Antichrist: the words behind the name

In certain circles, the nature and identity of the Antichrist exercises immense amount of interest, excitement, and speculation. I’m not writing here to talk about end times speculation around this enigmatic figure. Rather, I want to take a step back and consider the Greek word of relevance: ἀντίχριστος (antichristos). What does this word mean? More pointedly, I want to look at how our usage of “antichrist” in English obscures certain important facets of what this word means.

⚠️Reader beware: this post strays into what is called etymology—that is, how words are formed and why. Nothing too technical. You have been forewarned. ⚠️

On making up words

The word antichrist (Greek, ἀντίχριστος) is a Christian innovation. First John contains the earliest recorded use of the word and no one besides Christian authors bothers to use it after that. We can treat antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) as a brand-new word emerging in the particular social and religious context of early Jewish-Christian circles.

When John mentions antichrist in 1 Jn 2.18, he mentions a figure the readers are already familiar with. Both he and they already know what the word is intended to mean. This doesn’t help us that much in figuring out what John intends to communicate. In such a case, we can observe how the word is built (etymology) to help understand it.

There is a potential problem with this otherwise sensible procedure.

A problem in the prefix

The problem is straightforward: the prefix anti- in English is far more limited in meaning than the prefix αντι– is in Greek. Said a little differently: when we see an English word with anti- on the front, we have only one main meaning possibility; Greek words with anti- on the front had many more.

The venerable defines the English anti- this way:

a prefix meaning “against,” “opposite of,” “antiparticle of,” used in the formation of compound words (anticline); used freely in combination with elements of any origin (antibody; antifreeze; antiknock; antilepton).

The English anti- has one core sense: against. When we as English readers encounter the word “antichrist,” we only have one meaningful option for what we assume the word means: “against Christ.”

English borrowed anti- ultimately from Greek, but most directly through Old French and Latin. These borrowings only brought one nuance of the meaning of αντι- from Greek.

When we read “anti-” in “antichrist” we do so with blinders on because anti- only has one meaning. When we read ἀντίχριστος (antichrist) in Greek, the ἀντι- (anti) part has a variety of possible meanings.

Summary of the problem

When we read antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) in 1 John, we need to be aware of a couple things:

  1. it is a word made up for a purpose
  2. the parts of the word, while both meaningful in English, have a greater range of possible meanings in Greek than they do in English

In short, John’s reason for using the word antichrist may be lost in translation to us because the way our prefix anti- functions is much more limited than it was in Greek.

So, what does anti- mean, anyways?

As a Greek preposition, ἀντί does not really mean “against,” in the sense of “adversarial.” Here is a summation of its basic usages, from The Cambridge Greek Lexicon:

  1. referring to physical location: opposite (side of)
  2. referring to comparison or preference: equivalent to, in preference to
  3. referring to substitution: in place of, instead of
  4. referring to exchange of goods: in return, in exchange for

The Greek anti- relates two entities to each other in a variety of ways. At its deepest, most abstract meaning, it probably envisions two objects in space facing each other, say on opposite sides of a valley, wall, or tree. This basic idea extends through a variety of uses into meanings which are more specialized, but still involve relating two entities together in space, in valuation (more in a monetary sense), or in how they are esteemed.

👉As a preposition, anti- in Greek most basically refers to “against” in a spatial sense, not as an adversary.👈

There are Greek words where the sense of “against” as in “adversary” occur. The core idea of “against” each other in space naturally extends to a sense of adversary. Two armies who are opposite to one another in physical space are also in opposition to each other in metaphorical space as well. We see this meaning appear in words like (the hyphen makes clear the anti– part of the Greek word):

  • ἀντι-λέγω “I contradict, speak against
  • ἀντι-λογία “contradiction, dispute”

Summary: antichrist and the many meanings of anti-

In some Greek words, anti- means “against” as a hostile action, something like “in opposition to.” This is the portion of meaning that the English anti- comes from. However, this meaning is far from the only way that the Greek anti- worked in forming words. Consider this list of ways it is used to form words (taken from LSJ, a standard Greek reference dictionary). Anti- can mean:

  • over against, opposite (spatial)
  • against, in opposition to (adversarial)
  • one against another
  • in return
  • instead of
  • equal to, like
  • corresponding, counter

When John’s Greek-speaking audience ran across the word “Antichrist,” had a variety of possible options of meaning for what that word might mean. We only have one.

‘Antichrist’ as ‘substitute-Christ’

I want to suggest a broader nuance of meaning for the word “antichrist.” It does not only mean “against Christ.” It would be better to think of Antichrist as meaning something like “substitute-Christ, a counter-Christ.” The idea from 1 John and the other relevant NT passages (the man of lawlessness from 2 Thess. and the beast passages of Rev. being the most notable) is that antichrist is not just a person fighting against Christ; antichrist is a rival. Antichrist is like the leader of an opposite army and like a rival presidential campaign. Antichrist is not just fighting against Jesus, but is striving to achieve the same position as Jesus. Antichrist aims to be a substitute-Christ.

Being on the watch for antichrist is more than looking for pentagrams, Satan-worshippers, schock-rockers with bizarre costumes and make-up, or other things like that. “Substitute-Christs” come in all shapes and sizes. And a lot of those shapes and sizes look attractive within the church. Remember, in 1 and 2 John where the word “antichrist” occurs in the NT, the main concern is people within the church. The antichrists are those who deny Jesus as the Christ, which implicitly means setting up someone or something else in his place.