The Tribulation and the Antichrist
The Tribulation and Antichrist are two separate but interrelated concepts. Tribulation refers to any times of trouble or distress experienced by God’s people, but it also refers to future intense period of Great Tribulation that will occur just prior to the return of Christ. The Antichrist refers to one who is satanically inspired and sets himself up as God. This spirit of the antichrist is a work an any false teaching that denies the deity of Christ or claims to be Christ, but also refers to a future Satanic earthly leader who will demand to be worshipped and will persecute God’s people.
Eschatology is an all-encompassing term for cosmic and spiritual realties brought about by the person and work of Jesus the Messiah and looks ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of his enthronement on earth in the New Jerusalem so it speaks of realities that are both now and not yet. There are eschatological realities we experience, but these will come to completion with the return of Christ. Two such eschatological realities that are both now and not yet are tribulation and the presence of the antichrist. Although they may be present realities they will intensive and climax as this age draws to a close prior to the return of Christ. This article examines the biblical teachings on both the now and future tribulation and antichrist.
Eschatology in the New Testament is presented as both now and not yet in that it is both a present reality and a future series of events. Eschatology refers to the theology of last things and it is usually connected to prophecy as foretelling events associated with the last days. While eschatology is related to future events, it is also a consistent characteristic of Christian theology. To say something is eschatological could mean it is describing something future, but it may describe a present reality (e.g., eternal life in John 3:16 and 11:25). Eschatology is an all-encompassing term for cosmic and spiritual realties brought about by the person and work of Jesus the Messiah and looks ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of his enthronement on earth in the New Jerusalem. We are currently living in the overlap of the time between this age and the age to come. As such, there are eschatological realities we experience but that will come to completion with the return of Christ. Two such eschatological realities that are both now and not yet are tribulation and the presence of the antichrist. Although they may be present realities they will intensive and climax as this age draws to a close prior to the return of Christ. This essay will explore both the now and future tribulation and antichrist.
The word translated as “tribulation” comes from the Hebrew words ṣar or ṣārâ and the Greek word thlipsis. The basic sense of these words include “trouble,” “hardship,” “suffering,” “affliction,” “distress” and “pressure.” It is used to refer to any kind of hardship or troubles people of God may experience. The root Hebrew terms mean “narrow” (Num. 22:26) or “compressed” (Job 41:15). As such it conveys the idea of a “severe constriction,” “narrowing” or “pressing together” to the point of crushing (Matt. 7:14; Mark 3:9). The English word “tribulation” comes from the Latin word tribulum meaning “a threshing sledge,” which uses pressure and friction to separate chaff from heads of grain.1 Every instance of the term thlipsis in the book of Revelation connotes trouble, distress, affliction, and tribulation experienced by believers (Rev. 1:9; 2:9, 10, 22; 7:14). It is also used frequently throughout the New Testament in conjunction with suffering because of one’s faith.2 Jesus even tells his disciples, “in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Therefore, tribulation and trials are a common experience of believers in this life and they should not be surprised or alarmed by them because God uses them to sanctify his people (Jas. 1:2-3; 1Pet. 1:6-7).
While believers may currently experience tribulations, the Bible anticipates a future intensified time of Great Tribulation proceeding just before Christ’s return. Matthew 24:21–22 Jesus states that there will be a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” and that it will be cut short “for the sake of the elect.” A few verses later Jesus describes the coming of the Son of Man in similar terms to that found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (both texts reference a “trumpet” and “clouds”). This parousia (Second Coming) occurs after the great tribulation (cf. Matt. 24:29).
Although there are indications that there will be a “great tribulation” that immediately precedes Jesus’ second coming, the “sign of tribulation” does not occur only at the end of time since it refers to anytime the people of God suffer. Therefore, the tribulation that occurs immediately before the end is only an intensification of an already present tribulation. This intensification is the “Great Tribulation” and its duration is either seven years, three-and-a half years, or just an intense but unspecified period of time prior to Christ’s return. In the book of Revelation, believers are exhorted to testify to Christ through patient endurance as kingdom citizens in the midst of tribulation (Rev. 1:9). John combines the themes of tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance as especially pertinent for the Christian communities. Twice “tribulation” denotes the suffering, hardship, and persecution befalling faithful believers (Rev. 1:9; 2:9–10). It also occurs twice with the adjective “great” (megas; cf. Rev. 2:22; 7:14) regarding the judgment that Christ inflicts upon the false prophetess (and her followers) as well as the earth’s inhabitants. Christians, then, should expect persecutions and hardships as part and parcel of living for Christ. Revelation envisions the eschatological consummation of Christ’s kingdom (Rev. 11:15; 12:10), which is placed in juxtaposition to the satanic kingdom of this world (Rev. 16:10; 17:12, 17–18). As members of Christ’s kingdom, believers to endure unjust suffering because their vindication will come when Christ’s kingdom is visibly established on earth. Therefore, endurance constitutes the chief virtue for believers during times of hardship and oppression (Rev. 1:9; 2:2–3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12–13).
Out of the entire New Testament, the infamous word, “antichrist” (antikristos), is only found in John’s Epistles (1Jn. 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2Jn. 7). While the term itself was most likely coined by John, it is also very likely that he used a concept commonly found in Jewish and Christian writings to refer to the arch-nemesis of God’s people. John’s interest in the antichrist, however, is Christologically driven in attempt to refute heretical ideas. He refers to the false teachers as “antichrists” (2:18), who have the spirit of the Antichrist (4:3). The telltale sign that the false teachers are of the antichrist is their denial of the truth that Jesus is the Christ and that he came in the flesh (1Jn. 2:22; 4:3; 2Jn. 1:7). There are a number of important observations that inform our understanding of the Antichrist in the Johannine epistles especially as it pertains to eschatology and future prophecy.
To begin with, John distinguishes between antichrists (plural) and the Antichrist (singular). The plural term, antichrists, then, is virtually synonymous with the “false prophets” and “false messiahs/Christs” forewarned in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22). The closest relative to the term antichrist is “false Christs” (pseudokristoi) found in Matthew 24:24 and Mark 13:22, but John’s choice for “anti” instead of “pseudo” suggests he wanted to characterize them as “in opposition to” Christ instead of being messianic pretenders. They are not claiming to be the Messiah, but rather their flawed teaching about Jesus represents a vile affront to the truth of Christ and a perversion of orthodoxy Christology. Robert Yarbrough observes, “The antichrists, presumably, would be the ringleaders or leading devotees of church subgroups … whose aims and practices are turning out to be unacceptable to norms and outcomes established under Christ’s direct lordship by handpicked apostolic leaders like John.”3 These “antichrists” are inspired by the spirit of the antichrist (4:3), who is commonly recognized as the spiritual and eschatological adversary of Christ and his people.
The Antichrist in 1 John 4:3 should most likely be associated with the “abomination of desolation” (Mark 13:14), the “man of Lawlessness” (2Thes. 2:3–4) and “the beast” (Rev. 13:1–9, 11–18; 11:7). The anticipation of this evil figure is rooted in Daniel’s visions (Dan. 7:8, 19-25; 9:27; 11:31, 36–27; 12:11) and other similar evil figures in the Old Testament (Ezek. 28:2–3). Jewish apocalyptic traditions abound with pessimistic predictions of a man inspired by evil in opposition to the true people of God. By referring to the “spirit of the antichrist” (1Jn. 4:3), however, John must have conceived of it is a supernatural being. What is more, he is likely seen as a human representative and incarnation of the evil one spoken of by Jesus himself (Matt. 6:13; John 17:15; cf. John 8:44). We could agree with I. Howard Marshall’s assessment that John “has not demythologized the figure of the antichrist, nor does he deny the future coming of the antichrist, but he is much more concerned with the present fact of false teachers in the church who have the spirit of antichrist.”4
We also see that the presence of “antichrists” currently in the world is evidence that we are currently living in the eschatological “last hour” (eschatē hōra). He says this is “how we know it is the last hour” (2:18) and that the spirit of the antichrist is now already in the world (4:3). The phrase “last hour” is more of a theological assertion than it is a chronological indicator. When viewed as a technical term, it denotes a period of time, whether long or short, that will usher in the culmination of the ages resulting in the consummation of the final judgment and salvation promised by God. The concept of the last days is rooted in Old Testament expectations of a time when God would manifestly intervene to accomplish his purposes for the world and his people (cf. Isa. 2:2; Dan. 11:40–12:13). The New Testament writers firmly believed that the arrival, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah inaugurated an eschatological shift indicating that the last days have now commenced and will be brought to the proper conclusion at the return of Christ (Acts 2:17; 1Cor. 10:11; 2Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 1Pet. 1:20; 2Pet. 3:3; cf. Joel 2:28; Micah 4:1). While the New Testament writers believed that they were already living in the last days, they also anticipated an escalation of wickedness and events prior to the return of Christ (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1Tim. 4:1; 2Tim. 3:1; 2Pet. 3:3; Jude 18).
Paul refers to this eschatological figured who will come on stage prior to the return of Christ as the “the man of lawlessness” (2Thes. 2:1-3). According to Paul, the “man of lawlessness” will arise and seek to exalt himself over God by demanding worship of no one else but himself (v. 4). He will severely persecute those who refuse to worship him. He will use signs and wonders to deceive the people and will give them false teachings (vv. 9, 11). By imitating the miracles and teaching ability of Jesus, he will appear to be the Messiah, but he be defeated at Jesus’ second coming (v. 8). Throughout history some believed Nero, the Pope, Stalin, Hitler, and others to be the eschatological antichrist. While they were indeed wrong, we must understand that every generation has those who are opposed to Christ and could rightly be called antichrists.
The most detailed teaching regarding the eschatological Antichrist is found in Revelation 13 where he is referred to as “the beast.” Satan is depicted as a great red dragon in war against God and his people, but he his cast down to the earth where he focuses his vehement assault on the people of God (12:13-17). The dragon enlists the aid of two beasts in order to execute his war against the saints (13:1-18). The beast from the sea (Rev. 13:1-8) represents the Antichrist. The beast from the land (13:11-17) represents a false prophet who leads a religious institution that enforces the worship of the first beast (i.e., the imperial cult). Together these three comprise an unholy trinity whereby the dragon, the sea beast, and the land beast function in a similar capacity to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Antichrist arrogantly establishes himself as a false messiah arrogating divine status as a sovereign tyrant and mandates idolatrous worship. The pretentious reign of the beast over the nations of the earth intentionally mocks the rightful reign of the Lamb. Just as the Father granted his power, authority and throne to Jesus (Rev. 5:6–7), the dragon endues the beast with power, a throne, and great authority (13:2). In Revelation 13:3, his reign over the nations is secured by his pseudo-resurrection when he miraculously recovered from a fatal head wound (cf. 1:18). The inhabitants of the earth worship the dragon and his beast as their unassailable despot (13:4). The Antichrist tyrannically exercises his authority in a blasphemous assault against the true God and his people. John borrows extensively from Daniel’s vision of the little horn (Dan. 7:6–8).5 This little horn, representing the leader of a powerful earthly kingdom, speaks boastfully against God and wages a war against the saints for a period of three and a half years (Dan. 7:21, 25). This antagonist is granted a limited period of time to persecute the saints, but at the end of that allotted time God will render a verdict to vindicate his saints by establishing his kingdom on earth (Dan. 7:22, 26–27).
The Antichrist was granted to speak blasphemously and to reign for forty-two months (three and a half years). In Revelation 13:7, the Antichrist is given authority to wage a war against the saints and conqueror them. Although Revelation 12:11 explicitly states that the saints ultimately conquered Satan, during this time of war they will face physical death. This miscarriage of justice continues as the all the inhabitants of the earth worship the beast (13:8) and the false prophet (i.e., the land beast) mandates forced idolatry with the legal authority to execute offenders as well as instituting economic restrictions designed to oppress the saints (13:11–17). As Satan proceeds to execute his war against the saints on earth, the subsequent slaughter of the righteous would make things seem to appear that Satan has indeed triumphed through this injustice. John inserts a brief prophetic warning for the saints, in Revelation 13:9–10, to encourage them to remain faithful as they patiently endure captivity and execution (cf. Jer. 15:2).
We may experience tribulations and encounter antichrists in our lifetimes. We may also anticipate a future Great Tribulation and Antichrist prior to the return of Christ. This means that when we counter hardships and false teaches we must be on guard as we endure or confront these things. As we near the return of Christ realize that tribulation will increase and at some point, a deceiver will arise who will seek to persecute Christians and will be worshiped. The purpose of these teaches are to encourage believers to endure difficulties and remain faithful to Christ as his witnesses. The start and duration of the Great Tribulation are secondary matters open to debate, interpretation, and speculation.
- Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John (NAC 38; Nashville: B&H, 2001).
- Bandy, Alan and Benjamin Merkle. Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015).
- Richard Bauckham. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (London: T & T Clark, 1993).
- Gary M. Burge, Letters of John (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
- Fuller, R. C. Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Hanegraaff, Hank. “Did Daniel Prophesy a Seven-Year Great Tribulation.” Equip.org (accessed 12/30/2019).
- Hays, J. Daniel, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
- George W. Knight. The Pastoral Epistles (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
- George Eldon Ladd. The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
- Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).
- McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of The Human Fascination with Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
- Milne, B. A. “Tribulation,” in the New Bible Dictionary (D. R. W. Wood et al., eds.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 1206–1208.
- Schreiner, Thomas R. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
- Wilson, Sandy. “The Great Tribulation.” Sermon. TheGospelCoalition.org (accessed 12/30/2019).
- Yarbrough, Robert W. 1–3 John (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
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