The phrase spirit of the antichrist is found in 1 John 4:2–3: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
It’s vital to understand the context of John’s statements. A predominant worldview when he wrote this letter suggested that diverse spirits were at work in the world. Many false teachings, mystery religions, spiritual experiences, and variations of Christianity were emerging at the time. The spiritual atmosphere was not unlike the one present in our world today. People entertained countless views regarding truth.
John presented a definitive solution for wading through this variety of beliefs and teachings. He instructed his readers to pay attention and test the spirits: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
But how do we test the spirits? How can we discern which teachers are imparting truth? How do we recognize the spirit of the antichrist?
These “spirits” John spoke of were not merely disembodied, supernatural beings. John taught that a prophet or teacher was the actual mouthpiece for a spirit. Spiritual doctrines are promulgated through human spokespersons. Teachers of truth are filled with the Spirit of God and thus are agents who speak for God. Teachers of falsehood are spreading the “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1, NASB).
So, the first test relates to theology or doctrine: “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). We can ask, does the content of the person’s teaching acknowledge that Jesus Christ—fully God and fully human—has come in the flesh? If the answer is yes, then we know the Spirit of God inspires that person. If not, his entire teaching ought to be rejected. This particular test was especially apropos in John’s day, as the heresy of Gnosticism was becoming prevalent; Gnosticism taught that Jesus only appeared to have a human body but was not actually a flesh-and-blood person.
Next, John says, “But every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3). Anyone who does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Bible presents Him is inspired by the spirit of the antichrist.
The word antichrist means “against Christ.” People who say that Jesus is not from God are controlled by the spirit of the antichrist. Satan opposes Christ, and he desires to deceive people into a false view of who Jesus is. The spirit of the antichrist teaches against Christ. To twist the truth about Jesus Christ is to pervert the gospel. Satan works to spread lies about Christ and keep people in the dark: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7).
The spirit of the antichrist is the birds that eat the seeds along the path in Jesus’ parable (Mark 4:4, 15). It is “the god of this age” who blinds the minds of unbelievers, keeping them from seeing “the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). It is “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The spirit of the antichrist is “the great dragon . . . who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9).
The Bible teaches that the world will eventually produce a world ruler, called “the beast” in Revelation, who will wield great power and demand worship of himself. He will have “a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies” (Revelation 13:5) and is empowered by Satan (Revelation 13:2). He is called “the man of lawlessness . . . the man doomed to destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. This final Antichrist will be the culmination of the evil workings of Satan throughout the centuries. The Antichrist of the end times will embody all the deception and perversion of truth that the spirit of the antichrist has always promoted. Today, “the secret power of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). The same spirit that will empower the Antichrist of the last days is currently operating in the world to bring confusion and deception to the issue of Jesus Christ’s person and work. “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world” (1 John 4:3).
Even given the pervasive influence of the spirit of the antichrist, there is no need to fear. As John reminds us, the Spirit of truth indwells all believers and provides protection from the spirit of the antichrist: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
We have some practical ways to distinguish the false spirit of the antichrist from the true Spirit of God: “[False prophets] are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:5–6). Those who are influenced by the spirit of the antichrist are of the world. They have the same values as the world; therefore, the world listens to them. Those who acknowledge Christ have His Spirit of truth, and they embrace the apostles’ message. The gospel the apostles preached is never popular in the world, but it is that very gospel that holds the power to save, through God’s Spirit of truth (Romans 1:16).
The believer’s job is to test the spirits carefully (1 John 4:1). We must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV). We should not automatically embrace the message of any preacher or teacher simply because of his or her reputation or credentials; rather, we must listen cautiously to their Christology. What they say about Jesus is of utmost importance.