Usually, when people speak of the “great deception,” they refer to 2 Thessalonians 2:11, which predicts that God will, in an end-times judgment, send “a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie.” This great deception is associated with the satanic work of the Antichrist and his “displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie” (verse 9).
The same passage in 2 Thessalonians also speaks of a great apostasy that will take place before the man of lawlessness is revealed. Similar apostasies are predicted elsewhere: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Of course, people are complicit in the deception, for they reject the truth and prefer lies: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
Jesus spoke about a time to come when the deception will be especially great when false messiahs and false prophets will appear. Even the people of God could be deceived if it were not for God’s providential protection: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24, see also Mark 13:5–6, Luke 21:8).
All of these deceptions are instigated by the devil. However, 2 Thessalonians 2:11 also speaks of the deception as God’s punishment on people who refuse to believe the truth. The context seems to be similar to that of the gospel passages above and speaks of one to come who will be especially deceptive: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9–12, ESV).
In this passage, after people have refused the truth for so long, God causes them to believe what is false—a “strong delusion.” This is not an instance where God actively deceives people; rather, God is simply giving those who reject the truth what they really want.
We see a similar pattern in Romans 1:18–25 where people reject God’s truth for so long that He simply abandons them to their own sinfulness. They have, as it were, crossed the point of no return:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
Much the same thing happened to Pharaoh after he refused to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and God hardened his heart. It was not as though Pharaoh would have been an obedient follower of the Lord if God had not hardened his heart. Pharaoh set his heart against the Lord, and God simply confirmed for all time Pharaoh’s decision (see Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34; 10:1).
The deception spoken of in the Gospels has to do with false prophets and/or messiahs who appear and seem to be authenticated by miracles. Taking the futurist position, we see the great deception spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 2 as a future event associated with the coming of the Antichrist after the rapture of the church. “Those who are perishing” will willingly embrace the imitation and follow the beast of the end times; they will perish “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (verse 10).
We don’t know exactly what the great deception will be, only that it will be a strong delusion capable of swaying the world’s allegiance toward the Antichrist. The Bible says that, in the time of the Antichrist and false prophet, there will be many signs to bolster their lies. The false prophet “performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 13:13–14). It is hard to imagine, but the deception during the tribulation will be worse than all of Satan’s other deceptions. The Antichrist will have a deadly wound healed, his “image” will breathe and speak and give orders, etc. (Revelation 13:12, 15).
In the broader sense, anyone who rejects the truth of God is being deceived, and at some point, God may simply abandon him to the deception that he has willingly embraced. There are plenty of false teachers today who claim to teach God’s Word. Some claim to be Christians, and some claim to bring a word from God from outside of the Bible. It is vitally important that every Christian compare every teaching with what the Bible says and spend the time necessary to evaluate what is being taught. This is the mission of Got Questions, and in keeping with that mission, we would encourage every reader to compare what we say with Scripture as well.