For all his popularity in the modern Evangelical consciousness, the big bad Antichrist appears by that name precisely three times in the Bible, all in John’s epistles. Here are the passages, in descending order of detail, which is also the order in which they appear in the text:
“18Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming [or, “comes” – the verb is present tense], so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:18-22)
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 John 4:1-3)
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 7)
From these texts, it would appear that in the apostle’s mind, “antichrist” is quite simply a label for false teachers. The one who John calls antichrist is anyone who has separated from the fellowship of the apostles, specifically with regard to the truth concerning the person of Christ. Antichrists deny that Jesus is the Christ, and they deny that Christ has come in the flesh. Taken together, the texts don’t really suggest a singular super-antichrist in the future. John is simply reminding his readers that he had warned them that antichrists would come, and then he points out that he was right and here they are. They are going about claiming to be teachers, but in fact denying the apostolic teaching about Christ. And thus far and no farther is the usage of the word “antichrist” in the Bible. The “antichrist” isn’t Hitler, it isn’t the next Democrat President, and it isn’t a future Secretary General of the United Nations who will unite the world under a charming facade which hides a Satanic agenda. Such a future leader may one day arise, but he isn’t who John is looking at.
So where does all the modern antichrist mythology come from? It comes, really, from taking several biblical figures and representations of evil, and lumping them together into one individual who is then projected into our future and assumed to be the coming Antichrist of whom John speaks. Well, putting to one side for a moment the question of whether such a future individual is to be expected, there’s no reason to give him the title of “antichrist” unless he is also a false teacher of the type which John describes. But in that regard he would be no more antichristy than any other false teacher.
So what of those other biblical figures who are assumed to all be “The Antichrist,” despite that title never being used of them? There are mainly three: The “Little Horn” of Daniel 7, the “Man of Lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, and “the Beast” of Revelation 13.
Just to comment briefly on each: The “Little Horn,” whatever the specific reference (personally I think the coalition of the Herods and High Priesthood against Christ and the Christians are what’s in view), was due to appear with the Fourth Beast of Daniel’s vision, the Roman Empire, and would be put down with the coming of the kingdom of the Son of Man. That is what the vision portrays, and that is what happened with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, and later with the Christianization of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th century. Those events signaled the beginning of the reign of King Christ over the nations and the vindication of his people against satanic opposition, first from old Judaism, and second from Greco-Roman paganism. The Little Horn fights against the saints, but nothing is said that implies a universal dominion and a global following of the type people assume the antichrist is to have.
With regard to the Man of Lawlessness, there is really no similarity at all between what is said in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 and what John says about antichrists. Again, in Thessalonians Paul never says or suggests that the Man of Lawlessness rules the world or even has a substantial following. His center of operation is “the temple of God,” which may be a reference to the Jerusalem temple or to the Church, but in either case there is no reason to think he has some kind of worldwide sway that all the nations follow by some kind of satanic hypnosis. Such a conception would have to be read into the text, because it can’t be read out of it.
The Beast of Revelation 13 is admittedly closer to the popular perception of “the antichrist.” But the vision there is clearly drawing on and elaborating the visions of Daniel 7, and there is no reason to think the apostle has anything substantially different in view. Nothing necessitates that we give the vision a wider reference than the Roman Empire and the known world of the time. Those of us who have up-to-the-minute international news and have seen pictures of earth from space can be too quick to over-read terms like “world” and “earth” in the Bible, which usually simply mean “empire” or “land” respectively. And again, even if we insist on projecting The Beast into our future and giving it a global frame of reference, it isn’t what John in his epistles means by “antichrist.” So let’s at least get the terminology straight.
With those thoughts in mind, here’s a quote to consider from theologian James Jordan’s commentary on Daniel:
“Once it was clear that history had moved beyond the Papacy, many [Protestant] commentators shifted to a futurist approach to prophecy. They continued to roll all the bad characters in the Bible into one evil personage, this time not the Pope but some “Antichrist” who would appear in the future just before Jesus returns. Few of these expositors seem to be able to resist the temptation to suggest, if not insist, that this “Antichrist” is due to appear shortly after their commentary is published. In this way, cultural bigotry has continued to inform most advocates of the futurist approach: The decline of European-American (nowadays called “Western”) civilization is identified as the final decline of Christendom and as a sign of the “last days.” The rest of the world does not count. Events in the Middle East and Europe are identified with Biblical prophecy and accorded status as signs of the end of the world. That this approach relegates the red, brown, black, and yellow peoples of the world to the status of historical nonentities does not seem to be noticed by the advocates of this unintentionally racist approach to predictive prophecy.”