not a knockout punch; more of a glancing blow

In what little spare time I have at the moment, I’ve been slowly working through 2 Thessalonians, especially the eschatological section of 2Thess 2.1-12. This portion of the letter has been a veritable hotbed of debate, although for various reasons. On one extreme, since the work of Schmidt (1801), furthered by Kern (1839) and Baur (1845), most critical scholars see it as evidence that Paul did not compose the letter.¹ On another extreme, since (at least) the work of Scofield (1909), furthered by a number of Dispensational writers since then, many evangelical scholars see this passage as evidence of Paul’s knowledge of what will take place at the eschaton.

Both of these perspectives have their merits (and faults) and both should be examined carefully and honestly by all who engage with this letter. Since Paul Foster recently addressed the issues in the first extreme (see “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35.2 [2012]: 150-75), and since I agree with most of what he argues, there is no need for me to enter into that discussion. Instead, my concern here is with the second extreme, specifically the kind of knowledge that Paul had about the eschaton and the reasons why he says what he does.

I make this my focus partly because David Dean (tenuously) argues for Paul’s knowledge of these events as being chronological in nature, and it was this chronological knowledge that he imparted to the Thessalonians during his brief sojourn.² That seems to handle the “kind” question. With regard to the “reason” question, Dean sees this imparting of chronological knowledge as necessary for a right understanding of the eschaton–particularly the timing of the (so-called) “rapture.” Specifically, for Dean, the “rapture” takes place before all of the other events described and Christians can rest assured that the other events have not taken place because the “rapture” has not yet happened.

Dean makes this argument on the basis of what he sees Paul saying in 2Thess 2.1-12. By way of summary: after stating the concern (cf. 2.1-2)–i.e. a faulty teaching concerning the return of Christ–Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to remain true to what they know (cf. 2.3a). He then launches into what appear to be “signs” that will precede Christ’s return (cf. 2.3b-12)–e.g. the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, the removal of the evil that prevails, the defeat of the man of lawlessness at Christ’s return, and judgment.³ In fact, the logical and syntactical construction of the Greek reveals a necessary causal relationship between the “signs” and Christ’s return. Paul’s remarks, therefore, could be seen as endorsing a chronology.

However, I am not so sure that Paul’s knowledge is necessarily chronological–in the strict detailed sense that Dean proposes. Specifically, I do not see Paul saying: “Before the return of Christ happens: first, there will be ‘the apostasy’; second, there will be the ‘unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” ‘; third, this ‘man’ will oppose God and exalt himself over all gods; fourth, he will take ‘his seat in the temple of God’ and claim to be God; fifth, that which prevails will be revealed and then taken out of the way; sixth, the ‘lawless one’ will be defeated by Christ; etc.” Paul’s language in this text does not come across as being that precise.

Moreover, contrary to what Scofield argued (cf. notes on 2.3) and Dean rehashes, I don’t think Paul sees all of the “events” in 2Thess 2.3b-12 as reserved exclusively for the distant future. In particular, and contrary to how the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NCV, and CEV translate it, the details pertaining to the “man of lawlessness” are not waiting to be climatically revealed (cf. 2.4); Paul’s language stresses that nearly all of the details are already taking place. In other words: the “man of lawlessness” is presently opposing (ἀντικείμενος) God; he is presently exalting (ὑπεραιρόμενος) himself over all other gods; and he does this because he has already taken his seat (καθίσαι) in the temple of God and is presently displaying (ἀποδεικνύντα) himself as God. The only detail waiting fulfillment in the future is this “man” unveiling (ἀποκαλύπτω; cf. 2.3b), which Paul goes on to describe as contemporaneous with the appearance (ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ’s return/coming/presence (παρουσία; cf. 2.8). And since the bulk of what Paul says up to 2.5 is about the man of lawlessness, the reminder in 2.5 would seem to refer to that previous teaching and not Dean’s proposed chronological eschatology.

At the very least, this creates problems for the rather absurd theories of Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye (again) and Thomas Ice (et al), who both drone on about the birth, upbringing, ethnicity, political affiliations, and identity of this “man of lawlessness”, whom they inappropriately call the “Antichrist”. Such suggestions reveal a lack of understanding of Paul’s overall meaning and his use of apocalyptic language. The contemporaneity of the “man’s” unveiling (and subsequent defeat) and Christ’s appearing also create problems for the usual (Classic) Dispensationalist eschatological “timeline”. In particular, the contemporaneity raises serious doubts about the so-called pretribulation rapture of the saints, which is based on the more troubling notion of a two-stage return of Christ. Moreover, a “rapture of the saints” or even its (supposed) timing is not even close to being Paul’s concern–either here in 2Thess 2.1-12 or the only passage in the whole of the NT that indicates something like a “rapture”: 1Thess 4.17.

As he states at the beginning of his argument, Paul’s concern (for both the Thessalonians and anyone else who might read his letter) is about faithful patience, allegiance to truth about what God has done and will do in and through Christ, and not being swept away by speculative theories about Christ’s return. You know, theories like those (explicitly or implicitly) proposed by: Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles T. Russell (twice), later Jehovah’s Witnesses (multiple attempts), Hal Lindsey (twice), Edgar Whisenaunt (twice), John Hinkle, Harold Camping (repeatedly), etc.

_____________________________________
¹ The letter is dislodged from Paul’s hands on account of its (apparently) different eschatology vis-a-vis that of 1 Thessalonians. Specifically, 2Thess seems to advocate a recognizable chronological sequence of events that precede Christ’s return (cf. 2Thess 2.3-12), whereas 1Thess appears to indicate that the return will be without warning (cf. 1Thess 4.13-5.11). Moreover, while 1Thess reads as though Paul sees himself as alive when Christ returns, 2Thess gives the impression that Paul is giving up on that hope. In other words: 1Thess anticipates an imminent return (i.e. in Paul’s lifetime) whereas 2Thess allows for considerable delays (i.e. well after Paul’s death). Thus, the “consensus” for how to explain these differences is that Paul wrote 1Thess and someone writing in his name penned 2Thess.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?” (Bibliotheca Sacra 168 [2011]: 196. I plan to deal with some of the finer points of Dean’s argument in a different post.
³ Props to those who recognize the variant I proposed. Don’t worry, I have reasons for doing so; I’m not just making stuff up for the Gehenna of it.

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5 comments

  1. Fascinating, as I will be leading a discussion on 2 Thessalonians 2 next week. Indeed, people have “made a meal” out of the material, and, as you say, Paul does not give a timetable list. We must not forget the reason Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians–so that these believers would stand firm and hold to what they had been taught, that they would not be deceived about the Day of the Lord, and that they would continue to work diligently. No one can–or should–propose a timeline regarding the return of Christ–we are not to waste time wondering about that. I suppose for “entertainment” purposes it is okay, but I think the Left Behind series stretched it all out of proportion! What we can know from Scripture is that Christ WILL return. We must live in the light of that truth.

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