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.


Len said...

Thanks for the information!

A thought that has been running around in the back of my mind is the question of how it seems that so many false/aberrant doctrines such as Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventism, Dispensationalism, Charles Finneyism (for lack of a better term) etc., all seem to have gotten their start around the same time during the 19th century. This seems to be more than coincidental. One wonders what common factors, if any, might be involved.

There could be many reasons I suppose, but one that I’ve been thinking about has to do with a shift from intellectualism to entertainment. I hate to sound elitist when I say this, but it seems that at one time the general population, and the more educated in particular, seem to have spent a lot of time in intellectual pursuits – reading thought provoking books, attending drama (as opposed to merely plays), listening to classical music and so forth. Colleges seemed to stress the liberal arts and study of classics in literature, science and philosophy – all endeavors which forced a person to think. “Entertainment” was reserved more for the (Oh, I hate to use this term) lower classes.

It seems though, from what little I’ve been able to study, that as the 19th century progressed and on into the 20th century (and now running rampant into this century) there was a dramatic shift from pursuing things intellectual to having to be entertained. If something cannot be presented in a simple entertaining way, then it isn’t worth the time and effort to study or think about it. This seems to be true of everything from “Sesame Street” to our Sunday morning worship. We seem to have become a bunch of mindless blobs of tissue who are no longer capable of rationally and logically thinking through any subject you might mention.

I belong to an on-line Christian writers group (Christianwriters.com). They have a forum where you can submit pieces that you’ve written for critique and comment. One thing that I find most interesting is the different categories of writing that are submitted. There are lots of pieces of poetry, fantasy, romance, science fiction, stage plays and devotionals (all written with supposedly a Christian viewpoint), but very seldom are there any pieces that could be described as being theological in nature. Everything is pretty much non-fiction. I understand that most of what is published in the Christian press is market driven (read entertainment) but this also seems to reflect a lack of sound doctrinal underpinnings of most Christians due to our seeming abhorrence of having to think. This could be why, as you indicated in a previous post, Dispensationalism is such a popular genre of “Christian” literature. It’s more entertainment than it is well thought out doctrine. Also, given our present day lack of critical thinking skills, people are simply willing to take someone’s word for something rather that taking the time to investigate different points of view and then think them through. That’s too much work!

Regarding Dispensationalism by itself, one other reason why I believe that it is so popular is that it appeals to our prideful self-righteousness - We are going to escape all the tribulation because we have something that you don’t. We have Jesus – nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! We’re better than you!
Sorry this has gone on for so long, but once I get started, I have a hard time knowing when to quit.

Thanks again for all your hard work on our behalf!

Anne Tess said...

Amen, Len! It couldn't have been better said. We have definitely become an entertainment driven society.

chris van allsburg said...

Dear Dr. Gentry,

Thanks for the article. I hope to get a copy of He Shall Have Dominion for some more exegesis on 2 Thes. 2. However, I'd like it if you could please comment more on verse 9: the coming of the lawless one (Nero, in your article, it seems), will be in accordance witht he work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfiet miracles, signs and wonders."

Is there any evidence that Nero did these things? Thanks.


Chris Van Allsburg

Vance said...

It is highly unlikely that 2Th 2:1 refers to anything other than the same "coming" described just a few verses earlier and in 1Th 4:16-17. 2Th 2:1ff is simply a continuation of the discussion begun in the previous chapter. Paul's use of different words (translated "coming") is probably no more significant than our use of words we recognize as interchangeable: "coming," "appearance," "arrival," etc. It is doubtful that Paul had two entirely separate subjects in mind. It is far more likely that "our being gathered together to him" (2:1) is the same as the gathering described in 1Th 4:17, which is the time Christ will "grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us" (2Th 1:7). Saying that it refers to the separation of Christians from Jewish worshipers is, in my opinion, exegetically unsound.

The description of the man of lawlessness taking his seat in the "temple of God" is comparable to Paul's description of the breaking down of the "dividing wall of hostility" (the temple partition separating Jews from Gentiles) in Eph 2:14. In other words, it's probably metaphorical, and to say that the "temple of God" is the then-standing temple or an end-time temple or the Christian church is speculative at best.

We cannot say with any certainty that Paul knew the identity of the man of lawlessness. The apostle doesn't know the day or hour of the Lord's return, so he naturally speaks of that event as if it would occur in his lifetime. It is not surprising, then, that he speaks of the man of lawlessness as a present reality. This was only natural for Paul. Further, he knew that the restraint of the mystery of lawlessness (which was at work then and is still at work today) meant the restraint of the man of lawlessness. This simply means that God has put certain restraints on Satan's agents. No doubt, there were many men of lawlessness (anti-Christs, if you will), both religious and political, in the world at that time, and they were, to some extent, restrained. Paul's point is that the final man of lawlessness will emerge after the restrainer of lawlessness is taken out of the way. We should not make too much of the fact that Paul speaks of the lawless one as a present reality.

The whole idea that Paul was calming fears about the coming desolation of Jerusalem and uniting of Christians under Christ's reign just seems far fetched. It is far more likely that he was correcting misunderstandings relating to the second coming of Christ.

NiceneCouncil.com said...

Regarding Nero and signs:

The proper translation of the text indicates that he uses "lying signs" and wonders. That is, these are false, untrue, signs.

Romans were superstitious. In Imperial Rome emperors and court magicians manufactured "miracles" to strengthen the authority of the emperorship. Roman historian Tacitus calls Emperor Vespasian (a successor of Nero) "the miracle worker" (Histories, 4:81). Suetonius comments that by him "many miracles occurred" (Vespasian, 7). We would certainly doubt these miracles, seeing them instead as being "lying signs."

Regarding Nero's rule himself, Tacitus (Annals 15) records some statements that we should probably understand as "lying [false] signs:"

"As the year ended omens of impending misfortune were widely rumored — unprecedentedly frequent lightning; a comet (atoned for by Nero, as usual, by aristocratic blood); two-headed offspring of men and beasts, thrown into the streets or discovered among the offerings to those deities to whom pregnant victims are sacrificed."

NiceneCouncil.com said...


Unfortunately, too many scholars overlook the significance of AD 70 in the NT record. The looming destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem appears time and again. For instance, Jesus prophesies it in one of his longest discourses (e.g., Matt. 24), he speaks of it in many parables (e.g., Matt. 21-22), he alludes to it by prophetic theatre (in overthrowing the tables in the Temple), and in many other contexts.

AD 70 was the dramatic, permanent conclusion to the old covenant (cf. Matt. 8:11-12; Heb. 8:13; etc.). Thus, it carries enormous significance for the unfolding of redemptive-history. For one thing, we now no longer worship in a central Temple with blood sacrifices -- even though such had been the God-ordained practice for 1000 years.

Furthermore, AD 70 is theologically linked to the Second Advent as its distant adumbration. Many scholars see AD 70 as a microcosm of the Second Advent. Consequently, since they are thematically associated, they employ similar terminology (as with all "Day of the Lord" events in the OT). Thus, they can be confused by early Christians (though not inspired Apostles).

We further know that the Olivet Discourse "is undoubtedly a source of the Thessalonian Epistles" (D. A. Carson, "Matthew" in Gaebelein, The Expositor's Bible, 8:489). And the Olivet Discourse clearly speaks of events occurring in "this generation" (Matt. 24:34), which are known by Christ and accompanied by signs (AD 70), as well as events associated with "that day and hour" (the Second Advent) that is unknown by Christ (Matt. 24:36).

We know too that the Thessalonians (wrongly) feared "the day of the Lord has already come" (2 Thess. 2:2-3).

Paul is correcting their error and providing more information on the soon coming events of AD 70, which foreshadow the final, consummate event: the Second Advent. They must be braced for these looming catastrophes, which include even the Neronic persecution of Christianity.

I doubt your view that the "temple" in 2 Thess. 2 is "probably" metaphorical. Paul is writing just after Caligula (Gaius) Caesar initiated an attempt to have his statue placed in the Temple. This attempt certainly fed the fears of Christians and Jews of the day. Paul even speaks of a soon-coming judgment upon the Jews in his (very closely related) first letter (1 Thess. 2:14-16).

Furthermore, it would be quite strange and seems far-fetched for the "restraining" to be occurring for 2000 years, especially when so many indicators suggest the near-term consequence of the text.

For a more thorough exposition of the text, see my Perilous Times: A Study in Eschatological Evil, available at NiceneCouncil.com. For a helpful, similar study, see also Warfield's “The Prophecies of St. Paul” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. by Samuel G. Craig, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 473-475.

Anonymous said...


I would be interested to learn your view of the "abomination that causes desolation." Do you believe Daniel 9:27, Matthew 24:15, and II Thessalonians 2:4 are all talking about the same thing? Do any of them relate to AD 70? Do any of them point to a future time? If any of them have to do with the temple of Jesus' day, what did Nero do that could be considered the "abomination?"

Thank you.

NiceneCouncil.com said...

Yes, I believe each of these refer to AD 70. The abomination of desolation was actually caused by the Roman general Titus (the future emperor). When he was fighting the Jews, his soldiers entered the temple and offered sacrifices to their standards. Josephus records this:

“The Romans, now that the rebels had fled to the city, and the sanctuary itself and all around it were in flames, carried their standards into the temple court and, setting them up opposite the eastern gate, there sacrificed to them, and with rousing acclamations hailed Titus as imperator” (Wars 6:6:1).

Matthew said...

Doesn't the Latin word claudere mean:

1. be lame, hobble
2. be weak/imperfect, fall short
3. limp, stumble/falter/hesitate


Also what of the view in the early church that James the Just was the Restraint and that when the Jews killed him, that was the last straw. According to Eusebius, the Jewish Rebellion started soon after they killed James the Just.