I was having a conversation today with a good friend of mine, a Methodist minister, and she was telling me about a parishioner who wanted to discuss the Book of Revelations with her, meaning (as she discovered) he wanted to tell her about how all of the prophecies in the Bible are coming true, right here, right now, and that the Antichrist has arisen, and Jesus will return any time now.
I commented to my friend that I do agree with her parishioner, that Donald Trump is the Antichrist, which caused an awkward moment of silence. Then I explained why, and she laughed in a simultaneously relieved and aggrieved way, and the awkward moment passed.
I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I was also quite serious.
Donald Trump is the Antichrist.
So to talk about this, I need to talk about Premillennial Dispensationalism. And to talk about that, I have to give some background in Christianity: a subject about which, I’m sad to say, most modern American Christians know very little, and modern American non-Christians know even less.
Christianity as a religion began in the fourth century of the Common Era, under the Roman Emperor Constantine. The precursor to Christianity-the-religion was a Jewish sect that dates back to at least the first century CE, which was scattered in the year CE 70 along with much of the population of Jerusalem, when General Titus Flavius Vespasianus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem, enslaved its people, and dispersed them across the Roman Empire. The original Jewish sect that preceded Christianity-the-religion concerned the ministry of a certain Iasus (or Yeshua, or Joshua), said to be known to the Romans as The Nazarine (or possibly, Nazorite, which would be quite different.) The sect’s beliefs and teaching spread mostly through the slave classes of the Roman Empire, and like anything spread by word-of-mouth, it changed dramatically as it travelled. There were cults that said Iasus was Osiris. Others said he was Dionysus. Some said that John the Baptist was the True Messiah, and Iasus was a fraud (the Ionists). The Gnostics had their own strange quasi-Zorastrian take on the matter.
The Bible was created in the fourth century under the Church Councils convened by Emperor Constantine to “unify the Christian faith.” The councils initially did so by winnowing through the dozens of different Gospel accounts, hundreds of other Christian documents, thousands of specifically Jewish documents, and arguing a lot. They eventually formed the Nicene Creed and the official sacred document of the Christian faith, The Book, or (in Greek) Βιβλίο or Bible. Any Christian document that ended up on the cutting-room floor (to use a modern film metaphor) was declared heretical, and by the end of the fourth century, nearly all copies of these heretical documents had been destroyed or hidden. Every now and again, one of the hidden copies shows up, such as at the Nag Hammadi find, or the Qumran find, and causes huge controversy: documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary, for instance.
One of the documents included in The Book was a strange one called the Apocalypsis of John, ἀποκάλυψις (in Greek) meaning “revelation.” Modern Christians often refer to it as the Apocalypse (English spelling) of John, or the Book of the Revelation of John, or just “Revelations.”
There have been a lot of theories about John’s Apocalypse. It reads like the ravings of someone on one hellacious drug trip, and some have taken it as just that. Some have considered it to be an exoteric text used to initiate new Christians in the second and third centuries into an esoteric form of Christianity in which all of the various symbols in the Apocalypse are systematically explained — an esoteric tradition passed only from the initiated to the neophyte by word-of-mouth and sacred rite, long lost. Some have taken it as a coded political rant against any number of different Roman Emperors, and since no one actually knows when it was written, or by whom, there are a lot of horrific emperors to choose from. For all we know, it might have been General Titus himself, who became Emperor nine years after razing Jerusalem, who would certainly have been a target of ire for early followers of Iasus.
But since the Apocalypse talks quite a bit toward the end about the triumphant return of Iasus from the Heavens, and the founding of the New Jerusalem — an event which quite clearly has not yet happened, at least not in any simplistic, literal sense — most Christians through history have taken the Apocalypse to be a foretelling of things yet to come.
Virtually every century of the last seventeen in Christendom has had numerous outbursts of “Apocalyptic Fervor” built around the signs and symbols of the Apocalypse of John.
This brings us to John Nelson Darby, a Protestant theologian born in 1800 in England. It was Darby who is considered the father of Dispensationalism, a novel interpretive framework for the Bible that I won’t go into for want of time and patience. Applied to John’s Apocalypse, it gave birth to something called Premillennial Dispensationalism, which most people will recognize in its modern form as The End Days, consisting of Rapture, Tribulation, and Return of Christ.
There is something a bit perverse about trying to jam the poetic, prophetic, non-linear, Blakean images of the Apocalypse into a linear timeline narrative, as Premillenial Dispensationalism attempts, or much worse, a fictional series like the 1990’s Left Behind novels, which Evangelical author Fred Clark has critiqued so fiercely in his amusing The Antichrist Handbook.
But such timeline narratives are perennial. I was personally caught up in the 1970’s version of Left Behind, a book by author Hal Lindsay called The Late, Great Planet Earth. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, though the shame is softened by the fact that a lot of people got caught up in that Fervor.
A key player in this Premillenial Dispensationalist interpretation is the ominous figure of The Antichrist, as popularized in my lifetime by Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, or the 1975 film, The Omen, or most recently (in a much lighter vein) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.
The Rise of the Antichrist is one of the (many) signs that vigilant Christians are supposed to watch for, because it signals a time of great trouble, followed by the return of Iasus.
There is a peculiar double-reversal of causality that happens when you mix Apocalyptic Fervor with a linearized account. The prophecy, if you take it as such, simply states that the sign of the Antichrist appears, followed by great troubles, and then sometime later, Iasus returns.
According to the Law of Prophetic Infallibility, the sequence gets turned around: it says that Iasus cannot come until the sign appears. Otherwise, the prophecy would have been wrong, and that is impossible.
This then gets flipped around again according to the Law of Prophetic Causality: Iasus must come after the sign appears, else the prophecy is wrong, which is imposssible. If the sign appears, Iasus must return.
And this morphs rather smoothly into something truly perverse: if we can bring about the sign, we can force Iasus to return.
Ever since I figured out that Jesus was not going to return in time to make my freshman English term paper assignment vanish in a blaze of glory, I’ve realized that if an Antichrist were ever to arise in modern America, it would be because fervent Christians in the grip of Apocalyptic Fervor brought him to power.
They don’t do this because they want the Antichrist. They just want to get the waiting over with. They want to hurry Iasus along.
So as my Methodist friend was describing her experience to me, and as I’ve myself seen in others, and experienced during that period of youthful shame, there is a kind of manic joy in any fervent Christian who thinks the Antichrist is already in play on God’s chessboard. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!” The waiting is at long last over. We’re ready for this. Game on.
And so, the fervent Christians of this country have raised up an Antichrist.
It explains perfectly how the whole core of Evangelical Christianity has fallen head-over-heels in quite literal worship of this man who is so perfectly the opposite of Iasus in every possible way. A man who is so visibly and completely anti-Christ.
Here’s the rub, of course. Donald Trump is indeed the spitting image of the Antichrist his worshippers have envisioned, and they have lifted him up to power to force the Tribulation to play out, and force Iasus to return.
But it won’t work. My English paper didn’t disappear in a blaze of glory, and neither will the catastrophic mess this stage-actor Antichrist leaves behind.