I realize that one look at the title may cause you to hit the snooze button. Why examine the translation of one word? We do so because it has the potential to strengthen our belief that the church will miss all of the upcoming tribulation. Please allow me to explain why this matters to us.
In recent years, the Greek Word apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 has received heightened attention. The traditional view is that it refers to a falling away from biblical faith as we see in all our modern English translations, but this has not always been the case.
The earliest English versions of the Bible translated the word apostasia as “departure” such as in a physical exit from a location.[i] The translators of the King James Bible, however, changed this; they viewed apostasia as a spiritual “falling away,” and translators ever since have followed their lead.
However, do sound reasons exist to go against the prevailing thought on this matter? Can we justify translating the word as a physical departure such as would point to the rapture?
Although always a strong advocate of a pretribulation rapture, in the past I have been very reluctant to regard 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as referring to anything else but apostasy in the church. Recent study, however, has caused me to rethink my view on this.
The Word Apostasia Can Refer to a Physical Departure
In his book, The Falling Away, Dr. Andy Woods provides solid evidence for regarding the word apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as a physical departure rather than a falling away from the faith. “The Greek word apostasia simply means to ‘to stand away from’ or ‘to depart.’ Only by examining how this word is used in its immediate context will determine what the departure is from, whether it be a spiritual or physical departure.” [ii]
New Testament writers used the verb form of apostasia fifteen times. As Dr. Woods points out, “. . . only three times does it mean a spiritual departure. The remaining twelve times it clearly means a physical departure. For example, Luke 2:37 says, “and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four, she never left the temple.” [iii]
The root verb form of a word provides additional evidence that apostasia can refer to either a spiritual defection or a physical departure from a location. The context thus tells us how to translate the word.
The Context Supports a Physical Departure
The overall context of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 strongly supports a physical departure. The rapture is the main subject matter of both books that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians as well as chapter two of 2 Thessalonians.
Dr. Woods writes, “Since the ‘context is king’ in determining the meaning of the apostasia, and the larger context of the Thessalonian letters pertain to the return of Christ, interpreters should be open to a physical departure understanding of the word. Thus, the larger context of these two books does not favor spiritual departure interpretation of the apostasia, but rather it favors the physical departure view.” [iv]
Strong evidence for a physical departure comes from the immediate context. 2 Thessalonians 2 begins with these words, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him . . .” (v. 1). Paul introduces this passage, verses 1-12, with a reference to the rapture. It certainly follows that he still has the Lord’s appearing to take us home on his mind two verses later.
The use of apostasia in 2:3 as our physical departure via the rapture is wholly consistent with the immediate and overall context. The idea of a spiritual departure from the faith cannot be found anywhere; Paul never refers to it in either First or Second Thessalonians.
Paul Is Referring to a Definite Event
Paul’s use of the definite article in front of apostasia tells us he is speaking of a specific event, either a particular instance of apostasy or a definite occasion such as the rapture.
If apostasia refers to a spiritual falling away from the faith, how do we distinguish it from many such times in the history of the church when it has abandoned biblical teachings? Much of the organized church today has departed far away from the beliefs handed down from the Lord through his apostles. Could the apostasy associated with the start of the day of the Lord be any worse?
The definite article tells us the apostle has a definite event in mind, one that his readers would readily recognize. However, Paul never refers to spiritual apostasy in either of his epistles to the Thessalonians and offers no additional clarifying information. The only departure of which his readers would recognize is that of the rapture.
Paul Does Not Mention Spiritual Apostasy in Either Epistle to the Thessalonians
Notice what Paul says in verse 5 of this passage, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” As we look at 1 and 2 Thessalonians, we see repeated references to the rapture, but Paul never mentions a falling away from the faith in the letters.
If Paul is referring to a specific latter-day apostasy about which he had previously instructed his converts in Thessalonica, we would expect Paul to have mentioned it somewhere in these books along with his emphasis on the return of Jesus for His church, but he does not.
Why would Paul mention a specific spiritual departure from the faith as a key indicator of the day of the Lord with no other mention of it in either book he wrote? And if he had not yet mentioned it to them, we would expect some sort of explanation regarding it, but that is not what we see.
The absence of any mention of spiritual apostasy anywhere in 1 and 2 Thessalonians adds much support to regarding 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as a reference to the rapture, to which Paul often alludes.
As Dr. Woods points out, Paul does not even refer to the spiritual apostasy of the church in the latter days until much later in his ministry, near its end.[v] And when he does, the apostle adds much supporting detail (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 4:3-5).
The Sense of Physical Departure is Consistent with Verses 7-8
In 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 Paul writes, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
These verses tell us that the revealing of the antichrist cannot happen until the restrainer is taken out of the way. The evidence points to the Holy Spirit as the restrainer and thus to the rapture as the time His special restraining presence leaves the earth. Just as the Holy Spirit descended in a special way on the day of Pentecost, so He will leave when Jesus takes His church to His Father’s house in heaven (John 14:2-3).
Note the parallels with verse 3 if we assume apostasia refers to a physical departure.
In verse 3, Jesus removes His church via the rapture; in verse 7, the Lord takes away the restrainer that keeps the antichrist from making himself known to the world.
In both verse 3 and 7, the antichrist is revealed after the removal of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church.
If apostasia refers to a physical departure in verse 3, we find an exact parallel in the context in verses 7-8, which provides us with more evidence favoring the rapture.
The Rapture is Consistent with the Expectation of the Thessalonians
The young believers in Thessalonica expected the Lord to come for them before the start of the day of the Lord. Their response to an errant message telling them this time had already begun confirms this. They panicked when they heard the news.
In response to their frayed nerves at receiving this false communication, Paul told them “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess. 2:2). “The verb shaken denotes a rocking motion, a shaking up and down, like a building shaken by an earthquake . . .”[vi] To be “alarmed” signifies a feeling of “fright” with its usage here conveying a “state of alarm, of nervous excitement.” [vii]
The news that the day of the Lord had already begun visibly rattled the Thessalonians; Paul pictures them shaking like a building during an earthquake. Isn’t it amazing these young believers, already enduring intense persecution, became so shaken with this news? They regarded this time as much worse than their current dire circumstances.
Paul’s main purpose in 2 Thessalonians 2 was to assure the Thessalonian believers that the day of the Lord had not yet started. If we regard apostasia in verse 3 as a physical departure, does it not confirm this?
It also fits with the promise of 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul had previously told the Thessalonians Jesus would come for them before the start of the wrath of the day of the Lord. It makes much more sense that Paul is reminding his readers of this promise rather than introducing the idea of a spiritual apostasy of which we find no mention in either book he wrote to them.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
So, what’s the big deal in regarding apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as a physical departure rather than spiritual apostasy? It adds considerable support for belief in a pretribulation rapture, one that occurs before this period of God’s wrath upon the earth. It tells us that Jesus must come for His church before the world knows the identity of the antichrist, which we know occurs at the beginning of this time.
This is not wishful thinking, but the result of a careful study of the context of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that provides much evidence to apostasia being a physical departure and hence a reference to the rapture.
There is much further support of a pretribulation rapture in the books Paul wrote to the Thessalonians as well as in the New Testament. My next series of posts will consist of a detailed defense of our belief that Jesus will take us home before the tribulation.
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[i] The Wycliffe Bible (1384), Tyndale Bible (1526), Coverdale Bible (1535), Cranmer Bible (1539), Breeches Bible (1576), Beza Bible (1583), and Geneva Bible (1608) all translated “apostasia” as a physical departure.
[ii] Andy Woods, The Falling Away – Spiritual Departure or Physical Rapture? (Taos, NM, Dispensational Publishing House, Inc., 2018), p. 19.
[iii] Ibid. p. 23
[iv] Ibid. p. 27
[v] Woods, p. 13
[vi] Hiebert, D Edmond, The Thessalonian Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 301.
[vii] Ibid., p. 302