Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Who is the antichrist?

Another post requested by my small group. Today we got to 1 John 2:15-27, a wonderful passage about holding onto the Truth you've been taught and (returning to James Hunter's kind of speaking) maintaining an authentic Christian witness in a world hostile to God. It also mentions an "antichrist" three times and was, I think, one of the foundations for the theology in the Left Behind books. The idea of "antichrist" proved to be a slightly confusing one, so here I am trying to clarify it a bit. For starters, here is everything the Bible has to say about the antichrist.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. - 1 John 2:18
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist--he denies the Father and the Son. - 1 John 2:22
But every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. - 1 John 4:3
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. - 2 John 7

And that's it. The same Greek word, αντιχριστοσ ("antichristos"), is used in every instance. I could have sworn a book other than John's epistles mentioned the word, but apparently not. Anyway, this word is thrown around a lot, so I'm going to try and address it here: who is the antichrist? Well, luckily I get the news, so I know the antichrist is Barack Obama. Or Oprah. Or Ronald Reagan. Or just about anyone you like. Like I said, the word is thrown around a lot.

The first question to ask in a treatment of this subject is: is there one Antichrist, or many antichrists?Or both? The singular Antichrist-with-a-capital-A seems to be the most popular; when you hear about the Antichrist, it's usually some preacher applying the term to a public figure, or in the context of left Behind. 1 John 2:18 captures the tension: first the antichrist (the capitalization varies between translations) is coming, then many antichrists have already come. 1 John 2:22 and 2 John 7 both seem to say that anyone who is against Christ (literally anti-Christ) is the antichrist. 1 John 4:3 warns of the spirit of the antichrist. The question, then, is how to put these four verses together into a cohesive whole.

I would say that the Bible definitely argues for the existence of many antichrists (with a small a), whatever else you believe. They are already among us and were around in the time of the early church. Again, to get what it means, just break up the word: anti-Christ. Mark Driscoll argues that this means anyone who does not believe in Jesus ("He who is not with me is against me", Matthew 12:30). But I'm not sure this is exactly what John is getting at with this language. One of the purposes of 1 John is to fight the false teachings and teachers that were such a problem for the fledgling church. The context of the first two verses, John 2:18-27, is revealed in verse 26: "I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray." In 2 John 7 "antichrist" is equated with "deceiver". In light of this, I would define "antichrist" (with a small a) as someone who does not acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, and teaches or influences others to believe likewise. These are the kinds of people John is warning the recipients of his first epistle about.

How does John say to respond to antichrists? Kick them out of the church? Burn them at the stake? No.  I'll put up the entire passage.
18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
24 See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he promised us—even eternal life.
26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.
John doesn't tell the readers to hunt down these liars and get rid of them. In verse 20 he assures his readers that "you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth". As pastor Steve says, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be very familiar with the real thing. The best defense against false teaching is to know the truth--to "know what you believe, and why". He responds to these antichrists by appealing to the truth of the gospel that they still possess, to kindle the flames of the Spirit by which they were anointed. By the way, the term "anointing" calls back to the Old Testament practice of setting someone apart for a special task or mission; Israelite kings were anointed to be king, for instance. In this sense, we are anointed to be bearers and teachers of the Truth.

That leads into the other possible definition of "Antichrist", the one with a capital A. Again, it is possible (and I think easier) to simply interpret all five of John's uses of the word as referring to these false teachers. It is also possible to interpret the first usage in 1 John 2:18 (and maybe the one in 4:3) as referring to one individual. I think proponents of this view might equate the Antichrist with the beast from the sea in Revelation 13 who blasphemes God and deceives almost the entire world into following him. The sense of expectation in 1 John 2:18 and the metaphorical, yet oddly specific descriptions in Revelation have led to a lot of guessing as to who the Antichrist is; depending on who you ask, it's just about any public figure--maybe even the guy who cut you off in traffic.

And there we come to the big practical problem with this interpretation. Once you believe in a singular Antichrist who will lead the whole world astray and serve as a nemesis to Christ, it seems to become almost irresistible to decipher the clues and figure out who it is. And do you get this discourse of negation where Christian leaders very publicly denounce so-and-so as the Antichrist, and of course so-and-so really isn't and all the fearmongering comes to nothing and Christianity looks just a bit more like a religion of crazies to people. It's in a similar vein to preachers who claim to have calculated that the "end of the world" will happen in a few months or years. (The end of the world is currently scheduled for December 21st, 2012, if you haven't heard. You may notice how no one every predicts the end of the world as hundreds of years from now.)

Anyway, this discourse of negation and denunciation is antithetical to how Christ taught and ministered--you could almost say it is "anti-Christ". It is not loving or truthful, but vicious and slanderous. Yes, Christ did denounce Pharisees and teachers of the law, but for one thing He was completely certain in what He was saying (unlike anyone who says X is the Antichrist) and second these denunciations were not personal attacks or attempts to discredit in order to gain credibility or clout, but were directed at the Pharisees' actions and ways of life, not their identities. If they let go of their pride and believed in Him, He was quite willing to accept or work with them. (See Nicodemus in John 3, or Paul in general) Do people expect someone named as the Antichrist to apologize and stop being the Antichrist?

So my point is that singular Antichrist or not, it really doesn't matter right now. If there's one thing I can conclude from Revelation (besides that the new Earth is going to be amazing), it's that God seems to have how He's going to get us there pretty well planned-out and we need not concern ourselves with what we can bring to the table in His plan--certainly not about how we can work out His redemption of creation here and now. Even if that is how it will be, I think our response should be the same as for the antichrists in the world now: to cling to the truth, treasure it, and proclaim it, not seek to discredit and damage those with whom we may have valid reasons for disagreeing.

Until next time, may you know what you believe and why you believe it.

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