Bobbi Dykema Katsanis. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Editors: David A Leeming, Kathryn Madden, Stanton Marlan. 2010. Springer.
Antichrist, at the most basic level of understanding, is simply any opponent of the Christ (q.v.), or, more commonly, the ultimate final opponent of Christ. This figure embodies all that is antithetical to Christ, Christ’s teachings, and Christ’s salvific action in the world as Christians understand these concepts. While based in a few rather obscure passages of Christian scripture, the concept of Antichrist and accompanying narratives and descriptions about Antichrist’s identifying characteristics, deeds and context have developed in a long and rich tradition from the earliest days of Christianity.
Antichrist is mentioned as such only once each in two of the three epistles of John in the Christian New Testament. However, Christian theologians from very early on began associating Antichrist with the Beast described in the scenes of final judgment in the Apocalypse (q.v.) of John (also known as the book of Revelation), as well as with apocalyptic imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures book of the prophet Daniel, and with brief apocalyptic moments in each of the four canonical Christian gospels. The main thrust of the Antichrist story is that in the final years of life as human beings know it on Earth, Antichrist through his charismatic powers of deception will come to hold sway over the affairs of humankind for a period of seven years. At the end of this period, Antichrist will ultimately be defeated by Christ and condemned to eternal torment in the lake of fire, after which all people, living or dead, will be subject to final judgment and either eternal reward or punishment for their earthly deeds and faith (or lack thereof). Adele Yarbro Collins relates Antichrist imagery to a primeval “combat myth” of cosmic struggle between good and evil at both the beginning and end of the world.
The earliest influential expansion of the Antichrist legend beyond scriptural accounts was originally entitled A Little Book on Antichrist. This tenth-century work by the French Cluniac abbot Adso describes the figure’s identifying characteristics and context in detail. Many later writers continued to embroider upon the legend, bringing the Antichrist narrative to a level of detail on par with that of the vitae of many important Christian saints. Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) developed a three-phase system of the final days in which Antichrist would reign over the last few years of human life on earth, and Dante’s Inferno associates Antichrist with those who have committed the sin of simony, i.e., selling ecclesial office for profit. The Antichrist narrative gained peak traction during the Protestant Reformation, when reformers such as Wyclif, Hus, and especially Luther hurled the polemical language of Antichrist at their religious opponents, primarily the papacy.
Further developments of the Antichrist legend in the modern period have been more subdued; yet the legend still carries weight, particularly with American Christian fundamentalists. The Zionist movement in the state of Israel has been associated with aspects of the apocalyptic narrative of Antichrist in the writings of Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth), and of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye (the Left Behind series of novels, films and television shows). Important modern literary and filmic treatments of the figure of Antichrist include Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, and Roman Polansk’s adaptation of the Ira Levin novel Rosemary’s Baby. The figures of Sauron and Saruman in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy also function as important. Antichrist figures in the popular imagination, as do horror-genre versions such as Stephen King’s The Stand.
Antichrist is characterized primarily as a deceptive figure whose main danger is his charismatic ability to lead some, but not all, faithful Christians astray. The reign of Antichrist over human affairs in the coming period of “end times” will be marked by persecution, oppression and tyranny, and by various “signs of the times,” including war, earthquake, famine, and disease. Antichrist has been specifically identified by contemporaries with various tyrannous figures in history, including Antiochus IV, Nero, Henry II of England, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Pope John XXII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, and Saddam Hussein, and collective figures such as “the Jews.” Interestingly, Adolf Hitler appears less often in contemporaneous Antichrist rhetoric than does Mussolini; the careful interpreter of biblical and developing Christian Antichrist mythopoetics in any age would not have failed to note that Antichrist is traditionally associated with Rome, Babylon, and Jerusalem, and not with the barbarian lands to the north. In other strands of the tradition, Antichrist is geographically associated in more general terms with Empire, in which case the Third Reich is a classic example of intuitive free association with this aspect of the legend.
Other figures associated with the Antichrist legend and mythos include a messianic Last World Emperor whose rise to power is a harbinger of the arrival of Antichrist; the Beast or seven-headed dragon, who is often equated with Antichrist, in whole or in part; the figure of the False Prophet, who serves as Antichrist’s public relations associate; and Gog and Magog, who are variously identified as specific figures or, alternately, as regions from which Antichrist may come; during the Cold War era American Antichrist discourse often identified Gog and Magog with the nation of Russia.
The figure of Antichrist exists in a matrix of tensions. Various readings and interpretations of the figure have emphasized either a more symbolic or a more literal understanding; an understanding of Antichrist as either an interior tendency within the human psyche or an external enemy; a collective or an individual understanding; and so forth. An important distinction must be made between Antichrist and Satan. Antichrist is a powerful and charismatic human opponent of God. Satan, while also powerful and charismatic, is characterized in Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures as a celestial opponent of God, specifically a fallen angel. Conversely, Antichrist will ultimately be defeated by Christ, but the actual death blow might be dealt by Christ’s agent the archangel Michael, allowing the figure of Christ himself to never be associated directly with the irredeemable downfall of any human person.
Religious historian Bernard McGinn has characterized Antichrist as a “projection of irrational fears about enemies.” The historical use of the Antichrist legend to de-monize enemies, delineate boundaries of identity, and understand rapid and frightening cultural change is thoroughly documented in theological and, to a lesser extent, psychological and historical literature. The figure of Antichrist has often been used as a rhetorical device to mobilize the faithful in defense of orthodoxy or toward renewal of community life. Antichrist language often appears in the context of communal conflict or anxiety about powerful charismatic leaders both religious and political, such as the pope (Great Reform and Reformation periods); or the emperor in various moments of consolidation of civic power in the Western and Christian world.
The call to watchfulness and mobilization on the part of believing Christians occasioned by the proximity of Antichrist may provide meaning and stability in times of crisis, uncertainty and fear. Certain aspects of contemporary secular rhetoric also partake of some aspects of apocalyptic and/or Antichrist imagery, such as current fears regarding global warming and all-out nuclear warfare; while the groups and individuals engaged in public and private discourse on these concerns do not necessarily identify specific contemporary figures as Antichrist, the emotional appeal to a dualistic system, in which one group is destined for salvation and the other associated with the ultimate enemy, is at least occasionally a feature of such discourse. An internalized Antichrist, by contrast, does the psychological work of explicating the human impulse toward evil thoughts and actions and the existence of evil in the world. For at least some Christian believers, the figure of Antichrist is important in the context of divine intervention in human history, and only makes sense when coupled with a linear and progressive (or anti-progressive) understanding of history. The figure of Antichrist is used as a way of defining deviance and policing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, as well as imbuing quotidian human affairs with cosmic significance. Manifestations of Antichrist rhetoric may be identified by such common markers as: polemical language; prophetic utterances describing the future; popular anxiety, stress, or strife, often denoted by persecution complexes or actual persecution; purposeful targeting of suspect groups by those who believe themselves persecuted, which can include parties from either or both sides of a specific conflict; and parodies of the main tenets of the vitae of the figure of Jesus Christ.
Jung (q.v.) characterized Antichrist as a personification or manifestation of the essential shadow side of, rather than simply a privation of, that which is good. Thus, ignoring or refusing to confront the existence of evil personified by Antichrist as a component of that which is good can be just as psychologically damaging as ignoring the good itself. For Jung, the figure of Christian is “parallel to the psychic manifestation of the self”; therefore Antichrist is the self’s shadow-side manifestation. This paradox is necessary because for Jung, light and shadow must be in balance in human self-understanding to ensure the psychological health of the whole person.
While Freudian psychology (q.v.) does not necessarily deal specifically with an Antichrist figure, elements of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos (q.v.) tend to be present wherever Antichrist themes are drawn into public and religious discourse. Robert Fuller has characterized Antichrist language as an outward manifestation of human fears of strong emotions, pleasures and lusts. Emotions are channeled through religious symbolism and in symbolic terms, helping the individual and community to deal with otherwise unacceptable feelings and behaviors. Antichrist embodies that which is taboo, becoming a demonization of hidden or unconscious desires and externalizing the struggle against seductive ideas and disloyal thoughts. Additionally, the scatological and erotic components of Antichrist rhetoric point toward a possible developmental-psychology understanding of the figure of Antichrist.
Bruno Bettelheim has suggested that the dark, erotic and/or violent aspects of children’s fairy tales serve a vital developmental purpose in slowly acclimating juvenile minds to the real terrors of the world outside the nursery. Given the titles and styles of certain important historical Antichrist, such as Adso’s “Little Book on Antichrist” or the 1521 Reformation pamphlet Passional Christi und Antichristi, it is possible that Antichrist legend has historically been a component of the religious and psychological developmental education of children.
The often conservative and even reactionary uses of Antichrist rhetoric seem to imply that Antichrist language might be useful to communities that find themselves in cultural opposition to intellectual trends, whose truth claims are subject to cognitive dissonance with modern scientific and technological understandings of the physical world. That Antichrist will ultimately be defeated reassures the Christian believer that God is in control of human affairs and that in the end evil will not prevail.
While a discrete figure identified as the ultimate human opponent of God has not been an important part of Jewish tradition, the Jewish figure of Armilus also draws upon the apocalyptic imagery in the book of the prophet Daniel. However, no such figure appears in Jewish writings before the Second Temple period, and Armilus is not attested to by name before the seventh century, appearing in the Targum to Isaiah. There he is described as the offspring of a coupling between Satan and a beautiful stone statue of a female human being. In the Midrash, the eschatological role of Armilus is to slay Messiah ben Joseph, after which he himself will be slain by Messiah ben David.
Similarly, the Islamic figure of the Dajjāl, while functioning in similar ways to the figure of Antichrist in Christianity, perhaps carries rather less weight in Islamic traditions than the Antichrist figure does in the Christian imagination. The Dajjāl does not appear in the Qur’an, but develops in the hadith or sayings concerning the prophet Mohammed. The Dajjāl figure is a false last prophet, a bizarre human monster who attempts to lead the Jews in conquest of Islamic lands, but is ultimately defeated, usually by Jesus.