The Apostasia (2 Thessalonians 2)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from 1 & 2 Thessalonians:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2020)

 Download a printable PDF of this Special Study


        Concerning the events that precede the day of the Lord, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 does not read alike in the various Bible translations: 

  • The NASB reads, “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first.”
  • The NIV reads, “for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs.”

The Greek word that is the subject of this special study – apostasia – is crucial to how 2 Thessalonians affects the entire subject of eschatology.  “Apostasy” and “rebellion” represent the two possible English equivalents for apostasia, and the thrust of the whole passage differs significantly based upon which of these two English renderings is chosen.  In fact, whatever conclusions are reached about the meaning of this single Greek word exert considerable influence on how a great portion of the rest of 2 Thessalonians 2 is interpreted.  How are we to decide which of the two possibilities is the better translation?

        The English word “apostasy” now carries the connotation of abandoning or renouncing one’s religious faith.  “Rebellion” has the connotation of open resistance to, or defiance of, governmental authority, its officers and laws.  “In the papyri apostasia is used in the general sense of rebellion.”[i]  In the LXX, apostasis, the older substantive from which apostasia is derived, is always used “with the meaning of revolt (usually religious rebellion).”[ii]  Even in Acts 21:21, the only other place apostasia appears in the New Testament, it could well be translated “rebellion.” 

        Several expressions in 2 Thessalonians 2 are given to describe and characterize the man of lawlessness.  These expressions include “lawlessness,” “opposes every so-called god or object of worship,” “displaying himself as being God,” and “deception of wickedness.”  These expressions nicely match the idea that the man of lawlessness will lead a rebellion against God; they do not as easily support the idea that the man of lawlessness will cause the apostasy of the faithful.  The phrase “they did not receive the love of the truth” is not easily harmonized with the idea that the topic here is apostasy from Christ, for the people described by that phrase had never become Christians.


Do Not Confuse 2 Thessalonians 2 With Other New Testament Predictions of Apostasy 

        Many of the Bible verses often appealed to as corroboration of the idea of an end-times “apostasy” in fact do not deal with the time just before Christ’s parousia

(1) At the time they were written or spoken, many of these warnings of coming temptations to abandon Christianity were references to the heresy now known as Gnosticism, a heresy which began to infiltrate the churches in the early AD 60s.  Among these are passages in Colossians, like 2:8-15;  1 Timothy 4:1, which says, “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”;  1 John 2:18, which speaks of “many antichrists” who had already appeared on the scene of history;  and Jude 4, which indicates that already “certain persons have crept in unnoticed,” these very persons being identified in Jude 18 as the fulfillment of the prophecy made in 2 Peter 3:3 about “mockers [i.e., the Gnostics] … who follow their own lusts.”[iii]

(2) There are passages in Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Matthew 24-25) which speak of a coming apostasy from the Christian faith, and which have been appealed to by some writers as being a reference to an apostasy just before Christ’s second coming.  However, those prophecies actually refer to an apostasy which would occur before the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.  To see this, observe that Matthew 24:4-28 has reference to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, while 24:29-25:46 refer to Christ’s second coming (parousia).[iv]  Luke’s account of Jesus’ discourse makes it plain that in the first part of His discourse, Jesus had in view the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.  As He spoke, He indicated that the passage in Daniel which has the expression “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:24-27) was a prediction of the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.[v]  Jesus instructed the Christians who lived in Judea to flee to the mountains when they saw the abomination of desolation approaching.  Luke in his parallel account (Luke 20:21,22) wrote “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its destruction is at hand, then recognize that her desolation is near.  Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave.”[vi]  Since Matthew 24:4-28 refers to AD 70, the verses which speak of a falling away from the faith do not deal with the second advent, but with the 1st century AD.  Matthew 24:4-28 gives signs of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, among which are one that predicts false Christs would “lead many astray” (Matthew 24:5), and another that warns “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).

(3) Two other passages have been misapplied.  Luke 18:1ff speaks not of Christianity, as such, but of the faith to continue persistent in prayer.  In Acts 20:29, as he is speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul warns that “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,” and that “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”  “Among you” shows that Paul is not speaking about a falling away at the end of the church age; instead, Paul was warning the elders about the Gnostic heresy that was just beginning to show up on the horizon. 

        These New Testament passages, which do predict an apostasy from the Christian faith, apparently refer to a falling away from the faith sometime earlier in church history, rather than an apostasy just before Christ’s second advent.  2 Thessalonians 2 is concerned with the timeframe surrounding Christ’s second advent.  As we translate apostasia, passages which are not about the second advent should not unduly influence or miscolor our translation of a word or verse whose focus is Christ’s second advent.


The Use of “Apostasy” Within Our English Translations 

        When the Greek word apostasia signifies “rebellion,” how did English versions in both Catholic and Protestant Bibles come to read “apostasy” at 2 Thessalonians 2:3?  Both the Douay-Rheims (1609) version and the KJV (1611) transliterated apostasia instead of translating the word.  At that time in history there was a fierce struggle between Catholics and Protestants.  Catholics accused Protestants of apostasy, and Protestants accused Catholics of apostasy from the faith.  “The preface of the Rheims New Testament asserts that this work has been rendered necessary by the circulation of many ‘false translations’ by Protestants, who have corrupted the truth of Holy Writ, ‘adding, detracting, altering, transposing, pointing, and all other guileful means: specially where it serveth for the advantage of their private opinions’.”[vii]  Toward the end of the third paragraph of the Dedicatory Epistle printed in the older editions of the KJV is a parenthetical note, declaring that this version was one “(which hath given such a blow unto that man of sin, as will not be healed).”  This note appears to indicate that the KJV translators were reflecting the Reformation idea that the Roman Catholic church had departed from the apostolic order for the church (i.e., apostasy), and that the pope is the “man of sin” whom 2 Thessalonians predicts will take advantage of the apostasy and lawlessness to gain his ascendancy onto the scene of history. 

        In other words, it appears both groups of translators – Protestant and Catholic – transliterated the word “apostasy” at 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in order to give more ammunition to their arguments in the midst of the monumental upheaval created by the Reformation.


Apostasia Within the Different Eschatological Systems 

        A word of encouragement is needed as we continue these special studies, so that we do not become discouraged thinking the material is too hard to comprehend.  When Bible students are studying the Word and find verses that seem to refer to the same topic, they tend to weave those verses together in their minds to form a consistent picture.  That is the way students can determine what the Bible teaches on any subject.  What is most troubling to beginning students is when they encounter incompatible patterns that some other student has published.  If several incompatible or contradictory patterns are happened upon, it is easy for the student to become discouraged, thinking he or she will never understand what the Bible says.  Often, when inquiring students are introduced to the varying eschatological systems that have been put forth, not a few have come to believe they will never understand Bible prophecy. 

        To help keep students from becoming discouraged, it is important at this juncture to become acquainted with the general arrangement proposed by the major eschatological systems known as Postmillennialism, Historic Premillennialism,[viii] Dispensational (or modern) Premillennialism,[ix] and Amillennialism.  The word “millennium” means a “thousand years” and each of the eschatological systems tries to relate the other prophecy verses they have studied (especially those that refer to Christ’s second coming[x]) to the “thousand years” written about in Revelation 20.  “Post-” (which means “after”) in Postmillennialism reflects the view that Christ’s second coming is after the thousand years.[xi]  “Pre-” (which means “before”) reflects the view that Christ’s second coming is before the thousand years.[xii]  “A-” (from the Greek construction which negates what the rest of the word says) reflects the view that the “thousand years” plus the “little season” (Revelation 20:3) encompass the whole church age, and there is no literal future millennium to follow the close of this age.[xiii]

        We have referenced the major eschatological systems in order to provide a basic framework for showing how advocates of each treat the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians.[xiv] 

(1) Can apostasia be a reference to the rapture?  Instead of translating the word “rebellion,” some premillennialists have proposed the idea that apostasia should be translated “departure” and then advocate that it refers to the rapture of the church.[xv]  Then, since the “departure” comes “first” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), before the man of lawlessness comes onto the scene of history, in the premillennial system of eschatology the rapture is said to occur before the great tribulation,[xvi] the period of time when the man of lawlessness is active.  While it can be correctly demonstrated that in classical Greek apostasis could have the meaning “departure,”[xvii] to separate the rapture from the parousia coming of Jesus (as premillennialism does) is certainly mistaken since 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 ties the rapture together with Christ’s parousia.

(2) If there is to be a brief, but worldwide, rebellion (or apostasy) at the end of the church age, where is this future apostasia to be inserted into one’s eschatological system?  The differing and often conflicting answers to this question cause prophecy students to almost despair as they try to match the paragraphs of Scripture like 2 Thessalonians 2 with the eschatological system being studied. 

(a) Proponents of postmillennialism locate the final apostasy or rebellion at the end of the millennium, which, of course, would imply that the millennium ends in failure.[xviii]  They do this because, after Revelation 20:1-6 speaks of a thousand year period of time (i.e., a millennium), verses 7 and 8 introduce us to Gog and Magog, whose activities are worldwide in scope since they affect “the nations which are in the four corners of the earth” (Revelation 20:8).  Gog is the leader and Magog are his people.  In order to position the apostasia at the close of the millennium, postmillennialists identify the “Gog” of Revelation with the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  There is a slight problem harmonizing John and Paul, when we read that “fire comes down from heaven” and devours Gog and Magog, whereas Paul words it that the Lord will slay the man of lawlessness “with the breath of his mouth” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).  However, recall that Paul also has declared that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, He will deal out retribution “in flaming fire” to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9).  It would appear that the flaming fire in Paul’s writing refers to the same fire that John described in his writing.  While there are some major difficulties with the whole postmillennial system of eschatology, perhaps they are correct when they insert the apostasia where they do in their system, just before the Lord’s second coming occurs.  Revelation 20:8 has Satan gathering Gog and his people together for “the war” (i.e., the same war previously introduced at Revelation 16:14 and 19:11), and they attack the saints who are still on earth (Revelation 20:9).  If saints are still on earth, the parousia and the rapture have not occurred.  Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff, the man of lawlessness appears before the rapture.  It seems as though Paul and John are describing the same future event. 

(b) Proponents of historic premillennialism treat the apostasia of 2 Thessalonians 2 as occurring during the great tribulation (Revelation 7:14).[xix]  In this system of eschatology, the great tribulation period is said to occur at the close of the church age, and the tribulation period is then ended by Christ’s second coming and the rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:17).  The millennium follows Christ’s parousia.  Since the great tribulation occurs before the parousia, the apostasia of 2 Thessalonians 2 is believed to occur during the great tribulation period.   In addition, the great tribulation is treated as being something distinct from Satan’s “little season” (Revelation 20:2) which occurs after the millennium.  This distinction, in turn, requires that the “man of lawlessness” must be treated as a figure who is distinct from Gog and Magog (Revelation 20:9). 

(c) Proponents of dispensational premillennialism have the great tribulation happening after the parousia and rapture of the church.[xx]  The great tribulation is judged to be 7 years long (after proponents of this system argue that Daniel’s 70th week was postponed until the close of the church age).  Gog (Ezekiel 38 and 39) and antichrist (the “man of lawlessness”) are identified as being a reference to the same person, who is supposedly active during the tribulation period.  The battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16 KJV) is explained as bringing the tribulation period to a close.  The tribulation period, in this system, is followed by a literal millennium and Satan’s little season.  Since Revelation’s Gog is active at the close of Satan’s little season, Revelation’s Gog is thought to be a different Gog than Ezekiel predicted.  In this system, the apostasia and the “man of lawlessness” are pictured as coming after Christ’s parousia, a scenario which disregards the fact that 2 Thessalonians has both those events as happening before Christ returns.




        If the best conclusion is to translate apostasia as “rebellion,” where is this future rebellion against God and His rule to be inserted into one’s eschatological system?  A straightforward reading of 2 Thessalonians has this order:

  • The rebellion occurs.
  • The man of lawlessness takes advantage of it.
  • The rebellion is then quashed as the man of lawlessness is slain at the very beginning of Jesus’ parousia coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8).




[i] Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, nd) p.68,69).  This volume gives meanings of Greek words as found in koine Greek.

[ii] Charles Ryrie, “Apostasy in the Church,” BibSac 121 (Jan 1964), p.44.  Typical passages are Joshua 22:22, 2 Chronicles 28:19, and Jeremiah 2:19.

[iii] “Last days” in 2 Peter 3:3 is an expression that covers the whole church age, not just the end of that age.

[iv] Some have questioned this broad outline of the eschatological discourse because Matthew 24:14 reads, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”  Mark’s Gospel was written before AD 70, and so were Paul’s letters.  Mark 16:20 indicates the gospel had been preached “everywhere,” while Paul indicates this was done before AD 70 in Romans 10:17,18; Romans 16:26; and Colossians 1:6,23.  Of course, the language of both Jesus and Mark and Paul is to be understood to have reference to the Roman world of their day.

[v] Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 in the LXX also has “abomination of desolation” (the same construction as here), but those chapters refer to Antiochus Epiphanes (160 BC), not to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  1 Maccabees 1:54 applied these two passages from Daniel to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.

[vi] When the time arrived and the Roman armies came upon Jerusalem, Christians, heeding Jesus’ instructions, fled from Jerusalem and Judea and settled in the city of Pella in Perea.

[vii] F.F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1961), p.114.

[viii] The adjective “historic” (in Historic Premillennialism) reflects the fact that some early church fathers taught Premillennialism.  They envisioned a future great tribulation (Revelation 7:14) just before Christ’s second coming to inaugurate a future earthly millennium with Christians enjoying a thousand-year golden age with Christ.

[ix] The adjectives “dispensational” or “modern” reflect the historical fact that this system was introduced in the 16th century by the Jesuit Ribera to relieve the Pope from the Protestant stigma of being the antichrist.  The system was made popular in some Protestant circles by J.N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethren.  This system has a Jewish emphasis, and it posits that had the Jews not rejected Him, Christ would have set up an earthly kingdom in which He and the Jews ruled the world.  Because they rejected Christ, the church age was introduced as a temporary arrangement until Christ comes again, at which time He will inaugurate a millennium in which Jewish people enjoy living and reigning with Christ.

[x] It must be kept in mind that both 1 Thessalonians 4,5 and 2 Thessalonians 2 are tied together with Christ’s parousia.

[xi] Revelation 20:7-10 is treated as being at the same time as Christ’s second coming, so His coming is “post-millennial,” since 20:1-6 tells of the thousand years.  About AD 1700 this system of eschatology was introduced by Daniel Whitby.  He copied some of the Jesuit Alcazar’s ideas which had been set forth to defend the Pope against the Protestant affirmation that he was the man of lawlessness.

[xii] When Premillennialists choose an outline for the book of Revelation, they treat chapter 19 (which in verses 11-21 describes Christ’s second coming) as occurring in earth’s history just before the “thousand years” of Revelation 20, and so Christ’s coming is “pre-millennial.”

[xiii] Because Amillennialists observe seven different passages in the book of Revelation that depict Christ’s second coming, they understand that book to be presenting seven different surveys, or cycles, of earth’s history from John’s time to the second coming.  Since Revelation 19 describes the second coming, it is treated as the end of cycle six.  Chapter 20 starts a new cycle, which ends with Christ’s coming and final judgment.  Revelation then closes this seventh cycle with a captivating description of the “new Jerusalem.”  Some early church fathers taught this system of eschatology.

       Representative Amillennial writers include Floyd Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1942); J. Marcellus Kik, Revelation Twenty (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955); George L. Murray, Millennial Studies (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1972);  William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1961);  and G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

[xiv] How the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians has been interpreted through the ages will be covered in Special Study #3 in this volume, “The Man of Lawlessness.”

[xv] See Kenneth S. Wuest, "The Rapture – Precisely When?" in Bib Sac 114 (Jan‑Mar 1957), p.69‑70; E. Schuyler English, Rethinking the Rapture (Travelers Rest, SC:  Southern Bible Book House, 1954), p.65; William W. Combs, “Is apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 a Reference to the Rapture?” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 3 (Fall 1998), p.63‑88; and John Sweigart, “Is There a Departure in 2 Thessalonians 2:3?" in Conservative Theological Journal 5 (Aug 2001), p.186-204.

[xvi] English, op. cit., p.67-71; Wuest, op. cit., p.63-67.  The great tribulation is spoken of in Revelation 7:14 and alluded to again in Revelation 20:7-9.

[xvii] H.G. Liddel and Robert Scott, A Lexicon Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (New York:  American Book Company, 1881), p.93.

[xviii] Representative postmillennial writers include David Brown, Christ’s Second Coming: Will it be Premillennial? (reprint Rosemead, CA:  Old Paths Book Club, 1953) and Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1957), p.69ff.  Postmillennialists treat the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 as a literal span of time.

[xix] Representative historic premillennial writers include Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ (Grand Rapids:  Grand Rapids International Publications, 1975) and George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972).

[xx] Representative dispensational premillennial writers include the footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1909), p.1337; W.E. Blackstone, Jesus is Coming (New York:  Fleming H. Revell, 1932); John Walvoord, The Return of the Lord (Findlay, OH:  Dunham Publishing Co., 1955) and The Rapture Question (Findlay, OH:  Dunham Publishing Co., 1957); Hal Lindsay, The Late Great Planet Earth (New York:  Bantam Books, 1973); and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Left Behind series (Wheaton:  Tyndale House, 1995).  For a refutation of this system see David Vaughn Elliott, Nobody Left Behind (published in Methuen, MA, 2004).

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