If you’ve never seen The Damn Show, a homebrew sketch comedy show out of Austin, Texas, you’re missing out–but be forewarned, it’s not exactly family fare. In one of their sketches, a spoof of the Osbournes’ reality show, some missionaries come to “Mrs. Osbourne’s” door to witness at her. Her response? “I’d love to help you, but I’m married to the Antichrist.”
For some reason her cheerful brush-off always stuck in my head.
Years later, I’d encounter the brilliant page-by-page takedown of the execrable Left Behind series that Slacktivist wrote in response to the series’ tidal wave of popularity. The entire critique is beyond brilliant and will eat as much of your time as any TVTropes walkabout, but I was particularly struck by Fred’s discussion of the Antichrist (rather tediously named Nicolae Carpathia, no kidding, and if you’re an aspiring author, bear in mind this dreck got published) in Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, one of the books in that series.
I realize that Christians are supposed to think the Antichrist is this horrible person, but even the authors make him sound a kabillion times nicer and more moral than the wish-fulfillment, self-insert Gary Stu heroes themselves, who are supposed to be the nice, moral good guys. Fred writes early on, after the book’s authors describe the Antichrist warmly congratulating a newly-married couple,
But since we know he’s the Antichrist and he’s evil, we know it’s only seeming. Deep-down, we know he isn’t really thrilled. Likewise, with our protagonists. They may seem like cowardly, self-serving toadies, constantly ingratiating themselves to the powerful in exchange for wealth, luxury and privilege, then pretending that being ungrateful for that wealth, luxury and privilege makes them heroic. But since we know that they’re real, true Christians and they’re virtuous, we know it’s only seeming.
The first time I encountered that description, I suddenly wondered why it was that Christians take it as axiomatic that the Antichrist is really that bad. And I’d been out of the religion for 20 years, so you can well imagine how surprised I was by the thought!
When I was a Christian, the various Protestant churches I belonged to really put a lot of thought into the Antichrist. The more fervent and fundamentalist the church, the more thought they put into it. In simplest terms, the Antichrist was the mysterious figure who would emerge during the Endtimes to rule the entire planet. He–because as some fundamentalist pastors note, it’s always a “he,” which means Hillary Clinton is right out, as appealing a figure as she is to them as an Antichrist (which I also heard a Christian leader of some sort say on an episode of “Bullshit!” a while ago)–is a figure of unmitigated evil and nastiness, but he’d trick the whole world into accepting him as their leader.
The Antichrist was an incredible figure in Biblical writings. He was a false prophet (Revelations 20:10). He performed signs and went to kings and rulers all over the world to rally them to his banner (Rev. 16:13). He performed miracles just like Jesus had done (Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22). He was “lawless,” exalting himself over the real god, using “every kind of wicked deception” to fool people and cause their damnation (2 Thessalonians 2:1-10). Christians think of this figure as a source of unmitigated evil and wrongness, but one that could charm anybody’s socks off. As you can see, all of these descriptions kind of fit a number of people.
You can probably guess that pretty much any popular leader who wasn’t specifically super-Christian has been accused of being the Antichrist. Cracked.com lists a few: Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope
Palpatine Benedict XVI, Nero, and of course the President, Barack Obama. But we needn’t just stop at five. Christian leaders had a whole bunch of other guesses: Arius of Alexandria, Caligula, Pope John XV, the Antipope Clement III (accused by Pope Gregory VII, who himself was accused of being the Antichrist by someone else), Gregory IX, the Papacy in general and any interpretation of the Bible that seemed questionable, Czar Peter the Great… you get the idea. A goodly number of Americans–especially Republicans–believe Obama is the Antichrist even today; he seems to be the current favorite these days.
But just like all those failed doomsday predictions religious people keep erroneously making, somehow every single one of these predicted Antichrists lived and died without it ushering in the end of the world–except for the ones still alive, like President Obama, who don’t seem to be leading us into a huge world war against the forces of the Christian god, but I guess the night is still young. Because that is exactly what the Antichrist is supposed to do: he is supposed to be the harbinger of the end of the world, as 1 John 2:18 and Revelations itself both say.
When I was a fundamentalist, I both feared this person and longed to see him, because I knew that once we’d finally identified him, the serious business of the ending of the world could begin. He’d rise up, gather all the nations to him under his lies and deceptions, start a one-world government, and put the Mark of the Beast on those who’d allow it, and usher in a massive Tribulation of Christians that would be the worst persecution imaginable. Somewhere in here there’d be the Rapture, but I accepted that I didn’t know exactly where in the timeline that’d be, just that it’d happen before the very end. He’d gather armies and all the forces he could, but of course they wouldn’t be enough. Armageddon would happen, and after a super-easy victory, our god would toss him and Satan into “the lake of fire and sulfur” where they would both “be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). Then the world would be trashed and all the good Christians–those who’d been Raptured and those who’d been “left behind” and those who’d somehow converted during the horrific Tribulations before the final battle–would all be resurrected and live forever in Heaven.
Of course, now I see all of this stuff as sheerest wish-fulfillment and compensation fantasy, the product of a mind that desperately wanted to be part of something grand and glorious, the result of endless martyrbation and persecution fantasizing. I didn’t even wonder about how suspicious it was that only the most religious countries seemed to be persecuting anybody, or how arrogant it was to think that the party could only end once I’d gotten here, or how narcissistic it was to imagine that there’d be this final comeuppance for all those who dissented from my religion: they’d get theirs. Oh yes, they would get theirs. And I’d be on the party bus drinking mojitos and gloating? Was that the idea? And I didn’t even second-guess this long, elaborate fantasy.
A lot of people in my church got really into this endtimes theology, called eschatology. Biff had an entire box full of books, leaflets, and photocopies of stuff relating to the endtimes. This was well before the internet got really popular, but since then I’ve seen countless websites devoted to the idea of the world ending.
But is the “Antichrist” really that bad of a person? When I look at why Christians fear the idea of a “one-world government” so much, it boils down to “because it’s the precursor for the endtimes,” not because it’s really that bad of an idea. My church was convinced that a “one-world government” meant that somehow people would just toss aside the Constitution and Bill of Rights to start hugely persecuting Christians, though we had absolutely no basis in fact for believing this might happen, and indeed, it was really Christian-heavy states and areas that were persecuting those holding minority beliefs or non-beliefs. Not that little details like “reality” stops anybody, though. As Slacktivist notes over and over again, the Left Behind authors are completely convinced that the UN is that one-world government, but they still give the UN powers it simply does not have or could ever have. So if this “one-world government” doesn’t actually turn out to be that bad in and of itself, then is the “Antichrist” such a terrible person?
He’ll bring peace. He’ll unify nations. He’ll bring about financial prosperity. He’ll start a world banking system apparently and control people’s access to it (like how financial institutions can legally control people’s access to their funds already, except this time it’ll be totally really bad, because it’ll be the Antichrist doing it instead of WaMu). Aside from the specifically non-Christian things attributed to him like blasphemy and the “mark of the beast,” exactly how is any of this stuff bad or really different? Are we really trying to say that Christians would rather have someone bringing war, dividing nations, and bringing economic disaster? We’ve already seen this happening–Dubya did exactly these things and with Christians’ generally-enthusiastic approval.
I’ll be honest, it doesn’t seem like that bad of a shake, what I read about this “Antichrist.” I hear about how Obama is the Antichrist because he is doing his best to give women full bodily ownership and end anti-gay bigotry, and I have to admit, I wonder how it is that Christians can look at justice and call it evil, and how they can see good being done and call it bad. I wonder how they can say they’d rather have a social system that enslaves women and institutionalizes bigotry. I wonder how it is that any baby step society makes toward progress has to be done dragging Christians along behind as they scream and yell and holler about anything good that happens and do their level best to impede progress and stop good things from happening.
I’ve asked Christians before: Are they really sure they’re worshiping the right guy here? Because I know what I’d think if I heard that on one side is a worldview which advocates equality, love, acceptance, tolerance, and justice, and on the other is a divinity who wants inequality, rigid gender and racial roles, hatred enshrined into law, exclusion, intolerance, and monstrous injustices (like eternal punishment for a finite few decades’ worth of thought crimes). I’d know immediately which side in this equation was really the good guy.
So if the side of hatred, inequality, injustice, and intolerance designates someone as their “Antichrist,” chances are that person’s not actually a bad person. I mean, look at their patron saints: Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. Ron and Rand Paul. Mark Driscoll. Paula Deen. Dubya. Sarah Palin. The entire Republican Party of the United States of America. Pat Robertson. I’m inclined to say that whoever they designate as their dread enemy is probably not a bad person at all.
It seems like the Antichrist is just a placeholder for “someone disliked who is very popular” to justify controlling or vilifying a person or group that dissents or runs contrary to the Christian’s idea of how things ought to work. And these accusations seem to work on Christians, many of whom are simply terrified of the end of the world. Even in the total absence of actual evil being done, just the accusation alone will get these folks to totally condemn not only the person being falsely accused of being the Antichrist but do their best to totally impede whatever that person is trying to accomplish. There’s no possible way to compromise, for a Christian, with someone who is the Antichrist; there’s no reconciliation and no middle path at all there. Besides being an example of false witness, it’s about the most divisive and hateful thing I can imagine to accuse someone of such a thing, so it’s really strange to think how often I’ve heard that accusation lobbed at folks Christians don’t like.
But I have to admit, there is something very luridly appealing about the representations I’ve seen of the Antichrist in media. From the first time I read about one in a “left behind” post-Rapture book (one of those “Christian porn” things, but printed probably ten years before the Left Behind series), I was enthralled with the way he was represented: charming, gracious, graceful, handsome, kind, intelligent, savvy about the world and good at working with people in groups or individually. Oh, sure, in the end it turns out he’s actually hiding a horrifyingly evil, puppy-kicking side, but these big reveals almost seem like afterthoughts.
These representations all depend upon something big though that I’m not sure holds true anymore in our modern age of instant information: this idea that someone could be a really charming and winning leader and yet be hiding a horrifically dark side. Considering how easily and how quickly we find out about politicians’ and religious leaders’ indiscretions, it seems unlikely that someone could take control of the whole world and nobody would ever find out till it was entirely too late that there’s some significantly horrifying dark side to that person. And these representations of the Antichrist also depend upon there being some way to subjugate the whole world to one government, which seems quite unlikely at this point, especially not a government that is hostile to basic human freedoms like the freedom to worship or not as one likes.
But the idea of the world ending Any Day Now™ is going to gain more and more steam with believers as humanity progresses along. And those believers are going to need an Antichrist to start the hoedown. I can’t wait to see who they settle on next. Because there will be a “next.” There has to be. Christians can’t just have a nice religion full of love for people and sacrifice for others. There has to be some massive, huge conspiracy and some shadowy horror lurking in the shadows to scare everybody into allowing these Christians to dominate and control them. So oh yes. There will most definitely be a “next” Antichrist. Toxic Christians need there to be one. If one doesn’t show up naturally, they’ll just invent one.
And they will make him, as they have made their god, in their own image.