The Spirit of Error in 1 John 4.6

1 John 4.6 ends with a sentence translated variously in English:

  • From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception (HCSB)
  • This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (NIV)
  • By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit (LEB)
  • By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (ESV)

The first element of the two is pretty solid—Spirit of truth. But there is a little difficulty when it comes to handling the second part: deception, falsehood, deceit, error. While all related, these words convey various distinct ideas. What is going on here?

Summary: the idea here is not a spirit who is true vs. a spirit who is in error; rather, the spirit of truth is the spirit which leads God’s people to remain in all things from God and the spirit of deceit/deception which aims to bring people to evil, blasphemy, and apostasy.

‘Error’ in Greek

In Greek at large, the word here translated ‘error’ or ‘deception,’ planē (πλάνη), generally means “going astray, error.” It is related to the word from which we get our word planet. Without a telescope, planets look like stars. However, they behave quite perversely—they ‘wander’ around in the night sky. The Greeks named these celestial bodies “wanderers,” as in, “stars which have gone astray/wander.”

Our word of interest, planē, usually does not indicate a malicious intent. That is, a “spirit of error” would generally mean a spirit that is astray, rather than one whose nature and aim is to lead others astray.

If general Greek were all we had to go on, this would be the end of the discussion. However, within the rich tradition of Jewish and Christian writings, we see another, more specific usage emerging.

Malicious spirit leading others to wander

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is an interesting work, written mostly before the New Testament. It is mostly a Jewish work.

I say mostly because, like many Jewish works from antiquity, its exact date of composition is not known (and possibly different parts come from different times) and it was transmitted almost exclusively by Christians for use by Christians. In transmission, some people could not resist adding explicitly Christian ideas here or there into the work.

It is interesting for a variety of reasons, but most notably because it includes several uses of this same expression in Greek—“spirit(s) of planē.” This expression occurs at least 13x.

Within these various passages, we see that “spirits of planē means something more than just spirits that are wrong about something. Instead, “spirits of planē” refers to Satan and his spirits who tempt people to evil, blasphemy, and apostasy.

Malicious or Righteous guides

1 John 4.6 ends saying, “from this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of planē.” We have good reason to suppose that planē here refers to the spirit of antichrist, namely the spirit of Satan. This is a spirit of deception as opposed to the Spirit of truth. The idea is not that there are two spirits, one true and the other in error, and we get to choose who to follow. The picture here is actually more like shoulder angels from the world of cartoons.

Kronk confussed by two shoulder angels

We recognize the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of deception by how they relate to Jesus Christ come in the flesh. The Spirit of Truth leads people to Jesus and enables them to hear his voice. The spirit of deception leads people away form Jesus. In the context here in 1 John, it is a subtle leading away. It is not a frontal assault on all that is good and godly, but a continued practice of deception calculated to lead followers of Jesus away to become followers of antichrist, the replacement Christ, the enemy of God.

This passage is just one of many facets of 1 John which call for followers of Jesus to be active in following the “good shoulder angel,” the Spirit of Truth, and warning them that the “bad shoulder angel” is real and is actively involved in trying to deceive people and lead them astray. Neutrality is not an option; you follow one or the other.

Antichrist: the words behind the name

Jesus and antichrist manuscript illustration

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.

Is New Testament Greek Precise?

Although I am a New Testament scholar of sorts, I keep in the background most of what I do with Greek. But, I want to share this recent article of mine for Bible Study Magazine, “Is New Testament Greek the Most Precise Language Known to Mankind?” It is a non-technical article about an issue which floats around in a variety of pulpits and Bible studies: the idea that Greek is super-precise in how it communicates.

I’m excited about it seeing the light of day. Check it out if it sounds interesting.