Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2 Thessalonians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

Scholars disagree about the authenticity of Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica.  Some believe, based on similarity of language and ideas, that the letter was indeed written by Paul shortly after he wrote 1 Thessalonians (which is generally thought to be authentic).  Others note marked differences in the author’s view of the “end times’ and suggest a later date by a different author writing in Paul’s name.  Either way, the brief letter of 2 Thessalonians presents some powerful imagery and ideas regarding the apocalyptic return of Christ and the end of the present world—a central idea of Paul and early Christians.

"The Last Judgment" by Raphael Coxcie (16th century)

In chapter 1, the author presents a vision of Jesus which is striking in how it differs from the humble, compassionate figure we find in the gospels.  This is the “cosmic” Jesus—the inflictor of judgment and vengeance.  The author describes a time “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  

Here, also, is the idea of “eternal destruction” which Christians have understood as “hell.”  It seems to me that here we find the “dark side” of the gospel.  Jesus came to heal and save, sure, but Jesus will also judge and punish non-believers for all eternity.  This is a morally troubling Jesus.

Medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch created some really surreal paintings of hell.

In chapter 2, the author expands upon the end-of-the-world scenario which Paul laid out in 1 Thessalonians.  In 1 Thessalonians, the second coming is a clear, singular event.  In 2 Thessalonians, perhaps because believers were still waiting for this event to happen, the author adds some caveats—things that must happen before Jesus returns.  Since Paul’s day, Christians have endlessly speculated and predicted the second coming.

Here’s what the author says must happen before Jesus returns as cosmic judge—an unnamed “lawless one” must be revealed 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, declaring himself to be God.”  Christians have speculated as to the identity of this “lawless one.”  Perhaps he was the Roman emperor Nero, who did declare himself a god.  Interestingly, this “lawless one” is distinct from Satan, because the author writes: “The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan.”

Roman emperor Nero turning Christians into human torches in a 19th century painting by Henryk Siemiradski.

The author explains that the “lawless one” has not yet come because something is restraining him: “And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes.”  Who, or what, is restraining the “lawless one”?  The author does not say.  Some speculated that this restraining force was also the Roman empire, with its emphasis on law and order and the Pax Romana—the so-called “peace of Rome.”

In seems to me that, like many theological innovations of the Bible, this complex end-of-the-world scenario was developed to address a very simple concern—Jesus had not returned yet.  Paul and early Christians were expecting his imminent arrival, and it hadn’t come.  Thus, the “lawless one” and the restraining force are introduced.  By the time we get to the book of Revelation, this end-of-the-world scenario will become even more drawn-out and complex.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (from the Book of Revelation)...coming soon!

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