What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church? [Studies in Thessalonians]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.

ENDNOTES:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.”

[4] 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.

[5] “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

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  1. I know this is an old thread, but I’m wondering what you would think about the Restrainer actually being Satan – in other words the Restraint not being a positive thing. Many have been conditioned to think that Satan is vigorously pursuing a plan to bring forth the Antichrist. But isn’t this is last thing he wants to do, considering that his being confined to the Earth means his time is short – and he knows it?

    I see from Rev. 12 that in the middle of the 70th Week of Daniel the Antichrist has his own apocalypse and at the same time Michael and the angels are casting down Satan to the Earth. For a time, I believed that Michael was the restrainer, based on Rev. 12 and Dan. 12. But whether the Hebrew has Michael standing up or standing still, he seems to be a very ineffective angel if the result is the Time of Jacob’s Trouble.

    Could Satan’s expulsion from the heavenlies meet the definition of ek mesous in 2 Thessalonians 2? In which case the katecho/katechon is really his desire to hang on to his relative freedom of motion and ability to traverse the heavens until the time appointed by God for him to be thrown down…

    I have seen little on this in commentaries, although it is not unknown, but it makes sense to me especially when one considers the important things which are happening at the 1260-day mark.

    Grateful for any thoughts you may have.

    • Hi Nick, blessings!

      In fact, this viewpoint does show up in a few commentaries; I don’t have my library at hand, so I can’t look it up, but googling “satan as restrainer” will show you a couple of relevant pages.

      In the case of “But whether the Hebrew has Michael standing up or standing still, he seems to be a very ineffective angel if the result is the Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” I’m not sure what to make of that, since according to this viewpoint, Michael does effectively restrain until he is taken from out of the way.

      In Christ, Gary

  2. […] ONE: 2 Thess 2:3 says that “the Day of the Lord will not come if there has not first come the Apostasy [from the Greek apostasia] and the Man of Lawlessness has been revealed.” Some translate the word apostasia as the rapturing away of the church, but this is untenable. This passage is no proof of some pretribulational rapture before the tribulation. See proof HERE. […]

  3. […] Apostasia – click words to see my blogs on […]

  4. […] MYTH: the word for departure in 2 Thess 2:3 is apostasia; it refers to the departure of the church from the earth in a pre-tribulational rapture. FACT: while the verb aphistemi may mean “to depart (physically)”, the noun apostasia means religious apostasy or political rebellion; the best explanation of 2 Thess 2:3 is that the Day of the Lord will not come “if there has not first come the Apostasy and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” See What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church… […]

  5. […] What comes before the Day of the Lord: the final “apostasy” or the “departure” of the church… […]

  6. Gary,

    Thank you very much for your informative and very helpful reply. I will look up Robert Gundry.

    You would seem to be saying that the many teachings on the internet are quite literally the ‘blind leading the blind’.

    kind regards

    Colin

  7. Very helpful article. After recently becoming convicted that the post tribulation belief is biblical ( I was never pre-trib,mainly because I couldn’t work out all the scriptural gymastics in order to believe it ). I happened upon the teaching that the word for falling away in 2 Thess 2.3 should be ‘departure’ and thus it means ‘rapture’,this was also enforced because of its similitude/connection to verses 6 and 7 in the same chapter.(I must confess that this did rattle me a bit).
    It was only today (27/10/2011) that I learnt the above and have also discovered that there are pre-tribulation teachers that say that all the pre KJV 1611 bibles do NOT have the words falling away/apostasy in 2 Thess 2.3. Is this correct? (I must make investigations).
    One of the main reasons why I came to believe in the post-trib position is because a straight reading of Matt 24,Luke 21 and Mark 13 would seem to demand it. Also the the timing of the trumpets as well in Paul’s letters.And why did Paul warn against the coming man of sin so much if believers are raptured before he comes?
    I never realised until very,very recently how important the rapture timing is,because logically if you believe that you are going to be caught up before the tribulation you are going to set yourself up for tremendous deception.

    • Dear Colin, thanks for your letter.

      I’ve read about this supposed distortion of 2 Thess 2:3 by the KJV, and also of the supposed teaching of the rapture by the medieval scholar who wrote using the name of Ephraem of Syria. The best resource for these topics if by Robert Gundry, First the Antichrist: Why Christ Won’t Come Before the Antichrist Does.

      As with many bloggers on these Greek matters, type in your theme and you will see blog after blog simply quoting one another, without independent research into the original languages.

      The Greek noun apostasia absolutely means apostasy, typically religious apostasy.

      The earlier English versions used “departure,” which was a synonym for a departure from the faith; the KJV did not capriciously change it to “falling away,” which is in fact a more precise translation, as the Septuagint, other NT usage, all the lexical studies show. Besides, the pre-KJV Bibles most certainly did not understand 2 Thess 2:3 to mean a rapture of the church. No-one saw any “rapture” in the word apostasia in 2 Thess 2:3 before, I believe, E. Schuyler English in “Re-Thinking the Rapture,” Our Hope magazine, in 1949-50.

      There is a lot of false knowledge about Greek on the internet; from what I see, one should not believe 95% of it.

  8. Thanks, Gary. I think that one of the frustrations I had when I preached this passage was that while I focused on ways to avoid falling away people seemed only interested in the question about whether they would have to go through the Tribulation. They seemed to assume that they could never apostasize. Our people need to see the dangers of falling away and concern themselves with biblical calls to faithfulness while still being confident of God’s power to keep them in the faith.

    • Yes, don’t get me started on that topic, Bill! The same with Matthew 24, and Hebrews 6 (which latter I just taught). Folks, the passages are there in the Bible for a very good reason: to tell you Don’t go apostate!

      People go turn their backs on the Lord every day, all around us. Sometimes we spray on the theological deodorizers “they backslid” or “they’re not walking close to the Lord”, but a portion of these people have just plain abandoned the faith. People need to know that It can happen to you. And me!

      Harold Camping’s followers took a certain path after the failure of the Rapture to appear. They could have taken another path, which was, perhaps a small, unnoticed handful of people were raptured, and I was “left behind.” For a minute there I wondered if Camping himself would go into hiding, in order to give the impression that he had been “taken.” What would those people have done? Left the faith, probably, assuming it was too late for them.

  9. Wow, I appreciate this helpful word study, Gary! Two comments. You leave hanging the idea that the faithful remnant will be ‘small,’ but I do not see anything that makes it necessary to import this sense of remnant. Just as antichrist was not a single figure, but a spirit that deceived some even in the first century of this age which is “the consummation of the ages” (Heb. 9), “we, upon whom the End of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10) … just so, the ‘departure’ may be a sifting out of those who do not believe, which could be a small part of a primarily redeemed creation (as Isaiah envisions). It is possible (I believe, God’s plan and desire) to have an earthly generation filled with believers, with just Ezekiel Temple “salt marshes” at the outskirts of the River that flows down from that heavenly temple of God’s glory.

    Secondly, in one of Jesus’ most important parables of the Kingdom, He says the angels take OUT the tares, which leaves true believers in the earth. This needs to fit with the passage at hand. It fits nicely with the point you make about “in the air” in your previous blog: we ascend to meet Him in order to get behind His victorious consummation of this “consummation of the ages” that we are progressively extending in the earth (Mt. 16 “gates of hell will not prevail”; Eph. 1 “all things under His feet” “…through the church”; 1 Cor 15 (and Heb 10) “the last enemy to be defeated is death” but meanwhile He rules [through us] in heaven “until all enemies are under His feet.”)

    • I’m pretty sure I’m talking with a person I know, whose name is not “Pat Henry”, but…

      We are coming at the passage from two very different perspectives – I’m historic premill, I believe you are postmill – so it would be hard to establish a point of contact in order to discuss the details of semantics.

      Remnant: I’m not sure I implied that the end-time remnant will be small. The larger church will take major losses, as we read in the gospels, Paul and Revelation, but this does not give us a good sense of what the numbers are. Nevertheless, the fact that the theme keeps coming up in the NT surely indicates that it will be an apostasy of notable proportions and not simple wear and tear on the church.

      Nor do I see in the “salt marshes” of Ezekiel some definite sign that all but a few will be saved in the end, not without allegorizing.

      As a missionary, I work toward the growth of the true church and pray for its wholeness and sanctification. We work in a world where the church is growing numerically, but is losing its grip on the Word, on true doctrine, on personal and corporate holiness. Apostasy is all around us. Perhaps that is a sign of the end, perhaps not; if what we see now is any indication, then the final apostasy will be a disaster and will lead to the loss of sound doctrine and holy living.

      Tares: With regard to the wheat and the tares, yes, in that parable the wicked are “removed” for the fire of judgment. Yet this is not speaking of a purification of the church, but rather the rooting out of the wicked from the “field.” The “field” is not, as is popularly thought, the church; the Lord plainly states that “the field is the world” (Matt 13:38). This parable makes good sense as a precursor to the separation of the goats from the Father in Matthew 25.

      In other texts the Bible speaks of the gathering up of the righteous. I take Paul’s statement about our being “gathered together” (2 Thess 2:1) to be a true parallel to the gathing of the elect by the angels at the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24:31). In fact, I would argue that Paul is using the very language of the gospel tradition: the Lord Jesus uses the verb “gather” (episunago), and Paul uses its cognate noun “gathering” (episunagoge) in 2 Thess.

    • Also, I’m not sure how you get “all things under His feet” “through the church” in Eph. 1:22, unless I’m looking at the wrong verse. God put him over all power and name and all things are under his feet, and all from the resurrection and ascension onward, not as a result of the work of the church throughout the ages.

  10. Thanks Gary. A timely warning, it’s all around me.


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