Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?
Okay, I got your attention. That was almost my only intention with the question that forms the title of this essay. My main intention was to raise the question of the biblical figure of the “Antichrist” and its relevance for today’s Christianity.
As with my previous blog post (about demon possession and exorcism) the concern underlying my question about the relevance of the biblical figure of the “Antichrist” for today’s Christianity is my concern about how far we—contemporary Western Christians—have surrendered important biblical categories, experiences, truths for the sake of cultural respectability.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity. Back then every American evangelical Christian heard about “the Antichrist”—a figure mentioned especially in the New Testament “Apocalypse” which most people know as “The Book of Revelation” (but most people refer to informally as “Revelations).
(Sidebar: I’ve gotten somewhat used to the way “church people” refer to books of the Bible, but I still cringe a bit when I hear even pastors refer to a specific Psalm as “Psalms such-and-such” and to The Book of Revelation as “Revelations.”)
Revelation describes the Antichrist quite vividly and yet there have been numerous interpretations of this apocalyptic figure throughout church history. Many biblical interpreters before Constantine (and perhaps a few after him) thought the Antichrist was either a specific Roman emperor or the “office” of Roman emperor. Luther thought the Antichrist was the pope. After him many Lutherans (and some others) interpreted the Antichrist as whoever holds the office of pope in the Roman Catholic Church. (Unless I’m mistaken some very conservative Lutheran groups in the U.S. still consider the office of pope the Antichrist.)
During the 20th century, of course, evangelical Christians in America became fascinated with attempting to identify some specific world leader as the Antichrist. Some background to that might help both contemporary evangelicals and non-evangelicals understand this mid-20th century apocalyptic fever. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century most evangelical Christians were either amillennialists or postmillennialists. That is, most interpreted Revelation as purely symbolic or as referring to events patterns of events in history and the eventual triumph of Christ over evil through his church. Then came a new wave of premillennialism (or “chiliasm” as it was sometimes called especially by scholars). There is no doubt that some of the church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian were premillennialists. That is, they believed that at least parts of Revelation referred to a messianic rule and reign of Christ on earth after his bodily return in glory (the “parousia”).
Premillennialism was adopted by some late 19th century American revivalists such as D. L. Moody. Many early 20th century American fundamentalists adopted a specific form of premillennialism known as “dispensationalism.” I don’t have time or space to explain all the “ins and outs” of “dispensational premillennialism” here. I will just say (leaving much of that eschatological theory aside) that dispensational premillennialists—under the influence of John Nelson Darby and his many followers (Darby was the British founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement) such as Clarence Larkin and C. I. Scofield—interpreted Revelation and other apocalyptic portions of the Bible as literally as possible. And they especially emphasized, contrary to postmillennialists, that human history is moving “downward” toward a “Great Tribulation” lasting seven years during which an “Antichrist”—a real person—would rise to world dominance and eventually demand worship of himself on pain of death. Anyone who did worship him would have to accept “the mark of the Beast” (mentioned in Revelation) and become his minion and eventually suffer the wrath of God when God would intervene to defeat the Antichrist and his minions at the “Battle of Armageddon.”
According to this theory (viz., dispensational premillennialism) the apocalyptic “end times” would begin with a “secret rapture” (here the word “rapture” has nothing to do with ecstasy but with an older meaning of the word “being taken up”) in which gentile Christians would be removed from the world in a way invisible to non-Christians. In other words, the whole “true church” of Jesus Christ throughout the world would disappear. (In recent years fundamentalist writer Tim LaHaye has popularized this theory for the masses, but he was just recycling a well-known eschatology going back to John Nelson Darby.) So, according to this particular eschatology (not all premillennialists accept it as part of their view of the end times), throughout the Great Tribulation—which will last seven years—the true people of God, mostly gentile Christians—will be absent from the world. During it “the Antichrist” will take over the world (or much of it), persecute people who “turn to God” and the Jews and introduce a reign of terror on the world such as has never been seen before.
(Sidebar: Many dispensationalists believed/believe that immediately or shortly after “the rapture” many people will put two and two together, realize what happened, and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. These former “hangers on” of Christianity will then face a decision: either give up their faith in Christ, go into hiding somewhere, or die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Antichrist and his minions. Many dispensational books and movies in the middle of the 20th century depicted this in some detail as an evangelistic tool. One such movie was “Thief in the Night” produced in the early 1970s and based on an extremely popular book of dispensationalism entitled The Late, Great Planet Earth.)
Dispensational premillennialists interpreted the Antichrist as a specific, real person and, throughout much of the middle of the 20th century a favorite “game” (although many took it very seriously) was attempting to pre-identify the Antichrist among world leaders. Major candidates during my early years in the “thick of American evangelicalism” were Anwar Sadat and Henry Kissinger. (Don’t ask why.)
How well I remember being part of this apocalyptic fever fueled by dispensationalism. In fact, I grew up thinking any other interpretation of Revelation was heresy. A true mark of true Christianity was fervent belief in the “rapture,” the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist and the earthly “millennial reign” after Christ’s visible return to earth. A main reason given me by my spiritual mentors for not attending movies in movie theaters was that if the rapture happened and you were there you would be “left behind” to suffer at the “hands” of the Antichrist.
I shook off dispensationalism and “rapture fever”—even belief in a “secret rapture”—while attending a very conservative Bible college. And while attending a broadly evangelical seminary I adopted “historic premillennialism” as taught by the great evangelical New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd. Now I tend to interpret premillennial theology through the writings of Jürgen Moltmann.
Now, back to the figure of the Antichrist and the question with which I began: Why do we not hear anything about the Antichrist—either as a symbolic figure appearing throughout church history or as a literal individual person? This is, of course, part of my larger question that I raise here often: What has happened to American evangelicalism? There’s no getting away from the fact that the Antichrist is mentioned quite prominently in the New Testament—whether specifically by that title or more obliquely with some other title (e.g., “the Beast”).
Now, I’m not talking here to theological “preterists”—mostly Reformed evangelicals who believe that biblical apocalyptic literature refers to events fulfilled and completed in the ancient world. They typically interpret the biblical references to the Antichrist as referring to Roman emperors—especially Titus who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple there in 70 A.D. (before becoming emperor). My thesis is, however, that most American evangelicals are not preterists.
What am I getting at? To put it bluntly, it seems to me that moderate American evangelicals have over reacted to the “eschatological fever” of the mid- to late-20th century to the point of thinning Christianity out to ethics: “Live for Jesus today; be a godly person; love God and others” and that’s it. While I do not want to go back into that American evangelical form of life obsessed with identifying the Antichrist, neither do I think it’s helpful to throw the baby of biblical teachings, however, difficult to interpret, out with the bathwater of fanaticism and extremism. I fear that is our tendency. Contemporary American evangelical Christianity is tending to reduce Christianity to ethics.
When I was growing up, sermons and teachings about the end times always ended with something like “In light of these things, how should we then live?” There was a lot of nonsense mixed into those sermons and teachings (to say nothing of the dispensational books on which they were based), but eschatology, however, wrongly interpreted in the details, was seen as important as a catalyst for “living today in the light of that future.” So we did emphasize ethics and saw it as inextricably tied to biblical themes that were not themselves specifically about ethics.
I have seen a very severe “thinning out” of evangelical Christianity in America during my lifetime. The one thing I can say about the fundamentalism of my spiritual upbringing is that at least is was thick; it had body, substance, weight. So much evangelical Christianity today is extremely light and amounts to little more than asking “What would Jesus do?” and “Love God and love others.” As true and good as that question and that ethical imperative are, I’m not sure we need a whole Bible or even a whole New Testament for them.
To push even further…. We American evangelicals decry Thomas Jefferson for taking a scissors (figuratively speaking) and cutting out of the New Testament (he didn’t even bother with the Old Testament) everything he considered supernatural and irrational. What was left was mostly Jesus’s ethical teachings. We call it “The Jefferson Bible.” But do we not do much the same without scissors? We leave aside in our preaching, teaching and worship whatever we sense would be opaque or offensive to the kind of people we want in our churches.
So here is how I would answer the question “Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?” (which I happen to think is at least worth asking): No, probably not. But we Christians should be serious about attempting to read the signs of the times—as the New Testament commands—and understand world events in light of revelation. The biblical figure of the Antichrist is probably a symbol of every evil “power and principality” that opposes the spirit of Christ which is love, compassion for others, and holiness of life. But the Antichrist is probably also a world leader to come who will oppress the world and persecute God’s people. But we are not given enough information in the Bible to identify who he is until he does several specific things including 1) take over much of the world, 2) blaspheme against God, 3) demand worship of himself, and 4) attempt to wipe out God’s people—Jews and gentiles. Those of us familiar with our Bible and paying attention to the signs of the times will know him when he appears. In the meantime our task is to move away from endorsing anyone or anything that is of the “spirit of the Antichrist”—anyone and anything that opposes with power compassion, love, peace and true worship of God. There have been many “little antichrists” in history and there are some alive and exercising power now, but “the Antichrist” is still to come or be identified as such. Let’s keep him in mind without being obsessed with pre-identifying him with some specific person and let’s prophetically denounce the many “little antichrists” in the world whoever they may be.