AFTER biographies of God and the Devil, Philip Almond now turns his attention to the Antichrist. He does so with characteristic clarity and lightly worn learning. No stone, it seems, is left unturned.
The story so far lasts 2000 years, from New Testament times to the secular speculations of The Omen and Left Behind. It takes many twists and turns, but essentially it boils down to three questions, three tensions, three wrong turnings — and one conclusion.
The three questions are these: who is the Antichrist? where is he to be found (and it is invariably a “he”)? and when was he, or when will he be, active — or is he now?
Insofar as there is any degree of consensus, he is not the devil, but they are definitely working in tandem to thwart Christ and Christianity. He could be a tyrant threatening the Church from without, such as an emperor, or, more troubling, Jews; or he might be a deceiver corrupting the Church from within — the popes feature often. Timewise, as 1 John 2 testifies, he has both come into the world, and will yet come again.
This latter point signals the first of the tensions inherent in Antichrist’s biography, between the Antichrist of the future yet to come and the many Antichrists already present.
The tension between the Antichrist as the eschatological tyrant outside the Church, or the Great Deceiver within it, dominated debate at the end of the first millennium, and has formed two competing narratives ever since; likewise, the third tension between a supernatural Antichrist or a human one.
Alamy“The Beast as described in the Revelations”, a hand-coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), English artist and caricaturist. Dated 1808, this is one of the many illustrations in Philip Almond’s book
Three wrong turnings identified by Almond include a tendency to project on to every perceived enemy the Antichrist tag. Also, there is an apparently irresistible urge to home in on exact predictions of when Antichrist will trigger the final conflict between God and the forces of evil — all embarrassingly wrong. By no means least is a tendency to postulate historical conflicts between good and evil, be they past, present, or future, as a diversionary tactic to avoid confronting that conflict within ourselves.
These key topics are explored chronologically, beginning with the New Testament and especially the Revelation of St John, which, in fact, contains no mention of Antichrist: he was back written into it by St Irenaeus in the second century.
By the 13th century, the monks Adso and Joachim, arguing for eschatological tyrant and papal deceiver respectively, dominated the debate.
While Protestantism gleefully pursued the papal-deceiver option, other candidates for the role of tyrannical Antichrist came to the fore, notably successive Napoleons, dissenters, liberal theologians, and 20th-century dictators.
Enlightenment scepticism has called into question belief in a cosmic conflict between Christ and Antichrist, especially when used to solve the problem of evil. Almond himself concludes that cosmic nihilism may well be the only remaining alternative. But, he argues, that does not absolve us from taking evil seriously in the here and now, and winning the battle between good and evil within ourselves, “and so leaving the world a little better for our having been in it”.
This engaging, often entertaining, and lavishly illustrated book may well be the last word on the subject — but only time will tell.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Antichrist: A new biography
Philip C. Almond
Cambridge University Press £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £27