Antichrist, man of lawlessness, and the beast

For those engaged in end-times speculation, provoked by the latest crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been another rash of speculation about the identity of the Antichrist—that end times personal figure who is now somewhere secretly in the world but who will very soon be revealed. (It is worth noting, for the sake of perspective, that every perceived crisis since at least the 1960s has provoked such speculation. For earlier modern end-times expectation, see the example of the followers of William Miller, who predicted that Jesus would return in 1844.)

I am not sure that anything I write here will persuade those committed to end-times schemes, in which the Book of Revelation predicts in detail our age alone (as if we are the most important generation that ever lived), but I think a lot of ordinary readers of the Bible are unsettled by such theories, and are not sure how to respond. Part of the reason for this is that such schemes look so coherent. Here is one, influential, example, part of Dispensational Premillennialism based on the teaching of J N Darby:

The man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 is the Antichrist who will come on the world scene at the beginning of the Day of the Lord. This Day, sometimes called the “end times,” starts after the rapture of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11). It is good to note that the Day of the Lord is not a twenty-four-hour period of time; rather, it is an extended period of time that includes the seven-year tribulation, the return of Christ to put down all rebellion against Him, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth, the final defeat of Satan, and the Great White Throne Judgment.

This looks very convincing—until you realise that the coherence of this scheme belongs entirely to the writer, and bears little or no relation to what the Bible actually says! The New Testament nowhere identifies the ‘man of lawlessness’ with the ‘antichrist’; it does not describe a ‘rapture’ of the church (this arises from a poor misreading of 1 Thessalonians 4); nowhere does the NT mention a ‘seven-year tribulation‘; the 1,000-year reign of Christ is a literal reading of a symbolic text in Rev 20; and the ‘Day of the Lord’ which is everywhere in the NT described as a specific moment at the end of history has now been extended, in this scheme, to a period of more than 1,007 years! One of the key proponents of this kind of scheme in a previous generation, Hal Lindsay (who wrote The Late, Great Planet Earth) actually admits that this is a ‘hopscotch’ approach to reading the Bible, taking one bit from one place and another from another in order to put together a picture like assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But look at the wonderful picture that results, is his defence!

So it is worth noting from the outset the basic assumptions of this kind of approach. First, the Bible doesn’t actually make sense as a narrative as it is written; it needs some mysterious key to open up its meaning. Secondly, the truth about the ‘end times’ and Jesus’ return is a great big puzzle, and the truth of what will happen has been missed by most people in history—indeed, it continues to be missed by most people who simply read the Bible. Thirdly, we therefore need an authority figure who will help us put together the different pieces of the otherwise unintelligible text of the Bible, and we then find what we need to know not in reading the Bible, but in reading the writings and teaching of this important person. All these features make this approach perfect for an age of conspiracy theories—and offer a potential publishing bonanza, since all faithful Christians will need to buy their book!

The best answer to all this is to return to the text, and what it actually says. So let’s look at the text of the Bible, and the passages about each of these three figures, and see what we can learn.


The ‘man of lawlessness’ is only mentioned in one short passage, 2 Thess 2.1–12.

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters,  not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time.  For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. 

There are some things here worth noting. First, Paul clearly thinks that, whoever this mysterious ‘man of lawlessness’ (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) is, he is ‘already at work’. This is clear from the fact that he ‘will set himself up in the temple’ which was still standing when Paul was writing (I am convinced by the arguments that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are early, are by Paul and not forgeries, and were written in quick succession to one another); there is no suggestion whatever in the text that ‘the temple’ here is used symbolically to refer to the people of God. Something is currently holding him back—and he is clearly a human figure, and not an angelic or demonic power.

Secondly, Paul is referring rather obliquely and in summary form to something that he has explained in more detail to the Thessalonians, and we will never know the full explanation that he has already given. Like many issues in Paul, we wish that he has said more! But we need to face the reality that we do not know any more details, so have to decide whether it is worth speculating.

But thirdly, and in answer to the dilemma of our ignorance, we can know the purpose of Paul’s teaching in this area—and it is not in order to encourage speculation or the drawing up of end-times calendars! On this, I think John Piper’s exposition is really helpful:

But persecution and suffering are not the only issue at Thessalonica, and Paul, now in chapters 2 and 3, takes his instruction about the second coming to a new level of detail in dealing with this second issue. The issue is that some in the church have ceased to do their ordinary vocational jobs, and started to make a nuisance of themselves as busybodies, mooching off the other Christians, since they’re not earning any money. And evidently, though Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, this delinquency is owing to a kind of hysteria in the community that the day of the Lord is not just near, but is already present.

In other words, Paul is saying to them: don’t panic; you have not been left behind; there is no need to speculate; get on with living your lives, working with your hands, instead of dropping everything for the sake of end-times speculation. You can trust God who will ultimately triumph, no matter how bad things appear to be getting. As Martin Luther is believed to have said, ‘If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I would still collect the rent and plant an apple tree’. Or we might say ‘Jesus is coming; look busy!’

It is also worth noting that this is a very minor point in Paul’s teaching about ‘the end times’. In Romans 8, he talks about the longing of the created order to be redeemed; in 1 Cor 15, he offers a long and detailed discussion about the implications of the resurrection at the end; all through his writings there is a constant sense of expectation, and the hope that confidence in the ultimate victory of God in the return of Jesus. And yet, only in this one passage is the ‘man of lawlessness’ mentioned. So it can hardly be claimed to be central to Paul’s teaching.


The ‘antichrist’ is only mentioned in four verses in the NT, all in the letters of John:

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 1 John 2:18 

Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 1 John 2:22 

…but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 1 John 4:3 

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 7 

Again, there are several things worth noticing simply by reading the text carefully.

First, although the author does talk about ‘the antichrist’ at several points, he is also clear that there have and continue to be many such people. Many ‘antichrists’ have already come; every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is of the antichrist, and ‘any such person’ who denies Jesus came in the flesh ‘is the antichrist’.

Secondly, the eschatology of these passages is highly ‘realised’—that is, the writer talks as though he and his readers are already in the ‘end times’ when he says several times ‘it is the last hour’. This might look as though there was an expectation that Jesus would return in his lifetime, an expectation that was mistaken. But in fact it matches the language of the Fourth Gospel, which talks about ‘life of the age [to come]’ or ‘eternal life’ as though is starts now, rather than being something we have to wait for. This also agrees with Peter on the day of Pentecost, who quotes Joel 2’s description of the ‘last days’ and says that it is what is happening in the outpouring of the Spirit (‘This is that… Acts 2.16). And it agrees with Paul’s description of those who put their faith in Jesus: ‘If anyone is in Christian there is new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17).

Thirdly, the concern here is (once more) nothing to do with ‘end times’ speculation and timetables, but to do with sound doctrine. The writer is encouraging his readers to stay true to the faith. Overall, the letters of John have two concerns: that his audience hold onto the truth about Jesus, and that they live out that truth in lives of love.

We also need to note that the description of [the, many] antichrist[s] appears to have little or nothing in common with Paul’s description of the ‘man of lawlessness’ other than the theme of ‘deception’ and the concern that the believers should not be deceived by those who do not tell the truth. This is hardly a concern uniquely related to the ‘end times’…!

With mentions in four verses, in two short circular letters, again this is hardly central to the theological concerns of the writers of the NT overall.


Lastly, the beast is a central figure in the drama of the Book of Revelation. Although there are anticipations of the figure earlier in the text, the ‘beast from the sea’ is fully introduced in Rev 13 as one of an ‘evil trinity’ along with the dragon/Satan, and the ‘beast from the earth’ (Rev 13.1) which later in the text is described as ‘the false prophet’.

The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.  The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.  One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast.  People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against it?” (Rev 13.1–4)

The beast from the sea look very much like the dragon which is described in chapter 12—and both together combine the features of the four beasts that emerge from the sea in Daniel 7, which many commentators believe symbolise the four great world empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. And far from making this beast future and mysterious, he appears to go to some lengths to help his readers understand who this beast is, by asking them to ‘calculate’ (the Greek term psephizo) or work out, the number of the beast, which stands for a man’s name.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 08.31.31For some time, there has been a strong scholarly consensus that 666 refers to Nero by means of a numerology known as gematria or isopsephism—adding the value of the letters in a word so that every word has a value, and equating two words with equal value. We know that Nero’s name was sometimes spelled with a final -n; ‘Neron Caesar’ when written in Greek, but transliterated into Hebrew letters adds up to 666 (see the image to the right for the sums).

There are several significant pieces of supporting evidence for this. First, when you write the Greek for ‘beast’, therion, in Hebrew letters, you also arrive at 666, making it clear that 666 is the number of ‘the beast’. Secondly, when you do the same with ‘angel’ in Rev 21, you get the number 144. Third, an early manuscript from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt corrects 666 to 616, which you would do if you understood the gematria, but thought that ‘Nero’ should be spelled without the final n. (There isn’t really any other plausible explanation for why this variant should arise.)

This ‘beast’ is identified with neither the ‘man of lawlessness’ in Paul nor the ‘antichrist’ in John, and in fact neither of these terms occur anywhere in Revelation.


So where does this all get us? First, it is clear that the three terms belong to quite different traditions within the NT, and none of these three traditions attempts to make any specific connections with the others in terms of language—despite the fact that the later writers (of the Johannine letters and of the Book of Revelation) almost certainly knew Paul’s writings.

But it is also clear that there is some kind of connection, particularly since the concern of all three writers appears to be to encourage his readers to stand firm in the truth of the apostolic teaching in the face of pressures from outside the Jesus community to renounce faith and pressures from within to distort the truth about Jesus. Here, Piper makes an interesting observation, but I think then reaches the wrong conclusion from it:

Therefore, the man of lawlessness will be unparalleled in his ability to deceive, as 2 Thessalonians 2:10 says, “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing.” It really could be “in all deception of unrighteousness,” because we are going to see in just a moment that the way he deceives is by making unrighteousness seem pleasurable. (Notice how the word adikia is repeated in verses 10 and 12.) Again, I would argue, Paul is unpacking the prophecies made by Jesus. Jesus said,

Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. . . . For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. . . . So, if they say to you, “Look, he [one person!] is in the wilderness,” do not go out. If they say, “Look, he is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:21, 24, 26–27)

At the close of this climactic period of lawlessness and a great deception led by a person, Paul is saying, the coming of the Son of Man will be unmistakable. Like lightning flashing from horizon to horizon.

Piper is noting the connections between Paul’s language in 2 Thess and Jesus’ teaching in the first half Matt 24. But what he does not notice is that Jesus’ teaching here is not about the distant (for him) future and a remote ‘end times’ that we might be living in, but what the disciples he is teaching will face in their lifetime. He makes this crystal clear by stating emphatically:

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt 24.34).

It is only in the second half of the chapter, from Matt 24.36, that Jesus turns his attention to issues around ‘the end of the age’.

There are connections too between Paul’s discussion of the man of lawlessness,  who will ‘use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie’ (2 Thess 2.9) and the ‘signs and wonders’ performed by the second beast on behalf of the first in Rev 13.13–14, but this is a description of magical tricks and propaganda performed by Roman rulers of which we have documentary evidence. In other words, both Paul and John are writing about things already happening in the world of their readers.


The concern of all these texts is to encourage their readers: don’t be deceived by clever schemes and novel doctrines; don’t get caught up in ‘end-times’ speculation; stay faithful to the truth that God came to us in Jesus, and has made our salvation secure in him; and continue to live lives of industry, generosity and grace as you wait with confidence for his return in a world that is looking very shaky. We need the same encouragement!

To find out more about what the NT says about eschatology, the end of the world, and living in hope, you might be interested in my Grove booklet on Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World.

To find out more about how to read the Book of Revelation, see my Grove booklet or my commentary on Revelation in IVP’s Tyndale series.


If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.


34 thoughts on “Antichrist, man of lawlessness, and the beast”

  1. This is just a thought: 666. Could this be a triple repetition of the single number 6, a representation of the completeness, a fulness if you will, of incompleteness, of a world without God, harking back to Genesis1, a world without God in it, rather than a spread of the Garden with the presence of God?
    This would also place in strong contrast 2 Cor 5.17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” ESV
    This is also redolent of a new birth/creation.
    Christ, in whom there is completeness, Sabbath fulness, rest and glory, new creation.

    Reply
    • I like that. Six days but no rest. A trinity of endless striving.!
      Last time I gave it some thought I was looking at a creditcard sized bronze abacus made in roman times. It had 4 beads to push up before going to the next column. I was intrigued to see that fractions were calculated in twelfths. I think it is worth contemplating how the average shopper saw numbers. 666 could be an impossible fraction. something like half a half a half recurring.
      ???….I’ll get my coat 🙂

      Reply
    • The text does not give the three numerals 6, 6, 6 (heks, heks, heks). Instead it is six-hundred, sixty, six. Interpreting the text by the use of numerals would add a layer of interpretive encoding. While it isn’t absolutely impossible, it introduces more complexity.

      Reply
      • Richard Bauckham suggests that the choking and harsh sounds of chi+xi+numeric-digamma-which-looks-like-a-final-sigma (600+60+6) is very snake-like if one uses the sigma sound which is suggested by the visual representation of the number (kh-ks-ss). The sound of ‘heks’ gives exactly the same effect.

        An interesting question is to what extent (if any) John thought of the number as six-six-six as opposed to 660+60+6. The number is numerically interesting only for this very reason (just like IESOUS = 888, which may have prompted 666 in the first place in preference to the more natural 616): namely, that the hundreds, tens and units are all at the same level, and John knows that. If he’s to select one remarkable number for his entire work, he is going to choose a particularly interesting one.

        I give evidence under psephizo discussion 3.4.14 (Labuschagne) that John – whom I unlike most see as the one and the same author of both Apocalypse and Gospel – sometimes conceptualised one-hundred-and-fifty-three as one-five-three (much as we might say ‘the one-five-three bus’ or ‘door number one-five-three’). The initial days in John 1-2 have their own gematria system (through syllable counts) which produces, in order, the missing titles/headings for the 9 matrices I outlined in 1993 which are the source of John’s content. There are longer breaks at 1.18 (after one ‘day’) and 1.51 (after 5 more), which is perhaps the easiest way of seeing the 1-5-3 structure. So the initial days are divided into one then five then three. In syllable-gematria these produce trinitarian titles MONOGENES for the one, GEORGOS for the five, PANTA for the three.

        From microcosm to macrocosm: The larger sections or new-creation-days of John are also in a 1-5-3 pattern. The initial 1 is separate by virtue of its outlining the aforementioned microcosm (just as 1.1-18 is a summary that lies outside the earthly, historical and sequential 1.19-51). The next 5 large sections take us to 19.42, and the completion of the new creation. With that we pass on to the new age of the Spirit in chs 20-21, which like Jn 2.1-22 is structured according to 3 successive locations in a short space.

        (Also the choice of numerals in John’s Gospel depends on a sort of triangle 9-in-length wherein the three corners are one, ten and a hundred – I outlined that in discussion of the 153 fish. This appreciates the obvious fact that hundreds, tens and units have a shared base-10, as well as exhibiting the same tendency to threefold structure seen above.)

        I certainly think it very likely therefore that just as 153 could be conceptualised as one-five-three, 666 could be conceptualised as six-six-six.

        Reply
  2. I think I agree with you but I’m not a theologeon with a position to defend so it matters not what I think.
    Are you saying that the ‘Man of Lawlessness’ could be Titus who invaded the Temple in AD 70? and that the unpresedented time of suffering, predicted by Jesus, was the destruction of the Temple?

    Even if many of the NT writers only spoke about current affairs they still seem to me to be laying down a pattern that allows for us to see similar scenarios happening in future.

    Leven is used metaphorically to mean different things in the NT. So I suppose it’s dangerous to conflate similar naratives to paint one picture. I’m a bit confused by all this but I’m sure Darby & Schofield have a lot to answer for.

    Reply
    • I dont think that’s an appropriate way to look at it. Paul is referring to what must happen before Jesus returns, and makes the logical conclusion that because the ‘rebellion’ had not happened, and the ‘man of lawlessness’ had not yet appeared and set himself up as God, therefore Jesus could not have returned yet, as those events must happen first. He is clearly talking about historical events that would happen in due course, whether the near future or in a far off future. Ian Paul seems to be making a case for the near future, although he doesnt actually state what the rebellion was or who the man of lawlessness was, which I find odd if these were historical events. So in my view, it is not for us to say that these were fulfilled in the 1st century but that they represent some sort of repeating pattern, as Paul says no such thing and we shouldnt put words into his mouth.

      The question remains, did these things happen then or are they still to happen? If they have already happened long ago, but future from Paul’s pov, then my question would be – what happened to Jesus’ return/day of the Lord, as Paul clearly links the rebellion/man of lawlessness with that day?

      Ian hasnt given an answer to that.

      Reply
      • PC1 – thanks

        I think Ian rightly criticises the sort of detailed schematic that Dispensationalists offer and even the carefully worked out ‘this is that’ of some Pre-mills. But I wonder if Ian in wanting to disassociate from the eccentric eschatologies, and focus us on Jesus, passes over too quickly legitimate areas for reflection and dismisses details sacred Scripture offers us to be aware of the times. in 1Thess4v13, Paul tells us we are not to be ignorant of these things, and then briefly sketches what things (he refers to a present spirit of lawlessness, a future great apostasy, a personified manifestation of the spirit of lawlessness, then the return of Jesus who will personally destroy the man of sin – these he posits in the future. This is normative Christian theology not eccentric. One can subscribe to such without a cranky neurotic pin pointing of the antichrist in our day. A plain reading, paying attention to the text n the tenses, offers some details, if not a full blown schematic – and fills one with courage and hope and focusses on Jesus.

        I think Ian is absolutely right to bring us to the texts and to challenge eschatological eccentricities, but…. the handful of texts do sketch some details, a sense of chronology – and whilst Caesar may have been a type, he aint the end time fulfilment of antichrist or the man of lawlessness, cos that figure is destroyed at the second coming.

        looking forward to Ian’s response

        Reply
      • Peter

        Warfield is interesting (‘Prophecies of St. Paul’) on 2 Thessalonians, arguing, if I am understanding him aright, that ‘The revelation of the Man of Sin is not, then, necessarily to be sought at the end of time: we know of it, only that it will succeed the removal of the “restraint,” and precede, by how much we are not told, the coming of the Lord’, and that verse 8 refers to the Day of Judgment.

        Phil Almond

        Reply
  3. Thanks for this redress to hype about the ‘end times.’

    Just a few points though: In 2 Thess the phrase, ‘ For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work’ seems to refer to general lawlessness or a spirit of lawnessness not a specific man of lawlessness. So it can also be read that the spirit of lawlessness was already at work, but at some point near the 2nd coming a personality who embodies lawlessness will arise with great power.
    The Temple Institute in Jerusalem have advanced plans to rebuild a 3rd temple on the mount, so it’s not inconceivable that it could refer to days ahead.

    The gematria argument is interesting, but it could also be interpreted as an evil trinity that is less than the perfection that satan aspires to. Calculating the meaning could apply to any generation.

    Finally, when Jesus says ‘this generation’ in Matt 24:34, can we tell from the Greek that he is referring to the people listening to Him, or a future generation that would see the apocalyptic signs he was describing? Surely the things He describes in v29 – the moon not giving its light, stars falling, the Son of Man coming etc – are all still future!

    Reply
    • There are two types of generation themes in the Bible. Good and Evil. Abraham comes to mind. He was a hundred years old when he had Isaac. Therefore his generation = 100. Therefore the Israelites were in Egypt for 4 generations: 400 years. The serpent’s generations were Cain to the flood, Ham to Sodom, to Pharaoh etc to Herod, Pilate & Caiaphas under Caesar. It looks like Jesus, referring to ‘this generation’ was speaking about an evil generation’s demise. He was about to crush the head of the serpent. It seems to me He is speaking about finishing off the evil generator. The sun darkening is his time of passion. The fall of Jerusalem is the blood moon. Stars are the powers who fell at that time. (Herod eaten by worms) In the future the church representing the reflected glory of the sun will suffer like the sun. A blood moon is the church in our dispensation/generation/age. The rebellion was going to be the Judeans rebelling against Rome. Paul could see it coming in his time and so wisely alluded to Titus not knowing is name.

      Reply
        • Bishbashbosch.
          Ithankyou david.
          I’m just a little disappointed that every great mind descends to unravel how many cups should be used in communion but the wonder of Jesus words here are of no interest and it’s left up to my little mind to make a stab at it.
          I’m more interested in the poetry, in accepting the paradoxes and allowing them space to do whatever it is The Word wants to do. Lock down has given me too much time to dabble in things. I’ve had a very interesting time these past months reading and commenting but it’s time to move on I think.

          Reply
    • Sorry if this question has been already discussed here or elsewhere:

      The Greek of Matthew 24:34 and the Greek of Luke 21:32 is identical except for ‘these things’ before ‘happens’ in Matthew. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is a view that these Matthew and Luke passages are not about the same thing.
      Is there a unanimous view on whether they are about the same or not?

      Phil Almond

      Reply
  4. Ian

    You make a good case for the antichrist, spirit of lawlessness at work and equated with Rome – but you seem to dismiss the long and broad christian tradition that also sees such as being set in the future at the end of time.

    In v3 Paul corrects an error that has unsettled the Thessalonians, that the end has come/Jesus returned. Paul says this wont occur until the manifestation of the man of lawlessness and also the rebellion (apostasia) a great apostasy has occurred.

    In 2Thess2v7-9 Paul appears to be positing a personification of the prevailing lawlessness, a man of lawlessness, coming in the future. Paul is quite clear that lawlessness is already at work as he says ‘now’, present tense (v7a) ; but Paul continues that a man of lawlessness WILL be revealed (v7b) future tense, who will be destroyed personally by Jesus breath when Jesus returns (parousias).

    I am not a theologian and immersed in eschatological texts like you, but a plain reading of this text to me contributes to a schematic for the end times, which are marked by a personification of evil (an antichrist, a man of sin) who is personally destroyed at the point Jesus personally returns.

    I believe in a personal return of Jesus, who (among other things) personally destroys a personal manifestation of evil that arises just before the end. Do you think I read Paul in 2Thess wrong?

    Reply
    • The chances of the reigning emperor (in 51 AD) Claudius happening by chance to have a name that means closer-off or restrainer are negligible. For proof, go through any list of names and see how many have that meaning.

      So the restraining force is Claudius. In any case he was in this year ailing, and would soon be ‘out of the way’. His successor was in this year unveiled (‘revealed’) in the presence of the army – none other than Nero, a surprise choice from left field as a direct father-son succession could have been proposed but wasn’t. This unexpected choice was seen as a sign, and Nero (age 13) reminded everyone of the former youthful-king Caligula 10 years earlier who had been highly irresponsible (lawlessness), and had nearly placed a statue in the holy of holies – prophecies concerning which had yet to be fulfilled and were beginning to be seen as potentially false; the choice of Nero made it seem as if they could be fulfilled after all. (And indeed Nero fulfilled them pretty well.)

      Remember that ‘restrainer’ is an odd and unique character to appear at all were it not for the pun. Also remember that ‘you know who’ indirect and oblique allusions to figures are generally about the emperor (Rev 13; Mk 13 – unless Eleazar is in view) who is the one who can scarcely be openly slandered.

      If Claudius = restrainer, is there an equivalent pun for Nero? At this time he was much better known as Domitianus. Unruly and indomitable (lawless: anomos) is how he is actually characterised here, so this could be an ironic play on his name. Children are unruly (Titus 1.6 anupotaktoi; 1 Tim 1.9 parallels this term with anomoi). Ataktos from the same word group is exclusive to the Thessalonian letters: 1 Th 5.14, 2 Th 3.6,11.

      The apostasia ought logically to be the rebellion of the Rebel or lawless one. Paul in 1 Th is very interested in the apostasy of the Jews, which is indeed a slightly earlier event if one is making an eschatological calendar where one event portends another as in the Mk 13 intro; but the connection between rebellion and rebel is too close for that here.

      It is natural to explore in depth the 66-70 rebellion as a candidate. That was not when Nero was revealed – far from it. Even if it was envisaged as being when a returning undead Nero was revealed – and one such did appear in 69-70 in Turkey and the Aegean – and was planning to sit on the Jerusalem throne (cf. Suetonius), that makes the direct succession from Claudius awkward and messy. And Claudius = restrainer is the linchpin.

      Nor would the 66-70 ‘rebellion’ be seen or termed as such unless by a Roman or Roman sympathiser. Christians are not that.

      2 Thess is on the contrary highly similar to 1 Thess: in its authors, structure, scale and vocab; in its use of present history as portents; in its obscurity in laying out the nature of those portents; in its being echoed in both Rev and 2 Ptr. It is Pauline throughout, and slightly closer than 1 Th to the central Paulines – exactly as one would expect from an AD 51 document. It does not say ‘Son of Man’ which would put it in the age of Rev and Mark.

      Does the term ‘rebellion’ still jar? Think of it as ‘hubris’ – an extremely central Greek religious concept (humans improperly trying to aspire to divine level as in Isa 14; cf. Mark’s hopou ou dei 13.14, which also carries the sense of impropriety, even ritual or religious impropriety). What Paul emphasises is that the emperor sets himself above divinity (of all kinds). This idea is also found in the way Caligula’s action of 10 years earlier is understood in Philo, Embassy to Gaius.

      Reply
      • This is very informative and could well be right. However it doesnt explain the clear linkage between the coming of the man of lawlessness and his destruction, and the return of Jesus. I would find it very odd if Paul thought the day of the Lord would be subsequent to Nero, but as it turns out it still hasnt happened thousands of years later. Indeed he explicitly says it is the Lord’s coming that destroys him. Unless of course you believe that Jesus’ coming was during the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, ie a full preterist view. But I find that odd too.

        Reply
        • PC1 “…..he explicitly says it is the Lord’s coming that destroys him…”

          Exactly – so whilst Nero or Titus or any number of figures through history may occupy this anti-christ role, the text requires an end time manifestation who will be destroyed by Jesus at his return.

          In the previous thread on end times, I suggested this is why a ‘layered’ approach to prophetic fulfilment was appropriate – but the scholars among us weren’t overly supportive.

          Reply
        • Hi PC1 – That’s exactly right. This is not a different issue from 1 Th 4.17 when Paul expects to be alive at Christ’s coming, nor from 1 Cor 7.29 where ‘time is short’ when it comes to making marriage plans – it’s one and the same.

          So, as has often been noted, and as is clear from the text, Paul was initially thinking in terms of a soonish date for Christ’s return. I say ‘initially’ because this element of his thought then drops out (around the time of the crisis he speaks of in 2 Cor 1?).

          ‘Patience’ (hypomone) becomes the Christian watchword instead (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter. 2 Peter also says that Paul had this emphasis in all his letters – e.g. Romans 8.25?).

          Nero’s end was ignominious. He was virtually hounded out of office in an incipient civil war, and could not even commit suicide without someone helping him. However, the private nature of his death (by sword: Rev 13.14) predictably meant that people were unsure whether he had died at all. The building of his colossal golden house & lake and colossal gold statue (depicting a merger of Nero and Apollo) had suggested quite a different trajectory wherein he had been expected to become more and more powerful (and set himself up as more powerful than the gods). Vespasian had been Nero’s ‘personal’ general and right hand man and representative both in his culminating tour of Greece and in the Jewish Revolt, even before he inherited the same throne. Rev suggests Nero lives on (13.1, 14), even through the statue actually being alive (13.15). A symbiotic relationship between Nero and Vespasian is posited (13.12) not unlike that which had always been held to exist between the god Apollo who can be seen only in statue form (as in Nero’s statue; Apollo references appear throughout Rev) and the Pythia his prophet who is a living breathing human (thus Vespasian is called ‘false prophet’). The second beast (remember that Nero was ‘an eighth’ but also ‘[one] of the seven’) has 2 horns which must mean 2 emperors: probably the 2 are this symbiotic Nero-Vespasian, though there are other possibilities. Although John is not fully consistent in what he says of the beasts (the first beast is at one time the first 7 emperors and at another Nero its quintessence), there is no actual equation between the second beast and the false prophet, as is generally thought. Rather, the second beast is the symbiotic Nero-Vespasian while the false prophet is Vespasian. He was notorious at the time of writing for his miracles, mostly in Alexandria (healing a blind man with spittle, a lame man, and a man with a withered or diseased hand). As John sees Nero as Vespasian’s empowering spirit, the signs and wonders (and the hubris and megalomania they imply) remind us of 2 Thess 2.9.

          Reply
          • Christopher – as always your depth of classical knowledge amazes.
            So would you say these words of Paul are now fulfilled and if so, what is their purpose and relevance for the church for the past 1900+ years?

            I remain unconvinced cos I still cant see where/when in this is Jesus’ Parousia?

          • To kill 3 birds with one stone: As with 1 Thess and 1 Cor, the return of Christ mentioned in 2 Thess did not happen at the early juncture Paul initially envisaged, and he himself soon afterwards stopped talking about such immediacy. 2 Thess itself counsels against immediacy.

            Otherwise he was correctly describing forces presently at work. And Nero was a pretty full realisation of the perennial antichrist-spirit principle.

          • Just as the greater the aggregate or sample, the clearer the statistical contours appear, so the greater the number of years the clearer the recurring motifs of history become, and the clearer is the nature of the spiritual battle. What we see diachronically can also be analysed synchronically.

          • Christopher – thank you
            So – do you actually think Paul got it wrong – at least the Jesus returning and destroying the lawless man by his breath?

          • He didn’t specify any precise timing, but he was wrong in his expected range of potential timings:
            (1) He speaks in 1 Th as though he himself expects to be among those raptured rather than already dead (though he may be using ‘we’ loosely).
            (2) He speaks in 2 Th as though the Lawless One is soon to come but also his reign will coincide with the Coming.
            (3) He speaks in 1 Cor as though the time is so short there’s no point even getting married.
            (4) He sees contemporary things (expulsion of the Jews, accession of Nero) as signs of the end.

            So it is one single and widely acknowledged error: a timing error, and a large one.

  5. Many thanks Ian for shedding further sane, biblical light on these controversial issues. As a blogger I became so frustrated by the dispensationalist treatment of key biblical passages that I decided to research the 2nd Coming anew and write about it for my own sake and that of our little faith community (a house church) and some longstanding friends in different parts of the world. I spent two months wading slowly through G.C. Berkouwer’s voluminous ‘The Return of Christ,’ re-reading N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’ and ‘Surprised by HOPE,’ etc. That was helpful.
    Of course, as you have pointed out, there will always be mysteries attached to eschatology, but it helps to have some proven hermeneutical guidelines to help us through the maze. I have been writing recently on ‘universalism,’ and your critique of Richard Rohr’s panentheism was hugely helpful in that regard.
    Greetings from South Africa.

    Reply
  6. Thank you. It’s clearly not simply a detached theological issue (if there is such a thing) but one with serious pastoral implications. I recall a church member who was afraid to leave his house because he thought that Jesus was coming back that day/week (I can’t recall the exact timetable).

    What a tragedy that the misreading/misteaching behind his view trapped him in fear and didn’t liberate his mind or feed his spirit.

    Reply
    • There are numerous examples of false teaching, not just concerning end time issues, that negatively affect Christians. Ive experienced that myself. The ‘name it and claim it’ nonsense is one such example. Or using the non-Markan ending of Mark to justify playing with snakes…

      Peter

      Reply
  7. I think both 1 and 2 Thes need to be read together to get the drift of it all, the overall context, without going outside the text. Lawlessness is described and it seems to be linked to the influence activity of Satan (2 Thes 2:9), so it is God who restrains Satan in the present age.
    The Thes have done well, and even done better, and they’ve not missed the boat as it were, not missed the day of the Lord, the return of Christ.
    The New Testament is clear that Jesus is the Temple (destroyed) and believers are living stones, the temple in which God by His Spirit dwells.
    Paul continues to exhort believers to continue not to sin in their lifestyles to not be lawless, which others in the church (temple) will teach and tempt ( in the temple/church taking the place of God (mere human exaltation -centric/idolatry?) along with counterfeit signs and wonders to delude those perishing who refuse to love the truth and believe what is false AND take pleasure in unrighteousness (lawlessness)
    The believers are encouraged to stand firm, beloved of the Lord Because God chose them as firstfruits to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit( akin to consecration of temple?) and belief in the truth.
    When Christ returns with those who have died in Him, the believers alive at that time will be raised to meet Him and they will all descend in train.
    In the meantime they are to continue the every good work and word loved and comforted by Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, in hope through grace
    The Lord is faithful who will establish believers and guard against the Evil One. Their hearts are to be directed the love of God And the steadfastness of Christ.

    Is this too simple?

    Reply
  8. Ian – what do you think of Christopher Shell’s assertion above that Paul simply got it wrong in regard to his understanding of the timing of Jesus’ return, and the fact that His return did not coincide with the destruction/death of the man of lawlessness, Nero despite Paul’s assertion?

    If true, it would seem Paul was just like many today, seeing signs of Jesus’ imminent return where none exist.

    If you agree, then how do you understand the reliability of Scripture?

    Peter

    Reply

Leave a comment