Is there one Antichrist or are there many? The biblical answer seems to be “yes.” In the letters of John, the Antichrist is coming in the future, but is already present in the world (1 John 4:3). It seems that for John there were many antichrists in the present, but that these were only the predecessors of THE future Antichrist (from the perspective of John’s day). The “spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:3, KJV) was already in the world, and it was present in the many antichrists of John’s day. But the full and final incarnation of antichrist was still in the future. The last and worst Antichrist was yet to come.
Revelation 13 seems to support this dual picture of the Antichrist. The sea beast of Revelation 13 has seven heads on one body. From Revelation 17:10 it becomes evident that the seven heads of the beast are consecutive in point of time, even though John sees all seven at the same time. So the slaughter of one of the heads of the beast results in the death of the beast itself. The beast then returns to life with a new head. Notice that in Revelation 13 verses 12 and 14 it is the beast itself that is wounded to death and comes back to life, not just one of its heads (13:3). So this one beast symbolizes the many different forms Antichrist has assumed in his opposition to God’s truth from one age to another.
An important feature of the Antichrist in 1 John is that it is not a furious persecutor, nor is it an agent attacking the church from outside. The primary feature of Antichrist in John’s letters is that of deception. Speaking of the multiple antichrists of his day, John notes that they had appeared within the community and went out from there (1 John 2:18-19). While within the community they misled others into thinking they taught correct doctrine and preached the true Christ. They were, in fact, liars (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7).
Interestingly, Jesus predicted the very situation John was referring to here, except He didn’t use the term “Antichrist.” Instead, Jesus told His disciples that both “false prophets” and “false christs” would appear. So He set the table for John’s plural use of “antichrist.” The work of these false christs would be so deceptive that it would sweep away even the elect, if that were possible (Matt 24:23-25). So Jesus and John agreed on multiple, deceptive antichrists. They also agreed that these antichrists were human individuals, apostate believers. For Jesus, the false christs were coming in His name (Matt 24:5). For John, they were once part of the community that followed Jesus (1 John 2:18-19).
In the letters of John, therefore, Antichrist is much more than a single figure, it is a whole way of thinking and operating. Christians are invited to “conquer” the antichrists by discerning the true anointing from the false (1 John 2:20, 27). As we have seen, there is a strong emphasis in John that the Antichrist would be involved in lying and deception (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7). This is consistent with the Jewish tradition that false prophets would try to counter the true prophet (Deut 18:15, 18) when he would come.
According to John, the Antichrist would come at the “last hour” (1 John 2:18) but in a sense the last hour had already come in the multiple antichrists (1 John 2:18) already present. The last days of John’s community were heralds of the very last days of earth’s history. In the letters of John, therefore, the future Antichrist is brought into the present experience of the church. He saw the Antichrist not as some future outside enemy, but as an internal danger which would lead to secessionist movements within the church. These writings were forerunners of the Reformers, who identified the Antichrist with the Pope.