By Dan King
We now propose to consider some of the possible identifications of the “Man of Sin” figure and the arguments which have been offered to establish who he was, is, or shall be.
A Political Figure?
The tendency to connect the figure in 2 Thessalonians 2 with the”antichrist” of John’s epistles and the “beast” of the book of Revelation has led to confusion in a number of directions. At least one evidence of this is an attempt to find in this person a political figure who somehow imposes his will upon the servants of God. Every tyrant since Paul’s writing could have been made the “Man of Sin” of Paul’s epistle; and many have been so identified. At one time or other such men as Hitler, Stalin, and a host of others of like ilk have had the finger pointed at them. In fact, the person whom Paul refers to is a religious figure, at least primarily. He has his entrance onto the stage of history as the result of religious apostasy, not social anarchy or political and national rebellion. Assassination of some ruler does not herald his advent. His appearance is the outcome of a religious and spiritual rebellion, a departure from God and His Word. The place of his seat is not that of a political figure. He “sitteth in the temple of God setting himself forth as God” (v. 4). Reference to the “temple of God,” of course, brings to mind one of two possible things: either (a) The Jewish sanctuary of worship in the city of Jerusalem, or (b) The church of Christ. This second is a clearly figurative identification, but one which frequently appear in the New Testament literature (1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 2:21; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; etc.)
A Roman Emperor?
Grotius held that an emperor of Rome was the one about whom Paul spoke. Caius . Caligula, who ordered universal supplication to himself as the supreme God and wished to set up his colossal statue in the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem, was his favorite choice. Wetstein thought it was Titus. He is said to have brought idols into the temple in Jerusalem, worshipped there with his men the gods of Rome, and accepted the homage of his men. Other emperors have also been pointed to at one time or another.
The view that says Caligula is the “Son of Perdition” flounders on the problem of date. This emperor entered the temple in 40 A.D., and was dead ten years before the writing of the book of 2 Thessalonians. Why should Paul speak the way he does of something that had already happened over a decade before? That Titus is not correct is obvious on technical grounds which would also exclude the Caligula identificiation and the view which seeks to include the whole line of Roman emperors in the “Man of Sin” (since most of the line accepted edification and wore divine epithets). Paul uses the Greek word sebasma in his description of the prideful boats of divinity. It is usually translated “above every object of worship,” so that it intimates this person will not allow worship of other deities alongside veneration of himself. The Roman rulers, however, did not persecute those who worshipped the gods of the state but encouraged them by their own participation in the various cults and veneration of the many gods of the Empire.
We also consider the necessity of interpreting the “manifestation of his coming” (referring to Christ, v. 8) as the fall of Rome to be an inherent weakness in this view. Our earlier comments on parousia have obvious application here.
Simon Magus The Gnostic?
A few interpreters have wanted to read into this passage a reference to some Gnostic leader such as Simon Magus. And, while there are some tempting aspects to this view, there are also insurmountable difficulties. Certainly some aspects of 1 Timothy 4:lff: may be taken as beginning to first surface in the church in the days of the Gnostic heresy’s challenge to original Christianity, but if these references are to be thus understood, then who is the “Man of Sin”? Simon Magus, a practitioner of magical arts in Samaria, whose conversion and first failure is recounted in Acts 8:9-24, has been chosen by some. References in the literature of Christians from the later centuries identify him as the founder of post-Christian Gnosticism, a dualistic religious sect advocating salvation through secret knowledge. The second century writer Justyn Martyr relates that Simon visited Rome at the time of the emperor Claudius (41-54) and was there deified by followers fascinated with his miracle working. Other documents of extremely dubious value make all sorts of claims about his abilities and speak of confrontations between him and the apostle Peter at Rome. This entire tradition smacks of fiction and makes it questionable whether this Simon is the one from Acts 8. If the Simon of Gnostic legend ever existed at all, identification of him as the “Man of Sin” runs into the problem that he was not brought low by the manifestation of Christ’s coming (2 Thess. 2:9) in any sense. Other Gnostic figures lixe Marcion and Valentinus were not deified and so do not offer a reasonable alternative to Simon from among the ranks of the early heretics.
A Jewish Pretender?
There have also been those who have identified the “Man of Sin” through some connection with Judaism. Whitby, for example, said he was the entire nation. They, by their Sanhedrin, sat in the temple of God, enacting laws and. elevating human traditions above divine statutes. But how could the Jews be seen as guilty of “falling away” from that which they had never embraced? How could the Sanhedrin, a body so strictly monotheistic in creed, ever sit in the temple of God and assume itself, or any member of it, to be God either in prerogative or in name?
A comparable view, known, so far as I am able to ascertain, only among our own brethren, is that some Jewish pretender entered the temple shortly before its fall, and so became the “Man of Sin.” Stanley Paher, in his recent book If Thou Hadst Known (pp. 107-108), casts his lot with the growing number that reads most everything in the New Testament as having somehow to do with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. We do not subscribe to his allegation that “the unrighteous high priest Phannias” is the “Man of Sin” or to another and similar view which asserts that some Zealot leader during the revolt of 70 is to be accepted for the office. Paher’s case falls flat on its face on account of the very evidence which he offers on its behalf. He refers to Old Testament instances in which people were described as claiming divinity for themselves (Isa. 14:4, 12-14, 22; Ezek. 28:2, 6; 11-12; and Dan. 5:2, 3), but conveniently fails to note these were pagan kings who commonly considered themselves as actually being divine. Our two earlier points apply equally to specific persons in the Jewish nation as to the nation as a whole. These views which read 70 AD into everything in the New Testament commanded little respect among serious Bible students and it is a shame they are growing in popularity among us.
An Eschatological Personage?
Premillennialists and dispensationalists have always seen the “Man of Sin” as a very significant part of their system. For them he is the supreme embodiment of evil, who is to appear immediately prior to Christ’s return. They identify him with John’s antichrists (1 Jn. 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn.7), who are said to prefigure this final manifestation of wickedness. They also say he is the best of Revelation 13, forcing upon that figure a futuristic reading as well. They believe “Antichrist” will usher in a period of great tribulation at history’s close, in connection with a mighty empire like a revived Rome, and will dominate politics, religion, and commerce until Christ’s advent.
One major difficulty with this view of 2 Thessalonians 2 is that it does not adequately deal with the apostasy of Paul’s thinking. He sees it as already underway in his own time and destined to culminate in the parousia of the “Son of Perdition.” The “mystery of lawlessness,” he writes, “doth already work” (v. 7). There is also a fallacy in evidence in the combination of this passage with Revelation 13. John said the things of his book were to “shortly come to pass” and were “at hand” (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). The beast of his book was an emperor of the Roman commonwealth, or perhaps more accurately, the whole line of persecuting emperors as they made their first appearance through Nero and Domitian (13:8; 17:18). The tendency to make the figure of 2 Thessalonians 2 a religious and political ruler is thus based upon borrowing his political connections from Revelations 13, which may not be done without doing serious injustice to the context of the Revelation.
A Roman Pope and/or The Line of Popes?
Gregory I (bishop of Rome, 590-604) taught that whoever assumed the title “universal priest” was Antichrist’s forerunner. How was he to know that the man who was to succeed him in his office would begin a long line of men who would make claims more and more blasphemous? It was not until much later that men would again make this connection of church leadership with the “Man of Sin.” Expression of this view at first came out in the conflicts between the emperors and the popes over control of earthly nations. But there were also those like Joachim of Floris (ca. AD 1190), the Waldenses, the Albigenses, and the followers of Wickliffe and Huss they came to see the pope thus, especially as the Reformation movement began to make itself felt. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the translators of the KJV, and the writers of the Westminister Confession, these along with viturally every Reformation scholar, saw the pope and the papacy as the “Man of Sin” of Paul’s letter. The Catholics, in turn, saw Luther and the Reformers as the Antichrist.
Now that furor of the Reformation has cooled, the charges and counter-charges quieted, is it legitimate to see in the papacy and its evils the black figure of 2 Thessalonians 2? We believe so. In spite of the fact it may hurt the feelings of some religious people to say so, the pope still fits Paul’s description in every particular. He arose out of the rebellion against religious authority, manifested by all sorts of changes in church polity and organization. He is a man. He sits in the temple of God (the church), or so he claims. His arrival occurred as the result of what was already happening in the church in Paul’s time (cf. Acts 20:29; 2 Tim. 4:3, 4). He has not been removed through almost fourteen centuries and will no doubt continue in his office till the Lord returns to dethrone and punish him. Deceptive miracles have been claimed throughout his tenure in office and they are offered as evidence to bolster up his power in a host of places, “shrines” as they are called. These things need no proving; they are well known to all. Does he accept worship and claim for himself titles of deity? The answer is yes. In the Great Encyclical Letters there occur statements like these: “The supreme teacher in the Church is the Roman Pontiff. Union of minds, therefore, requires together with a perfect accord in the one faith, complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman Pontiff as to God Himself” (193); and, “We hold upon this earth the place of God Almighty” (304). It is their custom to call him “Vicar of Christ” and “Vicar of God,” which means, “in the place of God or Christ.” The Bible teaches the Holy Spirit is Christ’s only vicar on earth (Jn. 14:26). They call him “Holy Father” and “His Holiness,” performing acts of reverence and worship before him just as if he were God Himself. They kiss his ring and adore him in ways the lowly apostles of Jesus would have found repugnant! Acts 10:25 shows Peter would never have accepted such veneration and, were he alive today, would no doubt brand such a man a “man of sin” and a “son of perdition.”
We, therefore, conclude that the first pope and his line of successors are to be identified with Paul’s “Man of Sin,” that his temple is the church, and that the apostasy which made it possible for him to appear is the disposition to leave Jesus, His apostles, and their words (as concretized in Scripture) to embrace the doctrines and traditions of men.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 6, pp. 166-168
March 17, 1983