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Antichrist




ANTICHRIST. The word occurs only in the first and second epistles of John. It signifies an opponent or adversary of Christ. The idea expressed by it had its origin in Judaism. According to prophetic anticipations, the Messianic time was to be immediately preceded by a great conflict, in which Jehovah would fight out of Zion for His own people, and defeat the concentrated opposition of the world. An Almighty leader on the one side seemed to require an antagonist on the other, a head of the army of darkness against the Prince of light. Thus Ezekiel depicts Gog proceeding out of Magog, to hazard a decisive battle against the Lord and His saints on the eve of the Messianic age (chapters xxxviii. And xxxix.) The idea was subsequently embodied in Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to eradicate Judaism with savage hatred. When we consider the insane violence he exhibited against the Jews and their temple, his prohibition of Jehovah's worship, the solemnization of the Sabbath, and circumcision, it was natural to regard him as the representative of heathenism in its opposition to the true religion. Accordingly, the worshippers of Jehovah termed the small altar erected by him to Olympian Jove in the holy temple at Jerusalem (168 B.C.) the abomination of desolation (Daniel ix. 27, xi. 31, xii. 11; Mat. Xxiv. 15). The apocalyptic visions of Daniel exerted an important influence upon the Jews after the time of Antiochus, animating them with hopes of the near approached of a better day, preceded, it is true, by a fearful struggle, in which a powerful prince, the impersonation of heathenism in its fiercest hate, should persecute the chosen people. The future of Israel was brightened by the vision of one whose predictions had been at least partially fulfilled. After this the idea seems to have been in abeyance till the reign of Caligula (40 A.D.), when Greeks in Alexandria and Syria attempted to introduce images of the emperor into the Jewish synagogues. The express command of Caligula addressed to the Jews, to erect his image in the temple at Jerusalem, in the form of Olympian Zeus, excited an intense commotion throughout Palestine, and must have recalled to the Jews familiar with their Scriptures the similar conduct of Antiochus, as though the prophet Daniel had foretold the blasphemy of the Roman emperor. In the discourse of Christ recorded by Matthew (chapter xxiv.), a personal opponent or antichrist does not appear, but the second advent is preceded by great affliction, the desecration of the temple, false Messiahs, and false apostles. This evangelic eschatology, however, appears in its present form to belong to a late redactor, so that it is difficult to separate Christ's own utterances from other elements probably incorporated with them. Various sayings of Jesus relative to his second appearing were evidently misapprehended or confused in the reminiscences of the early disciples.

St Paul resumes the idea of antichrist. Whatever Jewish conceptions he laid aside, and he emancipated himself from the grossest of them, he did not abandon the idea of an antichrist or terrible adversary of the true religion. The prophecies of Daniel, whether in their supposed relation to Antiochus or Caligula, and the impious command of the latter in particular to desecrate the Jewish temple, furnished him with traits for the portrait of Christ's great enemy, whose manifestation in the Roman empire the state of the world led him to suspect, especially as the empire was then identified by he Jews, as well as by Paul himself, with the fourth and last kingdom of Daniel's visions. Blending together the notions of an antichrist and false Christ, the picture which St Paul draws is that of the man of sin, "the son of perdition; who opposed and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as god sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God; the wicked one whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders," &c. (2 Thess. ii 3-9). Here the epithet appears to be borrowed from Isaiah xi. 4, the apostle coinciding with the Chaldee interpretere in understanding the passage of antichirst. The hindrance to the manifestation of the terrible enemy, to which Paul obscurely alludes, seems to be the Roman empire in one or other of its aspects; for we cannot adopt the ingenious conjecture that Claudius is meant, though the name fits the apostolic expression o katexwv, qui claudit, Claudius. Apart from the fact that the neuter to katexov is used as well as the masculine, it is scarcely probable that one whose reign was marked by cruel actions and bloodshed should be called the obstacle in the way of antichrist's manifestation. The apostle, not ignorant of Caligula's blasphemous edict, seems to have thought of some Caesar in whom the persecuting power of heathenism should culminate, without pointing at either Claudius as the withholder, or Claudius's successor as the man of sin. The idea of antichirst was not historically fixed in his mind. Here we differ from Hitzig and Hausrath; though the date of the Thessalonian epistles (about 52 A.D.) presents no obstacle to the hypothesis, as De Wette thinks it does.

The author of the Revelation presents the antichrist idea in a more definite form than St Paul. Borrowing characteristic traits from Antiochus Epiphanes, perhaps too from Caligula, whose blasphemous order to set up his own image in the attitude of Olympian Zeus within the holy temple at Jerusalem created intense excitement throughout Palestine, aware of the fearful persecution which the Christians had suffered from Claudius's successor on the throne of the Caesars, the apostle John makes the man of sin or antichrist to be Nero returning from the East, according to report then current. In his view the vicious cruelty of paganism had its incarnation in the monster who set fire to Rome, torturing the Christians there, and hesitating to commit no crime. If the capital of the heathen world had such a head, the character of the great antichrist stood forth in him. Accordingly, the writer describes Nero as the fifth head of the beast that rose out of the sea, i.e., Rome, who received a deadly wound which was healed, who made war upon the saints and overcame them, who disappeared amid the wondering of the world, to return with renewed power for three years and a half. The number of the beast or head, 666, points unmistakably to Nero, for it is the equivalent of ___ [Hebrew word] Kaesar Neron, __ = 50, ___ = 200, __ = 6, __ 50, ___ = 100, ___ 60, ___ = 200. He is the beast that was and is not, the fifth fallen head, one of the seven; the eight, because he should reappear after his deadly wound was healed. The succession of emperors is Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Renan has again sanctioned the reckoning of Julius Caesar as the first of the list, on the authority of Josephus, Suetonius, Aurelius Victor, &c.; but Suetonius's commencement of his lives of the Caesars with Julius is scarcely a valid proof of his reckoning him to be the first of the line. Tacitus, Aurelius Victor, and Sextus Rufus, not to speak of Hippolytus, favour the opinion that Augustus was the first emperor; and as the birth of Christ was under him, Christianity has nothing to do with Julius Caesar. In the view of the apocalyptist the latter is of no importance. The apostle writing under Galba (68 A.D.), held the opinion then prevalent among Christians as well as others, that the emperor was not really dead, but was in the East, whence he would return with an army of Parthians to conquer and destroy Rome (Tacitus, Hist ii. 8; Suetonius, Nero, cap. 57, Dio Chrysostom, Or. xxi.) Such belief had then taken possession of the minds not only of the Jewish Christians in Palestine, but of the Jews themselves, who were in a state of feverish excitement because Jerusalem was besieged. Terror had seized all worshippers of the true God, because of the aspect which the empire assumed (Revelation xiii 3-8, xvii 11). The apocalyptist also states that false or antichristian prophetism was to unite with the healed beats, and cause men to worship him or be put to death (xiii. 14, 15). We assume that the second beast, which rises out of the earth as the first does out of the sea, is identical with the false prophet in xvi. 13, xix. 20, xx. 10, and that it is a personification of false or heathen prophesying with its soothsaying and auguries. But though Irenaeus sanctions this view it is not without difficulties, since the second beast ought in consistency to be historical definite like the first. It cannot be that the writer means the apostle Paul; for John; with all his Jewish tendencies, and hints unfavourable to Paul, would not speak so strongly against the latter. If John were not the author, as some incline to think, an unknown writer, with lively Judaic prepossessions, might perhaps describe the apostle Paul in such dark colours, but even then it is highly improbable. Renan supposes that some Ephesian impostor is meant, a partisan of Nero's, perhaps an agent of the pseudo-Nero, or the pseudo-Nero himself. One thing is pretty clear, that a polity is not represented by either of the two beasts in the Apocalypse, or by Paul's man of sin. It is remarkable how long the legend about Nero's revival continued, and how widely diffused it became, though his body was buried publicly at Rome. Not till the 5th century did it become extinct.





The author of John's first epistle has a more general and spiritual conception of antichrist, partly I consequence of the Alexandrian philosophy which had leavened thought in Asia Minor, as is perceptible in the fourth gospel. He finds antichrist within the church in any false teacher who corrupts the true doctrine respecting the Father and the son through a tendency idealizing away the practical basis of Christology. Such development of the idea agrees better with the general representation in the discourses of Jesus than the restricted individualizing it received from Paul and John outside Christianity, though the latter bears the older and Judaic stamp. The author of 1 John writes: "As ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists. He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. This is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world" (ii. 18, 22, iv. 3). He that denied the Father and the son, that did not confess Jesus, was an antichrist in this author's opinion. Probably Gnosticism was in his view more than any other form of error. There was a tendency among the later New Testament writers, as far as we can judge from 2 Peter ii. 15, to find antichrist in erroneous doctrine rather than an individual. False teachers are called followers of Balaan. In the Apocalypse itself certain heretics are termed Nicolaitanes or Balaamites, i.e. destroyers of the people.

The sibylline oracles agree with the Apocalypse in identifying antichrist and Nero. In those of Christian origin belonging to the earliest centuries, we find the current belief that Nero, having fled beyond the Euphrates, should return with an army to perpetrate farther cruelties in Rome. The descriptions in question are based, in part, on those of the apocalyptist, and the tyrant is directly identified with antichrist or Beliar. When the legend about the tyrant's return from the East ceased, the true interpretation both of the fifth head and his mystic number 666 was lost. Irenaeus himself did not know the interpretation of 666, and has given several conjectural words more or less suitable to the number. The idea of a personal antichrist was retained by the Christian writers of the 2d and 3d centuries who held the sensuous view of Christ's speedy reappearing to set up his reign on earth for a thousand years. The figure of this great adversary in connection with the millennial reign was important for such interpreters. The Alexandrian school, however, whose method of interpretation was less literal and gross, generalized the idea in the manner of him who wrote St John's first epistle, making the principle of error or departure from the faith to be personified in antichirst. The great opponent of Christ is an abstraction, a sceptical tendency or principle, not an historical person.

The later Jews had also their antichrist or anti-Messiah, whom they furnished with peculiar attributes, and termed Armillus. The name appears already in the Targum of Jonathan on Isaiah xi. 4, where the godless Armillus is said to be slain with the breath of Messiah's mouth. In their description he becomes a terrible giant, golden haired, twelve ells in heights, as many breadth, having the width of a span between his deep red eyes. Born in Rome, he will assume to be the Messiah, and obtain many adherents. The first Messiah, Joseph's son, will make war upon him, but be overcome and slain at Jerusalem. After this the second Messiah, David's son, will defeat. Armillus with the breath of his mouth, and then God will reassemble the dispersed of Israel, forming them into a united people, Christians and unbelievers being destroyed.

In the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, published by Laurence, a Jewish-Christian production written in Greek not earlier than the 3d century, the angel Berial, prince of this world, identical with Sammael or Satan, and representing antichrist, is said to descend in the last days, in the form of an impious monarch (Nero), the murderer of his mother. The world will believe in him, and sacrifice to him; his prodigies will be displayed in every city and country, and his image set up. After exercising dominion for three years seven months and twenty-seven days, the Lord will come with His angels and drag him down into Gehenna. The writer's description is evidently moulded on that of the apocyalyptist.

Nor is antichrist unknown to Mohammedan theology, in which he is called al Masih al Dajjal, the false or lying Christ, or simply al Dajjal. He is to be one-eyed, and marked on the forehead with the letters C.F.R., i.e., cafir, or infidel. Appearing first between Irak and Syria, or, according to others, in Khorasan, he will ride on an ass, followed by 70,000 Jews of Ispahan, and continue on earth forty days, of which one will be equal in length to a year, another to a month, another to a week, and the rest will be common days; he is to lay waste all places except Mecca, or Medina, which are guarded by angels; but at length he will be slain by Jesus at the gate of Lud, near Joppa, assisted by the Imam Mahedi, after which the Moslem religion will coalesce with the Christian into one. There is a saying that Mohammed foretold several antichrists, as many as thirty, but one of greater note than the rest.

During the Middle Ages, and those which immediately followed, current opinion discovered antichrist in heretics and sects. The apocalypse and second epistle to the Thessalonians were supposed to point at false doctrine and its leading representatives. In their zeal against such as did not belong to the same church as their own, ecclesiastics mistook the sense of the passages relating to the dreaded adversary of Christ. Thus Innocent III. (1215) declared the Saracens to be antichrist, and Mohammed the false prophet; and Gregory IX. (1234) pronounced the emperor Frederick II. to be the beast that rose up out of the sea with names of blasphemy on his head (Rev. xiii. 1-6).

As the corruption of the Romish Church increased, and the necessity of reform became more apparent, anti-ecclesiastical thought found antichrist in the Papacy; and that again naturally provoked the church to characterize all heretics as the collective antichrist. The strong language of the apostles became a polemic weapon, easily wielded against any adversary possessing worldly power inimical to the church's interests or holding opinions incompatible with traditional orthodoxy. The Church of Rome led the way in misapplying the Apocalypse during her contest with civil powers and heretics; her opponents followed the example in turning the instrument against herself. Antichristianism could be embodied in the Papacy as well as in Protestantism. It might be in a corrupt church as well as in heretical doctrine outside it. Accordingly, the Waldenses, Wicliffe, Huss, and many others, found antichrist in the Pope. Luther hurled a powerful philippic adversus execrabilem bullam antichristi; and the articles of Schmalkald embody the same view, affirming: "Der Pabst aber, der allen die Seligkeit abspricht welche ihm nicht gehorchen wollen, ist der rechte antichrist."

The history of opinion respecting antichrist, or rather the interpretation of such Scriptures as present the idea, is by no means instructive. Conjectures too often supply the place of sound exergesis. Much error has arisen from mixing up portions of Daniel's vision with those of the Apocalypse, because they refer to different subjects. The apostle borrows characteristic features from Daniel's Antiochus Epiphanes to fill out his picture of Nero. The combination of St Paul's man of sin with St John's antichristian Nero has also led to misapprehension. The idea is variously developed according to the mental peculiarities and knowledge of those who entertained it. Vague and general at first, it was afterwards narrowed, somewhat in the manner of the Messianic one. Its different forms show that it was no article of faith, no dogma connected with salvation. Less definite in the second epistle to the Thessalonians, it is tolerably specific in the Revelation. The author of John's first epistle gave it a spiritual width, consistently with the pantheistic direction which he follows with feeble footsteps. In each case, however, the writers moved within their own times, their knowledge bounded by the necessary limits of the human intellect, so that their subjective views can hardly be accepted as the emanations of minds projecting themselves into he world's outer history with full intelligence of its details. Limited to the horizon of their age, they did not penetrate into the future with infallible certainty. What they express about antichrist is their development of an idea which sprang out of Jewish soil and does not harmonise well with the gradual progress of Christ's spiritual kingdom. It is not unusual, however, for men living in times of peculiar commotion, when the good are oppressed and vice triumphs, to embody rampant opposition to truth and righteousness in a person who concentrates in himself the essence of antichristian hate. If Christ is to conquer gloriously, a mighty adversary is given Him who must be finally and for ever overthrown. Then commences the universal reign of peace and purity under the benign scepter of the Victor. Over against Christ as King is set a formidable foe, not an abstract principle, - the latter being an incongruous or less worthy adversary in the view of many. Yet it is the very individualizing of the antichrist idea which removes it from the sphere of actual realization. The extension, indeed, of the divine kingdom will encounter opposition; and the reaction of the world may appear, if not become stronger as that extension is more decided; but the personality and intenseness which the apostles impart to the reaction transfer it to the region of the improbable. Humanity is not so vicious as to break away from God with the extreme insanity which the feelings of the sacred writers conjure up in times of fear for the church. (Comp. Gesenius's article "Antichrist" in Ersch and Gruber; De Wette's Kurze Erkarung of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians and the Revelation; Lucke's Versuch einer vollstandigen Einleitung in die Offenbarung des Johannes, zweite Auflage; Bleek's Vorlesungen ueber die Apokalypse; Ewald's Commentarius in Apocalypsin Johannis, and his Die Johanneischen Schriften vebersetzt und erklart; Lunemann, Ueber die Briefe an die Thessalonicher in Meyer's Kommentar ueber das Neue Testament; Davidson's Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, vol. I; Renan's L'Antechrist; Jowett's Epistles of St Paul to the Thessalonians, &c., vol. i.) (S. D.)






The above article was written by the Rev. Samuel Davidson, D.S., Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Royal College, Belfast, 1835; Professor of Biblical Literature at the Manchester Congregational College, 1842-62; one of the Old Testament Revisers; author of The Canons of the Bible and Critical and Exegetical Introductions to the Old and New Testaments.




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