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Is the Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3?
On a related note, some Dispensational writers have believed that the catching up of the saints is what is in view in 2 Thessalonians 2:3:
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sinis revealed, the son of perdition.
I shall revisit this text further on in my remarks about the future antichrist but will focus briefly on the term “falling away” (apostasia). The word can occasionally refer to a physical separation. However, this is definitely not its main meaning. Hogg and Vine note that in the LXX the term has a negative connotation for rebellion or defection.1 But is it possible that Paul employs the word here in a positive sense to refer to the removal of the saints to “the air” as per 1 Thessalonians 4:17?
Personally, I think this is extremely doubtful. In the first place, why would the apostle make use of the word apostasia when just a few months before he utilized the more precise term harpagesometha? Reusing harpazo would be a clear reminder of what he had said in 1 Thessalonians 4 and would have been good pedagogy. If one adds to this the fact that Paul had indicated that this “seizing” of the saints was a new teaching the switch from precision to ambiguity is even less comprehensible. To me this ranks as a significant counterargument.
More arguments against taking apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as the ‘rapture’ are simply replies to the several indecisive reasons given in its favor. For instance, although apostasies have been commonplace in Church History it could well be that a marked falling away from sound doctrine worldwide will precede the revealing of the Man of Sin (Antichrist). That fits just as well into the context than a rapture hypothesis (if not better – cf. Lk. 14:34). Again, if it is said that 2 Thessalonians 3:1 refers to “the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him,” it begs the question to claim that the “coming” is pretribulational in that context.2 It is a non sequitur.
The fact of the matter is that a fool-proof exegetical presentation of a pretribulational (or any other) ‘rapture’ is not possible. Yes, exegetical reasons for the different viewpoints can be put forth,3 but in reality, the passages are not plain enough to arrive at dogmatic conclusions about. The best that can be argued for is an inference to the best explanation.4
The Man of Sin and the Tribulation
Paul is primarily a church theologian. He mentions the hopes of Israel out of understandable concern for his people and for God’s solemn word vouchsafed to them. He believes in the Remnant and that when their blindness is removed (Rom.11:25) God will save Israel. But the OT predicts a time of upheaval called variously “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7) or “time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation.” (Dan. 12:1), after which Israel will be delivered (Jer. 30:7c; Dan. 12:1b). If we add into this the prospect of the “little horn” of Daniel 7:21-22 and the self-exalting king of Daniel 11:36f., we can see that the OT has given us a time of tribulation that resembles Daniel’s descriptions (cf. Matt. 24:21-30), and which comes before the second advent of Jesus. Putting the pieces of this jigsaw together it looks as though after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25) there will be a time of peril for Israel in which an evil protagonist who will “speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High” (Dan. 7:25), will have his time. After this, the people whom he persecuted shall inherit the kingdom (Dan. 7:27).
The question before us is, does the apostle Paul refer to any of this in his letters? The answer is yes, and it is surprisingly detailed. For Paul’s take on this we must turn again to the Thessalonian correspondence. Let us turn first to what he has to say about the mysterious “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:
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, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God…And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 6-8)
Now the “Day” is “the day of Christ” in verse 2. Before the day of Christ can happen, certain intervening events have to occur. Something called “the falling away” (apostasia) must happen. As we have seen, some pretribulationists believe that this apostasia is the rapture. I personally do not. I retain the view that this “falling away” is the defection of the visible church from Christ and His Truth. They may maintain confessional items like the deity of Christ and justification by faith, but the “hard content” (e.g., sin, sanctification, dying to self, etc.) is not pressed and a self-centered entertainment-based form of teaching replaces it, thereby preaching a false Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4).
The next intervening event is the appearance of “the man of sin,” who is given another name, “son of perdition.” This individual matches the character of the “little horn” in Daniel 7 and brings to mind John’s depiction of “the beast” in Revelation 13. The fact that Paul simply refers to this person as “the man of sin” suggests that he expects his audience to know who he is referring to. This is the coming great foe of Israel who goes by many names in Scripture.5 Daniel calls him the “little horn” (Dan. 7:24-27), the willful king (Dan. 11:36), while Zechariah speaks of him as “the worthless shepherd” in Zechariah 11:15-17.6 Paul’s designation, “the man of sin” is most appropriate therefore.7 But Paul adds another name, “the son of perdition (apoleia),” which is the exact same name that Jesus called Judas Iscariot in His prayer to the Father in John 17:12!
Some interpreters have thought that the two names denote the two halves of the seven-year career of the Antichrist (of which more later). But that is mere speculation. The structure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 does not encourage such a division. The “man of sin (hamartia – Majority Text) or “lawlessness” (anomia – Nestle-Aland/Tyndale House Text) appears to be the same one who “exalts himself” and sits in God’s temple proclaiming himself a deity (2 Thess. 2:4). The fact that he is given another name (hardly unusual in the Bible) should not carry any meaning beyond what is clearly stated.
The phrase that links this man most clearly to the sinful ruler of Daniel is of course his over-inflated ego. Daniel says that the coming persecutor will “speak pompous words against the Most High” (Dan. 9:25a), and (as the willful king) “shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36). According to Daniel 7:26-27 this person’s reign will be halted after “a time, times, and half a time” (i.e., three and a half years),8 and the kingdom of peace is ushered in. For Paul, the “man of sin/son of perdition” will oppose God and “sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:4).
What this surely means, if it means anything, is that at some time right before the Kingdom of God comes to earth a malevolent ruler will arise who will secure great power over at least the “Biblical World” and quite possible over the whole world. He will be an intensely religious figure, but a very vocal blasphemer of Yahweh. His hubris will be such that he will enter “the temple (naos) of God,” which for all the imaginative readings of our amillennialist friends cannot mean the church.9 The ecclesia as these writers very well know, is not a building one can sit in. But the “man of sin” “sits” (intransitive verb) in the naos of God. This denotes a temple structure, its holy place. Is this a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem? Very possibly. From Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 24:15-16 we have seen that a temple is required for the “abomination of desolation” to be “set up” in.
As startling as this is, we are confronted with a biblical truth that we should not shy away from. A man of great wickedness will someday sit in a temple (probably in Jerusalem) and will proclaim himself to be God. That naturally means that he will demand worship, for God can demand worship.
The passage goes on to refer to a “restrainer” who will be “taken out of the way” to allow this “man of sin” to be revealed “in his own [very particular] time.” I believe this restrainer to be the Holy Spirit of God in His role within the church. I cannot prove that, but I think it is the most natural understanding (who or what else could it be?).10 The restraining influence is what keeps in check “the mystery of lawlessness” which has been operating for nearly two millennia (2 Thess. 2:7). Again, this fits the Spirit well. The result of the restrainer’s “removal” is that this eschatological bogeyman can finally be revealed, and so, it seems, can the release of spectacular demonic powers (2 Thess. 2:9). This is where the apostle has arrived in his warning:
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)
The reason for the great display of evil supernatural power is, naturally enough, deception. This deception is worldwide and therefore very believable—unless a person has the light of Scripture to interpret it by. And the Scripture only gives its light to those who love its truth, which the masses never have. There is an indication that the truth is being put out there: “because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). But the truth is rejected because of the lying signs and because they “had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess.2:10).
As with so many cases where discernment is wanting, the problem is not that the truth is not attainable, but that it contradicts what everybody else believes. What Paul calls “the lie” in verse 11 is not easy to divine right now, but it seems to me that a man proclaiming himself to be God and pointing to great demonstrations of power as proof would fit the bill nicely.
1 C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, second edition, London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d., 246. Likewise, Robert L. Thomas, “2 Thessalonians,” EBC, Vol. 11, 321.
2 A post-tribulationist could claim this verse as an important text for his view against the other views. See Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973, 113-114.
3 See, e.g., Paul Feinberg’s arguments for tereso ek in Revelation 3:10 indicating a pretrib rapture in The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational, by Richard Reiter, General editor, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984, 47-86.
5 I shall give attention to this individual (the “Antichrist”) when we study Revelation 13.
6 Some writers believe that the “one who comes in his own name” in John 5:43 is a veiled reference to Antichrist. For example, G. H. Pember, The Antichrist, Babylon, and the Coming of the Kingdom, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888, 6.
7 Reformed scholar Kim Riddlebarger believes that the label fits many individuals down through church history, but that it culminates in an end time villain. He fits this into an amillennial framework. See his The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006, 13-14.
8 See The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 311-312. I shall come back to this expression later.
9 See, e.g., G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 200-203.
10 Again, the wording seems to take for granted we know what he means. Since the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost involved convicting the world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:8), His removal from that particular role will have a negative effect upon the world. It goes without saying that the Spirit of God can no more be absent the creation than the providence of God which He empowers.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.