Who is the coming lawless one spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 2:9? by Jack Kettler
“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.” – (2 Thessalonians 2:9 ESB)
How is this passage to be understood? Is this a future anti-Christ, or a historical figure who has already fulfilled this prediction? In this brief study, several commentators will be surveyed to ascertain the meaning of this text. Naturally, each commentator has a different view.
It would be good to start with one of the leading theologians of the Protestant Reformation.
John Calvin on 2 Thessalonians 2:9:
“9 Whose coming He confirms what he has said by an argument from contraries. For as Antichrist cannot stand otherwise than through the impostures of Satan, he must necessarily vanish as soon as Christ shines forth. In fine, as it is only in darkness that he reigns, the dawn of the day puts to flight and extinguishes the thick darkness of his reign. We are now in possession of Paul’s design, for he meant to say, that Christ would have no difficulty in destroying the tyranny of Antichrist, which was supported by no resources but those of Satan. In the meantime, however, he points out the marks by which that wicked one may be distinguished. For after having spoken of the working or efficacy of Satan, he marks it out particularly when he says, in signs and lying wonders, and in all deceivableness. And assuredly, in order that this may be opposed to the kingdom of Christ, it must consist partly in false doctrine and errors, and partly in pretended miracles. For the kingdom of Christ consists of the doctrine of truth, and the power of the Spirit. Satan, accordingly, with the view of opposing Christ in the person of his Vicar, puts on Christ’s mask, while he, nevertheless, at the same time chooses armor, with which he may directly oppose Christ. Christ, by the doctrine of his gospel, enlightens our minds in eternal life; Antichrist, trained up under Satan’s tuition, by wicked doctrine, involves the wicked in ruin; Christ puts forth the power of his Spirit for salvation, and seals his gospel by miracles; the adversary, by the efficacy of Satan, alienates us from the Holy Spirit, and by his enchantments confirms miserable men in error.
He gives the name of miracles of falsehood, not merely to such as are falsely and deceptively contrived by cunning men with a view to impose upon the simple — a kind of deception with which all Papacy abounds, for they are a part of his power which he has previously touched upon; but takes falsehood as consisting in this, that Satan draws to a contrary end works which otherwise are truly works of God, and abuses miracles so as to obscure God’s glory. In the meantime, however, there can be no doubt, that he deceives by means of enchantments–an example of which we have in Pharaoh’s magicians. (Exodus 7:11.)” (1)
Calvin is fairly typical of the Protestant commentators of the Reformation time period in identifying the Antichrist with the Papacy.
For example, consider the Westminster Confession Chapter 25:6:
vi. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers is typical of many 19th Century commentators who place the 2nd Thessalonians passage in the future:
“(9) Even him, whose coming. — The “even him” does not stand in the Greek; and “whose” might, again, be rendered by for his own, or perhaps “though his own.” The purpose of the verses following is not merely to describe Antichrist more fully, but to compare word for word his coming with that which will annihilate him. Again, is used of Antichrist a peculiar word consecrated to the Christ: “coming” (literally presence), being the word used in 2Thessalonians 2:8, as well as 2Thessalonians 2:1, and often. In spite of the sham being well got up, it will be seen to be a sham.
Is . . . with all power. — “Is:” St. Paul sees the future as present. The predicate is not “after the working,” but “in all power,” &c. The advent of Antichrist will be in (i.e., surrounded with, accompanied by) all kinds of miracles, “according to the working of Satan:” i.e., not only wrought by Satan, but up to the full capacity of Satan to work them. The word “lying” (literally, of falsehood) should go with all three names, “all counterfeit power and signs and wonders.” The three words are piled up to heighten the terror of the description; if you press them they mean that there will be a display of power, to attest Antichrist’s doctrine (signs), and to keep men spellbound in admiration of him (wonders). Antichrist, like Christ (1Timothy 6:15), has one to support him—Satan instead of God; he, like Christ (Luke 21:25), will have his miracles—but miracles of trickery, not of truth.” (2)
As seen, Ellicott sees the Antichrist as coming in the future.
An interpretation that may be new to some is that of preterism. Preterism is defined as one who holds that many of the prophecies in the Bible about the last days have already been fulfilled.
A Preterist commentary entry by Kenneth Gentry on 2 Thessalonians:
“This is my fourth and final installment (for the time being!) on Paul’s Man of Lawlessness. Though it is a difficult passage, it serves as a foundation stone to peculiar dispensational beliefs involving the rebuilt temple and the re-institution of animal sacrifices. I have been showing, however, that this passage is dealing with first century concerns, not last century ones. We will see this further in today’s installment.
The Restrainer at Work
In 2Th. 2:7 we read: “for the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.” When Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 2, he is under the reign of Claudius Caesar. In this statement he even seems to employ a word play on Claudius’ name. Let’s see how this is so.
The Latin word for “restraint” is claudere, which is similar to “Claudius.”  Interestingly, Paul shifts between the neuter and masculine forms of “the restrainer” (2Th 2:6, 7). This may indicate he includes both the imperial law and the present emperor when referring to the “restrainer.” While Claudius lives, Nero, the man of lawlessness, is powerless to commit political lawlessness. Christianity is free from the imperial sword until the Neronic persecution begins.
Remarkably, imperial law keeps the Jews so in check that they do not kill James the Just in Jerusalem until about AD 62, after the death of the Roman procurator Festus and before Albinus arrives (Josephus, Ant.20:9:1). So then, with these events the “mystery of lawlessness” is being uncovered as the “revelation of the man of lawlessness” occurs. That is, we are witnessing Paul’s anticipation of the transformation of the Roman imperial line into a persecuting power in the person of Nero.
The evil “mystery of lawlessness” is “already working,” though restrained in Claudius’ day (2Th 2:7). This perhaps refers to the evil conniving and plotting of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who famously poisons Claudius so that Nero can ascend to the purple (Tacitus, Annals 12:62ff; Suetonius, Claudius 44).
He Exalts Himself
The Roman emperor, according to Paul, “exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped” (2Th 2:4a). Apparently, Paul is highlighting the fact that Nero intends or desires to present himself as God. We can see the evil potential of emperor worship just a few years before, when the emperor Caligula (a.k.a. Gaius) attempts to put his image in the temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18:8:2–3; Philo, Embassy to Gaius). Philo tells us that “so great was the caprice of Caius [Caligula] in his conduct toward all, and especially toward the nation of the Jews. The latter he so bitterly hated that he appropriated to himself their places of worship in the other cities, and beginning with Alexandria he filled them with images and statues of himself.” 
But Caligula is not Nero. So how can Nero be the Man of Lawlessness of whom Paul states: “so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” He never did such a thing. To resolve this potential problem, we need to understand Paul’s phrasing here. When an infinitive such as kathisai (“to sit”) follows the consecutive particle h ste (“so that”), it indicates a purpose intended, not necessarily a purpose accomplished. We see this operating in a clear case in Lk 4:29. There the Jews led Jesus to a hill “so as to cast him down (hoste katakremnisai auton).”  The angry Jews intended to cast Jesus down the hill, “but passing through their midst, He went His way” (Lk 4:30).
The future emperor Titus, for all intents and purposes, accomplishes this enormity, when he concludes the temple’s destruction set in motion by Nero. Titus actually invades the temple in AD 70, with the following result: “And now the Romans . . . brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy” (Josephus, J.W.6:6:1). This parallels Matthew 24:15 and functions as Paul’s abomination of desolation, which occurs in “this generation” (Mt 24:34).
Not only so but in Nero the imperial line eventually openly “opposed” (2Th 2:4) Christ by persecuting his followers. Nero even begins persecuting Christians, when he presents himself in a chariot as the sun god Apollo, while burning Christians in order to illuminate his self-glorifying party: “their death was aggravated with mockeries, insomuch that, wrapped in the hides of wild beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they might be burned to illuminate the night” (Ann. 15:44). 
Destroyed at the Bright coming
Second Thessalonians 2:8–9 reads: “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders.”  The lawless one is eventually openly revealed. The mystery form of his character gives way to a revelation of his lawlessness in Nero’s wicked acts. This occurs after the restrainer [Claudius] is “taken out of the way,” allowing Nero the public stage upon which he can act out his horrendous lawlessness.
In Christ’s judgment-coming against Jerusalem, we also discover judgment for the man of lawlessness, Nero. Thus, Christians may take comfort in the promised relief from both Jewish and Neronic opposition (2Th 2:15–17). Not only does Titus destroy Jerusalem within twenty years, but Nero himself dies a violent death in the midst of the Jewish War (June 9, AD 68). His death, then, will occur in the Day of the Lord in conjunction with Christ’s judgment-coming against Israel. Christ destroys Nero with “the breath of his mouth,” much like Assyria is destroyed with the coming and breath of the Lord in the Old Testament (Isa 30:27–31) and like Israel is crushed by Babylon (Mic 1:3–5).
1. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, 310.
2. E. W. Best, First and Second Thessalonians, 286–290. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar, 214.
3. Philo, Embassy to Gauis, 43, as cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:6:2.
4. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, 279–284.
5. Such imperial arrogance would produce alleged miracles as confirmation. Vespasian is called “the miracle worker, because by him “many miracles occurred.” Tacitus, Histories 4:81; Suetonius, Vespasian 7.” (3)
See Also, MAN OF LAWLESSNESS IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT, https://postmillennialworldview.com/2013/12/20/man-of-lawlessness-in-historical-context/
IDENTIFYING THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS https://postmillennialworldview.com/2013/12/23/identifying-the-man-of-lawlessness/
Preterism does historical research to verify fulfilled prophecy. It can be painstaking work. With that said, it is on the surer ground than prophetic speculation, which futurist interpreters cannot escape.
In the history of prophetic interpretation, there have been many different interpretations. However, in the recent history of interpretation, the pendulum is moving back to preterism, which has had numerous scholars in its favor throughout church history. Preterism holds that many prophecies about the end times have already been fulfilled, such as the “Great Tribulation” in 70AD.
Hopefully, the preterist interpretation by Kenneth Gentry gets fair consideration. Preterism is superior because it provides the best response to the critics who say Jesus was wrong about His second coming.
Two examples of individuals who say Christ was mistaken about His coming.
Evangelicalism’s sacred cow, C. S. Lewis’ comments on Matthew 24:34 may come as a shock:
“Say what you like,” we shall be told [by some critics]; “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.” It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.” “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (4)
In a similar vein as Lewis, regarding Jesus, atheist Bertrand Russell wrote:
“When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. . . The early Christians . . . did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly, He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.” (5)
From these two quotes, it is apparent that both men were criticizing Christ’s prediction that He would return during the time of the generation that heard Him give the prophecy. Neither Lewis nor Russell were familiar with James Stuart Russell’s “The Parousia: The Second Coming of Christ.” Russell makes the case that there was a 1st Century return of Christ.
Suppose the reader takes time to survey some of the preterist literature like Russell’s on the second coming of Christ. In that case, they will see how there was an apocalyptic return of Christ in the 1st Century to bring judgment upon the apostate nation of Israel and its temporal cutting off until the time of Romans chapter eleven when Israel will be grafted back in.
Apocalyptic literature is a genre of prophetical writing that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture and was popular among millennialist early Christians. Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning “revelation,” “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” – Wikipedia
The book of Revelation and portions of the book of Daniel are examples of apocalyptic literature. In addition, Matthew chapter 24 is an example of how Jesus used apocalyptic wording in His teaching. As Wikipedia correctly noted, Apocalyptic literature is a distinct genre. Those who fail to recognize this, can fall into the error of chiliasm.
The apocalyptic return demonstrates that Jesus was not mistaken when He said He would return in the time period of the generation that heard Him make the prophecy. The apocalyptic return of Christ in judgment in no way jeopardizes the literal physical return at the end of redemptive history. Preterism is faith-promoting by showing fulfilled prophecy.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 2 Thessalonians, Volume XXI, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Reprinted 1979), p. 336-337.
2. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, 2 Thessalonians, Vol. 8, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 137.
3. Kenneth Gentry, THE RESTRAINER AND THE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS,) December 25, 2013), https://postmillennialworldview.com/?s=man+of+lawlessness&submit=Search
4. C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385.
5. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 17-18.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. JackKettler .com