I have discussed 2 Thessalonians several times on this blog, as will become apparent by performing a search. This post is intended to highlight the main features of this important eschatological text.
I reproduce below our core chronology for ease of reference.
- Abomination of Desolation
- Great Tribulation (3.5 years approx.)
- Darkening of the heavens
- Glorious, sudden appearance of Christ
- Our resurrection/transformation and gathering to Christ (the “Rapture”)
- Christ pours out the wrath of God
- The earthly Kingdom of Heaven begins
Please read the indicated text before proceeding with its analysis.
By now, having read the earlier posts in this series, the reader should be able to recognise key elements in this passage and again see a part of the overarching chronology. We see the saints suffering tribulation at the hands of the wicked, the coming of Jesus with his angels, the gathering of the saints to Him, and God punishing the wicked (i.e. his wrath poured out on the Day of the LORD).
Here we see a hint of what the wrath of God will involve: “flaming fire”. Paul did not invent this detail, but took it from the Old Testament and intertestamental texts, as we shall see in subsequent posts.
Paul then shades into the fate of the unbeliever after punishment on the earth: “everlasting destruction”. This involves being cast from the presence of Christ. More detail about this is found in Revelation and other texts.
This text being written after 1 Thessalonians, which in turn used Olivet Discourse material, Paul assumes his readers are already familiar with the previous teaching. As his main thrust is to inspire and comfort them, this passage does not describe the end times in detail.
- Tribulation for the saints
- The coming of Jesus with His angels
- The gathering of the saints to Jesus and their rest and reward
- Tribulation for the wicked
- Eternal separation from Christ for the wicked in the hereafter
This is one of the most important eschatological texts of the New Testament outside of Revelation as far as outlining the end of the age is concerned (other texts are of course important for matters such as the resurrection). This text, unfortunately misinterpreted by pretribulationists, is a concise refutation of their teaching.
The basic chronology is as follows.
- Abomination of Desolation and Apostasy
- Appearance of the Lord and our gathering to Him
- Day of Christ and destruction of the Man of Sin by Christ
This passage is in harmony with the Olivet Discourse. Both teach that we will not be gathered to Christ until the Abomination of Desolation happens first. The phrase “Abomination of Desolation” is, of course, not used in this passage, but Paul is indeed describing an aspect of it, and is citing text from Daniel. Compare the following:
“Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God” – 2 Thessalonians 2:4
“And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvellous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done. Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all.” -Daniel 11:36-37
The citation of Daniel by Paul is more obvious if we compare the original Greek of 2 Thessalonians 2:4 with the Septuagint (LXX) version of Daniel.
This is the first time in our series that we have properly encountered the figure commonly referred to as the Antichrist, a term taken from the epistles of John – though we would have encountered this figure had we started in the Old Testament. Here Paul refers to him as the “Man of Sin, the Son of Perdition”, but this figure goes by many names in Scripture.
A number of important points arise from Paul’s teaching, which complements the Olivet Discourse. Firstly, it is idle to claim to know the identity of the Antichrist, as some are in the habit of doing. Paul teaches that we cannot know who he is with certainty until he performs the Abomination of Desolation. This is the act that makes his identity clear. That is not to deny we might have an intuition in the immediate run up to this event, but we cannot be certain.
Secondly, this text definitively rules out any claim that the Abomination of Desolation happened in AD 70 as preterists are wont to claim (or any other event identified by the historicist school of eschatology). The Antichrist performs the Abomination of Desolation and that same Antichrist is destroyed by Christ when He returns. Since Christ did not destroy Titus, Vespasian, Nero or any other emperor with the brightness of His appearing and the word of His mouth, the Antichrist was decidedly not around in the first century AD, and therefore the Abomination of Desolation did not happen at that time.
Thirdly, we again see a clear reference to a physical Jewish Temple, in which the Man of Sin performs the Abomination of Desolation. Paul wrote this text before the Second Temple was destroyed. He may or may not have realised that the Antichrist would desolate the Third Temple, rather than the Second Temple. In any event, since the Abomination of Desolation requires a Temple and is a future event, it must be rebuilt in some fashion.
Paul does not talk explicitly about the Great Tribulation in terms of the persecution of the saints here, but he clearly assumes his readers’ familiarity with it and has already alluded to it in the earlier chapter. Rather, he focusses on another aspect of the end times (which Christ also deals with in the Olivet Discourse): spiritual deception and departure from Christianity.
Paul does not outline the precise chronology for the Apostasy (and, of course, apostasy has occurred throughout this age), but the most natural reading of the text is that a great apostasy (i.e. on an unprecedented scale) occurs immediately after the Abomination of Desolation and runs concurrently with the Great Tribulation.
The explanation of this apostasy in this passage is that the Man of Sin is empowered by deceiving miracles of Satan and that God sends a delusion on the unfaithful, so that they will be taken in by these miracles. Compare this passage with Christ’s comment at Matthew 24:24.
“For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (NIV)
This theme is also developed in Revelation with the character of the False Prophet and his Elijah-like miracles. The Old Testament precedent for this is the magicians of Pharaoh’s court, who copied the miracles of Moses (initially). They are called Jannes and Jambres at 2 Timothy 3:8, another Pauline text.
Drawing on the Olivet Discourse, we might supplement Paul’s explanation with the persecutions of the Great Tribulation. For many, the pain of torment and fear of death will be sufficient inducement to abandon Christ.
It is important not to confuse the Apostasy with the gathering of the saints to Christ referred to at the beginning of this passage. This unfortunately has happened, and given pretribulationists a false prooftext, for two reasons.
(1) Apostasy is not a common term in the English language. Many people do not know what it means. It means rebellion or leaving a faction, movement, religion, or organisation to which one formerly belonged.
(2) Some translations do not transliterate the Greek apostasia into Apostasy, but translate it as “departure” or “falling away”. While the sophisticated reader knows from context that it means departing or falling away from Christianity, the unsophisticated reader, particularly if influenced by pretribulationism, is apt to think it means the departure of the saints from the earth as they are carried up to the sky by Christ’s angels.
This of course would violate the very logic of Paul’s argument. His point is precisely the opposite: we will not be carried up to Christ until after the Man of Sin is revealed. Sharp pretribulationists notice this contradiction and understand Apostasy properly, but unfortunately not all do and this false translation can be encountered on the internet and elsewhere.
Lastly, a word about the Restrainer / what restrains (“he who now letteth” in the KJV). The identity of this figure or force is much debated. It is not even clear whether the removal of the Restrainer, which allows the revelation of the Antichrist to occur, is an event that is perceivable in the mortal realm. Therefore, although it is actually part of the chronology, I will not go into detail on it here as that would tend to overcomplicate our discussion. That matter is better addressed in a separate post or series at another time.