dispensationalist presentation of Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind franchise (e.g., LaHaye and Jenkins 1995–2007; Left Behind 2000–2005) to the comedic presentation of the child Adam Young in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s novel and later TV series Good Omens (Pratchett and Gaiman 1990; Good Omens 2019). This has also involved connections between different religious traditions. An animated Pakistani film, Dajjal – The Slayer and His Followers (2018), links Dajjal to contemporary crises in the Middle East. A Netflix TV series, Messiah, suggestively linked Muslim and Christian ideas by drawing allusive links between the lead character and Dajjal (See “Messiah: Netflix Trailer”). The film franchise The Omen (1976–1991) has played a role in the perpetuation of antichrist themes in popular culture—in particular, linking the concept to the idea of a malevolent child and the name ‘Damien.’ This has also contributed to comical and ironic uses of the idea. For example, an episode of the cartoon series The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror XXX” (2019), shows the younger daughter Maggie as a Damien-figure in the opening sequence, and various episodes of the UK sitcom Only Fools and Horses (1981–2003) include Rodney continually fretting about his troublesome and seemingly demonic nephew Damien (see “Damien’s Christening” [1991]).

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References

“Antichrist, n.” OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/8534?redirectedFrom=antichrist.

Barker, Eileen, and Sarah Harvey. 2021. “Children of God / The Family International.” In Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, edited by James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart. Retrieved from www.cdamm.org/articles/children-of-god.

Collins, John J. 1997. Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. London: Routledge.

Cook, David. 2011. “Early Islamic and Classical Sunni and Shi’ite Apocalyptic Movements.” In The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, edited by Catherine Wessinger. Online edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Damien’s Christening,” Only Fools and Horses, 1991. https://youtu.be/Tx65lSHwJFk.

Durbin, Sean. 2021. “Christians United for Israel (CUFI).” In Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart. Retrieved from www.cdamm.org/articles/cufi.

Good Omens. 2019. Amazon Video/BBC Studios.

Hill, Christopher. 1990 [1971]. Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England. Revised edition. London: Verso.

Introvigne, Massimo. 2016. Satanism: A Social History. Leiden: Brill.

LaHaye, Tim, and Jerry B. Jenkins. 1995–2007. Left Behind. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Left Behind. 2000–2005. Cloud Ten Pictures.

Lieu, Judith M. 2008. I, II, & III John: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

McGinn, Bernard. 1994. Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

“Messiah: Netflix Trailer ‘Reveals Spoiler’ to Muslim Viewers.” 6 December 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-50691775.

Pratchett, Terry, and Neil Gaiman. 1990. Good Omens. London: Victor Gollancz.

Ryan, Michael A. 2009. “Antichrist in the Middle Ages: Plus ça change…” History Compass 7 (6): 1581–92.

Sells, Michael A. 2013. “Armageddon in Christian, Sunni, and Shia Traditions.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, edited by Michael Jerryson, Mark Juergensmeyer and Margo Kitts. Online edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199759996.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199759996-e-33.

Shah, Shanon. 2021. “Order of Nine Angles.” In Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, edited by James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart. Retrieved from www.cdamm.org/articles/ona.

“Treehouse of Horrors,” The Simpsons, 2019. https://youtu.be/87e5fEXaqgw.

Wright, Rosemary Muir. 1995. Art and Antichrist in Medieval Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Article information

CenSAMM. 2021. "Antichrist." In James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. 26 October 2021. Retrieved from www.cdamm.org/articles/antichrist

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144,000

144,000 refers to a belief in an elect group, often at end times or in an imminent transformation of the world. The usage typically derives from the book of Revelation. In Revelation 7:1–8, 144,000 refers to the twelve tribes of Israel who have the seal of God on their foreheads. They are also presented as virgins, blameless, ‘redeemed from the earth’, and expected to sing a new song at Mount Zion (Revelation 14:1–5).

Apocalypticism

In popular usage, 'apocalypticism' refers to a belief in the likely or impending destruction of the world (or a general global catastrophe), usually associated with upheaval in the social, political, and religious order of human society—often referred to as an/the 'apocalypse'. Historically, the term has had religious connotations and the great destruction has traditionally been seen as part of a divine scheme, though it is increasingly used in secular contexts. See the Apocalypticism article for a more detailed discussion.

Armageddon

In popular use, ‘Armageddon’ involves ideas of great cataclysmic events or conflict. The term has long been used to refer to a future battle or ongoing war at the end of time or civilization, whether understood generally as a cataclysmic final battle or specifically as a battle at a place called Megiddo (a location in modern Israel), or a more flexible understanding of Megiddo as a coded reference to an alternative location. ‘Armageddon’ derives from the book of Revelation where it appears just once (Revelation 16:16) with reference to the location of a great cosmic battle associated with the end times. See the Armageddon article for a more detailed discussion.

Beast of the Apocalypse

In popular terms, the 'Beast' or the 'Beast of the Apocalypse' refer generally to a violent and destructive creature that emerges at end times. Such understandings of an end-time beast or beasts derive from the book of Revelation (also called the The Apocalypse) and its long and varied history of interpretation. Revelation refers to 'beasts' on different occasions, including beasts in opposition to God: one emerging from the sea or a pit (Revelation 11:7; 13:1; 17:8; cf. Daniel 7), one from the earth (Revelation 13:11), and another scarlet in colour (Revelation 17:3). The beast from the earth is also associated with the number 666 (alternatively: 616) (Revelation 13:18) and Revelation 19:20 claims that the beast will 'thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur' (New Revised Standard Version).

Eschatology

‘Eschatology’ concerns the study of end times and is derived from the Greek term ἔσχατος (eschatos), meaning ‘final, ‘last’, ‘end’, etc. Eschatology is a label that can incorporate a cluster of related beliefs which differ according to tradition (e.g., end of the world, resurrection, regeneration, Day of Judgment, Antichrist).

Kingdom of God

In the Bible, the ‘Kingdom of God’ (sometimes synonymous with the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) refers to notions of ruling and kingship which are often understood to have a spatial or territorial dimension, whether in heaven or on earth. According to the book of Daniel, such ‘kingdom’ language is used to describe the claim that God rules the universe eternally (Daniel 4:34) but will also intervene in human history to establish a kingdom for his people (Daniel 2:44). According to the Gospels, Jesus predicted the coming Kingdom of God or Heaven and these predictions have been influential in the history of speculations about end times or the benefits of the kingdom being experienced in a present time and place. Across different traditions, such language has also been used to describe communities deemed holy or places deemed sacred, as well as being understood with reference to personal or ‘spiritual’ transformation.

Messianism

Messianism refers to ideas about a redeemer figure or figures who transform the fortunes of a given people or the world as a whole. The term ‘Messiah’ is derived from the Hebrew משיח (mashiach), meaning ‘anointed one’. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is a term used to denote people such as kings, priests and prophets anointed to carry out their duties on behalf of God. In early Judaism, the term took on a more precise meaning as a future redeemer figure, including a king in the line of David. New Testament texts made such clams about Jesus where a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, Χριστός (christos), became part of his name: Jesus Christ.

Millenarianism

In popular and academic use, the term ‘millenarianism’ is often synonymous with the related terms ‘millennialism’, ‘chiliasm’ and ‘millenarism’. They refer to an end-times Golden Age of peace, on earth, for a long period, preceding a final cataclysm and judgement—sometimes referred to as the 'millennium'. The terms are used to describe both millenarian belief and the persons or social groups for whom that belief is central. ‘Millennialism’ or ‘chiliasm’ are chronological terms derived from the Latin and Greek words for ‘thousand’. They are commonly used to refer to a thousand-year period envisaged in the book of Revelation (20:4–6) during which Christ and resurrected martyrs reign prior to the final judgment. More recently the terms have been used to refer to secular formulas of salvation, from political visions of social transformation to UFO movements anticipating globally transformative extra-terrestrial intervention. See the Millenarianism article for a more detailed discussion.

Prophecy

‘Prophecy’ can be broadly understood as a cross-cultural phenomenon involving claims of supernatural or inspired knowledge transmitted or interpreted by an authoritative recipient, intermediary, or interpreter labelled a ‘prophet’. The term is also used in a more general and secular way to refer to individuals who simply predict or prognosticate future events, or those leading principled causes or in pursuit of a particular social or political vision without any special association with inspired or supernatural insight. The language of ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ in English derives from the Greek προφητης (prophētēs) found in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the New Testament. See the Prophets and Prophecy article for a more detailed discussion.

Son of Man

‘Son of man’ simply means ‘man’ in biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and is a title for Jesus in the Greek New Testament. While the ancient idiom is gendered, some scholars prefer to bring out the generic implications and reflect inclusive language today in their English translations (e.g., 'son of a human being', 'son of humanity'). The phrase sometimes took on a more titular function before Jesus because of the book of Daniel. In Daniel 7, Daniel is said to have had a vision of four destructive beasts representing four kingdoms and who stand in contrast to a human-like figure—‘one like a son of man’. The ‘Ancient of Days’ then takes away the power of the beasts and Daniel sees ‘one like a son of man’ approaching, ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Daniel 7:13; New International Version). Daniel 7 claims that this ‘son of man’ figure will be given ‘authority, glory and sovereign power’, ‘all peoples’ will worship him, and his kingdom will be everlasting. The precise identification of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7:13 is not made explicit and there has been a long history of identification with a variety of candidates in apocalyptic and millenarian movements, sometimes without reference to the book of Daniel.

Zion

‘Zion’ is an alternative name for Jerusalem and the ‘city of David’ (2 Samuel 5:7; 1 Kings 8:1; 1 Chronicles 11:5; 2 Chronicles 5:2), though it is also used with reference to Israel. Zion can also refer to ‘Mount Zion’, a hill located in Jerusalem which was the site of the Jewish Temple (destroyed 70 CE) and is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Zion and Mount Zion are sometimes interpreted as coded references to an alternative geographical location or to something ‘spiritual’ and otherworldly. In some religious traditions, Zion plays a central role in expectations about end times or the benefits associated with end times being fulfilled in the present.