Proximity to a target often removes its appeal, especially when antichrists are involved. Perhaps Michele Bachmann dissed her Lutheran denomination’s notion of a papal Antichrist through friendships with Roman Catholics. A pervasive goodness in the Holy See has long since replaced the Borgia papacy’s backdrop to Martin Luther’s childhood and apocalyptic sneers.
However, what hasn’t changed is the biblical text that underpinned Luther’s gloomy accusations. Our organization recently hosted the Verbum Domini exhibit at the Vatican, and like it or not, the Antichrist prediction is in papyrus, vellum and paper copies of the Bible stretching back 2,000 years. It is part of the Christian story, as Christiane Amanpour’s recent ABC special revealed (Dec. 21, 28). Her journey through ancient religions ended not in Jerusalem or Rome, but a Kansas City shopping center much in prayer about the end times—25,000 young believers gathered at the International House of Prayer on December 30.
While millions paid homage this season to the miraculous birth in the Christian story (“Christ’s mass”), many want distance from the supernatural “stuff” as Michael Reeves notes in Christianity Today. He shares about overhearing someone referring to him as a Bible scholar but one who also “loves that Trinity stuff.” As if it “was embarrassing,” or a secondary part of the Christian message. On the same score, what do we make of “that Antichrist stuff?”
The Bible’s Antichrist “stuff” is indeed unsettling and inspires horror movies like “The Omen.” One of the texts in the Green Collection (which supplied the items for the Verbum Domini exhibit) is a German “national treasure,” The Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs of Doomsday (1470). I recently highlighted it on NBC’s Charlotte Today on the eve of the alleged Mayan apocalypse.
In The Antichrist and related texts, the first five signs involve ocean levels and bizarre behavior of sea animals. Others include stars falling, earthquakes, rocks and mountains colliding, blood in plants, disoriented people, bones coming to life, and an all-consuming fire and Last Judgment—the doom of the evil impostor. Not a pretty picture.
Jesus of Nazareth said, “But about that day or hour no one knows (Matthew 24: 36),” and the Fifth Lateran Council (1516) condemned priests’ senseless attempts to predict “the coming of antichrist or the precise day of judgment.”
St. John’s “Book of Revelation” affords the most direct warning: “It [The Antichrist] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666 (Ch. 13).”
Leaders from Hitler and Stalin to popes and U.S. presidents have been called Antichrist candidates. Nazi and Russian pogroms seem more plausible criteria than loose connections to some of the biblical signs, such as the papal residence on “seven hills,” Gorbachev’s “mark on his forehead” efforts at “world peace,” and six letters in each part of Ronald Wilson Reagan (666). This is silliness. Even Michael Dukakis and Prince Charles made some lists. Perhaps more plausible signs suggested are the ominous steps toward one-world currencies and government, and growing legislation against Christian beliefs (Daniel 9 and Rev. 19). Even here it gets a bit thorny—ask Rick Warren. His Syria trip drew harsh Antichrist accusations, buttressed by his endorsement of the Council of Foreign Relations and the P.E.A.C.E. acronym in his Purpose-Guided curriculum.
Flannery O’Conner suggests Nietzsche as Antichrist because his aim was to destroy belief in God. Authors Jeremy Reiss and Bernard McGinn disagree, arguing for Antichrist as an imaginary tradition ensconced in art and legend.
Jesus doesn’t give this “imaginary” option: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them . . . . There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea (Luke 21).” The same historic figure of the Christmas story forecasts an historic evil of scary proportions.
Against the backdrop of a slain mother’s arsenal amassed for a proverbial doomsday, Rev. Steve DeNeff reflected on the Newtown massacre before his Indiana congregation, “In modern society a schism exists between championing reason and our self-reliance and the stark reality of our vulnerability. Children ask ‘How far can we run to escape evil?’ Not far enough.” But the same text that recognizes evil and an ensuing apocalypse also shares that we can resist evil and ultimately outlast it—with hope in God’s eminent triumph with those holy ones fighting evil.
The Antichrist is a xylographic block book, a medium that assisted illiterate masses by having prominent illustrations of the accompanying text, and remains on Germany’s Kulturgüterliste (held in the Woffenbuttel Library). The pictures and text represent the Antichrist’s deceitful life, destructive evil actions, ultimate demise (Rev. 19), and the ensuing “New Jerusalem” and “New Eden” (Rev. 21-22). A facsimile is displayed at the Passages exhibit in Charlotte, NC, and the real one will be on occasional display when the Green Collection opens its national museum in Washington, D.C.
And in this German national treasure we find depicted that proximity lessens anxiety about apocalyptic evil, even when it’s the real thing—and that’s the painted and prophesied charm of the Antichrist.
Jerry Pattengale serves as Executive Director of the Green Scholars Initiative, the research and scholarship arm of the Green Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of rare biblical items. He also is Assistant Provost, Indiana Wesleyan University; Distinguished Senior Fellow, Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.