Q: Who exactly was Paul referring to as “the lawless one” in 2
Thessalonians 2:8?

A: Here is the relevant passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12:

“Now regarding the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered
to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to be easily shaken
from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or
letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is
already here. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not
arrive until the rebellion comes and the man of lawlessness is revealed,
the son of destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every
so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in
God?s temple, displaying himself as God. Surely you recall that I used to
tell you these things while I was still with you. And so you know what
holds him back, so that he will be revealed in his own time. For the
hidden power of lawlessness is already at work. However, the one who holds
him back will do so until he is taken out of the way, and then the lawless
one will be revealed, whom the Lord will destroy by the breath of his
mouth and wipe out by the manifestation of his arrival. The arrival of the
lawless one will be by Satan?s working with all kinds of miracles and
signs and false wonders, and with every kind of evil deception directed
against those who are perishing, because they found no place in their
hearts for the truth so as to be saved. Consequently God sends on them a
deluding influence so that they will believe what is false. And so all of
them who have not believed the truth but have delighted in evil will be
condemned.” (New English Translation)

The apostle Paul is writing in approximately 51-52 A.D. to reassure the
church in Thessalonica that Jesus had not yet returned to bring this age
to an end. But Paul is deliberately vague, apparently confident that the
disciples in Thessalonica whom he had met (Acts 17) and written to
previously (1 Thessalonians) would know what he was talking about here (2
Thessalonians 2:5). One unfortunate result of this is that we are not “on
the inside” like the Thessalonians, making this one of the most mysterious
passages in the New Testament, and consequently there are many opinions
about who (or what) the “man of lawlessness” is and who (or what) “holds
him back.” I will touch on a few options here, but I wouldn?t claim to
have “the final answer” on what is an admittedly obscure passage.

Paul refers to a coming rebellion when “the man of lawlessness,” “a son
of destruction” would appear (v. 3). The phrase “son of destruction” is
used by Jesus to describe His betrayer Judas (John 17:12). At the time of
Paul?s writing “the hidden power of lawlessness” was already present, but
so was the restraint of this power (v. 7). But when the restraining force
is removed (v. 8-9), the arrogant lawless one will arrive with false
miracles and declare himself above the true God, only to be destroyed by
“the breath of His mouth,” the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Revelation
1:16, 19:15). This much seems safe to conclude from a straightforward
reading of the passage.

Some scholars see the “man of lawlessness” in verse 2:3 as specific human
being or specific human being who serves as the figurehead of a human
movement or institution. Either way, this “man of lawlessness” already
existed at the time Paul was writing in 51-52 A.D.. Scholars from various
backgrounds believe that this could be an historical line of “men of
lawlessness” beginning in the first century and ultimately terminating in
a single individual “lawless one” at the end of the age, and that this
final “lawless one” is being referred to in verse 2:8. Regardless, it is
Christ?s Word (His “breath”) and “the manifestation of His arrival” which
will overcome the “lawless one” of verse 2:8.

There is much wild speculation on both the identity of the “lawless one”
and the identity of whom (or what) “holds him back.” One possibility is
that the “man of lawlessness” is a vainglorious Roman emperor, who
represents both himself and the pagan Roman Empire. According to this
view, Roman persecution is being “held back” by Christianity?s close
association with Judaism, which enjoyed certain exemptions from Roman
religious rule. The growing divide between Judaism and Christianity would
remove this protection, but the preaching of the gospel (“the breath of
His mouth”) would ultimately prevail over Rome. Interestingly, another
view proposes the exact opposite: that Jewish persecutors of Christianity
in Israel (mentioned by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) were being
restrained by Rome and its collaborators, but soon a charismatic Jewish
traitor would arise to lead a rebellion against Rome that would be
subsequently crushed, a sign of divine judgment on these rebels.

While speculation about this verse will continue, the main thrust of Paul?
s argument is not in dispute: that the Second Coming of Christ at the end
of this age had not occurred in the mid-first century as the Thessalonians
were being led to believe.

(For more on end times issues, I would recommend the audio CD series
Revelation and the End of the Worldby Dr. Douglas Jacoby at

Dan Conder

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