Formation: Naming the Antichrist
The most famous notions of the ‘return of Christ’, the end-times, the beast and the antichrist stem from the theology of John Nelson Darby in the 19th century – ideas that were popularised in the early 20th century (through the Scofield Reference Bible) and then in recent decades through movies like ‘Thief in the Night’ and the ‘Left Behind’ series. This view of the scriptures (dispensational premillennialism) is based on the assumptions that prophecy is always about the future, that apocalyptic texts are always predicting future events and that the scriptures (in particular, Daniel and Revelation) foretell the events leading up to the end of days.
Dispensational premillennialists believe something along the lines of the following:
- that God was fulfilling his plan through Israel, and now through the church, and that one day Jesus will return, the true church will be raptured up to heaven and all of the unbelievers and compromisers will be left on earth to suffer during a great (7 year) tribulation
- during the Tribulation, the antichrist will be in charge and the mark of the beast will be required to buy and sell
- there’ll be a one world religion (often thought to be some apostate version of the Roman Catholic Church) and that something like the United Nations will be used to create a one world government (this is why conservatives have often opposed ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue).
- the 7 years will then finish with the battle of Armageddon… Babylon is destroyed, Jerusalem falls, but then God steps in to restore Israel as Jesus comes down and defeats God’s enemies, and ushers in the millennial reign on the earth.
My suggestion is that this entire way of looking at scripture is a long way from what the biblical texts are trying to do. One of the first questions we should ask when we’re reading scripture, is what would it have meant to the first audience, the people for whom it was originally written?
Apocalyptic texts emerged as resistance literature in the Jewish story. The role of the prophet in apocalyptic texts is not really to predict the future, but to interpret the present. Walter Brueggemann suggests that prophets offer us new imagination, or put another way, the prophet offers alternative scripts or narratives to the dominant narrative that is thrust upon us by the powers and empires around us. Apocalyptic texts often emerged when there was extreme tension between the claim that God is good and is sovereign, and the realities of human suffering. Apocalyptic texts are one way to wrestle with the question of ‘if God is good and is in control, then why doesn’t God put a stop to evil?”
Revelation is written in latter part of 1st century, under the reign of Caesar Domitian. He was similar to Nero in his treatment of Christians and his self-exaltation. Some emperors simply tolerated the Caesar (worship) cult, but some truly embraced it. Domitian demanded to be called Lord and Saviour. He executed those who were ‘atheists’, i.e those who denied the Roman gods, including himself. Ironically, then, early Christians were being executed for their atheism.
John, the author of Revelation, is himself imprisoned on the island of Patmos. He takes up the task of interpreting what is going on - does this current situation mean that God is not really present and at work in the world, should we just give up and give in to the coercive forces of empire, or should we continue to be faithful to God? What John does in the book of Revelation is to contrast the Empire of Rome and the work of evil in the world, with the claim that God has acted in the world through the story of Jesus Christ. John’s texts that speak of demands to ‘worship the beast’ sit very much within this kind of reality, as do the texts about ‘taking the mark of the beast’ in order to able to buy and sell and participate in the economic system of the day.
Revelation moves backward and forward in time, it collapses different images together … Moses, Elijah, David, Sodom, Jezebel, Babylon … all caught up in a swirling cacophony of images and symbols ultimately centred around the story of Jesus Christ as it challenges the dominant narrative of the Roman empire. All telling and re-telling the story of God and Christ from multiple angles and perspectives. Jesus is portrayed as confronting the violent powers of Empire, and he conquers over it precisely through sacrificial love. The followers of Jesus are reminded that even if they are killed for their faith, they will overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony. God will vindicate them, just as God vindicated Jesus. The death of Jesus looked like victory for empire, but was in fact, God’s victory. (e.g. the whole book begins with the risen Christ as the one who is speaking.) Revelation speaks of one who sits on the throne, but when that one is described, we find it is a lamb. God’s power is not the power of empire, it is the power of self-giving sacrificial love.
In Revelation, the image of the beast is used to refer to the Roman empire and also to the Caesar. So the big deal in the book of Revelation is about allegiance. Who do you worship and what kind of life will you embrace?
What John is saying here is that there’s an empire that is doing everything it can to make you fall in with the system, to play by the rules of power, oppression, violence, economic superiority… to follow their narrative. Are you going to fall in, or are you going to follow a different path? Will you follow the way of the lamb that was slain, the way of life in which true and lasting power comes from sacrificial love? Because what John tells us is that it is this self-giving love that ultimately defeats the powers of empire, of beasts, of violence, of armies, and even the force of death itself.
This is not about trying to hunt out people and get them to pray a prayer so that they can get their names on the heaven list - this is about the way we want to live in the world.
The question this then poses to us as readers now, is then to ask: Are there beasts of empire today, and what story do they try and tell us about reality?
There are 4 texts that use the term antichrist, and they all come in the letters of John.
- 1 John 2:18 – There are many antichrists
- 1 John 2:22 – The antichrist is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ
- 1 John 4:3 – The antichrist is the one who denies that Jesus is from God (the spirit of the antichrist)
- 2 John 1:7 – The antichrist is the one who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh
These letters emerge among a community where there were two primary problems:
- Gnostic influence: some were challenging the idea that God could be found in the story of a human being in this way. This Jesus can’t be revealing God to us because Jesus is flesh and blood and God is supposed to be a pure non-physical reality untainted by physicality
- Jewish critique: Also being challenged was the notion that Jesus couldn’t be the Christ because he was killed - ‘cursed is he who was hung from a tree’
But in the face of these criticisms of the Christian gospel, John maintains that the Jesus story emphasises:
- incarnational life i.e. the presence of the divine God is found right here in the life of Jesus. This means that humanness, physicality, this present world, its where God meets us. Our aim is not to escape, but to become aware of God’s presence here.
- God is present in self-giving love, and found in the path of suffering. God is not absent from our pain.
For John, these two ideas are so important to the Christian story, that to actively work against them in the church is to embrace the spirit of antichrist.