The Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3
by Rick Shrader
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 in spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ [the Lord] 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 (2 Thes. 2:1-3).
The great rapture passage of 1 Thes. 4:13-18 was fresh on the believers’ minds when the apostle Paul encouraged them not to be shaken in their minds nor troubled by false information about the timing of the rapture. In this second epistle he beseeches them regarding “our gathering together unto him” (lit. epi-sunag?g?s, our “up-gathering”). With increased persecution as well as false teaching, it was natural for them to think the tribulation (the day of the Lord, not of Christ) had begun (“is at hand” a perfect tense, “had already come”). The “day of the Lord” is a common term used throughout the Bible for the end time event of the coming of Messiah. Whereas the “tribulation” refers specifically to Daniel’s 70th week of seven years (and sometimes “great tribulation” to the last half of that time), the day of the Lord begins with the judgment of that seven years and includes the glorious return of Christ and His millennial reign.
Paul assures them that that day could not have begun for two reasons: first, a falling away must take place; and second, the man of sin must be revealed. In verses 7 and 8 he adds that the Restrainer, the Holy Spirit, must also first be removed. The subject of this article concerns the first reason, the nature of “the falling away.” It must happen before the day of the Lord can begin.
The second reason (a brief comment is in order) is that the man of sin must be revealed before the day begins. Mid and post tribulationalists must place this revealing at the half-way point in the tribulation, specifically the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15). However, there is no reason to think that the antichrist will not be “revealed” as soon as the church is raptured out before the tribulation. His covenant with Israel (Dan. 9:26) will reveal him even if all do not recognize him for who he is; the restraint of the Holy Spirit and the church will be eliminated so that nothing can hinder his rise to power; Rev. 6:2 says he will be going forth conquering and to conquer, starting his political and military campaign early in the tribulation; verse 8 says that he will be revealed as soon as the Holy Spirit is gone. Herman Hoyt wrote, “The first move on the part of Christ to take possession of the earth will be the release of Antichrist by the tearing away of the first seal (Rev. 6:1-2).”1
A third reason why the day of the Lord could not have begun already could be that the Holy Spirit has not yet been removed (vss. 7-8). For purposes of this article, if the “falling away” is actually the rapture, then the removing of the Holy Spirit will take place simultaneously with that and is, therefore, the same as the first reason. If the “falling away” is a religious apostasy, this becomes a third reason why the day of the Lord has not begun. By either interpretation, a great proof for a pretribulational rapture is here given (vss. 7-8). The Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the church. He is the church’s seal until the day of her redemption. If He leaves the church, the earnest is broken (Eph. 1:13-14). Therefore, if the Holy Spirit is removed before the tribulation, the church must go with Him.
The “departure” view revived
The present question is whether the “falling away” mentioned in verse three refers to a religious apostasy (the common view) or whether it refers to the rapture of the church as a “departure.” The departure view was revived by E. Schuyler English in 1954 in his book Re-Thinking the Rapture. In a single footnote he brought the view to prominence again by pointing out that five English versions from the sixteenth century translated the Greek word apostasia as “a departynge” or departure.2 The versions are Tyndale (1526), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), and Beza (1565, who translates it “departing”). English’s point was that “’The departure’ is assuredly an acceptable translation of hee apostasia.”3
Since then, the view has gained attention and greater acceptance. Just two years later Kenneth Wuest proposed the same interpretation and credited English for it: “Dr. E. Schuyler English, to whom the author is deeply indebted for calling his attention to the word ‘departure’ as the correct rendering of apostasia in this context …” (he then cites the five English versions).4 In 1973, Leon J. Wood, then professor of Old Testament Studies and Dean of the Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary wrote The Bible & Future Events, in which he discusses 2 Thes. 2:3, using virtually the same arguments as English and Wuest for translating apostasia as “departure” referring it to the rapture.5
Interestingly, in 1978 J. Vernon McGee released his commentaries in which he recognizes the “departure” view and adds his own indomitable twist that the word refers to both a departure of the “organized church” from the faith followed by a departure of the “true church” from the earth.6 In the years interceding other pretribulationalists have written articles and added additional thoughts. For example, Dr. Bernard E. Northrup, who taught at both Baptist Bible College, Clarks Summit, PA. and at Central Seminary, Minneapolis wrote an article for The Biblical Evangelist titled “The Rapture in Second Thessalonians.” In it he defends the “departure” view.7 In 2002, Dr. Myron Houghton, Senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Faith Theological Seminary in Ankeny, IA wrote an article in the Faith Pulpit titled “The Rapture in II Thessalonians 2:1-10” in which he strongly endorsed English and the “departure” view.8 Here Houghton gave four reasons why he believes in this view, adding two additional reasons: the style of the writing in chapter two, and the purpose in writing the letter altogether. In 2005 Midnight Call printed an article by Kenneth Wuest titled, “The Rapture—Precisely When?” Here Wuest repeated his arguments from 1956 and expanded on the position.9 I’m sure there have been other fine articles as well.
“Departure” is a good translation
According to the apostle, a “falling away” must take place before the day of the Lord can begin. As has already been noted, this word can (and perhaps should) be translated “departure.” In this verse we have the noun, apostasia, which easily transliterates (or transfers) into the English word “apostasy” which usually means, to an English reader, a religious falling away from the faith. But, as English and others point out, “It is from the verb that we obtain the root meaning of a noun.”10 The verb form of this word, aphistemi, looks and sounds entirely different and doesn’t prejudice the English reader as to its meaning.
The noun, apostasia, only appears five times in the New Testament. Three of those times it is translated “divorcement” (Matt. 5:31, 19:7; Mk. 10:4) which, by its basic meaning, has more to do with a physical departure (of one person from another) than with a religious apostasy. Besides our text the other place where the noun is used is Acts 21:21 where it does refer to religious apostasy when Paul was accused of persuading the Jews “to forsake Moses.” So three of the other four uses of the noun mean a physical departure and only one refers to a religious departure.
The verb (aphistemi) appears fifteen times in the New Testament. In the KJV it is translated “depart” or “departed” in eleven of those places. Once (Lk. 8:13) it is translated “fall away” (the only other time it is translated thus) referring to believers who fall away from the faith like seeds that die among rocky soil. In Acts 5:37 Judas of Galilee “drew away” people after himself and in vs. 38 Gamaliel advises to “refrain” from such people. In 1 Tim. 6:5 Paul advises Timothy to “withdraw” himself from evil men. In Heb. 3:12 it does speak of some “departing” from the living God. Interestingly, in 1 Tim. 4:1, “some shall depart from the faith,” a definite place where religious apostasy is meant with the word “depart,” Paul adds the qualifier, “from the faith,” evidently because the word could not give that definite meaning on its own. In addition, Houghton says that in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word sometimes does mean a religious departure, “However, either the context or a descriptive phrase is used to indicate that a religious apostasy is meant. Therefore it might be argued that the word itself was more general.”11
The point is easily seen that the root meaning of the word most often means a physical departure, and only a few times indicates a religious departure. Kenneth Wuest, being a well-known Greek scholar, writes,
The author is well aware of the fact that apostasia was used at times both in classical and koine Greek in the sense of a defection, a revolt, in a religious sense, a rebellion against God, and of the act we today call apostasy. Liddell and Scott give the above as the first definitions of the word. Moulton and Milligan quote a papyrus fragment where the word is used of a rebel. But these are acquired meanings of the word from the context in which they are found, not the original, basic, literal meaning, and should not be imposed upon the word where the context does not qualify the word by these meanings.12
In other words, “departure” is a good translation of apostasia in 2 Thes. 2:3.
If apostasia is translated “departure” it becomes immediately clear that Paul is referring to the rapture of the church, placing it definitely before the tribulation period. This is not to deny that a religious apostasy will also take place (as seen in 1 Tim. 4:11) but gives better assurance to the readers why they were not in the day of the Lord at that time.
The definite article makes the departure definite
All interpreters who take apostasia to be the rapture (the “departure”) point out that in the Greek text this noun has a definite article. It is therefore he apostasia, “the departure.” Since it is a well-known rule of grammar that the definite article points out something definite, it is obvious that whatever he apostasia refers to, it was something known to the Thessalonians and something most likely mentioned by Paul already in his letters to them. This is critical to the discussion because the rapture has been specifically mentioned in Paul’s first letter (1 Thes. 4:13-18) and already in his second letter (2 Thes. 2:1) but Paul has not mentioned an apostasy, i.e. a religious falling away, at all.
Writers who do not believe in a rapture readily admit this function of the article and yet persist in talking of a religious departure as if it is in the context. John Eadie the Scottish Presbyterian of a century ago, for example, says, “Thus apostasia, so signalized by the article he, is something so far familiar to them, and on which they had enjoyed previous instruction. See verse 5.” Yet in the next sentence he says, “It is a spiritual falling away . . .”13 But his only proof is that Paul must have taught the Thessalonians the words of Christ during his first visit, thus the reference to vs. 5, “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” But this is merely conjecture on his part.
So to what does the definite article point? Leon Wood says,
In later books (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1,2; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3,4), Paul does refer to the last days as a time when men will forsake the faith; but he has made no mention of that idea in either First or Second Thessalonians, and these were the first he wrote. So, then, as the Thessalonians would have read this usage of the word apostasia, they would have no background for understanding it as a departure from the faith. Also, since Paul does not refer to the idea of last-day defection from the faith in any of his books, until the last he wrote, it is not likely that it was a subject of which he spoke orally to churches this early in his ministry. Further, when Paul does present the idea in his last books, he does not employ the word apostasia in doing so, which suggests that, even then, Paul did not particularly associate this word with the idea.”14
Thus we must agree with the “departure” view writers such as Wuest when he writes, “In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul had given these saints teaching on the Rapture, and the Greek article here points to that which was well known to both the reader and the writer, which is another use of the Greek definite article.”15 Therefore the most natural meaning of apostasia with this “explicit article”16 used by Paul is the rapture of the church to heaven, here called “the departure.”
Paul’s purpose and style in writing
All writers of the “departure” view point out the purpose for which Paul was writing. These believers were being persecuted for their faith, a persecution which began under Claudius (41-54 AD), and which was now in full swing. Could this be the dreaded day of the Lord which Paul had explained? Could they have missed the rapture which was so plainly taught to them? “Paul is, accordingly, writing this letter to straighten out their misunderstanding. Paul’s answer, in a word, is that this predicted time of trouble which begins the Day of the Lord was still future. The persecutions they were undergoing were the normal persecutions that can be experienced by all Christians throughout the church age.”17
But a further reason for understanding apostasia to be the departure of the church is given by Myron Houghton, that is, Paul, consistent with his style, repeats the two reasons given in vs. 3 again in vss. 6-9.
In verse 3, Paul states that two events must occur before the day of the Lord can come, namely (1) the ‘falling away,’ and (2) the revealing of the man of sin. Paul’s reference to this second event seems to be more fully described in verses 8-9. If, indeed, this is Paul’s style, then verses 6 and 7, which describe the removal of the Holy Spirit and the church, would be a more detailed explanation of the first event in verse 3 (the ‘falling away’).18
Therefore, this style of writing argues for a “departure” rather than “a falling away” in vs. 3.
And so . . .
In 1954 Dr. English humbly concluded his remarks by saying, “We have expressed our understanding of the passage as fully as we are able. We are persuaded, in our own mind, that this is the correct view of this passage. If we are not mistaken, we have here a final answer to the time of the translation of the Church in relation to the Tribulation.”19
1. Herman Hoyt, The End Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969) 127.
2. E. Schuyler English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1954) 69.
4. Kenneth S. Wuest, Prophetic Light in the Present Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956) 40.
5. Leon J. Wood, The Bible & Future Events (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 87-88.
6. J. Vernon McGee, I & II Thessalonians (Pasadena: Thru The Bible Books, 1978) 120.
7. Bernard E. Northrup, “The Rapture in Second Thessalonians, The Biblical Evangelist. nd. Also at, http://www.biblicalevangelist.org/index.php?id=473.
8. Dr. Myron Houghton, “The Rapture in II Thessalonians 2:1-10,” Faith Pulpit, April, 2002.
9. Kenneth S. Wuest, “The Rapture—Precisely When?”, Midnight Call, October 2005.
10. English, 68.
11. Houghton, 2.
12. Wuest, Prophetic Light, 40.
13. John Eadie, Commentary on St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians (Minneapolis: James & Klock Christian Publishing, 1977) 266.
14. Wood, 88.
15. Wuest, “The Rapture—Precisely When?, 6.
16. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: Macmillan, 1957) 137.
17. John Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 102.
18. Houghton, Reason #4.
19. English, 71.