Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy [ho apostasia] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction (2 Thess 2:3 NASB)
Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians because he learned that they were deceptively being taught by some that the day of the Lord was happening, hence, the despair the young church was experiencing. Their mistaken eschatology noted in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 was anticipated by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 where he laid a foundation of hope teaching them that they will be delivered at the revelation of Christ before the day of the Lord’s judgment. In short, since the revelation of Christ has not occurred, the Thessalonians can be certain that the day of the Lord’s wrath has not arrived.
Then Paul provides additional certitude that the day of the Lord has not arrived by giving a chronology of two pivotal events that must happen first:
(1) Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, (2) that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (3) Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, (4) who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. (2 Thess 2:1–4 NASB)
Paul begins with using strong language, warning them not to be deceived or mislead through any manner. The reason why the Thessalonians—and by extension all Christians—should not be deceived is because the day of the Lord will not begin to unfold until two events happen: (1) the apostasy comes, and (2) the man of lawlessness is revealed. Some have misunderstood this to mean that the apostasy will be the first event, followed by the second event of the revelation of the man of lawlessness. But Paul does not make this sequential argument, instead he lumps these two related events together stating that they both must occur before the day of the Lord. And only context will give us clues to the relationship between the apostasy and the revelation of Antichrist.[i]
Without elaborating on the precise nature, Paul simply states “the apostasy” (ho apostasia) must come. Other translations render it as “the rebellion,” but “apostasy” captures the nuance better. The Greek term means a “defiance of established system or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith.” This can be an abandonment of either political or religious convictions, and in our religious context, it indicates the latter, religious apostasy. But what sort of apostasy does Paul refer too? This has lead to various proposals.
(1) The apostasy is a conspicuous increase in ungodliness (or apostasy) within the world.
It is true there will be an increase of ungodliness in the world before Christ’s return (2 Tim 3:1–9). But I think that the particular apostasy that Paul mentions will be narrower in scope as I will argue below. And in the Greek, it is significant that there is an article before “apostasy.”[ii] This points to a more discernible event, instead of a general apostasy. Moreover, the term for “apostasy” can imply that someone previously affirmed an allegiance, but no longer does, so in that sense an overt unbeliever cannot apostatize.
(2) The apostasy will be true believers losing their salvation.
This view is inconsistent with Paul’s statement that he makes a little further: “But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess 2:13). For Paul, the chosen by God will be brought “for salvation.” This is why Paul can thank God, because God’s elect will persevere. Claiming to be a Christian does not make one a Christian. Those who claim to be Christians and later reject the faith is by definition an apostate, and thereby shown to be false professors of the faith.
(3) The apostasy will be Jewish in scope.
One could make a point that Jews will apostatize when they make a covenant with Antichrist or worship him at his revelation at the midpoint. It is possible but I do not believe it is probable in this particular reference, because the context does not limit it to Jews. Neither will it be entirely Gentile in scope. I do not see evidence that the apostasy is exclusive to ethnicity.
(4) The apostasy will be the eschatological professing church.
A fourth view, which I think is the most plausible, understands that a significant apostasy will occur within the professing church at Antichrist’s coming. There will be a separating out of unbelievers from believers in the church. There are two reasons for this. First, in our context, apostasia refers to a religious departure, and we find a cluster of expressions to the Christian faith and truth, which Paul exhorts not to depart from:
- “not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed” (v. 2)
- “Let no one deceive you in any way” (v. 3)
- “they found no place in their hearts for the truth” (v. 10)
- “Consequently God sends on them a deluding influence”(v. 11)
- “through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (v. 13)
- “stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you” (v. 15)
The second reason relates to the prophesied event that must occur before the day of the Lord, which will be Antichrist’s revelation (apokalyptō, “to cause something to be fully known, reveal, disclose, bring to light, make fully known). Paul associates the apostasy to the revelation of Antichrist, and in turn, he relates his revelation to when Antichrist “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in God’s temple, displaying himself as God” (2 Thess 2:4).” Since Antichrist will demand the world to worship him, it sets up a test for those who claim to be Christians: the choice to apostatize or stay faithful. The principle means by which Antichrist will achieve his goal for global worship will be his image and mark system (cf. Rev 13). Antichrist will become the “object of worship,” and false-professing Christians will apostatize their empty faith. In short, the apostasy will be devilish, discernible, deceptive, and damning. Paul is not alone in teaching this connection between Antichrist and apostasy. Jesus warns in the context of the Antichrist and the great tribulation:
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe him. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. (Matt 24:23–24)
And in the classic passage on the False Prophet and the Antichrist, John writes:
He performed momentous signs, even making fire come down from heaven in front of people and, by the signs he was permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, he deceived those who live on the earth. He told those who live on the earth to make an image to the beast who had been wounded by the sword, but still lived. (Rev 13:13–14)
It is no wonder then why the apostle Paul links apostasy with the man of lawlessness. Therefore, we should correctly relate the apostasy and Antichrist, not as two disconnected events, but as a single complex event.
[i] Paul uses the adverb prōtos (“first”), which refers to both the apostasy and the revelation of Antichrist; thus, the day of the Lord will not occur until these two events happen. In contrast, when Paul does use prōtos elsewhere to indicate a sequence between two events, he uses a temporal indicator such as “then” (epeita) for the event to follow; e.g., “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16–17). So Paul’s main point is to draw a sequence between the day of the Lord and the two related events—not a sequence between the apostasy and the revelation of Antichrist. In short, the day of the Lord cannot occur until those two events unfold first.
[ii] It is most likely that this article falls into the grammatical category that Daniel Wallace calls the “Well-Known, Celebrity, or Familiar Article.” He defines it as: “The article points out an object that is well known…[It] refers to a well-known object that has not been mentioned in the preceding context (anaphoric), nor is considered to be the best of its class (par excellence), nor is one of a kind (monadic).” Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 225.
But this article could have an anaphoric sense, denoting a previous reference, since Paul soon after states, “Surely you recall that I used to tell you these things while I was still with you” (2 Thess 2:5). But the anaphoric article is broader than the well-known article, and thus could include the well-known sense as well. Wallace writes: “Most individualizing articles will be anaphoric in a very broad sense. That is, they will be used to point out something that had been introduced earlier—perhaps even much earlier. For example, in John 1:21 the Jews ask John the Baptist, ‘Are you the prophet?’…They are thinking of the prophet mentioned in Deut 18:15 (‘a prophet like me’). Technically, this instance belongs under the par excellence article (best/extreme of a class), but again, broadly, it is anaphoric. Thus to call an article anaphoric is not enough: one has to probe to see if it belongs more specifically to some other category as well. Practically speaking, labeling an article as anaphoric requires that it have been introduced at most in the same book, preferably in a context not too far removed” (Wallace, 218).
And one should not rule out that the article can denote par excellence. Again Wallace writes: “The par excellence article is not necessarily used just for the best of a class. It could be used for the worst of a class—if the lexical nuance (or contextual connotation) of that particular class suggests it. In essence, par excellence indicates the extreme of a particular class. ‘I am the chief of sinners’ does not mean the best of sinners, but the worst of sinners. If I make a ‘pig’ of myself while eating ice cream and then get labeled ‘the pig,’ it certainly would not be a valued appellation. The article par excellence and the well-known article are often difficult to distinguish. Technically, this is due to the fact that the article par excellence is a subset of the well-known article. A rule of thumb here is that if the article points out an object that is not conceived as the best (or worst) of its category, but is nevertheless well known, it is a well-known article. The question one must always ask is, Why is it well known?” (Wallace, 222). If the apostasy is caused by Antichrist’s great tribulation, then it could be the most significant (worst) case of apostasy in Jewish and Christian history.