The Disappearance of Faith from the Earth
When Jesus Himself contemplated conditions on the earth at the time of His coming, He asked the question, "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). He would not have asked the question if the right answer was, yes. The question is rhetorical. It is designed to lead the hearer to a particular answer. Since the question raises doubt that faith will be found on the earth, the implied answer is, "Maybe not." Jesus is therefore warning us that, in the final stages of church history, the church will sink so low that vital faith will all but disappear.
The Great Falling Away
In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul takes up the subject of final things.
1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
2 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.
3 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;
4 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, shewing himself that he is God.
5 Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?
6 And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.
7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
8 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.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Paul is seeking to counter a false teaching circulating among the Thessalonians that "the day of Christ is at hand." The words "at hand" are better translated "present" or "already present." The effect of this teaching was to arouse anxiety and dread. Why? Because these Thessalonians understood from Old Testament prophecy and from Paul's teaching that the Day of Christ—that is, the Day of the Lord—would bring great tribulation. The prospect of living through the time when divine wrath and judgment would visit the earth caused them to be "shaken in mind."
When a rapture will occur
Paul allays their fears, saying, "We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, . . . , as that the day of Christ is at hand" (vs. 1-2). He means, "You need not worry about living through the time of great tribulation, for when Christ comes at the dawning of His day, the first task on His program will be to gather the church unto Himself." He is talking about the rapture of the church. He is affirming that great tribulation will not fall upon this world before Christ has taken out His saints. Thus, he is reiterating the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 that Christ intends to deliver the church from the wrath to come, and the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that this deliverance will be accomplished through a rapture of the church.
Paul conspicuously does not treat the "gathering together unto him" as one of the developments that must precede the Day of Christ. These developments include the falling away and the revelation of the man of sin (v. 3), but not a rapture. By combining the concepts "the coming of Christ" and the "day of Christ" within the same sentence, Paul encourages us to understand that Christ's coming will bring Christ's day. When He comes, He will gather His saints. The rapture in question is therefore one of the first events during the day of Christ, not one of the last events preceding it.
When the Day of Christ will begin
This passage is extremely nettlesome to those who believe that the next event on the prophetic timetable is the Rapture. Why? Because this passage identifies two developments that must come before the day of Christ and hence before the rapture that will take place at the beginning of His day. According to Paul, the day of Christ will not come until there is a falling away and the man of sin is revealed (v. 3). "Falling away" is a rendering of the Greek word apostasia. The man of sin is the Antichrist.
Writers on prophecy have skirted this passage in various ways. We will look at how this passage has fared in popular books on the Rapture by E. Schuyler English and John Walvoord.
English agrees that apostasia must precede the Day of Christ and end-time events, but he says that the word has been mistranslated as "falling away. " It should be translated "departure. " This, he says, is the root meaning of the word, although he concedes that the word often denotes a falling away from the truth; that is, "apostasy." According to English, the departure Paul has in mind is the departure of the church at the Rapture, and the meaning of verse 3 is that both the Rapture and the revelation of the Antichrist will come before the Day of Christ (1).
The chief difficulty in English's interpretation of the verse is that the meaning of a word is determined not by its derivation, but by its usage. Investigation of how apostasia was used in the first century establishes that the word means "apostasy," not "departure." The word means "apostasy" in its only other occurrence in the New Testament. "And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake [literally, 'apostatize from'] Moses" (Acts 21:21) (2). The word means "apostasy" in every one of its many occurrences in the Septuagint (3). Every authoritative lexicon defines apostasia as "apostasy" (4).
Walvoord endorses the translation of verse 3 in the NIV. "[That day will not come] until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed." This translation shifts the meaning enough so that Walvoord can claim that these developments will occur not before the Day of Christ, but during the Day of Christ, serving as evidence that the Day of Christ has already begun. In other words, the sense of the verse is that the day of Christ will come only when these other developments come as well (5).
The NIV's subtle reworking of verse 3 distorts the Greek, which clearly says that in relation to the Day of Christ, the apostasy must come "first. " "First" is proton, which cannot mean anything else but "first. " This word disallows any attempt to make verse 3 say that the apostasy will come during, rather than before, the Day of Christ.
Since the word "first " is used specifically to date the apostasy, we are led to suspect that it applies equally to the event mentioned next, the appearance of the Antichrist. Thus, the wording implies that the revelation of the Antichrist must come first also. Paul's reference to this event serves no purpose if it is not to be viewed as something else that must precede the Day of Christ.
Our study of Scripture must proceed with an unbiased openness to what it is really saying. If we try to make it fit preconceived ideas derived from our teachers or based on our preferences, we will never grasp the whole counsel of God. An honest reading of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 altogether overthrows the popular notion that the Rapture will come unheralded by signs. This notion is the usual grounds for denying that Scripture pictures the church in its final hour as riddled with apostasy. Such apostasy, many argue, would be a sign of the approaching Rapture. Yet, in the text under discussion here, Paul counters by saying that the Rapture cannot come until at least two signs appear first, and one is general apostasy in the church.