Antichrists: When pagans wanna see Christianity gone.

1 John 2.18-23.

There are four definitions of antichrist we find in our culture:

  1. Someone who’s anti-Christ: They object to Christ Jesus and his authority, refuse to recognize him, and counter those who do.
  2. Someone who rejects the orthodox Christian view that Jesus the Nazarene is Christ. They insist he’s not, or that he’s not human, not divine, not historical.
  3. Someone who claims they, not Jesus the Nazarene, is Christ.
  4. The Beast, Rv 13.7 or lawless one, 2Ti 2.3 an End Times figure who attempts to deceive and conquer the world. Christ Jesus overthrows him.

Most of the time when people, Christians and pagans alike, refer to an antichrist, they mean the Beast. And it may surprise you to learn the Beast is never called an antichrist in the scriptures. Seriously. Oh, it’s definitely anti-Christ, so medieval Christians got into the habit of calling it Antichrist, and it stuck. But in the bible it’s just the θηρίον/thiríon, “wild animal,” KJV “beast.”

The apostles reserved the word ἀντίχριστος/antíhristos, “antichrist,” for what I’m writing about today, and what John discussed in today’s passage: Pagans who oppose Jesus the Nazarene. People who are literally anti Christ.

You know the type. They’re not just unbelievers, like the two-thirds of the people on this planet who don’t acknowledge, or very casually acknowledge but don’t mean it, that Jesus is Lord. Unbelief doesn’t make you an antichrist. To become an antichrist you gotta actively be against Christ. Antichrists aren’t passive nonbelievers: They wanna fight Jesus.

Sometimes they do believe Jesus exists, that he’s really in heaven, that he’s really God; and they’re pissed at him, so they’re having a tantrum. A lot of Christian apologists assume all antichrists are like this: “If you don’t believe he’s real, why’re you so angry with him? Means you actually do believe he’s real.” No it doesn’t. It’s exactly like when anti-Muslims get angry at Allah and attack him: They don’t believe he’s real either. (They definitely don’t believe he’s God.) They might be angry at other things, and are misplacing or redirecting their anger, but no it doesn’t necessarily have belief and disappointment at its core. But yes, sometimes it does. If Jesus were standing right in front of these particular antichrists, they’d wanna knock him out.

In recent decades Christians—with a certain level of worry—have pointed to what they fear is an upsurge of “New Atheism”: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Michael Newdow, and various vocal antichrists. They’re nontheists who bash religion in general, but they really go after Christianity with hammer and tongs. These Christians fear the militant nontheists may convince more people to reject and fight Christianity, and maybe even try to get it banned in our homelands. First in the public square, then in private.

I have a longer memory than these fearful people. There have always been militant nontheists. Back during the Cold War, when the God-fearing United States was battling the godless Communists, nontheists were looked on with suspicion. They were considered radicals, possibly treasonous, ’cause they were undermining good ol’ fashioned American values and society. The more outspoken an nontheist got, the more backlash they got. But they were definitely around. Noam Chomsky, H.L. Mencken, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Linus Pauling, Ayn Rand, Gene Roddenberry, Gore Vidal, and others were very outspoken against religion and Christianity. Ask any nontheist nowadays about their forebears, and they’ll kindly point ’em out to you.

Now that the Red Menace is no longer so menacing (especially with all the Christians in Russia, China, and Cuba, and hopefully underground in North Korea), militant nontheism has gone mainstream in the west. These “New Atheists” feel free to be openly critical of Christianity. They get away with it ’cause nobody doubts their patriotism anymore (even though it’s rare a nontheist will get elected to public office). Plus God hasn’t struck these guys down with lightning. True, that’s mixing up Jehovah and Zeus… as if nontheists care, ’cause all gods are the same to them.

Nontheists are the most obvious antichrists, but they’re far from the only ones. Don’t forget other religions. Judaism doesn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah either, and sometimes its practitioners attack Jesus lest anyone get the idea Jews can become Christian (you know, like the first apostles). Certain Hindus are outraged at the way Christianity levels their caste system, so they fight it vigorously. Certain Muslims get offended when anyone (including a growing number of Muslims!) ranks Prophet Jesus higher than Prophet Muhammad, and likewise fight Christian beliefs, and even get downright antichristian. But there remains a big difference between religious and irreligious antichrists: Religious ones often remember to behave with some degree of goodness. Irreligious ones don’t feel any such restriction whatsoever.

John, and first-century antichrists.

In John’s day, in John’s church, antichrists cropped up. They got mixed up in his church… then objected to what he taught about Jesus, left, and shared their heretic ideas with anyone who’d listen. Whether they were influenced by gnostics, or started their own gnostic groups, I dunno.

But John figured they were an obvious sign the end was coming soon. ’Cause Jesus had warned him (and us) there’d be antichrists. Mk 13.6

1 John 2.18-23 KWL
18 Children, it’s the last hour, and just as you heard “Antichrist is coming!”
so many antichrists already came—o you know it’s the last hour.
19 They came from us. But they aren’t from us:
If they were from us, they’d have remained with us,
but they left so everyone could have it revealed they aren’t from us.
20 You have an anointing from the Holy Spirit and know all these things.
21 I don’t write you because you don’t know the truth already,
but because you know it, and that every lie doesn’t come from truth.
22 What’s the lie, if not the denial, “Jesus isn’t Christ”?
This, who denies the Father and the Son, is an antichrist.
23 Everyone who denies the Son, doesn’t have the Father.
One who confesses the Son, has the Father as well.

And we still have this phenomenon in our churches. People who dabble in Christianity, or who grow up Christian, but who don’t really believe Jesus is Lord and God, and are just going through the motions for now. Some of them can suspend disbelief forever, but for many the Holy Spirit’s gonna force them to deal with their doubts and pick a side: Believe in Jesus, or not.

So antichrists are Christianists who grew weary of their façade, left church, quit Jesus, went nontheist, and began mocking their old phony lifestyle. They learned how to fake the Spirit’s fruit, how to fake supernatural acts, how to fake prophecy, how to pretend to feel God’s presence… and they presume everybody in Christendom is faking it like they did.

Blaming bad Christians.

There’s been a trend among Christians for the past four decades: We claim people turn antichrist (or turn pagan, or stray from Christianity) because of Christians behaving badly. Just like Father Brennan Manning’s spoken-word intro to the 1995 DC Talk song, “What If I Stumble?”:

”The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today are Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

All due respect to Manning, but that’s rubbish. “I’d follow Jesus if it weren’t for all the a--holes who call themselves Christian”? I follow him regardless. Loads of Christians do. This excuse is the same crap the Judeans tried to pull when they told Jesus, “Show us a miracle and we’ll believe.” Jn 6.30, Mt 12.38 No they wouldn’t.

The real cause, as usual, is good ol’ human depravity. People wanna do as we will. If we believe in Jesus, but don’t really wanna follow him, we’ll invent loopholes and do as we will. If we don’t believe in Jesus, we won’t need loopholes; we’ll just be pagan or nontheist, and do as we will. But sometimes these folks run into Christians who wanna evangelize ’em, and in order to get these Christians off their back, the guilt card works great: “If you Christians were only more like Christ, I’d believe.” Again, no they wouldn’t.

Bad Christians are an easy target. They make it easy for antichrists to point to them, and paint all Christians as the rotten fruit of a rotten religion. I gotta agree with the antichrists about hypocrisy and bad religion; they’re not wrong. But that’s not the reason they’re antichrists. Here are the real reasons:

  • They were raised pagan. Had no beliefs one way or another about Christ. Till they met militant nontheists who insisted religion is stupid, religious people are fools, and religious leaders (who’d include Jesus, I suppose) are con artists. They fell in, and now proclaim the same thing. But they’re not speaking from any experience. Just regurgitating stuff they’ve heard. Makes ’em feel good to imagine they haven’t been brainwashed by overzealous hypocrites who unquestioningly follow the teachings of a few charismatic preachers… hey, waitaminnit.
  • They were raised or influenced by bad Christians who seriously botched their representation of Jesus. The bad Christians were jerks, who claimed Jesus authorized their awful, control-freak behavior, and was kind of a jerk too. The antichrists feel they’re quite right to object to a bad founder of a bad religion. Like the jerklike Christians, they found a few verses they could quote out of context which make Jesus sound overzealous, crazy, or violent, and that’s how they choose to reinterpret him. Or they adopted some of the weirder ideas about Historical Jesus, and are attacking that guy.
  • They knew Christians who made really outlandish claims about Jesus. Made him sound like a genie who’d grant every wish. Turns out he’s not that way at all, and once he told them no, they felt betrayed, blamed him… and figured they’d get him back by quitting him. Like I said, many apologists naïvely think every antichrist is bitter at Jesus. Nope. It’s a percentage, but ’tain’t that big.
  • Actually they don’t think Christ is awful. But they’ve found when they bash him a little, it really freaks Christians out… and that’s kinda fun. Besides, they figure Jesus is long dead, so who’s it hurting?… other than Christians.
  • They joined a religion who sees Christ as competition. I already mentioned a few. They wanna neutralize Jesus’s influence. So they reinterpret him, or even slander him, through that religion’s lenses.

Basically comes down to ignorance, willful or not; or intellectual dishonesty.

Dishonesty’s a pretty common behavior among antichrists. They’ll claim they were raised Christian, but our hypocrisy made ’em quit. The dishonest part is whose hypocrisy made ’em quit: Their own. They never wanted to know Christ, so they never did. I grant they might’ve held some beliefs, or even had personal experiences. But like the Hebrews in the Exodus, none of these experiences sunk in. If they really knew God, they’d leave his bad followers for a better church; nontheism would never be an option. Neither would going antichrist.

Identifying antichrists.

John’s definition of antichrist was very simple:

1 John 2.22 KWL
What’s the lie, if not the denial, “Jesus isn’t Christ”?
This, who denies the Father and the Son, is an antichrist.

Outside our churches, it’s really easy to identify antichrists. They’re the ones boldly bashing Christianity and Christ. But within our churches, they’re a little harder to detect because they’re not overtly being hostile. If they don’t believe Jesus is Lord and Christ, if they reject what the scriptures tell us about Jesus’s relationship to his Father, John calls ’em antichrists.

And if you don’t know how they feel about Jesus… well there’s always fruit. If they lack the Spirit’s fruit, if they act like they’re still in darkness instead of the light, they should stand out clearly.

We need to identify the antichrists among us. For two reasons.

First we want ’em to meet, get to know, and follow Jesus! We never want ’em to become those apostates who claim they went to church for years but never authentically encountered Jesus: Make sure that yes, they did indeed. Sometimes it’ll stop their apostasy dead in its tracks. Hate to tell you, though: Sometimes they’ll leave anyway, and ruin themselves all the more by denying what they truly saw. Either way, we did our job of actually introducing them to Jesus.

Second, we need to make really sure they never ever slip into leadership positions. ’Cause they can. And do. All the time. A nice guy becomes the music pastor, or youth pastor, or small group leader, or Sunday school teacher… and he has doubts, or she has heretic ideas, or he’s fruitless and graceless and backbiting and unkind (but talented!), or she’s checking out which boys in the youth group she could get away with nailing (but she’s the pastor’s daughter!). It’s every church’s worst-case scenario, and it happens way too often. These folks get found out, kicked out, and spend the rest of their lives bitterly denouncing Christianity and Christ. How’d they slip past us? Because we were looking at their façade, not their fruit.

Watch out, John reminded us. Don’t fall for any good-looking, impressive-sounding Christian. Test ’em. 1Jn 4.1-6 Check for humility. Make sure they actually do know Jesus. Look for fruit. When in doubt, nudge ’em towards God-encounters. Make it impossible for them to stagger in any antichrist direction, ’cause they know Christ. Make sure of that for yourself, while you’re at it.