Altar of the Abyss – Part 1

The abandonment of worship was the underlying cause of the Great Flood. In contrast, the tower and city of Babel established false worship. Evil learns.

The Gehenna Man

The “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2 is an allusion to the Man in the Garden of Eden, the one who desired to become like god yet acted in a way that was nothing like God. Interestingly, not only is Paul’s description arranged to recapitulate the pattern of the Levitical festal calendar, it does so in a manner that ridicules this man’s claim to be a Son of God enthroned as God’s legal representative or image. He is posing as the glory cloud on Sinai, or the Shekinah in the Tabernacle, and, most significantly, as the “name” between the cherubim in Solomon’s Temple (2 Samuel 7:13; Isaiah 37:16).

Let no one in any way deceive you, (Creation/Sabbath)
for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, (Division/Passover)
ETHICS: Priesthood
and the man of lawlessness is revealed, (Ascension/Firstfruits)
the son of destruction,
ETHICS: Kingdom
who opposes and exalts himself (Testing/Pentecost)
ETHICS: Prophecy
above every so-called god
or object of worship, (Maturity/Trumpets)
so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, (Conquest/Atonement)
displaying himself as being God. (Glorificaton/Booths-Clouds)
(2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, NASB)

The desire for a glorious “name” beside the name of God was the goal of the builders of Babel (Genesis 11:4), but it belongs only to Jesus, in whose name we are granted forgiveness, salvation and dominion, and whose major life events were robed in the clouds of heaven. Thus, Paul’s structural allusion contains words that take us back to the original “tower” and “city,” that is, Adam and Eve, whose creation and construction were deliberately carried out in a manner which prefigured sacred architecture.1See Covenant Structure in Genesis 2.

Paul refers to deception, the fall (the literal meaning of “apostasy”), the Man as a son of “perdition” (literally, “loss” or “ruin”) and the act of exalting oneself leading to a great fall under the “breath” or “wind” of the Lord’s coming in judgment, in order to describe this particular first century tyrant in the language of Genesis 3. The clue to his actual identity (or that of his family dynasty) is found in Acts 12, where the voice of the reigning Herod (Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great) is honored as that of a god because the people of Tyre and Sidon (cities by the sea) depend for food upon the king of Judæa (the ruler of the land).

Tyre and Sidon are significant because they reveal the Herods’ pretensions as Temple builders like Solomon, who called upon Gentile worshipers such as Hiram of Tyre to sponsor the construction being carried out on their behalf. King Solomon was also described as a new and wiser Adam before his own apostasy.

He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:33-34, ESV)

The picture is of one man who has dominion over the land and the sea (in creation terms) or Jew and Gentile (in social terms) because he bears the authority of heaven. Like Adam, the Herodian dynasty had usurped that authority, which is why the final judgment was decreed upon Jerusalem by a mighty angel with “his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land” (Revelation 10:2). This angel is the exalted Jesus, described in his humble Old Covenant guise as a servant. Yet the seven thunders are truly the voice of a god, that is, one who wisely discerns between good and evil, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

The reference to Herod Agrippa as the sustainer of life is crucial to our understanding of the text. An Adam who submits to heaven will be filled with fire but not consumed, a burning bush like Moses, a lampstand like David, a chariot like Elijah, the saints on the Day of Pentecost. But the flesh and blood of an Adam who refuses to submit to God will be consumed by scavenging birds and the beasts, those who “eat death” like the serpent which eats Adamic dust. By selling his birthright – the promises of God concerning multiplication and dominion – Adam the consumer became consumable. And not only Adam, but all those “in him.” The serpent was the first false god to whom offspring (yet in Adam’s loins) were offered as a sacrifice. To reinstate the promises concerning land and womb, God not only sacrificed a blameless animal substitute, He promised that this seed would crush the head of the serpent.

The book of Genesis begins and ends with a young man who is promised dominion on condition of being faithful and then put in charge of the food. For Adam, Joseph and indeed this particular Herod, the core of this charge was inherently sacramental. The two trees in Eden represented priesthood (life: what we need) and kingdom (wisdom: what we desire), that is, bread and wine, humility and exaltation. Herod had just slaughtered James the brother of John with the sword during the days of Unleavened Bread, a reminder that like Pharaoh in Exodus, the Herods began by murdering the seed of the Woman and then sought to exterminate the Sons of God. On the occasion of Passover, the judgment of God in this case was eye for eye, or rather, food for food. Herod was “filled” not with bread or wine but with worms, cursed like overripe manna or grapes abandoned to rot on the vine (Exodus 16:20, 24; Deuteronomy 28:39). The character of this judgment was also a reminder from heaven for the eyes of those whose ears had heard the words of Isaiah in his taunt of the king of Babylon:

Sheol beneath is stirred up
to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
all who were kings of the nations.
All of them will answer
and say to you:
‘You too have become as weak as we!
You have become like us!’
Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
the sound of your harps;
maggots are laid as a bed beneath you,
and worms are your covers.
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.
(Isaiah 14:9-15)

The Hebrew word “plague” means “smite” or “strike.” Luke’s text invokes the language of Exodus to describe the demise of this serpent-king. Moreover, the “Tabernacle” structure of the stanza mimics the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7, but here the “house” of the unwise Man is cut down as an atoning sacrifice. His sin was “fully grown” and it brought forth death (James 1:15). Like the Tabernacle in the wilderness, all the sins of the nations would register upon a single house of atonement.

Immediately, an angel of the Lord (Creation/Ark)
struck him down (Division/Veil)
ETHICS: Priesthood
because he did not give God the glory, (Ascension/Altar & Table)
ETHICS: Kingdom
and he was eaten by worms (Testing/Lampstand)
ETHICS: Prophecy
and breathed his last. (Maturity/Incense Altar)
But the word of God (Conquest/Laver & Mediators)
increased and multiplied. (Glorification/Shekinah)
(Acts 12:23-24)

The tragedy of Herod’s death is linked to the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem. The king of Israel was Israel, but one man had already died for the people. Herod and the Jewish rulers had rejected the testimony of Jesus and His apostles. Worse, many of the Jews across the empire were about to reject the testimony of Paul. Judgment was about to come upon the entire world, that is, the empire or oikoumene (Luke 21:35; Revelation 3:10), yet the focus of this event – “magnified” in the eyes of God – would be the Temple in Jerusalem. As Peter tells us, judgment upon the nations always begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). It was not the physical heavens and earth or the physical “elements” that would be destroyed but their legal representatives: the microcosmic House of God (stoicheia refers to Levitical law and worship, the constraints of “childhood”) and all its accoutrements.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the [elements] will be burned up and dissolved, and the [land] and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:9-10)

The Creation of the actual cosmos began with a merism, the “high and low” of the heavens and the earth. The process of forming and filling began with a division above (light and darkness) and continued with a division of the waters below. A “world model” develops with God’s glory at the top and the darkness of the abyss at the bottom. In terms of government, this is the relationship between the throne and the dungeon. Those who are deposed from rule rarely find themselves living a common life. Instead they are “bound in chains of darkness” precisely because of their access to power (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6; Revelation 20:1-3). Joseph’s life was a “sine wave” of highs and lows, being exalted as the heir, thrown into a pit, exalted again, thrown into a dungeon, and finally exalted to the right hand of the highest throne and a ministry of dominion.

The architecture of the Tabernacle, a house robed in glorious colours like Joseph (of tachash or beadwork), is a cruciform model of Jacob’s stairway to heaven, although it was laid out upon the ground. The highest height was the glory of God above the Ark of the Testimony. The lowest depth was the domain of the unclean outside the camp, the haunt of the birds and the beasts and those cursed with scaled skin.

With the construction of the Temple of Solomon on Mount Moriah (renamed Zion), the lowest of the low became the miry clay pits of Tophet (Psalm 40:2), also known as the Valley of Hinnom, or  Gehenna, a small valley where the rubbish was dumped and burned. Isaiah referred to this place to describe the death of the conquered King of Assyria.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared;
he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood;
the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.
(Isaiah 30:33, KJV)

This cleansing fire would be kindled by the very “breath” of the Lord, which ought to remind us of the imminent judgment of the “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:

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. (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8)

This duality of the sweet savor of sacrifice (Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18) and the sulfuric stench of hypocrisy (Isaiah 1:13; Amos 5:21) in the breath of Jesus is a reference to the Gospel as a message of life and death, the two-edged sword of the avenger/redeemer (ga’al):

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:15-17)

Jesus reprised the theme of Tophet in His condemnation of those who refused to repent of sin and enter the kingdom of God.

It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into [Gehenna], ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)

After the exile, it was not just the Temple (a symbolic tower or ladder to heaven) which was considered holy, but the entire city of Jerusalem. The city thus had two altars, one clean and one unclean, an altar of life and an altar of death. Blameless animals were offered upon the holy altar within the city above, and rubbish and the bodies of executed criminals were burned upon the unclean “altar” below. The journey to Sheol, the “falling away” of “those who go down to the pit” (Numbers 26:10; Proverbs 1:12) is thus pictured as an inversion of the stairway to heaven, an upside-down, back-to-front reflection of the means of salvation, a dark doppelgänger of the heavenly sea. The same inversion is expressed in model terms in the ascension of the smoke and the descent of the ash from the four-cornered altar which represented the land of Israel.

This brings us to a consideration of the theme of “architectural” duality in the Bible, that is, false worship as an “evil twin” of the House of God. It is no accident that Paul refers to God’s hatred of Esau in his condemnation of the unbelieving Jews (Malachi 1:3; Romans 9:13). Esau and Jacob were twins, but the firstborn would not be God’s firstborn. The Herods were Idumeans, that is, Edomites, descended from Esau and intent on stealing back the birthright and the blessing. This means that the death-by-worms of Herod Agrippa was a terrifying revelation of the falsehood of the messianic claims of the Herodian kings. Instead of Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending upon the son of Adam as a holy ziggurat (Genesis 28:12; John 1:51), the house of the sons of Edom (a name with an identical root) would be consumed as stubble (Obadiah 1:18). Instead of Herod’s death tearing the veil of the Temple as a doorway to life in the Sanctuary of God, his demise was a horrifying glimpse into the shaft of the abyss.

There were three Babylons in holy history. The first was priestly (Babel), the second kingly (Babylon), and the third prophetic (spiritual Babylon, Jerusalem). It makes sense that the final manifestation of idolatry was the most effective at disguising itself and thus the most difficult to discern. This was because it was a direct response to the Spirit of Christ in the saints. Evil learns.

Part 2 is here.

If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]


  1. I find this a very interesting read – thank you. I posted it to the Rethinking Hell Facebook group if you want to interact with whatever conversation grows there. I do however still struggle to see how you decide which architecture type a certain passage belongs to. For example I see no wording in the first listed passage that refers directly to the Leviticus festal calendar. Are you using the scriptures to which this passage alludes as your source for deciding which matrix pattern to apply?

    If not, as you do a first read through of the whole passage, what’s your first clue that it applies most strongly to the Levitical festal calendar?

    • Michael Bull

      Thanks Dave. Perhaps a different matrix thread is the more significant one but this one struck me first – the death of Christ (as High Priest) divides Israel at Passover, Herod is the false firstfruits “son of the herd”, he defies God’s law at Sinai at Pentecost (continuing to build the image of a beast, the Temple), doubles down on false worship when challenged by the apostolic testimony (Trumpets – see my Revelation book), then stands as a king in the veil at Atonement and claims God’s glory (clouds). Also, the apostasy at Passover reminds me of the sons of Korah who challenged Aaron, and taking a seat (presumably the kapporet) in the Temple reminds me of King Uzziah who also wished to approach the veil. The “Tabernacle” or heptateuch matrices might work just as well, of course.

Leave a comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that. Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked