The tendency many have when studying end times theology (i.e. eschatology) is to link everything together too quickly. We want a system we can memorize and check off our list of things we know with certainty. The problem in our rush to have a systematic eschatology we often end up with an unbiblical eschatology. Our goal must be to know what the Scriptures say. We must approach each passage and each term in its own Scriptural context. We mustn’t read our theological systems into the individual passages. If we do read into these passages, we will come away with a perfectly consistent eschatology, but we will not have a biblical eschatology.
In this post we will be discussing what the Apostle John says about the antichrist. Many out there will not be happy with the conclusions I make. Some will say but, “What about the rebuilt temple, the revived Roman Empire, etc.?” That might all be part of a biblical eschatology, but it is not part of what the Apostle John says about the antichrist. I am not here discussing every aspect of a systematic eschatology, but I am looking at exactly how John the Apostle understood and defined the antichrist.
I will start by saying that the term “antichrist” is only used 4 times in the Bible and the term “antichrists” is used only once. Both terms are used in 1 John 2:18 and the last three uses of “antichrist” are found in 1 John 2:22, 4:3 and 2 John 1:7. This means that if we understand how John uses these terms we also understand the biblical definition of the antichrist, because John is the only biblical writer to use these terms. However, this is not to say that the other biblical writers don’t use the different terms to describe the same thing John is referring to.
1 John 2:18-27
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us -eternal life.
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But he anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie -just as it has taught you, abide in him.
Here are the first two times the word “antichrist” is used and the only time “antichrists” is used. According to John the last hour of history had already come in his day. He used the appearance of antichrists to support that claim. We see that the believers John was addressing were already aware that antichrist was going to come into the world. And apparently they knew that this was one sign that the last stage of history had already begun.
John describes the antichrists as those who were once fellowshipping with the Christians but because they had different beliefs about Christ and the Father they separated themselves from the Christian church. In verse 22 John tells us that this antichrist is anyone who doesn’t believe in the Father and the Son. Though he doesn’t use the plural here (antichrists), he seems to be applying the term generally to the false believers that had separated themselves from the church. These people were denying that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. They were also denying the Father. John does not tell us all the details because his original readers were already fully aware of the false beliefs of these “antichrists.” History tells us that it was probably an early form of Gnosticism that denied that the God of the Old Testament was the true God and that Christ really became human. They believed that all matter was created by the Old Testament God and was inherently evil. For this reason they didn’t believe that the Christ truly became flesh and blood or that the physical world was created by a good God. (For those interested in understanding Gnostic beliefs I suggest “Against Heresies” by Irenaeus of Lyons. You can find this work in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series, Volume 1. It is available for a few dollars on Kindle.)
So from all of this we see that the coming of antichrist was somehow related to the false teaching and separation of heretical Christians. And we see that the Christians had already been warned that such things would happen in the last hour of history.
2 John 1:7-11
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win the full reward. Everyone who goes one ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone come to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
This passage says nearly the same thing as the first passage we looked at. We see that these “deceivers” (i.e. antichrists) were denying that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. John calls those who teach such things antichrist. He warns his readers to have nothing to do with these false teachers. John is calling false teachers antichrists.
It is worth noting that he does not use this term for pagans, but for false Christians. He uses the term very specifically for the Gnostic teachers. If we wish to use the term “antichrists” in the same way John does in our day we would have to apply it to something comparable to what he describes. If we wish to be sticklers about it we could say that only those who teach the particular doctrines John addresses could be biblically called “antichrists.” But it is probably more useful to apply it is to any false Christian sect that opposes orthodox Christianity (i.e. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc.). However, we would be stretching John’s use of the terminology by applying it to non-Christian errors and false teaching like Islam and Buddhism. It is true that in one sense all false teaching is anti (i.e. against) Christ. But John does not apply this term to pagans, but to false and heretical “Christians.”
So far we have seen that in 1 John 2:18 John uses the term antichrist in the singular form referring to something that the Christians knew would come into the world. In the same verse he uses the term in the plural to refer to the false teachers and false Christians that were leaving, and trying to deceive, the Church. In 1 John 2:22 and 2 John 1:7 John again uses the singular form of the term antichrist, but the context shows us that he is referring to these various false teachers and false Christians of his day, in particular the Gnostics. This is to say that John has actually only referred to “antichrist” in the singular one time so far, in 1 John 2:18. He has given us a clear picture of what “antichrists” means. It is clear that these are individuals who believe and teach a false form of Christianity. Now we will turn to the passage in 1 John 4 that helps us understand what this “antichrist” is.
1 John 4:1-6
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone 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 which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
This passage again reiterates that many false prophets (i.e. deceivers of 2 John 1:7, antichrists of 1 John 2:18) have become prevalent in John’s day. They do not speak by the Spirit of God, but by the “spirit of antichrist.” They speak what this “spirit of error” tells them to speak.
What is important for us to see is that this “spirit of antichrist” that was leading the “antichrists” was something the Christians had already been warned was “coming into the world.” And the fact that many false prophets (i.e. antichrists) were active in their day proved that the spirit of antichrist was “already in the world.”
By comparing 1 John 4:3 with 1 John 2:18 we see that the “spirit of antichrist” and the “antichrist” are one and the same. And 1 John 4:6 gives us the definition of the phrase “the spirit of antichrist” when it contrasts the Spirit of truth (i.e. Holy Spirit) with “the spirit of error.” We can now understand that the Christians had been warned that in the “last days” (i.e. last hour) false teaching would abound. As we read in 1 Timothy 4:1, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” It was for this reason that John could use the presence of false teachers in his day as proof that the “last hour” had already come (1 John 2:18). The fact that these “antichrists” were busy at work proved that the “antichrist” (i.e. spirit of error, spirit of antichrist, deceitful spirits) that they had been warned about had already come.
John’s use of the terms antichrist, antichrists and spirit of antichrist give us a clear picture about how he understood the term. John was referring to the same thing that Jesus, Paul, Peter and Jude had warned about. He was warning the believers to avoid the teaching of false “Christian” teachers who had been deceived by deceitful spirits.
Keep in mind we are not here discussing everything the Bible has to say about the Beast of Revelation 13 or the Man of Sin found in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. So don’t misunderstand my point. This post is not meant to get into such topics. Instead we are simply looking at the term antichrist and seeking to define it biblically. Only then can we apply it accurately to other passages that teach about the Beast and the Man of Sin. And our conclusion, at least my conclusion, is that John defines the antichrist as the spirit of error, and antichrists as heretical teachers of a false Christianity. This definition does not mean that we cannot apply the term antichrist to the Man of Sin and the Beast of Revelation. Understanding John’s definition of antichrist can help us to better understand the nature of the Beast and the Man of Sin.
In the next post we will ask why understanding this is important for our spiritual lives.
To Be Continued…
In the comments below Roger brings up another reasonable interpretation to the one I have given in my post. I mention it because I am torn between the two interpretations. If we exegete the text very strictly, I believe that 1 John 4:3 clarifies 1 John 2:18. That is, “antichrist” and “spirit of antichrist” are synonymous. But if we allow John to be speaking in a less technical way we could imagine he is referring to a particular future antichrist, the spirit behind that antichrist, as well as many false teachers.
I think my interpretation is a more technical reading of 1 John, but I believe Roger has the Early Church Fathers on his side. It seems from nearly the beginning of the Church people have used the term antichrist to refer to the Man of Sin in 2 Thessalonians 2. I don’t take that tradition lightly. For this reason i am torn until i find something in the Church Fathers that more clearly interprets these passages.
But, whichever interpretation is the correct one, the important thing we should note is that the antichrist refers to a false Christian. Antichrists are not those who deny the existence of God & seek to establish secularism, but they are those who preach a false Christianity. Since I believe that the term antichrist can be applied to other passages related to eschatology, I think this must be kept in mind when talking about the Beast(s) of Revelation & Man of Sin of Thessalonians.
Well, I might have to surrender to Roger on this one. I found some references in Ignatius to the antichrist, but they could be used to defend either Roger’s or my interpretation. But Irenaeus in Against Heresies (written 180A.D.), book 3, section 6, division 5 writes,
“And again speaking of antichrist, he (i.e. Paul) says, ‘who opposeth & exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped.'”
And I have found several other similar statements made by Irenaeus.
I don’t know if I am willing to argue with Irenaeus on something that could go either way. So I will reflect more on this issue and make the needed changes to this post when I can. Until then, this post script will suffice to show my struggles.