By Dan King
When Paul addressed his second letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, he did so in the midst of feverish excitement. Some measure of this excitement may be explained by what he had written in his first letter. In writing about the second coming of Christ and other matters having to do with the end of the present order of things, the apostle evidently touched upon a tender spot for some of his readers. They were people who enjoyed delving into the future and so were crazed by these delightful tidbits, some to the point that it was all they cared about. Paul had talked of Christ’s coming with His saints (3:13); he told them not to be concerned about their departed love ones who had died in the Lord, since they would also share in the resurrection when Christ came again in glory (4:13-18); and he had warned of the sudden doom of the wicked at the return of Jesus on account of their lack of preparation (5:1-11, also 23). Either Paul was misunderstood about these matters, or else someone had maliciously circulated a rumor or letter suggesting this return, about which he had had so much to say, was imminent (1 Thess. 3:6-12). However it happened, a number had apparently forsaken work to become dependent upon the church for their survival (2 Thess. 3:6-12). This may have been the first case of people becoming frenzied about the subject of eschatology or “last things,” but history on this count has repeated itself many, many times.
This matter of the “Man of Sin” has itself proven a thorny question about which much ink has been spilled and many long and tedious arguments made. That is true in spite of the fact that Paul intended his remarks to settle the matter for the brethren at Thessalonica. With the language of a removed future, he spoke of the arrival of a figure upon the scene of history whose dark shadow would fall upon the church and remain there until the very coming of Christ. Who this person was (or is to be) has troubled expositors throughout the centuries. Many elaborate theories have been spun to reply to the question. It is the purpose of the present article to pursue the inquiry, noting the various possible identifications and concluding with what we deem to be the appropriate answer to the problem. We believe that it has too often been the case that students have been overly concerned about hurting the religious feelings of someone else and too little concerned with making the right choice among the alternatives. We shall try not to fall prey to that temptation in the present study. It is not our desire to injure the sensitivities of others, either, but the truth ought to be of paramount importance on this issue as on all others which touch the faith once delivered to the saints.
In 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul warns that Christ will not come until the appearance of the “Man of Sin” or “Son of Perdition.” He also specifies that his coming is to be attended by a falling away. The term apostasia is used by him to refer to this event. It is the Greek equivalent ofour term “apostasy” and the word from which our term derives. It appears that there is obvious and intentional connection to be made between its usage here and in 1 Timothy 4:1 where Paul writes that “in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons . . . .” There is little likelihood that he would have in mind two separate apostasies, even though it is true that in 2 Thessalonians 2 only the “Man of Sin” is mentioned. The “Man of Sin” figure is himself merely a single feature of a much larger phenomenon which Paul alludes to as “the falling away” (2 Thess. 2:3). The fact that apostasy has occurred makes his appearance possible in the first place and allows it to continue and even prosper in the second.
We may summarize the outline of what Paul has to say about the “Man of Sin” and his arrival with the following:
(1) He arises out of the great apostasy or rebellion (v. 3).
(2) He is a person; more specifically, a man (v. 3).
(3) He is an object of worship and veneration by his own wish (v. 4). In this way he compares favorably with the person described in Daniel 11:36, though the two are not the same.
(4) He sits in the temple of God boasting his own godhood (v. 4).
(5) His appearance is encouraged by the “mystery of lawlessness,” already at work in Paul’s own time (v. 7).
(6) He is only revealed after that which restrains is removed (v. 7). When mentioned in the abstract, the neuter, impersonal, “that which” is used. When mentioned in personification, the masculine gender, “he who” is used. In all probability this refers to the principle of order which restrains the working of evil. So long as that order which God ordained remains intact, he is hindered from making his appearance.
(7) He is not overthrown until the parousia (“coming” or “presence”) of Christ (v. 8). Whether this is to be taken as referring to the second coming of Christ or of some “return” for purposes of judgment is a question answered differently by different writers. Mention of God’s coming judgment upon the Jews in I Thessalonians 2:14-16 and the accompanying use of the word parousia in v. 20 of the same chapter has led to speculation that in both cases he means the same thing. But parousia in v. 20 has no obvious connection with what Paul describes in vv. 14-16. Moreover, the excitement at Thessalonica was not over the fall of Jerusalem and collapse of the Jewish state, but had to do with the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead in Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-10, 23-24). The idea that the fall of the Roman Empire is under consideration has even less to be said on its behalf.
(8) His own “coming” (parousia) is “according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders” (v. 9). Fake miracles thus characterize the reign of the “Man of Sin.”
(9) His continued success in keeping followers in his control and under his spell is based upon the “working of error,” lies, and the carnal desire to enjoy the pleasure of unrighteousness (vv. 10-11). False doctrines, and those who love to believe them and are devoid of the love of truth, are what sustain him and his position.
The expression “Man of Sin” is replaced in some of the ancient manuscripts by “Man of Lawlessness.” Some exegetes have concluded that this is the preferable reading, being that it seems to fit in better with v. 7-8. But lawlessness is failure to conform to the law of God and this is what sin is (I Jn. 3:4). I, therefore, fail to see that there is a great deal of difference which of the two possible readings is elected. The other phrase used to describe this person, i.e. “Son of Perdition,” is both textually and definitionally secure. The meaning, as Moffatt’s translation bears out, is “the doomed one.” Hell is his eventual place.
Paul’s first motive for introducing the discussion of this figure is also worth noting here. He attempts by introduction of the “Man of Sin” to wean the Thessalonians away from the idea of absolute immediacy in dealing with the subject of “last things.” Christ will not come “except the falling away come first.” For him it becomes a simple matter of God requiring more time to fulfill a prophetic forecast than imminency will allow. Thus, if it may be shown that this prophecy has seen its realization, then nothing has remained from the time of its fulfillment to the present hour that would hinder the return of the Lord.
What makes difficult our efforts at specifically identifying the one under consideration is the fact that no one of the views which has been put forward is able to take every part of the prophecy literally. This is not at all odd in dealing with prophecy for it is regularly filled with symbolism. But to many people the very fact that a view requires some close study and a text does not yield its meaning upon first glance gives them the impression it is somehow less legitimate than it would be otherwise. In the case of the “Man of Sin” one soon finds out that no one can take -literally every part of what is found here and that everyone must learn to live with the essential, though at times complicated, nature of biblical prophecy.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 5, pp. 140-141
March 3, 1983