It's No Conspiracy
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (ESV) 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. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 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. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 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 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.
For various reasons, I’ve had little contact with my Uncle Eddie over the last 20 years or so, but during my formative years, I spent quite a bit of time with him and—with a mixture of confusion, dismay, and pleasure—listened to him pontificate about the most recent conspiracy theory he had embraced. In the 80s and 90s, late-night shortwave radio programs fed his imagination, and the advent of the World Wide Web only multiplied and confirmed his suspicions about the shadowy figures behind this or that political or social phenomenon.
Uncle Eddie had set out for pre-seminary study at Concordia High School in Austin, but plans gradually changed as he began to reject one pillar after another of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). By the time I was old enough to engage him in conversation, he was already an atheist and a good representative of the old saying (mis)attributed to G.K. Chesterton, “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything”—hence, his fervor for conspiracy theory.
Uncle Eddie did, however, say something to me that has always struck me as interesting for an unbeliever: “I don’t believe there is a God, but there very well may be a devil.”
As a pastor writing for those who believe God and Satan are real, I am not going to waste time dealing with the theological and metaphysical problems with his peculiar view, but I do think it is a much more sensible position than its opposite—God but no devil—and of the materialist idea that there are no spiritual forces at work in this world. How else can you account for the evil, chaos, and insanity displayed by so many people besides the powerful and personal presence and influence of The Evil One?
While small-scale conspiracies are certainly possible and do occur, the sort of large-scale, worldwide conspiracy theories put forth as explanations for current (or impending) events cannot be taken seriously due to the complexity of political, economic, and natural forces at play at any given moment in the world. People want simple answers for complex problems, but life in this sin-filled creation doesn’t work like that.
In fact, Holy Scripture tells us that there is no conspiracy; rather, there is one Enemy, Satan, who prods and urges his worldwide team of demonic and human adherents to wreak havoc in church, state, and home.
While historically Christian theologians have tried to identify a single “Antichrist” or “Man of Lawlessness”—or have assumed that he hasn’t come yet—it seems to me that there is no need to think in “single” terms. St. John doesn’t: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
If John can speak of multiple antichrists, then I think it is perfectly reasonable to interpret St. Paul’s mention of the single “Man of Lawlessness” as simply representative of many “people of lawlessness.” By analogy, Psalm 1:1 begins, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers,” but it is not talking about a single man; it is stating a general path for people to walk in, represented by “the man.”
If “the Antichrist” and “the Man of Lawlessness” are individuals still to come, then I really don’t want to meet them, since the “antichrists” and “people of lawlessness” I encounter today are scary enough. But whether single or plural in nature, behind the “Antichrist” and the “Man of Lawlessness” is the devil: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). And the indications St. Paul describes of the Satan-influenced Man of Lawlessness are unmistakable in our present day—just as they have been unmistakable in every age. Go back and re-read the text from 2 Thessalonians above and marvel at how timely it sounds!
And now enjoy the wonderful comfort St. Paul delivers to the Thessalonian believers and to all who believe and are baptized, Words that will not pass away even though heaven and earth pass away: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17).
Prayer: Almighty and most merciful Father, in the waters of Holy Baptism You have united Your children in the suffering and death of Your Son Jesus Christ, cleansing them by His blood. Renew in them the gift of Your Holy Spirit, that they may live in daily contrition and repentance with a faith that ever clings to their Savior. Deliver them from the power of Satan and preserve them from false and dangerous doctrines, that they may remain faithful in hearing Christ’s Word and receiving His body and blood. By the Lord’s Supper strengthen them to believe that no one can make satisfaction for sin but Christ alone. Enable them to find joy and comfort only in Him, learning from this Sacrament to love You and their neighbor and to bear the cross with patience and joy until the day of the resurrection of their bodies to life immortal; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.