The identity of the Antichrist is legion. Through the centuries religious communities have associated this apocalyptic figure with figures as diverse as Roman emperors, popes, and collective identities of heretical groups as a whole. All this to say, Christians have offered a wide variety of interpretations for evil personified over the last 2000 years. Our contemporary society has shown no lack of effort in this regard, though the trajectory seems to have changed a bit. In fact, because of the ease with which media and ideas are disseminated via the internet, apocalyptic material has the potential to be more prevalent now than ever before. This speed of transmission has led the eminent scholar of apocalypticism and mysticism, Bernard McGinn, to opine that we are living in “the most apocalyptic time of the last 2000 years.” Despite this continued interest in the end times, in this exploration of apocalyptic themes I will be focusing on the figure of the Antichrist and his evolution between the Middle Ages and our contemporary world. I will briefly examine two popular depictions of this figure in contemporary film with an eye to how it is different than his handling by medieval authors. Lastly, I will propose some current Antichrist-type language being currently deployed.
While belief in the literal Antichrist does continue to this day in certain religious communities, by and large the figure of the Antichrist has receded in the religious imagination since the Enlightenment. That said, the antichrist, as a symbol of utter evil with some form of human cooperation, continues to capture the imagination of creators of popular culture through film, television, and novels (just to name a few forms of media). Two very recognizable depictions can be found in the films from the late twentieth century (which were significantly rebooted in the early twenty-first century) are Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). The reboots of Rosemary’s Baby came in 2014 as a television mini-series and a new feature film of The Omen premiered in the summer of 2006. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on the “original” films rather than the reboots — though a side-by-side comparison of the source material with its reinterpretation for a generation 30+ years later would be likely very illuminating.
Before examining the 20th-century film versions of the Antichrist, it is important, I think, to briefly discuss how the Antichrist and the Book of Revelation from which he emerges have been handled by Christians prior to the (Post-)Modern world. Early Christian commentators on the rather obtuse last book of the Christian canon, such as Victorinus (early second century), interpreted the events of the end times recorded in the book as literal prophecies of what was to come. However, as Christianity become more aligned with the Roman state, biblical exegetes such as Jerome discarded this type of hermeneutical lens for one that found the value of Revelation to be more allegorical. The focus by Jerome and later commentary authors down through the Middle Ages was recapitulation. Jerome stresses a timeless and ecclesial reading of the book, and in doing so removes a sense of immanent cosmic cataclysm and replaces it with the recurring problems facing the institutional Church.
For Jerome and authors like him, the Antichrist was at the same time the persecuting emperor(s) of pagan Rome, but also any enemy of the Church who spread error or strife amongst the people of God. As E. Ann Matter explains, through this lens of recapitulation “the Apocalypse presents a series of typological events recurring in sacred history from the time of the patriarchs, through the unknown future of the Church on earth, to the parousia.” As such, while the Antichrist could be associated with any number of singular figures, many times Christians ascribed a collective interpretation of Antichrist to groups in enmity with the Church, such as the heretical Arians and other various heresies, and, later with rival religious communities like Muslims with whom Christians came into direct warfare for centuries. Alongside this exegetical tradition of the apocalypse however, there were still traditions of texts wherein Christian authors awaited the coming of the Antichrist and enumerated ways in which to be able to identify him. The most famous medieval text of this kind can be found Adso of Montier-en-Der’s tenth-century De ortu et tempore Antichristi. It is also shown to be a concern in the “Antichrist tables” found in the eighth-century Beatus Apocalypse, which could be used to examine the names of the Antichrist and interpret their number (whether it resulted in a tally of 666).
Common to all of these interpretations of the medieval understanding of the Antichrist, whether of bloodthirsty emperor of the past, a heretical body of the present, or a depraved pontiff of the future, the figure is always one of a human being given completely over to evil. As Adso writes to Queen Gerberga in the tenth century, “[The Antichrist] is a man, he will still be the source of all sins and the Son of Perdition, that is, the son of the devil, no through nature bu through imitation because he will fulfill the devil’s will in everything.” This interpretation of the figure of the Antichrist is fully coherent with the bigger picture of understanding of the Book of Revelation for medieval authors. The Antichrist is a fully-human cooperator with the devil. He fulfills a role in apocalyptic scenarios, but it is a temporary one. The Antichrist’s time to plague the Church is short, he will ultimately be overthrown, and Christ (and the Church) will be triumphant. It is on this point that there is stark departure from medieval depictions of the Antichrist and those that we encounter in contemporary fiction.
Returning to the twentieth century, the Antichrist who emerges from the films Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen is one quite different than Adso’s Son of Perdition. Both films offer a literal interpretation of the figure of the Antichrist. In Rosemary’s Baby it is ultimately revealed that the titular baby will, in fact, grow up to be the Antichrist, while in The Omen, the protagonist comes to realize that his adopted son, Damian, is the Antichrist, and must be destroyed. In both films, the Antichrist is not a human in full cooperation with evil, but is in some way a perversion of the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity that is unique to Christ in Christian theology. The figure of the Antichrist in these films evolves from an evil human being to a somehow supernatural force of evil. Furthermore, divorced from a more comprehensive understanding of the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist figure in these films will not assuredly be defeated and the salvation of the world by Christ is not something the characters in the narrative receive, leaving viewers with a sense of dread. This is a complete inversion of the original aim of apocalyptic literature, which was to reassure believers that troubled times would eventually come to an end. For viewers of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, the diabolical children in the films are a promise of possibly unfettered violence yet to come.
The settings of both films are similar in their theological terrain. Both occur in the Modern world where belief in God, the devil, and the efficacy of the Church are questionable. Yet in both of these decidedly anti-metaphysical worlds comes a beastly, supernatural child who has some connection to a devil everyone seems to have forgotten about. In both Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen rather innocent couples fall into the clutches of a satanic conspiracy to bring the Antichrist into the world. Rosemary and her husband guy are groomed by an eccentric elderly couple to become the parents of a child brought about through Rosemary’s ritual rape by Satan. In The Omen, American diplomat, Robert, and his wife, Katherine, lose their infant son in a hospital fire, only to have him replaced by a human child that was somehow born of a jackal. In both narratives, Rosemary and Robert eventually are made aware of their children’s true identity. In the case of Rosemary, she acquiesces to her role as mother of the Antichrist, and Robert attempts to kill his adopted son to avert cataclysmic disaster — he is unsuccessful and dies in the attempt. Both narratives come to a close with the survival of the Antichrist children and the promise that they will grow to successfully fulfill their apocalyptic roles. In narratives that offer viewers an either non-existent (or at the very least disinterested God) and an impotent Church juxtaposed with a very real devil and sophisticated network of satanic devotees, the reign of the Antichrist seems as though it will go along unimpeded until the end of the world. Both films set out a world that has been disappointed by institutional Christianity and its promise of salvation, and, perhaps because of that, has an even more robust understanding of the reality of evil. From a theological point of view, these films offer no hope, and make a rather forceful statement that we are living in a kind of Modern hellish existence where God is dead and religion offers no succor.
As mentioned above, it would be interesting to examine the context and reinterpretation of both of these films that occurred 30+ years after their original releases. I would hazard a guess that the sense of God and institutional Christianity would not be improved. Further, particularly after the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, and, now, in the midst of a 2020 pandemic and widespread civil unrest, it seems that hope from traditional Christian outlets is not a comfort to many. In this very secular twenty-first century and particularly this unprecedented year of 2020, it seems that Antichrist-like language is still being deployed. In this case, we seem to have swung back to a non-supernatural, fully human and corporate identification with evil personified: the police. Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020, the righteous anger of the Black Lives Matter movement has not only swept across the United States, but the face of the whole world. As a result of this, centuries long simmering anger about racial oppression, inequity, and violence have spilled out onto the streets. The police, who have often been perpetrators of this race-based violence, have exacerbated that image by strong-arm responses to peaceful protesters in cities across the US. The cry of ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) has become ubiquitous and binary language verging on the very apocalyptic has become common. The corporate identification of cops as a group of personified evil has become mainstream, but rather than a supernatural author of evil with whom they cooperate, it is the very real legacy of institutionalized racism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and red lining that this group have been charged with furthering through insidious cooperation. Unlike in the Book of Revelation, the impetus for salvation has not been ascribed to the Risen Christ, but to something he definitely advocated in his earthly life: Justice for the poor and care for those marginalized by a corrupt and ossified society built on privilege for the few.