3.3.1. The Antichrist

3.3.1. The Antichrist

According to the dominant Christian view, toward the end of time mankind will undergo a process of decadent evolution marked by sufferings, pain, wars, earthquakes, floods, fire, diseases, famine, corruption and ultimately the apogee of all evils in the person of the Antichrist, the supreme tyrant. The advent of the Antichrist signifies the culmination of the moral degradation, a mundane state in which the sin will be so strongly rooted in human society that divine intervention will be necessary for the reestablishment of order and the salvation of the world from obliteration.

The Antichrist is a fascinating entity. His tremendous power, his dreadful darkness and the major role he will have in history have inflamed the imagination of the Christian theologians and fueled endless speculations. The Antichrist is probably the most debated apocalyptic entity, for three reasons: his advent in the world precedes the Second Coming of Christ, the fate of the Antichrist is to be defeated by Christ, and the Book of Revelation reveals the number 666 as a clue for the identification of the Antichrist.

The Antichrist is not the incarnation of Lucifer, the fallen archangel who rebelled against God at the beginning of time, but the creation (the child) of Lucifer (2 Thessalonians 2:9). The name “antichrist” is mentioned for the first time in the First Epistle of John: “it is the last hour: and as ye heard that antichrist cometh, even now have there arisen many antichrists” (1 John 2:18); “Who is the liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, [even] he that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). But the biblical texts and the theological works also name Lucifer’s offspring as the “Son of Perdition,” the “Deceiver,” the “Man of Sin” or the “Beast”: “the beast that cometh up out of the abyss shall make war with them, and overcome them, and kill them” (Revelation 11:7); “And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns, and seven heads” (Revelation 13:1). In any case, all the names and descriptions used for the identification or the appearance of the Antichrist reveal the antagonistic relationship toward Jesus Christ, the Son of God:

let no man beguile you in any wise: for [it will not be,] except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).

The purpose of the Antichrist is to deny God’s authority and existence, to convince mankind to embrace sin and to become the exclusive divine and mundane authority. While Jesus Christ won the world through love and free will, the Antichrist will subdue it through constraint and fear (Revelation 13:15-16); God the Father sent God the Son to save the world through sacrifice and truth, Lucifer will send the Antichrist to destroy the world through selfishness and deceit (John 8:44-45); and while Christ came to represent God, the Antichrist will represent himself (John 5:43).

The biblical texts use, not accidentally, the terms “antichrists” and “antichrist” (or “Antichrist,” with capital letter). When it is used in the singular, the word “antichrist” designates an entity described in Revelation 13. The Antichrist or the beast from the sea from Revelation 13 (or simply the “Beast”) can only be one. Instead, when it is used in the plural form, “antichrists” is a generic name for all who, as the real Antichrist, negatively influence the course of history by using military and political power.

It is believed that the Antichrist will imitate Christ and consequently he will be a man. However, throughout history the term “antichrist” was also applied to systems of ideas, political and religious beliefs, countries and even organizations. The image of the Antichrist has a powerful psychological impact, the certainty of his imminent advent often being a cause of generalized stress, chronic alarms and irrational actions. Moreover, the image of the Antichrist was repeatedly embezzled in order to achieve political or personal goals. The Papacy, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler or the Soviet Union played the role of the Antichrist on more or less religious grounds. Currently it is believed that, regardless of the material shape he will take, the influence of the Antichrist will be global, without limitation to a single continent or a single country.

The main aspect that arouses people’s imagination is the number 666 – the key offered by the Bible for the identification of the Antichrist. In this point the biblical text seems to refer to numerology: “Here is wisdom. He that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred and sixty and six” (Revelation 13:18).

Numerology is the domain in which the relations between numbers and words (or letters) are deciphered. But, although it is related to mathematics, numerology is not an exact science; the method of calculation and the process of relating numbers with words are relative and debatable. This is why since the 2nd century the number 666 has been the subject of countless speculations.

Traditionally, Christians associate the Antichrist with the Messiah expected by the Jews. Interestingly, medieval Jewish eschatology speaks about Armilus, a false king who torments the Jewish people at the end of times and he is killed by the Messiah. But the image of Armilus appeared long after the advent of the Christian religion, possibly as a reaction to the Roman and Christian oppression.26 Armilus might be a Jewish copy of the Christian Antichrist. In Sefer Zerubbabel (the “Apocalypse of Zerubbabel”), a 7th-century apocryphal text, Armilus is presented as an offspring of Satan and a virgin. Armilus was supposed to be killed by the Messiah in a final battle in 1058 AD, after which the Messianic Age was going to be established.27

The Jewish canon rejects the image of Armilus. The Jewish messiah is destined to establish the Messianic Age (no one knows how) or to take the leadership of the world in a Messianic Age already installed through historical inertia. He will rule the world and will preach Judaism. But Judaism does not recognize Christ as the Son of God. Hence, a world leader who denies Christ’s divinity is the perfect image of the Christian Antichrist.

The advent of the Antichrist is directly related to the apocalyptic signs of the apostasy and the great tribulation. The first, the apostasy (Latin: apostasia – “desertion”), means “abandonment of faith” and refers to a period of time characterized by indifference toward religious precepts, selfishness, excess of food and drinking, the perpetuation of injustice and intemperance, idolatry or any other practices that are abominable in the face of God. The apostasy chiefly designates a desertion of faith and secondarily a deviation from the right faith by adopting heretical teachings.

The apostasy has in its center the image of Antichrist. But it is not clear whether the apostasy is a product of the Antichrist’s actions or it is established beforehand, preparing in fact his advent (2 Thessalonians 2:3). The apostasy is generally seen as a global abandonment of faith, an unusual, unique and unparalleled state of moral degradation. However, because it has no spatial-temporal reference, the image of the apostasy has been a powerful propagandistic tool, unscrupulously used to denigrate religious adversaries. At the time of the Great Schism Orthodoxism saw the apostasy in Catholicism, as Catholicism saw the apostasy in Orthodoxism. The Protestants of the Reformation saw the apostasy in Catholicism and popery, while the Catholics perceived the apostasy in the Reformation and Protestantism. Beginning with the 17th century the apostasy has been seen in the propagation of atheism and the emancipation of science from the tutelage of religion. Today, priests and pastors curse the world for the so-called spiritual ruination brought by the economic prosperity (Matthew 24:37-39), while the fanatical sects proclaim the apostasy of the entire world in order to emphasize their own holiness and to announce the end of the world. But, realistically speaking, there will always be a religious effervescence, with people who will cease to believe and people who will begin to believe.

Just like the apostasy, the sign of the great tribulation is not an event or an apocalyptic entity, but a period of time: “for then shall be great tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). The great tribulation seems to be referring to a temporal frame of unknown extent, within which mankind will experience the hardest conditions of existence. The opinions regarding the great tribulation varied over time. In the first four centuries it was believed to refer to the Roman persecutions. In the 16th century Protestants identified the apostasy with the corrupt doctrines of Catholicism and the great tribulation with the thousand-year persecution of those who had stood against the papal tyranny. And at the time of the Counter-Reformation it was established that the great tribulation is the consequence of the apostasy; it designates the Antichrist’s future reign, right before the Second Coming, within which people’s faith will be tested to the limit.

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