Antichrist and Revelation: Apocalyptic Connections and Subversions
The Chester Antichrist portrays a prophet claiming to be the true messiah who heralds the end of the world. In doing so, it offers intriguing insight into Christian fascination with the apocalyptic event. In the Chester cycle, and in the theology behind it, the Antichrist’s very existence precedes an apocalyptic portrait that derives in large part from the biblical book of Revelation. This book presents an influential account of the apocalyptic end of the world from which a tradition of literature, including the Chester Last Judgment play, grows. Examining the Chester Antichrist’s gestures towards the apocalyptic reveals its thematic foundation in the book of Revelation. At the same time, it subverts these themes, a reflection of the cultural context in which the play was originally presented.
The overarching plot and specific language of the Chester Antichrist point to a thematic emphasis on false gods and the almighty power of God, an emphasis drawn from Revelation. Antichrist’s opening speech establishes the theme of God’s almighty power: “hitt shalbe donne, that you shall see, / when I am hither conunen” (ll.55-6). The authoritative tone indicates an unquestionable position of power. This emphasis on divine power is further repeated throughout the text with repeated references to God’s “omnipotence”. The link to the book of Revelation lies in God’s authority to end of the world at will: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come” (Rev 14:7). That said, the Chester Antichrist also raises the notion of false gods who misrepresent themselves as the true god through Antichrist’s character. Antichrist convinces the people that “of me was spoken in prophecye, / of Moyses, Davyd, and Esaye. / I am hee the call messye” (ll.17-9), raising the question of whether Jesus or Antichrist is a false god the kings and resurrected dead worship. The danger of worshipping a false god also has roots in Revelation, where it is named as one of the chief sins of humanity: “they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood” (Rev 9:20).
The Chester Antichrist repeatedly emphasizes sin, repentance, and the importance of pleasing God. Revelation begins by describing a world in which the people wallow in sin, the very reason for the apocalyptic ending of their world. Antichrist builds on this image, propelling it forward with characters who seek to both please God and perform repentance, in the hopes of avoiding being struck down by death. As the characters in the Chester Antichrist realize they have committed the sin of worshiping Antichrist falsely, they beg for forgiveness, echoing the Lord’s Prayer: “Jesu, for thy mycle grace, / forgyve us all our trespasse / and bringe us to thy heavenlye place” (ll.601-3). These characters also attempt to please God, or the figure they believe to be God, with sacrifices: “Hither wee be commen with good intent / to make our sacrifice, lord excellent, / with this lambe that I have here hent, / kneelinge thee before” (ll.181-4). These efforts to please God contrast what we find in Revelation, in which humanity is unable to please God outright or repent for its sins.
In Christian belief, an apocalyptic end is the method by which wrongs are righted and the world is made good again. We see this belief echoed in Antichrist’s language when, for example, Antichrist says, “All leedes in land nowe be light / that wilbe ruled throughout the right” (ll.9-10). He claims that the world will now be ruled by justice and righteousness and will be renewed and refreshed by this righteousness. However false he is, Antichrist’s hopeful statement that a world of wrong will now become a world of right draws directly from biblical underpinnings. In Revelation, the sin and wrongdoing of humanity must be wiped clean from the earth through the apocalyptic end. The earth must be cleansed in this way so that God may make the world right again, so that sinners may be subjected to death and the sinless brought to eternal life in heaven. The Chester Antichrist draws on this notion of cleansing and renewal of a proper order through the characters of Enoch and Helias. The aims and language persistently expose the Antichrist in order to rid the earth of him. When Enoch says, “Give us, lord, might and mayne, / or wee of this shrewe be slayne, / to converte thy people agayne / that hee hath thus beguiled” (ll.265-8), he reflects the call to renew goodness. As he continues, he reflects the call to eliminate evil: “With this champion we must chide / that nowe in worlde walketh wyde, / to disproove his pompe and pryde / and payre all his postee” (ll.281-4).
“ The language and imagery in the Chester Antichrist create a distinctly hopeful version of the despairing Book of Revelation.”
Though the thematic links between Antichrist and Revelation are many, there are ways the play also subverts the biblical book. For example, Antichrist offers a hopeful tone towards “hope of salvatyon” (l.323). Though Revelation makes mention of heaven, its main focus lies primarily in punishment in a death-filled world where “the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes” (Rev 9:5). The book’s language emphasizes despair and suffering; humanity is thrown into hellfire and destroyed for its sins. By contrast, the Chester Antichrist takes the theme of death and converts it to emphasize the hope of attaining heaven and the joy of salvation, using language such as “Heaven-bliss, both blood and bone, / evermore there to be” (ll.717-8) to describe salvation in a joyous and heavenly realm. The play focuses on “Christes love omnypotent” (l.615), where Revelation focuses on God’s wrath and fury. The language and imagery in the Chester Antichrist create a distinctly hopeful version of the despairing Book of Revelation. This hopeful tone belongs to the cultural context of medieval Catholicism, in which the theological emphasis was placed on God’s love and the act of confession was paramount to gaining the promise of heavenly salvation.
“[Helias’s] language distinguishes between miracle and marvel, pointing to the idea that miracles can only occur in the hands of the true God.”
Antichrist also explores deception, in opposition to the overt nature of the events that occur in Revelation. Revelation offers its events as accounted facts: “There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Rev 6:12-4). This lends a grand scale and force to God’s will that leave little room for doubt. The Chester Antichrist does just the opposite: Antichrist’s miracles are denied, in Helias’s words: “The were no myracles but mervelles thinges” (l.410). In this statement, Helias means to expose the magic Antichrist uses when he raises the dead, grows fruit from an upside-down tree, and performs other marvelous feats. His language distinguishes between miracle and marvel, pointing to the idea that miracles can only occur in the hands of the true God. Antichrist “hast deceaved men manye a daye” (l.345), and the play exhibits distrust towards events beyond human control that cannot be readily explained. This strongly contrasts what we see in Revelation, where remarkable natural occurrences beyond human control go unquestioned. No human in Revelation is deceived or beguiled by extraordinary events, as they are in Antichrist; rather, they readily accept the marvelous occurrences happening before their eyes.
More broadly, the Chester Antichrist contrasts the frightening drama of Revelation by presenting a lighthearted comedy instead. Throughout the play, the characters employ jokes and double entendres to offer an amusing account of the events that precede the end of the world. The exchanges between Antichrist and Enoch and Helias are especially comedic: they call him “this devylls lymme that common ys” (l.313) and curse him with words like “Fye one thee, fayture, fye on thee” (l.353). The prophets argue back and forth with Antichrist, and each side hurls insults at the another, making for a rowdy and funny scene. Along with the undertones of comedy through the rest of the play, this comedic fight with Antichrist at the dawn of the apocalypse subverts the terrorizing image of God’s wrath in Revelation. The triumph of good over evil in Revelation becomes a comic struggle in the Chester Antichrist. The battle between good and evil is turned on its head and there is confusion about what is right and wrong, about who is good and who is evil. At the beginning of the play, for example, Antichrist claims that “one hath ligged him here in land, / Jesu he height, I understand. / To further falsehood he can found / and fand with fantasye” (ll.25-8). This confusion is in itself comedic and lighthearted, in comparison to the deathly tones and wrathful God of Revelation.
Overall, the Chester Antichrist presents apocalyptic themes from the Book of Revelation in ways that show a deep understanding of the biblical text, while at the same time subverting many of those themes in response to certain cultural markers of the Middle Ages. The play employs language and themes that directly reflect Revelation: the worship of one, true, omnipotent God; the avoidance of sin and pursuit of repentance to please God; and the cleansing of an evil world to create a new world of goodness. While it derives inspiration from these themes, the Chester Antichrist also turns them on their heads by employing a hopeful tone, emphasizing uncertainty and deception, and fostering a comedic spirit. These subversions open an understanding of the historical and cultural atmosphere in which the Chester Antichrist was written and performed, one where the hope of Catholic theology, distrust of magic, and the social gaiety of festive performance reigned. The play thus at once pays homage to the ideas within Revelation without forsaking its integrity as a product of medieval creative thought.