Who is the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians?

Many find in this passage a sort of “antichrist”—though the word is not used—whose rise presages the end of the world. Accordingly, such figures as Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein have been nominated. After Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, referring to the return of Christ, this interpretation seems reasonable. And yet there are a few problems:

  • In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul stresses the unpredictability of Jesus’ return, whereas 2 Thessalonians 2 seems to point to a specific and somewhat predictable event.
  • In scripture, the “coming” of the Lord (v.1) often indicates temporal judgments, as opposed to the last judgment. Isaiah 19:1 and Micah 1:3 are just two examples, where the Lord is to “come” against Egypt and Israel, respectively. Moreover, the Day of the Lord (v.3) is a time of punishment against Israel (Joel 2:1ff; Amos 5:18,20,27). Although universal, cosmic language is employed, the judgment is limited and relatively local.
  • The Lord overthrows his enemies with the breath of his mouth (v.8). See Isaiah 30:27-30 and Micah 1:3-5 to understand the metaphor.
  • In Matthew 24:34 Jesus predicted his coming against the Jerusalem Temple in the present generation. This took place in 70 AD, through the agency of the Roman legions.
  • Jesus said that the saints were to be “gathered” (v.1) in the present generation (Matthew 24:31).
  • The “rebellion” to take place beforehand (v.3) naturally refers to the Jewish revolution against the Romans, in the First Jewish War (66-73 AD).
  • The man of lawlessness would be the Roman emperor (v.3). Caligula (41-54 AD) attempted to set up his ensigns in the Temple, but withdrew them. His successor, Nero (54-68 AD) didn’t hold back, especially near the end of his reign, in the midst of the Jewish War. Eventually Titus, the emperor-to-be who completed the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), defiled the Temple with the imperial standards.
  • Divinity was attributed to most Roman emperors, usually posthumously. Nero’s claim to deity (v.4) was audacious and directly conflicted with Christians' exclusive loyalty to Christ as sovereign. Nero was restrained in his earlier years, when his adoptive great-uncle Claudius still reigned and before his open brutality, preemptive assassination, and notorious perversity.
  • The false signs (v.9) of Roman religion are well known. Believers were not to be moved by them.

Though the preterist view—that the events Paul predicted took place through Nero (54-68 AD)—is logical and biblically defensible, it does not sit right with many thoughtful Bible students. All in all, each view, both the preterist and the end-time interpretation, has its merits. It is hard for most commentators (as for me) to commit completely to either alternative.