The word “antichrist” occurs in the Bible only in 1 and 2 John. The prefix anti‐ in Greek means “over against,” “instead of,” and so may imply usurpation as well as substitution. In 1 John, the coming of Antichrist is referred to as a standard sign of the “last hour,” which has already happened in people who deny that Jesus is the Christ who has come in the flesh, and have seceded from the community; they are “false prophets” who embody the “spirit of antichrist” (1 John 2.18–22; 4.1–3; 2 John 7). (See also John, The Letters of.)
On the other hand, 2 Thessalonians warns, again as standard teaching, that the day of the Lord cannot come until the “lawless one,” “the one destined for destruction,” has appeared. He will usurp God's place in his Temple, and deceive people with Satan‐inspired signs and wonders, until the Lord Jesus appears and destroys him (2 Thess. 2.1–12). There are links with the prophecies of a desolating sacrilege in the holy place (Dan. 9.27; 12.11; Matt. 24.15; Mark 13.14), and of false messiahs and false prophets, which must precede the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13.21–22; Matt. 24.23–24). Luke has historicized the picture in terms of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE (21.20); and John sees the “one destined for destruction” not as a future figure but as Judas Iscariot (17.12).
The marks of the figure of Thessalonians recur in the two beasts of Revelation 13: the beast from the sea, which in its death and resurrection is a parody of Christ, and claims divine honors; and the beast from the earth, which deceives people into worshiping the first beast, and with its lamblike voice and signs and wonders is a parody of the Holy Spirit. But there is also here an element of political coercion, and the sea beast's healed wound and his number identify him as Nero, returned from the dead, the persecuting emperor who was worshiped as a god.
The antecedents of this figure lie in Daniel 7, which was immensely important for New Testament writers. This vision relates that before the coming of God's kingdom there would be a time of disasters, persecution, and apostasy, and that opposition to God and his people would be summed up in a nation or person, human or superhuman, whom God or his agent would destroy. The vision is related to the Near Eastern myth of God's conflict with the dragon of the chaos waters, out of which this world was created. The myth celebrated the victory of order over chaos in nature; in some biblical passages the powers of chaos were historicized as nations opposed to God and his people—Egypt (Ezek. 29.3) and Babylon (Jer. 51.34)—and in Daniel 7 the four beasts arising out of the sea (on which the sea beast of Rev. 13 is modeled) represent persecuting empires. They culminate in the “little horn” on the fourth beast, which represents the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to hellenize Judaism, and set up his statue in the Temple (the desolating sacrilege referred to at Mark 13.14 and Matt. 24.15). The book of Revelation updates this picture in terms of the Roman empire, the emperor cult, and collaborating Christians (Rev. 2.14–29; 13.1–18).
On the other hand, those who accepted the state as God's ordinance (Rom. 13.1–7) saw the expected Antichrist as the embodiment of a specious spirit of lawlessness, which the state was keeping in check (2 Thess. 2.6, 7, according to one interpretation). After the Christianization of the Roman empire, this understanding became popular and even Revelation was read in this light, but corruptions in church and state led people back to Revelation's original sense.
The Antichrist expectation, with its attendant disasters, apostasy, and martyrdom of the faithful, dominated the Middle Ages and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The myth expresses both the speciousness of evil and its apparent omnipotence, while asserting the imminence of God's final victory and the value of faithful witness in its achievement. From another point of view, it has provided a forceful way of characterizing opponents in church or state, and dignifying resistance to them.
See also Revelation, The Book of.