We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a "spirit," 2 or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way. For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, 3 the one doomed to perdition. (2 Thes 2:1-3, NABRE)

Here, the epistle appears to contradict Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, which states that return of Jesus was imminent and that he would come without warning.

It speaks of a sign, the apostasy, and of the lawless one who must come before the return of Jesus. How should these be interpreted?

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  • Where did Paul state the return of Christ was imminent in 1 Thessalonians? – Jesus Saves Feb 12 '15 at 5:57
  • @JesusSaves One good reference is verse 4:17: "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Paul ("we") expected to be among those alive when Jesus came. – Dick Harfield Feb 12 '15 at 6:59
  • Revelations itself ends with the famous words Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus, which are clearly supportive of an imminent return. Nevertheless, this verse is preceded by some twenty-odd chapters worth of prophecies, detailing what exactly is supposed to happen before the aforementioned imminent return actually occurs. The same goes for Matthew 24, echoing the very same belief, but also resonating with the same parts of Second Thessalonians you deem problematic. Whereas 1 Thessalonians strengthens the faithful in hope, 2 Thessalonians calls for wisdom and discernment. – Lucian Aug 1 '17 at 14:39

I'm not sure there is a contradiction between the two letters, in 1 Thess 5:1 Paul says "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you." (NKJV) in 5:4 he says, "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief." and 5:6 says, "Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober." It seems to me that whilst Paul is emphasising the imminence of Jesus' return implicit in his words are things that can be watched for, in 2 Thess 2:3 he seems to be detailing some of those things he previously told them to watch for because they had received news that the Jesus had already returned (2 Thess 2:2).


I've spent some time wondering about this passage also, and will share my current exegesis, without trying to say any other answer is wrong. There may be many interpretations of this dense passage.


First, let's understand the background.

The Church in Thessalonia was worried that the Day of the Lord had already come, and they were left behind (yes, like Nicolas Cage). So what Paul is describing to the Thessalonians is how they know they have not been left behind, and this does not necessarily contradict the notion that the day of the Lord will come without warning, although there was general expectation of apostasy in the latter days (e.g. 2 Peter 3.3) but such a situation is sufficiently vague that it does not provide practical warning as to the specific time of the Lord's return, and thus the notion of Christ coming as a "thief in the night" is still a message of coming unexpectedly and so still can create panic that you've been left behind.


Do not let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and who exalts himself over every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits down in the temple of God, proclaiming that he himself is God. Do you not remember that while we were still with you, we were saying these things to you? And you know that which restrains him now, so that he will be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is at work already; only the one who now restrains will do so until he is out of the way, and then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will slay with the breath of his mouth, and wipe out by the appearance of his coming

In order to try to understand the "Man of Lawlessness", let's first think about the "mystery of lawlessness". We know

  • It is already in the world and was at the time of the Thessalonians, so it is not a person but rather a spirit, or force, or philosophy

  • It is being restrained, but the restrainer will be taken away.

Now there are two popular interpretations for "the restrainer", either the church or the Holy Spirit. I favor the Holy Spirit as a spiritual restrainer for the spiritual force of lawlessness (and also if it was the church, then the Thessalonians would view themselves as the restrainer, and this passage and their concerns wouldn't make sense).

We know that the Holy Spirit was poured out on man on the day of Pentecost, and this passage is suggesting that before Christ comes back, that Spirit will be removed, thus no longer restraining the mystery of lawlessness, allowing the mystery of lawlessness to become the "man of lawlessness".

If we accept this association for the restrainer, then we have a ready interpretation for the son of destruction:

the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and who exalts himself over every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits down in the temple of God, proclaiming that he himself is God.

Of course we are each the Temple of God, it is not a building made with human hands. Within that temple, the holy spirit is a witness testifying to us and convicting us, but when that witness is removed -- think of humanity with no conscience or restraining force, no "inner voice" crying out to convict us. That leads to man completely believing he is God, with no nagging conscience or fear. This, to me, is the definition of "man of lawlessness".


Thus when the day of the Lord comes, the Spirit will return to the Father, along with the saints who will meet him in the air, and Christ will come in glory and splendor, destroying those still left on earth by the splendor of his coming. Those still left on the earth are those that God gave over to a "powerful delusion" because they didn't love the truth, and without the Holy Spirit to convict them, there is no possibility of breaking out of that delusion. The delusion is that man is God -- which is the essence of lawlessness.

This is something the Thessalonians would notice. They do not view themselves as God. They know the Holy Spirit is still in them. So they don't need to worry that they have been left behind.


The online New American Bible introduction to Second Thessalonians acknowledges: "Increasingly in recent times, however, the opinion has been advanced that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudepigraph, that is, a letter written authoritatively in Paul's name, to maintain apostolic traditions in a later period, perhaps during the last two decades of the first century. [my emphasis]" Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, The Quick Reference Guide to the Catholic Bible (online), agrees, saying the author's style imitates Paul's and even copies phrases of 1 Thessalonians. This is, in fact, the majority view among biblical scholars. Burton L. Mack says in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 112, that 2 Thessalonians lacks the personal warmth, reminiscences and references characteristic of the authentic letters of Paul. Almost one-third of it is a verbatim copy from the first letter, the signature is suspicious, and the eschatology reflects a development of Christian apocalyptic thinking of the kind that took place only after the Roman-Jewish War around the turn of the first century.

Second Thessalonians can be read as a response to Paul' First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul thought the coming of Jesus was imminent and had told the Thessalonians that this would happen in his own lifetime, as is especially clear in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” In 1 Thessalonians, the end will come like a "thief in the night," with Jesus appearing when people least expect it.

Decades later, and after the death of Paul, Jesus had not yet returned. The author of 2 Thessalonians argues that the end is not coming right away, and because certain things have to happen first, they will know when Jesus is coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 says that regarding the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, a false letters written in Paul’s name had said that the day of the Lord is at hand - an apparent reference to First Thessalonians, asking that the Thessalonians not be deceived. First there must be some signs, including the appearance of the antiChrist, "the one doomed to perdition."

If 2 Thessalonians 2:2 is really a reference to 1 Thessalonians, as it appears, then both epistles can not be genuine - either 1 Thessalonians is false or 2 Thessalonians is, and we know the majority of biblical scholars say that 2 Thessalonians was not really written by Paul (regardless of whether verse 2:2 is referring to 1 Thessalonians). The (2 Thess 2:3) apostasy will not happen and “lawless one”, the anti-Christ, will not appear.

  • @Jas3.1 As for asking the Q, I had previously answered a vaguely similar Q but it was moved to Christianity site, where a hermeneutical answer is not suited, so I asked a new question so that I could use my answer here. So to this extent you were right. However, the system appears to encourage answering your own question, so it did not appear I had done anything deserving of criticism under site guidelines. – Dick Harfield Jan 9 '15 at 22:10
  • Who are those scholars with the weighty opinions whom you refer to in the last paragraph of your answer? What makes their opinion weighty and the opinion of theologians and scholars who believe that Paul DID write Thessalonians not so weighty? Isn't it simply a matter of liberal versus conservative? (In other words, it's a matter of differing presuppositions; e.g., liberals tend to discount the reliability of the text, assuming that it cannot possibly be error-free, whereas conservatives see no reason why the text can't be error-free.) religioustolerance.org/chr_ntb3.htm Don – rhetorician Feb 8 '15 at 23:35
  • @rhetorician I innocently assumed that readers would recognise that "weight of scholarly opinion" means "majority," no more and no less. For your benefit, I have amended this accordingly. The remainder of your comment seems off topic. – Dick Harfield Feb 9 '15 at 0:53
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    Wikipedia says "Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian: understand more truly their own religious tradition, ... challenge (ex. biblical criticism) or oppose (ex. irreligion) a religious tradition or the religious world-view. Sorry I had to leave some of the definition out. The last one is important: <<challenge biblical criticism>> This means many theologians (whom you might call conservative scholars) are already committed to challenging critical thought even before they review the evidence. – Dick Harfield Feb 9 '15 at 4:21
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    Wikipedia says "The research of biblical scholars is frequently called biblical criticism. It does not presuppose, but also does not deny, belief in the supernatural origins of the scriptures." This is consistent with what you call "liberal scholars." – Dick Harfield Feb 9 '15 at 4:24

I've broadened out the passage we are discussing by one additional verse to provide more context:

[2Th 2:1-4 NKJV] (1) Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, (2) not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come [ἐνέστηκεν]. (3) Let no one deceive you by any means; for [that Day will not come] unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, (4) who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

This is a clear allusion to Daniel:

Daniel 11:36 Brenton Septuagint 36 And he shall do according to his will, and the king shall exalt and magnify himself against every god, and shall speak great swelling words, and shall prosper until the indignation shall be accomplished: for it is coming to an end.

This is also the Beast of the Sea:

[Rev 13:6-7 NLT] (6) And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling--that is, those who dwell in heaven. (7) And the beast was allowed to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation.

Notice the word that I highlighted in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, ἐνέστηκεν. That is the perfect active indicative of ἐνίστημι. That form is only used here, differentiating it from other examples of "is at hand" in the NT. Thayer's says that in this form..

...in perfect, pluperfect, 2 aorist, and in middle (properly, as it were to stand in sight, stand near) to be upon, impend, threaten: 2 Thessalonians 2:2...

I take that to indicate that although Paul was expecting the Lord's arrival in his own lifetime, there was still something that needed to happen first. He's saying that those who say that all of the signs were completed were not speaking the truth; there was one more.

Since Paul's letter is positioned prior to the arrival of Titus and his army, that was to make Jerusalem desolate/emptied of Jews, it was not time head for the Judean hills:

[Luk 21:20-24 NLT] (20) "And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the time of its destruction has arrived. (21) Then those in Judea must flee to the hills. Those in Jerusalem must get out, and those out in the country should not return to the city. (22) For those will be days of God's vengeance, and the prophetic words of the Scriptures will be fulfilled. (23) How terrible it will be for pregnant women and for nursing mothers in those days. For there will be disaster in the land and great anger against this people. (24) They will be killed by the sword or sent away as captives to all the nations of the world. And Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the period of the Gentiles comes to an end.

That was Jesus' response to this:

[Luk 21:7 NLT] (7) "Teacher," they asked, "when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?"

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