Antichrist: apocalypse who?

Beast: The tale of the evil character from Revelation is gospel to some Christians, allegory to others.

May 16, 1999|By Jim Remsen

IT'S NAPOLEON Bonaparte. No, it's Kaiser Wilhelm. No, Benito Mussolini. Or is it Saddam Hussein? .....Who will the Antichrist character prove to be? .....The Book of Revelation, that feverish final vision of the New Testament, depicts his epic origins: Out of the sea will rise a beast with 10 horns and seven heads, diadems on its horns, "blasphemous names" on its heads.

From this fearsome beast will emerge the Antichrist incarnate, archvillain of the apocalypse and a dark emblem of Christian millennial theology. The beast might as well have 100 horns and 70 heads, for all the identities that the fretful faithful have pinned on him over the centuries.

Millions of Bible believers take his existence to be a literal fact, while centrist Christians see him as allegorical. Whichever it is, he is certainly phantasmagoric, as depicted in Revelation.

He enters the world stage at the start of the Tribulation, a seven-year period that heralds the Last Days. He arises as the dynamic leader of a 10-nation confederacy and brings seeming peace and prosperity. He becomes Israel's special protector and enthralls people with a promise of total peace under one world government.

Then, after three years, the reign of terror begins. In the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, he declares himself to be Christ and demands obeisance. His world dictatorship follows. The recalcitrant face bloodshed and enslavement. Those who yield become Satan's allies and are branded with "the mark of the beast," 666, "without which no one can buy or sell."

The tribulations climax in a final, doomsday battle of Armageddon. Christ descends with his saints and the Raptured church. The beast is thrown into the lake of fire. Good triumphs. A golden millennium of Christ's rule begins.

This breathtaking scenario is gospel to about 20 percent of the American public, estimates Bradley University religion professor Robert Fuller, author of "Naming the Antichrist." These are the Protestants who accept "premillennial dispensationalism," an intricate theology that holds God has divided time into precise segments and will return as the final one concludes, to usher in the Millennium.

Adherents are found primarily in the Regular Baptist, fundamentalist and Pentecostal camps, and in some of the evangelical free churches, prophecy scholars say.

In their urgency to identify and track the fearsome Antichrist, official "prophecy teachers" and posses of free-lance prophets have offered a dizzying gallery of suspects over the years:

Josef Stalin, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Ronald Reagan, the prophet Muhammad, Martin Luther, all manner of popes, the Ayatollah Khomeini, liberal Bible scholars and -- as televangelist Jerry Falwell declared, to widespread chagrin -- a Jew.

Tracts and books also have warned believers that bar-code scanners and credit cards could be the "mark of the beast."

But while partisans focus on Antichrist as the Great Persecutor, all the fear-mongering makes him more of a Great Laughingstock to secular skeptics and generations of stand-up comics.

Mainstream Christians regard him more as the Great Headache, arguing that the search for a corporeal Antichrist breeds dangerous social scapegoating and apocalyptic cultism -- and is a scriptural fool's errand. Prominent Lutheran theologian Martin Marty calls the name game "a form of Christian astrology [by which] you can make anything come out right." Bible professor William Alnor calls it "pin the tail on the Antichrist."

Many leading prophecy teachers also take a dim view of the guesswork. Not that they find it wrongheaded, only premature or wide of the mark doctrinally. The Antichrist will indeed arise on the earthly plane, they agree, but it's senseless to try to identify him before the Rapture occurs and the Tribulation is under way.

Narrowing the search

These Bible teachers, meanwhile, are trying to narrow the search. They interpret passages in Revelation, Daniel and Matthew 24 to prophesy the Antichrist's ascent in a realm akin to a reconstituted Roman Empire. Thus, they are watching events in the Mediterranean basin and Western Europe, and keep a particularly vigilant eye on any "superstate" moves by the European Union.

John Walvoord, chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary and author of "The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook," suspects the Antichrist "will be a political man from somewhere in the Roman empire, maybe Italian. ... None of the names named so far have been right. Most don't come from the Roman empire. Mussolini was a possibility, but he passed away, so that was wrong."

Walvoord rejects Falwell's prediction of a Jewish Antichrist -- not as slanderous but as counter to the dispensationalist scenario. The Antichrist "is to be the last ruler in the Times of the Gentiles," he says, "and so it's inconceivable that he'll be a Jew."

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