According to 2 Thessalonians, Timothy brought Paul a question from a panicky church: Has the Day of the Lord come? Paul ties together language of the return of Christ from his own oral teaching, the Matthean tradition, Daniel and 1 Thessalonians. No indeed! he says, and I can prove it. Has the Man of Lawlessness appeared? Then no, the Day of the Lord has not come (2 Thess 2:3).
The other marker is more controversial: an “apostasy” or “falling away” (apostasia, ἀποστασία). The word might denote a political rebellion. Nevertheless, “falling away” in Judeo-Christian contexts usually refers to a spiritual apostasy. In the Apocrypha, many Jews apostatized from Yahweh in 1 Macc 2:15 (NRSV) – “The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice” to Greek gods. Paul himself was accused of teaching Diaspora Jews “apostasy from Moses” (Acts 21:21). The verb form also appears in a warning against apostasy in Heb 3:12 and in the Lukan version of the Parable of the Sower to speak of those who fall away because of persecution (Luke 8:13). Paul uses the verb (aphistemi, ἀφίστημι) of the end-time falling away once in 1 Tim 4:1; he uses the noun form (apostasia, ἀποστασία) only here in 2 Thess 2:3. Most Bible versions render the term correctly: “falling away” (ASV, KJV, NKJV); rebel, rebellion (CEV, ESV, GNB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), revolt (GW, NJB), apostasy (HCSB, NASB).
But wait! A few Bible students have suggested that 2 Thess 2:3 should be translated not as the “apostasy” but as a “removal” or “departure.” That is, the church is taken away from the earth, with the rest of the population “left behind” for the tribulation.
Can this interpretation hold up? To be sure, the cognate verb (aphistemi, ἀφίστημι) has “to depart” as one of its meanings (Luke 2:37; Acts 15:38). One of the arguments that people use for the “rapture” view of 2 Thess 2:3 point to those uses of the verb and claim, Aha! So apostasia means departure, not apostasy. This is fallacious use of the Greek. One cannot simply import that meaning into the noun. Paul does not use the verb in 2 Thessalonians, but the noun. The noun form (apostasia, ἀποστασία) is a Jewish and Christian technical term for religious apostasy, being used to describe Judas Iscariot, the Antichrist, and the end time religious rebellion; that is its meaning here.
The doctrine of an end-time falling away was not a Christian innovation, but was also a running theme in Jewish eschatology. The majority will abandon God’s law, while a small remnant will keep itself righteous. For example, in the pseudepigraphal book 1 Enoch:
After that in the seventh week an apostate generation shall arise; its deeds shall be many, and all of them criminal (1 En. 93.9, Charlesworth)
Jesus predicted a final end-time apostasy (Matt 24:10 uses a synonym for “fall away,” skandalizo, σκανδαλίζω). Implicit in 2 Thess 2:5 is that Paul had taught them about the final apostasy while he was with them in Thessalonica: “Do you not remember that when I was with you I told you these things?” Paul’s eschatology seems to rely on the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:
- the disciples should not be alarmed
- there will come deception and false prophets
- many will go apostate
- the antichrist figure will appear
In the Pastoral epistles there is a pair of predictions that may have in part had reference to the immediate future, but which are also expressed in apocalyptic language:
1 Tim 4:1 (NRSV) – Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…
2 Tim 3:1 – You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come…
By definition apostasy is possible only when one has already confessed the faith. This would seem to rule out those who do not affirm Christ. Also, in Matt 24 the recipients of the eschatological teaching are the disciples of Jesus. That is, due to persecutions and satanic deceptions, they themselves face the danger of falling away from faith in the Christian gospel: “many” will fall away, and the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 24:10, 13). Jesus is describing a heightened danger of the “falling away” which he warned about in Matt 13:21.
Yet even within the first years of the church there were those who were falling into apostasy. A member of Paul’s team, Demas, apparently left the faith (2 Tim 4:10). In Johannine theology, the “antichrist” is eschatological, but his “spirit” is at work among the believers leading them to error and falling away from the community (1 John 2:18-19; also 2:22, 4:3, 2 John 7). Around the time of John’s epistles, there were Christians in Pontus (N. Turkey) who denied the faith when they encountered persecution. Governor Pliny the Younger recorded:
Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
But there is a positive side taught in Matthew and the Thessalonian epistles: Jesus emphasizes that “the elect” will not be deceived or fall away. For their sake the days are cut short (Matt 24:22); the elect cannot be deceived (Matt 24:24); they will be gathered up at the end of the tribulation (Matt 24:31).
Yet the hearers and followers of Jesus must stay firm until the end if they wish to retain the hope of entering the kingdom (Matt 24:13; 2 Thess 1:5). Apparently, many Christians will imagine themselves to be guaranteed a place in the kingdom only to find themselves abandoning Christ as the tribulation worsens. Yet again we run into the same tension that once encounters in Matt 13, Matt 24-25 and in the Thessalonian epistles: “see that you endure to the end” and “the elect will endure” are not a contradiction, but parallel truths.
The Day of the Lord is coming, but has not come yet. Christians who live to see the end approach will witness the final Apostasy and the coming of the Man of Lawlessness. They must hold firm to the end despite horrific persecution and deception. In none of his epistles does Paul suggest that Christians will be raptured before the tribulation begins. The main way they will “depart” the world will be through being martyred, “beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God” (Rev 20:4).
ADDITIONAL NOTE: In the last few years some Christians connect apostasia in 2:3 with the “removal” of the restrainer in 2 Thess 2:6-7 – “6 And as it is you know what it is that restrains [the Man of Lawlessness], in order that he be revealed in his right time. 7 For the hidden force of lawlessness is already at work; only the one who restrains it [will do so] until he is taken away.” (my own translation). This theory runs that the church, or the Holy Spirit indwelling the church, is the restrainer. In fact, how many Christians read the passage and to their surprise find no reference to the Spirit or the church in the passage? I myself am inclined to the view that it is a powerful angel, perhaps Michael, who works in the spiritual realm (see Dan 10:10-21, 12:1-2). In fact, Paul’s description of the Man of Lawlessness owes much to Daniel’s prophecy, and so perhaps Daniel 10 provides the key to this mystery. While Paul indicates that both he and the Thessalonians already knew what was the restrainer, he simply does not say what or who it is. Any theory must be tentative, but at the least it requires a stretch of the imagination to make it refer to a rapture of the church before the tribulation.
 Josephus used the cognate verb (aphistemi, ἀφίστημι) of Judas of Galilee’s “rebellion” against Rome (Josephus, Ant. 13.7.1 [§219]). In the Septuagint, the “fall away” (ἀφίστημι) word group is found everywhere; but the noun form “rebellion” (apostasia, ἀποστασία) only in Josh 22:22, 2 Chr 29:19 and Jer 2:19 in the canonical books.
 See the overview of this word group by W. Bauder, “Fall, Fall Away,” in NIDNTT 1:606-11. Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon shows that in the Greek church apostasia, ἀποστασία meant “revolt, defection,” usually religious.
 Consult Richard R. Reiter, editor, Three Views on the Rapture: Pre-,Mid-, or Post-tribulation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 32. For example, English Schuyler and Kenneth Wuest. The view was revived by the article by H. W. House “Apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3: Apostasy or Rapture?” in Thomas Ice and Timothy J. Demy, eds., The Return: Understanding Christ’s Second Coming and the End Time (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999). John Walvoord once held the view, but later changed his mind. Most other Dispensationalists reject the “rapture” interpretation. The 1917 version of the Scofield Bible states that 2 Thess 2:3 refers to the “apostasy of the professing church.”
 Malherbe, Letters to the Thessalonians, 431. Contra Fee, Thessalonians, 281-82, who rejects the “church” interpretation, not giving due weight to the warnings about apostate disciples in the synoptic tradition and in 1-2 Timothy. It is special pleading to reason, as some Dispensationalists do, that the Twelve who listened to the Olivet Discourse should be interpreted as representatives of Israel during the tribulation, as opposed to representative followers of Jesus.
 “Medieval Sourcebook: Pliny on the Christians, Letters 10.96-97.” No pages. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pliny1.html.
Useful reference: William W. Combs, “Is apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 a reference to the rapture?” DBSJ 3 (Fall 1998): 63–87. http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1998/combs.pdf
What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church? [Studies in Thessalonians],” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica