“The” vs. “An”

One of the reasons I am always nervous about speaking or writing about eschatology (that is, theology concerning the future return of Christ and the final events of history), is because of questions like, “Is so-and-so the Antichrist?”

Maybe it’s Obama. Or maybe Oprah. Or maybe Cheney. Or…

If you Google “Is <blank> the antichrist,” (please don’t) you’re almost certainly going to find a massive list of web pages ranging from hilarious to depressing and disturbing.

Sometimes I wonder how much all of this speculation really comes down to a grammar issue; specifically, a confusion between definite and indefinite articles.

When we’re talking about prominent figures of our day and asking if they’re “the antichrist,” maybe it’s helpful to ask if we mean “the” or “an.” While we do see references to the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess. 2:3 and the false prophet of Revelation that are often connected in our theology to “the” antichrist, we also would be wise to consider John’s epistle in fleshing out our understanding of the idea of an antichrist:

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)

When reading John’s epistle, it seems that he is working hard to strike a balance between the picture of the representative of the evil one (man of lawlessness/man of sin/false prophet) and a broader understanding of the term “antichrist,” one that in our time we may have overlooked. Broadly, the term “antichrist” means anyone “who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). Those who deny the Father and the Son, John later tells us in the same verse, they are antichrist.

While this is a pretty broad definition, it’s helpful to keep in mind whenever that question of “is so-and-so the antichrist” comes up. Whether you’re questioning if it’s a politician or a media mogul, you’ve got to ask: Are they THE representative of the evil one, the one who will be revealed just before the Day of the Lord?

And the answer is… probably not.

But they may well be AN antichrist. Their words and their practice may be so opposed to Jesus that the only appropriate description of them is “antichrist.” They are deniers of the Lord and signs of the end being near (just as they were in the time of the Apostles). But being AN antichrist and THE antichrist… those are very different things. When we understand the difference, it helps us better understand what’s going on in the world and allows us to serve as better witnesses to the grace of God—treating the opponents of Christ with mercy, even as we plead with them to repent. But when we get the two mixed up, things get messy really quickly.

“The” is not the same as “an.” Whatever you do, don’t confuse the two.

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  • Ben Thorp

    My (albeit unscholarly) interpretation of Revelation was that, contrary to the popular image, the Antichrist was someone who was sufficiently Christ-like to be able to fool Christians into turning from Christ. No candidate I’ve ever seen matches that profile, but then, they’re very unlikely to come up in Google searches for “is the antichrist”……