Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Thessalonians 2:11

Whenever Scripture discusses end times scenarios we must take great care. Much of the apocalyptic genre as found in Daniel and Revelation can be laden with mysterious symbolism and so on which can be difficult to accurately interpret.

And even somewhat more straightforward discussions of eschatology in Scripture can still be difficult to fully understand. So care and humility is always vital as we deal with such passages. The particular verse I wish to discuss here is fully embedded in one such end times text.

The verse I wish to discuss is this: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie”. The bigger context of this passage is a discussion of the ‘man of lawlessness’ in 2:1-12. Simply trying to identify this man can be a full time job, and plenty of options have been suggested over the years.

delusionThe New Testament itself does not offer a precise identification of this character, so again, some caution is needed here. But the more immediate context of v. 11 is found in verses 9-12:

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

My intention here is not to even presume to seek to identify who this lawless one is, or when and where he might appear. My concern is more specifically to deal with the notion of God sending strong delusion. Is that something we expect a good God to do?

Is this not problematic for the believer who believes that God is a God of truth? Does our God actually delude? That will be the focus of this article: how we are to understand such sending of delusion. The first thing that can be said is we have in Scripture various causes mentioned for things that happen. A divine cause is often offered, but secondary causes can be mentioned as well.

Generally speaking – especially in the Old Testament – the sovereignty of God is so stressed that secondary causes do not get much attention. Satan himself is only mentioned a few times in the OT. But we have one classic passage where God does something, but we see responsibility being shared around.

I refer to the case of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as found in the book of Exodus. Around a dozen verses discuss this hardening, and we get at least three different takes on this. Many of the verses say that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart (eg., 7:3; 9:12; etc.). Sometimes the verses state that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (as in 8:15, 32). And sometimes the text simply says that his heart was hardened, without saying who was behind it (eg., 7:13, 14, 22).

So here we have a clear case of divine/human interplay. Sometimes God is said to be behind the hardening, sometimes Pharaoh himself, and sometimes we just read about the hardening. This of course takes us to the huge theological issue of the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

And of course as we especially find in the New Testament, a third party comes into play much more prominently: Satan. So in the Thessalonians passage we have a mix going on as well. As David Williams comments, God can use various things to serve his purposes, “(e.g., the lying spirits in the mouths of the false prophets, 1 Kings 22:23; Ezek. 14:9; cf. esp. 1 Chron. 21:1 with 2 Sam. 24:1 where the same action is attributed to Satan as to God)”.

He, like many other commentators, reminds us that Paul states in 2 Cor. 4:4 that it is Satan who blinds “the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ”. Thus in 2 Thess. 2:9-12 we see all three parties involved: God, who sends strong delusion; Satan, who uses deceptive signs and wonders; and the condemned, who choose to reject the truth, love wickedness, and thus believe a lie.

So it is not just a case of God deluding people, but of him working even with Satan and rebellious mankind to achieve his purposes. Just as God simply confirmed Pharaoh in the direction he had chosen for himself (that of a hardened heart), so too God confirmed the unbelief of these people and simply allowed them to go the whole way they had chosen.

As Ben Witherington comments:

In a sense Paul is saying that God allows those who refuse to love the truth to have the consequences of their choice, confirming them in their obduracy. This is more than just a matter of God judging or punishing sin with sin (Deut. 29:4; Isa. 6:9-10). It is a matter of God giving people up to a debased mind, God saying, “okay, if you insist, have it your way, including the consequences of such a choice.” Here we have an example of God not only allowing sinners to violate his will but allowing them the consequences of those violations, which ultimately means judgment, condemnation.

Or as G. K. Beale puts it,

God righteously sends delusion because it is a beginning part of his just judgment. . . . Paul confirms this in 2:10 and 12: God causes these people to be deluded because they refused to love the truth and so be saved and because they have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. Our text thus pictures the completion of the process portrayed as having begun in Romans 1:18-31 (see also 1 Kings 22:18-23).

The Romans 1 passage is certainly quite important in our understanding of the Thessalonians text. It too speaks about the rejection of truth, believing a lie, and delighting in evil. Gene Green says this of the Thessalonians passage:

Since they did not receive the truth of the gospel, God sends them confusion so that they cannot distinguish between the truth and the lie and, in the end, they believe the lie as if it were the truth. As strange as this kind of judgment may seem to us, it is in harmony with the biblical witness, which shows the way God gives sinners over to the very sin and error they have embraced (Ps. 80:12-13; Rom. 1:24, 26, 28; 11:8; 2 Tim. 4:4).

Lies and evil go together like truth and goodness do. They cannot be separated. Jesus made it clear in John 3:19-21 that people loved the darkness (lies) and rejected the truth because their deeds were evil. When we cling to sin and evil, we will always reject and despise the truth,

Let me conclude with some remarks from John Stott who, as is so often the case, presents us with theologically astute yet imminently practical comments for our consideration. He too makes the connection (as Paul does of course) between truth and goodness, lies and evil:

It is of great importance to observe that the opposite of ‘believing the truth’ is ‘delighting in wickedness’. This is because truth has moral implications and makes moral demands. Evil, not error, is the root problem. The whole process is grimly logical. First, they delight in wickedness, or ‘make sinfulness their deliberate choice’ (NEB). Secondly, they refuse to believe and love the truth (because it is impossible to love evil and truth simultaneously). Thirdly, Satan gets in and deceives them. Fourthly, God himself ‘sends’ them a strong delusion, giving them over to the lie they have chosen. Fifthly, they are condemned and perish. This is extremely solemn teaching. It tells us that the downward slippery path begins with a love for evil, and then leads successively to a rejection of the truth, the deception of the devil, a judicial hardening by God, and final condemnation. The only way to be protected from being deceived is to love goodness and truth. These, then, are the dynamics (devilish and divine) which lie behind the final rebellion.

So instead of taking umbrage at God and accusing him of doing things we think he ought not to do (eg., sending delusion), we need to see the big biblical picture of how sin and rebellion compound and multiply, with more sin and deception resulting, until truth is rejected, lies embraced, and God rejected.

God can only confirm such folks to their own fate. But while folks are not so far down that path, this passage serves as a powerful warning: don’t get to that place. Repent and turn from sin now. That is our hope. But to reject God and his truth condemns us to God’s just judgment.

We need to be making wise decisions now, before it is too late.

[1509 words]

8 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Thessalonians 2:11”

  1. And if we’re inclined to Calvinism we might use that as justification for those who’ve rejected the truth, and if Arminian we’ll lament Pharoah, his ilk and those of our friends and family who’ve chosen their subjective ‘light’.

  2. Amen. An illustration: The same sunshine can harden clay but also melt butter–opposite effects.
    God causes the sunshine to heat up the lives of righteous & the wicked (or, as Jesus said, the rain falls on the just & on the unjust).
    One person responds by moving toward God, but the other responds to the same stimulus by moving away from God.

  3. It’s worth mentioning that in every other scripture the term translated “lawless one” i.e. the Greek “anomos” meaning without law, is translated as plural – not a single person. It is very similar to Apostate in its Biblical use as meaning lawlessness (and rebellion.)

    See the other places “anomos” is used in Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, Acts 2:23, 1 Tim 1:9, 2 Pet 2:8, 1 1 Cor 9:21

    This would suggests strongly that we are looking at a trend (as we now see and as mentioned in other prophetic scriptures) not a specific person.

  4. Just to clarify: The state of being lawless is singular but that does not mean that there is only one person in that state.
    The interesting thing about this scripture, of course, is that the lawless need to be” revealed.” In every other scripture those that are lawless are considered obviously so but not here. I believe part of the key is in 1 Cor 9:91 where Paul, in his discourse about attempting to be all things to all people so that he can win them to Christ, illustrates that while the New Testament is about grace from the OT law, it is in fact, being God’s word, also a law.

    1Co 9:21 To those who are outside Law (anomois), I became as outside Law (anomos) (not being outside law to God (anomos Theo), but under the Law to Christ (ennomos Christos)), so that I might gain those who are outside Law (anomos).

    In other words to bring the lawless to God Paul became a little lax in his adherence to the OT law while ensuring that he was still covered and not lawless and being careful to ensure he was still adhering to Jesus’ law.

    I believe the reason why the lawless have to be “revealed” is because although they are obviously outside the OT law, these people are also outside the law of Christ. By proving that they don’t trust in and rely on Jesus’ words, they have actually proven that they don’t believe in Jesus and as all true believers know, if you don’t believe in Jesus you are not saved. They are both OT anomos and NT anomos. I think this actually ties in with, as I recall Bill, your excellent piece about believing in Jesus.

    This also ties in with the Beast of Revelation 13. The “powerful delusion” is in the powerful secular humanist beliefs that arise, largely through modern technology, that convince people that Jesus’ words are not true. One of the interesting things about the mark of the Beast is that Chi is written in Greek as an “X”, Xi is written in our modern Latin alphabet as an “X” and stigma is a variant of sigma that was only used at the end of words and the word “stigma” means a mark. I believe the symbolism here is that people with all three marks have shown themselves “anomos” under the old law, “anomos” under the new law and also not covered by the unwritten law which is the Word that is God which is His natural mercy.

  5. This is all because God created Man free-in-standing-with-God, not free-standing. There must be a particular person arise from the “free-stand” perversion of Gods’ true life in Man, because He created Adam, who fell, as head of the race in Him. Satan is working his evil mystery out by lies, in envious opposition to God who is working His glorious mystery of His truth – the gospel – out to the revelation of the true Head the Second/Last Adam Jesus, at His coming/appearing. SDG!

  6. Sometimes it seems to me that people want God to be some “airy-fairy” being, way out there speaking in riddles and having little to do with His creation.

    When God commissions Moses to lead His people out of Egypt He says “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).

    Now I’ve never seen anyone suggest that Moses already had the power to bring the plagues onto Egypt etc. and God just worked with him to achieve His purposes. Why not?

    See in the one (English) sentence God says “I’m going to do A and I’m going to do B” and somehow in some peoples minds A is true but B a metaphore (or something like that).

    Is God incapable of speaking clearly? It was Moses who said “I have never been eloquent, … for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”, not God.

    God created the universe including man, including Pharaoh (Gen 1);
    God gave Pharaoh authority over Egypt (Rom 13:1);
    God “raised (Pharaoh) up to demonstrate (His) power in (him)” (Rom 9:17);

    So God says He would harden the heart of someone He created; someone who belonged to Him; someone over whom He had full and total authority; someone He was using to bring about the redemption of man through the sacrifice of His Only Son on the cross and people go “Ahhhhh! No; Not fair; Don’t believe it; Can’t happen; God’s not like that”.

    Are they really saying something like “I am in control here; I am the master of my fate; I have a FREE WILL that is more sacred than God and He must bow down to it, He cannot violate me and my FREE WILL decisions?”

    We’re a bit sensitive in this area aren’t we? Maybe our sinful nature has something to do with it eh?

  7. “So instead of taking umbrage at God and accusing him of doing things WE THINK he ought not to do” (emphasis mine)

    Is not that partly why we consider this a “Difficult Bible Passage” Bill? We have our idea of what God is like and balk at the suggestion that He might actually be a bit different?

  8. Oh such wisdom spoken of here.
    Hunger within us for more and more love of Father’s law brings with this more hunger more seeking. Oh if only the sleeping church would cease from from saying the laws been done away with and knuckle down into loving the law, the evil delusional teaching of that anathema that’s legalisim would not ever be heard from professing theological minds.

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