Now for the question you’ve all had in your minds, I’m sure: Who is the Antichrist?
Let us use our accustomed method of looking to the other parts of Scripture to see if we can find any plain-language authoritative interpretations of “antichrist” to ground our interpretation of the word in Revelation.
There are several passages that can help us. Remember that the letters of St. Paul and St. John are great sources for straight talk about the end times. There are three very important texts on this topic:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour… Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist.
—I John 2:18, 22
This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the antichrist that, as you heard, is to come, but in fact is already in the world.
—I John 4:2-3
We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way. For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one doomed to perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god—do you not recall that while I was still with you I told you these things?
—II Thessalonians 2:1-5
In the first passage St. John tells us some things that might be a little startling, yet should not come as that much of a surprise after all our study of Biblical prophecy and its interpretation. First, now is the “last hour,” and it has been so ever since the time of the Apostles. This is a Scriptural source of what we saw in the Catechism: that it has been the “end times” ever since Jesus’ Ascension. Second, there is not just one antichrist, but many. Indeed, even by the time St. John wrote, “many” antichrists had already appeared. This is only what we expect after studying the Old Testament prophecies, however—a prophetic vision should have at least one immediate historical referent as well as subsequent fulfillments in the future.
In the second passage St. John lets us know how we can identify an antichrist. It’s not rocket science, either (which doesn’t mean it’s not important or worthwhile). If you have the faith of the Church, you’ll be able to tell a fake Christ from the real one, so you’ll be able to tell who’s denying the real one. The kingdom of God and its mysteries, as we saw, do not belong primarily to those who are advanced in subtle speculation or good archaeology. Although those things can be of great service to faith, it is receiving the grace of faith, hope, and charity that is the crux of the matter. Again we see that “the spirit of antichrist is already in the world,” even in the time of the Apostles.
In the third passage we have the authority of St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, saying that we should not be alarmed by statements from whatever source that the Day of the Lord is allegedly at hand. The readiness we are to have for the day of the Lord is a spiritual readiness. If we are living the Christian life in its fullness, then we are by that fact ready for the Second Coming, no matter what activity we are engaged in when our Lord actually does come back.
But we also see that before the end there has to be an apostasy and one particular man, whom St. Paul considers a unique “man of sin,” a “son of perdition,” who exalts himself as God. So although there are many antichrists, there is a Scriptural basis for speaking about “The” Antichrist.
As we investigate who that might be according to the Book of Revelation, it will be helpful to keep in mind our scriptural criteria for the identifying marks of an antichrist: denying that Jesus is the Christ (I Jn 2:22); not acknowledging Jesus Christ come in the flesh (or he would belong to God—I Jn 4:2); and exalting himself above God and claiming to be a god.
There is a passage in the Book of Revelation that might help us identify at least one important antichrist by name. Revelation 13:18-19 tells us that there is a number that stands for the beast’s name: “Wisdom is needed here; one who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty-six.” There is a particular kind of traditional Jewish number-symbolism that may be of interest here. In Hebrew, every letter traditionally has a number value—like Roman numerals, but more complete. Suppose we take “the number of a man” to mean the sum of the name of a man. Are there any historic persecutors of Christians who add up?
In fact there is at least one. “Nero Caesar” spelled in Hebrew is נרון קסר. Added numberwise according to the most common traditional system, this is 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200 = 666. Nero was a vicious persecutor of Christians in the time of St. John, and as a pagan emperor, there was no way he confessed Jesus as Christ. Moreover, the Roman emperors demanded to be worshipped as gods—so he seems to meet the criteria to be an antichrist.
But those aren’t the only indications. If you have sharp eyes you noticed that the Hebrew spelling of “Caesar Nero” given above is a Hebrew adaptation of the Greek, with a terminal “n” (“Neron”). Suppose you spelled it Latin-style and left off the n; the sum would be 616, which is the reading of a few ancient manuscripts. That would seem to mean that some copyists were surer about the name than the number. This part is all educated guess-work, of course. But it looks like too good a fit to be a coincidence, which suggests that we are on pretty good ground to think that this is the immediate historical fulfillment of St. John’s vision. That the symbolic number 666 points in this way to Nero is the consensus among modern scholars.
The immediate historical referent of the tribulations signified in the Book of Revelation is the persecution of the early Church by the pagan Romans. This is why the Book of Revelation was helpful to the early Christians in encouraging them to stand fast in the faith. Historical research can do a lot to fill in the details of this layer of meaning. From our faith-filled study of Biblical prophecies and their interpretations, however, we also know that there are many other fulfillments to this prophecy throughout history, which will be visible to those who can read the book with a faith that seeks understanding. I surmise, however, that for all the other fulfillments besides Nero, the number 666 most likely carries a general, symbolic meaning, rather than this specific kind of number-symbolism, though perhaps both kinds of symbolism will be involved. Perhaps we will only know in heaven. In any event, our salvation will come by perseverance in God’s grace, not by skill in number-puzzles.
So now we have one specific name for the antichrist, found in the Book of Revelation itself. I cannot, of course, tell you the name of “The” Antichrist—and neither can anyone else but God. But I can tell you that, like all antichrists, he will meet the Scriptural criteria given above by St. John and St. Paul: he will deny Jesus, deny the Father and the Son, and exalt himself over the true God. Also, according to Daniel and St. John he will be a wicked king of some sort. But ultimately our Christian lives do not depend on cracking some secret code so that we can flee the Antichrist before everyone else. If we hold fast to the Church’s faith, we are sure not to be deceived into exchanging the glory of God for a worthless imitation.
Image: Head of Nero (reign 54–68 CE), from an oversized statue