The Early Church Fathers On The Anti-Christ

The earliest Christian documents which mention the Antichrist contain slight theological reflection, apart from a brief mention of him in connection with a particular biblical passage. Over time, the short-shrift given him begins to change. Some tie Antichrist to heresy (appealing to the epistles of John). Others speak of him in connection to the persecution of the church. Some think he will be an apostate Jew who would appear at the time of the end in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem while introducing destructive heresies. Other focus upon his role as a deceiver. Some follow the biblical texts closely (i.e., Daniel 7, 2 Thessalonians, the Epistles of John, and Revelation 20), while a number indulge in more fanciful speculations. In other words, the church fathers, Origen, and Augustine have diverse views on the subject, many quite similar to interpretations offered in our own day.

The Epistle of Barnabas (4:1-5), written soon after the close of the apostolic age, identifies the fourth beast of Daniel 7 as the Roman Empire, while specifically referring to the beast as Antichrist.[1] A similar reference surfaces in the writings of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was born about AD 70 and likely martyred about AD 156 A.D. In 7.1 of his Epistle to the Philippians (written about AD 135), Polycarp quotes from 1 John 4:2-3 and 2 John 2:7 and contends that Antichrist is the spirit of heresy.[2] This is the same emphasis found in John’s epistles, to the effect that the threat from Antichrist arises from within the church, takes the form of apostasy and heresy, and is not connected to state-sponsored persecution like that of the beast of Revelation 13.[3]

In his Dialog with Trypho, Justin Martyr (who was put to death in Rome about AD 165) speaks of the appearance of the “man of apostasy” who speaks “strange things against the Most High” and ventures to “do unlawful deeds on the earth against us Christians” (Dialog with Trypho, 110). Justin is clearly alluding to 2 Thessalonians 2:3, but does not specifically speak of this individual as Antichrist.[4]

One of the most important early discussions of Antichrist is found in the work of Irenaeus, who was born in Asia Minor where he met Polycarp when still a young man.[5] Irenaeus later became Bishop of Lyon in Gaul. In his work Against Heresies (about AD 180),[6] Irenaeus set forth the notion that Antichrist will be a Jew, a notion which had come from Papias (another writer from Asia Minor whose work remains largely fragmentary).[7] Appealing to the best manuscripts and eyewitnesses (probably a reference to Polycarp), Irenaeus believes Antichrist recapitulates the same sort of apostasy which occurred in the beginning with Adam and Eve, which could be seen in the gnosticism of his own age, and which would appear again at the time of the end.[8] Just as Christ, who is the word made flesh, recapitulates all that is good, so too, Antichrist must come in the flesh to recapitulate all that is evil.[9]

In addition, Irenaeus believed that the Roman Empire eventually would be divided among ten kings[10], and at the end of time Antichrist will arise and lead a final apostasy (in fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians 2:3; Matthew 24:15; Daniel 7:8; 8:23). The Antichrist’s rule will complete the six thousand years of world history (i.e., a Sabbatical pattern), followed by a millennial age, where Christ reigns upon the earth.[11] While Irenaeus cautions his reader against undue speculation in this regard, he identifies 666 with Latreinos, the current Roman emperor, or with Teitan–a royal name for a tyrant. He believes that Antichrist will be an apostate Jew, sitting in the temple in Jerusalem, demanding to be worshiped as God.[12] Irenaeus connects Paul’s prophecy of a Man of Sin (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) to the prophecies in Daniel 8:12 and Daniel 9:27, the fulfillment of which is assigned to the time of the end.[13]

The first Christian writing specifically dealing with Antichrist was composed by Hippolytus, himself a student of Irenaeus. Hippolytus served as an elder in the church in Rome for nearly thirty-five years and died a martyr in AD 235.[14] In his treatise On Antichrist (AD 200), which is part of a larger work on Daniel and the earliest surviving Christian commentary on any book of the Bible,[15] Hippolytus builds upon the earlier work of Irenaeus, although there are a number of distinctive elements.[16]

Like his mentor, Hippolytus believes that Antichrist will be a Jew and a counterfeit of the true Christ. Antichrist will be born in Babylon and will come from the tribe of Dan–he is spoken of in Genesis 49:9 and Deuteronomy 33:22 as a lion’s cub and therefore cunning and deceptive.[17] As a false redeemer, Antichrist will persuade the Jews that he is the Messiah. The forerunners of Antichrist are also identified as several Old Testament figures: the Assyrian king (Isaiah 10:12-19), the Babylonian king (Isaiah 14:4-21) and the prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2-10). As Hippolytus puts it, “For a deceiver seeks to liken himself in all things to the Son of God. Christ is a lion, so Antichrist is also a lion; Christ is a king, so Antichrist is also a king. The Savior was manifested as a lamb; so he too will in like manner, appear as a lamb, though within he is a wolf.[18]

Hippolytus also states that Antichrist will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and will deceive Christians, who are symbolized by the two witnesses which preach against him before being killed.[19] Three and a half years of tribulation will follow, before Christ returns to destroy him (On Antichrist, 43). The two beasts of Revelation 13 are yet future and will rule in the manner of Caesar Augustus, “by whom the empire of Rome was established.”[20] Hippolytus also sets forth a rather bizarre chronology of the end. Christ would not come at the end of the six thousand years of world history–the schema of history set forth by Irenaeus–but instead, Christ will return in the middle of the final thousand years marking some 500 years between Christ’s return in humility and his return in glory.[21]

According to the historian Bernard McGinn (who has written what some consider to be the definitive history of the doctrine), Hippolytus is the “earliest witness to what later became known as the `refreshment of the saints,’ a brief period between the Antichrist’s defeat and Christ’s return when the surviving faithful were supposed to live in peace while awaiting the manifestation of the kingdom of God.”[22] While many have seen in this a kind of proto-premillennarianism (chiliasm), recent studies, such as that by Charles Hill, have shed new light on this assumption, pointing out that Hippolytus believed that the first resurrection takes place when the soul of a martyr joins Christ in heaven, not when Christ returns to raise the dead–a position inconsistent with premillennialism.[23]

Read more»

Kim Riddlebarger | “The Church Fathers, Origen, and Augustine on Antichrist” | February 11, 2023


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

    Post authored by:

  • Kim Riddlebarger
    Author Image

    Kim is a graduate of Simon Greenleaf School of Law (M.A.), Westminster Seminary California (M.A., M. Div.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). From 1995–2020 he was senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Anaheim. He was a long-time co-host of the White Horse Inn radio show and is currently Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Follow his work at The Riddleblog.

    More by Kim Riddlebarger ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!