Now, let’s compare Jesus’ prophecy and promise to Paul’s understanding of the second coming.
First, who is Paul?
He is a first-century Christian religious teacher and an Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64 or 67), born Saul of Tarsus, who claimed to have encountered Jesus after the resurrection when he was a Roman Jewish zealot in charge of persecuting the followers of the new faith.
Paul claimed to have had direct revelations from Jesus through the spirit. We find this statement in a few areas especially Galatians 1:11-12. But he confessed that not all his biblical writing was based on revelations. One of these most important confessions (and perhaps the only one) can be found in 1 Corinthians 7: 10-12. Nevertheless, Paul chose to show no evidence of this to the Corinthians for example when they asked him to do so plainly in 2 Corinthians 13:3.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul discusses the second coming of Christ in a letter to the Thessalonians who begun to believe that the second coming had already taken place based on the teaching of some leaders. In my opinion, this belief was very much based on the fact that most of the criteria described by Jesus had already taken place at that point. Paul discusses this in 2 Timothy 2: 17 Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.19 Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” The interesting thing to look at probably at another time is to know who Hymenaeus and Philetus were and if he thought of himself to be wicked. After all, the man was still a Christian. He was not only confessing Christ but also taking him at his word. We can conclude here, that although Paul’s teaching on the Gospel is sound (which was the part he claimed to have received from Jesus on the first day of his conversion), Paul was unable to absorb and then reflect the true love that Jesus had/has for mankind, thus he found himself resorting to harsh methods using fear to control the flock.
The following is Paul’s intake on the matter in 2 Thessalonians 2:
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, splendour whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
For a twenty-first century believer, from a Protestant background, who strongly believe that the coming of the Messiah is an indicator of the end of the world, 2 Thessalonians 2 can strengthen or at least justifies this belief, in the first instance. Generally, people combine Paul’s belief about the second coming of the Messiah with what he wrote in 2 Timothy 3: 1-9. Since his description of social events is close to home for people from every generation, then this will ensure to keep the expectation going for all generations, without exception!
So, without pausing and examining what Paul was actually saying in 2 Thessalonians 2, and without abandoning our prejudice and conscious or unconscious biases, we will only see what we want to see, not what is actually there.
In these verses of the second chapter of Thessalonians 2, Paul of the first century, (about 40 or 50 c.) is trying to calm down a bunch of anxious believers (to say the least) who are panicking that they might have been left out and were not picked by Jesus, among the remnant. It is totally understandable for someone who left everything for their new faith and exposed themselves to terror and persecution to panic when told that they were not chosen by God and that they actually may go to Hell as a result. We can imagine that the outcome of such a theory could have proven disastrous for the people and the church alike. Paul had to get involved to reassure them, destroy the origin of their fear in the simplest way possible, and propose a newer and fresher theory. However, Paul does not tell us here or tell the Thessalonians for that matter, what was the source of this understanding. He does not point to a particular book or a teaching or a witness or a vision as a pillar to this particular ‘truth’ the way, for example, Peter did in the Acts of the Apostles when he was about to do without the Mosaic law about food, drink and general social life in chapter 10. The precision Paul has chosen to follow in 1 Corinthians 7: 10-12 is non-existent here either. And the fact that he does not want to specify the origin of his belief about the second coming of Christ, leaves me to conclude that it was NOT received through direct revelation from Jesus Christ, for if it was so, Paul would be eager to shout it loud, in order to strengthen his version of truth against that of the opponent.
So, what is actually the content of this new theory?
I consider verse 3 in 2 Thessalonians 2 to be the summary of his theory. He will then proceed to explain this in more detail in the next nine verses. He says: “3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.”
In Paul’s New Theory about the Second Coming of Christ, Paul does not present a different time frame than the one Jesus specified in Mathew 24 for example. He also, never claimed that Jesus will only come back at the end of time. The only thing he adds in these verses is the conditionality between the coming of Christ and an important historical event that HAS to happen before people can safely say that Jesus has come back. Paul interprets the ‘abomination of desolation; a subject of the prophecy in Daniel 9:25-27 / 11:29-32 / 12:11-12 as being a man’s claim to be the Devine. A man who dares to make such a claim and leave an impact on society could only be a ruler or an institution supported by a ruler. Let’s search in our history books to find out if such thing existed prior to this day or not.
A Brief Historical Examination
It was very common (and acceptable) before, during and even after Christ for rulers to appoint themselves as the sons of the Devine. When I say acceptable, it is not only by the citizens of the country but even by the Bible itself.
1- In the East, most prosperous pharos claimed to be the sons and daughters of the Devine. The King of gods in Egypt was Amun-Ra or Amon [his female version is Amunet and is considered as the “The Female Hidden One”]. S/He was believed to be the Father of the Pharaohs. According to the Bible, these kings were very prosperous. Jacob’s son; Joseph the pious also married the daughter of a priest and raised his children within their culture. The Bible declares that it was God’s plan for Jacob to be saved in Egypt through Joseph’s union with the Egyptians.
2- Julius Caesar was born into a patrician family, the gens Julia, which claimed descent from Iulus, son of a legendary Trojan prince called Aeneas who was, supposedly the son of the goddess Venus. Julius Caesar then was formally deified as “the Divine Julius” in 42 BCE, and his son; Caesar Augustus became henceforth Divi filius (“Son of the Divine One”). This of course happened about a century before Paul became an Apostle.
3-Between 1st and 4th c. other Roman Emperors claimed divinity. Paul was raised during the reign of Emperor Tiberius 14–37. He refused to be worshipped as God. When Paul was about 42 years of age, however, Caligula 37–41 came to power. He allegedly cried out the Homeric line: “Let there be one lord, one king.” In AD 40, he began implementing very controversial policies that introduced religion into his political role. Caligula began appearing in public dressed as various gods and demigods such as Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo. Reportedly, he began referring to himself as a god when meeting with politicians and he was referred to as “Jupiter” on occasion in public documents. A sacred precinct was set apart for his worship at Miletus in the province of Asia and two temples were erected for Worship of him in Rome. The Temple of Castor and Pollux on the forum was linked directly to the imperial residence on the Palatine and dedicated to Caligula. He would appear there on occasion and present himself as a god to the public. Caligula had the heads removed from various statues of gods located across Rome and replaced them with his own. It is said that he wished to be worshipped as “Neos Helios,” the “New Sun.” Indeed, he was represented as a sun god on Egyptian coins.
Caligula’s religious policy was a departure from that of his predecessors. According to Cassius Dio, living emperors could be worshipped as divine in the east (in fact, as the sons of the Devine) and dead emperors could be worshipped as divine in Rome. Augustus had the public worship his spirit on occasion, but Dio describes this as an extreme act that emperors generally shied away from. Caligula took things a step further and had those in Rome, including senators, worship him as a tangible, living god.
Religious reforms took place afterwards with Emperor Claudius [governing from 41 to 54].
It was estimated that Paul wrote his two letters to the new church at Thessaloniki, probably between 51 and 53, thus Emperor Nero who preceded his uncle was not taken into consideration in these letters.
2 Thessalonians 2 seems like a vivid description of Caligula’s acts of madness. What Paul and other believers have witnessed during the Emperor’s reign must have shed new light on Daniel’s prophecies. And although Caligula’s reign only lasted about four years ending with his death at the hands of his own guards, this must have set enough fear in the Jews of that era to begin expecting it to reoccur over and over again. Sure enough, less than 13 years later, Nero appoints himself as a Devine to be worshipped by the people of the East.
What is intriguing though is the fact that Paul puts forward a condition to the second coming of the Messiah that did materialise in his own time. So, why did he not think Caligula to be the abomination Daniel professed about?
There are a few possible explanations for this:
First, perhaps, because Paul regarded all Roman Emperors and their subjects to be pagans and it may not have made a big difference for him, the fact that Caligula, unlike any other Emperor, claimed to be the Devine in the flesh. However, this is very unlikely as Paul lived in Rome and must have noticed Caligula’s crazy endeavour to be the sole worshipped deity throughout the Roman Empire.
Second, there was a mysterious knowledge that Paul was trying to remind the church of, that was communicated previously, and Paul did not dare to express it in a written letter for fear that the document may be read by an unwanted third party. He says: “5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time.”
There was something Paul shared with the church that became clear and evident on a later date through other events: 6 And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time..
If Paul wanted to talk about the devil, why did he have to use hints? My assumption that he was referring to the ongoing world system that upheld life as it was, and which involved the Roman Empire, the Senates and the World’s top bureaucracy. This sounds like believing in a conspiracy theory based on the fact that the richest and most powerful people of the world are the ones who make the world system. This system knows who this lawless man is, it is in contact with him, and covering up his secret until the day he decides to come out and reveal himself to everyone. This is why Paul says in verse 7 “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do sountil He is taken out of the way.” In the NIV, the word mystery is replaced by “secret power”. Most if not all translations agree that this word invokes a mysterious secret referring to evil forces at work. This means that the lawless man is already here and at work, but through systems that allow him to remain hidden from view, until a time where he will do without the system, abolishing it, and revealing himself to the masses to govern them directly. Paul makes it clear to tell us that this lawless man is not the real God we need to worship and obey although he (the lawless man) believes himself to be as such.
As with the first coming of Christ, perhaps Paul expected that Jesus second coming must be sudden, global and its effect must be immediate. This very belief about the Messiah was what stopped the mainstream Jewish leaders and their followers from accepting Jesus’ claim to be the Chosen One. The Pharisees waited for three years for Jesus to show a godly like authority not as a religious leader but as a worrier and the saviour of Jerusalem from the yoke of the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus told his disciples to accept the authority of Rome and concentrate on cleansing their temple (spirit-soul) from the inside out. When it became clear to the religious leaders that Jesus did not fit their understanding of who the Messiah would be and the role He was expected to play, they became hostile towards him and eventually condemned him to the cross.
You would think this is only a Jewish thing and that the Christians would know better as the disciples of Christ. This perception of how Jesus should behave in the face of evil and what role should he play is still widespread in the Christian circles to this day. Paul was part of that child-like human dream to endure life’s tribulations in the hope that the big brother may come at any moment to stand by us, punish the bullies and eliminate evil from its roots. Though Jesus never claimed that he will do this. Instead, he came to bring rest and salvation for whoever is able to understand it and take it for what it is. Jesus brought the Spirit of Christ into the hearts of the remnants, those who overcame their inner obstacles and embraced all that Jesus was about; certainty about who he was vis-á-vis to the Father, and the freedom from religious slavery. Jesus did not only condemn the Synagog. He condemned all religious forms from the beginning of creation till then, and he would condemn the church itself if he was to speak out-loud now.
Paul’s limitation of understanding of the human condition was expressed loud and clear in the verses between 10 and 12. The Apostle sees people to be truly free to choose what is right and avoid what is wrong. According to him, there is no DNA that shapes who we are and limits us not to be who we are not. There is no environmental conditioning that puts further limitations to our potentiality and moulds us into who we become as adults. There is no diseases or brain tumours that can alter our inner working, control our emotions and change us from the inside out. For him, we are all in the exact same situation, only our choices differ. The good person is good purely because s/he chose to be good, or just because they love God whereas the bad person is bad purely because s/he has chosen to do bad things or maybe because s/he didn’t love God! How come people who love God, love God and those who don’t, don’t? Why we choose to do what we do? Why it’s natural for some to be sweet and obliging and others can’t help to be but pain wherever they go? Paul stays silent on this but finishes condoning the opponent theory by making some serious threats, capable of silencing the complaints of those who believed it.
Paul regards his version of the truth to be plain to everyone. His version of the truth is the fact that Jesus will not come again until the abomination takes place. This abomination, he explains, consists of an evil man who claims to be God, displays power and works wonders and miracles. Such a ruler comes in Paul’s time, who is of course Caligula. Though Paul doesn’t understand how come people think that Jesus has already come for the second time! The Apostle is now frustrated with the people. He accuses them of not receiving the love of the truth and warns them that they will perish because of it. He even claims that God himself has sent people delusion to believe a lie because they didn’t receive the truth. So, what caused them not to receive the truth? Was it the fact that God sent them a delusion?! And why would God do such an evil thing?
I am not sure what Paul meant exactly, but one thing is for sure, this warning must have worked wonders to silence the anxious small congregation.