The aim of this book is not historical or polemical. It does not repeat in detail the opinions of the early Fathers, or of later writers, or enter into the controversy whether Nero or Mohammed, the Pope or Luther, the Papacy or Protestantism, be called the Antichrist. There is a true sense in which it may be said, "Let the dead past bury its dead." It is in the light of the present that we must re-examine the prophetical problems of the past. A a the purpose of God draws nearer to its fulfillment, passing events will tend to show in their distinctive features the nature of that fulfillment. It is, therefore, for us of to-day to note the religious tendencies of the present, and to consider carefully their bearing upon the Divine purpose in man as it has been made known to us in the Scriptures. To those who believe that God, who knows the end from the beginning, has through His prophets and His Son declared this purpose in its outlines for the guidance of His children, our inquiry is of deepest interest. We ask, To what stage of His actings have we come? What are the religious characteristics of the present time?
If the right discernment of the religious character of an age is always to those living in it of the highest importance, the right discernment of the present time is especially important to us, if, as we are told by not a few, it is in many points to be distinguished from all that have preceded it. To-day, indeed, is always the child of yesterday. The continuity of history is never broken. Yet history tells us of successive stages of religious development, each having its own marked features. Whether we have come to a new stage, must be determined by its special charac
teristics. Let us, therefore, note what is said of the present time by representative men, regarding it from very different points of view. What new religious elements do we find in it? In what direction are they developing? And what is the goal?
It was said early in the century by the German philosopher Schelling, noting the tendencies of philosophic thought around him: "As regards the past, there is striving a complete new age, and the old cannot comprehend it, nor has it a distant presentiment how distinct and complete is the antagonism to it of the new."
Lecky ("History of nationalism"): "It has long been a mere truism that we are passing through a state of chaos, of anarchy, and of transition. During the past century the elements of dissolution have been multiplying all around us The days of Athanasius and of Augustine have passed away never to return.... The controversies of bygone centuries ring with a strange hollownesa upon the ear."
Cardinal Newman ("Patristical Idea of Antichrist") speaks of "a special effort made almost all over the world,
but most visibly and formidably in its most civilized
and powerful parts, an effort to do without Religion
Truly there is at this time a confederacy of evil marshaling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself and taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it."
Leslie Stephen ("Agnostic's Apology"): "I conceive that a vast social and intellectual transformation is taking place, and taking place more rapidly now than at almost any historical period.... I cannot say what will be the outcome of this vast and chaotic fermentation of thought. .... The creed of the future, whatever it may be, exists only in germ. Philosophers, not apostles or prophets, are founding a philosophical system, not a religion."
Gold win Smith: "There is a general feeling that the stream of history is drawing near a cataract.... There is everywhere in the social frame an outward unrest, which, as usual, is the sign of fundamental change within. Old creeds have given way."
Gronlund, the Socialist: "All signs and portents show that the face of mankind has already been set in a socialistic direction There has been the access of a new,
rational, divine order in human life that is disintegrating the old, outward, and temporary organization, and gradually creating the new."
Kuenen, the Biblical critic: "The problem of the future is especially serious now when so much is being superseded and is passing away, when a new conception of the world is spreading in ever wider circles; when new social conditions are in the very process of birth.... In us the ends of the ages meet, the ends of the old and the new."
Prof. Sohm (" Outlines of Church History "), speaking of culture, says: "This tendency has become more and more powerful since the middle of the century, and is hostile, not only to the ecclesiastical and Christian, but to every religious theory of the universe." "The society of our day is like the earth on which we live — a thin crust over a great volcanic, seething, revolutionary heart of liquid fire." "More and more clearly are shown the signs of the movement, the aim of which is to destroy the entire social order of the State, the Church, the Family. Unbelief has grown up among us, an unbelief which is kindling the revolution of the nineteenth century."
Kidd ("Social Evolution"): "The present is a period of reconstruction. A change is almost imperceptibly taking place in the midst of the rising generation respecting
the great social and religious problems of our time We
are rapidly approaching a time when we shall be face to face with social and political problems graver in character and more far-reaching in extent than any which have been hitherto encountered." "To the thoughtful mind the outlook at the close of the nineteenth century is profoundly interesting. History can furnish no parallel to it.... We seem to have reached a time in which there is abroad in men's minds an instinctive feeling that a definite stage in the evolution of Western civilization is growing to a close, and that we are entering upon a new era."
Utterances like these, repeated in sermons and lectures, in books, magazines, and the daily press, meet us on every side; all alike proclaiming a new age at hand. Whilst differing widely as to the final result, there is general agreement that we have come to the border line that separates two eras, that we have left the old behind us and are entering upon the new. This is in itself a most remarkable fact. What is its significance? Why a new age? Are our old beliefs, our old institutions, outgrown? Are we about to break with the past, and take a sudden leap onward? What has aroused this general feeling of restlessness, this widespread discontent with the present, these eager anticipations of something better soon to come?
In considering the significance of this fact, our attention is here given chiefly to its religious bearing, although a change in religion necessarily brings with it a change in every department of human thought and action. When the new age has fully developed itself, what religion will it give us? Will it be some new phase of Christianity, or an eclectic religion, or something distinctively new? Here the anticipations of men differ widely. Let us attempt to classify them.
First, those Christians who believe that the Kingdom of God was established in the earth and the reign of Christ begun when He ascended into Heaven, or perhaps when the Roman Empire acknowledged Christianity. This is said by many, or most, in the Roman, Greek, and Anglican communions. They, therefore, look for no change in belief affecting essentially the creeds or rituals of the Church. As a Divine Institution it is permanent, and this ensures the permanence of the present Christianity. No new religious era is to be looked for; its supposed signs are fallacious. The future will be as the past in all its main features till the Lord returns to final judgment.
Secondly, those — chiefly to be found in Protestant bodies — who think but little of the Church as a historic institution, to be preserved unchanged, but believe that there will be a wider and ever-growing spread of Christianity as a spiritual influence till the world is leavened. This class would retain for the most part the Protestant confessions of faith without any vital doctrinal or other changes. The new era they expect will come through a Christianized civilization, and the enlargement of Christendom to embrace all nations.
Thirdly, those who, having the same expectations as to the spread and triumph of Christianity, affirm that it must have large modifications in order that it may be adapted to the present conditions of religious enquiry. It is amongst these that we find many leaders of modern thought. They affirm, to use the evolutionary phrase, that the organism must be adjusted to its present environment. The Church, both as to its doctrine and polity and labours, must respond to the demands of the new age, and adapt itself to its needs. As to the extent of these modifications, there are wide diversities of opinion. Some would give up only those doctrines and rites which are most offensive to the spirit of the time; others would go further, and put away a large part of what has been regarded as distinctive in Christianity, that it may serve as a basis for an universal religion. But most have apparently no clear conception of what they must give up or retain.
Fourthly, those in all sections of the Church who see clearly enough the rapid religious changes all around them, and feel the power of the growing revolutionary tendencies, and are greatly perplexed what to think of the future, or what to do. They ask anxiously: Where are the proposed modifications of Christianity to end? Is it true that we are at the beginning of a new and better age? Is it the light of a glorious dawn that is beginning to illumine the heavens, or the lurid gleam of far-off volcanic fires? They know not what to believe in the present, or what to expect in the future. Faith in God, in the Scriptures, in the Church, does not wholly fail, but they are disquieted in spirit and sad at heart.
On the other hand, there are many in Christendom, and apparently a continually increasing number, who affirm that mere modifications of Christianity, greater or less, cannot permanently save it. Christendom has proved it for many centuries, and found it a practical failure. Its fundamental principles conflict with the growing intelligence of the world. We have come to a new age, and a new age must bring with it a new religion, not a revivification of the past; one based upon a new conception of God, simple, comprehensive, and fitted to be a worldreligion. Some, indeed, think to make it eclectic, and to incorporate in it more or less of Christianity; but those of clearer vision see the impossibility of this, and affirm that Christianity must be taken as a whole, or rejected as a whole. Of these Renan is a sample, who says: "The future will no longer believe in the supernatural, for the supernatural is not true, and all that is not true is condemned to die. The pure truth will triumph. Judaism and Christianity will disappear." In the same way speaks the learned Jew, Darmessteter: "All Europe is in quest of a new God, and seeking everywhere for the echo of a coming gospel." And all those who, like Herbert Spencer, substitute an impersonal Force for a personal God, will have nothing of Christianity but its ethics. Of the attempts to formulate the new religion, we shall, later, have full occasion to speak. But in them all we shall see ample proof that Christianity, with its vital doctrines, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Sin and Atonement, Resurrection and Judgment, must give place to some form of belief better suited to the modern conceptions of a Supreme Being, of the reign of Law, and of the goodness and dignity of human nature.
It is almost inevitable that but few in a time of transition like the present can have any definite conception whither they are going, for such a time is always one of obscurity and confusion. Christendom is a battlefield where the old elements and the new are struggling together, assailants and defenders inextricably mingled. It is in such a transition period that the light of the prophetic word is indispensable to clear vision. Knowing what God has said of His purpose in His Son, and in Aumanity, and illumined by it, we may discern the signs of the times, and the real nature and significance of passing events, and thus know the meaning of the present, and the goal to which it leads.
Assuming here (what the examination of the Scriptures will soon show us) that the antichristian spirit, which has often had its partial representatives in the past, is to be finally summed up in a single person, who is distinctively the Antichrist — the last product of the antichristian tendencies — we are brought to the vital question, What will be the relations of the coming new age to him? Do we see in its spirit and principles a preparation for him? We are taught by the Apostle Paul that "he shall sit in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God." Are we to have a new religion in which the Saviour from sin can have no place, but will be supplanted by one who will present himself as the representative of a Divine humanity, and so an object of worship? It is the purpose of this book to answer these questions. To those who look upon the present tendencies as the harbingers of a new and higher evolution of Christianity, it will be both false and offensive. Why, they will ask, these pessimistic utterances? Why dishearten the spirits of zealous men by forebodings of evil? Why speak of an apostasy when the Church is just arising into the full consciousness of its mission, and girding itself anew for its accomplishment? "Why speak of an Antichrist when the world is honoring the Christ more than ever before?
To those, also, on the other hand, who think that the world is outgrowing Christianity, and that there is no longer a place for the Church or its Head, and that humanity, freeing itself from its old and burdensome religious traditions, is entering upon a new and higher development, this book will be an offense; if it be not rather wholly disregarded and despised as a vain attempt to revive an antiquated belief which the Church of to-day itself rejects.
Thus, both by Christians who believe that the trials and perils of the Church are in a great measure over, and the day of triumph at hand, and by Antichristians who believe that Christianity will soon pass away, or be merged into a larger religion, the belief in a coming Antichrist as here presented will be rejected. But for all who accept the Scriptures as an intelligible revelation of a Divine purpose, the first duty is to ask what they teach us. Putting away all prejudices and unreasoned beliefs, we must ask what the Holy Ghost, speaking by the prophets of old and by the Lord and His apostles, has told us of the final stages of the great conflict between good and evil so long waged in the earth, and of its chief actors in the time of the end.
It is only through Scriptural light that we can fully know the character and work of the Antichrist; and to this light it is of vital importance that we give heed, for we are forewarned that he will present himself to men under an aspect best fitted to deceive. Those despising the prophetic word, and not believing in his appearing, will be attracted and fettered by the power of his person; and those whose conception of him is that of an open blasphemer of God, a bitter enemy of all religion, detestable because of his vices, will not discern him should he appear as a saviour of society and a religious leader. It is only through the attentive study of the Scriptures, and its prophetic outlines of the future, and especially of St. Paul (2 Thess. ii. 2), that we can be kept from fatal misconceptions. He who seats himself in the temple of God, "shewing himself that he is God," is not, as is often said, one who compels the world to pay him Divine homage by brute violence; it is done voluntarily. That he can present himself to men as the object of Divine honour, and receive it, shows a community of belief already existing between him and his worshippers. They see in him the representative of their own religious ideas. He will not come as a spectre of the night, but as an angel of light, the morning star of a new day; and the age that will welcome and worship him will not think itself irreligious, but the most religious of all the ages. In him the modern spirit will find its truest representative and exponent. We may believe that he will be regarded by his generation as the highest type of our developed humanity, the noblest embodiment of its dignity, its "consummate flower." He will be recognized as a natural king of men, and his kingdom, rising grandly before the world, will be welcomed as the full evolution of the democratic idea, the realization of popular aspirations, the end of social strife, the unity of nations, the natural outcome and highest product of our civilization, and the goal of human history. It will be welcomed by the multitude as the long promised "Kingdom of God."
It need not be said that this man and his kingdom are not the accidents of an hour; there is a long preparatory process. As with our Lord, so with him. There is a "fulness of time" for his appearing, and this is not till the antichristian leaven has spread through Christendom. Then will be the final test of Christian faith and discernment. Before the world will be two kings and two kingdoms. He who will set up the kingdom of God, is the Incarnate Son returning from Heaven; he who will set up the kingdom of man, is a son of the earth; and the question which must then be answered is, Which king and which kingdom will Christendom and the nations have?
The order of our enquiry is, therefore, this: First, what do we learn from the Scriptures — from the prophets and from the teachings of the Lord and of His apostles — respecting the religious condition of the world and of the Church at the period immediately preceding His return? And what is predicted of the Antichrist? And in this enquiry we are especially concerned with the doctrine of St. Paul and of St. John respecting the nature of the apostasy as preparatory to the coming of the man of sin, its final product. Having a clear conception of that apostasy, its origin, its nature, and final development in the man of sin; we may proceed, secondly, to examine the religious and the philosophical tendencies of the present time, that we may know its real character, and how far it is a preparation for the fulfilment of the Scripture predictions. This enquiry necessarily embraces many distinct points, which must be separately discussed. But it will be noted that the present purpose is to state and illustrate the religious tendencies and movements of the time, and not to confute them. Their confutation lies in seeing the goal to which they lead.
Perhaps more space has been given to the philosophic tendencies of our times than many may think to be necessary. But no one can truly know them who does not discern the pantheistic spirit which underlies them, and determines their practical working, manifested in all departments of human life. To understand the prophetic descriptions of the Antichrist, as claiming Divine homage, we must see how the prevalent philosophy tends to the deification of man, and so helps to prepare his way.