1 John 2.22-25:
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. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.b And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.
I remember during my high school days, I have become deathly afraid of anything “apocalyptic.” I remember I first prayed the sinner’s prayer during an evening sermon series on Revelation, in which fear was inculcated in me and others about the sound of a trumpet coming with a rapture. I didn’t want to go to hell. I wanted to go to heaven. Yet, the sound of the trumpet scarred my heart. I began to try to explain Revelation and all the haunting imagery. Fear would mark my initial journey of faith.
Unfortunately, I came upon a book on Revelation that talked about the identity of the figure whose number was 666. While I can’t remember the details and to what degree I misinterpreted what it was saying, I remember it providing a schema of identifying the figure by taking the numbers for each letter and multiplying it by six. So, I did my name, taking the numerical position of each letter in the alphabet as a number, I added up 111 for “Owen A. Weddle.” Then, multiplying by six, I came to the number 666.1 For a year or so, I became haunted by the idea that I was the antichrist. As irrational as I can recognize it in retrospect, the combination of the fear about my sin that was inculcated in me and this chance occurrence brought me to a place where I feared I was somehow in opposition to Jesus. While I intellectually came to recognize the falsehood of such thinking through Scripture and reason, the scar would stay with me for the years following, always being vigilant and fearful that somehow, somewhere I was mistaken and I was really going against Jesus.
The problem is that living in the Bible Belt, I was inundated with imagery and ideas about the apocalypse. I grew up when the Left Behind series was really popular. People’s theology, particularly their eschatology, was determined by when they thought the rapture was to occur: before, during, or after the rapture. The potential identity of the antichrist was a regular topic of speculation, especially in politics, wondering who would bring about the evil opposition to God. Fortunately, with my training in Biblical scholarship and theology, I would gradually come to recognize that such speculation was out in left field and ultimately missing the point.
Yet, after reading the article “The Gospel in a Democracy Under Assault” by Russell Moore, I began to realize that something more was going on than just nonsense that scarred my heart. Such “apocalyptic” nonsense was ultimately fostering a mindset, if not a worldview, that would make it most influenced adherents not just simply in error, but push them towards evil. Put more simply, the focus on the antichrist and apocalyptic predictions ultimately brought about the spirit of the antichrist.
What is the antichrist? As many scholars will tell you, it isn’t a specific figure or leader. Upon a quick view, 1 John 2.22-25 provides a starting point for understanding the antichrist. It somehow “denies the Father and the Son.” Additionally, there is some intrinsic connection between the Father and the Son, such that the way someone regards one, they also regard the other. Yet, the nature of the language of confessing and denial is ambiguous. John’s language has often been taken in terms of orthodoxy belief about the divinity of Jesus, which is based upon 1 John 4.3. This is true insofar as it goes, but it makes the assumption that John is giving a specific definition of the antichrist in 4.3. Instead, what seems more likely is that John teaching believers how to identify the work of the spirit of the antichrist in their community. The fundamental character of the antichrist is more than just a denial of orthodoxy.
Allow me to put forward something more specific in place of the minimalistic definition of the antichrist as a denial of orthodoxy: the spirit of the antichrist is to fundamentally deny the love of Father as demonstrated in the love of Jesus. Ultimately at the center of confessing Jesus is the love of God, as is seen in 1 John 4.15-16:
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
The truthful confession of Jesus is in service to knowing God’s love which is to then lead to our love for others (1 Jn. 4.19). Corresponding to this, to deny Jesus is to deny this love of God, which is to then cut one off from loving others. John emphasizes throughout the epistle that those who do not love their brother are not genuinely of God (1 Jn. 3.10, 3.15, 4.20). What can be seen in John’s concern about the spirit of the antichrist is not simply a denial of Jesus in some mere matter of confessional orthodoxy, but to deny the love demonstrated in Jesus is indeed God’s love. The spirit of the antichrist tries to work against the fundamental mission of Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed Messiah, who came to destroy the works of the devil (3.8) as exemplified by the hateful murderous intent of people who imitate Cain (3.11-15). The antichrist works against the love of God made known in and imitated from Jesus Christ.
So, when we talk about the spirit of the antichrist, it can manifest itself in a denial of orthodoxy belief. Yet, it can also lead people to deny the Father and the Son in a different way: by overlooking and neglecting the loving character of God. One can maintain a theological orthodoxy while defining and characterizing God by characteristics and traits that are not representative of God’s love. One can even talk bout “love” and “God,” but yet supply some other definition of love than the love that is fully demonstrated in the whole of Jesus’ life. In other words, the spirit of the antichrist can minimize God’s love or change the definition of love and so accomplish the same purpose of denying the Father and the Son by denying their fundamental, relational nature.
This is what so much of the obsession with Revelation and apocalypse fostered in many people. They were so focused on God’s judgment coming against the world, that they put emphasis on a minor part of God’s activity. With that mindset, God’s love was understood as simply the cessation of God’s wrath towards us, rather than a much more pervasive and all-encompassing for human well-being and life. Yes, God will judge wickedness and evil. Yet, God is much more concerned to love than to judge, more concerned to heal than to tear down. The focus on the antichrist actually brought about the spirit of the antichrist.
What enabled such a state of affairs? Where did to go wrong? I will point the finger at the Protestant Reformation, even as I still recognize myself as Protestant. As the doctrine of justification by faith alone became an increasingly dominant emphasis for Protestant, and ultimately evangelical, soteriology, more concern was placed on the nature and character of faith than on love. Faith was the condition of salvation, so the thinking goes, and so more emphasis would be placed on how people could get on the inside by having faith. People were characterized primarily by faith, whether faith was understood cognitively in terms of specific propositional contents, as trust as an affective mentality, etc. Meanwhile, because “works” were considered to be the wrong way of salvation, concerns about living in love, which would amount to works, were at best relegated to a later question of what one should do after being saved. In all of this, the Apostle Paul, whose language inspired the Protestant doctrine of justification, became the patron saint of faith, who was taken to legitimize this picture of soteriology.
Yet, what if faith is about something different? What if faith is not the way that God checkmarks the box that allows us to get to heaven, but rather faith is the way we discover and learn of God’s love and faithfulness? What if to trust God is to be discipled by God’s Word, to receive His promises and instructions to direct us as we seek to live into the future God has designed for us? Along those lines, what if Paul’s discourse about the “works of the law” wasn’t about human effort to obey God, but about the prescriptions that many Rabbinical teachers told people to do so as to obey all the commandments of Torah, thereby setting being instructed by faith in God as the source of Torah over and against the teachings of Rabbis from the Torah? What if Paul is concerned about believers being taught by God through His Spirit as we live by faith, just as Jesus Himself lived by faith to His Father’s work and direction and was thus vindicated in the resurrection? And, what if in the midst of all of this, God’s purposes is to teach people to live in a different way from the world, to live as God’s intended His creation to be in His image? What if faith is the means by which God leads us to live as part of a new humanity, with His Son as the revelation of God’s righteousness to the world? What if at the heart of Paul was a vision of a new humanity inaugurated in the world in Christ? In the midst of all of this, the works of the devil to lie, destroy, and even murder are being destroyed, because this new humanity is defined by God’s own love that He showed to us in His Son.
People who believed and lived as such would not have come anywhere near close to such evil this week. Such people would have a heart that would allow them to recognize that love, not greatness, is close to the heart of God. Such people would not have been an unambivalent, adamant supporter of a boastful, arrogant little horn. Such people would have cried for justice for those people who have been the recipients of disdain, contempt, injustice, and hatred. Such people would have been a living as part of a new humanity that had nothing to do with the filthy, dark, evil that we have seen manifest itself very clearly over these past four years.
Now, these people do exist, even if they still hold to the vestiges of an ultimately weak theological framework in the Protestant foundation, because God’s love is at work in all of us, even as we don’t get the truth of God perfectly correct. God’s love moves us, directs us, forms us, and guides us. We can in faith participate in this work in our lives, to receive God’s grace that is manifest in Jesus’ life in our lives so that we can then live with this same purpose and grace, even if we don’t consciously and theologically recognize this truth. Yet, if we put more emphasis on the theological frameworks than the God the theological frameworks point to, if our theology is more about the alignment of concepts to help us to control and regulate the world than to allow us to understand the living God, then we can put the emphasis on ideas, concepts, and purposes that push us away from God and His love. Then, in the end, these theological systems simply become vestiges and shells of past relationships with and attempts at understanding God that are then filled with other purposes. In the midst of this, biblical interpretation and theology come to be in the service of other interests, including most prominent and saliently, politics. The spirit of the antichrist has taken the form of godliness and directed it to other purposes that worked against God’s loving purposes for humanity.
To boil this down: the spirit of the antichrist is at work against the love shown in Jesus Christ that defines the new humanity. The spirit of antichrist will teach people to deny, ignore, minimize, and redefine God’s love in order to keep the old humanity in it’s chains. The result: the attempted coup in the name of a deciever by people, many of whom would claim the name of Christ.
My work and studies over these past few years has lead me to this conviction. What I have said above, particularly about Paul, are not some random thoughts thrown around, but the fruits of a disciplined, persistent study of Paul’s letters, along with the rest of the Scriptures. Whether I endeavor to take this down the direction towards Biblical studies where my primary focus will be the academy or in medical school and psychiatry where my primary focus will be in imitating the Great Healer, it is my dream to bring the fruit of these studies and this step towards a new Reformation, even if the Reformation is limited to only my heart, to bear on people’s lives, to invite people to live as part of a new humanity powerfully demonstrated in Jesus Christ and inaugurated in our lives through the Spirit. I want to work against the harm and damage that has been done by the spirit of the antichrist, whether it be in the form I described above or in its other forms, to help people to discover the type of love that God has for us and that brings healing to His creation and people.
I had a friend who told me to dream big when I was dejected and felt desolate; is this a big enough dream?