Paul warned that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Thus the fulfillment of this prophecy began in the first century. Something was already working in Paul’s day which in time produced “the man of sin… the son of perdition… the lawless one.”
“ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME”
Most students of prophecy, from Paul’s day to this, understand that the little horn of Daniel 7 and the beasts of Revelation 13 and 17 are related to Rome. Today there are three major views about when Rome is involved. The preterists place the fulfillment in our past. The historicists place it in our present. The futurists place it in our future.
Most agree that 2 Thessalonians 2 is part of the same prophetic picture. This means that “the man of sin” will be found in Rome. The evidence studied in Part I: The Prophecy points to the conclusion that “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition” refers to the most outstanding apostate church. Add Rome to the equation and the fulfillment of the prophecy becomes obvious.
“I TOLD YOU… YOU KNOW”
The Bible was not sealed in a vacuum as soon as it was written, to be untouched by human hands until it reached each of us in the 21st century. To ignore the intervening centuries is shortsighted and egotistical. If we do not learn from others, why should we expect others to learn from us?
“I told you… you know,” said Paul, “what is restraining” (2 Thessalonians 2:5,6). This is amazing. The saints in Thessalonica knew. Paul had taught them in person. But the Holy Spirit prevented Paul from writing it down. Is there any other place in Scripture like this? The writer says his readers know what he is talking about, but he shrinks from writing it down. It becomes irresistible to scan early Christian writers to learn what they can tell us. Can you conceive that the first-century Christians would not pass the information on?
Before examining early Christian writers, we need to be aware of three things.
1) They were not inspired. Therefore, they express many contradictory views on prophecy as well as other matters.
2) Before a particular prophecy is fulfilled, we cannot expect Christians to understand it all. The apostles, for example, with Jesus in their midst, did not have correct views of many messianic prophecies.
3) After a prophecy is fulfilled, there will always be those who will deny its fulfillment. The Jews, for example, to this very day, deny that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah.
With these precautions in mind, it is still very enlightening to discover what Christians through the ages have believed regarding various prophecies. Especially is this true in this case in which Paul said, “You know… ”
NOT FULFILLED IN THE FIRST CENTURY
The preterist view teaches that “the man of sin” appeared in the first century. They apply all the details of 2 Thessalonians 2 to events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They quote authorities with identical views, but never anyone earlier than the seventeenth century. Why not earlier? The reason is simple. There are no earlier authorities.
Not one writer prior to 1600 A.D. ever mentions anybody who believed that “the man of sin” prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. Notice:
1) The Thessalonians knew who was restraining.
2) Many Christian writers in the second to fifth centuries wrote in detail about this prophecy.
3) Not one early writer thought “the man of sin” prophecy was fulfilled in the first century.
4) The early writers often discuss views contrary to their own. None of them mention anyone who applied this prophecy to the first century.
In the 18th century, Thomas Newton, in his famous “Dissertations on the Prophecies,” discusses 2 Thessalonians 2 at length. He mentions five recent writers who claimed that “the man of sin” prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. He points out that they disagree with the majority of interpreters, and indeed disagree with each other as well as with all who were before them.
Then he remarks: “If this prophecy [2 Thessalonians 2] was fulfilled, as these critics conceive, before the destruction of Jerusalem, it is surprising that none of the fathers [early Christian writers] should agree with any of them in the same application, and that the discovery should first be made sixteen or seventeen hundred years after the completion. The fathers might differ and be mistaken in the circumstances of a prophecy which was yet to be fulfilled; but that a prophecy should be remarkably accomplished before their time, and they be totally ignorant of it, and speak of the accomplishment as still future, is not very credible” (page 400).
THE EARLY CHRISTIANS SPEAK
A search into early Christian writings reveals that many believers had a definite view as to what was restraining or withholding the appearance of “the man of sin.” No, there is no writer who claims to quote the apostle Paul or one who heard the apostle Paul saying what was restraining. Nevertheless, these early Christians lived infinitely closer to the source than we do. They were thus in a far better position than we are today of being in touch with the information which Paul imparted to the saints in Thessalonica. What early Christian writers thought Paul was talking about should surely be seriously investigated before considering novel interpretations of the 21st century.
In light of the many divergent views on prophecy which we find among the early Christian writers, it is impressive that there is so much agreement on the question of what was restraining-withholding-hindering. In the end, of course, their view has to be tested both by Scripture and history. But as we follow their view and watch history develop, we cannot help but be impressed with the fact that the early Christians were on the right track in regard to much of this prophecy–well before it was fulfilled.
IRENAEUS: 130 to 202 A.D.
Irenaeus was born about 30 years after the apostle John died. In his extensive work, “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus devoted several chapters to Daniel 7, Revelation 13 and 2 Thessalonians 2. Typical of believers in all ages, he understood that the three prophecies are related. Irenaeus wrote:
“Daniel too, looking forward to the end of the last kingdom, i.e., the ten last kings, amongst whom the kingdom of those men shall be partitioned, and upon whom the son of perdition shall come, declares that ten horns shall spring from the beast, and that another little horn shall arise in the midst of them.”
“In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules [Rome] shall be partitioned” (“Against Heresies,” book 5, chapter 25, paragraph 3; chapter 26, paragraph 1).
TERTULLIAN: 145 to 220 A.D.
Not many years later, Tertullian, quoting and commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2, wrote the following. He blends “the man of sin” prophecy with the prophecies of the ten-horned beast.
“Again, in the second epistle he [Paul] addresses them with even greater earnestness: ‘For that day shall not come, unless indeed there first come a falling away,’ he means indeed of this present empire, ‘and that man of sin be revealed,’ that is to say, Antichrist, ‘the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God… And now ye know what detaineth, that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now hinders must hinder, until he be taken out of the way.’ What obstacle is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which, by being scattered into ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon (its own ruins)?” (“Of the Resurrection of the Flesh,” chapter 24).
HIPPOLYTUS: 170 to 236 A.D.
A few years later yet, Hippolytus wrote “A Treatise on Christ and Antichrist.” While discussing Daniel 2 and 7, he wrote:
“The golden head of the image and the lioness denoted the Babylonians; the shoulders and arms of silver, and the bear, represented the Persians and Medes; the belly and thighs of brass, and the leopard, meant the Greeks, who held the sovereignty from Alexander’s time; the legs of iron, and the beast dreadful and terrible, expressed the Romans, who hold the sovereignty at present; the toes of the feet which were part clay and part iron, and the ten horns, were emblems of the kingdoms that are yet to rise; the other little horn that grows up among them meant the Antichrist in their midst” (paragraph 28).
CYRIL OF JERUSALEM: 315 to 386 A.D.
Moving to the fourth century, Cyril, after quoting 2 Thessalonians 2, said the following:
“Thus wrote Paul, and now is the ‘falling away’… now the Church is filled with heretics in disguise. For men have fallen away from the truth, and ‘have itching ears’… This therefore is ‘the falling away,’ and the enemy is soon to be looked for…
“But this aforesaid Antichrist is to come when the times of the Roman empire shall have been fulfilled, and the end of the world is now drawing near. There shall rise up together ten kings of the Romans, reigning in different parts perhaps, but all about the same time; and after these an eleventh, the Antichrist, who by his magical craft shall seize upon the Roman power…
” ‘So that he seateth himself in the temple of God.’ What temple then? He means, the Temple of the Jews which has been destroyed. For God forbid that it should be the one in which we are!” (Lecture 15, paragraphs 9,12,15).
Cyril, living before the fulfillment, preferred to think that “temple of God” meant the temple of the Jews. He recoiled from the idea of “the man of sin” sitting in the church. Nevertheless, the way he expresses himself shows that he understood that “temple of God” could well refer to the church. Many today miss this point.
CHRYSOSTOM: 347 to 407 A.D.
Later in the fourth century, Chrysostom wrote multitudes of homilies based on Scripture texts. In his Homily on 2 Thessalonians 2:6-9, he says:
“What then is it that withholdeth, that is, hindereth him from being revealed? Some indeed say, the grace of the Spirit, but others the Roman empire, to whom I most of all accede. Wherefore? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly… But because he said this of the Roman empire, he naturally glanced at it, and speaks covertly and darkly. For he did not wish to bring upon himself superfluous enmities, and useless dangers…
” ‘Only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way,’ that is, when the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come. And naturally. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exit himself, but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God” (paragraphs 1-2).
JEROME: 340 to 420 A.D.
Jerome wrote this first letter in 396 A.D. and the second in 409 A.D. Already the Roman Empire was in deep trouble from the barbarians.
“I shudder when I think of the catastrophes of our time… The Roman world is falling: yet we hold up our heads instead of bowing them…
“Rome’s army, once victor and Lord of the world, now trembles with terror at the sight of the foe” (Letter #60 to Heliodorus, paragraphs 16,17).
“But what am I doing? Whilst I talk about the cargo, the vessel itself founders. He that letteth [restrains] is taken out of the way, and yet we do not realize that Antichrist is near. Yes, Antichrist is near whom the Lord Jesus Christ ‘shall consume with the spirit of his mouth’…
“For thirty years the barbarians burst the barrier of the Danube and fought in the heart of the Roman Empire… Rome has to fight within her own borders not for glory but for bare life” (Letter #123 to Ageruchia, paragraphs 16, 17).
AUGUSTINE: 345 to 430 A.D.
In his famous “City of God,” Augustine wrote: “I can on no account omit what the Apostle Paul says, in writing to the Thessalonians, ‘We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ etc.
“No one can doubt that he wrote this of Antichrist and of the day of judgment, which he here calls the day of the Lord, nor that he declared that this day should not come unless he first came who is called the apostate… Then as for the words, ‘And now ye know what withholdeth,’ i.e., ye know what hindrance or cause of delay there is, ‘that he might be revealed in his own time;’ they show that he was unwilling to make an explicit statement, because he said that they knew… I frankly confess I do not know what he means. I will nevertheless mention such conjectures as I have heard or read.
“Some think that the Apostle Paul referred to the Roman empire, and that he was unwilling to use language more explicit, lest he should incur the calumnious charge of wishing ill to the empire which it was hoped would be eternal… But others think that the words, ‘Ye know what withholdeth,’ and ‘The mystery of iniquity worketh,’ refer only to the wicked and the hypocrites who are in the Church, until they reach a number so great as to furnish Antichrist with a great people, and that this is the mystery of iniquity” (book 20, chapter 19, paragraphs 1-3).
Christian writers of the second, third and fourth centuries have spoken. From these brief excerpts, we can make the following general observations of what was widely believed:
1) that Daniel 7, 2 Thessalonians 2, and Revelation 13 and 17 are interrelated, all prophesying about Rome.
2) that the little horn of Daniel 7 and the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to a future (to them) “antichrist.”
3) that the antichrist would appear when Rome fell; that the Roman Empire was that which, in their time, was restraining the rise of the “man of sin.”
A TINY WORD REGARDING THE “DARK AGES”
Before historical fulfillment, it was impossible for the early Christians to understand exactly what was going to transpire. But what is very impressive is that, being students of God’s prophetic Word, many of them rightly understood that the “man of sin” would appear when Rome fell.
Rome fell in 476 A.D. The bishop of Rome stepped into the vacuum and took the place of the Emperor. As the years went by, the popes gained incredible powers over the bodies and souls of men. Popes crowned emperors. In a clash between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, the Emperor was left standing barefoot in the snow for three days in January 1077, until Gregory withdrew his excommunication. This style of power lasted for centuries. The entire history of this period is well covered in the history books and is beyond the scope of this article.
THE REFORMERS KNEW THE TRUTH ABOUT ROME
Nearly a millennium after the last writers quoted–as early as the 13th century, if not before–one voice after another began to cry: “The pope of Rome is antichrist”; “the pope is the man of sin.” The voices grew louder and louder until a full-blown Reformation Movement took shape. From that day until recent times, Protestants have been united in calling the Roman Pontiff “the man of sin.”
Rather than prove this with endless quotations from Protestants over the centuries, let us rather see that both preterists and futurists admit this historical fact.
Gary DeMar, a modern preterist, totally rejects the idea that the pope is “the man of sin.” He thinks 2 Thessalonians 2 and related prophecies were fulfilled in the first century by Nero and the Jews. Nevertheless he admits:
“For centuries the papacy was the unanimous candidate for the Antichrist. The papal system was identified as ‘both “the man of sin” and the Babylonian whore of which Scripture forewarns (2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 19). In the conviction of the sixteenth-century Protestants, Rome was the great Anti-Christ, and so firmly did this belief become established that it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seriously questioned by evangelicals’ ” (“Last Days Madness,” page 207,208).
Again: “The Reformers, almost without exception, believed the ‘man of lawlessness’ to be the Roman Pontiff. In their dedication to the King James Version of the Bible (1611) the translators identified the Pope as the ‘man of sin’ of 2 Thessalonians 2: ‘The zeal of your majesty [King James] toward the house of God doth not slack or go backward but is more and more kindled, manifesting itself abroad in the farthest parts of Christendom by writing a defence of the truth which hath given such a blow to that man of sin as will not be healed’ ” (page 330). You will find this in the “Dedicatory” in the front of your King James Bible. Later in the same “Dedicatory,” the translators speak of “Popish Persons” on one hand and “Brethren” on the other hand.
Dave Hunt is a well-known futurist. He does believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the “whore” called Babylon in Revelation 17. However, being a futurist, he believes that the beasts of Revelation 13 and 17 are in the future, as are also the little horns of Daniel 7 and 8 and “the man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2. He believes the antichrist is probably alive now but will not be revealed until during “the tribulation” after “the rapture.” With all these beliefs, he yet admits:
“Early Protestant creeds unanimously called the Pope Antichrist.”
“It is only after the Russian Revolution that Christians began to view Communism as the Antichrist system. Yet for 400 years before 1917, Catholicism was so identified by Protestants” (“Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist,” pages 108, 136).
TURNING THEIR BACKS ON HISTORY
History shows that the early Christians understood that the antichrist would arise when Rome fell. History shows that they were right. History shows that when the Reformation came, preachers, politicians and the populace declared that the pope was “the man of sin,” the antichrist. History shows that the vast majority of Bible believers continued in this conviction until recent times. History shows that modern evangelicals are preaching a new doctrine when they refuse to believe that the pope is “the man of sin.”
To reject the pope of Rome as “the man of sin” is to forget those who were burned at the stake because they dared translate or even possess a Bible in any language but Latin! To deny that the pope is “the son of perdition” is to turn one’s back on the thousands of martyrs whose bodies were twisted and wrenched by the “Holy” Inquisition. To deny that the Roman Church is “the falling away” (apostasy) is to minimize the gross perversion of sound doctrine that still emanates from the Vatican.
Among the hottest items in the religious marketplace today are the sensational books and videos about “the rapture,” “the tribulation” and the “antichrist,” which the producers openly advertise as fiction. Instead of prophecy-fiction, it would be a far more beneficial use of time, money and energy to produce historical documentaries on the church of the Middle Ages. Truth is stranger and more startling than fiction. Those who think that a mere seven years of tribulation in our future could possibly be worse than the realities of the Dark Ages need to brush the dust off their history books.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)