Read 2 Thessalonians 2 here.
Sorry for the long delay between posts; I should be back on track for a couple of posts per week. I’ve been reading some very exciting things that I want to blog about, but first –
We were talking about Paul’s vision of the Second Coming of Christ. It seemed to me – though one comment disagreed – that Paul was saying to those who suffered persecution, “it may be tough now, but God’s going to pay everyone back in spades one day”. Paul promises that Jesus will return and destroy everyone who doesn’t believe or follow the gospels. According to the Pew Forum, around 2 billion of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth profess some sort of Christianity. That means, God will destroy 5 billion people if Jesus comes back in the next couple of years. Staggering.
As I said before, this doesn’t sound like the supreme being of the universe to me – the most degenerate human would not dream of such a thing. And remember that half of that 2 billion Christian are Catholic, so if you’re a Protestant, you’d probably rule out another billion. And let’s not forget the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. that Protestants say are not really Christians either. Perhaps God might decide that everyone who didn’t buy a Joel Osteen book or send 10 bucks to TBN is S.O.L.
But wait – before God wipes out billions of people at the blink of an eye, something else unthinkable has to happen – the Antichrist has to appear.
Chapter 2 opens up by encouraging the believers in Thessaloniki that the end times have not already passed. (Maybe encouraging is the wrong word, in light of what is supposed to happen. I for one would be relieved to learn that I’d somehow missed out on the apocalypse). Apparently, some teachers were saying that Jesus had already returned – I’m not sure why that would make sense to anyone, due to the fact that their lives / religion / political system remained unchanged. But Paul assures them that Jesus had not yet returned, and reminded them that a key development would have to take place before he could.
Enter, the Antichrist. Here’s where some scholars point out similarities to John’s Revelation, written long after Paul’s death, to say that 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul. I guess believers could say that the similarities are due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the true writer. In any event, the New Testament maintains that, in the last days on Earth, an extremely talented and gifted man will take over the political system. He is ‘the man of lawlessness’ or, as some manuscripts have it, ‘the man of sin’. He will apparently do miraculous things, just as Jesus did, but his power will come not from God but from Satan. He will “set himself up in God’s temple”, which I assume to mean the temple in Jerusalem.
If this was written by Paul, the temple would have still existed in Jerusalem – so points to those who favor a Pauline authorship. If this was written around 90 AD as some assert, then some retrograde logic or prophesy regarding a re-building of the temple would be required. Jesus speaks of rebuilding the temple himself, but it is generally regarded by Christians that he was talking about himself, not the building erected by Solomon and restored by Ezekiel and later Herod.
Many American Christians believe this temple will have to be rebuilt a third time at some point in the future for Biblical prophecy to come true. The problem is that there is currently a Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock, standing on the exact same site – regarded as third only to Mecca and Medina as the holiest places for Muslims. A good way to start World War III would of course be to try to build such a temple. It’s scary that many Americans would support such a move, so that Jesus could eventually return.
Paul’s justification for the destruction of those who follow the Antichrist is pretty interesting. They didn’t believe in Jesus, even though Jesus performed miracles and the Holy Spirit remained to point the way. Granted, they didn’t see these miracles with their own eyes, but they were supposed to believe anyway. Then, someone appears in their own lifetime, performing many of the miracles that Jesus performed, and is also assisted by a spirit, but this one is evil. They believe what they see over what someone wrote about a couple of thousand years ago, and “for this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth”. Sounds fair to me.
I won’t get into all the nasty things this guy is supposed to do – I’ll save that for our reading of the Revelation; and besides, you’ve seen so many Antichrist movies already, I’m sure. At first, it will seem like he solves a lot of problems. Then, he’ll become supreme dictator of the world. At some point, he will proclaim himself a God.
In reality, this isn’t so much a prophecy as it is a thinly veiled indictment of what the Roman emperor had already done in Jerusalem by the end of the 1st century – and Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had done before. It was a common practice in the ancient and classical worlds to enter the temple of a defeated nation, proclaim yourself or your god as superior to theirs, usually leave an obelisk or graven image of some kind in the temple that had to be worshiped, either along with or instead of any local god. The Romans respected Judaism at first, due to its antiquity, and exempted Jews from some of the practices that were required of other conquered nations. This all ended in 70 AD. The Romans, having had their fill of rebellions in Judea, destroyed the temple, killed a million Jewish people, and enslaved perhaps a quarter of a million more.
The mainstream of Jewish religion pretty much changed from that time until now, giving up messianic and apocalyptic prophesy in favor of focusing on how to live a better live in the present. Christian teaching moved in the opposite direction, at least in part because they believed the messiah had already come.
But the real takeaway from this chapter is much more frightening than any Hollywood movie or religious nightmare. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild their temple on the site of a holy Muslim mosque, so that they can make blood sacrifices as described in the Old Testament. (Not all Jews, but a militant minority). There are Christians who believe this is the right thing to do – after all, the end times and Jesus’ return can’t happen unless the temple is rebuilt. So, a very real conflict could occur in the Middle East because of the religious fantasies held by a few.
If there’s anything more frightening than the specter of the Antichrist, it is the chance that a few religious zealots could return us to the Dark Ages.
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