Who is the Man of Lawlessness?

This lesson examines the various theories put forth to explain the identity of the "Man of Lawlessness" Paul refers to in this epistle.
Class by:
9 of 12

These letters contain two major ideas:

  1. Thanksgiving for the faithfulness and perseverance of this young church in the face of adversity.
  2. Important teaching concerning the return of Christ.

The first letter contained information about the actual return of Christ and what would happen to believers of that time. The second letter describes key events that must take place before the return of the Lord. This was necessary teaching because there were some who had begun to say that Christ had already come or His coming was imminent.

In his second letter Paul reassures them that the "day" had not yet come because other events had to take place first:

  • The Apostasy – the falling away of believers from the truth.
  • The revelation of the Man of Lawlessness as his restraining influence is removed.

Previously, I said that the falling away from the teachings of Christ had already begun. In this chapter we are going to look at the possible identification of the Man of Lawlessness and his restraining influence.

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.
- II Thessalonians 2:1-10

There have been several theories about who or what the Man of Lawlessness might be. Let's review the 4 main ones:

1. The Roman Empire

It's easy to see why early Christians might think that the Roman Empire was the Man of Lawlessness.

  • It opposed Christianity
  • It demanded worship of the emperor as god
  • It promoted great evil

The restraining power was thought to be the actual Roman government which kept the emperor's power in check. This theory falls apart however, because the Scripture says that the Man of Lawlessness would be there, even at the end, and be destroyed by Jesus' coming. The Roman Empire and her emperors are long gone and so cannot fulfill this portion of Paul's prophecy.

2. Satan

Some think that Satan himself is the Man of Lawlessness. The idea is that he works behind the scenes to create and promote evil, and then one day actually becomes human in some form in order to personify the Man of Lawlessness. Many popular movies have used this idea (The Exorcist, Damien, Rosemary's Baby, Devil's Advocate).

In this theory, the Holy Spirit (perhaps working through the Word) is the restraining influence. The theory is that the Holy Spirit will be removed at the end so Satan can take human form and be destroyed by Jesus before he takes over the world.

There are some problems with this explanation as well:

  • Verse 9 says that Satan is directing this person. Satan does not divide himself.
  • There is no indication that the Holy Spirit is ever restrained by anyone other than an individual sinful Christian.
  • No one can restrain the Holy Spirit's power working in someone else's life.
  • Revelation 20:1-3 shows that Satan in being restrained for 1,000 years (The New Testament period) and the agent of that restraining power is an angel (not the Holy Spirit).
  • Before the coming of Christ, Satan deceives the world with great power. After the cross and the gospel is preached, Satan's power is much diminished.

Therefore, something else (through Satan's remaining power) and someone else (manipulated by him) will manifest himself. The fact that he will be released suggests a great release of evil power present at the end, just before Jesus returns.

3. The Papacy

The institution of the papacy within Christianity fits well with the activity of the apostasy and the idea of the Man of Lawlessness. It is a favorite theory of evangelicals and extreme fundamentalists. Some of the pluses for this theory:

  • It happens within Christianity and it is very visible.
  • It grew out of the roots of apostasy sown in the first and second centuries.

The reorganization of the New Testament church from a local, autonomous, pastoral system to a model of organization based on the Roman hierarchical system produced four things that eventually damaged the church.

  • The separation of ministers from laity and making them the special intermediaries between God and the church created a class system within the church. In a church based solely on the teachings of the New Testament, every member is a priest (Revelation 1:6); every member has a gift or ministry (Romans12:1-ff). This Biblical idea was replaced with an elitist view of ministry by the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The papacy and its reorganization of the church gave special authority to pastors/elders over and above the local congregation and set into motion the pyramidal power system that exists in the Roman Catholic Church today. The Bible gives leadership to a group of elders for only one congregation. There is no authority in the church beyond the local level according to the New Testament.
  • This reorganization under the Pope introduced new church positions and roles not found in Scriptures. Offices such as arch-bishop, cardinals, or popes were inventions of men, not authorized by Scripture which only recognizes the roles of:
    1. Evangelist (proclaimer)
      • Preacher/Apostle (missionary)
      • Minister (of the Gospel)
    2. Deacon (minister of work) Ephesians 4:11ff
    3. Elder (ministry of leadership)
      • Bishop/pastor/presbyter/overseer
    4. Teacher (minister of the Word)

There are no other roles or offices in the church described in the New Testament.

  • This reorganization put into the hands of men, boards and committees, the right to change, add or subtract from the teachings of Christ. Some of the changes over the years:
    • Infant baptism – Third century
    • Confessional – Fourth century
    • Transubstantiation – Ninth century
    • Indulgences – Fifteenth century
    • Infallibility – 1870

Just to name a few in the past.

The latest addition being promoted by the previous Pope is the doctrine of the Co-Mediatrix of Mary. This idea states that through her suffering, Mary the mother of Jesus, contributes to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. In other words, we're saved by the atoning work of Jesus and Mary.

In addition to these things, the papacy as the Man of Lawlessness also has other points that support this view. It claims superiority over every believer and demands obedience. It makes itself equal with God in the sense that the papacy claims infallibility in matters of teaching and condemns all those who oppose the Pope. It has consistently produced false doctrine, false miracles, elevated ordinary people to a semi-godlike role of "saint" in an effort to maintain rulership and credibility with its followers – and all done in the name of Christ.

The role of the papacy is the largest and longest unbroken apostasy visible within Christianity.

Some also think that the restraining influence over the papacy is the Roman Catholic Church structure, which has historically fought with the papacy (something like the struggle for power between the individual states and the federal government in the American political system). A good example of this conflict was seen when many in the college of bishops fought hard against the introduction of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 but lost the battle when it was outvoted.

Others teach that the Reformation and the resulting spread of the Bible into the hands of common people has mortally wounded the papacy and that because of this it no longer has the power it once had. The idea is that the Reformation was the "breath of His mouth" that God sent to strike down the Man of Lawlessness = Papacy. Only the return of Jesus is left to completely discredit and destroy this institution.

Many scholars hold to this view concerning the papacy as the Man of Lawlessness. It is true that there are many parallels here and a good argument can be made, but let's also look at some of the problems with this teaching:

  1. The Pope doesn't claim deity. He only claims authority in religious matters. At the moment he is trying to unite all religions and foster greater unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
  2. In II Thessalonians the Apostasy is such that the Man of Lawlessness and the system he fosters is in open rebellion against Christ and the Gospel. Whatever its mistakes the Roman Catholic Church promotes belief in the God of the Bible, faith in Christ as well as high moral standards. It may have error in its teaching and practice, but many other groups who confess Christ have errors as well.

In the end I believe that the Roman Catholic system and the papacy are part of the Apostasy and they suffer from the delusions and errors brought about by the Man of Lawlessness. They are unwitting tools in the larger scheme of evil that creates confusion and heresy within Christianity – but they and the Pope are not the Man of Lawlessness as some believe and teach.

The apostasy is something that happens within Christianity and my opinion is that different unbiblical forms of Christianity practiced today (including Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism) are all individual parts of a general apostasy that began in the second century and continue today in different forms.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that the Man of Lawlessness is the head or leader of the Apostasy. The Apostasy begins and develops in many ways and then the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, as a separate event. These are separate things happening concurrently.

The Bible does not say that the Man of Lawlessness is a "religious" figure. In my opinion, this is the main reason why teaching that the Pope is the Man of Lawlessness is incorrect. Paul says that this figure opposes religion, opposes God, opposes worship and tries to take God's place as ruler over men.

Although this theory fits in many ways, the Pope and Roman Catholicism as the Man of Lawlessness do not match important facts the Bible gives about him.

4. A Principle of Lawlessness

One last possibility is that the Man of Lawlessness is the "principle" of evil and rebellion working in the world and manifesting itself in a variety of people and movements throughout history. You see the principle of lawlessness working in:

  • The Roman Empire
  • Barbarian wars
  • Dark Ages
  • Nazism/Communism
  • Godless philosophy
  • Fanatic religious aggression

These and other movements have tried to rule men without respect to God, or the God of the Bible. They have used lies, power and every evil device to achieve their goals. All have been caught up in the power of delusion caused by atheistic philosophy or the twisted religion of each age. In addition to these, every age produces a new version or face of this evil principle. We have witnessed several reincarnations in just the last two centuries:

  • Materialism of the nineteenth century
  • Humanism of the twentieth century
  • Post Modernism of the twenty-first century
  • Religious fanaticism of our day

All have opposed God, tried to destroy true worship, tried to take God's place in His own temple, which is the human heart.

This principle of evil (like yeast, working but not being seen) will continue working in this way until it is embodied in one person or one movement which will be more powerful, more evil and more threatening to man's soul than ever before.

The Man of Lawlessness will pose a threat because his revealing will be accompanied by:

  • Personal claims to Deity
  • Signs and wonders
  • Visibility on a world-wide scale

The understanding that it is the Man of Lawlessness that is being revealed will be the sign that the return of Christ will be imminent. Remember: Jesus doesn't return until the Man of Lawlessness is revealed. Revealed to whom? To Christians of course!

Disbelievers and the wicked will not recognize him for who he is. Jesus promises that Christians will know; how? Jesus will reveal him to us, we don't have to worry that we won't see it or miss it. The Man of Lawlessness is revealed, he doesn't reveal himself.

Now, the restraining power that holds him back (verses 6-7) is referred to as a person and a power and himself a mystery. This restraining power could be the opposing principle of law and order as manifested in history through various leaders and governments. Where this principle of law (under which we live here in the United States and Canada) breaks down the Man of Lawlessness will give full vent to his evil, and only the return of Christ will stop and end it.

When we put these ideas together we see a historical pattern emerge:

  • God's word is preached and from it many laws are formed to reflect it.
  • The principle of evil is at work essentially opposing God and seen in its constant attack against moral and legal standards.
  • The apostasy begins and throughout history works to a point where there is little divine basis for the laws and morals of mankind (i.e. same sex marriage, abortion, fanatical religious aggression).
  • This removal of God's will from the fabric of human affairs and laws permits a final surge of evil which is personified in a single person or movement that seeks to replace God and His will as the source for human values and laws.
  • This signals the return of Christ and His Word to its preeminent position and destroys once and for all:
    • The principle of evil
    • The Man of Lawlessness
    • The corrupted world
    • The wicked and unbelievers who have served the apostasy and the principle of evil

I prefer this final theory to explain Paul's prophecy because:

  1. The Emperors of Rome are gone.
  2. Satan cannot be divided.
  3. The Papacy fails the complete description of the Man of Lawlessness.
  4. It explains the past, present and future without violating any of the facts about the Man of Lawlessness and the Apostasy.

We can choose what we believe works here, but I think that the fourth theory more accurately explains most of the facts we have about this teaching.


We live in a time when both the Apostasy and the principle of evil are at work in our world and in the church. We need to do two things in response:

  1. Stay close to the Word in all things.
  2. Struggle against the principle of evil by preaching the Gospel to this world and living holy lives in order to call the lost into the light and safety of the church.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize the two primary reasons Paul is writing to the Thessalonians and what is the most important point he wants them to understand.
  2. Summarize the following theories as to who the Man of Lawlessness was.
    1. The Roman Empire
    2. Satan
    3. The Papacy (pope)
    4. The principle of lawlessness
  3. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
9 of 12