By Dane Neufeld
The figure of the Antichrist has obviously provoked a vast array of speculation, argument, and cynicism. The premillennialism of the Left Behind series was in the air in the 1990s when I was growing up, and I was accustomed to the many theories concerning the world’s end, and the ghastly figure who would signal the final days before Christ’s return. As a young adult, and later in seminary, I acquired the appropriate educated cynicism around these apocalyptic beliefs. But I recall a student once cracking a clever joke at dispensationalism’s expense in a doctoral seminar, and while we all laughed, our professor pointed out that we will never sell that many books, and at least these people believe in Christ’s actual return.
I have carried that chastening with me, though like many Christians I sometimes go quiet when hearing elaborate apocalyptic theories. The recent lectionary reading from 2 Thessalonians raises the specter of the Man of Lawlessness, a figure that has often been associated with the Antichrist. The word antichrist is only used four times in the Bible, all in the letters of John, where it refers to an opponent Christ, especially a denier of the incarnation, of whom there are many. But 1 John 2 also anticipates, it would seem, a single figure, the Antichrist, who will fulfill or summarize in his person all those who preceded him.
It is the singularity of this figure that has generated so much wonder, curiosity and hubris — no one, it would seem, has yet to correctly identify the Antichrist. One wonders if there is an edifying purpose to exploring the matter at all, and as a priest, I have more than once offered the pious opinion that Christ will return, and that is all we need to know. But the crystallization of the human resistance to God in a single person, is a compelling idea that shadows the singularity of our salvation in Christ. As Christians anticipate the return of Christ, his revealing to the nations, there is something fitting about the clarity of a singular Antichrist, who exemplifies in some final form, human arrogance and hostility to God and the saints.
In his A Theology of History, Hans Urs von Balthasar describes the eschaton as posing a constant, and increasing “clear-cut either or” to the course of history. He writes, “The wheat and the tares grow together, because the increasing responsibility toward himself or historical, cultural man, and the increasing responsibility toward God of the believers … lead to ever sharper alternatives and decisions” (140). History is not about progress of any kind, but about the sharpening of alternatives that are rehearsed in dramatic form within the world, but also within hearts of individual believers.
Paul writes that the current “mystery” of lawlessness is working under some kind of restraint but that in time these will be removed by the one who restrains them (2 Thess. 2:7). It is then that the “lawless one” will be revealed fully, it seems, under no guise of ambiguity or confusion. History, if it moves in any perceptible direction, it is toward this clarity, whereupon Jesus will destroy the “lawless one” with the “breath of his mouth, annihilating him with the manifestation of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). The appearance of Jesus, his word and action, are sufficient, the contrast of the two figures does not last long but immediately resolves in Christ’s glory.
But the final clarity that emerges when Christ comes will be concealed until the end. This, in effect, is what makes the Antichrist a necessary figure. Hippolytus, in the famous On Christ and Antichrist wrote:
For the deceiver seeks to liken himself in all things to the Son of God. Christ is a lion, so Antichrist is also a lion; Christ is a king, so Antichrist is also a king. The Saviour was manifested as a lamb; so he too, in like manner, will appear as a lamb, though within he is a wolf. The Saviour came into the World in the circumcision, and he will come in the same manner. The Lord sent apostles among all the nations, and he in like manner will send false apostles. The Saviour gathered together the sheep that were scattered abroad, and he in like manner will bring together a people that is scattered abroad. The Lord gave a seal to those who believed on Him, and he will give one like manner. The Saviour appeared in the form of man, and he too will come in the form of a man.
This dark mirroring of Christ is what Paul calls “a powerful delusion” sent to those who want to believe it, for their own reasons, and it expresses the final form of various trajectories that have turned from the humility and suffering of the cross of Christ. For Balthasar, the figure of Babylon, the great enemy of God, was an external representation of something that is equally internal to the Church: the human desire to masquerade as God. The wheat and the tares, in this sense, present a call to holiness and penitence. The Antichrist is not just a metaphor of what or who our sinful hearts desire to become – one who is praised and adored – though he is certainly that. Even more, the Antichrist signals the very real possibility that humanity may be forced to come face to face with what it actually is, with all its ruinous, deceptive and disintegrating desire.
The thought that the Antichrist might one day be a real person is chilling indeed. One reason to avoid Antichrist predictions, though, is that we need take care that we ourselves are seeing clearly. Paul does not warn the Thessalonians to keep watch around every corner for the “man of lawlessness” but rather they should remain strong and unwavering in the faith. The “rebellion” will come first, but if they stand firm in the faith, they will know who it is they are waiting for.
Dispensationalism and its elaborate predictive apparatus have seldom been, to my knowledge, the topic of polite conversation in Anglican leadership circles, though I have encountered it frequently on the parish level. I am not advocating for its adoption, but so often our high-minded dismissals of this theological system offer very little in its place. Anglican eschatologies tend to be orderly, vague, and perhaps, self-serving in their indefinite outcomes. But in an age of theological deception and confusion, we ought to consider the reality of antichrists, in the sense of the 1 John, and perhaps even the Antichrist. At the very least we should examine ourselves, and ask whether we are prepared to recognize godliness in its true form, or if we are content, eager even, for its apparitions and likenesses.
The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the rector of All Saints Fort McMurray.