The Beast in Biblical Eschatology - Part I
“Prophecy can only depict the future
in terms which make sense to its present.
It clothes the purpose of God
in the hopes and fears of its contemporaries”
It would appear that Rev. 13:1-18 is temporally parallel with 12:6,13-17 and explains in more detail the precise nature and extent of the Dragon’s (Satan’s) persecution of the people of God. In fact, Rev. 13 describes the earthly governmental, political, economic, as well as individual, powers of the earth through whom Satan works. Though Satan has been defeated (12:7-12), he can still oppress the saints (v. 12). Thus “the beast-related activities constitute the way the dragon carries out his final attempts to wage war on the seed of the woman (12:17)” (Johnson, 124).
Revelation 13 (together with chp. 17) has become the primary source for the idea both of an individual antichrist at the end of the age and the emergence of a unified, one-world, government under his authority. Both of these concepts, however, are largely dependent on a strictly futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation. If, on the other hand, Revelation 13 is describing the oppressive reign of the “beast” and “false prophet” (whoever or whatever they may be) throughout the course of the inter-advent age, these views will need to be re-examined to determine if they have biblical support.
Here John narrates his vision of the dragon standing on the seashore, calling forth his agents through whom he will carry out his persecution of the people of God. The “war” which, in 12:17, the dragon is said to wage with the church is actually undertaken by his servants as portrayed in chp. 13.
There can be no mistaking the fact that Rev. 13:1-2 is a creative re-working of Daniel 7:1-7. Several points should be noted.
· In Daniel 7 we read about four beasts who rise up out of the sea. On the significance of the “sea” as symbolic of evil, chaos, and anti-kingdom powers with whom Yahweh must contend, see Isaiah 17:12,13; 51:9-10; 27:1; 57:20; Rev. 17:8; 21:1; Jer. 46:7ff.; Job 26:7-13. We should also note that the image of an evil sea monster always symbolizes kingdoms that oppose and oppress Israel (especially Egypt and Pharaoh). See especially Pss. 74:13-14; 89:10; Isa. 30:7; 51:9; Ezek. 29:3; 32:2-3; Hab. 3:8-15.
· It may be that John’s reference to the “sea” is synonymous with the “abyss”, i.e., the source or abode of those demonic powers that are opposed to God. Recall that in Rev. 11:7 the beast has already been described as rising up “from the abyss”.
· The first sea-beast is like a lion, the second resembled a bear, and the third was like a leopard. These three are all now found in the one sea-beast of Rev. 13:2 who is said be “like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion.” Likewise, the fourth sea-beast in Dan. 7 is said to have ten horns, as is also the case with the sea-beast in Rev. 13. In other words, whereas the four beasts of Daniel 7 represent four historically successive world empires, the sea-beast of Revelation 13 is John’s creative composite of them all. All the evil characteristics of those four kingdoms are now embodied in the one sea-beast who becomes Satan’s principal agent in persecuting the people of God. The point would seem to be that the “beast” of Revelation 13 is primarily corporate in nature, rather than personal.
· The “dragon” of Rev. 12:3 is said to have “seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads are seven diadems.” Here in Rev. 13:1 the beast who is beckoned from the sea to do the dragon’s work likewise has seven heads and ten horns, but he now has ten (rather than seven) diadems that appear on his horns (rather than his heads). Nevertheless, it is explicitly stated that the sea-beast receives “his power and his throne and great authority” from the dragon of Rev. 12. The “crowns” or “diadems” point to the beast’s false claim of sovereignty, royalty, and authority, in opposition to the true King, Jesus, who also wears “many diadems” (19:12,16). The “blasphemous names” on his seven heads probably represent the beast’s arrogant claims to divinity/deity.
· Because of the figurative use of numbers in Revelation, it is unlikely that “seven” and “ten” are to be identified literally and only with a specific series of rulers or kingdoms, whether in the first century or thereafter. More likely is the suggestion that both “seven” and “ten” emphasize “the completeness of oppressive power and its worldwide effect” (Beale, 684) as well as “the all-encompassing span of time during which these powers hold sway” (686). We should also note that Daniel’s four beasts, the tradition on which John draws, have seven heads between them, since the fourth itself has four heads (Dan. 7:6), while none has horns except the fourth, which has ten (7:7).
So, who or what is the Beast?
One of the more fascinating issues in the history of the church are the attempts to describe the physical appearance of antichrist.
· In the Syriac Testament of the Lord, an apocalyptic document dated as early as the middle of the third century, a.d., we read this description:
“And these are the signs of him: his head is as a fiery flame; his right eye shot with blood, his left eye blue-black and he has two pupils. His eyelashes are white; and his lower lip is large; but his right thigh slender; his feet broad; his great toe [or perhaps finger] is bruised and flat. This is the sickle of desolation” (chp. 11).
· In the Apocalypse of Elijah (late third century) the antichrist is described as follows:
“He is a small pelec [no one knows what this word means], thin-legged, tall, with a tuft of gray hair on his forehead, which is bald, while his eyebrows reach to his ears, and there is a leprous spot on the front of his hands. He will transform himself in the presence of those who see him: at one time he will be a young boy but at another time he will be an old man. He will transform himself in every sign, but the sign of his head he will not be able to change” (3:15-17).
· Yet another early Christian apocalypse, the Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John (fifth century), has this description:
“The appearance of his face is gloomy; his hair like the points of arrows; his brows rough; his right eye as the morning star and the left like a lion’s. His mouth is a cubit wide, his teeth a span in length, his fingers are like sickles. His footprints are two cubits long, and on his forehead is the writing, ‘The Antichrist’” (chps. 6-8).
Among the pre-reformers, John Wycliffe (late 14th century) believed the papacy itself, as an institution, rather than any one particular Pope, was the Antichrist. Here he summarizes his position:
“From this supposition, depending on the way of life of Christ and the way of life of the pope, it will appear to the knowledgeable faithful that the pope is the evident Antichrist, not just the individual person who sets up more laws that are against Christ’s law, but the multitude of popes from the time of the Church’s endowment – and of cardinals, bishops, and their other accomplices. The person of Antichrist is a monstrous composite one” (Opus evangelicum, Book III, p. 107; see also pp. 131-138, 181).
John Hus (1372-1415), the Bohemian reformer who was burned at the stake for his opposition to the RCC, embraced Wycliffe’s view as well.
Virtually all the Protestant Reformers identified the Antichrist with the Roman Catholic Church, or more particularly, the office of the papacy. This was primarily due to the RCC’s rejection of justification by faith alone and the sacramental system that enslaved the souls of the medieval church. Some pointed to a particular Pope. Martin Luther was especially vocal:
“We are convinced that the papacy is the seat of the true and real Antichrist” (What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 1:34).
“You should know that the pope is the real, true, final Antichrist, of whom the entire Scripture speaks, whom the Lord is beginning to consume with the spirit of his mouth and will very soon destroy and slay with the brightness of his coming, for which we are waiting” (1:36-37).
“The true Antichrist according to Paul is reigning in the Roman curia” (McGinn, 202).
“I am so tormented I scarcely doubt that the pope is properly that Antichrist which by common consent the world expects; everything which he lives, does, speaks and establishes fits so well” (McGinn, 203).
“The papacy is indeed nothing but the kingdom of Babylon and of the true Antichrist” (McGinn, 203).
According to John Calvin,
“Daniel and Paul had predicted that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God. The head of that cursed and abominable kingdom, in the Western church, we affirm to be the Pope” (Institutes, Bk. 4, chp. 2, sec. 12).
This was likewise the opinion of Heinrich Bullinger, Philip Melancthon, and countless others who lived at that time. Virtually all the English reformers as well as the Puritans echoed the opinion of those on the continent.
The best treatment of the concept of antichrist from a historical perspective is by Bernard McGinn in his book, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (San Francisco: Harper, 1994). See also Robert C. Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Most evangelicals today, especially those who embrace the futurist perspective on Revelation, refer to the beast as the eschatological or end-time Antichrist, a literal human being who will deceive the world and persecute the church during the closing few years preceding the second advent of Jesus. Consider this statement by Dave Hunt:
“Somewhere, at this very moment, on planet Earth, the antichrist is almost certainly alive – biding his time, awaiting his cue. Banal sensationalism? Far from it! That likelihood is based upon a sober evaluation of current events in relation to Bible prophecy. Already a mature man, he is probably active in politics, perhaps even an admired world leader whose name is almost daily on everyone’s lips” (Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist [Harvest House, 1990], 5).
Interestingly, the only place in the NT where the word “antichrist” appears is in the Johannine epistles, not in Revelation. Nowhere in Revelation is the “beast” ever called “antichrist”. In his first epistle John emphatically states (1 John 2:18) that we may know this is (the) last hour because of the existence and activity of many antichrists. He says: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour” (2:18). [Note: the entire period between the first and second comings of Jesus = the "last days". See Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pt. 1:20 (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11).]
Later, in 2:22, he writes: “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.” The spirit of the antichrist, says John, is found in anyone who denies that Jesus is God come in the flesh (1 John 4:3). Again, in 2 John 7, he writes: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” Thus, for John, “antichrist” is
· Anyone “who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22)
· Anyone “who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:23)
· “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus” (1 John 4:3)
· “Those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2 John 7)
The term “antichrist” is a combination of anti (against or instead of) and christos (Messiah, Christ). It is ambiguous whether the Antichrist is merely one (or anyone) who opposes Christ as his adversary or enemy, or is also a specific person who seeks to take his place. Most have believed that antichrist is a lying pretender who portrays himself as Christ; he is a counterfeit or diabolical parody of Christ himself. See 2 Thess. 2:3-12. Westcott writes: "It seems to be most consonant to the context to hold that antichristos here describes one who, assuming the guise of Christ, opposes Christ" (70). Again, "the Antichrist assails Christ by proposing to do or to preserve what He did while he denies Him" (70).
Although John’s readers have been told that antichrist’s appearance is yet future, "even now" (kai nun) says John, many antichrists have already come. Paul wrote in 2 Thess. 2:7 that "the mystery of lawlessness was already at work." In 1 John 4:3 he points out that the spirit of antichrist is “now”, “already” at work in the world. Most believe that what John means in 2:18 is that the "many antichrists" (those who in the first century were denying the incarnation of Jesus) are forerunners of the one still to come. Because they proclaim the same heresies he/it will proclaim and oppose Christ now as he/it will then, they are rightly called antichrists (esp. in view of their denial of Christ in vv. 22-23).
The antichrists of v. 18 are the false teachers against whom the epistle is directed. They are the ones whom John wishes to expose by means of the application of his "tests of life". In 1 John 2:19 he indicates that at one time they were "members" of the community which professed faith in Christ. They were actively involved in the ministry of the church and until the moment of separation were hardly distinguishable from the rest of the Christian society. The essence of antichrist, the height of heresy and the lie 'par excellence' is the denial that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22).
· "The liar" - The use of the definite article ("the") points to such a person as the one in whom falsehood finds its most complete expression. To deny that Jesus is the Christ is more clearly explained in 4:2-3. It is more than simply denying that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the OT. If these men were gnostics they probably argued that "Jesus" was a mere man upon whom the "Christ" (a divine emanation) descended at his baptism and from whom he departed before the cross. Jesus was a man invested for a brief time with divine powers (perhaps "adopted" by the Father). They denied that the man Jesus and the Eternal Son were and are one and the same person.
· The consequence of this heresy is that “the one who denies the Son does not have the Father” - "If the heretics thought that they could 'have' God without believing in Jesus, they were completely mistaken. It is only through the Son that we know that God is Father, and it is only through the Son and his propitiatory death that we can have access to God as Father" (Marshall, 159). See John 14:6. To "have" the Father = to know Him (2:3-4) and to abide in Him (2:6); i.e., to be saved. Why must one know and confess Jesus as God the Son incarnate in order to know God the Father? See Mt. 11:27; John 1:18; 14:9-11. All knowledge of God the Father must come only through the Son.
Some have argued that John’s point is that there is no other “antichrist” than the “one” even then operative in his day or the “one” who takes up and perpetuates this heresy in subsequent history. In other words, anyone in general can be “antichrist”, if he or she espouses this heresy, but no one in particular, whether in the first or the twentieth centuries, is the antichrist as if there were only one to whom the others look forward. In other words, the “antichrist” who his readers were told was yet to come is “now” with them in the form of anyone who espouses the heretical denial of the incarnation of the Son of God. According to DeMar, for example, “it is possible that the early church ‘heard’ that one man was to come on the scene who was to be the Antichrist. John seems to be correcting this mistaken notion” (Last Days Madness, 227). Says B. B. Warfield:
“John is adducing not an item of Christian teaching, but only a current legend – Christian or other – in which he recognizes an element of truth and isolates it for the benefit of his readers. In that case we may understand him less as expounding than as openly correcting it – somewhat as, in the closing page of his Gospel, he corrects another saying of similar bearing which was in circulation among the brethren, to the effect that he himself should not die but should tarry till the Lord comes [John 21:18-23]” (“Antichrist,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, 1:356).
Is the “beast” of Revelation the same as the “antichrist” of 1 and 2 John?
The identity of the beast in Rev. 13 is revealed to some degree by the reference to the duration of its (his?) reign. According to 13:5-7, the beast makes war with the saints for a period of 42 months, the same length of time, according to Rev. 11:2, that the “holy city” [i.e., people of God] is trampled upon. If the period 42 months = 1260 days = time, times, half a time, all refer to the entirety of the present inter-advent age, the beast cannot be merely an individual living at the end of human history. Rather, the beast would be a symbol for the system of Satanically inspired evil, and thus opposition to the kingdom of God, that throughout history has manifested itself in a variety of forms, whether political, economic, military, social, philosophical, or religious. Alan Johnson provides this excellent explanation. The beast, notes Johnson,
“is not to be identified in its description with any one historical form of its expression or with any one institutional aspect of its manifestation. In other words, the beast may appear now as Sodom, Egypt, Rome, or even Jerusalem and may manifest itself as a political power, an economic power, a religious power, or a heresy (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3). . . . This interpretation does not exclude the possibility that there will be a final climactic appearance of the beast in history in a person; in a political, religious, or economic system; or in a final totalitarian culture combining all these. The point is that the beast cannot be limited to either the past or the future” (129).
The “blasphemous names” on the beast’s heads indicate that
“the beast challenges the sovereignty and majesty of God by denying the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exod. 20:3). Therefore, whatever person or system – whether political, social, economic, or religious – cooperates with Satan by exalting itself against God’s sovereignty and by setting itself up to destroy the followers of Jesus, or entices them to become followers of Satan through deception, idolatry, blasphemy, and spiritual adultery, embodies the beast of Revelation 13. The description John gives of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, Satan-backed system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds, such as Rome. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final, intense, and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation” (129).
The beast, then, is a trans-cultural, trans-temporal symbol for all individual and collective, Satanically-inspired, opposition to Jesus and his people. It is anything and everything (whether a principle, a person, or a power) utilized by the enemy to deceive and destroy the influence and advance of the kingdom of God.
Thus, the beast is, at one time, the Roman empire; at another, the Arian heresy (4th century). The beast is, at one time, the emperor Decius (3rd century persecutor of the church); at another, evolutionary Darwinism (in the 20th century). The beast is the medieval Roman Catholic papacy, modern Protestant liberalism, Marxism, the radical feminist movement, the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century, communism, Joseph Stalin, the gay rights movement, the 17th century Enlightenment, 18th century deism, Roe v. Wade, the state persecution of Christians in China, the publication of the book The Myth of God Incarnate in the mid-70s, etc., etc.
Each of these is, individually and on its own, the Beast. All of these are, collectively and in unity, the Beast. Will there also be a person at the end of the age who embodies in consummate form all the characteristics of the many previous historical manifestations of the Beast? If so, should we call this person the Antichrist?