6.3) Another John, another Worldview:
Devil and anti-Christs in the Epistles of John the Presbyter
The three Epistles of John were written by a teacher in the Johannine tradition (that is, the tradition of the Gospel of John). He identifies himself as an Elder (Presbuter) of the community. “Prester John,” as we may call him, wrote the First Epistle around the year 100. The
Gospel of John, as we have it, was put together around the year 90. Prester John shows no knowledge of the Revelation to John, which is dated around 95 A.D.
The First Epistle picks up on the discourse of Jesus in John’s Gospel about the Jews as children of Devil, and his implied history of Devil as beginning with Cain and his murder of his brother Abel (John 8.44). Prester John emphasizes that Jesus, who was without sin, was revealed to take away sins and his followers must avoid sin. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, like Jesus. He continues:
But everyone who commits sin is of Devil, for Devil sins from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to undo the works of Devil.
No one who is a child of God sins, because God’s seed remains in him, and he cannot sin because he is a child of God.
The difference between the children of God and the children of Devil is that whoever does not do what is right and whoever does not love his brother is not of God.
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who was from the Harmful One (ho Poneros) and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because his works were harmful (ponera), whereas the works of his brother were just. (1 John 3.8-12)
Prester John goes on to speak of more abstract enemies, namely, the World (ho Kosmos) and Death (ho Thanatos): “Do not be surprised, brothers, if the World hates you. We know that we have passed from Death to Life because we love one another. Whoever does not love remains in Death” (1 John 3.13-14). But he does not connect them with Devil.
There are other likely themes in Prester John’s writings which are similarly not given an explicit Diabolical dimension. For instance, he begins the First Epistle by making much of the contrast between Light and Dark. The message we have heard from Jesus, he says, is
that God is Light and in Him there is no Darkness at all. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him while we are walking in Darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1.5-7).
He moves from discoursing on Light and Dark to giving messages in quick succession to children, fathers, and youths, treating Devil as the defeated enemy of the youths: “You have conquered the Harmful One,” “You have overcome the Harmful One” (1 John 2.13-14).
He then gives a general address, warning against the World: “all that is in the World—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the World” (1John 2.16).
Next he warns against another enemy, or set of enemies, those who are against Christ:
Children, it is the last hour! You have heard that an anti-Christ is coming, and now many anti-Christs have already come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. (1 John 2.18-19)
It is quite clear what John is saying here. These newly arrived anti-Christs are simply “heretics,” people who used to belong to the orthodox Christian community and who have now split off from them. They are the sort of false teachers that Paul and later writers associate with Satan, as when Paul prays that the Roman Christians will soon crush Satan beneath their feet (Rom. 16.20) (chap. 3.2).
So where did the infamous Antichrist come from, the great enemy of Jesus in his Second Coming? Answer: he comes out of nowhere. He is an invention of creative readers of Prester John’s Epistles and John the Divine’s Book of Revelation, who fuse two different texts into one. An example of creatio ex nihilo.
Let’s hear what else Prester John says on the subject:
You know that no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ. This is the anti-Christ, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2.21-23)
Now it is clear why John calls these heretics anti-Christs: they deny Christ, deny that Jesus is the anointed Messiah. They are anti-Christians.
John elaborates on this subject later on, when he urges his readers to practice “the discernment of spirits.” “Spirit” here seems to mean something like “doctrine.” Let’s listen:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but put all spirits to the test, to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the World. You can tell the Spirit of God by this: every spirit is of God if it confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. And every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, but is rather from the anti-Christ. You have heard that this spirit is coming and in fact it is already present in the World.
Little Children, you are from God and you have conquered those [who are from the World], for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the World. They are from the World, and so they speak from the World, and the World listens to them.
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we can tell the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. (1 John 4.1-6)
If John had wished to connect the anti-Christians with Devil, this would have been a good time to do it!
Not surprisingly, some commentators have identified “he who is in this World” with Devil, but the more likely candidate is the current anti-Christ, whose “spirit” has just been said to be already in the World. But perhaps the commentators are right, since the concluding
summary of the Epistle asserts a connection between the World and Devil (under the name of ho Poneros):
We know that those who are born of God do not sin, and the Harmful One does not touch them. We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole World lies within the Harmful One. (1 John 5.18-19)
In the very brief Second and Third Epistles, only the Second adds to the themes that we have been studying in the First Epistle. Prester John tells his readers:
Many deceivers have gone out into the World, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Such a person is the deceiver and the anti-Christ. (2 John 7)
Once again, we see confirmation that anti-Christs are multiple, encompassing all those who do not have the right doctrine about Christ.
Yet, believe it or not, the last sentence has been taken to refer to Satan and his Main Man, the Antichrist. Here, for example, is the Jerusalem Bible translation:
There are many deceivers at large in the world, refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in human nature. They are the Deceiver; they are the Antichrist. (NJB 2 John 7)
Or maybe this translation is just saying that such deceivers add up to Antichrist, also called “the Deceiver.” But that would be to make Antichrist a personification or an abstraction. In the Gospel of John, we had the opposite grammatical problem, when Jesus refers to Judas as diabolos, “a devil,” in contrast to ho Diabolos, “Devil.”
The upshot of our analysis of John the Presbyter’s first letter is that he designates Devil as a source or patron of wickedness and injustice, who is especially associated with hatred, as in the case of Cain’s hatred of his brother. Heretical Christians who deny that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah are called anti-Christs. They are not directly
associated with Devil, but rather with the World, although since the World is said to be “in Devil,” we may wish to see Devil as fostering this heresy. Nevertheless, there is no warrant for saying that John envisages a single great adversary called Antichrist.