There can be no doubt that today’s passage raises lots of questions, most of which you are not about to get an answer to. Paul discusses the mysterious “man of lawlessness” (2:3), and lots of ink has been spilled on who or what this is or was. The opinions are myriad and no consensus has arisen; it would take far more time and space than I have to explore this topic completely (one needs only google “man of lawlessness” to see the ridiculous diversity of opinion). Interpretations of prophecies like these tend to be shaped by the interpreter’s biases and philosophical presuppositions, so I will reveal mine by saying that I imagine Paul was talking about something and someone that made sense in a first century context, likely connected to politics given the cryptic nature of the prophecy. At the same time, when has there not been someone who “fits the bill” in many ways? My desire today is only to deconstruct one concern that people some times have when they come to this passage.
Paul describes the man of lawlessness as a deceiver who leads people astray with his lies. Some grow concerned then that they will be pulled away from God, almost against their better judgment, by the wiles of this man and his trickery. Let’s unpack this in good sermonic fashion with a nice dose of alliteration:
The presence of the lawless one will be accompanied by the activity of the satan, with full power, with signs, and spurious wonders, with every kind of wicked deceit over those on the way to ruin, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For that reason God sends upon them a strong delusion, leading them to believe the lie, so that judgment may come upon all who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness. (2:9-12)
Long before a person falls victim of the man of lawlessness’s lies, he has put himself in a place to be open to that deceit. The lawless man only leads those who have decided to follow his leading. Notice how this passage ends: those who believe the lies of this man had already chosen to take “pleasure in wickedness.” Their love of debauchery had set them up to be led astray; those who like the dark have many reasons for why it is the best way to live. From this love of wickedness then came denial and an unwillingness to “believe the truth.” Only then are they hit with the one-two punch of deceit from the satanic man of lawlessness and delusion from God. As much as it may not line up with the sensibilities that some of us with high, high views of human freedom, yes, it does seem that God will “harden the hearts” of those who have already chosen by their own choice not to respond to his love and grace. Only then does judgment and destruction come.
In short, the man of lawlessness, as crafty as he may have been (or will be, given your view on latter-day prophecy), is not capable of turning the devoted against God. To argue such is to claim there is one who can frustrate the plans of God for our salvation with his superior, evil power. Surely we do not want to claim such a fallacy! Christians — especially young ones like the Thessalonians — should always be on guard against influences that can corrupt their hearts and turn them against God. Notice that sound teaching and traditions help one stand firm against the lawless one’s lies (2:15). But we need not fret that this will happen against our will nor that of a good and powerful God.