The sum total teaching of eschatology would seem to indicate that a number of things must first happen before the end: a comprehensive completion of the going out of the Gospel to all the nations, widespread acceptance by Israel that Christ is in fact the Messiah, the emergence of an antichrist figure who will deceive the nations, a final, intensive and unprecedented unleashing of evil, etc. (For more on this and for biblical references, see what I have written here: Some basics of eschatology.) And while some claim that many of these have already been accomplished, we do well to heed the caution of St. Paul, who says,
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess 2:1-4).
So, using the Spirit’s caution through St. Paul, we do well not to conclude too quickly that the end is close at hand, though Christ can surely come anyway “on a sudden.”
However, the same text from St. Paul does describe certain things that precede the end—things that are more clearly in place today.
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work … in those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:10-12).
Now we are clearly living in an age when strong delusion has come upon many. Indeed many seem deeply and profoundly confused as to the basic concepts of human sexuality, the existence of God, and the dignity of human life. Strong delusion is required for the human person to justify the killing of innocent children in the womb. Strong delusion is required for a human person to think that homosexual acts are natural, when any look at the design of the body profoundly indicates otherwise. Strong delusion is required for a human person to think that suicide is to be praised and is even “courageous.” Strong delusion is required for a person to look at a world that is so clearly designed and governed, and ascribe it all to mindless, blind, totally random mutation.
Indeed a strong delusion is upon many today. Elsewhere, St. Paul also says of those deluded in this way (especially in matters of homosexuality),
But they became vain in their thinking and their foolish minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:21,26-27).
So it is clear today that the initial requirements for the coming of the lawless one are increasingly in place. A strong delusion has come upon many that will usher in a rebellion and cause the lawless one to be widely accepted. For again, as St. Paul said above, for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first.
And the text speaks of the cause for this delusion. On a human level, the delusion and rebellion result from that fact that, as St. Paul says, they refused to love the truth and so be saved … [they] did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
So, yielding to their passions (pleasures), and preferring unrighteousness, they refused to love the truth. And do not be mistaken that this refusal is rooted merely in ignorance. No, God has written His truth in the heart of every human person; His voice echoes in the conscience of every human person. God has also written His truth in the book of creation. Therefore, St. Paul says elsewhere,
What may be known about God is plain to all, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that such people are without excuse (Rom 1:19-20).
Thus we are not typically dealing with ignorance. Rather, we are dealing with resistance and rejection. The delusion and rebellion of our times is the result of a preference for sinful pleasures and an active resistance to the truth written on the human heart and in creation. Many, many prefer the darkness of delusion to the light of truth.
Where are we now in an eschatological sense? It is arguable that we are in the midst of the rebellion and that in fact a strong delusion has come upon many, many people. It is this delusion and rebellion that foreshadows what will happen next: and the man of lawlessness will be revealed.
This does not mean that the lawless one or the antichrist will come next year. Some may argue that times of darkness have come and gone before. However, both the rapidity of the rebellion and the steep decline into deepening darkness present a strong argument for the fact that we, through human sinfulness, are laying the groundwork for the coming of the lawless one, whose unreasonable demands will only make “sense” to a people who have abandoned reason and the clarity of the true faith.
And what of the part of the text that says, “God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false”? Texts like this point to God’s permitting of such things due to his respect for our freedom. God is the primary cause of everything, in that He holds all things in existence and “facilitates” all that happens. The Bible and the ancient world were more comfortable in speaking to this reality of God’s primary causality. A text like this does not mean that God wishes or delights in delusion or rebellion. It means only that He does not withdraw existence from those who do what He detests, and as such He indirectly facilitates it. He does this for the sake of a greater good: our freedom, which is necessary for our love and faith.
So here we are in the midst of a time of rebellion and deep delusion, one that may be serious enough to usher in the final stages. Stay sober, my friends. I do not usually predict the end, but when I do, I look to texts like these, which show the outer bands of a coming storm.