It is to be noted that the apostle Paul, in what is generally believed to be one of the earliest of his Epistles, the second to the Thessalonians, speaks so distinctly of an "apostasy" or falling away; the beginnings of which he already discerned. That this falling away was not a mere local and temporary defection, but was existing in germ in all the churches, and that it would continue to increase down to the end, are apparent from the language he uses here and in his later Epistles. Its root was the loss of the first love (Rev. ii. 4), and the consequent alienation from God; but its characteristic, as here given by the apostle, was the spirit of lawlessness, which would become stronger and stronger till its last and highest exponent should appear, — " that wicked" or "lawless one," the "son of perdition." This lawless one is to "seat himself in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God;" whose "eoming is to be after the working of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders;" and he is to be destroyed by the Lord Himself at His appearing. (2 Thess. ii. 1-10.)
This most remarkable announcement by the apostle of the Gentiles almost at the beginning of his ministry, is one that deserves the closest attention. Several times he recurs to the same topic, and warns the churches of the imminent danger. His words are like those of Moses when he foretells to his people their future, the sin of rebellion and its punishment. (Lev. xxvi.) They were intended to make the churches watchful against the beginnings of evil. (Acts xx. 28-31; 1 Tim. iv. 1; 2 Tim. iii. 1.)
The other apostles speak in like terms. The Apostle John warns against "the spirit of Antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come, and even now already is it in the world." "As ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many Antichrists. . . . He is the Antichrist that denieth the Father and the Son." (1 John ii. 18-22.) Antichrist is not only an opponent of Christ, but one who puts himself in the place of Christ; not one who pretends to be the historical Christ, and yet he presents himself as a substitute for Christ. The apostle Peter, in his Second Epistle, describes those in whom the same spirit is found, and which should especially manifest itself in the "scoffers of the last days;" but does not use the term Antichrist.
Turning to the Gospels, we find the Lord to have given like prophetic warnings. In the parable of the tares and wheat He foretells the sowing of tares among the wheat, and represents both as "growing together till the time of the harvest." He does not send forth His reapers to separate them till both are ripe. To the Antichrist He pointed when He said, " I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive." (John v. 43; Luke xviii. 8.) To him, also, the Spirit of God points in the Book of the Revelation under the title of "the beast" who opens his mouth in blasphemy against God, and who is cast alive into the lake of fire. (Rev. xiii. 1, xix. 19, 20.)
This form of wickedness summed up in the Antichrist, differs from any that was manifest in pre-Christian times, or indeed that was possible, in that it takes the form of direct hostility to Christ as the Incarnate Son and Saviour. Its support is in human pride, denying the fall of man and the corruption of his nature; and in consequence, the necessity of an atonement. It rejects as something humiliating and unworthy of man's dignity, and as a reproach to the goodness of human nature, the truth that there is salvation only through the Sacrifice of Christ; and affirms that men can be saved without an Incarnate Son, and without the cross. So far from needing a Saviour, — One who shall reconcile him to God, and cleanse him from sin, — man has the elements of divinity in his own nature, and needs only scope for their full development to attain to Divine excellence.
Thus the spirit of Antichrist in its last embodiment, is the culmination of all hostility to the purpose of God in man's redemption. By affirming that man is not sinful, only imperfect, and capable of unlimited moral progress, it makes idle all that God has done in sending His Son to bear the sins of the world: proudly declaring that man is not fallen, and that no work of salvation is needed; and that in the race by natural development is God to be revealed, not in any one person by supernatural Incarnation; it leaves no place for Jesus Christ, either as the Saviour from sin or as the Revealer of God.
The appearing of the Antichrist, therefore, marks the highest form of human wickedness, since it not only shows the rejection of the grace of God as manifested in the gift of His Son, but is also the setting of a rival in His throne. And this wickedness appears in the Church, in the company of those whom God has called to be His own children. The Antichrist and his chief adherents come not from the heathen, nor from the Jews, but from among the baptized. (1 John ii. 19.) They are those who have been brought into vital relation to Christ, but have fallen away, and have become "withered branches" in the Vine; those who, "having known the way of righteousness, have turned from the holy commandment delivered unto them;" "twice dead ;" "wandering stars." They have received the Holy Spirit, but have grieved and quenched Him, and can no more be renewed unto repentance. (Heb. vi. 6.) In them the apostasy reaches its fullest measure; their sin is the sin unto death. We may thus understand why it is that they are set forth as "cast alive into the lake of fire;" the first so punished, since it is later that the devil is cast into it. (Rev. xix. 20, xx. 10.) As the greatness of the sin, so the swiftness and terror of the punishment. The Antichrist — the lawless one — is not an accident, nor a strange and unaccountable phenomenon, but the necessary result of a long preceding development; and this both in the Church and in the world. He is not the cause of the Christian apostasy, but its product. The spirit of lawlessness whose workings were seen at the beginning in the rejection of Christ's rule through His apostles sent immediately by Him, must come to the full, ere the lawless one can appear. (2 Cor. x. 8, etc.; 3 John ix.) That must be done in the Church which was done among the Jews, when they said, "We will not have this man to reign over us." And in the State, kings and statesmen having cast off the rule of Christ, their people no longer obey them; and out of the anarchy, the raging sea, comes forth the mighty one who can rule the nations. (Rev. xiii. 1, etc.) So, also, as the representative of worldly culture and human pride, he is its last and highest exponent. There is a steady process of self-exaltation as our race progresses in its knowledge of the material world, and in its control over it. At first, man, ignorant of the forces of nature, fears them, and deifies them, and worships them; but as knowledge increases, he learns to regard them as physical forces to be used by him for his own good. He exalts himself above nature, he is its lord to rule over it: and this not as a prerogative given him by God, but in his own right as his conquest. With this increase of power and knowledge is a gradual diminution of the sense of sin, and of dependence, and the growth of a spirit of self-deification. That which has been in the decay of paganism, takes place again in Christendom, — the apotheosis of man. Man cannot cease to be religious, to seek after the Divine; if God does not descend to men, men must ascend to God; there must be a point of union. If Christ be denied as the Incarnate Son, revealing God in flesh, and bringing us into communion with Him; then in the Antichrist will man be seen "sitting in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." The craving for a perfected or Divine humanity cannot be stilled. If men are not made partakers of the Divine nature by regeneration, and perfected through resurrection, they aspire to be so by natural development. Thus, at the last day, the Antichrist becomes possible. With the loss of the sense of sin; with a growing consciousness of the great powers of humanity, and their possible unfoldings during the ages; the work of Christ as the Saviour from sin, and as the one Revealer of God, becomes more and more offensive." Man will be his own Saviour and Lord, and go unto God in his own name.
The Antichrist appears not only as Christ's antagonist in the Church, but as also claiming the rule of the world; and it is in this aspect that in the Revelation he is symbolized as " the beast that comes up out of the sea," and to whom "the dragon gives his power and his seat" (or throne), "and great authority." (Rev. xiii. 1, 2.) He is the vicegerent of Satan, whom the Lord called "the prince of this world." (John xiv. 30.) The dominion which Satan proffered, and the Lord refused, this man accepts. (Matt. iv. 8.) As Christ sits in the throne given Him by the Father, so the Antichrist in the throne given him by Satan. And as the Father is worshipped through the Christ, so Satan through the Antichrist. "And they worshipped the dragon, which gave authority to the beast." It need scarcely be said that the "great authority " of Satan is by God's sufferance, not self-derived. (Luke iv. 6.) "All this power will I give thee, ... for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will, I give it." Power is given to the beast over the earth as a judgment by God upon the peoples and the nations at the end, as it was given of old to the Assyrian. (Isa. x. 5, 6.)
This close relation of the Antichrist to the god and prince of this world, is to be carefully noted. Not only does the former receive of the latter his great authority in the earth, but is endowed by him with superhuman powers. It is said of the man of sin that " his coming is after the working of Satan," or, according to the energy of Satan, "with all power and signs and lying wonders." (2 Thess. ii. 9; Rev. xiii.) There is such community of feeling and action between them in opposition to God and His Christ, that he can receive the fullest satanic endowments, and become the chief instrument of satanic hate. "There was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, . . . to blaspheme God's name, and His tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven." He "makes war with the saints, and overcomes them," and "power is given him over all kindreds and tongues and nations." In him, fallen humanity reaches its highest development; he becomes its most powerful and magnificent exponent; he is "the leviathan " of the sea, "the king over all the children of pride." "All the world wondered after the beast; . . . they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?" When it is said that power was given to the beast over all kindreds and tongues and nations, it is not probably to be understood as foretelling an absolutely universal kingdom, but as prophetic of a great worldmonarchy still future, surpassing in extent all that has hitherto existed. And the possibility of this increases year by year, as the facilities of intercommunication become continually greater, and through general intercourse new and friendly relations among nations are established. The earth has already so become one that nothing can take place in any land that is not speedily known in, and that does not affect according to its importance, every other land. There is, also, a community of interest, of opinion, and of feeling, such as has never been before. Nations heretofore dwelling apart lose their isolation, and the great currents of national life run into one still greater, — the life of the race. Under all the differences of lineage and of language, of laws and of customs, there is already a broad, underlying unit)' which may serve as the basis for the structure of an universal government. Knowledge of what is taking place in the most remote lands is immediately attainable in all the chief centres of Christendom. It is now possible that a single dominant will may make itself obeyed in every important country of the earth, through the almost instantaneous transmission of its commands; thus giving to the ruler a certain omniscience and omnipresence. And the Scriptures in their description of the reign of Antichrist, do not speak of the fusion of all peoples into one, and the abolition of all national distinctions, but of "ten kings," heads of distinct states, who enter into a confederacy of which he is made the head. It is but an enlarged application of the principle of federative union. "These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength (authority) unto the beast." (Rev. xvii. 13.) Nor is this unity without God's special agency; for it is said, God "hath put in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and to give their kingdom unto the beast."
Thus he, who is the opponent of Christ, becomes a substitute for Him. He promises to the nations that unity and prosperity and peace, that harmony of interests, and reconciliation of antagonisms, of which the prophets spake as to be realized in the Kingdom of the Messiah, but which has never been realized in Christendom. And there are many everywhere saying in their hearts: the Christ of the Church has not fulfilled, and will never fulfill, the old prophetic dreams. We have waited long centuries for His Kingdom, and the confusion and misery continually increase. There must be a new departure: man must assert his own dignity, and freeing himself from superstitious fears and antiquated observances, which repress his energies and burden his spirit, build up on new foundations the Kingdom of Humanity. What the Christ has failed to do, the Antichrist will promise to perform, and the world will believe him.