Antichrists

Contents


Introduction

Some Christian groups today are more interested in eschatology than others. A central concept for many such groups is the rise of a figure they call the ‘Antichrist’, whom they typically identify with the ‘Beast’ found in chapters 13 and 17 of the Revelation of John. This person is usually anticipated to be some sort of ruler, since the Beast is associated with kings. He will ascend the ranks of politics, seize control of a global government, and be treated like a god by non-Christians.

However, much like the mythology that was built up around ‘Lucifer‘, this concept of the Antichrist is derived from several loosely related — or entirely unrelated — parts of the Bible. The accumulation of these interpretative traditions is that few of those texts are understood properly, since they are being read in an artificial context, one removed from what each author had in mind.

While the biblical ‘antichrist’ is not terribly complex, it is still beneficial to learn about so that readers can keep the information clear.


Author of the Johannine Letters

The word ‘antichrist’ is found in the Bible, but never in the Revelation. Instead, it is found only in two other texts, 1 John and 2 John.

Traditional belief is that the apostle John son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John, and 1, 2, and 3 John, and the Revelation of John. Today, scholars do not think all five texts were written by the same person. The Revelation, which does name its author as ‘John’, differs so much in style, content, and theology from the other four texts that no scholars think it came from the same person. While the Gospel and the three letters do share vocabulary and theology, they nevertheless differ in many other ways. The Gospel’s anonymous author in fact seems to be a community team of scribes, according to the final verses of the book. The three letters are likewise anonymous, though 2 and 3 John refer to their author simply as ‘the elder’. There are brief references in the second century onward to a man named John the Elder — distinguished from the apostle John — who was thought to be active in Asia, where the three letters also seem to be from. He is placed at the end of the first century CE and beginning of the second.

But whenever someone arrived who had been a companion of one of the elders, I would carefully inquire after their words, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip or what Thomas had said, or James or John or Matthew or any of the other disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the elder John, disciples of the Lord, were saying1

If this man was the author of 1 John and 2 John — and we can’t know for sure — it helps us narrow down the time period these texts come from, and so the context behind the ‘antichrist’ mentioned in them.


Antichrist in the Johannine Letters

The author’s references to the antichrist are found in three places across the two letters: 1 John 2.18–23; 4.1–6; and 2 John 7–11.

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. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth. 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. No one who denies the son has the Father; everyone who confesses the son has the Father also.
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.
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! Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.

There is a surprising amount of information about the antichrist that is packed into these three short paragraphs. The author and his readers were expecting ‘antichrist’ to come, but many arrived. These antichrists emerged from within the author’s and readers’ community; they are not simply non-Christian antagonists, but ex-Christians or (perhaps more accurate to the author’s perception) pseudo-Christians. They deny Jesus is the Messiah, they deny the Father and son, and they deny Jesus came in the flesh. They are called, or associated with, false prophets, deceivers, liars.

In this context, ‘antichrist’ should be understood in its literal sense. It is not a title for a specific political ruler who will receive worship instead of Jesus. Instead, it just means ‘opposed to Christ’, in connection to their denial that Jesus is the Messiah. This is also the most likely meaning of the claim that they ‘deny the son’, since ‘son of God’ was a title of messiahship, not divinity, in the first generations of Christianity.2 Denying the messiahship/sonship of Jesus is taken consequentially as well; the author insists this means the Christ-deniers are denying God the Father himself by proxy.3

First John mentions that his readers have been expecting the arrival of an antichrist; it is not a brand new teaching for this occasion, but something the group already had in their theology.4 This indicates that their expectation was rooted in a developed eschatology. The author has plucked this antichrist figure out of their abstract system of beliefs and ‘historicized’ it by identifying it with a specific group of people.5 For the author, and now his community, the manifestation of ‘antichrist’ in this rival group was taken as confirmation that ‘the last hour’ had come, and hence that Jesus was soon to return.6 In an absolute sense, 1 John is making the claim that the arrival of these antichrists is proof ‘the final and decisive period in the history of mankind’ was nearing its conclusion.7 The whole block of 1 John’s first warning about the antichrists, 2.18–28, concludes with a reference to the return of Jesus.8


Antichrist in the Church Fathers

Two Christians from the early second century show influence from 1 and 2 John. Ignatius and Polycarp, leaders of their respective Christian communities, and colleagues of one another, wrote letters circa 110–120 CE. Ignatius wrote seven letters to Asian churches while en route to Rome, having been arrested for his faith. One of his letters was addressed to Polycarp, a bishop in Smyrna. Polycarp himself wrote a letter some time later — or perhaps he wrote two letters, which have been welded together. (This kind of composition was not uncommon at the time; Paul’s own 2 Corinthians is in fact multiple letters stitched together.) This means we have eight letters from two Christian leaders in Asia just a decade or two after the Johannine letters were written in the same region.

Two of the Ignatian letters allude to a rival faction and their beliefs.

Ign. Trallians 10–11 But if, as some who are atheists—that is, unbelievers—say, that he only appeared to suffer (it is they who are the appearance) […] Flee therefore the evil offshoots that produce deadly fruit; anyone who tastes it dies at once. For these are not the Father’s planting.9
Ign. Smyrnaeans 2–5 For he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved; and he truly suffered, just as he also truly raised himself—not as some unbelievers say, that he suffered only in appearance. They are the ones who are only an appearance; and it will happen to them just as they think, since they are without bodies, like the daimons. For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. […] I am guarding you ahead of time from the wild beasts in human form. Not only should you refrain from welcoming such people, if possible you should not even meet with them. […] For if these things were accomplished by our Lord only in appearance, I also am in chains only in appearance. […] For how does anyone benefit me if he praises me but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that he bore flesh? The one who refuses to say this denies him completely

Polycarp seems to describe the same group, and borrows from 1 John to label them.

Pol. Philippians 6 We should be zealous for what is good, avoiding stumbling blocks, false brothers, and those who carry the name of the Lord in hypocrisy, leading the empty-minded astray. For anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist; and whoever does not confess the witness of the cross is from the devil; and whoever distorts the words of the Lord for his own passions, saying that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—this one is the firstborn of Satan.

Together, Ignatius and Polycarp describe a group they consider heretical Christians. They are ‘false brothers’ who ‘carry the name of the Lord in hypocrisy’. They are now ‘evil offshoots’ from proper Christianity. Ignatius calls them ‘wild beasts in human form’, and Polycarp uses 1 John 3.8 (cf. John 8.44), calling them children of ‘the devil’ / ‘Satan’.

Polycarp’s criticisms of the antichrists reiterates 1 John 4.2–3,10 calling identifying each person of this group as ‘an antichrist’ while also specifying that they deny ‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’. Where we should expect to find the same criticism from Ignatius, we find him also outlining what these ‘antichrists’ do believe, rather than merely what they reject. Ignatius repeats the criticism that this group denies Jesus ‘was in the flesh’ or ‘bore flesh’, which results in them ‘den[ying] him completely’, but Ignatius also says they believe Jesus ‘only appeared to suffer’.

He then turns their belief against them, saying that just as they believe Jesus only ‘appeared’ to suffer, it is actually they who only ‘an appearance’. The Greek word he uses here is δοκειν, which became the label for a particular belief called ‘docetism’, which was common among various Gnostic sects. Docetic Christians believed that Jesus’ body was only an apparition, and hence that his crucifixion was itself an illusion. For proto-orthodox Christians, this undermined the entire basis of their belief system, that Jesus’ death on the cross is integral to God’s salvific program.

There are other interpretations of what 1 and 2 John are criticizing, but none have gained wide traction yet. One of the more compelling views is that these antichrists did not deny Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human; rather, that ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Christ’ were not the same person, where the Christ was a spiritual entity or power that came upon Jesus at his baptism, and perhaps left him at his death. This sort of belief is found in Valentinianism, a Gnostic sect founded in the mid second century. However, the only texts we have which express this christology are much later than the time of the letters of John, Ignatius, or Polycarp.

If Ignatius and Polycarp’s criticisms of docetic Christians is not simply appropriation of 1 and 2 John’s language for a new enemy, but is in direct continuity with their predecessor’s criticism of a Christian faction that caused a rift within his own community, this would mean docetic Christology existed in the 90s CE.11 Is this too early for such a belief to arise?12 Our question now is if we have enough information to get anymore specific than this.


Other Details

First John’s criticism of this group extends beyond just the two paragraphs mentioning ‘antichrists’. It is widely thought the author’s ethical concerns throughout the five-chapter book are all related to his perception of this rival group,13 which is how he was able to work in referencing them twice.14 The author stresses love and walking in the light, but fails to specify their ethical sins anymore clearly than that.15 Regardless, these two concerns, ethical and christological, come together in 1 John 3.23.16

Second John 9 implies that the author thinks the antichrists were not in outright rejection of the entire Christian theology, but had taken the particular emphases of this community went ‘beyond’ or ‘too far’ with them.17 In other words, their theology evolved in excess, resulting in their abandonment of an ethical framework the Elder saw denying the very existence of sin (1 John 1.6, 8, 10).18 There is also some speculation the ‘antichrist’ group was actually more successful at this time than the ‘orthodox’ one, at least locally. This might explain why the Elder thought they deserved the attention of rebuking them in two texts he authored.19

We find other New Testament texts condemning a variety of beliefs as unorthodox: Colossians and Revelation mention worship of angels; the pseudo-Pauline pastoral letters refer to deviant teachers of ‘what is falsely called knowledge’; Revelation also mentions a group called the Nicolaitans.20 However, the closest group — both geographically and theologically — in any (roughly) contemporary text are the apparently docetic ‘false’ Christians mentioned by Ignatius and Polycarp.21 The parallels with Ignatius’ docetists goes further than just their christological beliefs. Like 1 John, he claims this rival group rejects love (Smyrnaeans 6.2), and his criticism that they reject the blood of Jesus (6.1) may run parallel to 1 John 5.6–8, a passage that has resisted interpretation.

There have been attempts to connect the ‘antichrists’ of 1 and 2 John to known Gnostic groups or leaders, including the legend-enshrouded Cerinthus or the infamous Marcion of Sinope. As to these two men, the former is too difficult to pin down when he was active or what he taught, while the latter arrived on the scene too late to be the focus of the Johannine letters’ scorn. Really, none of the groups we know about completely fit the information given in 1 or 2 John.22

By identifying the antichrists as, or with, ‘false prophets’, we may have our hint at where the community’s belief came from. The author indicates his community already expected some kind of end-times falsehood to manifest, ‘deceivers’ who could lure followers of Jesus away from ‘orthodoxy’. The concept of these ‘antichrists’ may have evolved from a Christian apocalyptic tradition represented in other first century Christian texts, such as Jesus’ warning in the Olivet Discourse.23

Mark 13.22 ‘False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.’

The rival group did not rely on ‘signs and omens’, however; they weren’t charismatics or miracle-workers.24 Instead, they simply claimed to have superior knowledge via God’s spirit.25 In response, the Elder impresses upon his readers to test the spirit the rival group claims to have; it will seen they have ‘the spirit of the antichrist’, which is not from God (1 John 4.1–3).


Conclusion

While the pop culture understanding of ‘the antichrist’ is correct to associate it with the end times, virtually every other perception is inaccurate.

The only biblical texts to mention ‘antichrist’ state there are many, they are contemporary to the author (circa 90–100 CE), and they were proof the return of Jesus was imminent at that time. The antichrists would not be non-Christian outsiders, a supreme government ruler antagonizing God’s holy people like the Beast does in the Revelation of John. Instead, from the Elder’s perspective, these antichrists were former insiders, pseudo-Christians who abandoned their community (or perhaps were pushed out from it).

Their belief in an early form of docetic christology — wherein Jesus’ physical body was an illusion — apparently went hand-in-hand with their reevaluation of the ethics espoused by their community. These two things were enough for the author to condemn them as enemies.


Footnotes

1 Bart Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: Volume II, 99.

2 Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, 51.

3 Georg Strecker, The Johannine Letters, 68.

4 Strecker, 63.

5 Rudolf Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 36; Strecker, 63.

6 Bultmann, 36; Strecker, 62–63.

7 Dirk van der Merwe, 'The identification and examination of the elements that caused a schism in the Johannine community at the end of the first century CE', HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 63.3, 1152.

8 Van der Merwe, 1152.

9 Translations from Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: Volume 1.

10 Strecker, 63.

11 Bultmann, 62.

12 Brown, 59.

13 Bultmann, 39.

14 Brown, 50.

15 Brown, 54; Van der Merwe, 1154.

16 Brown, 50.

17 Bultmann, 113.

18 Van der Merwe, 1162–1163.

19 Brown, 49; Strecker, 63.

20 Brown, 56–57.

21 Ibid.

22 Raymond Brown, 67–68; Bultmann, 38.

23 Bultmann, 62; Judith Lieu, The Theology of the Johannine Epistles, 46.

24 Brown, 49; Lieu, 46.

25 Bultmann, 61–62; Van der Merwe, 1157.

Comments