There is a phrase in the Scriptures that, while speaking of mystery, is itself a bit mysterious and is debated among scholars: the “mystery of iniquity.” St. Paul mentions it in Second Thessalonians and ties it to an equally mysterious “man of iniquity” who will appear before Jesus’ second coming.

The Latin root of the English word “iniquity” is iniquitas (in (not) + aequus (equal)), meaning unjust or harmful, but the Greek μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας (mysterion tes anomias) is probably best rendered as “mystery of lawlessness.” Many modern translations use the “mystery of lawlessness,” though it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Translation issues aside, Paul seems to be writing in a kind of secret code:

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you, I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming (2 Thess 2:1-8).

Although St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they know what is holding back the lawless one, we moderns struggle to know. Some scholars say that Paul is referring to the Roman government (which I doubt). Others say that it is the power of grace and God’s decision to “restrain” the evil one and thereby limit his power for the time being. Of course, if Satan is limited now, what horrifying things will be set loose when he is no longer restrained! Can it get any worse? Apparently, it can!

But there it is in the seventh verse; even before the lawless one is set loose there already exists the mystery of lawlessness, the mystery of iniquity. That phrase comes down through the centuries to us, provoking us to ponder its rich meaning.

The danger is that we can focus too much on the “man of iniquity,” who is not yet fully here, and fail to ponder the present reality. As St. Paul says, For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Yes, the danger is that we focus on the future, which is murky, and ignore the present.

Hence, I propose that we ponder the “mystery of iniquity,” which is already here. I’d like to explore how it affects us, both personally and collectively. In doing so, we cannot ignore the operative word “mystery.” We must ponder with humility, realizing that some of what we are confronting is revealed, but much of it is hidden. Therefore, I do not propose to “explain” this phrase to you, but rather to ponder its mystery and confront its questions so as to draw us to reverence and a deeper understanding of our need for salvation.

Let’s look at the mystery of iniquity in four parts, wherein we ponder the mysterious reality of lawlessness that seems so operative among us, individually and collectively.

1. “Rational” Man’s Irrationality - Why do we, who are otherwise rational creatures, choose to do that which we know is wrong? Why do we choose to do that which we know causes harm to ourselves and others? Why do we do that which endangers us, threatens us, compromises our future, and further weakens us? Why do we choose evil, knowing that it is evil?

Some argue that our will has been weakened on account of original sin and thus we give way easily to temptation. While this offers some insight, it does not ultimately solve the mystery, for we consistently seem to choose to do that which we know is wrong or harmful.

Some contend that we are choosing what we perceive to be good, but despite our darkened intellects and our tendency to lie to ourselves, deep down we really know better. We know that choosing evil leads to harm in the long run. Our conscience tells us, “This is wrong. Don’t do it.” Yet, knowing this, we still do it.

Are we weak? Yes, but that is not the complete answer. We are staring once again into the face of the “mystery of iniquity.”

2. The Angelic Rebellion - The mystery only deepens when we consider that this is not just a human problem; it is also an angelic one. The presence of demons, revealed to us by Scripture and by our own experience, speaks to the reality of fallen angels.

There was a great rebellion among the angels. Scripture more than hints at the fact that a third of the angels fell from Heaven in this rebellion, before the creation of man (cf Rev 12:4).

Thus, ascribing iniquity and lawlessness to human weakness cannot be a complete answer.

How could angels, with a nature and intellect far more glorious than ours, knowingly reject what is good, true, and beautiful? Here is the deep “mystery of iniquity” having nothing to do with the flesh, or with sensuality, or with human limits. It is raw, intellectual, willful rebellion against the good by creatures far superior to us. The mystery only deepens.

3. The Corruption of the Best and Brightest - The intellect and free will are arguably God’s greatest gifts. Why, then, do they come at such a high price for both God and us? Surely God foresaw that many angels and human beings would reject Him.

Some answer that God also saw the magnificent love and beauty that would be ushered in by those who accepted Him and the glorious vision of His truth. Perhaps God, who is love, saw love as so magnificent that even its rejection by some could not overrule its glory in those who accepted it. Seeking beloved children rather than robots or animals was so precious to God that he risked losing some—even many—in order to gain some.

Others speculate that, at least in this fallen world, contrast is necessary to highlight the glory of truth. What is light if there is no darkness with which to compare it? What is justice if there is no injustice against which to contrast it? What is the glory of our yes if it is not possible to utter a no?

Even these reasonable speculations cannot fully address the mystery of why so many men and angels reject what is good, true, and beautiful; why so many prefer to reign in Hell rather than to serve in Heaven; why so many obstinately refuse to trust in God and obey even simple commands that they know are ultimately good for them. The glory of our freedom and our intellect are abused. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest struggles. Liberty becomes license; lasciviousness and intellect become insubordination and intransigence. Corruptio optime pessima! (The corruption of the best is the worst!)

4. The Final Refusal to Repent - Many today like to blame God for Hell, and they particularly scoff at the notion that Hell is eternal. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the eternity of Hell is not due to a defect in divine mercy (CCC # 393). Rather, Hell is eternal because the decision of the damned is irrevocable.

The stubbornness and hardness of heart of the damned reach a point of no return. How does a soul end up in this state? Surely it happens gradually. Sin is added upon sin and the hardness of heart grows. Over time, the demands of God’s justice seem increasingly obnoxious. The hardened soul starts to sneer at God’s law, calling it intolerant, backwards, and simplistic. Of course, God’s law is none of these things, but as the darkness grows within a heart, the light seems more and more obnoxious and hateful. Soon enough, concepts such as forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity, and chastity seem “unrealistic,” even ludicrous.

When does a soul reach the point of no return? Is it at death or sometime before? It is hard to say, but here we reach the deepest mystery: the permanently unrepentant heart.

Our tour has yielded only crumbs. We are back to confronting our mysterious rebelliousness, stubbornness, and hardness of heart; our almost knee-jerk tendency to bristle when we are told what to do, even if we know it to be good for us and others. Even the most minor prohibition makes the thing seem all the more desirable to us. There lurks that rebellious voice that says, “I will not be told what to do! I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.”

Yes, at the end of the day, we are left looking squarely at a mystery. It is the deep, almost unfathomable mystery of our very own iniquity, our lawlessness, our irrational refusal to be under any law or restraint.

Perhaps it is not a mystery that is meant to be solved but to be accepted and to cause us to turn to God, who alone understands. The mystery of iniquity is so profound and so terrifying that it should send us running to God as fast as we can exclaiming, “Lord save me from myself, from my obtuseness, my hardened heart, my rebelliousness, and my iniquity. Save me from the lawlessness in me! I cannot understand it, let alone save myself from it! Only you, Lord, can save me from my greatest threat, my greatest enemy: my very self.”

Yes, the great mystery of iniquity! St. Paul says, the mystery of iniquity is already at work, but he does not say why or even how. He only says that God can restrain it.

Yes, only God can restrain and explain.

More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:9-10).

Here is a song from my youth that celebrates rebellion, iniquity, and lawlessness. The refrain admits that we are “fooling no one but ourselves,” but we do it anyway. It’s foolish and mysterious!