The plain fact is, as I say, that there is no longer any king or prophet nor Jerusalem nor sacrifice nor vision among them; yet the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and the Gentiles, forsaking atheism, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham through the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE RISE OF ANTICHRIST
According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, one of the increasing characteristics of the age preceding the overthrow of Israel was to be apostasy within the Christian Church. This was mentioned earlier, but a more concentrated study at this point will shed much light on a number of related issues in the New Testament – issues which have often been misunderstood.
We generally think of the apostolic period as a time of tremendously explosive evangelism and church growth, a “golden age” when astounding miracles took place every day. This common image is substantially correct, but it is flawed by one glaring omission. We tend to neglect the fact that the early Church was the scene of the most dramatic outbreak of heresy in world history.
The Great Apostasy
The Church began to be infiltrated by heresy fairly early in its development. Acts 15 records the meeting of the first Church Council, which was convened in order to render an authoritative ruling on the issue of justification by faith (some teachers had been advocating the false doctrine that one must keep the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament in order to be justified). The problem did not die down, however; years later, Paul had to deal with it again, in his letter to the churches of Galatia. As Paul told them, this doctrinal aberration was no minor matter, but affected their very salvation: it was a “different gospel,” an utter distortion of the truth, and amounted to a repudiation of Jesus Christ Himself. Using some of the most severe terminology of his career, Paul pronounced damnation upon the “false brethren” who taught the heresy (see Gal. 1:6-9; 2:5, 11-21; 3:1-3; 5:1-12).
Paul also foresaw that heresy would infect the churches of Asia Minor. Calling together the elders of Ephesus, he exhorted them to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock,” because “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). Just as Paul predicted, false doctrine became an issue of enormous proportions in these churches. By the time the Book of Revelation was written, some of them had become almost completely ruined through the progress of heretical teachings and the resulting apostasy (Rev. 2:2, 6, 14-16, 20-24; 3:1-4, 15-18).
But the problem of heresy was not limited to any geographical or cultural area. It was widespread, and became an increasing subject of apostolic counsel and pastoral oversight as the age progressed. Some heretics taught that the final Resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18), while others claimed that resurrection was impossible (1 Cor. 15:12); some taught strange doctrines of asceticism and angel-worship (Col. 2:8, 18-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-3), while others advocated all kinds of immorality and rebellion in the name of “liberty” (2 Pet. 2:1-3, 10-22; Jude 4, 8, ID-13, 16). Again and again the apostles found themselves issuing stern warnings against tolerating false teachers and “false apostles” (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 12-15; Phil. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 4:2-5), for these had been the cause of massive departures from the faith, and the extent of apostasy was increasing as the era progressed (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 3:1-9, 13; 4:10, 14-16). One of the last letters of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews, was written to an entire Christian community on the very brink of wholesale abandonment of Christianity. The Christian church of the first generation was not only characterized by faith and miracles; it was also characterized by increasing lawlessness, rebellion, and heresy from within the Christian community itself – just as Jesus had foretold in Matthew 24.
The Christians had a specific term for this apostasy. They called it antichrist. Many popular writers have speculated about this term, usually failing to regard its usage in Scripture. In the first place, consider a fact which will undoubtedly shock some people: the word “antichrist” never occurs in the Book of Revelation. Not once. Yet the term is routinely used by Christian teachers as a synonym for “the Beast” of Revelation 13. Obviously, there is no question that the Beast is an enemy of Christ, and is thus “anti” Christ in that sense; my point, however, is that the term antichrist is used in a very specific sense, and is essentially unrelated to the figure known as “the Beast” and “666.”
A further error teaches that “the Antichrist” is a specific individual; connected to this is the notion that “he” is someone who will make his appearance toward the end of the world. Both of these ideas, like the first, are contradicted by the New Testament.
In fact, the only occurrences of the term antichrist are in the following verses from the letters of the Apostle John:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it may be shown that they all are not of us….
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also….
These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.
–1 John 2:18-19, 22-23, 26
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.
We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
–1 John 4:1-6
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that we might not lose what we have accomplished, but that we may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
–2 John 7-11
The texts quoted above comprise all the Bible passages that mention the word antichrist, and from them we can draw several important conclusions:
First, the Christians had already been warned about the coming of antichrist (1 John 2:18; 4:3).
Second, there was not just one, but “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18). The term antichrist, therefore, cannot be simply a designation of one individual.
Third, antichrist was already working as John wrote: “even now many antichrists have arisen” (1 John 2:18); “I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you” (1 John 2:26); “you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:3); “many deceivers have gone out into the world…. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7). Obviously, if the antichrist was already present in the first century, he was not some figure who would arise at the end of the world.
Fourth, antichrist was a system of unbelief, particularly the heresy of denying the person and work of Jesus Christ. Although the antichrists apparently claimed to belong to the Father, they taught that Jesus was not the Christ (1 John 2:22); in union with the false prophets (1 John 4:1), they denied the Incarnation (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7, 9); and they rejected apostolic doctrine (1 John 4:6).
Fifth, the antichrists had been members of the Christian Church, but had apostatized (1 John 2:19). Now these apostates were attempting to deceive other Christians, in order to sway the Church as a whole away from Jesus Christ (1 John 2:26; 4:1; 2 John 7, 10).
Putting all this together, we can see that antichrist is a description of both the system of apostasy and individual apostates. In other words, antichrist was the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that a time of great apostasy would come, when ”many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many” (Matt. 24:10-11). As John said, the Christians had been warned of the coming of antichrist; and, sure enough, “many antichrists” had arisen. For a time, they had believed the gospel; later they had forsaken the faith, and then went about trying to deceive others, either starting new cults or, more likely, seeking to draw Christians into Judaism – the false religion which claimed to worship the Father while denying the Son. When the doctrine of antichrist is understood, it fits in perfectly with what the rest of the New Testament tells us about the age of the “terminal generation.”
One of the antichrists who afflicted the early church was Cerinthus, the leader of a first-century Judaistic cult. Regarded by the Church Fathers as “the Arch-heretic,” and identified as one of the “false apostles” who opposed Paul, Cerinthus was a Jew who joined the Church and began drawing Christians away from the orthodox faith. He taught that a lesser deity, and not the true God, had created the world (holding, with the Gnostics, that God was much too “spiritual” to be concerned with material reality). Logically, this meant also a denial of the Incarnation, since God would not take to Himself a physical body and truly human personality. And Cerinthus was consistent: he declared that Jesus had merely been an ordinary man, not born of a virgin; that “the Christ” (a heavenly spirit) had descended upon the man Jesus at His baptism (enabling Him to perform miracles), but then left Him again at the crucifixion. Cerinthus also advocated a doctrine of justification by works – in particular, the absolute necessity of observing the ceremonial ordinances of the Old Covenant in order to be saved.
Furthermore, Cerinthus was apparently the first to teach that the Second Coming would usher in a literal reign of Christ in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Although this was contrary to the apostolic teaching of the Kingdom, Cerinthus claimed that an angel had revealed this doctrine to him (much like Joseph Smith, a 19th-century antichrist, would later claim to receive angelic revelation).
The true apostles sternly opposed the Cerinthian heresy. Paul admonished the churches: “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8), and went on in the same letter to refute the legalistic heresies held by Cerinthus. According to tradition, the Apostle John wrote his Gospel and his letters with Cerinthus especially in mind. (We are also told that as John entered the public bathhouse he spotted this antichrist ahead of him. The apostle immediately turned around and ran back out, crying: “Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!”)
Returning to John’s statements about the spirit of antichrist, we should note that he stresses one further, very significant point: as Jesus foretold in Matthew 24, the coming of antichrist is a sign of “the End”: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). The connection people often make between the antichrist and “the last days” is correct enough; but what is often missed is the fact that the expression the last days, and similar terms, are used in the Bible to refer, not to the end of the physical world, but to the last days of the nation of Israel, the “last days” which ended with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. This, too, will come to many as a surprise; but we must accept the clear teaching of Scripture. The New Testament authors unquestionably used “end-times” language when speaking of the period they were living in, before the fall of Jerusalem. As we have seen, the Apostle John said two things on this point: first, that antichrist had already come; and, second, that the presence of the antichrist was proof that he and his readers were living in “the last hour.” In one of his earlier letters, Paul had had to correct a mistaken impression regarding the coming judgment on Israel. False teachers had been frightening the believers by saying that the day of judgment was already upon them. Paul reminded the Christians of what he had explained before:
Let no one deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first…
–2 Thess. 2:3
By the end of the age, however, as John was writing his letters, the Great Apostasy-the spirit of antichrist, of which the Lord had foretold – was a reality.
Jude, who wrote one of the very last New Testament books, leaves us in no doubt about this issue. Issuing strong condemnations of the heretics who had invaded the church and were attempting to draw Christians away from the orthodox faith (Jude 1-16), he reminds his readers that they had been warned of this very thing:
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.
Jude clearly regards the warnings about the “mockers” as referring to the heretics of his own day – meaning that his own day was the period of “the last time.” Like John, he knew that the rapid multiplying of these false brethren was a sign of the End. Antichrist had arrived, and it was now the Last Hour.