Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Thessalonians 2:11
Whenever the Bible 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.
The 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.
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