There is a phrase in the Scriptures that, while speaking of mystery, is itself a bit mysterious and is 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 translations (accurately) render it as the “mystery of lawlessness” but that has less of a ring to it.
The Latin root of the English word “iniquity” is iniquitas (in (not) + aequus (equal)), meaning unjust or harmful. But the Greek μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας (mysterion tes anomias) is probably best rendered as “mystery of lawlessness.”
Language issues aside, Paul almost seems to be writing in a kind of secret code:
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 holding back the lawless one, we moderns struggle to know. Some scholars say that Paul is referring to the Roman government (which I doubt). Others say that it is the power of grace and God’s decision to “restrain” the evil one and thereby limit his power a bit for the time being. Of course if Satan is limited now, what horrifying things will be set loose when he is no longer restrained! Can it get any worse? Apparently it can!
But there it is in the seventh verse; even before the lawless one is set loose there already exists the “mystery of iniquity,” the mystery of lawlessness. That phrase comes down through the centuries to us, provoking us to ponder 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 already here and operative.
Hence I propose that we ponder the “mystery of iniquity,” which is already here. I’d like to explore how it affects us, both personally and collectively. In doing so, we cannot ignore the operative word “mystery.” We must ponder with humility, realizing that we are confronting a mystery, some of which is revealed but much of which is hidden. Therefore I do not propose to “explain” this phrase to you, but rather to ponder its mystery and confront its questions so as to draw us to reverence and a deeper sense of our need for salvation.
Let’s look at the mystery of iniquity in five parts, wherein we ponder the mysterious reality of lawlessness that seems so operative among us, individually and collectively.
I. 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 evil, knowing that it is evil? This is mysterious.
Some argue that, on account of Original Sin, our will has 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 consistently choose to do that which we know is wrong and harmful.
Some argue that we are actually choosing 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. We know 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.” And knowing this, we still do it.
Are we weak? Yes, but that is not the complete answer. Deep down we know this and thus we stare once again into the face of the “mystery of iniquity.”
II. The Even Stranger Mystery of the Angelic Rebellion – The mysteries only deepen when we consider that this is not just a human problem; 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, too, there was a great rebellion. Scripture more than hints at the fact that a third of the Angels fell from Heaven in a war of rebellion, before the creation of man (cf Rev 12:4).
Thus, ascribing 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 intellect far more glorious than ours, would knowingly reject what is good, true, and beautiful. Here is the deep “mystery of iniquity” having nothing to do with the flesh, or with sensuality, or with human limits. It is raw, intellectual, willful rebellion against the good by intellects and creatures far superior to us. The mystery only deepens.
III. 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 for both God and for us? Surely God foresaw that huge numbers of angels and human beings would reject Him. It is a seemingly enormous price to pay 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. Perhaps God, who is love, saw love as so magnificent that even its rejection buy some could not overrule its glory in those who accepted it. Seeking beloved children rather than robots or animals was so precious to God that he risked losing some, even many, in order to gain some.
Others speculate that, at least in this fallen world, contrast is necessary to highlight the glory of truth. For what is light if there is no darkness to contrast with it? What is justice if there is no injustice to contrast with it? What is the glory of our yes if there is not a no that can also be uttered?
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 rather than to serve in heaven; why so many obstinately refuse to trust in God and obey even simple commands that they know are ultimately good for them. The glory of our freedom and our intellect are abused. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest struggles. Liberty becomes license; lasciviousness and intellect become insubordination and intransigence. Corruptio optime pessima! (The corruption of the best is the worst!)
IV. The Deepest Part of Mystery: the final Refusal to Repent. Many today like to blame God for Hell, and they particularly scoff at the notion that Hell is eternal. But as the Catechism teaches, the eternity of Hell is not due to a defect in Divine Mercy (# 393). Rather, Hell is eternal because the decision of the damned is irrevocable.
Mysteriously, the stubbornness and hardness of heart of the damned reached a point of no return. How does a soul end up in this state? It is mysterious but surely it happens gradually. Sin is added upon sin and the hardness of heart grows. The demands of God’s justice seem to be increasingly more obnoxious. The hardened soul starts to sneer at God’s law as intolerant, backwards, and simplistic. Of course God’s law is none of these things, but as the darkness grows within a heart, the light seems more and more 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 at 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.
V. So 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, stubbornness, and hardness of heart; 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 most minor prohibition makes the thing seem all the more desirable to us. 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. It is the deep, almost unfathomable mystery of our very own iniquity, our lawlessness, our irrational refusal to be under any law or restraint.
Like all mysteries, perhaps it is not meant to be solved. Rather, it is meant to be accepted and to cause us to turn to God, who alone understands. The mystery of iniquity is so profound and so terrifying that it should send us running to God as fast as we can exclaiming, “Lord save me from myself: my obtuseness, my hardened heart, my rebelliousness, my iniquity. Save me from the lawlessness in me! I cannot understand it, let alone save myself from it! Only you, Lord, can 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 that 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 that we are “fooling no one but ourselves.” But we do it anyway. It’s foolish and mysterious!
6 Replies to “The Mystery of Iniquity – A Meditation on the Mystery of Rebelliousness”
St. Paul mentions this mystery in Romans, too. He laments a mystery of sin in our “members”. I think part of the curse not only banned us from the garden, but to a certain servitude to Satan. Adam and Eve sold the human race into slavery of the evil one. Our sanctification daily is the process of being freed! Our death bed are the place of final decision. Who do we wish as Master? The Good God or the wicked Satan father of iniquity and lawlessness.
being nice–right and wrong–trying to love my brother. life is 4 the living. takers never giving….if you get on the wrong side of me…here comes the end…
Yes, quite a bizarre and angry song, emblematic of its day.
Excellent article Monsignor…and very thought provoking. The lawlessness that you describe seems to have a mysterious appeal in these modern times. From a pastoral perspective, it is afflicting many people in different walks of life, but it has really affected young men who have abandoned their training and religious upbringing to go into sexual hedonism…both heterosexual and homosexual. It is also evident in the rise of “rave” sub-culture, and similar substance abuse environments. The “lawlessness” is the underlying raison d’etre…a fundamental rejection of God. Your prayer at the end of your article, asking God every day to be delivered from this, is most appealing and needed.
I recommend a good book, which I hope to make into an adult education presentation during Lent: The Noonday Devil…Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times” by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
Is it a rejection of God or the rejection of the natural and spiritual hierarchy God created to guide man to heaven? Our culture tells us that submission is a sign of weakness. I think that is one of the reasons why the Catholic Church is so disliked by the feminists, modernists etc. To be part of God’s Kingdom we must submit.
In my own reflections on the “mystery of iniquity” I have taken a sort of biological approach.
Man is fundamentally a mammal, and shares much mammalian biology with other creatures on the planet. Man is very much biologically like animals. In nature shows, the actions and behaviors of mammals, and even non-mammals such as reptiles and birds, are described. I think it’s more than a little true that given human beings are the observers and recorders of animal behavior, there must be at least a little “projection” of themselves into any explanations they offer as to the behavior of animals.
But that aside, if we think at the basis, of man as just another animal on the planet, then it becomes apparent the drives and impulses of animals are operative in man too. But then Scripture reveals to us that man is different, that God gave man a soul, a part of the Divine Self, and this is an additional aspect of man, one animals don’t have. But having that soul doesn’t negate the mammalian animal drives that are a function of our biology.
So for humans, the challenge is to gain control and channel our mammalian based, physical, biological drives, such as the desire to fight, to kill, to steal, to covet, to have sex, to seek pleasure – things we see in other creatures (who are guiltless because they have no ability to temper these drives) and choose against these drives, using our rational mind and soul to help create (as a partner with God) societies not functioning out of the “law of the jungle” but according to the law of God.
So the way I see it, each of us can move along a continuum – acting and responding out of our most base animalistic impulses (like a bear who might fight and kill another bear for a den, or a spot to hunt, or even to prevent the young from being born or growing up), to moderately controlling our impulses but sometimes when seeing an immediate advantage (like stealing a $20 bill someone is not watching, or lying to get advantage over another) taking it, to (almost) full control over these impulses (sacrificial love, ignoring apparent worldly gain for the promise of eternal life, looking past our own interests for the good of others.) So God gives us basic functions, and our soul helps us choose His functions.
Why do we do wrong we know is wrong? I see it as not resisting the animalistic impulse that is always with us, in order to get some immediate or short term gain, hoping we will be able to get something and not pay. It never works, but our animal brain is not very sophisticated, and acts more on impulse than reflection, and thinks it will. If we don’t get caught, it thinks, we win. But then the soul realizes, we were caught even as we conceived the idea to do the wrong, because God saw.
Additionally, the more we get in a habit of acting in one way or the other, we set ourselves in almost stone – making the pathways of our brain actually change (I have no proof for this) and so experience what we call “hardening of the heart.” Our ways of acting and responding become less and less voluntary and more well worn habits of mind. Our soul reminds us we are doing wrong, but our mind rationalizes these things, so we absolve ourselves of guilt, and reject the impulses of the soul in favor of the impulses of the biological self.
I know this is not a sophisticated well fleshed out idea of the mystery of iniquity, but I thought I would share it you to look at it another way. It’s how I tend to think of it. It allows me to have understanding and compassion for those who are caught more toward the animalistic way of living, without excusing them.
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