One of the most mysterious figures haunting the Christian imagination is the Antichrist. Innumerable works, both fiction and non-fiction, have been devoted to him. The concept is so compelling that even non-Christians use it. Muslims believe that at the Second Coming of Christ he will do battle with the Antichrist (Arabic, al-Dajjal).
But amid all the speculation about the Antichrist—much of it wild and fanciful—what do we really know about the figure?
Four Mentions in Scripture
The Antichrist is mentioned by name in only four verses of Scripture: 1 John 2:18, 22, 4:3, and 2 John 7. There are other verses that many people link to the Antichrist, but since he isn’t named in them, the connection is not certain. The four Johanine verses must serve as the core of our knowledge before trying to link other verses to them.
In 1 John 2:18–19, we read, "Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us."
This passage appears to speak of a major individual Antichrist, as well as many minor individual Antichrists, who apparently are apostate Christians for "they went out from us." The appearance of the individual Antichrist is yet future ("Antichrist is coming"), but the presence of the many Antichrists is a signal that "it is the last hour."
In 1 John 2:22–23, we read, "Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also."
This is consistent with the apostate nature of the many Antichrists, for they have "deny[ied] that Jesus is the Christ" and, in denying the Son, they have implicitly denied the Father. Presumably the same would be true of the individual Antichrist.
1 John 4:1–6 gives practical tests for discerning which spirits bearing revelation are from God and which are not. In John 4:3, we read that "every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of Antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already."
This shows that the Antichrist movement is inspired by spirits bearing false revelation and that refuse to confess Jesus. This movement had begun in John’s day but would grow afterward.
Finally, in 2 John 7, we read, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist."
This clarifies the specific deception being perpetrated by the spirit of Antichrist and its human collaborator, suggesting that it involves a denial of the coming of Jesus in the flesh. This could be construed in one of several ways: (1) that Jesus was a mere man and not God Incarnate (as in the early heresy known as Ebionism), (2) that the humanity of Jesus was only an illusion (as in the early heresy known as Docetism), or (3) that Jesus was not the Messiah (as in non-Christian Judaism).
Inferring other Antichrists
The four passages given above are all that the New Testament has to say about the Antichrist—at least under that name. But many have identified the Antichrist with the beast from the sea in Revelation 13 or with the "man of lawlessness" that Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
These identifications are reasonable, but must be understood with some nuance. The beast from the sea that John speaks of in Revelation is best understood in its initial, literal fulfillment as one of the early Roman emperors (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2113 on the past fulfillment of this prophecy). Yet, there are often multiple fulfillments of a single prophecy, and the beast may also point forward to an individual at the end of time who will be very much like the early Roman emperors.
Such an individual is easy to identify with Paul’s "man of lawlessness," for he appears to be a still-future individual who does things like the Roman emperors. Paul states that he will one day manifest himself in the temple of God—which to a first-century Jew would mean the Jewish temple in Jerusalem—and demand to be worshiped as a god.
This is related to things the Roman emperors did, such as when Caligula—after he began claiming to be a god—attempted to have an image of himself put in the Jerusalem temple. This plan was narrowly averted.
Since the many Antichrists are identifiable as apostate Christians, the future, individual Antichrist may also be an apostate Christian or from an apostate family, people, or nation (i.e., that used to be Christian but by then will not be).
This is a point of difference between the Antichrist and the original, literal fulfillment of the beast (the early Roman emperors were not apostate Christians). But it is not a hindrance to identifying the future, individual Antichrist with the future man of lawlessness or a future fulfillment of the beast from the sea, since future emperor-like individuals may have a personal, familial, or national Christian background.
The Fathers Weigh In
The Church Fathers displayed significant interest in the Antichrist, whom they commonly identified with the man of lawlessness. They understood him to be a political ruler who would oppose the Church, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and then demand to be worshiped as a god. At times he was understood to be a person of Jewish ancestry, from the now-lost tribe of Dan.
The details of how Antichrist is to be understood vary from Father to Father, meaning that there is no infallible consensus regarding the matter and some matters are quite speculative. For example, the identification of the Antichrist as coming from the tribe of Dan is extremely slight in Scripture, being based on Genesis 49:17 and on the absence of Dan in the list of tribes in Revelation 7:4–8; the Antichrist is mentioned in neither passage.
Throughout history there have been a large number of individuals who have been identified as potential Antichrists, and such they may have been, though none has been the final persecutor of Church history. The record of inaccurate attempts to identify the Antichrist reveal the extreme caution that needs to be exercised in such matters.
The Catechism explains simply that there will be a "supreme religious deception" before the second coming of Christ and that the supreme form of this deception is that of the Antichrist, who will bring "a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh" (CCC 675).
This deception has precursors in our own time. These precursors appear "every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement" (CCC 676), including "the intrinsically perverse political form of a secular messianism" (ibid.) that was displayed by twentieth-century movements such as Nazism and Communism.
The deception of the Antichrist will lead to the final crisis of the Church, which will be persecuted almost to the point of extinction and thus will "follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection," only to be saved by the second coming of Christ (CCC 677).
The Pope as the Antichrist
It is important for the Catholic apologist to have a good handle on what Scripture does and does not say regarding the Antichrist because the opponents of the Catholic faith have often depicted the pope as the Antichrist.
This was a psychological necessity for the early Protestant leaders because they were in the process of breaking away from what their contemporaries universally recognized as the authentic Church of Christ, governed by the authentic Vicar of Christ. Since breaking with such a body is inconceivable to any one determined to follow Christ’s will, it was necessary for Protestant leaders to deny that the Catholic Church and the pope were these things.
The recognition of the Catholic Church as the one Christ established was so strong—given its centuries of existence, its ubiquity in Europe, and the absence of any plausible rival in tracing its roots back to Christ—that it created severe cognitive dissonance that Protestant leaders had to find ways to overcome. "If it’s not the Bride of Christ then what is it? How can it be explained otherwise?" would be logical questions.
Protestant leaders cast about in Scripture for alternative explanations for a large, false religious system expected to exist during the Christian age. They chose the religious system associated with the beast from Revelation, whom they identified as the Antichrist. They further identified this religious system with the Whore of Babylon, who in Revelation is in contrast to the Church, the Bride of Christ.
They thus came to portray the Church as the Whore of Babylon and the pope as the beast/Antichrist. Only in such a way could breaking away from what everyone recognized as the true Church of Christ be psychologically justified.
Thus the Lutheran Book of Concord states, "The pope is the real Antichrist who has raised himself over and set himself against Christ . . . Accordingly, just as we cannot adore the devil himself as our lord or God, so we cannot suffer his apostle, the pope or Antichrist, to govern us as our head or lord" (Smalcald Articles 2:4:10, 14).
The Presbyterian and Anglican Westminster Confession states, "There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be the head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and that son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God" (25:6).
The difficulty with the papal Antichrist theory is that while it may have provided psychological comfort to early Protestant leaders, it does not fit the facts as they are presented in Scripture.
Even given the identification of the Antichrist with the beast, the pope is the last person who would fit the biblical requirements for being the individual Antichrist (or any Antichrist). The epistles of John clearly indicate that the Antichrist is one who denies that Christ has come in the flesh. However, the basis for the pope’s position in the Church is that Christ has come in the flesh and has ascended to heaven, leaving the successor of Peter as his vicar or representative on earth.
For the pope to deny that Christ has come in the flesh would be to undercut the basis of his position. Since no pope historically has made such claims, it is easily verifiable that no pope in history has been an Antichrist. Neither will any future pope be inclined to deny the basis of his position. The anti-papal argument simply is not credible.
Further, in Scripture the beast is clearly a political leader, not a Church leader. In fact, the beast is literally identified with one of the early Roman emperors, who had no part of the Church.
A Crack in the Door
Now that Protestantism has been in a state of separation from the Church for several centuries, psychological pressures have eased, and many Protestants today recognize the absurdity of the papal Antichrist theory and reject those portions of their confessional writings that endorse it.
This praiseworthy recognition provides the Catholic apologist with an opportunity to invite individuals to fundamentally reconsider the Protestant Reformation. If Protestants are prepared to admit that the pope is not the Antichrist and that the Catholic Church is not the Whore of Babylon, then the questions may be posed: "Then what are they? How can they be otherwise explained?"
Most Christians are and always have been members of the Catholic Church. The pope and the Catholic Church are too central to historic Christianity to be dismissed as simply an accident. They must have some part in God’s plan. But if they are not the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, then the logical alternative is to recognize them as the Vicar of Christ and the Bride of Christ—the very realization that drove the early Reformers to the papal Antichrist theory.