Christians throughout the history of the church have been fascinated about the identity of the “antichrist,” mentioned in the New Testament. The list of possible candidates to fit his description includes many past and present religious and political leaders.
However, when we look at the scriptural passages that mention the “antichrist,” it becomes clear that they don’t refer to any specific historical personage at all. The Bible uses the term “antichrist” only four times, and it appears only in the letters of John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2-3; 2 John 7). Jesus, Paul and Peter do not mention the “antichrist.”
In the contexts in which John uses this term, he seems to have been most interested in showing that his immediate readers – not Christians living in future times – were living in what “the last days.” John’s use of the term “antichrist” was a label that applied to people teaching certain heresies who were or had been associated with the church of his day. Primarily, it was applied to those who denied that Jesus was God Incarnate – that God had come in human flesh (John 1:1, 14). By reading John’s letters, we can see that this “antichrist” teaching was one that existed in his day. The people whose teachings John labeled as “antichrist,” and which he had in mind, were then alive.
Any discussion of the “beasts” of Revelation 13 and 17, and especially of the “image” of the beast in 13:11-18 identified by the number 666, causes people to wonder if this is a description of the “antichrist.” Revelation does not use the title “antichrist” for any of the “beasts” – or for anything else. Whatever Revelation has in mind when it speaks of “the beast,” it is probably different from the “antichrist” mentioned in John’s letters.
Let us come back to the “antichrist” and ask what such a person taught. In the Bible, the term “antichrist” describes someone who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (2 John 7) or that Jesus was the Christ (1 John 2:22). This heresy must have referred to individuals who denied the divinity of Jesus and his Incarnation, reducing him to the status of an ordinary man. It’s also possible some may have taught that the body of Christ was only a spirit, that it was not real.
Another view of “antichrist” is that the term could refer to those who stood in the “place of Christ,” that is, claimed they were the Christ. Based on what Jesus said about false Christs and false prophets (Matthew 24:4-5, 24), John may have thought he and the church were living in “the last hour” because such heretics had appeared (1 John 2:18).
Who was an “antichrist”? Whoever these people were and whatever their specific teachings may have been, they had left the body of believers (verse 19). They were once part of the church but had now departed, presumably to start their own group or groups. John’s controversy was not with outsiders, but with people who at one time claimed to have been Christians or members of the church. They may have continued to claim the name of Christ, but John is saying that they are really opposed to who Christ really is.
The term “antichrist” can refer to any person who opposes the true doctrine about the Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus, and his work of salvation as God in the flesh. “Antichrist” has no specific prophetic application to any political leader or to any group. John did not pin the title “antichrist” on any single individual. He was saying that anyone who denies the Incarnation of Jesus or his deity is an antichrist.
Any person who claims to be Christian but denies that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, or who claims to be Christ himself, could reasonably be called an “antichrist.” Any individual, group or power that opposes the purposes of God would, in a general way of speaking, be antichrist and anti-God.
The “Man of Sin”
Both Old and New Testaments speak of an individual, representing a system of evil – symbolizing sinfulness – who would arise in the “last days.” Some Jewish apocalyptic writings describe this man of evil as a revived Roman emperor Nero coming from Babylon (Sibylline Oracles 5:143-148). The source of this belief in a “man of sin” goes back to Daniel. He had spoken of a fierce king who would arise at the time of the end. This king “will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed” (Daniel 11:36).
The apostle Paul refers to a “man of lawlessness” or “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Sometimes this person is called the “antichrist,” though Paul does not use that word. Paul said that something was holding back this individual from accomplishing his evil deeds. The implication is that the restrainer, and thus the “man of lawlessness,” was alive in Paul’s day. Paul was concerned with someone living in his day, not in the future. Yet, Paul wrote of this “man of lawlessness” as though he would be revealed in the day of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:3), which Paul said had not yet arrived (verses 2-3).
Paul said of this person: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (verse 4). What did Paul mean by “the temple”? Was it the physical temple in Jerusalem, or was he speaking of the church, which he called “God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)?
Paul wrote his letter less than ten years after the Roman emperor Caligula tried to set up an image of himself in the temple’s Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian, refers to this provocative gesture (Antiquities, 18:8). A similar desecration of the temple was described by Daniel (9:27; 11:31). This occurred during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C.
Jesus also said that the temple would be desecrated: “When you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” (Matthew 24:16). This probably referred to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies in A.D. 66-70, though some see this as a yet future occurrence.
There is biblical as well as historical precedent for describing the appearance of an evil ruler who would challenge the worship of God. Based on the biblical material, we can appropriately call him “the man of sin.” However, while the biblical allusions to this individual, individuals or system are interesting, the prophecy is not specific enough to identify any person, government or other entity as “the” man of sin or the abomination of desolation.