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These are the bad guys. The elder's literary foils. The ones he's been warning everyone about. The whole reason he wrote these letters. So what's the deal with these big baddies?
First things first. These are the villains of the Epistles of John, right?
Well, kind of. The elder certainly casts them as that:
Whoa. That's a lot of name-calling. But are they really that bad?
The elder seems to think his opponents are big, fat liars, but in reality, they probably have good intentions. Whatever they were saying, they might have honestly believed it was the truth about Jesus. Like the elder, they also probably felt called to share this truth with other Christians who they thought were in error. In their minds, they were following the will of God.
Either that or they really were deceiving antichrists. Take your pick.
Speaking of antichrists (and aren't we always)…what does that word mean?
The elder coined the phrase back in the first century, but today people pretty much use it as a slam against anyone they disagree with. Are you an East Coaster, not a West Coaster? Are you a Flyers fan, not a Penguins fan? Do you like Coke more than Pepsi? Get thee away, antichrist!
When the elder calls his opponents antichrists, he means that they're people who pretend to be all holy and devout and concerned about Jesus, but who are actually spreading lies to bring down Jesus. Oh, an inside job:
Whether or not an antichrist actually knows he's doing something wrong isn't clear. It's possible that the antichrist actually believes his own lies.
Polite people might say, "I believe you're mistaken." The elder goes right for the jugular.
Okay, so back to the antichrists…er, opponents. We never get to hear from the opponents themselves, so we've got to rely on the elder to tell us exactly what they believe. As you know, people who thoroughly despise you always give the most accurate and unbiased account of your viewpoints...right?
Not so much.
With that caveat in mind, here is what the opponents seem to be saying about Jesus:
They're kind of similar to the Docetists, a group of Christians who believed that Jesus wasn't actually human and that he just made it look that way. Kind of how the Doctor looks human, but he's actually an alien who travels through space and time periodically saving the universe. Yep, Doctor Who and the early Christians have more in common than you think.
It's actually kind of easy to see how they come up with these things. The elder thinks they're perverting tradition by going "beyond it" (2 John 1:9), but we can actually see where they might read the Gospel of John this way.
Biblical interpretation—there are so many ways to do it.
These guys have committed the cardinal sin in the elder's eyes: They've broken off from the community.
They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. (1 John 2:19)
The elder is trying to stop the bleeding by letting everyone else know how to deal with them:
Why these extreme measures? From the elder's point of view, they're dangerous. Because of their slightly different interpretations, these guys have put their chances of eternal life with God in jeopardy. If Jesus came back tomorrow, the elder thinks they would be going to Hell, and the elder can't let that happen to anyone else in his flock.
By 325 CE, all this had pretty much died out. The Nicene Creed was formalized—"he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man"—and the elder's version of Christianity went on to become the version of Christianity for hundreds of years. That is, until Christians found other stuff to squabble about. It didn't take long.
The only thing we're left wondering is what kind of crazy stuff the opponents wrote about the elder in their letters.