According to some Christian interpretations of biblical prophecies, the “Antichrist” – as the name suggests – is the polar opposite and enemy of Christ and the church. The word itself rarely occurs in the Bible, although it is argued that the idea of an Antichrist who will appear towards the end of time is found in the book of Daniel. It is claimed that this Antichrist will be an individual with a great deal of power who will commit atrocities for 3 ½ years in persecuting Christians. I’ve heard some contemporary Christians argue that these prophecies speak specifically to our time and they attempt to identify the “antichrist” (sometimes it’s Barack Obama, or Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, or the current Pope). In this post I want to answer two questions: where does the idea of an antichrist come from, and does it actually have its roots in the book of Daniel?
The word “antichrist” occurs only four times in the Bible, all of them in the first and second letters of John in the New Testament. However, John does not refer to an individual who will rise to power at the end of time. In fact, he claims that there are “many antichrists” and that they existed at the time of his writing:
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.1 John 2:18
While John associates the coming of antichrist with “the last hour” the fact that he can identify “many antichrists” in the world at his time is evidence to him that he was already living in this “last hour.” He went on to explain that these antichrists could be identified by their theological position on what we call Christology – the interaction of the divine and human aspects of Christ and his relationship with God.
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.
Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7
From John’s perspective, anyone who denied that Jesus Christ had “come in the flesh” or that Jesus was “from God” was an antichrist. He did not think in terms of a single individual antichrist who would persecute the church, but as many individuals within the church who held views which he regarded as heretical or unorthodox. To John “antichrist” meant a doctrinal position about Christology – the human/divine nature of Christ – which was contrary to his own. However, he introduces these claims by saying “you have heard that antichrist is coming” which suggests there were ideas circulating at the time about the coming of an individual known as the “antichrist” even though he didn’t hold these ideas himself. So where did these ideas originate, and why did they persist even after John dismisses them?
There are two places in the New Testament which seem to speak about such an individual, even though they don’t use the term “antichrist.” It’s possible that these two works were already in circulation by the time John was writing (probably near the end of the first century CE), or at least the ideas behind them were well known. The first is in 2 Thessalonians, a letter attributed to the apostle Paul (although an increasing number of scholars doubt that it was written by Paul and argue instead that it was more likely to have been written by an unknown follower of Paul and modelled on Paul’s 1 Thessalonians to address a new situation in Macedonia). Here the writer refers to the (second) coming of Christ and “the day of the Lord” and says that event will be preceded by a rebellion and the coming of a “lawless one”:
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.2 Thessalonians 2:3-4
However, the writer provides only sketchy information about this “lawless one,” who he is, and what he will do. His description of him as “the one destined for destruction” (ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας, literally the “son of destruction”) is identical to the description of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, in John 17:12. They are the only two places in the Bible where this phrase is used and the association with Judas may have been deliberate. The writer may have thought of him as someone, like Judas, who would initially appear to be a follower of Jesus but then betray the church, although we can’t be sure. Like John, who thought of the “many antichrists” as Christians who had abandoned orthodoxy, this writer may also have thought of the “lawless one” as an heretical Christian.
The second work which no doubt influenced the idea of a coming antichrist figure was the book of Revelation which contains visions of multi-headed beasts, dragons and war in heaven. Second Thessalonians shares some of this “apocalyptic” language and as Revelation is dependant on the book of Daniel for much of its imagery, symbolism and terminology, it’s possible that the writer of 2 Thessalonians also drew some of his ideas from Daniel. So where in Daniel is this “antichrist”? The short answer is that the antichrist simply isn’t there in Daniel. In fact, there is no “antichrist” (or anti-Messiah) figure anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The closest we get to it in Daniel is the description of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who massacred Jews, abolished circumcision and other Jewish laws, and desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by erecting idols and sacrificing pigs on the altar. For the writer of Daniel Antiochus’ appearance came just before “the end” and while he may have thought of these events as coming just before the end of the world as he knew it, and the beginning of the new golden age which other prophets spoke of, the reality is that the dynasty which succeeded the Seleucids was almost as bad. The world didn’t end. Evil and destruction, desecration and slaughter continued, for centuries.
This seems to be a theme in apocalyptic literature: the world goes through cycles of sin and destruction, followed by redemption and rebuilding, slowly collapsing into further sin and destruction, followed again by redemption. So the book of Revelation picks up imagery about the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and applies it to the destruction of Jerusalem again, this time by Rome. Similarly, the first century Jewish apocalypses known as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch also use the imagery of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and apply it to the Romans. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, that New Testament writers appropriated and re-applied the description of Antiochus IV and applied it to someone else, expecting that a similar figure would appear before “the end.” As they were writing either around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE or in the decades following, they may have thought that the end of the Temple and Judaism as they knew it coupled with the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors Nero (64-68) and Domitian (89-96) as signs that the world was about to end.
But the reality is that the writer of Daniel didn’t “predict” the persecution of Christians by Roman emperors, or the rise of an “antichrist” more than two thousand years later. Even if he could see that far into the future by some supernatural prophetic ability, his revelations about things in the far distant future would have provided no hope or encouragement to his own people, the people to whom he was writing. He was writing about events which were happening right there and then, encouraging his readers to hold on because the end was near. Later writers, including the writers of 2 Thessalonians, Revelation, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, simply used the same language, ideas and imagery to offer hope to their generation because they thought the circumstances were similar. But for modern readers of the Bible to try to find Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or Joe Biden in the pages of Daniel is simply nonsense!