The millions who await in fear and trembling the End of Days can afford to relax. Barack Obama is not, after all, the Antichrist, the false prophet foretold in the Book of Revelation, whose coming marks the start of Armageddon and all the associated bad stuff seen (for some reason) as a necessary overture to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Hal Lindsey, whose work on the subject is seen by many American Apocalypse watchers as definitive, has announced that while the presidential candidate's triumphant tour of European capitals may have "provided a foretaste" of the sort of reception the coming Great Beast may expect to receive, "it won't be Barack Obama".
Well, that's a relief. But how can he be sure?
The Book of Revelation is, as it happens, notably short on clues as to the Antichrist's identity. Described as a "beast coming out of the sea", with seven heads and ten horns, whose personal number is 666 and who despite these obvious aesthetic disadvantages manages to persuade most of the world's population to bow down and worship him, he has been associated by most serious scholars who express a preference with the emperor Nero. But that's not much use if you're expecting the world to end some time in the future, rather than in the first century AD (as must have seemed likely to the Christian victims of Nero's persecution). Church fathers later added their thoughts, and during the Middle Ages folklore came to fill in some of the finer details. According to the scholarly Victorian clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould,
Rabanus Maurus, in his work on the life of Antichrist, gives a full account of the miracles he will perform; he tells us that the Man-fiend will heal the sick, raise the dead, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb; he will raise storms and calm them, will remove mountains, make trees flourish or wither at a word. He will rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, and make the Holy City the great capital of the world. Popular opinion added that his vast wealth would be obtained from hidden treasures, which are now being concealed by the demons for his use. Various possessed persons, when interrogated, announced that such was the case, and that the amount of buried gold was vast.
Buried gold, eh? No wonder Hillary found herself unable to match Barack's lavish spending during the final few primaries.
Apart from St John, who started the whole thing off by writing down the strange acid trip he had on the island of Patmos, the biggest noise in antichristology is probably Nostradamus. While his burblings aren't generally regarded as part of the canon of scripture, the French quack did have quite a bit to say about the end of the world, and a number of his verses are held by some to finger likely candidates for the big A. One is called "Mabus", which many "experts" believe sounds a bit like "Obama". A few years ago, other experts (or, more likely, the same experts) thought that "Mabus" sounded a bit like "Osama bin Laden", or possibly "Bush".
The modern Antichrist industry was helped on its way by Hal Lindsey's 1970 smash hit The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsey reinterpreted the Antichrist as a plausible modern politician who will come to lead a world government and/or new religious movement. A sort of "faith foundation", perhaps. Despite the complete lack of Biblical justification for this idea it has proved scarily influential on the US religious right, and helped inspire the Omen films. Antichrist-spotting has long been a popular pastime among loons. Mikhail Gorbachev was once a candidate, on account of his prominent birthmark and his role in ending the Cold War and thus paving the way (so it was supposed) for a One World Government. The first President Bush, with his reference to a "new world order", served his time as Antichrist-in-waiting, as did Bill Clinton, though I can't remember why. I don't remember reading in the Bible that the Big Beast was mainly doing it to get laid.
Barack Obama, with his multiracial background, charisma and (to his opponents) inexplicable popularity has been obvious Antichrist material right from the start of his campaign. A Google search for "Obama" and "antichrist" yields 738,000 results, including an Obama the Antichrist blog which brings together much of the evidence and has an amusing image gallery. For a long time it was largely an underground phenomenon, confined to conspiracy websites and fundamentalist radio stations. The urban legend site Snopes quotes an email "collected March 2008" as running as follows,
According to the Book of Revelations, the Antichrist will be a man in his 40s, of Muslim descent, who will deceive the nations with persuasive language, and have a massive Christ-like appeal... but when he is in power, will destroy everything. IS IT OBAMA?
Short answer: No.
What has suddenly brought this nonsense out into the open is a recent commercial for the McCain campaign. Called "the One", it satirises Obama's supposed messianic pretensions and over-enthusiastic supporters (who have been rather less in evidence lately) in a manner that some think plays on the idea of Obama as Antichrist. Huffington Post quotes one of Obama's religious supporters as saying that it is "beyond offensive to suggest that Senator Obama is a false Messiah or the anti-Christ himself. How low can we go? It shows the McCain campaign is willing to make a mockery of our faith to feed people's fears."
Are the Republicans, however subtly, playing the 666 Card? An article in Time magazine points to similarities between the commercial and elements of the bestselling Left Behind novels of Tim LaHey and Jerry Jenkins, a series that takes Lindsey's premise and turns it into a sequence of airport thrillers. Visual images in the McCain ad are claimed to recall the novels' covers, for example a "sinister orange light surrounded by darkness and later the faint image of a staircase leading up to heaven". It is even suggested that a spoof of Charlton Heston's Moses parting the Red Sea has a covert message: a blue quasi-presidential seal, featuring an eagle, is seen to rise up out of the waters, a visual effect that reminded Democrat consultant Eric Sapp of a passage in the Book of Daniel, where "the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle".
Presumably Sapp is referring to Daniel 7.4:
The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man's heart was given to it.
Sapp claims that the seal depicted in the ad "features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue O logo".
In fact, the seal used in the campaign ad is the same as one used by the Obama campaign, which was withdrawn after criticism that is was presumptuous (and replaced with the ironically much more messianic "O"). It looks nothing like a lion with an eagle's wings.
As for the "staircase to heaven", that turns out to be an aisle; the focus of the shot was actually on the audience of Obamaniacs.
Sapp asserts that "the frequency of these images and references don't make any sense unless you're trying to send the message that Obama could be the Antichrist." I don't agree: the Biblical imagery being parodied is clearly messianic: lights from heaven, the notion of an expected deliverer, Charlton Heston. "Lo he comes with clouds descending" rather than "a beast coming out of the sea". I think this latest teacup-sized tempest is another example - like the fuss over the New Yorker cartoon - of the Obama campaign over-interpreting what they see. It's hypersensitive, and it's almost certainly counterproductive.
People who genuinely believe - or are capable of being convinced - that the Antichrist is at hand are already beyond help. And they're probably Republicans anyway. For the rest of mankind, there's a point to the ad that has nothing to do with theology but has much to say about modern politics. The Obama campaign is based on hope, on inspiring flights of rhetoric and on the charismatic personality of the leader. Such movements can achieve great things when the leader has a real programme and a practical team behind him who can implement it; or, where the leader is a Hitler or a Khomenei, they can be dangerous. Most often, though, such movements end in disappointment as the leader finds it impossible to live up to expectations.
To his credit, Barack Obama is well aware of these dangers, and it's scarcely his fault if he's an inspiring speaker. In one speech, he sent up Obamania:
"A light will shine down, from somewhere. It will light upon you. You will experience an epiphany. And you will say to yourself: I have to vote for Barack."
Very funny. So funny the McCain campaign featured in in their ad.
And so to Hal Lindsey. He begins his article for World Net Daily by noting the slightly mocking commentary Obama's Berlin speech attracted in some corners, including a piece of rather heavy-handed satire from Gerald Baker in the Sunday Times. We Brits have been here before, of course, about eleven years ago. Lindsey then, more seriously, berates Obama for a perceived lack of patriotism (in other words, a willingness to admit, in public, that not everything the USA has ever done is entirely wonderful). This is a potent charge on the Right, where many seem oblivious to the fact that America's worldwide image has taken a tremendous hammering during the Bush years, and that a President prepared to show a bit of humility is a prerequisite for undoing the damage. He goes on to claim that America "has never faced so many different crises at the same time in living memory" and that "the world is ready for... a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib and seemingly holding all the answers to all the world's questions."
He was saying precisely the same thing almost forty years ago, when he predicted that the Battle of Armageddon would take place sometime in the early 1980s. His book has been through a number of new editions since then. But, ever the optimist (or pessimist; I'm not entirely sure), Hal Lindsey is still waiting for the Antichrist to show up. He remains convinced that "the Bible says that such a leader will soon make his appearance on the scene." Which rather begs the question: if the hour of Antichrist is at hand, and Obamania demonstrates the kind of welcome the Antichrist can expect to receive from an easily-deceived multitude, what's missing? What mystery ingredient does Obama lack? Perhaps it's just the 666 tattoo.
Left Behind author Tim LaHaye may have the answer. He concurs with Lindsey that Obama is not the Evil One. "I can see by the language he uses why people think he could be the Antichrist," he concedes in a press release circulated by Christian Newswire, "but from my reading of scripture, he doesn't meet the criteria." And why would that be? "There is no indication in the Bible that the Antichrist will be an American". That settles that, then.
The biggest danger for Obama's supporters, and indeed for everybody else, isn't that he'll turn out to be the Antichrist. It's that he'll turn out to be just another politician.