For those engaged in end-times speculation, provoked by the latest crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been another rash of speculation about the identity of the Antichrist—that end times personal figure who is now somewhere secretly in the world but who will very soon be revealed. (It is worth noting, for the sake of perspective, that every perceived crisis since at least the 1960s has provoked such speculation. For earlier modern end-times expectation, see the example of the followers of William Miller, who predicted that Jesus would return in 1844.)
I am not sure that anything I write here will persuade those committed to end-times schemes, in which the Book of Revelation predicts in detail our age alone (as if we are the most important generation that ever lived), but I think a lot of ordinary readers of the Bible are unsettled by such theories, and are not sure how to respond. Part of the reason for this is that such schemes look so coherent. Here is one, influential, example, part of Dispensational Premillennialism based on the teaching of J N Darby:
The man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 is the Antichrist who will come on the world scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord. This Day, sometimes called the “end times,” starts after the rapture of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11). It is good to note that the Day of the Lord is not a twenty-four-hour period of time; rather, it is an extended period of time that includes the seven-year tribulation, the return of Christ to put down all rebellion against Him, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth, the final defeat of Satan, and the Great White Throne Judgment.
This looks very convincing—until you realise that the coherence of this scheme belongs entirely to the writer, and bears little or no relation to what the Bible actually says! The New Testament nowhere identifies the ‘man of lawlessness’ with the ‘antichrist’; it does not describe a ‘rapture’ of the church (this arises from a poor misreading of 1 Thessalonians 4); nowhere does the NT mention a ‘seven-year tribulation‘; the 1,000-year reign of Christ is a literal reading of a symbolic text in Rev 20; and the ‘Day of the Lord’ which is everywhere in the NT described as a specific moment at the end of history has now been extended, in this scheme, to a period of more than 1,007 years! One of the key proponents of this kind of scheme in a previous generation, Hal Lindsay (who wrote The Late, Great Planet Earth) actually admits that this is a ‘hopscotch’ approach to reading the Bible, taking one bit from one place and another from another in order to put together a picture like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But look at the wonderful picture that results, is his defence!
So it is worth noting from the outset the basic assumptions of this kind of approach. First, the Bible doesn’t actually make sense as a narrative as it is written; it needs some mysterious key to open up its meaning. Secondly, the truth about the ‘end times’ and Jesus’ return is a great big puzzle, and the truth of what will happen has been missed by most people in history—indeed, it continues to be missed by most people who simply read the Bible. Thirdly, we therefore need an authority figure who will help us put together the different pieces of the otherwise unintelligible text of the Bible, and we then find what we need to know not in reading the Bible, but in reading the writings and teaching of this important person. All these features make this approach perfect for an age of conspiracy theories—and offer a potential publishing bonanza, since all faithful Christians will need to buy their book!
The best answer to all this is to return to the text, and what it actually says. So let’s look at the text of the Bible, and the passages about each of these three figures, and see what we can learn.
The ‘man of lawlessness’ is only mentioned in one short passage, 2 Thess 2.1–12.
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 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.
Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
There are some things here worth noting. First, Paul clearly thinks that, whoever this mysterious ‘man of lawlessness’ (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) is, he is ‘already at work’. This is clear from the fact that he ‘will set himself up in the temple’ which was still standing when Paul was writing (I am convinced by the arguments that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are early, are by Paul and not forgeries, and were written in quick succession to one another); there is no suggestion whatever in the text that ‘the temple’ here is used symbolically to refer to the people of God. Something is currently holding him back—and he is clearly a human figure, and not an angelic or demonic power.
Secondly, Paul is referring rather obliquely and in summary form to something that he has explained in more detail to the Thessalonians, and we will never know the full explanation that he has already given. Like many issues in Paul, we wish that he has said more! But we need to face the reality that we do not know any more details, so have to decide whether it is worth speculating.
But thirdly, and in answer to the dilemma of our ignorance, we can know the purpose of Paul’s teaching in this area—and it is not in order to encourage speculation or the drawing up of end-times calendars! On this, I think John Piper’s exposition is really helpful:
But persecution and suffering are not the only issue at Thessalonica, and Paul, now in chapters 2 and 3, takes his instruction about the second coming to a new level of detail in dealing with this second issue. The issue is that some in the church have ceased to do their ordinary vocational jobs, and started to make a nuisance of themselves as busybodies, mooching off the other Christians, since they’re not earning any money. And evidently, though Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, this delinquency is owing to a kind of hysteria in the community that the day of the Lord is not just near, but is already present.
In other words, Paul is saying to them: don’t panic; you have not been left behind; there is no need to speculate; get on with living your lives, working with your hands, instead of dropping everything for the sake of end-times speculation. You can trust God who will ultimately triumph, no matter how bad things appear to be getting. As Martin Luther is believed to have said, ‘If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I would still collect the rent and plant an apple tree’. Or we might say ‘Jesus is coming; look busy!’
It is also worth noting that this is a very minor point in Paul’s teaching about ‘the end times’. In Romans 8, he talks about the longing of the created order to be redeemed; in 1 Cor 15, he offers a long and detailed discussion about the implications of the resurrection at the end; all through his writings there is a constant sense of expectation, and the hope that confidence in the ultimate victory of God in the return of Jesus. And yet, only in this one passage is the ‘man of lawlessness’ mentioned. So it can hardly be claimed to be central to Paul’s teaching.
The ‘antichrist’ is only mentioned in four verses in the NT, all in the letters of John:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 1 John 2:18
Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 1 John 2:22
…but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 1 John 4:3
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 7
Again, there are several things worth noticing simply by reading the text carefully.
First, although the author does talk about ‘the antichrist’ at several points, he is also clear that there have and continue to be many such people. Many ‘antichrists’ have already come; every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is of the antichrist, and ‘any such person’ who denies Jesus came in the flesh ‘is the antichrist’.
Secondly, the eschatology of these passages is highly ‘realised’—that is, the writer talks as though he and his readers are already in the ‘end times’ when he says several times ‘it is the last hour’. This might look as though there was an expectation that Jesus would return in his lifetime, an expectation that was mistaken. But in fact it matches the language of the Fourth Gospel, which talks about ‘life of the age [to come]’ or ‘eternal life’ as though is starts now, rather than being something we have to wait for. This also agrees with Peter on the day of Pentecost, who quotes Joel 2’s description of the ‘last days’ and says that it is what is happening in the outpouring of the Spirit (‘This is that… Acts 2.16). And it agrees with Paul’s description of those who put their faith in Jesus: ‘If anyone is in Christian there is new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17).
Thirdly, the concern here is (once more) nothing to do with ‘end times’ speculation and timetables, but to do with sound doctrine. The writer is encouraging his readers to stay true to the faith. Overall, the letters of John have two concerns: that his audience hold onto the truth about Jesus, and that they live out that truth in lives of love.
We also need to note that the description of [the, many] antichrist[s] appears to have little or nothing in common with Paul’s description of the ‘man of lawlessness’ other than the theme of ‘deception’ and the concern that the believers should not be deceived by those who do not tell the truth. This is hardly a concern uniquely related to the ‘end times’…!
With mentions in four verses, in two short circular letters, again this is hardly central to the theological concerns of the writers of the NT overall.
Lastly, the beast is a central figure in the drama of the Book of Revelation. Although there are anticipations of the figure earlier in the text, the ‘beast from the sea’ is fully introduced in Rev 13 as one of an ‘evil trinity’ along with the dragon/Satan, and the ‘beast from the earth’ (Rev 13.1) which later in the text is described as ‘the false prophet’.
The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against it?” (Rev 13.1–4)
The beast from the sea look very much like the dragon which is described in chapter 12—and both together combine the features of the four beasts that emerge from the sea in Daniel 7, which many commentators believe symbolise the four great world empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. And far from making this beast future and mysterious, he appears to go to some lengths to help his readers understand who this beast is, by asking them to ‘calculate’ (the Greek term psephizo) or work out, the number of the beast, which stands for a man’s name.
For some time, there has been a strong scholarly consensus that 666 refers to Nero by means of a numerology known as gematria or isopsephism—adding the value of the letters in a word so that every word has a value, and equating two words with equal value. We know that Nero’s name was sometimes spelled with a final -n; ‘Neron Caesar’ when written in Greek, but transliterated into Hebrew letters adds up to 666 (see the image to the right for the sums).
There are several significant pieces of supporting evidence for this. First, when you write the Greek for ‘beast’, therion, in Hebrew letters, you also arrive at 666, making it clear that 666 is the number of ‘the beast’. Secondly, when you do the same with ‘angel’ in Rev 21, you get the number 144. Third, an early manuscript from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt corrects 666 to 616, which you would do if you understood the gematria, but thought that ‘Nero’ should be spelled without the final n. (There isn’t really any other plausible explanation for why this variant should arise.)
This ‘beast’ is identified with neither the ‘man of lawlessness’ in Paul nor the ‘antichrist’ in John, and in fact neither of these terms occur anywhere in Revelation.
So where does this all get us? First, it is clear that the three terms belong to quite different traditions within the NT, and none of these three traditions attempts to make any specific connections with the others in terms of language—despite the fact that the later writers (of the Johannine letters and of the Book of Revelation) almost certainly knew Paul’s writings.
But it is also clear that there is some kind of connection, particularly since the concern of all three writers appears to be to encourage his readers to stand firm in the truth of the apostolic teaching in the face of pressures from outside the Jesus community to renounce faith and pressures from within to distort the truth about Jesus. Here, Piper makes an interesting observation, but I think then reaches the wrong conclusion from it:
Therefore, the man of lawlessness will be unparalleled in his ability to deceive, as 2 Thessalonians 2:10 says, “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing.” It really could be “in all deception of unrighteousness,” because we are going to see in just a moment that the way he deceives is by making unrighteousness seem pleasurable. (Notice how the word adikia is repeated in verses 10 and 12.) Again, I would argue, Paul is unpacking the prophecies made by Jesus. Jesus said,
Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. . . . For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. . . . So, if they say to you, “Look, he [one person!] is in the wilderness,” do not go out. If they say, “Look, he is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:21, 24, 26–27)
At the close of this climactic period of lawlessness and a great deception led by a person, Paul is saying, the coming of the Son of Man will be unmistakable. Like lightning flashing from horizon to horizon.
Piper is noting the connections between Paul’s language in 2 Thess and Jesus’ teaching in the first half Matt 24. But what he does not notice is that Jesus’ teaching here is not about the distant (for him) future and a remote ‘end times’ that we might be living in, but what the disciples he is teaching will face in their lifetime. He makes this crystal clear by stating emphatically:
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt 24.34).
It is only in the second half of the chapter, from Matt 24.36, that Jesus turns his attention to issues around ‘the end of the age’.
There are connections too between Paul’s discussion of the man of lawlessness, who will ‘use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie’ (2 Thess 2.9) and the ‘signs and wonders’ performed by the second beast on behalf of the first in Rev 13.13–14, but this is a description of magical tricks and propaganda performed by Roman rulers of which we have documentary evidence. In other words, both Paul and John are writing about things already happening in the world of their readers.
The concern of all these texts is to encourage their readers: don’t be deceived by clever schemes and novel doctrines; don’t get caught up in ‘end-times’ speculation; stay faithful to the truth that God came to us in Jesus, and has made our salvation secure in him; and continue to live lives of industry, generosity and grace as you wait with confidence for his return in a world that is looking very shaky. We need the same encouragement!
To find out more about what the NT says about eschatology, the end of the world, and living in hope, you might be interested in my Grove booklet on Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World.