The ANTICHRIST CONTROVERSY--Can Christ Return At Any Moment?

I am thinking of doing a blog series on the antichrist phenomena, but thought I would raise the problem first.

Last night I attended a conference at the local Protestant Reformed Church on eschatology.  Professor David Engelsma spoke on Revelation 11 and the slaying of the two witnesses. The lecture was quite good, but during the course of the lecture, Engelsma again asserted with authority that the antichrist will be a literal man who will physically crush the church once its mission is complete. I say “again” because Engelsma was one of the most vocal Reformed voices against Harold Camping’s prediction of Christ’s return in 1994.  Engelsma responded to Harold Camping by saying that it would be impossible for Christ to return in 1994 because 2 Thess. 2 says the day will not come until the man of sin is revealed.  So, according to Engelsma,
 we can expect a powerful world ruler, the antichrist, to appear on the scene of history prior to Christ’s return and level great persecution against the two witnesses, those whom Engelsma correctly identifies as the church. 

As I listened last night to this overall good lecture, my struggle was this.  Engelsma made the case that Revelation cannot be understood literally; it is full of symbolism, enigmatic language, apocalyptic in genre, etc.  Agreed.  And he consistently applied this when speaking to descriptions like that of the two witnesses. They are not to be identified as two individuals (i.e. Moses and Elijah, Calvin and Luther), but representative of the church. But the inconsistency, it seemed to me, came when he spoke of the antichrist. 

 Engelsma was dogmatic in saying there must be a literal application of these texts when speaking of the antichrist. We are to understand the language in Revelation as speaking of a literal man who will rule and persecute the church before the second coming.  He argued that these things are identified in real historical realities. What troubled me was not his suggestion that there may be a literal man, an antichrist (this has obviously been a standard Reformed position), but his dogmatic tone in doing so.  The problem is what an overly dogmatic stance, combined with what I viewed as an inconsistency in the hermeneutic, brings in terms of consequences. 

The main consequence of Engelsma’s dogmatic view is apparent: the second coming is not imminent.  As stated in 2 Thess. 2, as Engelsma pointed out in our discussion after the lecture, “that day will not come until…the revealing of the man of lawlessness”.  The PR are unequivocal about this, Christ could not return right now.  The antichrist has to appear first.  This assumes, of course, that a correct interpretation of all antichrist passages in the NT are speaking of a recognizable phenomena to the Christian. 

The other consequence flows from the first, the NT as a whole seems to indicate that the second coming is indeed imminent and what then becomes of the all calls to be ready?  The only force to those passages would seem to apply to physical death, not the second coming.  But many of those passages are speaking directly to Christ’s physical return (see 2 Pet 3). 

The other consequence to Engelsma’s view is apparent from the main verse he bases his denial of the imminent return upon, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4,
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
Did you catch that?  If you are going to apply this passage as speaking of a literal man, to be consistent, you would need to make a literal application to “the temple”—the only of which could be the Jerusalem one.  Now there is no temple standing in Jerusalem today. But a literal man would require a literal temple, to be consistent. What significance would the Jerusalem temple rebuilt have for the new covenant people of God?  So here is what we come up with, for Christ to come, the list of qualifications grow, now we must look for a literal man and a literal rebuilt temple, among other things.  Is that what we are taught to "be ready" for?

One other thought, if the great apostasy is equated with what Christ said would be a time of great deception, so much so that, if it were possible, even the elect could be deceived, how would such a time of deception comport with an visible antichrist seated somewhere in a temple—would that be the great deception? 

I have lots more to say on this, but would love for you to interact and tell me your thoughts.  I'm cautious of being overly dogmatic on something like this because of the consequences that result as evidenced in Engelsma's view given above.  So….what are your thoughts?


  1. i'm surprised that someone from the PR would be dogmatic about a tangential point of theology ; )

    all kidding aside, chris, i look forward to reading your series of blog posts on the antichirst.

    one question, have you read riddlebarger on this...and if so, will you be interacting with him. for that matter, how about warfield, etc...

    and, further, will you be sketching out the premi-dispe view the antichrist which is so popular/prevalent in North America?

    sorry for the barrage of questions, bro, they just struck me as i thought through some of what might be ahead in your series.

    anyway, i look forward to reading along as you write along! : )

    take care. blessings to you and your family.

    - dan

  2. Hi Dan,

    You've experienced this also? :)

    I will probably interact with Riddlebarger since his work is one of the best on the subject. I spent some time in Warfield years ago, but my time is limited, so I will do my best.

    Thanks for your comment. Hope you are doing well. Blessings, Chris

  3. Did Prof. Englesma assert a literal temple?

    I attended a conference on the "Antichrist in Scripture" back in 1997 where Rev. Prof. Dr. F. N. Lee summed it up this way,

    "The appearance of Christ at His incarnation, elicited opposition from several minor antichrists. Matthew 23:2-36 & John 17:12. The apostle John predicted that these ‘antichrists’ had already emerged, even before the Holy Scriptures were finally completed. I John 2:18ff & 4:1-3, and II John 7. Yet that same John also insisted that the pagan Roman empire would later be replaced by another ‘religious’ Roman beast. That latter would look like a lamb, but speak like a dragon. Revelation 13:1-11ff cf. Daniel 7:7-25. Indeed, Paul too predicted a great apostasy and the emergence of ‘the man of sin’ who would rule in the temple, the very Church of God! II Thessalonians 2:3-8."

    Here the temple is equated with the church of God the very seat of the Antichrist.

    Read the summary points here, http://www.fpcr.org/blue_banner_articles/lee1.html

    Here the manifestation of "the" Antichrist is revealed but the temple is not literal.

    Would this be a possible solution to the apparent literal temple dilemma?

  4. Hi Catechist,
    Professor Engelsma did not assert a rebuilt temple. He was very clear that there will be no rebuilding of the temple. He is correct.

    I'm not sure if the statement cited provides a solution. I take Prof. Lee means a literal man when he speaks of the antichrist. So a literal man will sit in the church of God? I like that he applies the temple as the church of God, but how does an earthly antichrist man seat himself in the Jerusalem above? According to Gal 4 that one is "the temple" and equated with the church. We are seated with Christ in the heavenlies.

    So it would seem that we have to leave open the possibility that the antichrist phenomenon may be fulfilled in a way different than how Engelsma applied it. Geerhardus Vos basically said we will understand these things when they finally occur. I really appreciate that restraint. Thanks for the interaction.

  5. You bring up a good point. An earthly man cannot seat himself in the Jerusalem above.

    However, an earthly man can seat himself in the outer court of the temple, the church of God on earth, where both wheat and tares do grow. Only the wheat has access to the inner court. Antichrist here, sits in this temple on earth in the church of God, to deceive and to destroy and manifest himself as an angel of light.

    I think this is Rev. Prof. Dr. F. N. Lee's meaning.

    In Rev. 11:2 John is not to measure the outer court but the people of God who bear the seal of God Rev. 9:4 in the inner court and the altar.

    In Jerusalem above we have the holy city of verse 2 and yet another city, the great city of 11:8, where the bodies of the witnesses are lying in the streets of the great city three and half days.

    Does this account for a non-literal temple in the great city yet allow for a literal personal manifestation of the Antichrist?

    I think it allows for such but it would also preclude a time in which the second coming of Christ was/is not imminent - depending on who one pins down "the" Antichrist.

    This it what I find problematic about adopting a view that places Christ's second coming on hold - all in the name of literalizing and waiting for "the" Antichrist to be revealed first.

    Is this the same trouble your having with Professor Engelsma's view?

  6. Catechist, you write, "However, an earthly man can seat himself in the outer court of the temple, the church of God on earth, where both wheat and tares do grow."

    Yes, this is fair, if we define the temple as Prof. Lee has done. I'm not disagreeing, but there are still problems with the view.

    What I am trying to preserve is the distinct spiritual way the NT writers describe the church. The use of temple has spiritual application in the new dispensation. Paul is writing to the new covenant community, the new Israel of God, who belongs to the Jerusalem from above, who is the house of God. The coming of Christ's kingdom ushered in a spiritual heavenly reign of Christ and His people. God’s people are “His house”, “the body of Christ”, a “holy temple”, and “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” In the places where temple is used, it finds a symbolic sense, a clause generally explains the metaphor that believers form the temple.

    If the new Covenant community partakes with Christ in a spiritual heavenly reign, the man of lawlessness must set up the abomination of desolation in the spiritual temple sanctuary of God’s dwelling place, the new covenant people of God.

    How one man on earth will do this will indeed be something! Is this possible, yes, but I struggle to think of how this will be fulfilled. And there are still problems. 1)I John 4:3, “and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” Here the article (tou antichristou) functions as a previous referent to what has been already been introduced as the coming antichrist (I John 2:18. 2) As you observe, what should we be watching for, the antichrist, or the return of Christ? 3) Would a literal man here on earth really be such a deception, if possible, to even deceive the elect? 4) Based on the former problem, you are going to be playing pin the tail on the antichrist quite a bit. We have already said THE antichrist was Nero, Hitler, etc. Will we ever really know if this is the one? 5) Paul seemed to explain things in detail to the Thessalonians see 2 Thess 2:5, things we don't have revealed to us.

    So...I'm just saying we have to be careful in taking a dogmatic stance like Engelsma did on this issue. Fulfillment of things in the Bible happen in ways we would never expect. if you draw lines to OT prophecies now fulfilled, they rarely came about in the way people assumed they would. These things could be upon us now, the antichist taking his seat in the church. If the state of things in the church today is an indicator, who is to say it hasn't happen? This preserves the doctrine of an imminent return.

  7. You wrote "how would such a time of deception comport with an visible antichrist seated somewhere in a temple—would that be the great deception? "

    This is an excellent and helpful way of undoing the literalist position and I hope to keep it in my catalogue of good responses to wooden descriptions of end-times fulfillment. Looking forward to future posts

  8. Thanks, Norm! There is a lot more to this. I will try to start the series this week. Chris

  9. I'm late in the discussion, but I find it interesting.
    Consider this possible, but only after reading John's references to the "antichrist" seperately from Paul's in 2 Thesselonians.

    There is only a problem if we believe that Paul is speaking about the "antichrist", and speaking with all of our current, collective understanding of "who" the anitchrist is, or is supposed to be. At the time Paul was writing, there was a temple. In fact, one might question why Paul would present the "man of lawlessness" and the revealing of this man as a milestone towards "that day" when the Temple was yet to be destroyed and the Nation dispersed, as foretold by Christ Himself.

    If Paul is not talking about the same individual it calls into question a good many preconcieved notions of what future events await us.

    I appreciate your initial thought: how are we to be ready at all times when the conclusions we have tell us that we are to be "waiting" for certain other events?
    Clearly we should NOT be waiting for those events.

    Consider the "abomination that causes desolation": even if we dismiss the Jewish War of 67-73 as fulfilling this prophecy in Matthew 24, there is the Al-Aqsa mospue on the Temple Mount. Does this not fulfill the foretelling?
    Likewise, I frequently hear those who say a great world empire will emerge headed by the Antichrist who will rule the whole world.
    Really? Yet the United States has soldiers in 177 countries, is unarguably the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen, and yet we are waiting for a richer, more powerful, more pervasive empire to emerge?

    All of these things have left me to question modern interpretations of Scripture. No temple, no "antichrist"(the Beast, if interpreted correctly via Daniel is an empire and not a man, and no 7 year tribulation interupted by an appearing in a temple that introduces the last 3 1/2 years before the Second Coming. These, in my opinion, are simple distortians of the Word, and though believed by millions, are easily correctly by a simple comparison of what is being spoke of, by whom, and where.

  10. Hi Chuck,

    I was just reading your comments: "Likewise, I frequently hear those who say a great world empire will emerge headed by the Antichrist who will rule the whole world. Really? Yet the United States has soldiers in 177 countries, is unarguably the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen, and yet we are waiting for a richer, more powerful, more pervasive empire to emerge?" Am I correct in asserting that you believe the United States of America will never cease to exist as a superpower in the history of mankind? I just want to get this straight. And, you are writing in February of 2011? Am I misunderstanding what you have written perhaps?

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