René Girard

"The Apocalypse Has Begun": Ivan Illich and René Girard on Anti-Christ

 This article was written for a handbook on the work of René Girard that is currently being prepared for publication under the editorial direction of theologians James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver.  Wolfgang, a friend, asked me to "build a bridge" between Illich and Girard.  The 3,000 word limit the editors imposed was a challenge, and I'm not sure the bridge is safe to walk on yet,  but here at least is a sketch:


The figure of Anti-Christ carries a lot of colorful, historical baggage.  Building on fairly slight New Testament evidence, the legend of an Anti-Christ whose appearance will initiate the last battle begins to grow in early Christian times.  By the second century Irenaeus can specify the length of time for which he will reign before Christ’s return – he puts it at three and a half years.  Hippolytus, a little later, knows that the Deceiver will resemble Christ in every particular.  By the fifth century certain familiar kitsch elements have begun to enter the Anti-Christ’s appearance, as in this description from the apocryphal Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John:

The appearance of his face is gloomy; his hair like the points of arrows; his brow rough; his right eye like the morning star, and the left like a lion’s.  His mouth is a cubit wide, his teeth a span in length, his fingers are like sickles.  His footprints are two cubits long, and on his forehead is the writing “The Anti-Christ.”[i]

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, reformers associate anti-Christ with the Papacy.   Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Wycliffe, among many others, all called the Pope by this name, and to this day certain Protestant churches in the U.S. keep up the perfervid rhetoric associated with this tradition.  As recently as 2,000, for example, the United States Congress felt it necessary to censure Bob Jones University for this view.[ii]

In modern times, Anti-Christ has faded from awareness.  Despite the persistence of the idea at the fringes of American Protestantism, the historian and theologian Bernard McGinn seems broadly correct when he asserts, in his history of the Anti-Christ legend, that “the last Enemy rapidly became the hobby of cranks after 1660.”[iii]  McGinn does acknowledge a couple of exceptions: Vladimir Solovyev, the late nineteenth century Russian theologian, poet, and pamphleteer; and psychologist C.G. Jung.  But these were “the last major Western thinkers,” McGinn wrote in 1994, “who were convinced that real consideration of the problem of evil necessarily involves Anti-Christ.”[iv]   His judgment may have been premature.  In my view, Ivan Illich and René Girard are both major thinkers of our time; and both, in full awareness of the turbid waters into which they were wading, have revived and repurposed the figure of Anti-Christ.  In what follows I will try to summarize each of their views and then compare them. 

Ivan Illich was a Roman Catholic priest, who lived from 1926 to 2002.  In 1969, he withdrew from all church office after inquisitorial proceedings were begun against him in Rome.[v]  His remaining reputation largely rests on books he wrote in the 1970’s, notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, in which he argues that institutions like education and medicine have become counterproductive monopolies that defeat their own purposes, smother personal responsibility and frustrate popular initiative.   Late in his life, at my initiative, he agreed to share his thoughts on how the institutionalization of Christianity has shaped the modern civilization that grew out of Latin Christendom.  I had been intrigued by his saying to me at the end of a long interview in 1988 that “Western culture” could only be fully accounted for by recognizing it as a corruption of the New Testament.  He used the old Latin adage corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best is the worst.  He had recently expressed the same idea in a lecture at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago:

I want to explore with you a phenomenon that I consider constitutive of the West, of that West which has shaped me, body and soul, flesh and blood.  This central reality of the West is marvelously expressed in the old Latin phrase: Corruptio optimi quae est pessima – the historical progression in which God’s Incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out.  I want to speak of the mysterious darkness that envelops our world, the demonic night paradoxically resulting from the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory.[vi]

In the interviews in which Illich laid out this idea for me he took as his paradigm the parable of the Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.[vii]  This parable he says represents “the new flowering of love” that the Incarnation, the appearance of God in the flesh makes possible. [viii]  In the story, the Samaritan comes across a man who has been beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the road.  A priest and a Levite happen upon him.  These are, Illich says, “men associated with the Temple and the community’s approved sacrificial rites,” but they “pass by on the other side.[ix]   The Samaritan stops, moved by the man’s suffering.   He binds the man’s wounds and pays for his care at a nearby inn.  

According to Illich, this story has for centuries been taken as enjoining an unproblematic duty of care, but to its original auditors, he says, it would actually have seemed “utterly destructive of ordinary decency.”[x]  Responsibility to others, until this moment, occurred within limits.  One cared only for one’s own: Samaritans looked after Samaritans, Judaeans after Judaeans, Greeks after Greeks.  Jesus makes the revolutionary claim that “my neighbor is who I choose, not who I have to choose.  There is no way of categorizing who my neighbor ought to be.” 

In antiquity hospitable behavior, or full commitment in my action to the other, implies a boundary drawn around those to whom I can behave in this way…Jesus taught the Pharisees that the relationship which he had come to announce to them as most completely human is not one that is expected, required or owed.  It can only be a free creation between two people, and one which cannot happen unless something comes to me through the other, by the other, in his bodily presence.[xi]

This possible new relationship, Illich insists, is “a free creation.”  It cannot be commanded or made the subject of a rule.  It constitutes, he says, “an ‘ought’ [which] cannot be reduced to a norm.  It has a telos.  It aims at somebody, some body, but not according to a rule.”[xii]

The relationship between the two unrelated men in the story is not something that could have come about in the ordinary course of things.  It is a revealed possibility, disclosed by the Incarnation, the presence of God amongst us.  It doesn’t belong to the natural repertoire of human beings, who, of themselves, would stick to circumscribed societies built on secure religious foundations.  In theological language, the bridge the Samaritan improvises across the abyss separating his culture from the injured Judean’s is an effect of grace.  In Illich’s terms it “prolongs the Incarnation.”[xiii]

With the revelation of this new, ungovernable potentiality, a second possibility is also created: that the offer will be refused.  “With the creation of this new mode of existence,” Illich says, “the possibility of its breakage also appears.  And this denial, infidelity, turning away, coldness is what the New Testament calls sin, something which can only recognized by the light of this new glimmer of mutuality.”[xiv]  Sin thus changes its meaning with Jesus’ demonstration of a new participation in God’s love through one another.  It is no longer the violation of a law, God’s law; it is the refusal of an invitation which has been put before us.  The risen Christ tells his disciples to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins…to all nations” – just that. [xv]  Sin acquires a new color and a new character in the light of its forgiveness.

Freedom, for Illich, is the keynote of the New Testament.  But freedom is also what gives the New Testament its unique volatility, its liability to corruption once its institutionalization is attempted.  “And that was what began to happen,” Illich argues, “after the Church achieved official status within the Roman Empire.

There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.  So, along with this new ability to give freely of oneself has appeared the possibility of exercising an entirely new kind of power, the power of those who organize Christianity and use this vocation to claim their superiority as social institutions.  This power is claimed first by the Church and later by the many secular institutions stamped from its mold.  Wherever I look for the roots of modernity, I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize, and manage Christian vocation.[xvi]

This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s hypothesis.  A love which is pure gift – unmerited, unconstrained, inconceivable - becomes an entirely new kind of law and a new kind of power.  And the process is progressive.  It begins when the Church becomes the welfare department of the crumbling Roman Empire.  It continues in the high Middle Ages when the “criminalization of sin” turns the Church into a law-governed prototype of the modern state.  And it culminates in our time in the creation of a vast architecture of secular service institutions.

Illich boldly refers to this history as the elaboration of anti-Christ, despite “the risk [of] being taken for a fundamentalist preacher in applying [this] monstrously churchy term.”[xvii]  He takes as his proof text a passage in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians.  This letter evokes a figure which tradition has identified as anti-Christ, though not named as such, who “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”  Associated with this figure whom, at the end of time, “the Lord Jesus will slay…by the breath of his mouth” is something called the “mystery of evil” which is said to be “already at work.”[xviii]  This text, Illich argues, shows that the early church was aware thatwith the Incarnation a mysterious and conjoined evil had also entered the world.  “This final evil that would bring the world to an end…was called anti-Christ,” Illich says, “and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest.”  Awareness of this mystery, however, did not last.  “What is impressive about the transition from the early Church to the established Western Church,” Illich continues, “is how thoroughly this mystery disappeared from the Church’s teaching and the concern of most of its members.  It reappeared from time to time in the prayers, writings and sermons of mystics and reformers, but the Roman Church did not center faith on its existence and neither did most of the Reformed Churches.” [xix]

The anti-Christ is Christ’s simulacrum and shadow: “the conglomerate,” in Illich’s words, “of a series of perversions by which we try to give security, survival ability and independence from individual persons to the new possibilities that were opened through the Gospel.”  The difference between the two is the presence or absence of freedom.  In the realm of the Anti-Christ, love becomes law and gift becomes guarantee.  But the Church and its secular descendants have long since given up trying to discern this difference.  This conglomerate, consequently, grows and advances, and all the more effectively in its modern secular disguises.  The result, Illich says, is that “the mysterium iniquitatis has been hatching.”  He, therefore, emphatically rejects the idea that ours is a post-Christian era.”  “On the contrary,’ he says, I believe this to be the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be quite close to the end of the world.”[xx]

So, to summarize, Illich believes that the Incarnation is something that manifests interpersonally, between persons.  It’s a gift that becomes “most fully visible at the moment of its rejection” – on the Cross – but once this gift is claimed as a source of power and an object of administration, the dominion of anti-Christ begins steadily to grow, achieving its mature form in modernity and something approaching its full articulation in our time. [xxi]  History, therefore, follows an apocalyptic logic – not apocalyptic in the sense in which the word is now used colloquially to refer to catastrophes of all kinds but in the word’s original sense of revelation or uncovering.  History tends to the fuller and fuller revelation of the mystery of evil.  This result, in its material manifestations, is visible to all and can be studied by the historian.  Many understand it as progress; others feel its uncanniness without quite knowing why.  Only the eye of faith can recognize it as sin and a mystery of evil by which the best becomes the worst.  The ability to disguise sin defines Anti-Christ.

All this, I think, fundamentally agrees with Girard’s view, even though each thinker emphasizes a different aspect of the Incarnation.  For Girard, the Cross proclaims the innocence of the victim and, in doing so, disables the mechanism by which all cultures had previously maintained peace – the unanimous murder of a victim whose death restores order and so reveals the victim as a god.  Sacrifices and prohibitions instituted in the name of this victim/god are the substance, according to Girard, of all archaic religions.  But this mechanism is gradually demystified in the Hebrew scriptures and then decisively unveiled in the New Testament, when God himself becomes the sacrifice – the last sacrifice because Christ’s voluntary and blameless submission exposes the terrifying trick by which Satan had formerly kept the peace and maintained his kingdom by allowing communities to disown, project and contain their own violence.  This exposure initiates the apocalyptic logic that history will follow wherever the Gospel is introduced.  Deprived of effective sacrifices, people face a choice: accept what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven as the inspiration for their earthly existence or try to restore the effectiveness of sacrifice by ramping up the number of victims.  In the book of Deuteronomy, God had already said, through the mouth of Moses, “I have set before you life and death.  Therefore, choose life.”[xxii]  The Crucifixion and Resurrection impose this choice on “all nations,” though this will not finally become clear until Christianity gives birth to a world-wide civilization.   “The apocalypse has begun,” Girard says, as soon as this turning point is reached.  He described this new situation bluntly in an interview with me:

The Apocalypse is not some invention.  If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die.  We have no more protection against our own violence.  Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.[xxiii]

This logic determines the apocalyptic character of our civilization – its propensity, as Girard says, to get better and worse at the same time.  On the one hand is our unprecedented sensitivity to victims, on the other the shadow of terrorism, nuclear winter, a destabilized climate etc.  As in the parable of the wheat and the tares, Christ and anti-Christ are intermingled and concomitant until apocalypsis, the moment of vision and decision, is reached.[xxiv]

So Girard and Illich agree that history is a continuous and cumulative revelation whose motive principle is the New Testament.  They also agree that our world is, for the most part, willfully blind to this reality.  Illich says that the temptation of anti-Christ “disappeared” from the Church’s teaching and has remained invisible to its secular offshoots.  Girard finds “anti-Christ” in the contemporary stance that repudiates Christianity and claims superiority to it, while at the same time drawing on it.  We “criticize Christianity with Christianity,” he says but never acknowledge where our superior airs have come from.  He calls it “an imitation of Christ which [is] at the same time a total betrayal of Christianity.” 

Illich sees modern institutions as perversions of a Gospel imperative.  Girard sees a similar perversion in the way in which a claim of victimization can become a potential source of power and social advantage in the modern world.  In both cases, love fuses with resentment and the desire for power in a way that betrays its inspiration and, as William Blake says, “builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”[xxv]  They have, of course, many differences – a matter for another essay – but they are united, and equally unusual, in their apocalyptic mode of thought and in their sense that sin to be faced must first be recognized.



[i] This quotation and the two foregoing references are taken from Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 59-69

[ii] Dennis Pettibone, “Martin Luther’s Views on the Anti-Christ,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 18/1, Spring, 2007, p. 81.  He cites U.S. Congress, 106th Congress, 2d Session, S. Con. Res. 85, Feb. 29, 2,000.

[iii] McGinn, op. cit., p. 230

[iv] ibid., p. 266

[v] The story is told in the introduction to my book, Ivan Illich in Conversation (House of Anansi, 1992); and again in the introduction to my TheRivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (House of Anansi, 2004).

[vi] This paper, called “Hospitality and Pain,” has yet to be published in English.  It can be found here: 

[vii] Luke 10:25-37

[viii] The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, House of Anansi, 2004, p. 47

[ix] ibid, p. 50

[x]  ibid, p. 51

[xi]  ibid, p. 51

[xii] ibid, p. 52

[xiii] ibid, p. 207

[xiv] ibid, p. 52

[xv] Luke 24:47

[xvi] Rivers, pp. 47-48

[xvii] ibid, p. 62

[xviii]  Second Thessalonians, 2:1-12.  The Revised Standard Version translates “mystery of lawlessness” but Illich prefers mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, which is Jerome’s translation in the Vulgate. 

[xix] Rivers, pp. 59-60

[xx] ibid, pp. 169-170

[xxi] ibid, p. 49

[xxii] This is the King James rendition of Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xxiii] The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion, a five-hour radio series I presented on the national radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2001, transcript, p. 40.  All subsequent quotes are taken from the transcript of the series which, unhappily, is no longer available to the public.  Audio can be found in the podcasts section of

[xxiv] Matthew 13:24-30

[xxv] “The Clod and the Pebble” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Anchor Books, 1988. p.19