The word is found in the NT only in 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3, 2 Jn 7, but the idea further appears in the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and above all in the Apocalypse. It is not, however, an idea original to Christianity, but an adaptation of Jewish conceptions which, as Bousset has shown (The Antichrist Legend), had developed before the time of Christ into a full-grown Antichrist legend of a hostile counterpart of the Messiah who would make war against Him but whom He would finally overthrow. The NT references to the subject cannot be rightly appreciated without some previous consideration of the corresponding ideas that were present in Judaism before they were taken over by Christianity.
- The Antichrist of Judaism.—Although the word ‘Antichrist’ does not occur till we come to the Johannine Epistles, we have many evidences in pre-Christian Jewish literature, canonical and extra-canonical, that there was a widely spread idea of a supreme adversary who should rise up against God, His Kingdom and people, or His Messiah. The strands that went to the composition of the idea were various and strangely interwoven, and much obscurity still hangs over the subject. But it seems possible to distinguish three chief influences that went to the shaping of the Jewish conception as it existed at the time of Christ.
(1) Earliest of all was the ancient dragon-myth of the Babylonian Creation-epic, with its representation of the struggle of Tiāmat, the princess of chaos and darkness, against Marduk, the god of order and light. The myth appears to have belonged to the common stock of Semitic ideas, and must have become familiar to the Hebrews from their earliest settlement in Canaan, if indeed it was not part of the ancestral tradition carried with them from their original Aramæan home. In any case, it would be revived in their minds through their close contact with the Babylonian mythology during exilic and post-exilic times. Traces of this dragon-myth appear here and there in the OT, e.g. in the story of the Temptation in Gn 3, where, as in Rev 12:9; 20:2, the serpent=the dragon; and in the later apocalyptic literature a dragon represents the hostile powers that rise up in opposition to God and His Kingdom (Pss. Sol. 2:29). But it was characteristic of the forward look of Prophetism and Messianism that the idea of a conflict between God and the dragon was transferred from cosmogony to eschatology and represented as a culminating episode of the last days (Is 27:1, Dn 7).
(2) Side by side with the dragon-myth must be set the Beliar (Belial) conception, a contribution to Jewish thought from the side of Persian dualism, with its idea of an adversary in whom is embodied not merely, as in the Babylonian Creation-story, the natural forces of chaos and darkness, but all the hostile powers of moral evil. In 1 Ch 21:1 Satan is evidently represented as God’s adversary, just as we find him in later Jewish and primitive Christian thought. And in the interval between OT and NT Beliar is frequently used as a synonym for Satan, the Devil or arch-demon (e.g. Jubilees, 15; cf. 2 Co 6:15). The Beliar idea was a much later influence than the dragon-myth, for Babylonian religion offers no real parallel to a belief in the Devil, and Cheyne’s suggested derivation of the name from Belili, the goddess of the under world (EBi, art. ‘Belial’), has little to recommend it. But a subsequent fusion of Beliar with the dragon was very natural, and we have a striking illustration of it when in Wis 2:24 and elsewhere the serpent of the Temptation is identified with the Devil. Cf. Rev 12:9; 20:2, where ‘the dragon, the old serpent,’ is explained to be ‘the Devil and Satan.’
(3) But the development of the Messianic hope in Judaism was a more determinative influence than either of those already mentioned. The Jewish Antichrist was very far from being a mere precipitate of Babylonian mythology and Iranian eschatology. It was, above all, a counterpart of the Messianic idea, as that was derived from the prophets and evolved under the experiences of Jewish national history. Ezekiel’s prophecy of the overthrow of Gog and Magog (Ezk 38); Zechariah’s vision of the destruction of the destroyers of Jerusalem (Zec 14); above all, the representation in Daniel, with reference to Antiochus Epiphanes, of a world-power that waxed great even to the host of heaven (Dn 8:10), and trod the sanctuary under foot (v. 13), and stood up against the Prince of princes until it was finally ‘broken without hand’ (v. 25)—all contributed to the idea of a great coming conflict with the powers of a godless world before the Divine Kingdom could be set up. And when, by a process or synthesis, the scattered elements of Messianic prophecy began to gather round the figure of a personal Messiah, a King who should represent Jahweh upon earth, it was natural that the various utterances of OT prophecy regarding an evil power which was hostile to God and His Kingdom and people should also be combined in the conception of a personal adversary. Ezekiel’s frequent references to Gog (chs. 38, 39) would lend themselves to this, and so would the picture in Daniel of the little horn magnifying itself even against the prince of the host (8:11). And the preoccupation of the later Judaism with utterances like these, sharpened as it was by hatred of the heathen conquerors not merely as political enemies but as enemies of Jahweh and His Kingdom, would render all the easier that process of personalizing an Antichrist over against the Christ which appears to have completed itself within the sphere of Judaism (cf. Apoc. Bar. 40, Asc. Is. 4:9–11).
- Antichrist in the NT.—Deriving from Judaism, Christianity would naturally carry the Antichrist tradition with it as part of its inheritance. That it actually did so Bousset has shown by a comprehensive treatment of the later Christian exegetical and apologetic literature, which evidently rests on a tradition that is only partially dependent on the NT (op. cit.; cf. EBi i. 180ff.). But, so far as the NT is concerned, the earlier Antichrist tradition is taken over with important changes, due to the differences between Judaism and Christianity, and especially to the differences in their conception of the Messiah Himself. At the same time it must be noticed that nothing like a single consistent presentation of the Antichrist idea is given by the NT as a whole. Elements of the conception appear in the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, the Apocalypse, and the Johannine Epistles; but in each group of writings it is treated differently and with more or less divergence from the earlier Jewish forms.
(1) In the Gospel.—In the Synoptic Gospels it is everywhere apparent that Jesus recognized the existence of a kingdom of evil under the control of a supreme personality, variously called the Devil (Mt 4:1; 13:39, etc.), Satan (Mt 4:10; 12:26, Lk 10:18, etc.), or Beelzebub (Mt 12:24ff.||), who sought to interfere with His own Messianic mission (4:1–11; 16:23||), and whose works He had come to destroy (Mk 1:24, 34; 3:11, 12, 15, etc.; cf. He 2:14). But from all the crude and materialistic elements of the earlier tradition His teaching is entirely free. In the reference to the ‘abomination of desolation’ standing in the holy place (Mt 24:15; cf. Mk 13:14, Lk 21:20), which occurs in the great eschatological discourse, some critics have seen a parallel to 2 Th 2:1–12 and an evident allusion to the Jewish Antichrist tradition; but they do so on the presumption that the words were not spoken by Jesus Himself and are to be attributed to a redactor of the original source. If they wore uttered by our Lord, it seems most probable that they portended not any apocalypse of a personal Antichrist, but the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies—a calamity which He had already foreshadowed as coming upon the city because of its rejection of Himself (23:37f.). For the adversaries of the Son of Man, the real representatives of the Antichrist spirit in His eyes, were the false Christs and false prophets by whom many should be deceived (24:5, 24)—in other words, the champions of that worldly idea of the coming Kingdom which He had always rejected (Mt 4:1ff.; 16:23, Jn 6:15), but to which the Jewish nation obstinately clung.
(2) In the Pauline Epistles.—A familiarity on the part of St. Paul with the Antichrist tradition is suggested when he asks in 2 Co 6:15, ‘What concord hath Christ with Belial?’ and when he speaks in Col 2:15 of Christ triumphing over ‘the principalities and powers.’ This familiarity becomes evident in ‘the little apocalypse’ of 2 Th 2:1–12, where he introduces the figure of the ‘man of sin,’ or more correctly ‘man of lawlessness.’ Nestle has shown (ExpT xvi. [1904–5] 472) that the Beliar-Satan conception underlies this whole passage, with its thought of an opponent of Christ, or Antichrist, whom the Lord at last shall ‘slay with the breath of his mouth and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming’ (v. 8). But the distinctive character of this Pauline view of the Antichrist is that, while features in the picture are evidently taken from the description of Antiochus Epiphanes in Daniel (cf. v. 4 with Dn 7:25; 11:36), the Antichrist is conceived of, not after the fashion of the later Judaism as a heathen potentate and oppressor, but as a false Messiah from within the circle of Judaism itself, who is to work by means of false signs and lying wonders, and so to turn men’s hearts away from that love of the truth which brings salvation (v. 9). See, further, Man of Sin.
(3) In the Apocalypse.—As follows naturally both from its subject and from its literary form, the Apocalypse is more permeated than any other book in the NT with the idea of the Antichrist. For its subject is the speedy return of Christ to subdue His enemies and set up His Kingdom (Rev 1:7; 2:16; 3:11, etc.), and its form is an adaptation to Christianity of the ideas and imagery of those Jewish Apocalypses, from Daniel onwards, which were chiefly responsible for the growth of the Christian Antichrist conception. It would be out of place to enter here into any discussion of the conflicting interpretations of the symbolism of the dragon and the beasts that appear and reappear from ch. 11 to the end of the book (see artt. Apocalypse, Dragon). But in ch. 11 ‘the beast that cometh up out of the abyss’ was evidently suggested by the dragon-myth as embodied in the Jewish Antichrist tradition, while the ‘great red dragon’ of 12:3, who is also described as ‘the old serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan’ (v. 9), and who is clearly represented as the Antichrist (vv. 4, 5, 17), reproduces both the mythical dragon and the later Beliar-Satan conception, now fused into one appalling figure. Again, the scarlet-coloured beast of 13:1–10 and the realm of the beast in ch. 17 are described in language which recalls the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel (see esp. ch. 7), and clearly applies to a hostile and persecuting world-power represented by its ruler. In Daniel that power was the kingdom of the Seleucidæ under Antiochus Epiphanes; here it is very plainly indicated as the Roman Empire (17:3, 9, 18) with the Emperor at its head (13:6–8). But to these pre-Christian forms of the Antichrist tradition—the dragon, Satan, and a hostile world-power—the Apocalypse contributes two others which are peculiar to Christianity and which play a large part in the Christian tradition of later times.
The first of these is found in the application to Christian ideas of the Antichrist of the contemporary Nero-saga, with its dream of a Nero Redivivus who should come back to the world from the realms of the dead (cf. Sib. Or. iv. 119ff.; Suetonius, Nero, 47; Augustine, de Civ. Dei, xx. 19). That Nero is referred to in 13:18 is most probable, the number 666 being the equivalent of Nero Cæsar (ΝΕΡΩΝ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ) when written in Heb. characters (נרון קסר). And the legend of his return from the under world of the dead explains in the most natural way the healing of the beast’s death-stroke (13:3, 12) and the statement that it ‘shall ascend out of the bottomless pit … and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder when they behold the beast, how that he was, and is not, and shall come’ (17:8). See also art. Apocalypse.
The second contribution was the idea of the false prophet (16:13; 19:20; 20:10), who is to be identified with ‘another beast’ of 13:11ff. It is most probable that the false prophet represents the Imperial priesthood as propagandists of the Cæsar-cult, but it seems not unlikely that elements in the representation are taken from the legend that had grown up around the name of Simon Magus (cf. Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 26, 56; Irenæus, c. Hær, i. 23). To the early Church, Simon with his magic arts and false miracles was the arch-heretic and the father of all heresy, and suggestions of his legendary figure loom out from the description of the second beast (13:13–15), even while the author attributes to it functions and powers that belong more properly to the ministers of the Emperor-worship (v. 12).
(4) In the Johannine Epistles.—In these writings, where the word ‘Antichrist’ appears for the first time, the idea is spiritualized as nowhere else in the NT except in the teaching of Jesus. The Antichrist is not, as in the Apocalypse, a material world-power threatening the Church from without, but a spirit of false doctrine rising up from within (1 Jn 2:19). It is true that Antichrist is spoken of as still to come (2:18; 4:3), so that some culminating manifestation is evidently expected—probably in a definite personal form. But even now, it is said, there are many antichrists (2:18; cf. 2 Jn 7), and the spirit of Antichrist is already in the world (1 Jn 4:3). And the very essence of that sprit is the denial of ‘the Father and the Son’ (2:22), i.e. the refusal to acknowledge the Son as well as the Father; more explicitly it is the refusal to confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (4:2, 3, 2 Jn 7). The spirit of Antichrist, in other words, is a spirit of heresy—such heresy as flourished in Asia Minor towards the close of the 1st century through the doctrines of Cerinthus (q.v.).
When the NT utterances regarding the Antichrist are looked at in their variety and as a whole, it is difficult to derive from them any justification for the view that the Church should expect the advent of a personal Antichrist as an individual embodiment of evil. The NT authors were evidently influenced in their treatment of the subject by contemporary situations as well as by an inheritance of ancient traditions. To St. Paul, writing out of his own experience of Jewish persecution and Roman justice and protection, Judaism was the ‘man of lawlessness,’ and Rome the beneficent restraining power. To the Apocalyptist, writing to a Church which had known Nero’s cruelty and now under Domitian was passing through the flames once more, Antichrist was the Roman Empire represented by a ruler who was hostile to Christianity because it refused to worship him as a god. In the Johannine Epistles, Antichrist is not a persecuting power but a heretical spirit, present in the world already but destined to come in fuller power. The ultimate authority for our thoughts on the subject must be found in the words of Jesus when He teaches us to pray for deliverance from ‘the evil one’ (Mt 6:13), and warns us against false Christs and false prophets who proclaim a kingdom that is not His own (24:24).
Literature.—H. Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos, Göttingen, 1895; W. Bousset, The Antichrist Legend, Eng. tr., London, 1896; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Evolution of the Messianic Idea, do. 1908; C. Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources, Eng. tr., Edinburgh, 1912; artt. ‘Antichrist’ in PRE3, ERE, and EBi, and ‘Man of Sin’ in HDB; H. Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lex., s.v.; J. Moffatt, ‘Revelation’ in EGT; ExpT xvi. [1904–5] 472, xxiii. [1911–12] 97.
- C. Lambert.
EBi Encyclopædia Biblica.
ExpT Expository Times.
q.v. quod vide, which see.
PRE Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
EGT Expositor’s Greek Testament.