(RNS) Every age needs an Antichrist.
Protestant Reformers picked the papacy as their embodiment of evil. American colonists chose King George III and some Cold War Christians suspected the Soviet Union was satanically led.
Now, amid threats of Islamic terrorism, a nuclear-armed Iran and tumult across the Middle East, a growing group of American evangelicals say the Antichrist will be Muslim.
âI understand that Iâm going to be viewed as a fringe, apocalyptic Christian,â said Joel Richardson, author of several books predicting an Islamic Antichrist. âBut I fully own the idea that the Antichrist will be a Muslim and will come out of the Muslim world.â
These days, even the fringe has a faithful following. On websites, television programs, conferences and books, conservative Christians like Richardson warn that a Muslim Antichrist will raise an army to attack Israel, in fulfillment of the biblical prophets and the Book of Revelation.
From there, they say, itâs a short road to Armageddon.
âToday, weâre seeing the beginning signs of that exact prophecy coming to pass,â warns Richardson.
Scholars say the arrival of Islamic Antichrist prophecies was, well, predictable.
âI think the shift to Islam was just waiting to happen,â said Glenn Shuck, an assistant professor of religion at Williams College who has studied evangelicalsâ views on the apocalypse.
A certain kind of Christian, sometimes dubbed âarmchair apocalyptistsâ or ânewspaper exegetes,â seems especially inclined to cast their foes as agents of the Archenemy. The Antichrist they identify, scholars say, often reflects the eraâs deepest anxieties.
For many modern Christian apocalyptists, fears of big government are embodied by an Antichrist imagined to unite nation-states in a totalitarian One World Order.
Since 9/11, though, Islamist terrorism has crept from the front pages into apocalyptic thrillers like the âLeft Behindâ series and nonfiction books such as Richardsonâs âMideast Beastâ and âIslamic Antichrist.â
Richardson, a 40-year-old decorative painter from Missouri who jokingly refers to his writings as âan expensive hobby,â presents his prophecies as straightforward interpretations of the Bible, including the Book of Revelation.
Revelation, which never actually uses the word âAntichrist,â is one of the first Christian texts to cast rivals as Satanâs spawn. Many scholars say phrases like âthe mark of the beastâ and â666â are coded references to the Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians.
For many early Christians, however, the Antichrist was not a particular person. It was spiritual figure who lurked in the hearts of all believers, luring them toward sin and heresy, said Shuck.
By the 12th century, the Antichrist â often seen as a human inhabited by Satan â had become a tool for identifying an enemy, fomenting fear and assembling an army.
âThe Antichrist moves a long way from Augustineâs view of something that we all face inside us,â Shuck said, âto being very much an external battle with concrete figures.â
Popes used the Antichrist to rally Crusaders. Reformers used the Antichrist to battle popes. Northerners saw the Antichrist in the slave-holding South, and Southerners saw the same specter in the abolitionists.
In the modern era, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, U.S. presidents, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Englandâs Prince Charles, and even megachurch pastor Rick Warren have all made the Antichrist list.
Apocalyptic Christianity always needs an enemy, scholars say, and the Antichrist is nothing if not adaptable.
âThe Antichrist idea is very responsive to changes in current events,â said Robert Fuller, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. âItâs a symbol for what is most unsettling or troubling.â
Antichrist prophecies raise fears by warning of an imminent battle between good and evil, Fuller said, and settle those fears by assuring Christians that the âgood guysâ will win in the end.
If bad theology, the Antichrist often makes for good reading, as attested by the more than 60 million copies of âLeft Behindâ books sold.
Prophecy may not be the best career option, however. Jerry Falwellâs Liberty University closed its Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy just one year after it opened in 2002.
âIt never did attract hardly any students, so we shut it down,â said Ronald Godwin, Libertyâs provost. âThe students were looking for a major that would land them a career.â
Prophecy might not be the safest profession, either.
A press release for one of Richardsonâs books begins by noting a threat on the authorâs life, and acknowledges that fears of Islamic terrorism have fueled interest in the idea of a Muslim Antichrist.
Not all apocalyptic Christians agree with Richardson, however.
Richardsonâs own press release asserts that Hal Lindsay, perhaps the most famous modern-day doomsayer, is one his staunchest critics.
Tim LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling series âLeft Behindâ and one of conservative Christianityâs most respected apocalyptists, doesnât buy Richardsonâs theories, either.
âHis book is interesting and informative,â LaHaye said in a recent interview, âbut his argument on the Antichrist is ridiculous.â LaHaye and his ilk say the Antichrist must come from Roman stock, and point to modern-day Romania as his likely birthplace.
Muslim leaders and progressive groups are even more critical of Richardson.
Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at the group Media Matters, said Richardson popped onto his radar after a 2011 appearance on Glenn Beckâs now-defunct Fox News show.
âIf Richardson was saying these things about Christianity or Judaism he wouldnât be able to get a pamphlet published,â Boehlert said, âbut unfortunately, thereâs a market in right-wing America thatâs decided Islam is pure evil.â
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said calling Islam or any other religion evil often leads to violence. Earlier this month, for example, a Muslim family in Oklahoma reported that their home had been attacked by a sniper after an individual asked about their religion, according to CAIR.
âThereâs a question we should ask of all hatemongers who attack Islam,â Hooper said. âWhat is your end game here?â