Last week in the Breviary we read First and Second Thessalonians, which are important source texts for such considerations. I’d like to look at a critical passage from Second Thessalonians, which lays out some important principles for us in the last days, balancing caution with teaching us about the signs that will point to His coming (though not the exact date).
The passages from 2 Thessalonians are presented in bold italics; my commentary follows each selection.
I. Reserve – Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way.
We begin with the need for reserve. St. Paul is teaching that we are not to rush to judgment, concluding that the Day of the Lord is at hand. And this remains true today, some 2000 years later. He teaches that in these matters we are easily deceived.
If we do give way to rash conclusions and hold to a certainty of the Day of Judgment, we violate the most basic principle of eschatology.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man … Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matt 24: 36-44).
That said, there are certain signs that the Lord gave concerning the close of the age. St. Paul speaks of some of them in Thessalonians. The catechism enumerates them as follows:
1. the going forth of the Gospel to the ends of the earth,
2. a widespread conversion of the Jews,
3. a significant trial and persecution of the Church,
4. a great and widespread rebellion or apostasy,
5. the arising of a “man of lawlessness,” who will deceive the nations and lead many astray, including many Christians who will reject the faith (apostasy), and
6. a final unleashing of grave evil for a brief time.
I have written extensively about the Catechism’s teaching HERE.
II. Rebellion – For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first.
St. Paul speaks of a widespread rebellion that must first take place. This suggests that the faith has been accepted, but is now cast off. Those who rebel are those who, once having the law, cast it aside.
We are without doubt living in times of a great falling away from the faith that can be called, properly understood, a great apostasy. Again, to say that there is a falling away from faith means that, at one time, the faith was possessed but then later rejected.
In our times this is true of both individuals and cultures. Indeed, many of us lament the decline in Mass attendance and express dismay that so many who were raised as Catholics have not only left the practice of the faith but also live apart from her moral and doctrinal teachings, which have been handed on from ancient times. This is not just a statistic; it affects many in a deeply personal way. Many parents lament the departure from the faith of their children, for whom they sacrificed so that they could attend Catholic schools, and to whom they sought to hand on the faith they themselves had received.
Yes, these are difficult times, times of a great rejection of the very faith that made the culture. Many now live off the carcass of a culture built by the Christian vision of sacrifice, discipline, tolerance (properly understood), family, generosity, and accountability to God.
But is this the rebellion of which St. Paul speaks? That remains to be seen, but it is without doubt a rebellion that is wide and deep in the formerly Christian West. Arguably, the rebellion extends far beyond the Christian West, to the Far East and deep into the southern hemisphere. Surely the ease with which we communicate around the globe today has assisted in making this rebellion so widespread.
III. Revelation – And then the lawless one will be revealed … The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception … And the man of lawlessness [will be] revealed, the son of destruction, 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.
And after or perhaps in the midst of this rebellion, the lawless one will be revealed. Whoever he is, he will have widespread, worldwide appeal as well as the ability to mislead many if not the vast majority.
Here, too, we see the ominous fact that the modern age has made possible such a leader who could have worldwide impact.
But this does not mean that he is here now, or that he will be here soon, only that the capacity for instant worldwide communication has made this possible. While some have wanted to identify the man of lawlessness (sometimes called the antichrist) as Hitler, or the President of the United Nations, or certain United States presidents, none of these figures seem to qualify. None of them have led the whole world astray; their impact has been limited chronologically and geographically. For example, Hitler did lead many astray and conquered large parts of Europe, but entire nations together rose up against him. They were not deceived by Hitler, who is now in a stone-cold tomb.
So it would seem that the lawless one has yet to appear.
Yet it must also be said that with the rise of secularism, atheism, and strident anti-theism, the stage is increasingly being set for someone who can easily oppose himself (as St. Paul says) to every aspect of God and worship of God and who will be able to exalt himself in the place of God. Perhaps he will be a great scientist who claims to be able to create life and to explain every aspect of what we ascribe to God.
In so doing, he will deceive many. Science can say what and how, but it cannot say why. And no matter how advanced science or industry gets, it can never make something from nothing. But many are easily deceived by those who use existing matter and claim they have “created.”
Whatever the deception that comes, there’s clearly a lot of groundwork that is been laid for such a man of lawlessness: instant worldwide communication, rampant secularism and atheism, and arrogant anthropocentrism.
IV. Remember – Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?
Paul simply asks us to remember, to allow these teachings to be present to our mind and heart so that when these things unfold we will not be deceived. Jesus also instructed the disciples as to what was to come so that when these things did come they would not be led astray: These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling (Jn 16:1).
V. Restraint – And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.
Here St. Paul teaches us that something is currently restraining the lawless one from appearing. If he could, Satan would push the matter right now, but something is restraining him. What is it? Certainly it is God. But the means by which God accomplishes this is most likely the Church. Through grace, the power of the Sacraments, the proclaimed Word, and the liturgy, Satan’s power is restrained in certain ways.
But at some point known only to God, even this restraining power will no longer be enough and the lawless one’s time will come; he will appear.
Does this mean that the Church will grow weak? Perhaps, but not in any absolute sense, for the Lord has said, I am with you all days, unto the end of the age (Mat 28:20). But arguably, if a large number of Catholics fall away from the faith, there will be fewer prayers being said, fewer graces bestowed, and less light in a dark world. Jesus did ask, poignantly, When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? (Lk 18:8) But even if we do shrink in numbers, the Church is indefectible; she will be here to the end.
So the best explanation seems to be that there will come a time when the Lord will no longer restrain the evil one from making his final attack.
Why God allows this is even more mysterious; it is somehow tied up in our freedom and in a certain Job-like purification that God permits for the Church. And this leads to St. Paul’s stated reason for the coming of the lawless one.
VI. Reason – [This lawless one will come] for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The text speaks of God as sending a strong delusion on many so that they may believe what is false. We must be careful in interpreting these sorts of descriptions. They certainly refer to the primary causality that God has in everything that happens. Being the sustainer of all things, God is always the first cause of everything that takes place.
However, a text like this should not be seen to mean that God forces people to believe error. Rather, He is allowing to become plainly visible what was already the case in the will and the mind of those who are rebellious. Prior to the strong delusion that God permits, they had already (as St. Paul says) taken pleasure in unrighteousness and did not believe the truth. These are descriptions of the human will; God permitting the strong delusion simply makes plain but was already operative.
VII. Result – the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
So in the end God wins. God always wins; the truth always conquers. Many today are easily bewildered by the apparent triumph of evil in our world, but it is only temporary; it is but a watch in the night that the dawn will scatter. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). One of the Psalms says, I have seen my enemy towering and triumphant; I passed by again and he was gone, I looked for him but he could not be found (Ps 37:36). Yet another Psalm says, Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Ps 30:5).
Do not be dismayed, fellow Catholics, at the current darkness. Whether this is the final end, or merely another ripple in the storm-tossed sea of history is yet to be known. But this much is clear: the darkness cannot endure; dawn inevitably comes. The cross always wins; Satan always loses. Satan will have his moments, but God has have His day. Satan may be the prince of this world, but Jesus is the Lord of history and all creation. The victory is already His. It’s just that the news has not yet leaked out to his persistent enemies, who are playing for the losing team.
This text is clear: whatever the apparent glamour of evil, Jesus, by His glorious appearance, will bring Satan and all of his works to nothing.