The term Antichrist is to many, perhaps to most Christians of our day, a term of great vagueness. But to the early Christians, and to the Church for several centuries, it was of very definite and fearful meaning. It designated the last and greatest of the enemies of God and of His Christ — an apostate who would sum up in himself all wickedness. Endowed by Satan with all his power, he would receive from him the kingdoms of this world, and rule over the nations. He would make war with the saints, and would overcome them, and reign supreme for a little time; but be himself destroyed at the coming of the Lord.
It is the purpose of this essay to enquire what the Scriptures teach concerning the Antichrist and his times; and how far we may see in the history of the Church, and in the movements and tendencies of our day, the foreshadowing of him, and the preparation for him. This involves a consideration of the place of Christ in the Divine purpose, and of His person and prerogatives.
But, before entering upon this enquiry, it will be well to define the term antichrist, and to give a brief outline of the several phases of belief in the Church in regard to his person and work.*
* Among the more important writers on the Antichrist arc the Roman Catholics, F. T. Malvenda, De Antichristo Libri undecim,
The term "antichrist" plainly denotes an enemy of Christ, but leaves indefinite whether a person or a series of persons; whether one arising from within the Church or without it; whether one who has appeared or is yet to appear. Nor does the word itself determine whether he is simply an enemy of Christ, or both an enemy to Him and a substitute for Him. Many find only the element of hostility. This certainly is the predominant idea, but does not exclude that of substitution. This appears if we note that the work of Christ in our redemption has two chief parts, that of atonement—the propitiation for our sins and the heavenly intercession based upon it; and that of judging and ruling, or the administration of the Messianic kingdom. The first of these Antichrist wholly denies. He will know no atonement, no cross, no priesthood. Here his hostility to Christianity is openly avowed. For the second of these, the Messianic kingdom, he will substitute an earthly kingdom, the elements of which will be fraternity, liberty, equality, and in which will be the highest development of man. It is here that he offers himself as a substitute for Christ. He will be the Messiah of the nations, and under him all will be blessed. As said by Archbishop Trench ("Synonyms," sub voce), >"He will not call himself Christ, for he will be filled with deadliest hate, both against the name and office, against the whole spirit and temper of Jesus of Nazareth, now the exalted King of Glory. . . He will not assume the name of Christ, and so will not in the letter be a false Christ, yet assuming to himself Christ's offices, presenting himself to the world as the true centre of its hopes, as the satisfaction of its needs, and healer of its hurts, he will, in fact, take upon himself all names and forms of blasphemy; will be the false Christ and the Antichrist both at once."
Roma, 1604 A.D.; Cardinal Bellarmine, De Contronersiis Christiana Fidei, 4 Tomi, 1622. In Tomus I he treats at length the charge of Calvin that the papacy is Antichrist. A good summary is found in Stern's Commentar, Die Offenbarung, ch. xiii, 1854. Among recent Protestant writers, aside from the commentators, are C. Maitland's "Apostolic School of Prophetic Interpretation"; Dr. J. H. Todd's '' Discourses on the Prophecies Relating to Antichrist," Dublin, 1840. For a very recent statement of early and mediaeval belief see Wadstein in Hilgenfelds Zeitschrif t, 1895-6.
In giving a brief outline of the various beliefs in the Church respecting the Antichrist, we find three periods clearly marked.
First, the belief in the early Church, and in general down to the Reformation. Second,-from the Reformation to the French Revolution. Third, from the French Revolution to the present time.
I. In the first period, extending over some fifteen centuries, there was not absolute uniformity of belief, but substantial agreement. To quote in detail the words of the early fathers would demand more space than we can give, nor is it at all necessary for our purpose. That there is such agreement is affirmed by all who have investigated the matter, both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Some quotations from the more recent writers will be sufficient here. Thus it is said by Greswell ("Parables," Vol. II), "Another article of belief on which the fathers are unanimous is this: That before the end of the world Antichrist must be expected to appear. It made no difference whether they were advocates or opposers of the doctrine of the millennium in particular; in the reception of this opinion there was perfect agreement among all parties. . . The fathers are likewise agreed in considering Antichrist to be a real person, and not merely a figurative or symbolic character. . . They are unanimous that the appearance and rise of the Antichrist would be accompanied by the persecution of the followers of the true Christ, and that his kingdom would be established on the ruins of the Church." It is said by Bishop Wordsworth (Com. on 2 Thess.), "The general opinion of the fathers was that a personal Antichrist would appear a short time before the second coming of Christ."
In like manner it is said by Todd ( " Discourses," note p. 18), " All more ancient writers unanimously agreed that an individual Antichrist was described in the prophecy, and that he was to appear at the end of the world immediately before the second coming of the Lord." After stating the early opinions in brief, S. R. Maitland says: "I believe that the opinions which I here attribute to the early Church, were held by all Christian writers until the twelfth century." Prof. Eadie remarks (" Essay on Man of Sin" ) "That the man of sin was to be one human being, one man, . . was the first and prevailing interpretation." So also J. H. Newman ( " The Patristical Idea of Antichrist" ), "That Antichrist is one individual man was the universal tradition of the early Church." Perhaps these statements should be somewhat modified as regards the Alexandrian School.
This agreement of the fathers embraced the following points:
1. That before the end of the world or age, there would be an apostasy, which in its culmination would be not merely a corruption of the Christian faith, but a total denial of it — an apostasy not universal, but very general.
2. That the last representative and leader of this apostasy would be a man, "the man of sin," "the wicked one," "the son of perdition," or "the Antichrist."
3. That this man would attain to universal dominion, all nations becoming subject to him.
4. That this dominion would continue but a short time, forty-two months, or three and a half years.
5. -That he would claim divine honours for himself, and persecute all upholding the faith of Christ, and suppress, as far as possible, all Christian worship.
6. That the time immediately preceding and during his reign would be one of great tribulation.
7. That many of the Jews would receive him as their Messiah.
8. That he would be destroyed with his adherents by the Lord at His appearing. _
Besides these points of general agreement, there were diverse particular opinions about the person of the Antichrist, of which we may mention: a. That he was Satan incarnated. b. That he was a son of Satan by a human mother. c. That he was a man possessed by Satan, d. That he was a man who voluntarily gave himself up to do Satan's will, and was endowed by him with miraculous powers — Organum diaboli — and to him Satan would give the rule of the kingdoms of this world. e. That he was a man raised from the dead by Satan, and so a counterpart of the risen Christ.
The surmises of some of the fathers as to his birth in Bethsaida, and his education in Babylon, are of no importance. It was held by many that he was to be a Jew, and of the tribe of Dan, chiefly on the ground that Dan is not mentioned among the sealed tribes of The Revelation (ch. vii). It was said by Lactantius and some of the fathers, that he would come from the East and subdue the West.
The points enumerated as those of general belief in the first age of the Church, are still held in substance in the Roman Catholic and Greek communions, and probably in the small Eastern sects. But some important modifications gradually came in, the grounds of which will be better understood after speaking of the nature of the apostasy. It need only be said here that, as the expectation of a speedy return of the Lord gradually passed away, and it was believed that the prophecies respecting the success and glory of the Church were to be fulfilled during His absence, and that this might be indefinitely prolonged, the fear of Antichrist's speedy appearance ceased, and comparatively little interest was taken in it; and the matter became practically of little importance.
It does not really affect the unanimity of the preReformation Church that in the twelfth and following centuries some small sects began to apply the prophecies respecting Babylon to the Church of Rome, and identified the Papacy with the Antichrist; since this seems to have been done rather out of anger because of real or supposed oppression, than upon any clear view of the character of Antichrist, or upon any consistent principle of prophetic interpretation. At this time, too, or a little later, when the Roman Church was much distracted with the contentions of rival popes, it was not unusual for zealous partisans to brand the claimants they opposed with the title of Antichrist. Thus St. Bernard of the twelfth century called Pope Leo, whom he regarded as an usurper of
St. Peter's chair, the beast of the Apocalypse. (See Todd, " Discourses," p. 28, Note A.) But it will be noted that it was the usurper, not the real pope, whom he so called. It was not the bishop of Rome, the true vicar of Christ, as such, to whom the title of Antichrist in these disputes was applied, but to one who falsely claimed to be His vicar. And it was not until the Reformation that it was applied to the popes officially without distinction — a series of Antichrists. Some changes during this period of the primitive belief will be spoken of later.
II. Second Period, from the Reformation to the French Revolution.
The application of the term Antichrist to the pope in his official position, or its application to the Papacy as a system, marks the Reformation period. It is said by the Roman Catholic commentator, Estius, in his remarks on Second Thessalonians II, that" Luther, instigated by the Devil, was the first who applied the term to the pope as pope." ^Adverms execrabilem bulletin Antichristi" 1520.) But it is not clear that at first Luther meant it to apply to the whole series of popes. This was done later by many of the leading Reformers, and marks the growing estrangement from the Papacy. It shows also a wide departure from the early belief in affirming: a. That the Antichrist was not an individual; b. That he had already appeared; e. That the apostasy would not be a total denial of the truth.
The designation of the papal system as antichristian, and its head as Antichrist, is found in several of the Confessions of the Reformed Churches. (See "Hutterus Redivivus" of Hase, p. 342; and Schafifs "Creeds of Christendom"; also the Address of the translators of the Bible to King James.) In the Westminster Confession we read: "The Pope is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that setteth himself in the church against God, and all that is called God." (The references in proof are, Matt. xxiii, 8-10; 2 Thess. ii; Rev. xiii, 6—.) The same is said in the Savoy Declaration of 1658 with this addition: "We expect that in the latter day, Antichrist being destroyed, the Jews called, and the adversaries of the Kingdom of God's Son broken, the Church of Christ, enlarged and edified through a free communication of life and peace, will enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable, and glorious condition than it has enjoyed."
The belief of the Protestant churches as to the papal Antichrist continued to be generally held, though with some modifications, down to the time of the French Revolution. It was, however, held less and less firmly, and by some was openly rejected. The glaring inconsistency of calling those antichristians who offered all their worship in the name of Christ, was more and more felt.
III. Third Period, from the French Revolution to the present time.
After this Revolution the belief of the Reformers as to the papal Antichrist was much modified, and by many Protestants is now entirely given up. Several causes for this may be given — the natural decay of the old animosity and bitterness of feeling toward the Roman Church; and the growing consciousness that a church which holds and repeats in its services the three great Creeds, and claims its head to be the vicar of Christ, cannot in any real sense of the term be
called antichristian. Still more important in effecting this change was the French Revolution, which brought into view a new and most deadly element of hostility to the Christian faith, not its corruption merely, but its total denial; and, therefore, affecting alike all Christian Communions. Not a few Protestants now accept the primitive belief that the Antichrist is a single man, and that he is yet to come. Others distinguish between the Roman Church and the Papacy, the last being the Antichrist. Others still find two Antichrists, the papal and the infidel, the first fulfilling one part of tbe Scriptures, and preparing the way for the last, who will completely fulfil them. Dr. Hodge says ("Systematic Theology", Vol. Ill): "There may hereafter be a great antichristian power concentrated in an antichristian ruler, who will be utterly destroyed at the coming of the Lord; and at the same time the belief may be maintained that the Antichrist, designated by Daniel and St. Paul, is not a man but an institution or organized power, such as a kingdom or the papacy."
There are probably many Protestants in our day who have no definite belief, and, while they may regard Roman doctrine in important points as corrupt, do not look upon the Papacy itself as antichristian; and there is, doubtless, a very considerable and increasing number in all Christian communions who wholly disbelieve in any Antichrist to come, and who think the matter to be of no practical importance, and not worthy of consideration; some because they believe in a victorious future of the Church, and others because they expect on evolutionary grounds a gradual but continuous development of humanity, and reject all supernatural interpositions.
In the Roman Church there seems to be no authoritative teaching, and various beliefs are expressed. The belief of Malvenda (Be Antichriito) that the Antichrist will be an individual, and is still future — Antichristum futuram unum certum et singularem kominem — is probably the more general belief.* It is said by Bellarmine (Be Controversiis-): Catholici omnet ita sentiunt fore Antichrittum unum quandam hominem.
We may add here some remarks of J. H. Newman (1835) as to the value of this enquiry: "In the present state of things, when the great object of education is supposed to be the getting rid of things supernatural . . I must think that this vision of Antichrist, as a supernatural power to come, is a great providential gain as being a counterpoise to the evil tendencies of the age. It must surely be profitable for our thoughts to be sent backward and forward to the beginning and the end of the Gospel times, to the first and second coming of Christ."
* A late distinguished member of the Paulist Fathers, Rev. F. A. Hewitt, in a recent article (Catholic Quarterly, April, 1894), attempts to show that the predictions respecting Antichrist were fulfilled in Mohammed; and that "the Kingdom of Christ is advancing on a steady line of progress towards a development which shall surpass anything in its past history."