When I tell people about my interest in Revelation, one question seems to come up every time: Who is the antichrist?
I’m not sure why there’s such an interest in the topic. Maybe it’s the Left Behind books. Maybe it’s the speculative connections people make to current events. I honestly don’t know. But if I had a quarter for every time someone asked, “Who is the antichrist?” I’d have a bunch of quarters.
And yet, Revelation never uses the word ‘antichrist’. In fact, it’s barely mentioned in the Bible at all. ‘Antichrist’ appears just five times in the entire Bible – four times in 1 John and once in 2 John. And that’s it.
Who is the Antichrist? John Tells Us
So, let’s quickly look at those verses and see what John says about this mysterious figure in 1 John 2:18-24:
“Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know.
I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.”1 John 2:18-24
If you were paying attention, then you probably caught a couple of key facts.
4 Facts About the Antichrist from 1 John 2
First, these early Christians had heard that there was an antichrist who was coming. John establishes that fact right up front. So, this was someone or something they were expecting.
Second, John upends those expectations when he says “even now many antichrists have appeared”. John says that in his day, almost 2,000 years ago, there were already many antichrists around. So, if we’re going to understand this term, we need to realize that it’s not just a single person. If there were already many antichrists then, how many more must have come and gone over the past 2,000 years? And for that matter, how many antichrists are running around right now?
But John’s not done.
He also says that these antichrists “went out from us”. In other words, John tells us that these antichrists were once churchgoers – part of the Christian community. But they now reject the faith that they once claimed to hold. It’s worth noting here that this doesn’t mean that every antichrist has to be an apostate Christian. But it’s obvious that these were.
Finally, John offers a simple definition of antichrist.
“Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son”.1 John 2:22
So, John says that the antichrist is anyone who denies that Jesus is God’s messiah, his Son and the rightful king of creation.
The Danger of the Antichrist Spirit
Two chapters after this passage, John picks up this antichrist thread once more.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.”1 John 4:1-3
John offers us a little more insight here. Notice that he warns these Christians that “many false prophets have gone out into the world”. Then, he says that we need to be careful about which “spirits” we listen to. In other words, just because someone who calls himself a prophet claims to have a ‘word from the Lord’, doesn’t make it so. We need to test what people say and teach. We need to be careful about “false prophets”. And then, John says “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist”. So, once again, this antichrist spirit is one that denies Jesus’ proper role and person.
The Antichrist in 2 John
Now, let’s look at the last place where we find the word ‘antichrist.’ It’s in 2 John 7. And it’s very similar to what we find in 1 John. Here’s what John writes:
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”2 John 7
John is basically restating what he said in his first letter. He describes the antichrist as a deceiver. He notes that this antichrist doesn’t acknowledge Christ “as coming in the flesh.” And he says that there are already many deceivers in the world. All stuff that he mentioned in 1 John.
John’s Answer to Who is the Antichrist?
So, if we had to summarize what John says about the antichrist in all of these passages – and remember, these are the only verses that actually mention him by name or title – we’d come up with these basic facts:
- There is a spirit of antichrist that denies Christ’s rightful role and person. They don’t recognize that he is God’s Messiah and they don’t believe he actually came in the flesh.
- This antichrist spirit is behind the false prophets and deceivers that are out there, leading people away from Christ. These false prophets have been around from the very beginning. And we have no reason to believe they won’t continue to rise until Christ’s second coming.
- Some of these false prophets were once part of the Christian community. Again, John’s wording here doesn’t necessitate that all antichrists be former believers. But, certainly the ones he was talking about were.
- Finally – and this seems to be the least important point for John – these first-century Christians were expecting one, final antichrist. But John doesn’t dwell on this figure. He just says, “Yea, you’ve heard there is an antichrist coming, but you should really focus on the fact that you’re already surrounded by false prophets who are motivated by that same antichrist spirit”.
And that’s it. So, if that’s all the Bible says about the antichrist, why do we hear so much speculation about him in Christian pop culture? How does the number 666 get tied to the antichrist? And what about Revelation? I mean, most people think Revelation is all about the antichrist. But the word doesn’t even appear there.
Well, to understand all of this, and to understand why those first-century Christians were expecting one final antichrist, we really need to go back to the beginning of apocalyptic literature: to the Old Testament book of Daniel.
The Antichrist in Daniel?
Desmond Ford, a scholar who specialized in Daniel and apocalyptic literature, once noted that Daniel was “the book which above all others influenced the theological climate of Judaism in the first century”. And since it heavily influenced Judaism in the first century, you can be sure that it also heavily influenced Christianity and its early development.
In chapters 8 through 11 of Daniel’s book, he tells about an evil king that’s coming who will set himself up against God in every way imaginable. According to Daniel, he’ll…
- Remove the daily sacrifice (8:11)
- Set up a desolating abomination in the temple (8:13)
- Seize power by intrigue (11:21)
- Go against the traditions of his ancestors (11:24)
- Campaign against Egypt (11:25, 29)
- Rage against God’s covenant (11:28, 30)
Daniel never calls this figure the antichrist. But all of his actions reveal that he’s the polar opposite of a godly king. In a sense, he’s the antimessiah or, in Greek, the antichrist. He’s someone who’s going to attempt to destroy everything God has been seeking to fulfill.
Is the Antichrist Antiochus IV?
Historically, most of this was accomplished by a ruler named Antiochus IV. He outlawed Judaism and even sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the Jerusalem temple’s altar (that’s probably the whole abomination of desolation thing that Daniel mentions).
But at the end of Daniel 11, starting in verse 36, there are some ambiguous verses that don’t seem to apply to Antiochus. For example, Daniel says that the king will “pitch the tents of his royal pavilion between the seas and the beautiful Holy Mountain; yet he will come to an end, and no one will help him.” But Antiochus didn’t die in Israel as Daniel seems to say here. He died in Persia.
And in the next chapter of Daniel, the Day of the Lord seems to happen immediately after this king is killed. But the world didn’t end when Antiochus IV died. This is one of the reasons many contemporary scholars believe Daniel was written around 165BC, while Antiochus was still alive. They argue that Daniel wasn’t really a prophet who foretold events centuries before they happened. Instead, the book that bears his name was a history book written to look like prophecy. And at the end, the unknown author guessed what would happen and got it wrong.
Jewish Expectations of Another Antiochus
We’re not going to get into the details about Daniel’s dating here. We’ll do that in another article. But suffice it to say, Jews living in the years after Antiochus IV died believed that Daniel’s final prophecies were yet to come. They thought that Antiochus IV was a sort of prefiguring of another, final evil king that would rise. That king, even worse than Antiochus had been would follow in his footsteps. And God would eventually destroy him, ushering in the restoration of all things.
This is why Jesus, nearly two-hundred years after Antiochus’s death, could say, “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains”. Jesus was predicting a future event (which likely occurred in 70 AD) even though he was referencing something that – at least at one level – was referring to Antiochus’s actions.
In other words, Jews in Jesus’ day believed there was another evil king who was to come. And they thought his defeat would usher in God’s final reign and the reign of his messiah, or christ. If the christ was God’s chosen king. Then this evil king Daniel talked about was a sort of ‘antichrist’ in their minds. This is probably why John said, “You’ve heard that an antichrist is coming.”
The New Testament & Daniel’s Antichrist Figure
Jesus’ Warning in Matthew 24
Jesus makes some vague references to this idea. In Matthew 24, just after he makes the comment about the ‘abomination of desolation’, he goes on to say:
“Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”Matthew 24:23-27
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you may notice some interesting threads between Jesus’ words here and John’s words in his letters. Both of them warn about false prophets who attempt to mislead God’s people. And while Jesus doesn’t use the word antichrist like John, he does use the word pseudochrist or “false christs”. Likewise, both of them warn about a whole host of false teachers, not just a single figure.
And yet, there was still this idea from Daniel that there would be one final evil king who would attempt to destroy God’s people and God’s work. After all, remember what John said: “You’ve heard that an antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared.”
Paul’s Man of Lawlessness
And John isn’t the only one who seems to reference this idea. The Apostle Paul seems to have the same thing in mind in his second letter to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonian Christians had been fooled by false teachers into believing that the resurrection had already happened. They probably thought that it was a spiritual rather than physical resurrection and they were left behind to suffer.
So, Paul writes to reassure them that the resurrection was yet to come. And he comforts them by basically saying, “There are still some things that need to take place before the resurrection.”
Here’s how he puts it:
“Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.
Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.”2 Thessalonians 2:3-12
What Does Paul Mean Here?
Now, a lot of this sounds very similar to what we’ve already heard and discussed. Paul describes a “man of lawlessness” and a “son of destruction” who is yet to come. When he uses those phrases, he’s simply describing someone characterized by lawlessness, or sin, and someone destined for destruction.
He says that this will be one who “takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God”. This seems to be a parallel idea to what we find in Daniel and in Jesus’s words from Matthew (i.e. the abomination of desolation). This man of lawlessness is an evil person who will desecrate the holy things of God, blaspheme God, and lead people into idolatry. And we see from the latter part of this passage that Satan will work through him, doing false wonders to deceive people. Finally, note that, like John, Paul says that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work”. Paul agrees that there are already false teachers who are motivated by the same spirit that will drive this final man of lawlessness.
On the surface, it sounds like Paul believes, along with John’s listeners and other Jews of his day, that there would be a final fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy – a king like Antiochus IV who would blaspheme God, attempt to stop God’s kingdom, and ultimately be destroyed when Christ returns. But this passage includes a lot that is unclear. And it’s obvious that Paul had talked with the Thessalonians about this before in conversations we don’t have access to.
Dr. Mark Jackson rightly notes that “the identity of the man of lawlessness, and whether it refers to a specific person or an institution or to a principle of rebellion, is hard to decide. This is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret, though it undoubtedly made sense to its original audience”. So, we shouldn’t spend too much time speculating about Paul’s ‘man of lawlessness’. Instead, we should focus on what Paul was focused on – encouraging one another until Christ returns and cultivating a healthy awareness of false teachers.
What About Revelation?!
At this point, it’s worth recognizing that there are some people who tie the two beasts of Revelation 13 to this same antichrist/man of lawlessness figure. While Daniel 11 is part of the background of Revelation 13, I don’t think that vision is really focused on this final figure. I’m working on an article and video that’s solely dedicated to Revelation 13. So, I’ll just include a link to that here when it’s finished.
So, Who is the Antichrist?
With all of that said, here’s the big takeaway when it comes to the antichrist…
Will there be a final evil king who is to come? Someone who will appear and attempt to mislead God’s people right before Christ returns to make all things new? Possibly. But even if there is, there’s almost nothing we can say about him with any certainty. When people develop complicated explanations of how he’ll be a political figure from such-and-such place and he’ll go into a newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, etc. they’re just making wild guesses.
And that’s probably why Paul and John don’t really focus on one final antichrist figure. Instead, both of them call us to beware of the wolves in sheeps’ clothing already in our midst – on our podcast apps, in our bookshelves, and at our churches.
The reality is, there have already been countless antichrists who have risen – evil kings and religious leaders, false prophets and preachers – people who have followed in the footsteps of Antiochus IV and led God’s people into idolatry. And there will be many more, all the way up until Jesus returns. If a final one shows up, we almost certainly won’t know it. He’ll look like all of the other ones who have come before. So it does us no good to speculate. Instead, we should become so consumed by the truth of God and his gospel that we can spot a false prophet on sight. And we should spend our time building God’s Kingdom rather than getting lost in endless theorizing about some possible end-times figure.
As John says, “you’ve heard that an antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared.” In other words, don’t let the enemy who might show up distract you from the enemy who’s already at your door.