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What does it mean that there will be a great falling away before Christ returns (2 Thessalonians 2:3)?

great falling away

Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, in part, to offer an eschatological clarification after some of his readers misunderstood that the day of the Lord was upon them already (2 Thessalonians 2:1–2). Part of that clarification includes a statement that many have interpreted as predicting a great rebellion before Christ returns. Second Thessalonians 2:3 says this: “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (NKJV).

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul commended the believers for their faith, hope, and love (2 Thessalonians 1:2–3) and challenged them to excel still more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 10). One area in which Paul encouraged them to grow was in their hope. To help with that, Paul taught them about the resurrection that will occur when the Lord meets believers in the clouds and the dead in Christ are raised (1 Thessalonians 4:13–17). This event, often referred to as the rapture, allows believers to grieve in a way consistent with their hope.

After the rapture, Paul explains, the day of the Lord will come. It will be a time of great difficulty for those who remain on earth in those days (1 Thessalonians 5:2–3). Paul explains that that day would not overtake believers (1 Thessalonians 5:4) and that God has not destined believers for wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9). However, because of the shortness of the time, the Thessalonians needed to make the most of their opportunity, being awake and sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6–8).

It is evident that the Thessalonians misunderstood the timing of the day of the Lord, as some thought that the day of the Lord had come upon them (2 Thessalonians 2:1–2). Paul explains that the day of the Lord had not yet come and that it would not come until some things happened first. One of those events preceding the day of the Lord would be the revealing of the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Also, Paul says, the “falling away” or “apostasy” (NASB) would come before the day of the Lord. Many have understood from this statement that before Christ returns many people will reject the faith and rebel against God.

Paul uses the Greek word apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, so “apostasy” is a good, literal translation. The Greek word means “to be apart from or to stand apart from.” Paul uses the same word in 1 Timothy 4 when he explains that in the last days people will stand apart from (or fall away from) the faith and follow various kinds of falsehood (1 Timothy 4:1–3). So, there will be a standing apart from the faith or a great falling away before Christ returns. Wickedness will grow worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13). This might be what Paul is referring to in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. On the other hand, Paul could be referring to the departure of the church (the rapture). Paul reiterates that the apostasia would come before the day of the Lord, and he could be referencing the church standing apart from or departing before the judgment falls.

In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul had described the event of the church’s meeting Christ in the clouds; then Paul explained that the day of the Lord would come upon those slated for destruction (“them”) but not upon believers (1 Thessalonians 5:3), because believers were not destined for wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Then in 2 Thessalonians he says a standing apart or away from will take place before the day of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Some commentators take the view that the “falling away” is simply a “departure” of the church from the world.

The semantic range of the word apostasia can allow for either type of departure: doctrinal or physical. The great falling away before Christ returns could be a reference to the wickedness of mankind or to the physical removal of believers before the day of the Lord.

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What does it mean that there will be a great falling away before Christ returns (2 Thessalonians 2:3)?
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This page last updated: June 28, 2023