I was reading through a Chick tract for this week’s post called Here Comes the Judge which features the misadventures of a corrupt judge leading up to his own assassination for spilling his corrupt boss the governor’s secrets. There’s really not that much that’s worth examining about the story itself besides the fact that the Jesus pitch doesn’t happen until very late in the narrative when the judge is confronted in the hospital by one of his servants who’s served faithfully for over twenty years all the while despising his boss. It’s honestly not very interesting, except for one bit where the servant starts talking about the End Times as a justification for becoming a Christian (it’d be just awful to not be a Christian when Jesus comes back, after all) and pulls verses from the letters to the Thessalonians.
It’s been a really long time since I’ve read those letters, so I decided to pull them up and check the verse references, just because I’m also not very familiar with these passages being used to argue for End Times eschatology.
Here are the passages in question:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
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[a] is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, 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, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor 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.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
There is some very serious eschatological conjecture going on in these passages, and on the face of it, I can actually see why Chick uses them. If you’re an inerrantist, then it follows that Paul’s speculation on the End Times should be taken as an accurate prophecy of what events will unfold in the future before Christ’s return. We’ll ignore the fact that Paul seemed to think that Christ’s return would happen within his lifetime, since he discusses what would happen to people still living during the event and includes himself in that number (“we who are still alive”), since there’s a subsequent passage (1 Thess. 5:1-11) that adds the caveat that we can’t really know when these events will come to pass (fun fact: some scholars suspect that passage was an insertion by someone else to serve as a correction for Paul’s apparently false assumption that Christ would be returning during his lifetime). If you’re an inerrantist, you have to assume that Paul is speaking God’s Truth when he talks about Jesus’ imminent return.
Fortunately, I’m not an inerrantist. I take the position that Paul’s writing, while extremely important for its contributions to the early Church’s developing theology, is still theological writing. He’s one of the earliest Christian theologians our tradition has, and I’m not surprised that his writings were canonized by later Church leaders, but it’s important to remember that his words are his interpretation. I disagree with his literal eschatology while still finding value in his interpretation of Jesus’ promise to return as meaning that even after death we’re to be reunited with Christ.
Regardless, I find the eschatology of 1 Thessalonians less interesting than what Paul writes about in 2 Thessalonians.
The man of lawlessness (“man of sin” in the KJV) that Paul discusses seems to have a lot of characteristics in common with popular culture’s conception of the Antichrist. Of course, Chick makes use of this passage as his proof text for the Antichrist’s rise to power, so I guess that’s kind of expected. Since I’m not a believer in a literal End Times though, I interpret this passage differently.
Richard Beck has been writing a very informative series (just follow that link and then carry on through the subsequent entries; Beck’s been posting on a new chapter daily for the past week and plans to continue through this coming week) on his favorite book by his favorite theologian, William Stringfellow, where he’s discussing the concept of principalities and powers as manifested through societal structures like political bodies, corporations, and other various institutions. It’s very good reading.
It also does an outstanding job of putting into perspective the fact that the man of lawlessness sounds a lot like various people who use their power to further their own goals while claiming to be advancing the interests of the Church. The man of lawlessness strikes me as a metaphorical figure, a representative of the kind of people who claim they are for God while doing everything they can to elevate Stringfellow’s principalities and powers. It’s not some evil potentate climbing to the top and declaring Christianity a false religion; it’s men and women who cling to the name of God while they bully, harass, abuse, and lie their way into peoples’ hearts with ideas that are destructive to community and push us all towards their personal (for lack of a better term, even Satanic) vision of an ideal world.