Anticipating the Antichrist

If evil has a name, is it Saddam? Bill Gates? NATO?

May 23, 1999|By los angeles times

The leaders of several small warring countries and a giant in the computer industry have all been singled out as suspects. So have the World Bank, NATO and the credit card system.

With the millennium in easy reach, a cross section of Christians who interpret the Bible literally, along with a good number of others who may never have opened a Bible, share a common vision of the future. They expect the Antichrist to appear any day.

From the start of Christianity, candidates for the role of Satan's protege have never been lacking. Rome's Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians in the first century; Pope John XXII, who was denounced as a heretic in the Middle Ages; Russia's oppressive Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century; Napoleon; Mussolini; and Hitler have all been named at one time or another.

New names surface on the Internet by the day, in e-mail messages and chat room conversations monitored by Steven O'Leary at the Center for Millennial Studies at the University of Southern California. He has seen suggestions as diverse as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Gates was a tongue-in-cheek numerological calculation -- "a bit of Antichrist humor," O'Leary says. Juan Carlos was based on the honorary title "king of Jerusalem," held for centuries by Spain's ruler.

"Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a flash in the pan during the Persian Gulf War in '91," says O'Leary. But these days, "Almost no candidate is too implausible. Social institutions, people with power whose intentions we're not sure of -- they're all being named."

The nonstop guessing looks to O'Leary like a game of Pin the Tail on the Antichrist. But many clergy consider it a dangerous sport.

"People have been naming names for years," says Pentecostal minister T.D. Jakes, whose Dallas-based television ministry reaches 3 million viewers worldwide. "We profess to know more than we know. I have no idea who the Antichrist is. Where the Bible is silent, we should be silent."

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell preached in January that the Antichrist must be Jewish because Christ was Jewish and that Satan's protege is alive today, the televangelist set off an alarm.

Jewish leaders called the speech "radioactive" and said the Bible does not identify the Antichrist by any ethnic background. But they stopped short of accusing Falwell of anti-Semitism, because he has been a supporter of an independent state of Israel.

More than 40 million Americans believe the millennium will bring the second coming of Christ, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll. Followers of biblical prophecy would add that such a day will launch Armageddon, the battle between ultimate good and evil, the faithful followers of Christ against the Great Deceiver, a false redeemer who ultimately will be vanquished.

This villain's scant few bones lie embedded in three books of the Bible: Revelation, the first letter of John and the book of Daniel.

These books paint a variety of end-time scenarios, warning of an "Antichrist," of a beast who gains control of the world and stamps his mark, 666, on human body parts, of apocalyptic predictions of invasion and the triumph of good. The notion of a false messiah with evil intent extends beyond Christianity into both Jewish and Muslim beliefs.

These days, pop culture -- mostly in the medium of movies -- is pumping up the anxiety pitch. Wayward asteroids, invaders from outer space, comets, tidal waves and scaly monsters have all tried to wreck the planet lately.

O'Leary says people watch this stuff and get ideas.

" 'I know who the Antichrist is, I saw him at the movies.' That's the thinking," he says.

Books about the end of the world with the Antichrist in a leading role are best sellers on religious as well as mainstream lists. None more so than "Left Behind" (Tyndale House, 1995), a series of four books of apocalyptic fiction that have sold more than 3 million copies. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins set the stories in the present and project modern social, economic and political fears into the near future. When the international economic depression hits, the plot goes, the Antichrist will step in, set up a one-world currency and dominate the world.

Bernard McGinn, an editor of the three-volume encyclopedia on the apocalypse due this summer from Continuum Press, has noticed that three kinds of people are keeping the Antichrist watch.

"Some believe in a literal fashion," McGinn says. "Some say it's a superstition. And there are those who see the Antichrist as related to something within ourselves."

Fans of Marilyn Manson would say the rock star -- who has a CD titled "Antichrist Superstar" -- comes under McGinn's third category, when he warns in the title song that he could be the devil's disciple.

But according to the Jewish vision, rather than a single demonic person, it is a pervasive condition of evil among us that will flourish in the last days. This view raises perhaps the most important question about the potential of a future dominated by the prince of darkness: How do we take the subject seriously, if not literally?

"I feel we're living in days of unparalleled global challenge," says Lanier Burns, chairman of the theology department at Dallas Theological Seminary. "Conglomerates that monopolize, corporations that downsize, sports teams we can't follow anymore because they move away or dissolve, fear of tyranny. These things make us angry. The idea of God as the warrior and conqueror is pretty popular right now."

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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