Lawlessness: AN EXCURSUS ON “THE MAN OF SIN” 2 Thessalonians 2

2 Thessalonians 2


In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10, Paul prophesied the great apostasy from the Christian religion and the ultimate revelation of “the man of sin” who would be destroyed by the Second Advent of Christ. However, this prophecy of a vast and extensive defection from true Christianity does not stand alone in the New Testament, wherein definite mention of it is made in the following passages:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore, by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:15-23).

I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Wherefore watch ye, remembering that by the space of three years I ceased not to admonish every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:29-31).

But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve in his craftiness, your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity and the purity that is toward Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

But the Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men, that speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by them that believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

But know this that in the last days grievous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, implacable, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof: from these also turn away. For of these are they that creep into houses, and take captive silly women laden with sins, led away by divers lusts, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. And even as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also withstand the truth; men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith (2 Timothy 3:1-8).

For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth and shall turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry (2 Timothy 4:3-5).

But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their lascivious doings; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And in covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose sentence now from of old lingereth not, and their destruction slumbereth not (2 Peter 2:1-3).

This is now, beloved, the second epistle that I write unto you; and in both of them I stir up your sincere mind by putting you in remembrance; that ye should remember the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles: knowing this first, that in the last days mockers shall come with mockery, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for, from the day the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. For this they willfully forget, that there were heavens from of old, and an earth compacted out of water and amidst water, by the word of God; by which means the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens that now are, and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (2 Peter 3:1-7).

And he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations, even the unclean things of her fornication, and having upon her forehead a name written, MYSTERY; BABYLON THE GREAT; THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (Revelation 17:3-6).

After these things I saw another angel coming down out of heaven, having great authority; and the earth was lightened with glow. And he cried with a mighty voice, saying, Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, and is become a habitation of demons, and a hold of every unclean and hateful bird. For by the wine of the wrath of her fornication all the nations are fallen; and the kings of the earth committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth waxed rich by the power of her wantonness.

And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come forth, my people, out of her, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues: for her sins have reached even unto heaven and God hath remembered her iniquities (Revelation 18:1-5).

For there shall arise false christs and false prophets, and shall show signs and wonders, that they may lead astray, if possible, the elect: behold, I have told you all things beforehand (Mark 13:22,23).

It is against the above background of other New Testament teachings on this subject that Paul’s words in this passage can best be understood; and, as Dummelow said, “It will be convenient to treat this difficult passage (2 Thessalonians 2:3-10) as a whole.”[13] Paul’s words are:

Let no man beguile you in any wise: for it will not be, except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know that which restraineth, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now until he be taken out of the way. And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to naught by the manifestation of his coming; even he, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
Gloag classified the interpretations of this passage thus: (1) There is in reality no prediction, or prophecy, in this passage, all such things as predictive prophecy being denied by this class. (2) “The second class of interpreters are those who, recognizing a prediction, regard it as already fulfilled.”[14] (3) “The third class of exponents are those who regard the prophecy as being fulfilled, or as in the course of fulfillment; that is, as already partially fulfilled, but awaiting its complete accomplishment.”[15] (4) “The fourth class of interpreters consider the fulfillment as future, and that we are not to look to any past occurrences as answering all the requirements.”[16] There are whole libraries of the works of many scholars affirming each of these methods of interpretation; but, rather than trouble the reader with what would appear to be an almost endless examination of such writings, we shall devote the available space to advocating what is believed to be the true understanding of the passage, as classified under (3), above.

As will be noted below, the papal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church exhibits a striking number of the qualities that are to mark the great historical apostasy of Christianity; and yet in fairness it must be admitted that no pope has ever fulfilled in its entirety Paul’s description of the man of sin; but the historical Roman church is so certainly prophesied in the New Testament literature on this subject, that it is not amiss to look precisely there for the ultimate fulfillment of the total prophecy at some time yet future. There is also, it must be admitted, a certain sense in which the entire papal succession may be understood as meeting Paul’s specifications perfectly. We pray that unbiased readers will not consider this a harsh judgment. Much of the dissent from the view that the papal hierarchy is the composite man of sin stems from the incorrect identification of the man of sin as “antichrist” (John 4:3), whose distinguishing mark of identity is his denial “that Christ is of God,” a denial that, so far as is known, never pertained to any pope. Nevertheless, that man of sin who at last will be manifested as antichrist, although not having appeared upon the historical scene as yet, may yet do so in the future. The basic understanding of Paul’s warning in this passage as a prophecy of the apostate medieval church is neither an uncharitable judgment nor an indulgence in fantasy.


The preface to the King James Bible has this: “Your Majesty … which has given such a blow unto that Man of Sin as will not be healed,” meaning the Pope.

Alexander Campbell met Roman Catholic Bishop John B. Purcell in debate in the Sycamore Street Meeting House, Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 13-21,1837, Campbell affirming and Purcell denying proposition 3, thus:

The Roman Church is the “Babylon” of John, the “man of sin” of Paul, and the Empire of the “Youngest Horn” of Daniel’s sea monster.[17]
The more enlightened of the Roman pontiffs admitted some of the basic elements of this interpretation; and, in fact, historically, it was Pope Gregory I (“the Great,” 550-604) who first identified the pope as Antichrist![18] He said:

Whoever arrogates to himself the title of “universal priest” is a forerunner of antichrist. This statement is made in an epistle in which he denounced the claims of the contemporary “patriarch” of the East.[19]
Martin Luther did not hesitate to identify the papacy and its entire hierarchy as “the man of sin, the antichrist, and the beast out of the sea.”[20]

The Westminster Confession speaks very dogmatically thus:

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ, nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be the head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin the son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God. – Article XXV.
Thus the 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.


The resemblance is striking and obvious. An apostasy is predicted, and in Romanism there is most positively a very wicked and extensive departure from the teachings of Christ. The doctrines of purgatory, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, the withholding of the cup from the laity, along with the pretensions of infallibility, successorship to the apostles, and claims of sole custodianship of the word of God – all these and countless other characteristics have effectively separated Romanism from the gospel of the New Testament.

The “man of sin” is represented as exalting himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, being singularly fulfilled in the titles which the pope has arrogated to himself, such as “Lord God the Pope,” “Lord of Lords,” and also in the claim of being the “universal priest” and the assertion of his right to dispose of the kingdoms of the earth. The man of sin is said to seat himself in the temple of God, and that he setteth himself forth as God. The principal cathedral of the historical church is the seat of the papacy; and the pope is literally seated therein, always appearing upon the papal chair supported upon the shoulders of his retainers. Nor does this imply that the Basilica of St. Peter is in any sense the “true” temple of God, being, on the other hand, that which appears to many millions as such a temple. Just as the kingship of Israel was an apostasy from the theocracy and as the temple of Solomon and Herod was an apostasy from the tabernacle; just so, the temples of the historical church are an apostasy from the church which is the only true temple God ever had. The pope shows himself as God through claiming divine attributes such as infallibility and holiness, by presuming to forgive sins. “Only God can forgive sins.”

The man of sin was called by the apostle Paul “the son of perdition,” which is the word used of the false apostle (Judas), but nowhere else in the Bible. Does not the pope claim to be an apostle of Christ, indeed, the successor to the apostle Peter? But is he so? Is he not therefore a false apostle?

The mystery of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s day; and Paul specifically stated to the Ephesian elders that from among them would men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples unto themselves. The pope himself is merely an elder gone wrong.

With all power and signs and lying wonders … has never been fulfilled as continually and extensively by anything on earth except the signs, wonders, and miracles of Catholicism. The wonders done by sacred images moving, speaking and bleeding, the prodigies effected by sacred relics, supernatural visitations of the Virgin, the miraculous cures at countless shrines, etc., etc. – all of these and many more fulfill the prophecy perfectly.

When one goes beyond the confinements of the passage under consideration, the evidence is multiplied and compounded. For example:

“Forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats.” What other religious system ever imposed anything as unscriptural and unreasonable as “fish on Friday” and “no marriages in Lent”?

Having a golden cup in her hand … The greatest golden cup known throughout history is the chalice, which is not in the hands of the people but in those of the hierarchical system.

Full of the unclean things of her fornication … In fornication, that which belongs to the bride is taken from her and given to another who is not the bridegroom. The cup of holy communion which belongs to the bride of Christ has been taken away from her and given to another who is not the head.

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 11:37). What institution, or system, or authority ever rejected the “desire of women,” to the extent of making celibacy the nearly invariable rule for all who would participate in it? The obvious answer is known to all men.

He shall wear out the saints of the Most High … (Daniel 7:25). Roman Catholicism has been the most vigorous persecutor of Christians since the days of the pagan empire. As Durant put it, “The Inquisition almost fatally disgraced the church.”[21] The so-called “Holy Crusades,” the religious wars, intrigues and subversions by which the man of sin built and maintained his empire have splashed with blood the pages of the last thousand years of history. There are no less than two religious wars in progress at the moment this is written.


1. It is affirmed that “the man of sin” is an individual, not a succession of individuals or any such thing as a system. Many respected commentators stress this; but, in the book of Daniel, a single figure of “the kingdom of iron” was made to represent all the kings of the Roman Empire, during which time the “everlasting kingdom” would be established. No less an authority than Lightfoot stated that “In all figurative passages it is arbitrary to assume that a person is meant when we find a personification.”[22] He went on to declare that “The man of sin here need not be an individual man; it may be a body of men, or a power, or a spiritual influence.”[23] Alexander Campbell took the same position with regard to this, and there can certainly be no intellectual objections to this view of it.

2. It is declared that, in spite of many resemblances, the idea of the papacy does not and never did fulfill the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2:4. Bishop Purcell, in the debate with Campbell, made this his principal reply, refuting the notion that the pope is antichrist. Alford, for example, viewed the behavior of the popes as a “most abject adoration and submission to God.”[24] As regards the profession of popes, this is true; but have their lives honored such professions? Gloag, on the other hand, pointed out the conviction that “The arrogance of the pope, his assertion that he is the vicar of Christ, and his claim of infallibility are a distinct fulfillment of this prediction.”[25] Furthermore, the difficulty of meeting this objection is completely solved when the “antichrist” of John is understood as the final and terminal embodiment of the “man of sin.” This was the way Campbell understood it; and Bishop Purcell’s argument begged the question by not taking this into account. Campbell did not affirm that popery was “the antichrist,” but that it was the man of sin and Babylon. Viewing “the man of sin” as an institution and system and the “antichrist” as its final fruition clears the matter up completely.

3. But it is precisely here that many interpreters have gone astray. Supposing that 2 Thessalonians 2:8 prophesies the summary and final end of the man of sin as soon as he appears, the commentators declare that, as the papacy has flourished for centuries and has not yet been destroyed, no reference to the papacy is included in the prophesy. However, the Scriptures do not assert that the Second Advent of Christ will follow immediately upon the arrival of the man of sin. The conditions that led to the development of the man of sin were already working in Paul’s day. The interval between the arrival of the man of sin and the Second Advent is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. Gloag’s comment on this is:

It may be that there is a development of the Antichrist, and that his final destruction by the coming of the Lord will not occur until his full development. The spiritual power of the papacy may be unfolding itself; the mystery of lawlessness may still be working, as was lately seen in the introduction of the two new dogmas into the Romish Church, these being the immaculate conception of the Virgin, and the personal infallibility of the popes (both of which doctrines have been introduced during the current century).[26]
From all of the above considerations, this writer refuses to be ashamed of the historical interpretation of Paul’s “man of sin” as a warning against the papacy and the errors that may yet be unfolded from it. This opinion is certainly not in keeping with the liberal spirit of the current age, during which it has become popular to denounce interpretations advocated by the wisest minds of a thousand years; but when we reflect upon the abominable persecutions of the Inquisition and remember that the principal architect of that diabolical apparatus is still revered as a saint in the Roman church, and when the monstrous wickedness of the popes and priests prior to the Reformation is considered; and when are recalled the atrocities committed in the name of religion, the general corruption of the whole system; and when it is taken into account that only the restraining influences of Protestantism prevent a repetition of such things, we may suddenly see that there is every reason to suspect that the ancient interpretations were founded upon the truth and are therefore neither unjust nor uncharitable.


The view here is that antichrist in his fullness has not yet appeared; although, as the apostle John said, “there are many antichrists.” If, as so many believe, there is to be a final and terminal antichrist who will be destroyed by the Second Advent of Christ, it is obvious that he has not yet appeared upon the earth. Such men as Stalin, Hitler, Mohammed, Napoleon and many others who have been thought to be the objects of this prophecy, none of them were ever in “the temple of God,” in the sense of being enthroned in it. The one certainty regarding the antichrist is that he shall appear as the head, the usurper and the unscrupulous dictator over the apostate church itself.

What will antichrist be like? The usual opinions are that he shall be an individual of gigantic mental power, unbelievable audacity and the most extreme wickedness. During the apostasy of Israel, Antiochus Epiphanes was such a person; later, after the final rejection of Christ by the hierarchy of Israel, the total profanation of the Jewish temple by a band of ruthless brigands led to the final overthrow of Judaism. It may well be that in both those events one may behold typical foreshadowings of the final corruption and rebellion of historical Christianity, events which this writer believes to be future. The bold and devilish deeds of some of the lesser “antichrists” who have appeared in our own times are precursors of what may come later on a vaster scale than ever.

This excursus will be closed by the following quotation from Gloag:

The revolt against all rule and authority, the spread of Nihilism, the increase of infidelity and agnosticism, the unblushing proclamation of atheism and the support given to it in the scientific and political world, the deification of materialism, are all the precursors of Antichrist. It may only require a dissolution of order and a corruption of morals greater and more universal than that which occurred in the French Revolution, to usher in the coming of the (final) Man of Sin, who, amid the confusion, will seize the scepter of dominion. We may figure him as an individual, a man of more commanding abilities and far greater wickedness than the first Napoleon; one who will subdue the world, and in the height of his impiety and ambition proclaim his atheism, and that man himself is God![27]

Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

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