A Study of Paul’s “Man of Sin”
In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul spoke of the return of Christ and the glories associated therewith. Because some of these saints apparently misunderstood the instruction of that initial epistle, or had been influenced by false teaching, the apostle was constrained to write a second letter, attempting to correct the erroneous ideas entertained by the Thessalonians.
Apparently, there were certain heretics in the vicinity of Thessalonica who were advocating the bizarre notion that the Lord had already returned. Here is how Paul describes that situation.
“Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thes. 2:1,2 NASB).
Notice that final clause, “the day of the Lord has come.” It reflects a perfect tense form in the original language, and so likely suggests that certain errorists of that day were alleging that the Second Coming had occurred already —somewhat as the advocates of “Realized Eschatology” do today.
[Note: The proponents of the so-called A.D. 70 doctrine, popularly known among churches of Christ as the Max King movement, allege that this passage implies that the Second Coming was to be an invisible, judgmental coming (i.e., in the destruction of Jerusalem). Otherwise, they say, these false teachers never could have gotten away with their assertion that the Second Coming had occurred already. Does that conclusion follow? It does not. It merely demonstrates that just as men then could be misled into believing that the Lord’s Coming was spiritual (rather than visible, literal), so folks can be equally deceived today —and are, as evidenced by the King sect. For further study on this theme, see Jackson, 1990a.]
Paul argued that the Lord could not yet have come, because “the falling away” must develop before the Second Coming transpires. Incidentally, no great apostate movement evolved between the time this letter was written (c. A.D. 51), and A.D. 70, thus demonstrating, with a force equal to the apostle’s original argument, that the Second Coming of Christ did not occur with the destruction of Jerusalem.
After laying this foundation, Paul continued his letter by describing the traits that would characterize the movement he subsequently calls “the man of sin.” It is the purpose of this discussion to attempt an identification of this “man of sin.”
What are the identifying characteristics of the Man of Sin? We would suggest at this point that the student carefully read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Read it several times, perhaps in different translations, to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the material. Having done so, we believe that it is possible to isolate certain tell-tale qualities of this diabolical force, and so work toward a solution as to the identity of the “man of sin.” Consider the following factors.
Traits of the Man of Sin
- The Man of Sin is the ultimate result of “the falling away” from the faith (v. 3). The expression “falling away” translates the Greek term apostasia. Our English word “apostasy” is an anglicized form of this original term. In the Bible, the word is used of a defection from the religion ordained by God. As a noun, it is employed of departure from the Mosaic system (Acts 21:21), and, in this present passage, of defection from Christianity. The verbal form of the term is similarly used in 1 Timothy 4:1 (cf. Heb. 3:12). Note also that the noun is qualified by a definite article (the apostasia). A definite movement is in the apostle’s prophetic vision —not merely a “principle” of defection.
- This sinister force, from a first-century vantage point, was yet to be “revealed” (v. 3). This appears to suggest that the movement had not evolved to the point where it could be identified definitely by the primitive saints. It awaited future development.
- This persecuting power was designated as “the man of sin” (v. 3), because sin was its “predominating quality” (Ellicott, p. 118). It/he (referred to in both neuter and masculine genders —vv. 6-7) is the “son of perdition” (v. 3), because its end is to be perdition, i.e., destruction, by the Lord himself (v. 8).
Finally, this opponent of God is called “the lawless one” (v. 8). This power has no regard for the law of God. One cannot but be reminded of that infamous “little horn” in Daniel’s vision. “[H]e shall think to change the times and the law …” (7:25).
- The Man of Sin opposes God and exalts himself against all that is genuinely sacred (v. 4). He feigns religiosity, but his true character reveals that he is diabolic. His activity actually is “according to the working of Satan” (v. 9).
- In some sense, the Man of Sin will “sit in the temple of God” (v. 4). The “temple” is not a reference to the Jewish house of worship. The Greek word is naos, used by Paul eight times; never does he employ the term of the Jewish temple. In fact, after the death of Christ, the Jewish temple is never again called the temple of God (Newton, p. 441). Rather it is used of the Christian’s body (1 Cor. 6:19), or of the church as God’s spiritual house (1 Cor. 3:16,17; Eph. 2:21). The suggestion is this: this unholy being is viewed as a “church” character.
The expression “sitteth” may hint of unparalleled arrogance (Ellicott, pp. 119-120). Mason notes that the language describes the Man of Sin as attempting to exact “divine homage” from people (p. 169). Moreover, this Son of Perdition “sets himself forth as God.” The present participle (“sets forth continually”) reveals that this presumptive posture is characteristic of the Man of Sin. This person represents himself as God, either: (a) by making claims that belong only to deity; (b) by receiving adoration reserved exclusively for God; or, (c) by usurping prerogatives which only God can accomplish. Clearly, the Man of Sin is an ecclesiastical character. Recall the description of John’s lamb-like beast in Revelation 13:11ff.
- He deceives those who love not the truth, by virtue of the “lying wonders” he effects (vv. 9-10). Bloomfield calls these “pretended miracles” (p. 345). These “wonders” are not in the category of Christ’s miracles. Lenski has well commented: “So many are ready to attribute real miracles to Satan and to his agents; the Scriptures never do” (p. 426). In identifying the Man of Sin, one must thus look for a post-apostolic movement that claims to prove its authenticity by miracles.
- The early stages of this ecclesiastical apostasy were “already at work” in the early church (v. 7). The Greek term (energeitai, a present tense, middle voice form) suggests that this movement currently was working itself towards a greater goal. The child, later to become a Man, was growing in Paul’s day. The error was “already operative” (Lenski, p. 417), but not yet “revealed” (v. 6). This is a crucial point.
- In Paul’s day there was some influence that “restrained” the budding Man of Sin. This was some sort of abstract force, as evidenced by the neuter form of katechon, “the restraining thing” (v. 6). And yet, this force was strongly associated with a person/persons as suggested by the masculine, “he who restrains” (v. 7). Likely the significance is that of a broad power, operating under individual rulers. Unlike the Man of Sin, whose identity was later to be revealed, the early saints knew personally of this restraining force. "You know (oidate – “to know from observation” – Vine, p. 444). This indicates that the restraining power was a contemporary entity, not a modern one.
- The restraining force eventually would “be taken out of the way,” or, more correctly, “be gone.” And so, the Man of Sin, in “his own season,” would be revealed openly (vv. 6, 7). Ellicott says that it is a season “appointed and ordained by God” (p. 121). One recalls that the “little horn” of Daniel’s fourth beast only rose to prominence after three horns were plucked up to make room for it. Too, the earth-beast of John’s vision came into full power after the sea-beast had received a death-stroke, but was healed. And so here, the restraining power will give way to the horrible revelation of the Man of Sin.
- The Man of Sin, though having roots in the world of ancient Christianity (v. 6), would nevertheless endure, in some form or another, until the end of time, i.e., until the Second Coming of Christ. At that time, he will be destroyed by the Lord’s word of Judgment (v. 8; cf. Rev. 19:15). In view of this, the Man of Sin cannot be some persecuting enemy that faded into oblivion centuries ago.
Theories Regarding the Man of Sin
Having surveyed the major elements set forth in the text that were to characterize the Man of Sin, we are now prepared to look at some of the current theories advanced in an effort to identify this sinister being.
Liberal theologians contend that Paul’s concept of the Man of Sin reflects a belief in ancient, pagan mythology —an idea that had been absorbed by the early Christians. This view rejects the proposition that the Scriptures are inspired of God; 2 Thessalonians, therefore, allegedly only reflects early “Christian” ideas, not actual reality. This concept is totally inconsistent with biblical claims, and proofs, regarding the inspiration of the apostolic documents.
Some have argued that the Man of Sin is Satan himself. This view cannot be correct. Satan was not a part of “the falling away” (v. 3), and this “lawless one” is said to come “according to the working of Satan” (v. 9), which obviously distinguishes him from Satan personally.
Principle of Evil
Some allege that no specific power or person(s) are in view. Rather, the apostle merely has personified a principle or idea of evil, which may appear in various forms in different historical periods as an opponent of truth. It may be manifest as Islam, Fascism, Communism, etc. But this concept does not fit the specific descriptions in this chapter. The text tells of a particular movement, “the falling away” (v. 3). How does that refer to Communism, etc.? Moreover, there are too many personal references within the narrative to dismiss it as mere personification. Finally, it is “the man of sin,” with the article pointing to a definite influence, rather than a generic one.
Radical Preterists (those who contend that all Bible prophecy, including the Second Coming of Christ, was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem) argue that the Man of Sin was the “hardened, militant Jews (Zealots in particular)” (King, p 318). This theory would thus see the Man of Sin (Judaism) destroyed by the Coming of the Lord in the destruction of Jerusalem via the Romans in A.D. 70.
The concept is totally false. Judaism was not a part of “the falling away” (v. 3). Moreover, Paul’s prophecy of the Second Coming (the parousia —v. 8) was not fulfilled in A.D. 70, as evidenced by the fact that Christians were not “gathered together” unto the Lord in connection with Jerusalem’s fall (cf. 1 Thes. 4:14ff).
A Roman Ruler
A popular idea contends that the Man of Sin is a Roman ruler —perhaps Nero Caesar. Again, though, this concept does not fit the facts. No Caesar “fell away” from the faith (v. 3). Additionally, the Roman rulers have long lain in the dust of antiquity. As Raymond Kelcy observed: “Paul contemplates the man of lawlessness being in existence and waging opposition at the time the Lord returns; the Roman empire has long ago ceased to be” (p. 161).
The Future Anti-Christ
Millennialists (and some others) contend that the Man of Sin “is an individual embodying anti-God power who is still to arise before the future day of the Lord” (Mare, p. 1073). Hal Lindsey calls this hostile person “the Future Fuehrer,” and he spends an entire section (Chapter 9) attempting to prove that “dramatic elements which are occurring in the world today are setting the stage for this magnetic, diabolical Future Fuehrer to make his entrance” (p. 102).
But Paul stated that the “mystery of iniquity,” characteristic of the Man of Sin, was “already at work” (7) in the first century. This clearly eliminates any person of the modern era. Newton’s comment is appropriate:
“As this evil began in the apostles’ days, and was to continue in the world till the second coming of Christ in power and great glory: it necessarily follows, that it was to be carried on not by one man, but by a succession of men in several ages” (p. 453).
Identifying the Man of Sin
We believe that the best evidence indicates that the Man of Sin represents the papal dynasty of the apostate church of Rome. Barnes says: “Most Protestant commentators have referred it to the great apostasy under the Papacy …” (p. 80). Let us revisit the ten points of identification discussed earlier.
The Roman Catholic system, with its autocratic papal dynasty, did not suddenly appear in a given year of history. Rather, it was a result of a gradual apostasy from the primitive faith. Paul declared: “The Spirit speaks expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith …” (1 Tim. 4:1). He details some of the traits of this movement, e.g., forbidding to marry, commanding to abstain from meats, etc. (1-4).
The many corruptions of the divine economy —changes in the plan of redemption (e.g., sprinkling, infant baptism, etc.), alteration of worship (e.g., the mass, the veneration of Mary, etc.) —were progressively implemented. Catholicism evolved as a defection from the original faith. This history has been graphically detailed in John F. Rowe’s, The History of Apostasies (1958, Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Publishing Co.).
Not Revealed in the First Century
The apostasy was just a budding phenomenon in the apostolic age. Consequently it was not fully “revealed” until centuries later.
The Romish movement has exhibited a disposition of lawlessness throughout its history. Could any citation more clearly illustrate the spirit of lawlessness than this declaration regarding the papacy? “The pope doeth whatsoever he listeth [wills], even things unlawful, and is more than God” (quoted by Newton, p. 456). Attwater, a Catholic writer, has shown that, according to Roman Catholicism, “Tradition,” i.e., the voice of the church, is superior to the Scriptures (pp. 41-42). That is the very essence of lawlessness.
The papacy opposes God. Surely anyone who claims to be “more than God” cannot be described otherwise than as an enemy of the Almighty.
Ecclesiastical Usurper of Divine Status
The papal rulers, as it were, “sit in the temple of God,” i.e., the church; it is an ecclesiastical force. The pope claims that whereas Christ is the head of the church in heaven, the papacy is the head of the church on earth. Yet Jesus affirmed that he possessed “all authority … in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Paul stated that Christ is “the head [singular] of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). Jesus does not share “headship” with the pope.
The papacy usurps the place of God by:
- Making claims that belong only to deity —“Our Lord God the pope; another God upon the earth, king of kings, and lord of lords” (Newton, p. 456).
- Accepting adoration not proper for a man. Men bow before the papal dignitary, kiss his feet, ring, etc. Contrast the disposition of Peter when Cornelius bowed before him (Acts 10:25, 26).
- Presuming to act for God in matters pertaining exclusively to deity, e.g., offering forgiveness of sins. For example, in Catholic doctrine, Absolution is a “judicial act whereby a priest remits the sins of a penitent who has contrition, has made confession and promises satisfaction” (Attwater, p. 3).
The papal system arrogantly attempts to lawlessly act for God.
Claim of Miracles
The whole history of Catholicism is checkered with the claims of “miracles.” Conway, a Catholic apologist, states that God “has allowed His saints to work miracles to prove their divine commission to speak in His name, and to give the world a clear proof of their eminent sanctity. The Church always requires four, or in some instances six, miracles before she proceeds to beatify or canonize a saint” (p. 44).
Early Stages at Work in Paul’s Day
Newton says: “The seeds of popery were sown in the apostle’s time” (p. 457). Idolatry had invaded the church (1 Cor. 10:14), even in the worship of angels (Col. 2:18). Handling the word of God deceitfully (2 Cor. 4:2) had begun; strife and division were affecting the church (1 Cor. 3:3). Gospel truth was sacrificed for the sake of money (cf. 1 Tim. 6:5; Tit. 1:11) —compare the practice of “simony” in Catholicism, i.e., the purchase of church offices. Distinctions were made regarding meats (1 Cor. 8:8), and human traditions were creeping into the church (Col. 2:23). Certain men were beginning to exert preeminence and to flex their ecclesiastical muscles (3 Jn. 9,10). Out of these attitudes and actions, the papacy finally was born.
Initially Restrained by Pagan Rome
If the Man of Sin is the papal dynasty, what was the force or person that “restrained” the initial revelation of this corrupt, ecclesiastical system? McClintock and Strong, citing numerous sources from the early “church fathers” (e.g., Tertullian, Chrysostom, Hippolytus, Jerome, etc.), said that the patristic writers “generally consider” the restraining force to be “the Roman empire” (p. 255).
It is a matter of history that when imperial Rome fell in A.D. 476, great power was shifted into the hands of church clerics. If the restraining force was the Roman empire, and that force was removed in the 5th century A.D., does it not seem strange that the Man of Sin [Lindsey’s “Fuehrer”] has not yet been made manifest —if the dispensational scheme of things were true?
Flourished After Fall of Rome
After imperial Rome fell, the apostate church of that day accelerated in its power. As mentioned earlier, great political authority was gained. Crowns were removed and bestowed at the behest of papal rulers. For example, in the 11th century of the Christian era, Emperor Henry IV sought to depose Pope Gregory VII (known as Hildebrand). In retaliation, Gregory excommunicated the emperor, and absolved all subjects from allegiance to him. Henry was powerless under the papal ban. In January, 1077, the emperor went to Canossa in northern Italy to beg the pope’s forgiveness. He was forced to stand barefoot in the snow for three days, awaiting an audience with the pontiff (Hurlbut, p. 111).
Other examples of the growing power of papal authority are numerous.
“In Germany Emperor Frederick lay down on the floor and allowed Pope Alexander to stand on his neck. On another occasion, Pope Celestine III crowned Henry VI of England with the usual colorful ceremonies. As the English king knelt in front of him, after having had the crown of the British Empire placed upon his head, the pope reached forward with his foot and kicked the crown from the monarch’s brow. At another time, Pope Alexander rode horse back down the streets of Rome. Walking along on either side of his horse, and leading the animal by the bridle, went Louis, King of France, and Henry, King of England” (Wilder, p. 103).
To Continue Till Return of Christ
The apostate church, an evolution from truth to error, clearly had its genesis in the first century; and yet, this movement continues to this day, and, according to Paul’s prophecy, will abide, in one form or another, until the Coming of Christ. “The apostasy” is the only system which fits the demands of this passage. It is both ancient and modern, something that cannot be said of a Caesar, the Jewish Zealots, a modern Anti-Christ, etc.
It is, of course, in vogue these days to ridicule this view of “the man of sin” as viewed in 2 Thessalonians, chapter 2. In response, one could hardly do better than to quote Coffman:
“[T]he identification of the papacy and its religious apparatus with Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 was the prevailing view for more than a thousand years, a view supported by the writings and interpretations of many of the most brilliant men who ever lived on earth; and, on that account, there is no way for this writer to accept the sneers and snickers with which this interpretation is greeted by many modern commentators, as being an effective refutation of the arguments upholding it” (p. 104).
In conclusion, we emphasize again, the “little horn” of Daniel 7, Paul’s “man of sin,” and “the beast” of the book of Revelation have much in common, and seem to testify in concert regarding one of the most vicious persecutors the church of God has ever known.
- Attwater, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: MacMillan.
- Barnes, Albert. 1955. “Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon,” Notes on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Bloomfield, S. T. 1837. The Greek Testament With English Notes. Boston, MA: Perkins & Martin.
- Coffman, Burton. 1986. 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Abilene, TX: ACU Press.
- Conway, Bertrand L. 1929. The Question Box. San Francisco, CA: Catholic Truth Society.
- Ellicott, C. J. 1978. Galatians, Ephesians, I & II Thessalonians. Minneapolis, MN: James Family.
- Hurlbut, Jesse L. 1954. The Story of the Christian Church. Philadelphia, PA: Winston Co..
- Jackson, Wayne. 1990. The A.D. 70 Theory — A Review of the Max King Doctrine. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Kelcy, Raymond. 1968. The Letters of Paul to the Thessalonians. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing.
- King, Max. 1987. The Cross and The Parousia of Christ. Warren, OH: Parkman Rd. Church of Christ.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, Thessalonians, to Timothy, Titus, & Philemon. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- Lindsey, Hal. 1970. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Mare, Harold. 1975. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. II. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Mason, A. J. 1959. “II Thessalonians,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- McClintock, John & Strong, James. 1968. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Ecclesiastical, & Theological Literature. Vol. I. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Newton, Thomas. 1831. Dissertations on the Prophecies. London: Blake.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Vine’s Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers.
- Wilder, John B. 1959. The Other Side of Rome. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.