It is a phrase in the Scriptures that, while speaking of mystery, is itself a bit mysterious and debated among scholars, The “Mystery of Iniquity.” St. Paul mentions it in Second Thessalonians and ties it to an equally mysterious “Man of iniquity” who will appear before the Second Coming of Jesus. Many modern translators (accurately) render it “Mystery of Lawlessness” but it has less of a ring.
The Latin root of iniquity is iniquitas, meaning “unjust,” or “harmful” is: in (not) + aequus (equal). But the Greek μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας (mysterion tes anomias) is probably best rendered, “Mystery of lawlessness.”
Language issues aside, Paul almost seems to be writing in a kind of secret code. And thus, he writes:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 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. 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. 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. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the mystery 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. 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. (2 Thess 2:1-8)
Although St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they know what is hold back the lawless one, we moderns struggle to know. Some modern scholars say he refers to the Roman Government (which I doubt). Others say it is the power of Grace and the decision of of God to “restrain” the evil one and thereby limit his power a bit, for now. Of course if Satan is limited now, what horrifying things will be set loose when he is no longer restrained! Can it get worse? Apparently!
But there it is, in the seventh verse, even before the Lawless one be set loose, there already exists the “mystery of iniquity” the mystery of lawlessness. And that phrase also rings down the centuries even unto us, provoking a pondering of its rich meaning.
Yet the danger is that we can focus too much on “the man of iniquity” who is not yet fully here, and fail to ponder the present reality which is already operative. As St. Paul says, For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Yes, the danger is that we focus on the future, which is murky, and ignore the present which is here and operative.
Hence I propose we ponder a bit the “mystery of iniquity” which is already here. I’d like to explore how it effects us personally and collectively. Yet even as I propose this, we cannot ignore the operative word “mystery” which suggests here that whatever we ponder of it must be done with humility and the realization that we are confronting a mystery, something revealed but much of which lies hid. I therefore do not propose to to “explain’ this phrase to you, but to ponder its mystery and confront its questions, so as to draw us to reverence and a deeper sense of our need for salvation.
Lets look at the mystery of iniquity from three vantage points, wherein we can ponder the mysterious reality of lawlessness that seems so operative among us individually and collectively.
1. The Strange Mystery of “Rational Man’s” Irrationality – Why do we, who are otherwise rational creatures, choose to do that which we know is wrong? Why do we choose to do that which we know causes harm to ourselves and others; which endangers us, threatens and compromises our future, and further weakens us? Why do we choose an evil, know that it is evil? This is mysterious.
Some argue that, on account of Original Sin, our will have been weakened and thus we easily give way to temptation. While this offers some further insight into what we do, it does not ultimately solve the mystery. For at the end of the day, there is still the deeply mysterious truth that we still choose to do that which we know is wrong and harmful; and that we do this consistently as a human family.
Some argue, that we are actually choose what we perceive to be good. But here too, despite our darkened intellects and our tendency to lie to ourselves, deep down we really know better; that choosing evil leads to harm in the long run, and our conscience tells us, “This is wrong, it’s a lie, don’t do it.” But knowing this, we still do it.
Weak? Yes, but this not the full answer, deep down we know this and thus, we stare once again into the face of “the mystery of iniquity.”
2. The Even Stranger Mystery of the Angelic Rebellion – The mysteries only deepen when we consider that the problem is not merely a human one, it is also an angelic one. The presence of demons revealed to us by Scripture and by our own experience, speaks to the reality of fallen angels.
Yes, among the angels to there was a great rebellion. Scripture more than hints at the fact that the third of Angels fell from heaven in a war of rebellion, before the creation of Man (cf Rev 12:4).
Thus, the attempt above to ascribe iniquity and lawlessness to human weakness is not, and cannot be a complete answer.
It is exceedingly hard and mysterious to ponder how Angels, with a nature and intellects far more glorious than ours, would knowingly reject what was good, true and beautiful. Yes, here too is the deep “Mystery of Iniquity” having nothing to do with the flesh, or sensuality, or human limits. It is raw intellectual and willful rebellion against the Good, by intellects and creatures far superior to us. The mystery only deepens.
3. The Awful Mystery of the Corruption of What is Best and Brightest – The intellect, and free will, are arguably God’s greatest gifts. But why then do they come with such a high price both for God and for us? Surely God for saw that huge numbers of angels and human beings would reject him. It is a seemingly enormous price for free intellect and will.
Some will answer, that God also saw the magnificent love and beauty that would be ushered in by those who accepted him and the glorious vision of his truth. And yes, perhaps God, who is Love, saw love as so magnificent, that even its rejection buy some cannot overrule its glory in those who accept it. Seeking beloved children rather than robots or merely instinctual animals was so precious to God that he risked loosing some, even many, to gain some.
Some others speculate that, at least in this fallen world, contrast is necessary to highlight glory of truth. For what is light if there is no darkness to contrast it? What is justice if there is no injustice to contrast it? What is the glory of our “yes” if there is not a “no” that can also be uttered?
But still, even these reasonable speculations, cannot fully address the mystery of why so many men and angels reject what is good, true, and beautiful; why so many prefer to reign in hell than serve in heaven; why so many obstinately refuse to trust in God, and obey even simple commands we know are ultimately good for us. The glory of our freedom and our intellect are abused. Our greatest strengths are also the locus of our greatest struggle. Liberty becomes license and lasciviousness and intellect becomes insubordination and intransigence. Corruptio optime pessima!
4. The Deepest Part of Mystery – The final Refusal to Repent. Many today like to blame God for Hell, and particularly scoff at the notion that Hell is eternal. But as the Catechism teaches, the eternity of Hell is not due to defect in Divine Mercy (# 393). Rather Hell is eternal because the decision of the damned is irrevocable.
Mysteriously their stubbornness and hardness had reached a point of no return. How does a soul end up in this state? It is mysterious, but surely it grows little by little. Sin is added upon sin, and the hardness of heart grows. The demands of God’s justice come increasingly to seem obnoxious, and the hardened soul starts to sneer at God’s law as intolerant, backwards, simplistic and so forth. Of course God’s law is none of these things, but as the darkness grows in a heart the light seems obnoxious and hateful. Soon enough concepts such as forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity, and chastity seem wildly “unrealistic,” even ludicrous.
When does a soul reach the point of no return; is it death, or sometime before? It is hard to say. But here we reach the deepest part of the mystery of iniquity, the permanently unrepentant heart. It is very dark and very, very mysterious.
5. We are back to the “mystery of iniquity.” Our little tour of “explanations” has yielded only crumbs. We are back to confronting our mysterious rebelliousness, our stubbornness, and hardness of heart; back to our almost knee-jerk tendency to bristle when we are told what to do, even if we know it to be good for us and others. Even the smallest rule, or forbiddence makes it seemingly all the more desirable, and there lurks that strange rebellious voice that says: “I will not be told what to do! I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.”
Yes, at the end of the day, we are left looking squarely at a mystery, a deep, almost unfathomable mystery of iniquity, our very own iniquity, our lawlessness, our irrational refusal to be under any law or restraint.
Perhaps like all mysteries, it is not meant to be solved, is meant to be accepted and to cause us to turn to God who alone understands. Indeed, if we are honest, the mystery of iniquity that is so profound, is also terrifying and should send us running to God as fast as we can exclaiming: “Lord save me from myself, from my own obtuse and hardened heart, from the deep mystery of rebelliousness, iniquity and lawlessness in me! I cannot understand it, let alone save myself from it! Only you Lord and save me from my greatest threat, my greatest enemy, my very self.
Yes, the great mystery of iniquity. St. Paul says only this, the mystery of iniquity is already at work. But he does not say why or even how. He only says God can restrain it.
Yes, only God can restrain and explain:
More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:9-10).
Here is a song from my youth that celebrates rebellion, iniquity, and lawlessness. The refrain admits “Fooling no one, but ourselves.” But we (collectively) do it anyway. Foolish and mysterious!