Antichrist: One Or Many?

If there are “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18), how is the Papacy the Antichrist?

1 John 2:18 distinguishes between a singular antichrist that will come in the future and the many antichrists that were then already at work: “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” (1 John 2:18). John is aware that his audience had already heard that this antichrist will come, and he does not treat this as a misunderstanding of theirs that he needed to correct. Where could they have heard this from? Matthew Henry comments,

The generality of the church have been informed by divine revelation that there must be a long and fatal adversary to Christ and his church (2 Thes. 2:3-10). No wonder then that there are many harbingers and forerunners of the great one: “Even now there are many antichrists” (1 John 2:18), “the mystery of iniquity already worketh” (2 Thes. 2:7). They were foretold also as the sign of this last time. “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Mat. 24:24).”

John Calvin similarly comments,

“’As ye have heard that antichrist will come‘ He speaks as of a thing well known. We may hence conclude that the faithful had been taught and warned from the beginning respecting the future disorder of the Church, in order that they might carefully keep themselves in the faith they professed, and also instruct posterity in the duty of watchfulness [Ezek. 3:17].”

A.R. Fausset (1821–1910) says that John’s readers heard about the coming of the great Antichrist “from the apostles, preachers of the Gospel (e.g. 2 Thess. 2:3-10; and in the region of Ephesus, Acts 20:29-30)” and that this singular Antichrist “answers to “the little horn having the eyes of a man, and speaking great things” (Dan. 7:8, 20); “the man of sin, son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3); “the beast ascending out of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 11:7; 17:8), or rather, “the false prophet,” the same as “the second beast coming up out of the earth” (Rev. 13:11-18; 16:13).

Calvin laments that there are many under the Papacy who believe there will be a future Antichrist while not realizing that the spiritual tyranny of the Antichrist is already being exercised over them. He continues, noting the similarity of the Jew’s blindness to the identity of Christ with the Roman Catholic’s blindness to the identity of the Antichrist:

“Indeed, the same thing happens altogether to them as to the Jews. For though they hold the promises respecting the Messiah, they are yet further away from Christ than if they had never heard his name. For the imaginary Messiah, whom they have invented for themselves, turns them wholly aside from the Son of God. And were anyone to shew Christ to them from the Law and the Prophets, he would only spend his labor in vain. The Popes have imagined an Antichrist, who for three years and a half is to harass the Church.

“All the marks by which the Spirit of God has pointed out Antichrist, clearly appear in the Pope; but the triennial Antichrist lays fast hold on the foolish Papists, so that seeing they do not see. Let us then remember that Antichrist has not only been announced by the Spirit of God, but that also the marks by which he may be distinguished have been mentioned.”

Calvin continues, explaining how John’s readers did not have a false understanding of the one eminent Antichrist to come vs the many lesser antichrists already at work:

“‘Even now are there many antichrists.‘ This may seem to have been added by way of correction, as they falsely thought that it would be some one kingdom; but it is not so. They who suppose that he would be only one man, are indeed greatly mistaken. For Paul, referring to a future defection, plainly shows that it would be a certain body or kingdom (2 Thess. 2:3). He first predicts a defection that would prevail through the whole Church, as a universal evil [“that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first“]; he then makes the head of the apostasy the adversary of Christ, who would sit in the temple of God, claiming for himself divinity and divine honors. [“and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.“] Except we desire willfully to err, we may learn from Paul’s description to know Antichrist. That passage I have already explained; it is enough now to touch on it by the way.

He then asks how 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 can be reconciled with 1 John 2:18, which says that there were already many antichrists?

“To this I reply, that John meant no other thing than to say, that some particular sects had already risen, which were forerunners of a future Antichrist; for Cerinthus, Basilides, Marcion, Valentinus, Ebion, Arrius, and others, were members of that kingdom which the Devil afterwards raised up in opposition to Christ. Properly speaking, Antichrist was not yet in existence; but the mystery of iniquity was working secretly [2 Thess. 2:7]. But John uses the name “antichrist,” that he might effectually stimulate the care and solicitude of the godly to repel frauds.

Finally, Calvin exhorts us to stay vigilant against the wiles and schemes of the devil:

“But if the Spirit of God even then commanded the faithful to stand on their watch, when they saw at a distance only signs of the coming enemy, much less is it now a time for sleeping, when he holds the Church under his cruel and oppressive tyranny, and openly dishonors Christ.”

3 thoughts on “Antichrist: One Or Many?

  1. It seems like any one or everyone.. Will be or hast to be involved in the act.. it’s a wonder that it’s not expressed Emphasize ING LY have so many of the Nations become of the most drunken influence… but it’s totally prophesied… Evil sure begets Evil…Ya better keep your hat on about it… we’re all going to go for a ride…

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  2. “’Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come (a special antichrist, the chief of all others, who is now manifest to be the pope of Rome), even now are there many Antichrists (heretics, denying either the natures of Christ or His offices, or the union and the distinction of His natures) whereby we know that it is the last time’ (1 John 2:18)… Papists deny Jesus to be Christ, for although in words they magnify Him, yet in their doctrine by necessary consequence they deny Him to be a King, a Priest, a Prophet. ‘Who is a liar (a deceiver, a seducer) but he that denieth that Jesus is Christ (the Messiah or Savior of mankind)? The same is that Antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son’ (1 John 2:22).”
    —William Perkins, A Case of Conscience, Works VIII, pp. 603-4.

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  3. “The orthodox can therefore distinguish between (1) the antichrist considered generally (generaliter), as indicated by the plural use of the word in 1 John and by the “spirit of antichrist” now in the world, and (2) the antichrist considered specially (specialiter et kat’ exochēn), as indicated by singular usage.

    “The former term indicates all heretics and vicious opponents of the doctrine of Christ; the latter, the great adversary of Christ who will appear in the last days. Of the latter, the antichristus properly so called, the orthodox note several characteristics. (1) He arises from within the church and sets himself against the church and its doctrine, since his sin is described as apostasia (q.v.), or falling away. (2) He will sit in templo Dei, in the temple of God, which is to say, in the church. (3) He will rule as the head of the church. (4) From his seat in templo Dei and his position as caput ecclesiae, he will exalt himself above the true God and identify himself as God. (5) He will cause a great defection from the truth so that many will join him in his apostasy. (6) He will exhibit great power and cause many “lying wonders,” founded upon the power of Satan, in a rule that will endure until the end of time.

    “On the basis of these characteristics, the orthodox generally identify the antichrist as the papacy, the pontifex Romanus. Some attempted to argue for a distinction between an antichristus orientalis and an antichristus occidentalis, an Eastern antichrist and a Western one, the former title belonging to Muhammad, the latter to the papacy; but the difficulty in viewing Islam, or any form of paganism, as an apostasy, strictly so-called, led the orthodox to identify Rome alone as antichrist. They also reject the identification of antichrist with the imperium Romanum, the Roman Empire, on the ground that the antichrist is not a secular power or a result of pagan history. Finally, they also reject the identification of any single pope as antichrist on the ground that antichrist’s rule and power extend farther and endure longer than the rule and power of any one man. Thus antichrist is the institution of the papacy, which has arisen within the church and which assumes religious supremacy over all Christians, seats itself in the temple of God, and builds its power on lies, wonders, and apostasy.”
    —Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin & Greek Theological Terms (2nd ed., 2017), antichristus, pp. 32-33.

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