How did this ordinary-looking child become an antichrist, as the maniacal leader of a "Christian" nation such as Germany?
Uncovering the answer to this question has kept plenty of capable historians busy since the Second World War. But evangelical theologians and Bible prophecy experts, who may have genuine insight into an answer, have largely remained silent.
One reason for this silence regarding Adolf Hitler as an antichrist figure is that many who write in the field of eschatology these days tend to push the discussion of the two beasts in Revelation 13 back into the distant past. In Revelation 13, John sees one beast rising out of the sea (Rev. 13:1-10), and another beast rising out of the earth (Rev. 13:11-18). This understanding of Revelation 13 is obvious because of the historical connection between these two "beasts" and imperial Rome. This is characteristic of the preterist reading of Revelation--which contends that the Apocalypse was written before A.D. 70 and speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, it's temple, and God's judgment upon Israel in the form of the Diaspora.
Others interested in biblical prophecy (the futurists) tend to see the events of Revelation 13 as something yet to come during a future tribulation period. Many futurists see John's description as a prophetic warning of a revived Roman empire, unleashing its full fury in the final days upon those who remain "left behind" after the rapture, now forced to face the Antichrist during the seven-year tribulation period.
On both of these views, there is no reason to look for "antichrists" manifesting themselves during the inter-advental period--i.e., in the present course of history. Either the beast has come and gone (the preterist view), or is yet to come (the futurist view). Although some futurists identified Hitler as the beast and Mussolini as the false prophet in the years before the Second World War, now that these two famed fascists have met their respective fates, there is little reason to connect them any more to anything prophetic such as antichrist.
As I have argued in my book The Man of Sin, the preterist identification of the two beasts of Revelation 13 with Rome is largely correct, but significantly errs by not seeing the first-century Roman empire's persecution of Christians as an example of the kind of persecution Christians should expect throughout the entire inter-advental period. In other words, what John describes in Revelation 13, is a reality for the seven churches to which the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2-3) is addressed. But it is also indicative of the kind of persecution Christians will face at various times and places throughout the entire inter-advental period. To put it yet another way, the two beasts are historically tied to Rome, but they also epitomize subsequent manifestations of Satanic opposition to Christ's church and his people, until the Lord returns.
Whenever I lecture on the doctrine of Antichrist, I appeal to Nazi Germany as but one relatively recent, and rather obvious illustration of what I mean when I speak of the two antichrist threats that Christians must face before Christ returns--one internal (heresy) and one external (persecution). My view is that these two on-going threats coalesce at the time of the end with a person who we call "the" Antichrist, who is destroyed by Christ at his second coming (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 20:10).
In his first two epistles, John speaks of antichrist in a very narrow sense--as an internal threat to the churches (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). John's "antichrists" are a present reality for the churches of the first century, there are already many of them present, and they take the form of teachers of a pernicious heresy which denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (docetism).
The beast motif in Revelation 13 represents the other threat to the church (external). This, in my estimation, applies to nations and their leaders, of which Adolf Hitler and the Germany of 1933-1945 are prime examples. On this view, the continually resurrected Roman beast refers to those nations and/or their leaders who claim divine privileges and prerogatives unto themselves, and who, therefore, hate the people of God, because of their confession that "Jesus is Lord". This confession also means that the beast is not.
Nothing offends an antichrist figure like an Adolf Hitler more than a Christian who refuses to give the Nazi salute or bless the Nazi cause. Whenever a Christian confesses that "Jesus is Lord," they are simultaneously confessing that Der Fuhrer himself is Jesus' subject, and will, one day, find himself standing before Jesus on the day of judgment, when he will bow against his will, before he enters eternal judgment.
Historians have accidentally come quite close to acknowledging this biblical perspective when they seek to understand how someone like Hitler--a nobody with little or no chance of succeeding at anything in life--came to power in Germany through the most unlikely, yet remarkable of circumstances.
Ian Kershaw, who has written what many consider to be the definitive biography of Hitler, writes,
A history of Hitler therefore has to be the history of his power--how he came to get it, what his character was, how he exercised it, why he was allowed to expand it to break all international barriers, why resistance to that power was so feeble. Hubris, xxvii
Kershaw goes on to say,
Hitler was no tyrant imposed upon Germany. Though he never attained majority support in free elections, he was legally appointed to power as Reich Chancellor just like his predecessors had been, and became between 1933 and 1940 arguably the most popular head of state in the world. . . . Hitler's impact can only be grasped through the era which produced him (and was destroyed by him). Hubris, xxix
Yet, as Kershaw concludes,
No attempt to produce a comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of Nazism without doing justice to the "Hitler factor" can hope to succeed. But such an interpretation must not only take into full account of Hitler's ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events; it must at the same time locate these within the social forces and political structures which permitted, shaped, and promoted the growth of a system that came increasingly to hinge on personalized, absolute power -- with the disastrous effects that flowed from it. Hubris, xxix-xxx
Kershaw's comprehensive two-volume biography (and abridged one volume edition) does this as well as any historian can (Hubris; Nemesis, Hitler). But I would humbly suggest that there is a theological explanation to consider as well.
Hitler as Beast -- The Persecutor of God's People
When I contend that Hitler is but one manifestation of the kind of thing John is warning Christians about in Revelation 13, I too am looking at the amazing rise of Hitler in context (as Kershaw does), yet from a different perspective--the vantage point of the New Testament and its doctrine of antichrist. John warns the people of God that the Dragon (Satan) ultimately lies behind the various iterations of the beast--including that of Hitler and his Third Reich.
From the photo above (taken in 1941), Hitler and his cronies thought nothing of celebrating a Nazi "Christmas" whose cause was confirmed by a virtual unbroken streak of military victories and conquests of European nations. Hitler's armies would soon flounder on the Russian steppes and America's industrial and military might (ironically, it was Hitler who declared war on December 11, 1941, around the time this photo was taken) had not yet begun to influence the war. But my primary concern in this brief essay is not with geopolitics, but with Hitler's (and his regime's) open contempt for professing Christians who refused to be silent about the gospel in the face of Nazi persecution. This is one of the key traits of a biblical "antichrist."
A concrete illustration of what I mean is helpful here. In a wonderful essay in First Things, Timothy George describes the martyrdom of "Paul Robert Schneider (1897-1939) [who] was the first Protestant pastor to die in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis. His story is one of unmitigated courage, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom." Not a well-known theologian, "Paul Schneider, rather, was an obscure village pastor who could have escaped persecution completely had he simply been willing to keep his mouth shut."
As Dr. George tells the story, Schneider was the new pastor at a small church in Hochelheim.
Schneider had been there hardly a month when he was asked to preside at the funeral of a seventeen-year-old member of the Hitler Youth named Karl Moog. Before the benediction had been pronounced, the local Nazi district leader, Heinrich Nadig, interrupted the service to declare that young Karl had now crossed over into the heavenly storm troop of Horst Wessel, to which Schneider replied: “I do not know if there is a storm of Horst Wessel in eternity, but may the Lord God bless your departure from time and your entry into eternity.”
Those who died in the service of the Nazis, like young Karl Moog, were summoned to join the Wessel storm troop above. Just six months prior to the funeral incident, the Nazi bimonthly Der Brunnen declared: “How high Horst Wessel towers over that Jesus of Nazareth—that Jesus who pleaded that the bitter cup be taken from him. How unattainably high all Horst Wessels stand above Jesus!”
Pastor Schneider refused to subordinate the Christian Gospel to such a pagan myth. When Nadig repeated his graveside claim about Horst Wessel, Schneider said: “I protest. This is a church ceremony, and as a Protestant pastor, I am responsible for the pure teaching of the Holy Scriptures.”
For his actions, Pastor Schenieder was arrested and served a five day sentence. In a letter to Heinrich Nadig, Pr. Schneider explained that,
In a Protestant church ceremony God’s voice has to be clearly heard from the Holy Scriptures. Our church people are liberalized enough, so it is no longer appropriate to allow just any opinion to be expressed in the church. There can no longer be any place for this because especially at a church funeral the seriousness of eternity does not tolerate being measured by human standards. Therefore, not everyone who does his duty in the Hitler Youth or the SA fairly well can be beatified. I will certainly accept the earthly storm of Horst Wessel, but that does not mean by a long shot that God will allow him to march straight into eternal salvation. That is perhaps “German faith,” but it is not biblically based Christian faith that takes seriously the full reality of sin that is so deeply rooted in the heart and life of man.
As a consequence, Schneider came under the gaze of the Gestapo. After four years of subsequent arrests, and open persecution, Schneider still refused to back down. He was removed from his church, but kept preaching where and when he could. On Sunday October 3, 1937, the Harvest Thanksgiving, Schneider preached a sermon on Psalm 145:15-21. It was his last.
According to Timothy George,
He began the sermon by acknowledging how incongruous it might seem to be giving thanks “in this year of our church’s hardship.” Yet this is precisely what the psalmist calls us to do—to give thanks for the material blessings of harvest and home and also for the generous gifts of God in Word, sacrament, and worship. Yet God’s Word does not come cheap, Schneider said. “Confessing Jesus will carry a price. For his sake we will come into much distress and danger, much shame and persecution. Happy the man who does not turn aside from these consequences.”
The consequences were just what we would expect of the beastial Germany of Hitler and the National Socialists. Schneider was arrested, sent to Buchenwald, and given the number 2491.
George tells the glorious end of this heroic martyr under the demonic Hitlerian regime
On July 18, 1939, he was killed by the camp doctor who administered a lethal injection of strophanthin. Gretel drove to Buchenwald and retrieved the body of Paul Schneider and returned it to Dickenschied for burial. Hundreds of people swarmed the village for Schneider’s funeral. Many pastors, including the priest of the local Catholic Church, joined the procession to the cemetery. One of the Gestapo officers sent to observe the proceedings remarked to one of the pastors, “This is the way kings are buried!” to which the pastor replied: “Hardly! What is happening here is that a blood witness of Jesus Christ is borne to the grave.”
Conclusion: Hitler as Antichrist Figure
Adolf Hitler did not personally put Rev. Paul Schneider to death. Hitler probably never knew his name, or remotely cared that he was one of countless people--including a number of faithful Protestant pastors--who were put to death at the hands of the Nazis. The pastor's crime? Preaching Christ and him crucified, and then challenging those religious myths which developed in "Christian" Germany, and which gave credence to the Nazi cause as only civil religion can.
As Kershaw points out above, the story of Hitler's rise to power is complex and clearly tied to both the age, and nation which produced him. But the historical question Kershaw raises still seeks an answer--what is the source of Hitler's power? As a Christian, I can attempt an answer to that most compelling but unanswered question. If my reading of John and Revelation 13 is correct, then in the providence of God, the Dragon (Satan) was allowed to empower the beast (this time in the form of National Socialism) to wage war upon the saints, and for a time, appear to triumph over them (Rev. 13:7).
Yet when Rev. Schneider breathed his last, he immediately joined the vast multitude of those who have entered the heavenly presence of the Lord of his church (Rev. 20:4). Rev. Schneider, and those like him, now live and reign for a "thousand years." This is rather ironic, is it not, when Hitler's thousand-year Reich lasted a mere twelve years (1933-1945), and its Fuhrer is now one of the most despised figures in human history?
It is in this sense, then, that Hitler is an antichrist figure, and John is indeed warning Christians about Hitler and those like him, who will repeatedly rise from the sea and the earth, until Jesus comes again.