Antichrists, Beasts, and the Man of Lawlessness

It is always strange to me when Christian speakers and authors refer to the Antichrist in the singular, often with a capital letter. Even Pope Benedict seems to have done this, in the passage from him I quoted in a recent post, so I can hardly blame those who commented on that post for following his lead.

Of course it is fun to speculate about which political, religious or media figures might be the Antichrist – perhaps Tony Blair as I suggested tongue in cheek last year, or one of the various suggestions made in the more recent comment thread here.

But in fact there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that there will ever be an individual identifiable as the Antichrist. This is teaching from outside the Bible. It is so ancient that John, the author of the letters of John traditionally identified with the Apostle John, knew it, but he did not teach it. His teaching, which is the only biblical teaching on this subject, is that there are many antichrists, and that some of them had already come in his time.

Here are the only Bible passages which use the word “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. 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 whoever denies that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

1 John 2:18-23 (TNIV)

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 (TNIV)

In other words, John knew the popular teaching that “the Antichrist is coming”, but what he teaches is that there are many antichrists – and they are people who claim to be within the Christian family but deny that Jesus is the Messiah in the flesh, or perhaps more generally false teachers in the church.

However, while there is nothing in the New Testament about an individual Antichrist, there is teaching about individual figures of evil associated with the end times. The notorious beasts of Revelation 13 may represent individual human beings, although more likely they have a more corporate meaning. But the clearest reference is to the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (KJV has “man of sin” based on later Greek manuscripts, but the difference of meaning is small):

Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for [that day will not come] until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-8 (TNIV)

Perhaps the early teaching about the Antichrist which John rejected was based on Paul’s figure of the “man of lawlessness”. But it is not good for Bible expositors, especially those who claim to be successors of St Peter, to confuse these two biblical concepts.

Anyway, it is quite inappropriate to speculate seriously about who might be the “man of lawlessness”. I note by the way that the Greek word for “man” here, anthropos, is gender generic, so we cannot rule out a woman playing this role (even though the TNIV translators seem to have done so). But the biblical text is clear that this person is hidden until he or she is “revealed” (the word used three times in the verses just quoted). What God has hidden no human observation or speculation can reveal. But when he or she is revealed, this will not be to one fringe Bible scholar or sect, but publicly to everyone, when “he [or she] sets himself [or herself] up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself [or herself] to be God.” We cannot even presume to put a date to when this will happen, for as verse 8 teaches this will be shortly before the return of Christ, of which he said that even he himself did not know the date:

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. … 42 Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Matthew 24:26,42-44 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Antichrists, Beasts, and the Man of Lawlessness

  1. Thanks for the simple, FAQ-style post, Peter. I really enjoy being able to build on the shoulders of others, and can definitely benefit from your accumulated study.

  2. I don’t know. I think it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility that when John uses the singular he’s envisioning a final figure who could in English be seen as the antichrist to end all antichrists, and thus he’s referring to the same figure that Paul calls the man of lawlessness and who in Revelation is the beast (assuming an individual interpretation, which I think is likely at least in the final iteration that consummates towards the end of the book). I don’t see that as any significant stretch. It’s true that he’s just the final one among many, but I don’t think it’s stretching it at all to apply that term to the man of lawlessness of Thessalonians, since Paul does envision there being such a final figure.

  3. Jeremy, I am not saying that John is not envisioning a final figure equivalent to Paul’s “man of lawlessness”. Very likely he was, but, except in the “you have heard” clause of 1 John 2:18, he does not use the word “antichrist” to refer to this figure – nor does any other biblical author. There is nothing wrong with using terminology which is not in the Bible, such as “Trinity”. But there is a risk of confusion when one uses biblical words like “antichrist” in a different way from how they are used in the Bible.

  4. Peter,

    Can you tell us your thoughts on how the “Mark of the Beast” is supposed to be interpreted and whether people can buy or sell; is in fact envisioning a real scenario as outlined in Revelation 13?

  5. Kim Riddlebarger deals with this topic extensively in his recent book, The Man of Sin, which I reviewed on my blog here. He separates the different threads of antichrist(s), beasts and the man of sin, and discusses each separately before discussing how they have been combined in various ways throughout Christian and political history.

    As an amillennialist, Riddlebarger sees the end-times “man of sin” as the incarnation of the dragon/Satan, who is bound in the abyss, restrained by the angel of Rev 20:1-3 (this is then the restraint that Paul write of). The incarnate dragon will likely appear within the Church when the thousand years is near completion.

  6. Iconoclast, I can’t help speculating that the mark of the beast might be some kind of silicon chip which people are forced to have implanted in them so that they can buy or sell. After all we already do something like that to identify dogs. But that kind of identification would go against the usual kinds of biblical prophecy. So I really ought to say simply, I don’t know.

    ElShaddai, thanks for the tip. The problem with that is that on a superficial reading of Revelation the coming of Christ and so the revealing of the man of lawlessness are before the binding of Satan. But how can an amillennialist think of anything happening “when the thousand years is near completion”?

  7. The problem with that is that on a superficial reading of Revelation the coming of Christ and so the revealing of the man of lawlessness are before the binding of Satan.

    It probably depends on whether you view Christ on the white horse with the sword from his mouth as the literal event of the second coming or as the ongoing proclamation of the gospel during His reign in heaven, which an amillennialist views as current history.

    I tend toward the latter view, that the sword coming from His mouth is the proclamation of the gospel during the age of the Church (cf. Ephesians 6:17).

  8. Thanks, ElShaddai. Yes, I can see that that interpretation can make sense. I have problems with this militaristic image of the proclamation of the gospel and the work of the church, but OK I suppose if Ephesians 6:12 applies.

  9. Peter Kirk said:

    “We cannot even presume to put a date to when this will happen, for as verse teaches this will be shortly before the return of Christ, of which he said that even he himself did not know the date”

    We may not know the exact time of day, of the day of the week, but Scripture and Christ himself certainly spoke about benchmarks in history which would signal the end times, and warned us to be aware of them.

    1) “you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”

    2) “And this gospel of the kingdom, shall be preached in the whole world, for a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come.”

    3) “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.”

    4) “In the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

    In Catholic theology the consensus is that the anti-christ will be a singular person who will lead many away from the truth.

    But this person will not be obvious nor what one would expect, such as a Hitler or a Stalin, who were bent on world domination through military might. Such tyrants have littered the stage of history throughout the ages. No. The Anti-christ will be a deceiver who will come upon the stage of history and make a convincing case that will sway any away from communion with God. I suspect his message will be to convince many that we are our own God and that the power is inside of us to achieve material success and a higher enlightenment which emanates not from God, but from our own powers, if only we were to unleash them.

    I believe the stage is set for such a figure. To get the picture, one needs but read articles such as this:

  10. No antichrist? Then who will stand in the temple proclaiming to be God? Better check 2nd Thessalonians chapter 2 again. You apparently missed something.

    By the way… the “mouth of the beast” will come from the nation whose symbol is the lion. (See Revelation 13 & 7)

    Scary cooincidence?

  11. Tkwi, read 2 Thessalonians 2 yourself and you will find no mention of the Antichrist. Read my post, and you will find how I explained this. The one who “will stand in the temple proclaiming to be God” is the man of lawlessness, who is nowhere in the Bible called the Antichrist.

  12. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Joel Edwards to join Tony Blair

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