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 some group of Christians living in future times – were in what could be called “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 ones that must have been 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.” In fact, Revelation does not use the title “antichrist” for any of the “beasts” – or anything else. As mentioned earlier, the specific name “Antichrist” appears only in John’s epistles. Therefore, whatever Revelation has in mind when it speaks of “the beast,” it is different from the “antichrist” mentioned in John’s letters.
Let us come back to the “antichrist” and ask what it was that such a person taught. If we read the verses mentioned above, we will note that the term “antichrist” described 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 a mere man. It’s also possible some may have taught that the body of Christ was only a spirit, and 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). This means 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 unbelievers, but with people who at one time claimed to have been Christians or members of the church.
In conclusion, the term “antichrist” can refer to any individual who opposes the true doctrine about the Incarnation and divinity of Jesus – and his work of salvation as God in the flesh. “Antichrist” has no specific prophetic application to any living or dead political leader such as a Hitler, or to any group, such as a so-called “satanic cult.” John did not pin the title “antichrist” on any single individual. He was identifying any person who denies the Incarnation of Jesus or his deity as true God of true God as such an individual, an antichrist.
Any person who claims to be Christian but denies that Jesus as the Son of God came in the flesh, or who claims to be Christ himself, could fairly be called an “antichrist.” Of course, any individual, group or power that opposes the purposes of God especially as it relates to his work in Jesus, 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.” The Jewish apocalyptic writings, the Sibylline Oracles, describe this man of evil as a revived Roman emperor Nero coming from Babylon (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, said Daniel, “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” (11:36).
In this connection, we should mention the apostle Paul’s reference to a “man of lawlessness” or “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Sometimes this person is referred to as the “antichrist,” though Paul does not use the word in connection with this individual.
Paul said that something was holding back this individual from accomplishing his nefarious deeds. The implication is that the restrainer, and thus the “man of lawlessness,” was alive in Paul’s day. This means 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). The question arises as to what Paul might have meant 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)?
Commentators point out that 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 at Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian, refers to this provocative gesture as well (Antiquities, 18:8). A similar desecration of the temple was described by Daniel (9:27; 11:31). This actually occurred during the reign of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C.
Jesus also said that the temple would once again be desecrated. His words are recorded in Matthew 24:16: “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…” 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.
We can see that there is biblical as well as historical precedent for describing the appearance of an evil ruler who would challenge the worship of God. We can, based on the biblical material, appropriately call him “the man of sin.” However, while the biblical allusions to this individual, individuals or system are provocative and interesting, it is impossible to identify any specific person, government or other entity as representing either one.