The long, ongoing hunt for the Antichrist

The Antichrist. rBy Philip Almond. Cambridge University Press; 354 pages; $39.99 and £29.99

IT IS A fair bet that most readers of The Economist will not have thought of the Antichrist for a while. That does not mean, however, that this figure has gone away. Ever since early Christian thinkers decided that the evil in the world needed a focus, a project and a name, in order to be decisively defeated at the Second Coming, this shape-shifting form has hovered around.

He was Rosemary’s baby in the film of that name, engendered on Rosemary by Satan and with “his father’s eyes”. He was Damien in the “Omen” movies, born of a female jackal and eventually American ambassador to the Court of St James’s. In the “Left Behind” books he is Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the UN-turned commander of the One World Unity Army. Depending on your politics, the ultimate foe of QAnon may be the Antichrist, or may be, or the New York Times; for institutions are fingered as the Antichrist as often as men are. And since its appearance signifies the end-times, when apocalyptic events will be unloosed upon the world and Christ will return to sort it all out, it is all too plausibly the Antichrist’s moment now, with wildfires, plague and climate change all converging. It might be good to know, one way or the other.

But as Philip Almond explains in this entertaining romp through the subject, that is just the problem. It is very difficult to spot him, or it. Christians who felt duty-bound to keep permanent watch—and they included Isaac Newton and the young John Henry Newman, as well as John Knox and other usual suspects—squabbled among themselves over whether the Antichrist was an individual, in which case Nero, Simon Magus and Napoleon were popular, or a crowd, in which case the Turks were longtime favourites, or simply the evil that battles good in the breast of every human being. The book of Revelation, which does not mention the Antichrist by name, provided a whole menagerie of aliases and clues, from the Whore of Babylon to the seventh head of the dragon rising from the sea. The number of the Beast, 666, could be precisely found in the names of Popes Innocent IV and Benedict XI—and in the timing of Queen Victoria’s accession.

Amid all this, Martin Luther’s clear-eyed certainty that the papacy was the Antichrist comes as a gale of fresh air. It was a surprisingly old claim, first made in 1190 by Joachim of Fiore, and taken up with increasing enthusiasm as the Catholic church embroiled itself in simony, sexual deviance and the sale of indulgences. The theory behind it was that the Antichrist was not a tyrant skulking outside Christendom, picking believers off, but a malign influence working within it, even right at the heart and at the top. This was not a problem for some future apocalyptic time (though that time was exhaustively worried over, to the very week and day), but an abomination that was here, and pressing.

The essence of this lurking Antichrist was deception, especially of the faithful. This explains why medieval paintings often show the Son of Perdition as a benevolent prince, crowned and robed, or even as a double for Jesus, bearded, thoughtful and working miracles. Evil was ever-beguiling, and drew plenty of willing followers. The alternative—to make the Antichrist utterly monstrous and vile, as on this book’s cover, where William Blake makes a horned cadaver of him—puts the enemy in plain sight, and lets Christians off too easily from vetting their own behaviour.

The search for the Antichrist leads Mr Almond down many obscure paths, peopled by cobwebbed theologians such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus, and deep into the weirdest thickets of medieval fantasy-weaving. He has fun—“Sexy Beast” is his heading on a section about the Antichrist visions, peculiarly like ink blots, of Hildegard of Bingen—but does not forget that a modern reader also needs to know why the Antichrist was important. The problem he, or it, was invented to solve was that Christ had promised to return to the world and establish his kingdom, but had not done so yet. Christians needed to believe that a great showdown between good and evil was, however, coming. Satan himself had already been sent to hell, but his thoroughly demonised spawn was working in the world. The faithful had to be kept alert to the dark deviousness around them.

Does the idea have any relevance now, when the word seems merely quaint to anyone outside the tradition of prophetic Christianity? Mr Almond likes to think it does. If the great eschatological conflict and the triumph of good are dispensed with, history and human existence may seem to have no purpose. “Cosmic nihilism” is all that is left. By contrast, the story of the Antichrist encourages men and women to give their own lives meaning, at least: to be aware of the evil in themselves and to cultivate the good.

To this reviewer, the whole strange story cuts the other way. The usefulness of the Antichrist today is surely as a swift and comprehensive way to displace evil onto others—when in reality, in the words of the 17th-century radical Ranter, Joseph Salmon, “this great whore is in thee.”

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