When I became a Dispensationalist some 30 years ago, I slowly became convinced of the truth of the Rapture of the Church before the seven year Tribulation Period which precedes the Millennial Reign of Christ. Now this is basic dispensational teaching regarding the church which I have endorsed for three decades. But there was one teaching that I was not comfortable with. And that was the teaching that the vast majority of the church would fall away from Christ shortly before the Rapture. There will be, it is said, a great apostasy. Some are convinced that we already see signs of it.
My problem with this is twofold. One is that something in my spirit tells me that this is not so. Now I must take a little detour to explain what I mean. I do not mean that I simply dislike the idea or that it does not fit into the way I think or feel. I am saying that deep down on the inside of me, in the hidden man of the heart (as Peter says), I lose my sense of peace when this idea comes up. When this happens, I begin to find out why I feel this way. The Bible says that when the Spirit of Truth (the Holy Spirit) comes that He will guide us into all truth. I believe that. I believe that He is guiding me into all truth. And He bears witness with our spirits about spiritual truths. (See Rom 8:14; Jn 14:17,26; 16:13) But how do I know that my feeling is right or wrong? In other words, is this the Spirit showing me something or is it just the flesh rebelling against the truth? We have to go to the Word of truth to find out. It means that we have to dig deeper into the Bible to find what the truth really is. Sometimes, like a miner searching for precious gems, you have to dig deep. "If you seek [truth,wisdom] as silver and search for her as hidden treasure ... then you will discover the knowledge [that comes from] God." Proverbs 2:5-6
Our quest here is to find out if the NT teaches the doctrine of the great apostasy. Let's look at the scriptures that are used to support this view. The foremost scripture used to support this idea of a great apostasy is 1 Timothy 4:1-3, "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, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth". Notice the expression 'fall away from the faith', a classic description of apostasy. Another passage is in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, "But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful,unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these."
When you put these two scriptures together they seem to paint a very bleak picture for the future of the church. But should we put them together at all? They actually talk about two very different things. The first speaks of a gross legalism that forbids marriage (which means it forbids sex) and certain foods. These are religious people trying to impose ascetic rules on others. The group in 2 Timothy are just the opposite. Some are outwardly religious but are extremely worldly rather than ascetic. Our day seems more like this second passage and this second passage does call the era 'the last days'. The first passage speaks of later times, not necessarily the 'last days'. In the first few centuries of the church, we do have some religious groups that forbid marriage (some gnostics and manicheans) and some that forbid certain foods (Judaizers and, later, Muslims). It does not describe our day very well. Paul must have been speaking to Timothy of something in his immediate future and the early centuries of the church. Some departed from the faith into gross legalism.
The passage in 2 Timothy seems much like our present day. Is Paul telling us that the church will commit apostasy here or is he saying that the world will be like this so 'avoid such men as these'. Now there are, and have always been, people like this in churches. It seems that Paul is saying that these are characteristic of an era and not some great apostasy.
So let's examine one more 'falling away' passage. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 says, "Let no one in any way deceive you, for [the Day of the Lord] will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 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". Now here seems to be solid evidence that there will be a general apostasy before the Day of the Lord (beginning with the Rapture, then the Tribulation). The word 'apostasy' is actually used here with the clear reference to the last days. Is it proof positive? This was the second thing that I was uncomfortable with - the word 'apostasy' or 'falling away'. Here is where I began to dig deeper.
The word translated 'apostasy' (or 'falling away' in other translations) comes from the Greek word, 'apostasia'. So apostasy comes directly from this Greek word. The English word means to renounce one's own religion. Let's look at the definition of the Greek word. "The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines 'apostasia' first as 'defection, revolt;' then secondly as 'departure, disappearance."1 The English definition follows the first Greek definition, not the second.
Once I found this alternate definiton I began to read the passage with that definition. It would read to the effect that the Day of the Lord with the revealing of the Antichrist will not come until the 'departure' comes first. The departure of what? The logical choice is the church, meaning that the Day of the Lord will not come until the Rapture (departure) of the church into heaven. I actually think that the passage makes better sense translated this way. So this so-called 'falling away' or 'apostasy' is not 'falling away from the faith' as in 1 Timothy, but rather a departure of the church. It is a departure of the church from this planet not the departure of believers from the faith. This view also fits what Paul told this same church in 1 Thess 4:17. "We who are alive and remain will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air." Paul seems only to be referring to the event he described in detail in 1 Thess. He does not seem to refer to some apostasy. Paul mentions this 'departure/apostasy' as if they knew what he was talking about. There is no evidence that Paul spoke/wrote to them about some sort of general apostasy.
Now I believed this for a long time but I did not have any confirmation of this right away. Then I picked up a book by Roy Hicks, former general superintendant of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The main point of the book is what I have outlined above. More recently I have run into Dr. Thomas Ice, professor of theology at Liberty University. He says the same thing. "I believe that there is a strong possibility that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is speaking of the rapture. What do I mean? Some pre-tribulationists, like myself, think that the Greek noun apostasia, usually translated "apostasy," is a reference to the rapture and should be translated "departure." Thus, this passage would be saying that the day of the Lord will not come until the rapture comes before it."2
I also looked up many other translations to see if any of them translated the Greek 'apostasia' as 'departure' in this passage. What I found is that the English translations before the King James 1611 Bible always translated it as departure. After the KJV it is translated as apostasy or falling away or something like that. This means that Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the Geneva Bible (the only Bible used by the Puritans) agree with me. (I guess I am just old-fashioned.) It seems that the influence of the KJV on subsequent translations has been very strong.
I feel very comfortable in believing that there will be no general apostasy of the church and I also think that my view of the Rapture has been shown to be the view of scripture. Believing that the church is going into a great apostasy gives us a very negative view of the church. Even if one thinks that their church is okay, they might think that other churches and Christians are apostate. (Well, some actually are.) We need to be wary of the apostasy of liberal Christianity, the type that denies that the Bible is the Word of God, denies the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice, His physical resurrection, His bodily Return. That we do need to fight.
However,there are scriptures that better characterize the church just before the Rapture. One of them is Ephesians 5:25-27, "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water by the Word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless". Rapturing a holy church sounds like something that Jesus would do.
1 Dr. Thomas Ice, "The Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3" at Pre-Trib Research Center, online.