I’ve finished reading Kim Riddlebarger’s latest book, The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist (2006), with mixed feelings. Riddlebarger’s earlier book, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (2003), contributed greatly to my current understanding of eschatology and while he does not share my sympathy for the preterist position (see below), I was impressed by his ability to express complex thoughts in accessible language and defend what he positioned as the underdog majority position of historical Christianity.
In his first book, Riddlebarger describes his eschatological position as “Reformed amillennialism, which can also be called ‘present’ or ‘realized’ millennialism. Reformed eschatology argues for a present millennial age manifest in the present reign of Jesus Christ in heaven [and that] the promises made to Israel, David and Abraham in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus Christ and his church [...]” On his Web site, The Riddleblog, he further describes his position as “the modified idealist (eclectic) position“, which means that he’s a futurist who believes that while past events may point to shadow fulfillment of some prophecies, the complete fulfillment of Biblical eschatology is still to come. He holds tightly to symbolic language as the proper key to that interpretation, which is fundamental to his presentation of the subject matter at hand.
The main thrust of The Man of Sin is a consideration of the concepts of 1. antichrist, 2. the dragon, beast and false prophet of Revelation and 3. Paul’s “man of lawlessness” (or sin). As Riddlebarger points out in his opening chapter, our present culture amalgamates these into one manifest character, Antichrist, without consideration of their separate contexts. Popular media like Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth, movies like Thief in the Night, Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have all contributed to the hype of dispensational speculation and made it difficult for Christians to know what the Bible “really” says about these topics.
Before diving into the different backgrounds of “Antichrist”, Riddlebarger looks at the OT and NT backgrounds to the doctrine of Antichrist, tracing the separate paths of the seed of God (leading to the promised Messiah of Genesis 3:15) and the seed of the Serpent, “whose satanic lineage culminates in an Antichrist at the end of the age.” He identifies Cain, Lamech, the Nephilim, Nimrod, Pharaoh, Korah, Balaam, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus IV Epiphanes all as figures who have opposed the redemptive path of God and who acted “in the face” of Yahweh as the children of the Serpent. He also finds foreshadows of an anti-Messiah figure in Jewish apocalyptic writing, specifically the figure of Beliar, the Prince of Demons, in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, written during the Maccabean wars. He identifies this with Belial from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 6:15), as well as in Qumran texts.
After presenting the amillennial view of “this age” and “the age to come”, and his understanding of “prophetic perspective” and the arguments for double fulfillment (quickly providing a rebuttal to Ken Gentry’s contrary arguments), Riddlebarger is ready to examine the components of Antichrist within their separate contexts:
- Antichrist. John’s use of the term “antichrist” in his epistles relates to the heretical “denial that Jesus Christ [had] come in the flesh” that had risen in the first century. John’s reference to “many antichrists” refers either to multiple teachers of this false doctrine (the false christs mentioned by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse) or to the system of thought. A future Antichrist would manifest this heresy as an end-times persecutor who imposes false teaching on the people of God.
- Revelation. The dragon, first beast and the second beast, the “false prophet”, form a counterfeit trinity that parodies Christ in their attempt to deceive and apostatize the whole world. Riddlebarger sees Nero and the first-century cult of emperor worship as an archetype of this behavior, but not the final fulfillment (as do preterists). Instead, he looks forward to a political figure and state that oppresses Christians by assuming deity and demanding worship, in the manner of the Roman Empire. Similarly, while 666 can be identified with Nero in its original context, Riddlebarger holds that ultimately for John, “the triple six emphasizes that the beast and his followers fall short of God’s creative purposes for humanity.”
- Man of Lawlessness. In this section, Riddlebarger explores Paul’s comment that an apostasy must occur and the man of lawlessness revealed before the Lord returns (2 Thes. 2:3-4). He finds common ground between Paul and John in that the former’s reference to the “man of lawlessness” is likely in the context of false teaching that had sprung up in the Church after Paul’s time in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Riddlebarger then pushes the interpretative clock forward to the end of the present age, where he sees the “man of sin” as a true end-times figure who arises from within the community of Christian believers (the “temple”). This final appearance is currently being restrained by the angel of Revelation 20:1-3, i.e. until the end of the millennium when Satan is let loose for a short time.
After these considerable examinations, which the above notes barely summarize, Riddlebarger takes a chapter to survey how church fathers have interpreted these doctrines, including views from Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Augustine, the medieval Church, the Reformers and later figures of the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof.
Riddlebarger’s vantage is clearly from a Reformed view, so Catholics will be on uncomfortable ground as he explores the traditional Reformed view of the papacy and Roman Catholic Church as the fulfillment of Antichrist and Beast. However, he does not reach the depth of histrionics that Steve Wohlberg reached in his book, End Time Delusions: The Rapture, the Antichrist, Israel, and the End of the World, a Reformed historicist’s similar interpretation of eschatological events. The difference being that Wohlberg views the papacy as the primary fulfillment of these characters, while Riddlebarger still looks forward to a future “ultimate” manifestation. To be fair, he does include a “Catholic Response” section as a counterpoint.
Riddlebarger concludes with a brief chapter summarizing all of the above and outlining his view that the future will bring Antichrist who “will be the supreme persecutor of Christ’s church and will exercise his reign of terror through state-sponsored heresy, taking a form similar to the emperor worship John describes in Revelation.” This reign of terror will result in the great apostasy, after which Christ will return, crush the counterfeit trinity and make all things new. To his credit, Riddlebarger studiously avoids making any predictions about when and who these events will be associated with, preferring to leave things in an ambiguous future.
Riddlebarger and Preterism
As mentioned in the introduction of this note, Riddlebarger is fairly dismissive of preterism, largely because he does not hold to an early-date position, but also because his own position looks forward to the fulfillment of Revelation rather than back to the events of AD 70. He at least acknowledges the difference between “full” and “partial” preterism, conceding that the latter unlike the former is not heretical (based on a physical second coming). For this book, he defines preterism “in the generic sense of those who tie the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding Antichrist directly to the events of AD 70.”
Riddlebarger’s use of the capital “A” for Antichrist is significant. Throughout the book, he distinguishes between antichrist and Antichrist: the former being the spirit of heresy that denies Christ came in a physical body on Earth, the latter being the final incarnation of Satan into human form at the end of the millennium, who leads the last apostasy against the Kingdom of God. Inasmuch as partial preterists view the millennium as “in progress” or still “future” (in the case of some postmillennial preterists), they would seem to be exempt from Riddlebarger’s withering pen; clearly, full preterism is the target. Regrettably, Riddlebarger doesn’t maintain this distinction throughout the book, but implicitly condemns both views with his broad criticism of “preterism”.
I am left with the feeling that Riddlebarger’s argument could have been edited into a much slimmer volume and included as a chapter or appendix, along with the material on the date of Revelation, in a second edition of his book on Amillennialism. Perhaps this would have created a larger volume than the publishers would have liked, but it would have been a significant title and tied all of Riddlebarger’s views together in one tidy collection.
A much lesser but related criticism is that, in their effort to present The Man of Sin as a companion volume to Amillennialism, Baker Books relied on that old trick from the 1980s: increase the font size and margin spacing to increase the page count. The result is a book with the same form factor as the earlier title, but significantly less content. The earlier title was imprinted with 41 lines per page; the current title at 38 lines and considerably fewer words/line. Maybe a trivial point, but the visual difference is unavoidable.
In the end, I still highly recommend Riddlebarger’s book on amillennialism but the present title perhaps less so. The content is valuable, but I wonder if the author might have added even more value by exploring more of how the different eschatological views have considered the figure of Antichrist. I wish he had divorced himself a little more from his position and taken the space for a more ecumenical presentation of these alternate views, much as he did in the earlier book. This more focused treatment only leaves the reader wanting more.
- See also my separate post on the Appendix, “The Date of the Writing of the Book of Revelation”.