Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Problem of the Antichrist

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

The Dispensational Tendency

Perhaps more than any other evil figure in Scripture, Christians most fear the Antichrist. After all, "in premillennial eschatology the final world ruler who opposes God and his Christ (particularly in relation to his deity), oppresses God’s elect (especially the Jewish people), and seeks to usurp the place of divine worship through desecration of the holy (especially Jerusalem and its temple) is known as the Antichrist" (Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 43)

Many dispensationalists believe he is alive today — in fact, this seems to be an important proof that one is truly a dispensationalist. This is largely due to dispensationalists being strongly committed to the imminency of Christ’s Return, which precedes the rise of Antichrist by only a few minutes — perhaps as few as three-and-one-half minutes. (Woody Allen believes that there is a race of men on another planet that are advanced over our civilization by fifteen minutes. This gives them an advantage in that they are never late for meetings. I would point out that they also would be less likely to have to endure stale doughnuts.) They believe his Return has been imminent for 2000 years now.

In an interview in Eternity magazine in 1977 Hal Lindsey responded to a question regarding the Antichrist: "In my personal opinion, he’s alive somewhere now" (Lindsey, "The Great Cosmic Countdown," 80.) Tertullian fumbled on this matter also, when he wrote 1700 years ago that Antichrist "is now close at hand" (Tertullian, De Fuga, 12). Perhaps Antichrist is an extremely old fellow (he may have even starred in the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade). Lindsey was so convinced of his view that Mr. Antichrist roamed the planet, that he wrote 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon.

As a 1990s best-selling author striving to stay atop the best-seller lists, Dave Hunt wrote that there "is strong evidence indeed that the Antichrist could appear very soon — which means that the rapture may be imminent" (Hunt, Peace Prosperity and the Coming Holocaust, 256). (Of course, his dispensationalism says that the rapture has been imminent for 2000 years, so technically Hunt cannot be proven wrong until the sun explodes into a red giant after consuming all of its hydrogen in about five billion years.) He is convinced that "somewhere, at this very moment, on planet Earth, the Antichrist is almost certainly alive" (Hunt, Global Peace, 5). The title of Mark Hitchcock’s 2003 book asks: Is the Antichrist Alive Today? He titles chapter 8: "Antichrist is Alive and Well."

The dispensationalist Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy even includes a heading: "Is the Antichrist Alive Today?" In so doing it struggles to correct fellow dispensationalists who "tragically" are "guessing dates and selecting possibilities for the Antichrist" (PEBP, 26). Of course, this sort of belief has for generations been the tendency among dispensationalists, who constantly point out numerous possible Antichrist candidates.

The Dispensational Problem

Ironically, the least helpful verses for developing the dispensational view of the Antichrist are the only ones that expressly mention him. "Antichrist" appears only four times in all of Scripture: in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; and 2 John 7. (Strangely, Walvoord in his comprehensive Prophecy Knowledge Handbook does not even mention these verses in his treatment of "Prophecy in 1, 2, and 3 Jn and the Epistle of Jude" — or anywhere else in his 800-page work.)

Most dispensationalists apply the name of "Antichrist" to other evil figures in prophecy: under "Titles of the Antichrist," the Popular Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists "the beast," "the man of lawlessness, and Daniel’s "little horn" (p. 24). But these associations are surely mistaken. Not only do none of the contexts of these titles mention the word "Antichrist," but they actually contradict the explicit references to Antichrist. This is all the more remarkable in that the word "Antichrist" does not even appear in the context of the beast of Revelation, despite the fact that Revelation’s author, John, is the only New Testament writer who does employ the word "Antichrist" elsewhere.

It seems that many Christians in the first century thought of the Antichrist as a particular individual. John mentions this widespread belief: "You have heard that the Antichrist is coming" (1Jn 2:18b). John’s point in mentioning him, however, is to rebut the false views that are confusing his audience. Early Christians were picking up many false eschatological concepts. John even corrects a false notion regarding his own living until Christ’s Second Advent (Jn 21:22–23). Elsewhere, Paul uses a false teaching regarding baptism for the dead to drive a point home regarding the resurrection (1Co 15:29). Paul often urges his followers to hear him and preserve those things he teaches (Php 4:9; 1Th 2:13; 2Ti 1:13; 2:2).
We should expect this sort of confusion, for the Lord himself taught his disciples that within his own generation (Mt 24:34) "many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many" (Mt 24:5); "many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many" (Mt 24:11); and "false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (Mt 24:24).

The dispensational view of the Antichrist is destroyed by three observations from Scripture itself.

Antichrist’s Time

John’s readers are hearing that though Antichrist is not yet on the scene, he nevertheless "is coming." but John informs them that this "antichrist" "is now already in the world" (1Jn 4:3). John writes: "this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world" (1Jn 4:3b). John clearly warns them that that which they "heard was coming" is "now already in the world." In addition, he remarks: "As you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come" (1Jn 2:18). The "even now" emphasizes the presence of that which they fear ("as you heard").

Antichrist’s Impersonality

In redirecting his readers’ focus from the Antichrist’s future to his contemporary existence, John also explains that the Antichrist is a movement, rather than an individual. In dealing with the idea of "the Antichrist," he writes: "even
now many antichrists have come" (1Jn 2:18). In fact, Antichrist is a "spirit" (1Jn 4:3) that pervades these many "antichrists" (1Jn 2:18), which involve "many deceivers" (2 Jn 7).

Antichrist’s Tendency

Antichrist really is not a multitude of people, but rather the "spirit" (1Jn 4:3) among them — a spirit that promotes deception (2 Jn 7) regarding Christ. "Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son" (1Jn 2:22). John clearly applies the conception of the one Antichrist (ho antichristos) to the generic tendency to promote lies about the identity of Christ. He repeats this point in his second letter: "For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and the antichrist [ho antichristos]" (2Jn 1:7). Thus, the first century Antichrist movement was a doctrinal heresy, rather than a political danger.

On the basis of these four references we learn that Antichrist is not an individual, malevolent ruler looming in our future. Rather, he was a contemporary heretical tendency regarding the person of Christ, which is current among many in John’s day.