Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. By Bernard McGinn
Harper Collins 369 pp. $32.50
You have heard,” writes St. John in his epistles, “that Antichrist is coming, so now many Antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Who is Antichrist? He (or they) comes out of the community of faith but is not part of it. His opposition to God is doctrinal: he denies “the Father and the Son”; he refuses to “confess Jesus”; he will “not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
These few references are all that we have in the New Testament. Despite this, Antichrist has captured the imagination of Christians across the centuries and engendered a disturbing, sometimes frightening tradition. The reasons for the Christian fascination are not hard to find. The word “Antichrist” itself is so compelling that were there only one verse in the New Testament that used it, the commentators across the centuries would still have written enormous commentaries on that verse. That Anti-christ has to do with the volatile mixture of the last times and the denial of Christ only adds to his allure. He represents all that is obscure, conspiratorial, chaotic, and evil in the Bible.
Among his companions from the scriptures are the pseudochristoi who, Christ says, will come “in my name” and will “lead you astray”-”the lawless one” (2 Thessalonians 2:10) who, by the power of Satan, will impress the faithful with false signs and wonders, offering “a strong delusion” to tempt “those who are perishing”; “Gog and Magog” who, under Satan’s command, will gather the nations for the final battle with Christ (Revelation 20:2-10); the “beasts” of Revelation (16, 17, 19) that harken back to the “beasts” of Daniel (7); “the sons of Belial” (Deuteronomy 13:13 and passim) who are “base” or “worthless,” who practice idolatry, drunkenness, disrespect, evil speech, who are “empty men” (2 Chronicles 13:7); and the conspiring nations and rulers who take counsel against the Lord (Psalms 2:1-3).
In the history of the Church, Anti-christ has been variously identified with the spirit of heresy (Polycarp), the Roman empire (Irenaeus), the resurrected Nero (Chrysostom), and the Muslim, Saracen, Turk, or Jew. The Waldensians and Spiritual Franciscans identified him with the failed papacy (as did Wyclif, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Cranmer). Roman Catholics, loyal to the Pope, returned the favor and had their own list of Protestant Anti-christs, beginning with Luther. In modernity, political figures from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein have been tagged with the infamous title.
Bernard McGinn, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and President of the American Society of Church History, announces at the beginning of his careful, detailed book that he wishes to take Anti-christ “seriously but not literally.” By the time he is done, he has covered everything from the rise of Jewish apocalypticism to Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby and the Omen trilogy from the 1970s. He concludes by quoting Denis the Carthusian: “Have we not worn ourselves out with that accursed Anti-christ?”
McGinn’s answer appears to be “yes.” Except for the vulgar allegiance of what McGinn calls “Fundamentalist Christians,” “the legend” of Antichrist no longer captures the imagination: “Most believing Christians seem puzzled, even slightly embarrassed by Antichrist, especially given the legend’s use in fostering hatred and oppression of groups.”
While it is possible to reappropriate symbols like Antichrist from the past, it is, says McGinn, a tricky business. He goes about it gingerly by first calling upon Jung’s reflections on the shadow side of reality. Evil is part of the archetypal forms present to the individual and collective self. It is “psychologically unwise” to ignore entirely what Antichrist represents as the counterpart to the good symbol of the Christ. McGinn next reminds the reader of the persistence of the apocalyptic mentality in the late twentieth century. This mentality is indicative of “the necessity of living in expectation of the future,” both in hope and in fear. Antichrist is important insofar as he is a window on to the apocalyptic worldview. These efforts of McGinn to make Antichrist relevant are decidedly modest, even half-hearted; they cover only seven pages out of 280 pages of text.
In Antichrist , McGinn practices historical criticism in the classic mode of the Enlightenment. Rational, scientific investigation of texts is employed to establish the meaning of the topic at hand. The interpreter acts as an objective outsider who, while assiduously practicing disinterested awareness, uncovers the facts and pronounces final judgment. The subject-matter under investigation, whatever it is, is put in its place. The interpreter is superior to his subject because he exercises intellectual control.
The Enlightenment method is powerful. Antichrist is a gold mine of research, enhanced by the occasional attractive illustration from the history of Christian art and pamphleteering. But its ultimate effect is to make the reader dispense with Antichrist as one of those portions of the scriptural witness whose time is past. The unmistakable conclusion of McGinn’s book is that Antichrist is dead-or he should be.
To dispense with Antichrist, however, would be a tragic mistake. In his otherwise scrupulous survey of sources, McGinn neglects that gifted generation of dogmaticians who came to maturity in Europe during the two decades between the world wars: Paul Althaus, Hermann Diem, Emil Brunner, Heinrich Vogel, Edmund Schlink, and the Roman Catholic Michael Schmaus-all of whom have written grippingly of Antichrist as a revealed truth that speaks to our age.
Their argument is as follows: Christianity has been an essential force in the emergence of modernity. Christian faith challenged the pessimism and resignation of ancient culture and unleashed new possibilities for political organization, cultural expression, scientific and technical exploration, and the emergence of the individual. These possibilities resulted from the sacred fact that faith confesses: Christ frees humanity from the law and all the burdens of oppressive, external authorities. The freedom of the gospel is so powerful that it extends even to those who do not call upon the name of Christ. And yet, without Christ, the divine gift of freedom is misused to rebel against God and reject his law. This misuse of the gift of freedom is the realm of the Antichrist. It permeates the history of post-Classical Western civilization as politics, culture, science, and individualism are perverted for selfish ends. Even within the Church, the gospel, separated from obedience to God, becomes a permissive principle of undiscriminating tolerance to bless human desire and fantasy.
Have we “worn ourselves out with that accursed Antichrist?” No. Antichrist is not dead. On the contrary, he fuels the engine that travels down the tracks of the Mainline.
Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.