Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1 John 2: The Antichrist?

Pop quiz, kids: Who is the antichrist? And don't say Russian figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko--that's a copout. Okay, time's up. Did your answer look something like this?

Not bad. Christian tradition delivers us a vision of the antichrist very similar to the one given in Richard Donner's 1976 horror classic The Omen. The antichrist is a diabolical, often secular leader who appears right before the end of the world to gather the forces of evil for battle against divine good.

Pop quiz question 2: from which Biblical book do we get the term "antichrist"? If your answer is "Revelation," you may be surprised to hear that you're wrong. For the term "antichrist" appears elsewhere, and only in 1 and 2 John. And its technical meaning is, frankly, a little banal.

The author of 1 John--I'll just refer to him as "John" from here on out--introduces the antichrist in his second chapter:

"Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also" (2: 22-23).

At a very basic level, an antichrist is just someone who "denies that Jesus is the Christ." Thus Muslims and Jews are antichrists, as are secular humanists and Taoists and African Yoruba practitioners. In simple terms, antichrists are unbelievers, so at any given moment, the world is filled with tens of millions of them.

But given the fact that "Christ" is a messianic term--a divine title, not a name--one may reject Christ and still accept Jesus. Said differently, one may be an antichrist without being anti-Jesus.

And indeed, most scholars believe that John's message reaches this level of nuance. Many argue that in deriding antichrists, John is not criticizing non-believers. His targets are instead those who teach different interpretations of Jesus. Thus, the "one who denies the Father and the Son" is not a Jesus-hater; he's just someone who, perhaps, denies that Jesus is God's divine child.

John elaborates earlier in the chapter: "now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us" (1 John 2: 18-19).

Here, John makes a startling admission: the antichrists "went out from us," and they could "have remained with us." Though John disowns them now, it seems as if he knows them. Many argue that "antichrists" are those who no longer teach John's version of Christianity. They are not devils; they are schismatics.

Because of passages like this, many assume that John writes to a Christian community in crisis. Missionaries teaching orthodox Christianity have promulgated a particular interpretation of Jesus to believers. But other early Christians have left that community and begun to teach a competing message. John, then, writes his letter in defense of his version of Christian orthodoxy.

So at the end of the day, antichrists are really just anti-Johns. And they certainly aren't murderous six-year-old's with "666" mysteriously tattooed on their scalps. At least not yet ...

1 comment:

  1. This is another interesting interpretation that grows out of historical knowledge. Very interesting, liberating, objective thoughts. I like the way you take on these modern day apocalyptic tendencies and quiet the waters with thoughtful study of scripture. It reminds us that God expects us to use our reasoning capacity in coming to a better understanding of our place in things.

    The Pious Pastor


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