Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World

Judgment and punishment when Jesus returns

In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 the return of Jesus is described as if it is the event that launches a final judgment, and the outcomes of that judgment are depicted starkly as relief for some and vengeance for others who are bound for “eternal destruction.” Not all New Testament writings refer to Jesus’ future return, and not all of those that do so speak of it as a time of immediate, severe judgment in those unyielding terms. Nevertheless, passages like this one have fueled the imaginations of many.

Perhaps the most dramatic interpretations of this vision of a divine sorting, pairing bliss with anguish in the same transformative moment, have come from visual artists. In classical Western traditions, Michelangelo’s wall in the Sistine Chapel depicting “The Last Judgment” shows some rising to glory on one side while others descend into torment on the other, while Christ occupies a central spot in the fresco, perched upon a cloud. Another representative classical piece that juxtaposes the glory of salvation with the agony of damnation is “Last Judgment” by Stefan Lochner.

“The lawless one” and his demise

No other biblical writing refers to “the lawless one” (or “the man of lawlessness”), a figure described briefly in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10. This makes it difficult to say more about him than what the letter itself says. Furthermore, the letter is less interested in him and more interested in reasserting God’s power over evil and destruction. Nevertheless, many interpreters have tried to say much more about this “lawless one.”

Some interpreters have constructed elaborate schemes to unify what different biblical writings say about future calamities and enemies of Jesus and his good news. There are references to “antichrist(s)” in 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7. A terrifying beast, who is in league with Satan, appears in Revelation 13:11-18. Descriptions of the rebellious and sacrilegious King of Tyre and Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) appear in Ezekiel 28:1-10 and Daniel 11:21-45, respectively. Nothing in the Bible provides a strong basis for assuming that these figures should all be identified with one another. Different authors wrote those books from different places during different times. The rhetoric around the different calamitous figures exhibits similarities, but that rhetoric is indicative of familiar anti-idolatrous polemic and warnings about evil figures.

History is filled with speculation about end-times rhetoric from the Bible like what appears in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10. Some of this comes from believers who are trying to identify evil people or dangerous ideologies in their own context, and some of it comes from the arts. Novels, horror films, accusatory politics, heavy metal music—there are many venues for this kind of creative speculation. Most of it has been undeniably unhelpful, in terms of its contributions to a better understanding of 2 Thessalonians and to focusing on what it means to live a life of faith in God.

“The lawless one” in God’s temple

There is just enough discussion of “the lawless one” (or “the man of lawlessness”) in 2 Thessalonians to fuel imaginative theories of what or whom the letter has in mind, exactly. One detail, in 2:4, says about this figure: “He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” A hypothesis favored by some biblical scholars considers this to be a reference to the Roman general Titus, the commander of the Roman soldiers who besieged and eventually overran Jerusalem in 70 C.E., effectively ending a revolt against Roman rule. Ancient sources claim that Titus entered the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple, the holy of holies, before his troops destroyed the structure. Titus eventually became emperor of the Roman Empire from 79 to 81, which might have added to the symbolic potential of his desecration of the temple, as a representative of the imperial system itself. Indeed, even prior to Titus, there were Roman and other neighboring authorities who threatened to take their place within the Jerusalem temple as a display of dominance. 

It is possible, then, that the author of 2 Thessalonians, writing in Paul’s name sometime after 70 C.E., was asserting that Paul had stipulated the temple’s destruction would be part of the mayhem that needed to occur before Jesus’ return. The writing of 2 Thessalonians would therefore be, among other things, an attempt to reassure believers that the destruction of the temple was not evidence of God’s indifference or weakness but was rather part of a larger apocalyptic struggle that would finally be resolved when Jesus returns. Jewish apocalyptic writings occasionally describe these kinds of struggles as involving both political entities and unseen spiritual powers.

Consequences for idleness

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 the letter admonishes some members of Christian communities for refusing to work. The passage includes the line “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” It is common for this passage to be quoted, usually without respect to the wider context of 2 Thessalonians, as endorsing self-reliance in a general sense. More perniciously, there is a legacy of the sentence being quoted to criticize government aid programs or to characterize some people living in poverty as though they are undeserving of public assistance unless they make more effort. Elected officials in the United States have quoted the passage in the context of debates over food-assistance programs, for example, in 2017, 2013, and again in 2013.

Treating the sentence from the letter as a kind of blanket divine prohibition against assisting people who do not meet certain criteria for deserving it neglects the wider context of 2 Thessalonians that criticizes end-times enthusiasm. The problem, the overall letter suggests, is that some Christians were, by refusing to work and provide for themselves and their families, making a brazen show of their confidence that the day of the Lord was upon them. The letter views this as bad for the community as a whole, and the expression “should not eat” can be taken as a sarcastic response to a foolish expression of piety.

The passage is also sometimes cited to criticize people who think themselves to be above labor or who claim a spiritual superiority over others that entitles them to be served by others. Remarks by Pope Francis in 2015 cite 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and provide a good example of what it looks like to call out this form of what he calls “false spiritualism.”

Don’t get weary

As 2 Thessalonians urges its audience to persevere, in part by sticking to their daily work and recommitting to their mutual harmony, it offers this encouragement: “Do not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13). Other translations end the encouragement with “what is good.” Other parts of the Bible say similar things, most notably Galatians 6:9, which reads, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.”

Exhortations against weariness appear in multiple popular African-American spirituals, sometimes to encourage watchfulness (as in “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”) and sometimes to reinforce the idea of tireless focus (as in “Walk Together Children,” which repeats the line “Don’t you get weary” several times). In these spirituals a main point resembles an emphasis in 2 Thessalonians, that the life of faith cannot hope for simple solutions or lead to disengagement from the world. Christians are accountable to participate in God’s desire to bless the world.

Pursuing what is good is a key part of discipleship, for this part of 2 Thessalonians is interested in more than stamina for survival; rather, stamina to pursue the good of others is what God asks of God’s people. A quote often attributed, probably erroneously so, to John Wesley captures a similar spirit: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”