Does 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Mention the Rapture? – A Refutation of the Pretribulational “Departure” Argument

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion (apostasia) comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” – 2Th 2:3 ESV (some versions render “rebellion” as “apostasy” or “falling away”)

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 has been the nemesis for Pretribulationism. Or what I refer to as the 800-pound gorilla sitting on the pretribulationist’s desk. Why is this? This Biblical passage has convinced more ex-pretribulationists that their position was wrong than any other Bible passage. The reason for this is straightforward: The fundamental premise of pretribulationism is that there cannot be any prophesied events that must take place before the rapture, and consequently they believe in the novel idea of what has come to be called the “any moment” rapture (a.k.a. imminence). Contra Paul in his unambiguous statement in v. 3 has lead many to reject imminence and thereby understand that there will be in fact at least a couple of key monumental events that will happen before the rapture.

There have been several pretrib attempts to get around the plain meaning of this Biblical text, but there has been one in particular that is indeed the most strained. Nevertheless, though I would rather spend my time responding to the best arguments out there that the other side has, it is my polemical philosophy that if God’s people are being influenced by any particular argument it should be responded to — even if that argumentation is really bad, and even when their own scholars would reject such reasoning (as we will see in this case).

This past January at the Prewrath Conference I gave a series of lectures on Thessalonians. In one of them I focused particularly on the pretrib argument that the Greek word behind “rebellion” (apostasia, ἀποστασία) can have a meaning of a “physical and spatial departure,” thereby suggesting that Paul has the rapture in mind when he uses this word in this verse.

What follows are my notes from the lecture. I have adapted them and given some transitions between points since they were originally given via PowerPoint slides.

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Some pretribulationists argue that the word “rebellion” (apostasia, ἀποστασία) means “departure” and thus is denoting the rapture.

That is, rather than seeing “rebellion” (apostasia) as a religious departure, many pretrib teachers have interpreted it as a “spatial departure,” I.e. the Rapture.

This view was first introduced in 1895 by J. S. Mabie and  popularized by E. Schuyler English in 1949.

In their first appeal they try to support this argument by noting earlier versions:

Pretrib proponents have pointed our that early English Bibles such as the Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva, have rendered rebellion in v. 3 as “departing.”

The implication of the English word “depart” is suppose to suggest a “spatial departing” and thus the concept of the rapture was in the mind of these English translators.

But this is invalid argumentation for a couple of reasons:

1. Appealing to 16th century English versions to understand the meaning of a Greek word is naïve at best and only pushes the question back a step further: what did that 16th century English word “departing” mean? Since the English word can be spatial or non-spatial in meaning.

2. These same early English versions use “departing” at Hebrews 3:12; for example the KJV reads, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.

Here “departing” is clearly non-spatial.

Further, there is no evidence at all that any of these translators or contemporary commentators on this verse understood apostasia as a “spatial departure.” 1895 is the first time.

A second appeal is to lexical evidence. But which side is the lexical evidence on?:

Here is where the rubber meets the road.

Is there any lexical evidence that would prove that apostasia can carry the meaning of “spatial departing,” let alone in 2Thess. 2:3?

Word studies always begin with proximity and works its way outward:

Author -> NT -> LXX (Septuagint) -> Koine (Pseuda; Josephus, Philo) -> Classical Greek -> Patristic

New Testament Usage

The term is used only one other time in the New Testament:

“and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake [religious apostasy] Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.” – Acts 21:21

LXX (Septuagint)

Four Times: Josh 22:22; 2Chr 29:19; 1Mac 2:15; Jer 2:19

Every time it means apostasy or rebellion in a religious or political sense — never used as a spatial or physical sense.

Koine Greek Literature

In Moulton and Milligan’s, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources, it is demonstrated that this term is only used in the political or religious defection sense — again, never used in a spatial departure sense (pp. 68-9)

Further, even Pretribulationist scholar Paul Feinberg admits, “If one searches for the uses of the noun “apostasy” in the 355 occurrences over the 300-year period between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., one will not find a single instance where this word refers to a physical departure.”

Classical Greek

The classical Greek Liddell and Scott lexicon lists the primary meaning of apostasia as “defection, revolt”; and “departure, disappearance” as a secondary meaning.

The only example of this secondary meaning of spatial departure is found in the 6th century A.D!

Patristic Greek

The standard Greek lexicon for Patristic Greek Lampe has the primary meaning of apostasia as “revolt, defection” and gives only one example of a spatial departure.

This one instance is found in a NT apocryphal work, The Assumption of the Virgin. The earliest this is dated is the 5th century A.D.!

So What Do We Make of all this Lexical Evidence?

Here are the documented lexical facts:

There were five Greek sources we examined. The most weighty and important sources are the NT, LXX, and Koine literature–not a single instance does apostasia carry the meaning of “spatial departure.” Rather, every instance has the meaning of religious or political departure.

The last two sources (Classical and Patristic Greek) are the least weighty and important because they are the furthest removed from the New Testament.

There were only two instances from these two sources that have a spatial departure meaning — and both of these examples are dated into the 5th-6th century!

This is Why You Will Not Find the “Spatial” Meaning in Any Standard NT Lexicons:

BDAG defines this word as “defiance of established system or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith”

BDAG‘s predecessor Thayer

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Kittel)

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Brown)

Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Balz)

A third appeal to the cognate verb:

So How Does the Pretribber Respond to These Lexical Facts? This is where the desperate leap takes place.

We have done a responsible thorough examination of the noun apostasia demonstrating that the term does not carry a “spatial” meaning in Hellenistic times.

The Pretribber will make the leap by pointing to the cognate verb form of apostasia, which is aphistemi, which means “to withdraw, remove, depart, leave.” It is used 14 times in the NT and is used both in a spatial and non-spatial sense.

And Thus a Leap that a Verb Meaning Carries Over to the Noun Form.

E. S. English succinctly states the pretrib reasoning, “since a noun takes it meaning from the verb, the noun, too, may have such a broad connotation.”

Davey goes further saying, “Since the root verb has this meaning of ‘departure’ from a person or place in a geographical sense, would not its derivatives have the same foundational word meaning.”

Cognate and Root Fallacy.

Cognates and Roots is not the way any responsible exegete determines word meanings (Imagine reading the newspaper this way. Or love letters!)

Rather, word meanings are determined by semantic range and its usage in context.

Even Feinberg rejects this naïve method when he comments on this specific word, “the meaning of derivative nouns must be established through their usage.” (emphasis his)

Perfect Case in Point: aphistemi

Apostasion is a cognate noun to this verb, which only means “divorce or some other legal act of separation.”

Apostater another cognate noun which means “one who has power to dissolve an assembly” or “to decide a question.”
Since these derivative nouns do not contain the meaning of a spatial or physical departure (as the Pretribber will not argue), there is absolutely no basis to assume that our target noun apostasia does as well. In other words, the pretrib cannot have their lexical cake and eat it too. It is first rank special pleading.

Moving on to the fourth appeal, contextual:

Since the semantic range does not include “physical or spatial departure” it is moot to even evaluate context — unless someone wants to argue that this is the only instance within 500-600 years of the origin of the term that it means a “spatial departure”!

Nevertheless…

To interpret the word “rebellion” in v. 3 as the “rapture” does not comport with the context, and as we will see it makes Paul unintelligible, even humorous.

First, Paul is making a contrast of what precedes and what follows. The “gathering” (rapture) and Coming/Day of the Lord is what follows (“For that day will not come unless”) the rebellion and revelation of the man of lawlessness. The pretrib view would have Paul in essence saying, “The rapture cannot happen until the rapture happens”! But Paul is clearly marking certain events as signs that must take place before Christ’s Return.

Second, Paul does not simply mention “rebellion” (apostasy) and leave it at that. But the verse begins with Paul’s exhortation, “Let no one deceive you in any way.” This is followed by “For,” which in this case is called an “explanatory hoti (ὅτι).” That is to say, Paul is connecting the exhortation not to be deceived with the fact of rebellion and the man of lawlessness being revealed.

In addition, some Pretrib teachers have attempted to argue that since there is the definite article “the” before “rebellion” it indicates that the Thessalonians were familiar with some previous teaching by Paul; but with no basis they simply assume it must refer to the rapture in 1Thessalonians 4. It is classic begging the question.

But what does the context show us?

Since this word in Hellenistic times always meant a “religious or political departure” should we then not be surprised that Paul makes references in this very context to “the truth” and “the Christian faith.” And indeed he does:

v. 2 “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed”
v. 3 “Let no one deceive you in any way”
v. 10 “they refused to love the truth”
v. 11 “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false”
v. 13 “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”
v. 15 “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

In addition, the rebellion and the revealing of the man of lawlessness are not two disconnected or unrelated events, but can be seen rather as a single whole event with two closely related aspects; “first” can refer to both of the events in relation to the Day of the Lord.

And what is the connection between Antichrist and the rebellion?

“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false,” – 2Th 2:9-11

This writer recognizes that there are other viewpoints of who actually apostatizes:

(1) A conspicuous increase in godlessness (or rebellion) within the world? (but the definite article before “rebellion” would suggest a more specific narrow event)
(2) A significant apostasy within the professing church?
(3) True believers lose their salvation? (but see 2 Thess. 2:13)
(4) Jewish in scope? (but the context here includes Gentiles)

My own position is number 2 since I believe the immediate context in chapter 2 of the Antichrist’s activity informs us of the identity of the rebellion. Nevertheless…

The Big Picture: The Pretribulational “Departure” Argument Fails on All Four Levels:

It fails on appealing to early English versions
It fails on appealing to 5 bodies of Greek literature
It fails on appealing to its verbal cognate form
It fails on appealing to context.

Even the most noted Pretibulational scholar John F. Walvoord was Persuaded!

In the first edition of his popular book, The Rapture Question (1957) he defended the “Departure” argument. But after considering some of these arguments put forth by Robert H. Gundry, Walvoord rejected this common pretrib argument which he notes in his second edition of The Rapture Question (1979).

Also, Paul Feinberg, “there is no reason to understand Paul’s use of apostasia as a reference to the rapture” (When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 311).

Sadly though, many Pretrib teachers have not followed this lead in abandoning this groundless argumentation.

Bibliography:

“Is Apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 a Reference to the Rapture?” by William W. Combs
The Church and the Tribulation by Robert H. Gundry
The many Greek sources/Lexica cited in this Article.

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