THE GREAT APOSTASY
by Bob Wheeler
We are indeed witnessing dramatic changes in both American society and in the world at large. As we have seen, this is all consistent with how Jesus said history would unfold. But how will it all end?
Jesus said that at the end of the age “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21; NKJV), and then He would return to earth “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v. 30). This is the climax of human history, and there are certain developments that will precede it.
The apostle Paul, writing to the church in the ancient Greek city of Thessolonica, had told them that when Christ returns Christians will be “caught up together . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thess. 4:17). This appears to have caused some consternation among the Thessalonian believers, however, thinking that the event had already taken place.
Paul went on to explain in a second letter that certain events would lead up to the Second Coming. “Let no one deceive you by any means; for the Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition . . .” (II Thess. 2:3). This “man of sin” is none other than the Antichrist.
Tragically, what will precede the Second Coming of Christ will be a “falling away” or “apostasy” (Gk. apostasia). This suggests that many who had previously known the truth and in some sense had embraced it subsequently gave it up.
The exact sequence of events is unclear, but the passage mentions that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (v. 7), and that “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.” The passage also says that “God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (v. 11).
We must be careful here. Christians in nearly every era of the church’s history have been tempted to believe that they were living in the end times, and in a sense that is only natural. God wants us to see our lives in the context of redemptive history as a whole. But it would be a sore mistake (made by many in the past) to set a date for the Lord’s return when He Himself said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, but My Father only” (Matt. 24:36). Nevertheless, given the scope and scale of the changes taking place in the world today it is hard not to conclude that at least some of this has taken place already.
“The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” If there was ever a time in Western history when this was true it is now. The case can be made that a critical turning point in Western history came with the French Revolution. For a thousand years or more an established order had existed in Europe, but that order was suddenly and violently overturned when King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded on Jan. 21, 1793. Their executions ushered in an age of revolution, “democracy,” and chronic instability. It is truly “the mystery of lawlessness” at work.
In conjunction with this “mystery of lawlessness” the text makes a cryptic reference to something that is restraining the lawlessness. What exactly this restraining influence is has been much debated. Paul tells the Thessalonians that they “know what is restraining” (v. 6), and then adds “He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” (v. 7). What is intriguing is that in the Greek a neuter participle is used in verse 6 (“what is restraining”), but a masculine one is used in verse 7 (“He who now restrains”). This has led some to suppose that the restraining influence is none other than the Holy Spirit, and I am inclined to agree. The word “Spirit” (Pneuma) is grammatically neuter in the Greek, but as the Third Person of the Trinity the Spirit must be considered as a personal being. Hence either a masculine or neuter pronoun could apply.
In times of revival, when the power of the Holy Spirit is felt more strongly, a morally restraining influence is felt throughout society. But when the church goes into spiritual decline, the enemies of religion grow bolder, and evil flourishes. It has been at least 150 years since the United States has experienced a general revival. The church today is spiritually weak and powerless, and moral decay becomes worse by the day. All the evidence suggests that “He who now restrains has been taken out of the way.”
But the church is still here, you say. How could the Holy Spirit have been taken out of the way? Our answer is that while the Holy Spirit may still be present, How power is only latent. We do not see Him convicting the world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:7-11). Indeed, these things are so rare today that many cannot even conceive of what it must have been like. We have grown accustomed to “church growth” achieved through purely human means. We have come to think of conversion as something that is a matter of human persuasion – of marketing and psychology. But as long ago as the late 19th Century the famous American evangelist D.L. Moody made this suggestion: “I think that if we search, we will find something in the Church grieving the Spirit of God; it may be a mere schism in the church, it may be some unsound doctrine; it may be some division in the Church” (Secret Power, 1881, p. 108). He then went on to make this remarkable statement: “But some say, if we take that standard and lift up high, it will drive away a great many members from our churches. I believe it, and I think the quicker they are gone the better. The world has come into the church like a flood . . .” (Ibid., p. 109). He then went on to conclude, “. . . if the churches will but confess their sins and put them away, and lift the standard instead of pulling it down, and pray to God to lift us all up into a higher and holier life, then the fear of the Lord will come upon the people around us” (p. 111). Tragically, Moody’s warning has gone largely unheeded.
Sad to say the church itself is a part of the apostasy. There is still time for revival, yet the church continues on its downward spiral. Unwittingly we are leaving the path open for the arrival of the Antichrist. What a sad commentary on the state of the modern church!