Pre-Tribulation “Apostasy” as ‘Rapture’?

I recall my reaction when I first heard it. Confused and in a temporary state of cognitive dissonance, I thought to myself, “It can’t mean THAT!” I may have even said it aloud.

I was alone, driving my car, listening to Dr. J. Vernon McGee, whom I very much enjoy generally. I find his slow, Southern drawl aurally appealing, and his occasional dry humor sometimes makes me laugh. But, more importantly, his core doctrinal beliefs are orthodox. Yet here he was making statements that raised my eyebrows.

He was working through 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, which was and is of particular interest to me. When he came to the words “falling away” (KJV) in verse 3 (other translations read “apostasy”, “rebellion”), he claimed this meant not merely apostasy in the sense of renouncing faith, but also “the departure of the true Church”, aka the “Rapture” of the Church. In other words, Dr. McGee asserted that the Greek word apostasia meant both here. Upon reflection I thought, “That sure extracts a lot of meaning from one word!”1

Below you can hear his explanation (timestamped at the appropriate spot):

At present I cannot recall if it was in response to the above2 or if I had a different motivation, but I downloaded a pdf titled “Who Is Antichirst?” from the Thru the Bible website, which contains similar verbiage.3 In its text McGee relates how, upon doing an independent word study, he concluded (just as above) that the Greek term apostasia means both “Rapture” and “falling away” in this context:

. . . The root word means “departure” or “removal from.” And the verb means “to remove, to depart, to leave.” It comes from two words: histēmi, meaning “to stand,” and apo, meaning “away from.” . . . Apostates, we understand today, are men who held the truth at one time . . . and now they apo-histēmi, they stand away from it.4

So far, so good.5 However, it’s the next portion that goes beyond the typical understanding of the word. McGee continues to focus on “departure”, but he appends an entirely new meaning to the definition he had just provided:

. . . What departure is [Paul] talking about? Well, the same departure he talked about in his first epistle to the Thessalonians. That’s the Rapture of the church . . .6

McGee then references 1Thess 4:16-17. Yet there Paul uses a different word—anistēmi (verb, ana + histēmi; noun is anastasis), as opposed to apostasia. They are close, but they are not the same word. Lewis Sperry Chafer notes the difference:

Note: The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture. The Greek word associated with the Rapture of the Church is anastasis, better translated “resurrection.”7

This is a distinction with a difference. A big one. The prefixed preposition ana means “up”, as opposed to apo, which means “from” (as found above in 2Thess 2:3).

Nevertheless, Dr. McGee specifies two “departures”—to occur one after the other—for this one word in this specific context:

1. The true church is to the leave the earth;

2. The professing church will just move away from the truth.8

Now, I am one who searches for multivalence (multiple meanings, paranomasia) in words. Such literary devices add richness. But with McGee’s explanation of two events, one preceding and then directly impacting the other, this hardly seems plausible here. In other words, even if the word apostasia could be construed as having both meanings, Paul would have had to use it twice, in succession, in order to get his point across. Even so, Paul would much more likely have chosen anastasia instead of apostasia for the first usage (and this would have provided a fantastic opportunity to rhyme with synonyms—Paul was fond of using various poetic devices for effect).

Disappointingly, this appears as though it could be a case of arguing from a predisposed theological position (eisegesis) rather than a careful interpretation of the text (exegesis).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting the reader stop (or never start) listening to Thru the Bible radio broadcasts. On the contrary, I find them edifying. As I stated above, McGee’s doctrinal stances are orthodox. And my criticism here is regarding an interpretation of a secondary doctrine (eschatology, specifically, the ‘Rapture’).9

None are perfect. And this is why we should always read with a critical eye and listen with a critical ear.

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1 I am now reminded of D. A. Carson’s excellent Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996]), in which the author explains Unwarranted adoption of a semantic field (pp 60-61): “The fallacy in this instance lies in the supposition that the meaning of a word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may bring with it the word’s entire semantic range” (p 60). However, the specific issue here is slightly different in that McGee is importing an additional meaning foreign to New Testament and contemporaneous usage. This will be discussed further below.

2 At one time I uncritically accepted the “pre-tribulation ‘Rapture’” view. After studying the doctrine at some length, I have since rejected that position.

3 I can no longer find the link to this download. Included on the title page of my “Who is Antichrist” print-out: “This message was originally published in 1973, later fell out of print, and then was revised in 2006 for online publication. The message is also included in the hardback book, J. Vernon McGee on Prophecy, copyright 1993 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.” In keeping with the site’s Copyright Policy, I hereby include the following: “Who is Antichrist”, by Dr. J. Vernon McGee © Thru the Bible Radio Network, www.ttb.org.

4 “Who is Antichrist”, p 9. Note: though the original text does not place the accent over the “e” in “histēmi”, I added it here, since this is the usual transliteration for the η (eta), in order to prevent confusion with the ε (epsilon).

5 Though I have seen this sort of thing quite often in the technical literature, I might question the methodology in looking to an associated verb form (histēmi, apo + histēmi) when the text contains a noun form instead (apostasia). This may provide helpful background at times, but it seems best to focus primarily on the noun form when the text in question contains a noun. See my comment at note 7.

6 “Who is Antichrist”, p 9.

7 From the website “Chafer Theological Seminary”, chafer.edu: Glossary: “R”, as accessed 07/04/2021. Though Paul uses the verb form of this word in 1Thess 4:14 and 16, he tends to prefer egeirō (“raise”) when otherwise using a verb referring to our future resurrection; however, when using a noun, he favors anastasis. When referring to the ‘Rapture’ event itself, most point to the verb harpagēsometha (from harpazō), “caught up”, in 1Thess 4:17, though the timing of this event relative to the Tribulation period or “Day of the Lord”, is hotly debated.

8 “Who is Antichrist”, p 9.

9 Though beyond the scope of this present article, it can be argued—and I would—that the apostasia is not to be split from the revealing of the “man of sin”. In other words, the two refer to the same thing; that is, the apostasia reveals the identity of the “man of sin”. If this is indeed the case, then this context does not refer to Christians “falling away”, apostatizing, from the faith.

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