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The Devil in Disguise?

As the new millennium nears, believers are steadfast: The antichrist is at large, and the coming battle between good and evil will unmask him.

May 12, 1999|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The leaders of several small warring countries and a giant in the computer industry have all been singled out as suspects, but so have the World Bank, NATO and the credit card system. Now that the time of tribulation is near, at least by some calculations, the finger pointing has skipped from El Nino's end-of-the-world weather to the Y2K computer virus that threatens havoc at the turn of the century.

With 2000 in easy reach, a cross-section of Christians who interpret the Bible literally, along with a good number of others who may have never read the Bible, share a common vision of the future. They expect the antichrist to appear any day.

From the start of Christianity, candidates for the role of Satan's protege have never been lacking. Rome's Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians in the first century; Pope John XXII, who was denounced as a heretic in the Middle Ages; Russia's oppressive Peter the Great at the turn of the 18th century; Napoleon; Mussolini; Hitler have all been named at one time or another.

New names surface on the Internet by the day, in e-mail messages and chat room conversations monitored by Steven O'Leary at the Center for Millennial Studies at USC. He has seen suggestions as diverse as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Gates was a tongue-in-cheek numerological calculation--"a bit of antichrist humor," O'Leary says. Juan Carlos was based on the honorary title "king of Jerusalem," held for centuries by Spain's ruler. To some who keep a watch for the antichrist, it sounds like a pretender's claim.

"Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a flash in the pan during the Persian Gulf War in '91," says O'Leary, whose center also tracks news and gathers historical research about the end times.

Several rock stars have claimed the title for themselves: Johnny Rotten in the mid-'70s with his song lyric "I am an antichrist," and now Marilyn Manson, whose 1996 "Antichrist Superstar" album sold 1.2 million copies.

With millennium fever in the air, vivid imaginations have been let loose.

"Almost no candidate is too implausible," O'Leary says. "Social institutions, people with power whose intentions we're not sure of--they're all being named."

The nonstop guessing looks to O'Leary like a game of Pin the Tail on the Antichrist. But many clergy people consider it a dangerous sport.

"People have been naming names for years," says Pentecostal minister T.D. Jakes, whose Dallas-based television ministry reaches 3 million viewers worldwide. "We profess to know more than we know. I have no idea who the antichrist is. Where the Bible is silent, we should be silent."

His reasons are obvious. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell preached in January that the antichrist must be Jewish because Christ was Jewish and that Satan's protege is alive today, the televangelist set off an alarm.

Jewish leaders called the speech "radioactive" and said the Bible does not identify the antichrist by any ethnic background. They stopped short of accusing Falwell of anti-Semitism, since he has been a supporter of an independent state of Israel.

More than 40 million Americans believe that the millennium will bring the second coming of Christ, according to a recent Los Angeles Times Poll. Followers of biblical prophecy would add that such a day will launch the battle between ultimate good and evil, the Great Deceiver against the faithful followers of Christ.

From the Bible's few details, a long, complex story has developed that sets the scene for Satan's man to emerge. Some consider the story to be fact; others call it a folk tale:

There will be the rapture, a time when the faithful will be raised to heaven. Then, a time of tribulation when catastrophes make the world susceptible to the lure of a false redeemer who will look like a godsend at first. After years of a violent rule, the dreaded battle of Armageddon will begin and the antichrist will be defeated. Christ the victor ushers in 1,000 years of peace.

The villain's scant few bones lie embedded in three books of the Bible: Revelation, the first letter of John and the book of Daniel.

Revelation's Chapter 13 warns of a beast who gains control of the world and stamps his mark, 666, on human body parts. The number is a numerological calculation standing for an unnamed oppressor. The chapter does not suggest the beast is the antichrist, but many Christians have interpreted it that way.

In the first letter of John, the term "the antichrist" describes an unnamed opponent to Christianity whose rise to power will be a sign that the end is near.

The Old Testament's book of Daniel, with its apocalyptic predictions of invasion and the triumph of good, is a key source in Hebrew scripture for an end-of-time scenario. Other predictions of an ultimate battle are found in Isaiah and Ezekiel. Although Jews do not believe Christ was the savior, Jewish tradition does allow for the coming of a false messiah with evil intent.

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