A number of academic books include an intriguing 1840 quote, and editorial insertion, about Manifest Destiny and “the” Antichrist. The quote says that Manifest Destiny and the spread of Protestantism into Catholic lands represented the “beginning of the downfall of [the] Antichrist, and the spread of the Savior’s power of the gospel.” As we can see from the quote, Manifest Destiny was deeply tinged with anti-Catholicism.

But why do historians routinely assume that sources like this must mean “the” antichrist, even to the point of putting “the” in corrective brackets? The author meant to say “downfall of Antichrist,” not “downfall of the Antichrist.” It turns out that speaking of “the” antichrist is a relatively recent development. Inserting [the] before antichrist misunderstands the way that most Protestants before 1900 thought about the meaning of that eschatological term. For most observers between the Reformation and about 1900, “antichrist” was a power instead of a person.

Many readers will recall that 1 and 2 John are the only places that the term “antichrist” appears in Scripture. In the King James Version (the dominant English-language Bible well into the 20th century) “antichrist” appears four times in those books. None of the KJV references speaks of “the antichrist,” although 2 John 7 speaks of a deceiver who is “an antichrist”; 1 John 2:18 suggests that there is a single antichrist to come, but also notes that many antichrists have already entered the world. Of course, there are other references in the Bible, such as the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians and the beast(s) of Revelation, that commentators have associated with the antichrist.

Modern translations like the English Standard Version, New American Standard, and New International Version include “the” in most of the antichrist references in 1 and 2 John. My colleague David Garland tells me that in the Greek, “The definite article with antichrist appears in 1 John 2:22; 4:3, and 2 John 7. It is absent in 1 John 2:18, but that does not necessarily make the noun indefinite.”

Before the 20th century, most Protestant commentators spoke of “antichrist” far more frequently than “the antichrist.” For example, a search of Jonathan Edwards’s works gives 670 hits for “antichrist” but only 48 for “the antichrist.” Most of the latter are in editors’ words rather than in Edwards’s. Many commentators in this period, including Edwards, associated “antichrist” with Roman Catholicism, and sometimes with Islam. These were the great world religions they saw as opposed to the true interest of Christ in the world. Less frequently did commentators assert that the pope or Muhammad was “an” or “the” antichrist.

Edwards (as always) is instructive, writing about antichrist and “the antichrist” in a 1723 note on Revelation 13:11’s beast coming out of the earth. “This is he that is called Antichrist in Scripture,” Edwards wrote. He associated this beast with Catholicism, or “popery.” It was antichrist because of

the perfect and universal contrariety of popery to Christianity, and its peculiar opposition to it, beyond all religions that ever were; and because this is the contrivance of the wit of hell in opposition to the gospel, the masterpiece of all his inventions against the interest of Christ, the most cunning and subtle, the most effectual, of longest duration, the fruit of the greatest and longest labors and study: so that however there have been a great many antichrists, this is the Antichrist.

Satan was dreadfully surprised by Christ’s appearing in the world and the proclaiming [of] the gospel to all nations, and begun to look upon himself totally overthrown. But he, at length, thought of one thing more a means to defeat the design; and this was the last effort, and how wonderfully did he seem to succeed! Fitly, therefore, is this grand contrivance for opposing the gospel called antichristianism.

“Antichristianism” is closer in meaning to the typical concept before the 20th century than our modern concept of “the antichrist.” For these theologians, antichrist was a power, rather than a single individual, although a single individual might certainly be at the head of world antichristian power.

What changed in theological terminology so that “antichrist” without “the” started to seem like a mistake to historians? There was never a time when the usage of “the antichrist” vanished entirely, so it is hard to identify a single turning point when “the antichrist” started to become the norm.

But undoubtedly the advent of dispensational theology, with its elaborate end times chronology, was the key development. The Scofield Reference Bible, the most popular text of dispensational theology ever, emphasized the personal nature of the coming antichrist. “Antichrist the person is to be distinguished from the ‘many antichrists'” of 1 John 2, Scofield wrote (his italics). “The ‘many antichrists’ precede and prepare the way for the Antichrist,” he said.

In popular Western culture, the phrase “the antichrist” may have also become standard, ironically, in part because of Friedrich Nietzche’s furiously anti-Christian book of that name in 1895.

By the 1970s, wildly popular dispensational books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth made it a commonplace that “the Antichrist” was a person who would come in the future. Lindsey and other dispensational writers construed him as a globalist political leader more often than a religious leader. Lindsey interpreted the beast out of the sea in the early verses of Revelation 13 as the Antichrist. “The passage is obviously talking about a person because the personal pronoun ‘he’ is used,” Lindsey wrote.

Such writers relegated the second beast of Revelation 13 to the status of the “false prophet,” or head of an apostate church that aids the work of the Antichrist. The best-selling Left Behind series of books in the 1990s and 2000s promoted a similar dispensational framework of the last days. Left Behind featured the Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia as the head of the United Nations, and secretly, “the Antichrist.”

By the time of the Left Behind novels, it was hard to remember a time when most Protestants spoke of “antichrist” rather than “the Antichrist.”

Sign up for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers weekly unique content only to subscribers.