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According to the website Google Trends, searches for the term “antichrist” spiked in the United States in November 2008, the month that Barack Obama was elected president.

There was another, smaller peak in November 2016, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House. 

A detail from Luca Signorelli's 1501 painting ‘The Preaching of the Antichrist’ in Orvieto Cathedral, Italy, showing the Devil whispering to the Antichrist. Public Domain.

This suggests that the term’s use is closely connected to the political cycle. As the U.S. heads towards another presidential election, it would not be surprising if the word began to appear more frequently.

In a possible sign of things to come, Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., invoked the term, in its plural form, in a Nov. 27 column for the Religion News Service. Beneath a photograph of Trump, the former editor of America Magazine reflected on the global rise in authoritarian leadership. 

Writing after the feast of Christ the King, Reese contrasted “the platform of Christ” with that of the Devil. 

“If we compare the Gospel message with that of Trump and other authoritarian leaders, we can only conclude that he and they are antichrists,” he concluded.

The term “antichrist” entered common parlance long ago. But where does it come from? And what does it mean to call someone an “antichrist”? The Pillar takes a look.

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What the Bible says

The English word “antichrist” is a combination of the Greek terms “anti” and “Christos.” 

The Greek expression “anti” means not only “against” but also “the opposite of” and “in place of.” The word “Christos” — literally, “the anointed one” — refers to Jesus Christ. 

“Antichrist” and its plural form are found four times in the New Testament, in the First and Second Epistles of John. 

In 1 John 2:18, the author tells the early Christian community: “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.”

In 1 John 4:3, he writes that “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,” he says.

In 2 John 1:7, he returns to the theme: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh; such is the deceitful one and the antichrist.”

While the Johannine epistles are the only places where the word “antichrist” appears, readers of the New Testament have suggested that other books also refer to the figure.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4, for example, St. Paul speaks of “the lawless one” 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.”

The first beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation has also been identified with the “antichrist.”

For the past two millennia, Christians of different stripes have debated the significance of these and other passages, arguing intensely over whether there is one antichrist or many, how to identify an antichrist, and the precise role the figure will play in events preceding Christ’s second coming.

If Google Trends had existed during the Reformation, it would no doubt have recorded a huge spike in the use of “antichrist,” as the movement’s leaders queued up to hurl the epithet at the papacy.  

The “Papal-Antichrist theory,” as it is known, persists to this day on the fringes of the Protestant world, although its claims have been refuted over and over again by Catholics, including eminent thinkers such as St. John Henry Newman

Curiosity about the Antichrist’s identity has not diminished in the modern era. 

In his 1900 “A Short Story of the Anti-Christ,” the Russian thinker Vladimir Solovyov described the emergence of an antichrist who establishes himself as a global authority and seeks dominion over Christians worldwide, but faces heroic resistance from Church leaders and is ultimately vanquished by Christ.

Solovyov’s short story made global headlines a century after its publication when it was cited in a lecture by the Italian Cardinal Giacomo Biffi. 

According to a BBC report in 2000, the cardinal caused a stir by suggesting that the Antichrist was “most likely now disguised as a philanthropist supporting creeds like vegetarianism, animal rights or pacifism, or advocating dialogue with Orthodox or Anglican believers.” 

The report concluded that the “deeply conservative” cardinal’s remarks were “likely to offend some progressive Catholics.”

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What the Catechism says

The Catechism of the Catholic Church condenses Catholic teaching on the Antichrist into two paragraphs.

It says: “Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.”

It adds: “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism.”

These dense passages set the Antichrist in the context of a final unleashing of evil that ends in God’s victory. The figure is identified with a specifically “religious deception,” a “pseudo-messianism” in which man glorifies himself rather than God. 

But the Catechism says an Antichrist need not be an apocalyptic figure.

The Antichrist’s deception can already be seen wherever forces claim to be realizing the “messianic hope” in the present world, the Church teaches.

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Who has been called an ‘antichrist’?

Since biblical times, Christians have applied the word “antichrist” to specific historical figures, usually brutal personalities known for their persecution of the Church. 

One early candidate was the Roman Emperor Nero — a theory mentioned by St. Augustine of Hippo.

More recent contenders include Napoleon Bonaparte, who was identified as the Antichrist by Russia’s Old Believers, and the murderous 20th-century dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin

In the 1980s, it was common to hear the term associated with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, largely due to the allegedly dragon-shaped birthmark on his forehead. 

After launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin was accused of possessing “the spirit of the Antichrist” by the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

There seems to be a venerable tradition of describing U.S. presidents as antichrists, dating back to at least Franklin D. Roosevelt, who aroused suspicion among Evangelicals with his expansion of the federal government and internationalist outlook.

Running in a U.S. presidential election in the 21st century is a virtual guarantee of being labeled an antichrist, as Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden have all discovered.

Ironically, you are far more likely to hear the word “antichrist” today in a political than a religious context. 

But it would be a pity if a mysterious and multifaceted biblical term simply became shorthand for “political figure that I deplore.”

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