Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Man of Lawlessness

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Len, a reader of my last blog ("The Problem of Antichrist") noted: "One area that wasn't mentioned in your article (unless I missed it) was 2 Thessalonians 2 where Paul talks about the "falling away" and the "lawless one." This seems to be one of the first places that dispensationalists go to support their argument for the anti-Christ and all that goes with his rise to power."

Introductory Comments

He is correct. Dispensationalists have a handful of favorite passages to color in their gloom-and-doom with appropriately dark hues. And this is one of them. Unfortunately for them, scholars note this passage's exceptional difficulty. Augustine writes regarding a certain portion of the passage: "I confess that I am entirely ignorant of what he means to say." Renowned Greek linguist and Baptist scholar A. T. Robertson despairs of the task of interpreting this passage because it is "in such vague form that we can hardly clear it up." Not only so, but once again the term "antichrist" does not occur in this important (for dispensationalism) antichrist passage.

As is too often the case, an exceedingly difficult prophecy becomes a key text for dispensationalism. Note the following comments by dispensationalists.

• Constable observes that "this section of verses contain truths found nowhere else in the Bible. It is key to understanding future events and it is central to this epistle."
• According to Walvoord, the man of lawlessness revealed here is "the key to the whole program of the Day of the Lord."
• Of 2 Thessalonians 2 Chafer notes: "though but one passage is found bearing upon the restraining work of the Holy Spirit, the scope of the issues involved is such as to command the utmost consideration."
• Ryrie and Feinberg employ 2 Thessalonians 2:4 as one of the few passages used "to clinch the argument" for the rebuilding of the temple.

And once we read the passage carefully, we see that it is not referring to the distantly future second coming, but the soon-coming AD 70 event. Consider the following.

Expository Observations

Verses 1–2. Paul's reference "concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him" (2Th 2:1) refers to the AD 70 judgment on the Jews — the very judgment Christ emphasizes in the first portion of his Olivet Discourse (which strongly influences this passage), John focuses on in the Book of Revelation, and other writers consider in several other Scriptural passages.

Though Paul speaks of the second advent just a few verses before (1:10), he is not dealing with that issue here. In 2 Thess. 1:10 he even employs a different word for the coming of Christ (elthe) from what he uses in 2:1 (parousia). In chapter 1 the second advent brings "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (1:9); here this coming results in temporal "destruction" (2:8). There the second advent includes "his mighty angels" (1:7); here the temporal judgment mentions nothing about these angels (2:1–12). Thus, the second advent provides an eternal resolution to their suffering; the AD 70 Day of the Lord affords temporal resolution (cf. Rev 6:10).

Furthermore, the "gathering together to Him" Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 seems to reflect Matthew 24:31. The word translated "gather together" here is episunagoge . Its cognate verb form is found in Matthew 24:31, where Christ ties the gathering to "this generation" (Mt 24:34). It signifies the elect's calling into Christ by means of the trumpeting in of the archetypical Great Jubilee (cf. 2Th 1:11; 2:14). Here it functions the same way. With the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Christians will henceforth be "gathered together" in a separate and distinct "assembly" (episunagoge ; the church is called a sunagoge in Jas 2:2). After the temple's destruction God will no longer tolerate going up to the temple to worship (it will be impossible!), as Christians frequently do prior to AD 70.

Verses 3–7. Paul informs them that "that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition" (2Th 2:3). The word "falling away" is apostasia, which occurs in the New Testament only here and in Acts 21:21.

Historically, the word can apply to a revolt: either political or religious. But to which does it refer here? I believe that it speaks of the Jewish apostasy/rebellion against Rome. Josephus certainly calls the Jewish War against Rome an apostasia (Josephus, Life 4, 9, 10; J.W. 2:2:7; 2:16:4; 7:4:2; 7:6:1). Probably Paul merges the religious and political concepts here, though emphasizing the outbreak of the Jewish War, which results from their apostasy against God (Mt 22:1–7; Lk 19:41–44; 1Th 2:14–16). The emphasis must be on the revolt against Rome because it is future and datable, whereas the revolt against God is ongoing and cumulative. Such would be necessary to dispel the deception on which Paul is focusing. In conjunction with this final apostasy and Jerusalem's consequent destruction, Christianity and Judaism are forever separated and both are exposed to Rome's wrath.

The man of lawlessness is Nero Caesar. Paul clearly implies that something is presently (ca. AD 52) "restraining" (present participle) the man of sin "that he may be revealed in his own time" (2Th 2:6). The man of lawlessness is alive and waiting to be "revealed." This implies that for the time being, Christians could expect at least some protection from the Roman government: the Roman laws regarding religio licita are currently in Christianity's favor, while it remains a sect of Judaism. This begins to end after the malevolent Nero ascends the throne, for he begins persecuting Christianity in AD 64. Paul certainly enjoys the protection of Roman law (Ac 18:12ff) and makes important use of it in AD 59 (Ac 25:11–12; 28:19), when he seeks protection from the malignancy of the Jews. He expresses no ill-feelings against Rome when writing Romans 13 in AD 57–59, during the early reign of Nero.

When Paul writes 2 Thess. 2, he is under the reign of Claudius Caesar. He seems to employ a word play on Claudius' name. The Latin word for "restraint" is claudere, which is similar to "Claudius." While Claudius lives, Nero, the man of lawlessness, is powerless to commit political lawlessness. Christianity is free from the imperial sword until the Neronic persecution begins.

The evil "mystery of lawlessness" is "already working," though restrained in Claudius' day (2Th 2:7). This perhaps refers to the evil conniving and plotting of Nero's mother, Agrippina, who poisons Claudius so that Nero can ascend to the purple (Tacitus, Annals 12:62ff; Suetonius, Claudius 44).
The Roman emperor, according to Paul, "exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped" (2Th 2:4a). The phrase "so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" is interesting. When an infinitive (kathisai, "to sit") follows
hoste ("so that"), it indicates a purpose intended, not necessarily a purpose accomplished. Nero intends or desires to present himself as God. We see the evil potential of emperor worship just a few years before, when the emperor Caligula (a.k.a. Gaius) attempts to put his image in the temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18:8:2–3; Philo, Embassy to Gaius).

Not only so but in Nero the imperial line eventually openly "opposed" (2Th 2:4) Christ by persecuting his followers. Nero even begins persecuting Christians, when he presents himself in a chariot as the sun god Apollo, while burning Christians in order to illuminate his self-glorifying party.

Verses 8–9. Verses 8 and 9 read: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders." The lawless one is eventually openly revealed. The mystery form of his character gives way to a revelation of his lawlessness in Nero's wicked acts. This occurs after the restrainer [Claudius] is "taken out of the way," allowing Nero the public stage upon which he can act out his horrendous lawlessness.

In Christ's judgment-coming against Jerusalem, we also discover judgment for the man of lawlessness, Nero. Thus, Christians may take comfort in the promised relief from both Jewish and Neronic opposition (2Th 2:15–17). Not only does Titus destroy Jerusalem within twenty years, but Nero himself dies a violent death in the midst of the Jewish War (June 9, AD 68). His death, then, will occur in the Day of the Lord in conjunction with Christ's judgment-coming against Israel. Christ destroys Nero with "the breath of his mouth," much like Assyria is destroyed with the coming and breath of the Lord in the Old Testament (Isa 30:27–31) and like Israel is crushed by Babylon (Mic 1:3–5).

Thus, 2 Thess. 2 provides no assistance to the dispensational view of Antichrist. For more information, see fuller exposition of this text in my He Shall Have Dominion, published by NiceneCouncil.com's susidiary, ApologeticsGroup Media.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Problem of the Antichrist

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

The Dispensational Tendency

Perhaps more than any other evil figure in Scripture, Christians most fear the Antichrist. After all, "in premillennial eschatology the final world ruler who opposes God and his Christ (particularly in relation to his deity), oppresses God’s elect (especially the Jewish people), and seeks to usurp the place of divine worship through desecration of the holy (especially Jerusalem and its temple) is known as the Antichrist" (Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 43)

Many dispensationalists believe he is alive today — in fact, this seems to be an important proof that one is truly a dispensationalist. This is largely due to dispensationalists being strongly committed to the imminency of Christ’s Return, which precedes the rise of Antichrist by only a few minutes — perhaps as few as three-and-one-half minutes. (Woody Allen believes that there is a race of men on another planet that are advanced over our civilization by fifteen minutes. This gives them an advantage in that they are never late for meetings. I would point out that they also would be less likely to have to endure stale doughnuts.) They believe his Return has been imminent for 2000 years now.

In an interview in Eternity magazine in 1977 Hal Lindsey responded to a question regarding the Antichrist: "In my personal opinion, he’s alive somewhere now" (Lindsey, "The Great Cosmic Countdown," 80.) Tertullian fumbled on this matter also, when he wrote 1700 years ago that Antichrist "is now close at hand" (Tertullian, De Fuga, 12). Perhaps Antichrist is an extremely old fellow (he may have even starred in the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade). Lindsey was so convinced of his view that Mr. Antichrist roamed the planet, that he wrote 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon.

As a 1990s best-selling author striving to stay atop the best-seller lists, Dave Hunt wrote that there "is strong evidence indeed that the Antichrist could appear very soon — which means that the rapture may be imminent" (Hunt, Peace Prosperity and the Coming Holocaust, 256). (Of course, his dispensationalism says that the rapture has been imminent for 2000 years, so technically Hunt cannot be proven wrong until the sun explodes into a red giant after consuming all of its hydrogen in about five billion years.) He is convinced that "somewhere, at this very moment, on planet Earth, the Antichrist is almost certainly alive" (Hunt, Global Peace, 5). The title of Mark Hitchcock’s 2003 book asks: Is the Antichrist Alive Today? He titles chapter 8: "Antichrist is Alive and Well."

The dispensationalist Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy even includes a heading: "Is the Antichrist Alive Today?" In so doing it struggles to correct fellow dispensationalists who "tragically" are "guessing dates and selecting possibilities for the Antichrist" (PEBP, 26). Of course, this sort of belief has for generations been the tendency among dispensationalists, who constantly point out numerous possible Antichrist candidates.

The Dispensational Problem

Ironically, the least helpful verses for developing the dispensational view of the Antichrist are the only ones that expressly mention him. "Antichrist" appears only four times in all of Scripture: in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; and 2 John 7. (Strangely, Walvoord in his comprehensive Prophecy Knowledge Handbook does not even mention these verses in his treatment of "Prophecy in 1, 2, and 3 Jn and the Epistle of Jude" — or anywhere else in his 800-page work.)

Most dispensationalists apply the name of "Antichrist" to other evil figures in prophecy: under "Titles of the Antichrist," the Popular Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists "the beast," "the man of lawlessness, and Daniel’s "little horn" (p. 24). But these associations are surely mistaken. Not only do none of the contexts of these titles mention the word "Antichrist," but they actually contradict the explicit references to Antichrist. This is all the more remarkable in that the word "Antichrist" does not even appear in the context of the beast of Revelation, despite the fact that Revelation’s author, John, is the only New Testament writer who does employ the word "Antichrist" elsewhere.

It seems that many Christians in the first century thought of the Antichrist as a particular individual. John mentions this widespread belief: "You have heard that the Antichrist is coming" (1Jn 2:18b). John’s point in mentioning him, however, is to rebut the false views that are confusing his audience. Early Christians were picking up many false eschatological concepts. John even corrects a false notion regarding his own living until Christ’s Second Advent (Jn 21:22–23). Elsewhere, Paul uses a false teaching regarding baptism for the dead to drive a point home regarding the resurrection (1Co 15:29). Paul often urges his followers to hear him and preserve those things he teaches (Php 4:9; 1Th 2:13; 2Ti 1:13; 2:2).
We should expect this sort of confusion, for the Lord himself taught his disciples that within his own generation (Mt 24:34) "many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many" (Mt 24:5); "many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many" (Mt 24:11); and "false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (Mt 24:24).

The dispensational view of the Antichrist is destroyed by three observations from Scripture itself.

Antichrist’s Time

John’s readers are hearing that though Antichrist is not yet on the scene, he nevertheless "is coming." but John informs them that this "antichrist" "is now already in the world" (1Jn 4:3). John writes: "this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world" (1Jn 4:3b). John clearly warns them that that which they "heard was coming" is "now already in the world." In addition, he remarks: "As you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come" (1Jn 2:18). The "even now" emphasizes the presence of that which they fear ("as you heard").

Antichrist’s Impersonality

In redirecting his readers’ focus from the Antichrist’s future to his contemporary existence, John also explains that the Antichrist is a movement, rather than an individual. In dealing with the idea of "the Antichrist," he writes: "even
now many antichrists have come" (1Jn 2:18). In fact, Antichrist is a "spirit" (1Jn 4:3) that pervades these many "antichrists" (1Jn 2:18), which involve "many deceivers" (2 Jn 7).

Antichrist’s Tendency

Antichrist really is not a multitude of people, but rather the "spirit" (1Jn 4:3) among them — a spirit that promotes deception (2 Jn 7) regarding Christ. "Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son" (1Jn 2:22). John clearly applies the conception of the one Antichrist (ho antichristos) to the generic tendency to promote lies about the identity of Christ. He repeats this point in his second letter: "For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and the antichrist [ho antichristos]" (2Jn 1:7). Thus, the first century Antichrist movement was a doctrinal heresy, rather than a political danger.

On the basis of these four references we learn that Antichrist is not an individual, malevolent ruler looming in our future. Rather, he was a contemporary heretical tendency regarding the person of Christ, which is current among many in John’s day.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Bad News Bearers

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

An oddity of dispensationalism’s premillennialism is that it spends more time discussing the terrifying seven year Great Tribulation than it does the glorious Thousand Year reign of Christ. By doing this it dwells on a brief aside in history (the seven year Tribulation) rather than history’s (as it is supposed) long-term goal (the Millennium). It lingers longer over the time of the Antichrist than the time of Christ. It dwells on the dispensationally unclassifiable era of the Tribulation, which occurs after the Dispensation of Grace (the Church Age) and before the Dispensation of the Kingdom (the Millennial Age).

This focus on the negative is largely due to the intensely exciting nature of the judgments in the Tribulation period. Bad news sells. And it sells well. Read the newspapers. You will find more stories on criminals purse-snatching from little old ladies than on Boy Scouts helping them across the street (the little old ladies, not the criminals). Woody Allen once commented that he saw three men beating up an old lady. He mused to himself that it was not that long ago when that job would have taken only one thug. But I digress.

In dispensationalism the good news takes a back seat to the bad news; the Tribulation trumps the Millennium in the minds and hearts of dispensationalists (and the pocketbooks of their leaders). When was the last time a dispensationalist wrote a series on the millennium, such as Called Ahead? Or a paperback titled The Future Great Planet Church? In fact, Dispensationalism’s brand of premillennialism even emphasizes the Tribulation in its distinctive theological self-classification: it holds to pre-tribulational premillennialism. Ryrie even notes that premillennialism is not a sine qua non of dispensationalism (Dispensationalism [Chicago: Moody, 1995], 38).

Consider Hal Lindsey’s literary output by way of example. He has written several best-selling works with such titles as:

  • Satan is Alive and Well On Planet Earth (he has not written: Satan Will Be Bound 1000 Years)
  • The Late Great Planet Earth (he has not written: The Future Great Planet Church)
  • The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (he has not written: 1987: The Beginning of the Millennium). (I will confess that he may have been wise in avoiding this title; perhaps he learned his lesson from calling for the Great Tribulation in the 1980s. No wait, I take it back. In the 1990s he wrote Planet Earth 2000: Will Mankind Survive? See below.)
  • The Final Battle (he has not written: The Beginning of Peace)
  • The Terminal Generation (he has not written: The Glory Generation)
  • Planet Earth: The Final Chapter (he has not written: Planet Earth: The Glory Chapter)
  • Planet Earth 2000: Will Mankind Survive? (He has not written: Planet Earth 2007: The Millennium and Mankind’s Survival)
  • Apocalypse Code (he has not written: Millennium Code)
  • Blood Moon (he has not written: There Will Be No Need of the Sun)

Besides their incredible marketing strategy (bad news sells — it does not matter how many times you miss calls for the Rapture), dispensationalism has an inherent theological principle that moves them to produce such works. That theological principle is: Satan wins in history before Christ comes to settle the score. Their theology holds that the fall of Adam is more powerful than the resurrection of Christ for altering history. Only the Return of Christ — not his resurrection — holds out hope for a future, discontinuous history.