Great Falling Away after the Departure of the Church

Johan Malan, University of the North, South Africa

Abstract: The revelation of the Antichrist (the man of sin) can only occur after the departure of the true church of Christ.

The departure (Gr. apostasia) of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 will precede the revelation of the Antichrist. The rendering of apostasia as “rebellion”, “apostasy” or “falling away” in most English Bibles is unfortunate since these are secondary, or derived, meanings of the word. Its primary meaning is “departure” which, in this verse, refers to the rapture of the church. In consequence of the rapture, great apostasy will occur on earth while the Antichrist institutes his lawless and utterly sinful reforms. That time will be characterised by a world-wide moral and spiritual falling away.

Speculation is rife about the rapture and the revelation of the Antichrist. Some people spiritualise these concepts, others accept the two events but place them in the wrong chronological order, while many others deny them altogether or allege that the Antichrist was one or other historical figure.

These conflicting opinions cause great uncertainty and confusion among many Christians. However, it is not the first time in the church history that contradictory views and wrong teachings on the end-time gave rise to anxiety among believers. It happened in the first century in the congregation of Thessalonica.

In his first letter, Paul taught the congregation that the Lord Jesus will come at the end of the church dispensation to take the true believers away to heaven:

“For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4:16-18; the word rapture is derived from catch up (Gr. harpazo) in verse 17).

In Paul’s preaching to the Thessalonians, and also in his subsequent letter to them, a clear promise was made that the Lord Jesus would remove the Christians before the revelation of the Antichrist and the commencement of the judgements of the Day of the Lord during the great tribulation. He exhorted them “to wait for [God’s] Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thes 1:10). “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes. 5:9).

As in the case of Noah and Lot, the Christians will be saved from hour of God’s wrath over a sinful world. They will escape the time of judgement by way of the rapture, as promised by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse: “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Lk. 21:36). Those who pursue a false, humanistic peace outside Christ will not escape the judgements of the tribulation. The destruction of the Antichrist’s reign of terror and the judgements of God will suddenly befall them (1 Thes. 5:3).

The congregation in Thessalonica believed this exposition of end-time events. They were eagerly looking forward to the salvation that the Lord Jesus promised to them through the rapture. They had a “blessed hope” to look forward to (Titus 2:13). In terms of this expectation they comforted and exhorted one another to remain faithful to the Lord.

False teachings

The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire caused considerable anxiety among believers and gave rise to many questions about the end-times – also in Thessalonica. Under the instigation of enemies of the gospel, a letter containing false teachings was written in the name of Paul and distributed among members of the congregation. Other people claimed to have had ‘spiritual revelations’ to the same effect. In these false teachings it was alleged that the day of the Lord (the time of judgements and tribulation) had already begun and that the Christians would have to go through it. In this way the doctrine of the rapture before wrath was contradicted and scoffed at.

Paul wrote his second letter to the congregation with the following objectives: (1) To refute the false teachings about the end-time; and (2) to answer certain questions that were raised by members of the congregation on the second coming and related matters. He starts Chapter 2 by referring to the rapture as “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto Him.” After that he explained and reconfirmed the correct order of end-time events:

“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering unto Him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

“Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thes. 2:1-12).

In this chapter, Paul clearly states the basic facts about the departing of the one who withholds, the revelation of the Antichrist and also the swift judgement that will befall him during the coming of Christ.

Refuting of wrong teachings

The false teachings that were spread in Thessalonica were based on the assumption that the Roman Caesar, who also deified himself, was the Antichrist. The congruent persecution of Christians was viewed as part of the hardships and suffering of the day of the Lord. Panic was caused by the expectation of greater persecution and judgements that were imminent, and also by the false teaching that the Christians would not, as promised by Paul, escape the time of wrath.

Paul refuted the false teachings and reiterated that first there will be a departure (apostasia), followed by the revelation of the man of sin (the Antichrist). He will be the abominable son of perdition who will enter the temple and show himself that he is God (2 Thes. 2:3-4). During the persecution of the first century when Paul wrote his letter, the departure had not yet occurred, neither did the alleged Roman Antichrist sit in the temple in Jerusalem to declare himself as God.

After his initial exposition of the chronological order of end-time events, Paul confirmed this scenario by the addition of new information. He reminded members of the congregation of the sermons that he preached on this subject: “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (v. 5). He then continued to say that first the one who withholds must be taken out of the way (the rapture of the church) and then the Wicked (the Antichrist) will be revealed. He also stated that the Antichrist would be a living person on earth when the Lord Jesus returns to destroy him with the brightness of His coming (v. 8).

There was absolutely no basis for the false teachings that were spread in the name of Paul, to the effect that there would not be a rapture of believers before the tribulation period. There was also no truth in the supposition that the Lord would punish the Christians with the wicked and surrender them to the tyranny of the Antichrist.

The departure (apostasia)

The word apostasia in verse 3, translated in the King James Version as “falling away,” is problematical to many people. In terms of this rendering it is assumed that Christians will not only experience the great falling away of the last days but will also be here during the revelation of the Antichrist. A careful exposition of the verse shows that these assumptions are unfounded.

The Greek word apostasia means departure, withdrawal or separation. A spiritual and moral falling away can be read into this word only as a secondary meaning, deduced from its basic reference to the departure of the truth. Apostasia is derived from the particle apo which means off or away [from something near], in various senses of place, time or relation. It denotes separation, departure, or the cessation [of a relationship]. The verb correlate of apostasia is aphistemi which, according to Strong’s Concordance, means to depart, withdraw, draw (fall) away, remove.

Even in cases where aphistemi is used to denote a spiritual falling away (e.g. Lk. 8:13, 1 Tim. 4:1 and Heb. 3:12) it is grammatically more correct to describe the act as a departing from faith (as in the latter two verses) rather than a falling away (as in Lk. 8:13). The following are examples of the rendering of aphistemi in the King James Version:

“…[she] departed not from the temple” (Lk. 2:37); “…he departed from Him for a season” (Lk. 4:13); “…and in time of temptation fall away” (Lk. 8:13); “Depart from Me” (Lk. 13:37); “…the angel departed from him” (Acts 12:10); “…who departed from them” (Acts 15:38); “…he departed from them” (Acts 19:9); “…they departed from him” (Acts 22:19); “…that it might depart from me” (2 Cor. 12:8); “…depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1); “…from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:5); “…depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19); “…departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

In view of these examples it is clear that the basic meaning of the word apostasia and its verb form of aphistemi is to depart. For this reason, the word apostasia in 2 Thes. 2:3 was translated as departing first in the following seven English Bibles before the King James Version: Wycliffe Bible (1384), Tyndale Bible (1526), Coverdale Bible (1535), Cranmer Bible (1539), Breeches Bible (1576), Beza Bible (1583), and the Geneva Bible (1608).

The Vulgate uses the Latin word discessio, meaning departure. In a footnote to 2 Thes. 2:3 the Amplified Bible makes the following remark: “A possible rendering of apostasia is departure [of the church].” In its full meaning, this verse reads:

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day [the day of the Lord] shall not come, except there come a departing [of the church] first, and that man of sin [the Antichrist] be revealed, the son of perdition…”

Different interpretations

Dogmatic prejudice rather than ignorance can account for the conflicting views that still persist on the true meaning of apostasia in this verse. In blind loyalty to the theologians of their church, many people simply refuse to believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. To them, it is more acceptable to stick to the narrow, secondary meaning of apostasia by interpreting it merely as spiritual decline during the last days, followed by the revelation of the Antichrist.

If the context of 2 Thes. 2:3 is considered, it is obvious that apostasia is here meant in the full width of its meaning – both as departing and as a spiritual falling away. In the first instance Paul, by using this word, refers to the physical departure of the true believers who are not destined for God’s judgements. One of the major implications of this departure will be that great spiritual darkness will prevail on earth – the light of the world having been taken away. This situation will allow the Antichrist the opportunity to be revealed. Sin and wickedness will proliferate during his reign, leading to the greatest falling away of biblical norms and Christian standards in the entire history of humankind.

In verses 3 and 4, Paul states the fact of the departure of the church, followed by the revelation of the Antichrist and the implementation of his wicked reforms. This order of events is again stated in verses 6 to 12, with the addition of more information. The two descriptions of the same scenario can be compared as follows:

The rapture: The apostasia (departing) shall come first (v. 3).

The rapture: He who now withholds will be taken out of the way (v.7).

Coming of the Antichrist: The man of sin will then be revealed (v.3).

Coming of the Antichrist: Then shall the Wicked be revealed (v. 8).

Falling away through anti-Christian reforms: The Antichrist will promote sin and wickedness, exalt himself above all religions, desecrate the temple and declare himself to be God (v. 3-4).

Falling away through anti-Christian reforms: His coming and wicked reforms will be after the working of Satan with evil powers, lies, occult wonders and all kinds of deception (v. 8-10).

The one who withholds

Negative perceptions about the pre-tribulation rapture also lead to distorted views about the one who withholds the Antichrist. There is clearly only one power that is greater than that of Satan and the Antichrist, and that is the power of God. There is no earthly or human power that can effectively resist or overcome the Devil.

In the present dispensation, before the personal revelation of Christ and the Antichrist, a spiritual battle is waged for the control of the world. The Spirit of God and the deceiving spirits of Satan work through people to achieve their objectives. John says:

“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of Antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world… He that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the Spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:2-6).

The expression in 2 Thes. 2:7 of “he who now letteth” (withhold or restrain) refers to the church as the body of Christ on earth. We are the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells, and for that reason we are the light of a dark world and the salt of a corrupt earth. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we withhold the revelation and subsequent rise to power of the Antichrist. Only after the true church has been taken out of the way in the rapture, the Antichrist will be able to personally reveal himself. He will then, without opposition, be accepted as universal Messiah and world leader by a deceived and spiritually dead humanity.

It is unbiblical to allege that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer who will be removed from the world. It is indeed through the power of the Holy Spirit that the church is able to withhold the Antichrist, but the Holy Spirit Himself will not be withdrawn. Millions of people will be saved during the seven year tribulation period (Rev. 7:9-14), and that is only possible through the mediation of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 12:3). Before the public coming of Jesus at the end of the seven years there will even be a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit over Israel to prepare them for reconciliation with the Messiah:

“And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn” (Zech. 12:10).

It is, therefore, completely wrong to teach the Holy Spirit’s absence on earth during that time. Because the church, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, will not be here, the Spirit will not operate in His Pentecostal fullness. But He will nevertheless be here as the Spirit of judgement (Is. 4:4) and also the Spirit who convicts people of their sins (Jn. 16:8).

Nature of the falling away

The falling away that will occur after the revelation of the Antichrist on earth will be far worse than the falling away which is experienced during the last days prior to the departing of the Christians (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1, 2 Tim. 3:1-5, 2 Tim. 4:2-4). After the rapture and the revelation of the Antichrist, the whole world will be plunged into utter moral and spiritual darkness. An international culture of sin will emerge from the moral falling away, in which the worst imaginable blasphemy, malignancy, corruption, theft and violence will occur.

The spiritual falling away will lead to the establishing of a deceived alliance of world religions under the leadership of the Antichrist as universal messiah. In the middle of the seven years he will enter the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and declare himself to be God (2 Thes. 2:4). This rebellious act will be followed by the world-wide worshipping of the Antichrist and the Devil (Rev. 13:4), and will constitute the worst form of spiritual falling away from the truth.

An end-time Antichrist

A very important statement that Paul makes about the Antichrist is that he will be an end-time world dictator. His public appearance will be suddenly and dramatically terminated by the second coming of Jesus Christ, who will consume him with the spirit of His mouth, and destroy him with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thes. 2:8).

This very clear statement disqualifies all historical dictators as the final “man of sin” as they only paved the way for the coming of the end-time Antichrist. John said: “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now there are many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (1 Jn. 2:18).

Also consider the following pronouncements about the Antichrist: Daniel 9:27 says that for one year-week (of seven years) he will confirm a strong covenant with many nations. In the middle of the week, which is after 3½ years, he will cause the sacrifices in the temple to be ceased. He will desecrate the temple, have an image of himself placed holy of holies, forbid all religions, and force people everywhere to only worship himself and his image. During that time he will institute a devastating reign of terror.

The Lord Jesus referred to this ominous time when He described to the Jews the great tribulation that will occur immediately prior to His coming:

“When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand): then them which be in Judaea flee to the mountains… For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be… Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:15-30).

On that day, the Antichrist and the false prophet will be destroyed:

“And I saw the beast [the Antichrist] and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him [Christ] that sat on the horse, and against His army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev. 19:19-20).

The prophecies about the appearance of the Antichrist are, therefore, still future and not historical. There were many forerunners, but now the time has come for the revelation of the great end-time Antichrist whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth when His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives during His second coming (Zech. 14:4-5).

The scene is rapidly prepared for the coming of the Antichrist. We already experience the falling away of the end of the church dispensation, and the beginning of sorrows. Soon, the hour of the departure of the children of God will come when they will be removed to heavenly places in the twinkling of an eye. Those who withheld the appearance of the Antichrist will then be taken out of way, thereby causing great spiritual darkness on earth. Under the leadership of the man of sin, who will be Satan’s ruler over an utterly depraved and deceived humanity, lawlessness and immorality will take on unprecedented proportions. As in the time of Noah and Lot, The Lord will visit this rebellious generation with great plagues and judgements during the day of the Lord.