Two weeks before Christmas 2009, televangelist Hal Lindsey declared that Iran’s religious extremism was ushering in the end times. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had just stated that the United States was preventing the coming of the Mahdi, the Muslim savior according to most Shiites. Lindsey warned that Iran might use nuclear weapons to start the global conflict necessary to expedite the Mahdi’s coming. He then interpreted Revelation 13:8-9 as a prophecy of how the Antichrist was facilitating a one-world government through Ahmadinejad, concluding that “[the Antichrist is] alive and well and doing that right now. ... It’s time to get ready, folks.”
Not to be outdone, TV commentator Glenn Beck devoted his Feb. 4, 2010, show to the subject, explaining how the Imami Shiites (also known as “Twelvers”) are calling to “hasten the return of the promised one” through “global bloodshed.” Like Lindsey, Beck reported Ahmadinejad’s statement as an exhortation to set up a “global government in Babylon” to usher in the Mahdi and bring about the world’s end. “See if this sounds familiar to Christians,” Beck continued, who interpreted Iran’s outlook as the work of the Antichrist, who, once he establishes his reign, “kills all unbelievers ... got it?”
As observers quickly pointed out, Lindsey and Beck did not account for the Twelvers’ belief in their own Antichrist, the Dajjal, whom they believe opposes the Mahdi. Nor did they speak to Twelvers’ belief that the Mahdi and Jesus will return together.
Beck’s “I’m not a theologian” disclaimer aside, influential non-Catholic Christians do advance competing and contradicting doctrines about the Antichrist. Why do many Christians see him lurking everywhere — and what does the Catholic Church have to say on the matter? These are questions worth asking during one of the most powerful anti-Antichrist weeks on the liturgical calendar: June 6 is the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, June 11 is the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and June 12 is the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
For those who see good versus evil in an ever-battling dualism, the foremost lesson about the Antichrist comes as a shocking relief: He is not the opposite of Christ. The concept of “pure evil” has no place in the Catholic faith, for, even in their self-created hell of permanent separation from God, demons retain the good mark of having been created by God. Instead, the Antichrist comes in disguise, offering seductive lies that seem to satisfy humanity’s deepest yearnings at the deadly price of the full truth.
Drawing on the letters of Sts. Paul and John, the Catechism speaks of this time as “the Church’s ultimate trial ... a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (No. 675).
Our faith teaches, then, that God has already and definitively defeated evil for us. The Antichrist has no chance of winning, for he remains subject to God’s reign despite his rejection of it. What the Antichrist represents is not some final standoff between good and evil, with angelic swords blazing and the outcome uncertain. He comes, rather, in a last-ditch effort to be idolized, to bring down mankind in a vile bacchanal of creaturely worship.
Perhaps no other writer in modern times has fleshed out the nature of the Antichrist as artfully as C.S. Lewis. In the first chapter of The Last Battle, the Narnia Chronicles’ finale, the narrator introduces Shift, “the cleverest, ugliest, most wrinkled Ape you can imagine.” (Those superlatives recall the serpent of Eden, already twisted by misuse of his gifts, wizened but unwise.) We then meet the donkey Puzzle, who is so glad to have a friend that he does not recognize Shift’s cruelty. He does whatever Shift says, laboring with much toil and suffering, as the ape uses great cunning to disguise his utter selfishness. Shift convinces Puzzle to agree that, since donkeys can eat thistles and apes cannot, fairness demands that the ape eat the tastiest foods. Shift plays the victim and appeals to justice, trying to turn a good (eating thistles) into an evil (where’s mine?).
No surprise, then, that shame has been multiplying inside of Puzzle. Of course, Shift only worsens it. “I understand what needs to be done better than you,” the ape reminds him; “you know you’re not clever.” In disguising his gifts as exclusive and good, Shift convinces Puzzle that the donkey can neither trust his own reasoning nor contribute anything of value. The double-edged temptation — powerful because it benights the spectrum of goods and exploits the donkey’s low self-esteem — leads Puzzle to offer himself willingly into Shift’s service.
In this distorted relationship, the two spot an unusual object in the icy waters near roiling Caldron Pool. Shift suggests Puzzle plunge into the waterfall to retrieve the object, yet the donkey responds with lucid reasons why Shift might succeed more easily. The ape switches tactics immediately, feigning despair about “what weak chests Apes always have and how easily they catch cold! … I will go in ... I shall probably die.” Shift has now accused Puzzle of exploiting his weakness, reinforcing the temptation by cloaking his sloth in martyrdom.
Puzzle repents, dives into the maelstrom and barely emerges with the object: a lion’s skin. Shift ignores the trauma of Puzzle’s near-death experience and hatches a diabolical scheme: Puzzle will wear the skin to imitate Aslan, the Savior-lion of Narnia. Not yet robbed of his holy fear, Puzzle objects, only to hear the ape reply, “Why don’t you treat me as I treat you?” In this arrant inversion, Shift uses the donkey’s charity against him by reducing love of neighbor to quid pro quo, hiding what will be unthinkably evil beneath the appearance of returning a favor.
A few curveballs later, Puzzle wears the skin, feels terrible and worries that Aslan, the real Savior, will appear. Shift pulls out the big guns: “But think of the good we could do! ... I expect [Aslan would] be very pleased. Probably he sent us the lion skin on purpose.” An unholy cocktail of ends justifying the means, divination and fideism, Shift’s poisoned chalice glitters with the meretricious beauty of radical individualism, anti-transcendentalism and the self-glorifying will to power.
Through an entertaining fiction, Lewis puts across a potent fact: The Antichrist will be far worse than a rhetoric-spouting tyrant — and far harder to identify than an “opposite of” Christ would be. He will see our weaknesses and try to twist us into seeing them as moral goods, especially our inclinations to “I did it my way” freedom. Those not practiced in virtuous self-mastery may very well fail the final test, and not even the most vocal Antichrist hunters are immune to this reality.
In one passage, Lewis inserts a telling line about true sight. After Puzzle dons the skin, the narrator attests: “No one who had ever seen a real lion would have been taken in for a moment.”
Our personal encounter with Christ saves us. Through prayer and the sacraments, we know Jesus’ face more and more intimately, and we have great hope that we will see through the lies of his deceitful imitators. As St. Paul reminds us, we must work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), for the last battle is up to each of us — relying on God’s help and grace — to win.
Stephen Mirarchi teaches literature and theology at Jesuit High School Tampa.