Antichrist Today ?
The actual word antichrist is used by only one Bible writer—by St. John in his first and second Epistles. However, it is generally recognized that the apostle Paul refers to the same figure in 2 Thessalonians 2, where he warns the church about the "man of sin," or "mystery of lawlessness."
Few figures have stirred the imagination and anxious forebodings as much as the mystery figure of antichrist. As different generations of Christians have scanned the horizon for signs of the end of the world, they have thought to have discovered the antichrist in such men as Nero, Constantine, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin. Not to be discouraged by other precocious attempts at identification, some wild-eyed apocalyptic enthusiasts suggest that Dr. Henry Kissinger is the long looked for antichrist.
Views of the Early Church
After the passing of the apostles, it was generally supposed that the great enemy of the church would appear on the scene after the downfall of the Roman Empire. Antichrist was thought of in terms of a grotesque, superhuman antagonist of the Christian faith who would make war on the church some time in the future. Thus, the view of the early church was futuristic, although the type of futurism then espoused was quite different from the futurism which is popular in the evangelical wing of the church today.
Views of the Reformers
In the sixteenth century the church was awakened and shaken by an evangelical revival known as the Reformation. Although there were several branches of the Reformation, and there were points of disagreement, there was complete unanimity on two things:
1. The Reformers came to a united understanding on the meaning of justification by faith. They unanimously upheld its primacy and centrality in the Christian theology.
2. The Reformers came to the united understanding that it was the work of antichrist to oppose and corrupt the glorious gospel truth of justification by faith. To the Reformers, justification by faith was the great truth upon which the church stood or fell. To take this away was to take away the very life of the church. No greater harm could be done than to rob the church of justification by faith. And since the religious establishment of their day opposed the great Reformation doctrine, the Reformers unitedly declared that that revered religious establishment was antichrist.
It is hard for us to appreciate the daring and very shocking stance of the Reformers. In their day there was only one church structure. Reverenced for centuries, it was seen to be the holy city on earth, the very gate of heaven. To call it antichrist was worse than pointing the incriminating finger at your own mother. Nor can we appreciate the Reformers' conviction on this matter (for it was a sincere theological conviction) unless we appreciate how strongly they felt about the importance of the subject of justification by faith.
Whatever we may think today about the Reformers' views on antichrist, we have to acknowledge that they were so widely held by Protestants for 300 years that they became known as the "Protestant view" of prophetic interpretation.
Views of the Counter Reformation and Modern Futurism
Naturally, the established church was not going to appreciate the damning appellation of antichrist. Being challenged to present a plausible alternative interpretation of Bible prophecy, Jesuit scholarship rallied to the Roman cause and presented what became known as the futurist system of interpretation. In this, antichrist was said to be still future and therefore could not be the papal church. Three hundred years later, these same futurist views took root on English Protestant soil; and today they are so widespread among evangelicals that they are almost a test of evangelical orthodoxy in some circles.1
The Biblical Perspective
Whether we subscribe to the Reformers' view that Rome is antichrist or to the popular evangelical views of today which declare that antichrist is yet to come, we are still in danger of missing the vital biblical message about antichrist. If we content ourselves with the thought that the Reformers were correct in their identification, we are in danger of blinding ourselves to the biblical warnings with a sort of Pharisaical complacency or Protestant self-righteousness. If we gaze off into the future, especially looking to events among the Jews in the Middle East, we will also fail to be aroused by the biblical warnings about antichrist. For what the Bible has to say about antichrist is not given as mere information, and certainly not information to gratify or titillate idle curiosity about the future. What the Bible says about antichrist is to warn and activate the Christian congregation.
The Bible presents four outstanding features of antichrist:
1. The Religious Character of Antichrist
The Greek prefix anti means in the place of, or in the stead of. It may also contain the idea of substitution. For instance, when Paul says that Christ "gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim. 2:6), he does not use the ordinary word meaning ransom (Greek — lutron), but he uses the prefix anti (Greek — antilutron). Girdlestone, as well as other linguists, points out that the word literally means substitutionary ransom.
Antichrist therefore refers to some figure who puts himself in the place of Jesus Christ. He is a substitute Christ. Standing in the room of Jesus Christ, he tries to carry on the work of Christ. Yet his gospel is really "another gospel." Says G.C. Berkouwer:
This "religious" character of the Opposition preoccupied the Reformers, Theirs was not just the bitter tone of antipapism. They were predominantly concerned and anxious about the well-being of the church. . . . For the Reformers the antichrist was all the more dangerous because he donned this religious cloak. . . . During the Reformation, this theme of the antichrist's taking his seat in the temple of God [2 Thess. 2:4] was taken very seriously, The temple was not in Jerusalem, but the church, and the antichrist strategy was primarily to drive the true God out of this temple and replace Him. — G.C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp.268, 269.
2. The Present Reality of Antichrist
John's antichrist was not merely a future identity. He was a present reality.
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. — 1 John 2:18, 19.
The apostle Paul also declared, ". . . the mystery of iniquity doth already work . . ." 2 Thess. 2:7. So antichrist must always be seen as a present reality—in A.D. 65, in 1517, or today. Antichrist's appearance belongs to the "last days," and according to St. John, the spirit of antichrist manifested in the false teachers was a harbinger of the end time. The church is an eschatological community which has in the gift of the Holy Spirit the "down payment" of the inheritance (Eph. 1:14); and as God's people wait for Christ to return, they must realize that they live in the hour of the working of antichrist.
For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. — 2 John 7.
. . . and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now is it in the world. — 1 John 4:3.
We must not deny that antichrist will have a future and final manifestation. But the trouble with a thorough-going futurism is that it is blind to the present reality of antichrist. If we do not discern the work and forms of antichrist from New Testament times, especially the great papal antichrist, how can we discern the work and form that he will assume in his final eschatological manifestation? The Biblical warnings do not merely tell us that "the hour is coming," but they declare that "the hour is coming, and now is."
When the early church lost the clear Biblical truth of justification by faith, it also lost its clear eschatological vision. The "last day" became an event in the far distant future, and the church's mentality was decidedly "futuristic." With the rediscovery of justification by faith in the sixteenth century, eschatological hope revived, and the church again saw itself living in the end time. G.C. Berkouwer says:
Luther felt himself surrounded by great eschatological tensions, and part of this for him included the role played by the antichrist. For Luther the antichrist was not a remote figure of some future "end-time", but a threatening and dangerous possibility each and every day. . . . The main point was that the danger was present, not relegated to the future.
As history moves on, the church is challenged to see the configurations of antichrist in his most current form of opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The antichrist beast of the Revelation has seven heads, which symbolize the different forms he has assumed in his opposition to God's truth from one age to another.
Clearly, the actuality of the antichrist as portrayed by John accords with the entire eschatological proclamation of the New Testament. Althaus correctly observed that the New Testament proclamation of the antichrist is not an irrelevant prediction of some remote future, but an alarm signal. "The Church must always look for the antichrist as a reality present among it or as an immediately threatening future possibility. . . . The recognition of the antichrist is a deadly serious matter; all other talk about antichrist is idle and irresponsible play." — Ibid., pp.263-268.
It is not good enough to see the guise of antichrist in A.D. 65 when John confronted the gnostic heresy, or in 1517 when Luther nailed his protest on the door of the religious establishment. Antichrist is a present reality. We must see how he is working today.
3. The Internal Danger of Antichrist
To look for antichrist as a foe external to the church is to miss a vital part of the Biblical warning. Antichrist is not merely an enemy at the gate; he has infiltrated the city. He is a wolf in sheep's clothing among the flock. He looks like a Iamb, but speaks as a dragon. He is, as his name suggests, a masquerader of Christ, and his message is a substitute gospel. The warnings of John and Paul make it very clear that he proceeds from the church itself. "Because the danger comes from within, the church has added reason to beware in her own existence." — Ibid., p.269.
4. The Human Form of Antichrist
Finally, it is a mistake to look for antichrist in the form of the bizarre, the fantastic, the superhuman or the grotesque. The Bible stresses his very human configuration. He is called the "man of sin." 2 Thess. 2:3. He has a human number (Rev. 13:18). He has eyes like the eyes of man (Dan. 7:8). Certainly he has donned the religious cloak, but we must remember that, as Luther so clearly perceived, the chief human sin is the religious sin.
What is clear in the New Testament references to "the antichrist" is that this is not a supernatural or superhuman concept, but takes place and manifests itself on a human level. Behind the antichristian powers the shadow of the "demonic" may fall, but with the concept of "the antichrist" we find ourselves not on some remote evil terrain, but on the well-known terrain of our daily human existence. Indeed, the human level of the antichrist is one of the most compelling messages of the New Testament. It is a human force—a human "anti"—that elevates itself and disintegrates through the victory of the Lamb. — Ibid., p. 278
Let us conclude by saying that the real force of the Biblical picture means that antichrist is religious and not irreligious, present and not just future, internal and not external, and familiarly human and not grotesquely superhuman. This means that we cannot afford to gaze back to the remote past or forward into the distant future. Identifying antichrist today is not a matter of throwing stones at Rome or the liberals. It is a matter of searching our own house and hearts, and allowing the Biblical message of "grace alone", "Christ alone" and "faith alone" to call all that we do or teach into question. What are the gospel substitutes of today? What have we evangelicals put in the place of the glorious work of God in Jesus Christ? That with which we are all too familiar, that which we have baptized and revered, that which has become part of our own sacred tradition—maybe it is here that antichrist is at work today. One thing is certain: Unless by divine enlightenment we can discern the work of antichrist today, we have no assurance that we will discern his manifestation tomorrow.
Antichrist at Work Today
Before we identify the work of antichrist in the twenty-first century today, we must be reminded of one more thing. Since antichrist's chief work is a diabolical substitution for Christ and His gospel, we can identify antichrist only as we keep looking at the gospel. The only truly successful way to detect a counterfeit dollar bill is to be thoroughly acquainted with a genuine one.
The gospel is the good news about the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the second Adam. In the whole stream of human history there are only two men who have universal significance—Adam and Jesus Christ. Adam was not merely the biological father of the race. He was the first representative of the whole human race. He acted for all. His sin involved all. "...by one man's disobedience many were made sinners..." Rom. 5:19. Consequently, the whole stream of human history has been corrupted by human sinfulness, and all stand under the judgment of the law. None of that history can satisfy the demand of holiness, for even the lives of the best saints fall short of the glory of God.
Into this sinful stream of human history, God sent forth His Son to be our "everlasting Father" (Is. 9:6), our second Adam, our new Representative. His name was Immanuel — "God with us." In Jesus Christ we see God with us in poverty and humiliation, God with us in trial and sorrow, and finally, God with us in suffering and death. More than that, Jesus was "God . . . for us." Rom. 8:31. What He did in all His glorious acts of goodness was done for us — it was done in our name and on our behalf, for He was our Representative who acted for us before the bar of eternal justice. By sinless living He fulfilled the precepts of the law for us, and by His dying He satisfied the penalty of the law for us. On our behalf He strove with sin and annihilated its power. In His human nature He engaged the devil in hand-to-hand combat and destroyed his power. He tasted death and abolished it.
. . . Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over His own head on the cross. And then, having drawn the sting of all the powers ranged against us, He exposed them, shattered, empty and defeated, in His final glorious triumphant act — Col. 2:14, 15, Phillips.
All that Christ did is ours to be claimed by faith. His victory is ours. So the apostle says, "...by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." Rom. 5:18.
There are three things we need to say about this good news of Jesus Christ:
1. The gospel is about a historical event. It is about Jesus Christ coming into the world and not about Jesus Christ coming into our hearts. It is something which has happened in space and time. It is historically objective. Christianity is the only truly historical religion. It alone proclaims a salvation based on a concrete outside-of-me event. Of course, the gospel has subjective benefits. It has effects and fruits in the hearts of all who believe it. But in the gospel itself there is not one subjective element. It happened completely outside of you and me.
The gospel brings to view a new holy history—the thirty-three years which Jesus Christ lived on earth. In the death of Jesus Christ, God rejected and punished our sinful history; and having buried it with Jesus Christ, He brought forth that new history. Now He proclaims to us that He accepts us as righteous solely on the basis that He has accepted His Son and our Representative, Jesus Christ. The gospel is the good news that the saving deeds have taken place, the redemptive transaction has been sealed by Christ's blood and attested to by His resurrection from the dead. God's liberating act has been carried out, and humanity is cleansed, accepted and restored in the Person of Jesus Christ. The gospel is historical.
2. The gospel is about a unique history. There is no other event, and can be no other event, like the Christ event. His holy history is unique. In the whole stream of human history, Christ alone is without sin! We must never compromise the unique sinlessness of Jesus Christ. Only One is absolutely righteous in reality and fact. The saints can be absolutely righteous only by the merciful reckoning of Christ's life by faith alone. No one but Christ, the slain Lamb, is able to open the book and look thereon (Rev. 5:1-5).
3. The gospel is about an unrepeatable history. This is the great emphasis given by the writer to the Hebrews. The offering of Christ was once and for all:
By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. —Heb. 10:10-14.
We are never called upon to initiate another redemptive event. Nothing needs to be added to what Christ has already done. Nothing can be added to it. God Himself cannot add to it. We say it reverently but decidedly: There is one thing that God could not do again—the giving of and offering of His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that with Him God gave us "all things." Rom. 8:32. To suggest that God could do this again is to imply that God did not really give everything the first time. But He did. He emptied all heaven in one Gift. He poured out all the accumulated love of eternity. He kept nothing back, but gave all He had to give. The Christ event is an unrepeatable history.
This unique, unrepeatable event, this holy history of Jesus Christ, is the focal point of Biblical proclamation. This invasion by God into human history, these mighty deeds of incarnate God, this awesome, infinite act of atonement, is the one great preoccupation of the apostolic message. Gospel preaching is the constant exposition of this historical Christ event and the unfolding of its significance for men and women everywhere. All who believe are justified, not on the grounds of their faith, but on the grounds of the saving acts of God already done in Jesus Christ.
The Substitute Gospel
It is the work of antichrist to substitute "another gospel" for the gospel. He causes men to focus on other events and experiences rather than on the unique Christ event and unrepeatable representative experience of Jesus Christ.
This masterly substitution does not consist in the enemy's putting something bad in the place of something good. (This would not be deception.) But he works by putting something which is good in its right place in the very room of the glory of God.
For instance, personal righteousness is a good thing. Believers should live righteously, soberly and godly in this world (Titus 2:12). And the Holy Spirit is given to empower them to do this, for it is only by His indwelling that they can live righteously (1 John 3:7). But in the theology of the medieval church, this personal righteousness of the believer was put in the room of the vicarious righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Reformers cried out against this as the doctrine of antichrist, not because they were against personal righteousness (as they were charged by Rome), but because they were against putting even this good thing in the room of Christ's righteousness. In his masterly volume on The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Dr. James Buchanan points out that the heart of Rome's error was to put the new birth of the believer in the room of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ —for this means putting something subjective and existential in the room of Christ's objective and historical saving acts.
What is so plausible about the work of antichrist is that he uses that which is holy to effect his clever substitute gospel. And what is more holy than the work of the Holy Spirit? Under the guise of honoring the Third Person of the blessed Trinity, antichrist brings in another gospel, for he substitutes the gracious work of the Spirit in us for the vicarious work of Christ for us as the ground of our justification unto life eternal.
The work of the Holy Spirit in us is a great and glorious work (2 Cor. 3:18). But it is not to be put in the place of the gospel. We must not confuse the work of the Second and Third Persons of the blessed Trinity. Christ's work was substitutionary. It was done for us —without our participation. We had no part in that righteousness. Furthermore, that work, being complete, is the only grounds of our acceptance with God. The same thing cannot be said about the work of the Holy Spirit. His is not a substitutionary work. Being a work within us, we do have a vital part in the life of new obedience which He inspires us to live. Furthermore, His work is not yet complete, and for some it has not even started. It can never be a ground of our acceptance with God.
What Christ has done, therefore, is the gospel. And what is more, it is the "full gospel."
We earnestly believe that, were Luther alive today, he would level the same basic criticism at the evangelical church as he did at the Roman church nearly 500 years ago. While evangelicalism does not advocate a bald justification by personal righteousness, it cannot be denied that the doctrine of justification through the vicarious righteousness of Jesus Christ has slipped out of sight in most evangelical circles. The fact is that evangelicalism today stands much closer to the Roman Catholic tradition than to the Reformers.2
In the first place, the question of justification before a holy God is not the burning question of the current evangelical scene. (Let us thank God for the exceptions.) We take it for granted that God is gracious and that He forgives sins and accepts us. The healthy, biblical fear of God is conspicuous by its absence. What we want to know is not, "How can I please God?" but, "How can God please me, make my life radiantly happy, and give me a bundle of fulfilled contentment?" We are not asking theocentric questions anymore, but anthropocentric questions. Man and his happiness are the center, not God and His righteousness. And things will not improve unless the holy law of God is proclaimed as that which must be satisfied and acknowledged.
In the second place, even where the gospel is acknowledged, it has really ceased to hold first place. We have seen that the gospel is historical. It has no subjective element. Yet it has existential implications. It bears subjective fruit. When proclaimed and believed, it changes lives — producing love, joy, peace, goodness, temperance and humility in the hearts of men and women. The experience it brings to believers is real and vital. But we must ever remember that the biblical order and perspective is the historical over the existential—i.e.:
This means that the for us aspect of grace must always stand above the in us aspect. This is not a matter of crying down the necessity of genuine Christian experience. It merely affirms that experience can only be truly possessed and enjoyed when it is where it should be. Jesus warned the disciples of this when they returned from a successful missionary excursion. They were rejoicing in the fact that they had had a glorious experience working in Christ's name—preaching, casting out demons, healing, etc. But Jesus said, "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Luke 10:20, R.S.V.
But the history of the church has demonstrated that the cursed tendency of human nature is to reverse the order until the existential is elevated above the historical. (Or to say it another way, the in you is elevated above the for you.) When the historical element of Christianity is eclipsed, the essential genius of the Christian message is lost, and Christianity is reduced to everything else in the world that offers you a glorious experience. And when religious experience itself is preached as the gospel, it is the very antichrist itself. For when the existential is placed above the historical, the divine order is reversed. This really means that man is placed above God.
It is an interesting (and alarming) fact that the elevation of the existential above the historical has taken place in both the liberal and conservative wings of the current religious scene. In the liberal wing man and his experience are elevated to an unbiblical prominence via such teachings as "encounter theology" (Brunner), "demythologizing" (Bultmann), and the denial of "propositional revelation" (Barth and others). All this means is that man and his experience (insight, hunch, intuition) are placed above God, His Word and His gospel. Instead of man being the creature to be molded into God's image, man assumes the role of molding God and His Word into his image.
But when we look into the conservative wing of the church —into conservative Romanism, Pentecostalism or evangelicalism —we see that in principle the same thing has taken place. Here the dominating motif is the centrality of religious experience.3 In classical Romanism this is seen in the doctrine of gratia infusa — the concept of justification by infused grace (i.e., the changed life). In Pentecostalism it is seen in preoccupation with the Holy Spirit and the inner experience of Spirit possession. In much evangelicalism it is seen in salvation by the inward experience of new birth, the "gospel of the changed life," the witness to the Spirit-filled life of the believer, or the glories and wonders of self-crucifixion.4 There is in all this a "believer centeredness" that is contrary to the Bible. It is the same old error of placing the existential over the historical, and in the final analysis it means that man stands in the place of God. That this man is a religious man does not alter the crime, for after all, man's chief sin is in the religious sin.
The apostle John says that there are many antichrists (1 John 2:18). That is, there are many ways of substituting man and his experience in the place of Christ and His unique saving experience. We will list some of these antichrist substitutions:
The regeneration of the believer in the place of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
The work of the Third Person of the Trinity in the place of the Second Person.
Sanctification in the place of justification.
The personal righteousness of the believer in the place of the vicarious righteousness of Christ.
Faith in the place of the meritorious obedience of Christ.
Our self-crucifixion in the place of His crucifixion.
Our new life in the place of His sinless life.
Our experience in the center in the place of His.
Our love for God in the place of His love for us.
Our surrender instead of Christ's.
Our victorious life in the place of His.
Our attainment instead of His atonement.
Our baptism in water in the place of His baptism in blood.
Our fellowship with Christ as the ground of hope instead of God's fellowship with Christ.
Our faith union with Him as the basis of salvation instead of His union with the Father on our behalf.
Our election in the place of His election.
The church (the body) in the place of Christ (the Head).
We say again, The diabolical trick of antichrist is not to place the bad in the room of the good, but the good in the room of the glorious work of Jesus Christ. For none could deny that new birth, changed life, self-crucifixion, etc., are good — and so necessary that no one will be saved without such experiences. But when these things are preached as the gospel or hold the place in our thinking and witnessing that should belong to the gospel alone, then we have prostituted Christian experience. We have used God's gifts to rob Him of His glory. A candle may be of some use to give light in a dark room, but before the sun we put that candle away. Its light will only cause a shadow when put up before the light of the sun.
Putting experience in the room of the gospel is not like stealing a few gems from the royal crown. He who does this is guilty of stealing the crown itself and placing it upon his own head. This is the deed and work of antichrist. It is the sin of religious man. Unless we take the biblical warnings with radical seriousness and examine our own hearts and house, we too will be found to be part of antichrist's conspiracy. Unless this generation of the evangelical church takes part in a great gospel renaissance, we shall fulfill prophecy by becoming "an image to the beast" (Rev. 13:11-15). "He that has ears to hear, let him hear."
1 A full presentation and documentation' of the Reformers' views and futurism was presented in the issue of Present Truth Magazine, "Justification by Faith and Eschatology."
2 See our brochures, The Protestant Era at an End! and Protestant Revivalism, Pentecostalism and the Drift Back to Rome.
3 See Present Truth Magazine "The Current Religious Scene."
4 See Geoffrey J. Paxton, "The Evangelical's Substitute," Present Truth Magazine.