2016-06-30
Deeply seated in Christian thinking, and in Western culture generally, is the notion that the Bible warns us that someone called the Antichrist will bring evil and religious corruption to the world. Martin Luther and John Calvin called the papacy the throne of the Antichrist; Jerry Falwell has said the Antichrist is alive right now and is "a male Jew"; Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, calls Pope John Paul II the Antichrist; a key plot element of the best-selling Left Behind novels is that a seemingly benevolent global leader is actually the Antichrist. George W. Bush hasn't yet called Osama bin Laden the Antichrist, but that seems only a matter of time.

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There's a small, nagging problem with the notion of the Antichrist as the ultimate threat to humanity--wherever this idea originated, it sure didn't come from Scripture. The Holy Bible barely mentions the Antichrist, while making no apocalyptic predictions about this personage.

Many notions of theology don't come directly from Scripture, of course, originating instead in commentary, social history, or elsewhere. But with the concept of the Antichrist, the disjunct is unusually sharp between what most people assume Scripture says and what's actually there.

Let's start with that capital A. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Bible--the "autographs"--contain no case distinction of any kind. No He or Him for the divine, no Holy Ghost, no Antichrist, no caps--lowercase, period. Theological capitalization is a phenomenon of the late Middle Ages, first encountered by most English-language readers in the King James Bible, published in 1611.

But even the florid King James translation doesn't capitalize Antichrist; it says "antichrist," in lowercase. The King James translators seemed to consider the antichrist a minor concept at best. That's certainly the way the original authors of Scripture treated the idea.

In all generally accepted translations, such as the King James, New Revised Standard, and Jerusalem Bibles, the term "antichrist" occurs four times, all four in the New Testament letters called First and Second John--moral sermons that were circulated among early followers of Christ. The unknown author of

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First and Second John dwells on the threat to the young church from those who claimed Christ was not divine. But none of the four verses in First and Second John make any prediction that there will be an antichrist who is one specific historical figure or who has diabolical power.

Despite the popular misconception, the word antichrist is never mentioned in Revelation, the apocalyptic book that concludes the Christian Bible. Some readers may discern the idea of the antichrist in passages from Revelation such as, "[The beast] performed great signs.. It deceived the inhabitants of the earth with the signs it was allowed to perform." But the author of Revelation never used the term. Nor is the word "antichrist" ever mentioned in the four Gospels, the books that recount Christ's life and ministry. So far as Scripture records, at least, neither Jesus, the 12 apostles, nor early church fathers such as Paul ever spoke or heard anyone speak of the antichrist.

When First and Second John employ the term, it's meant very plainly, only to predict that many people will oppose the Christian movement. The original autographs of these books say, in Greek, that people who argue against the Christian movement are antichristos--"opposed to the Messiah." First and Second John describe antichristos factions not as ones that will emerge in some future end-times but as people who were alive at the time when the New Testament was written.

Here, in order, are the four Biblical references, from the New Revised Standard translation:

"As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come" (First John 2:18).

"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" (First John 2:22).

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"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" (First John 4:3).

"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!" (Second John 1:7).

These verses not only treat the antichrist as a term for ordinary men and women; they make plain that antichrist sentiment is "already in the world"--which was clearly true in the first century after Christ, when the new faith was highly controversial. As the Bible uses the term, there have already been millions of antichrists: adversaries of the faith, not satanic beings. But in these verses or the verses around them there's no association of the antichrist with cataclysmic forces and no particular claim as to the nature of anyone who is antichristos, except on the obvious point that such as person opposes Christianity.

Falwell has said that the Bible tells us the antichrist would be a "male Jew," because, Falwell says, Christ was a male Jew. Falwell's critics call this anti-Semitic. That's the wrong charge; what the statement shows is that Falwell doesn't understand Scripture.

Or, perhaps more to the point, doesn't want to understand Scripture. Princeton University's Elaine Pagels is a leading historian of early Christianity. In her 1995 book, "The Origin of Satan," she showed that through history many Christian leaders have deliberately made the Bible's four modest references to antichristos into something more than they are, in order to suggest lurking, horrible conspiracies afoot--conspiracies against which obedience to leaders is the only hope.

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Luther and Calvin, for example, didn't just oppose the Vatican; by calling the pope the antichrist, they suggested that the Catholic Church was under the sway of demonic powers. At that point in history, far less than 1 percent of Christians possessed Bibles that they could read for themselves--Luther and Calvin could be confident that their listeners would have no idea whether the Scripture allusion to the antichrist was accurate.

Today almost everyone owns a Bible, but the notion of the antichrist as a demonic, end-times force has taken on a life of its own. Certainly this is the Bob Jones University view. The school's own statements say, for instance, that ideas such as ecumenical unity are wrong because the play "into the hands of the antichrist."

Of course, just because the Bible doesn't specifically warn against a reverse-image Jesus of ultimate evil doesn't mean that such a person won't come about: Hitler and Stalin have shown that. But reading Scripture does tell us that the New Testament predicts no person answering the description of the "Antichrist" as the term is bandied around today. The word is in the Bible all right, but few who invoke this word use its Biblical meaning.

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