October 2, 2021 - Great Apostasy

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Today we’re going to talk about the Great Apostasy. There is a huge claim out there that is central to a major religion, a claim that true Christianity ceased to exist after the end of the first century AD, only to be restored almost 200 years ago by God through a now-famous prophet.

 

Let’s take a look at the Biblical basis for this claim, and see if this claim holds true to what the Bible actually says. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, Paul writes, “Now we beseech you, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto him, that you be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as if from us, as though the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you by any means, for that day will not come, except there be a falling away first” (the word Paul uses is apostasia). Jesus shall not come until there be a great falling away from the faith before the end comes.

 

In his description of the Great Tribulation or time of suffering before he returns in Matthew 24:10-14, Jesus predicts: “Then shall many be offended.” (The word here is skandalizomai, literally “scandalized.” It often means “fall away” or “stumble.”) So here we have a great falling away from the faith. Jesus goes on and says that people “shall betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because lawlessness shall abound, the love of many shall grow cold. But whosoever shall endure to the end shall be saved. And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then the end shall come.”

 

(Notice that the warning to “endure to the end” is not about how faithful we all happen to be at the end of our lives. It is specifically about enduring the great period of suffering at the end of earthly history when Jesus returns. It’s only talking about those who live in the last days.)

 

Paul describes a similar time of future world meltdown in his 2 letters to Timothy. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:1, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons.” In his final letter, Paul warns in 2 Timothy 3, “Know this also, that in the last days, perilous times shall come” (the word “perilous” is literally “savage”). Paul predicts, “For men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, irreverent, without natural affection (this word means someone who would kill their own children), irreconcilable, slanderous, uncontrolled, savage, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” One could say that times have been bad like this many times through history, but Paul predicts that the worst will happen in the final days before Jesus returns.

 

The first question we must ask is whether this Great Apostasy predicted in God’s word would totally wipe out the Church. If the true Church did not totally cease to exist, it would not need a total restart on the scale that has been proposed. The evidence shows that even when God’s true Church was on the ropes, it never did cease to exist.

 

The Bible teaches, not a total future apostasy, but only a partial one. What does Paul say in 1 Timothy 4? “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith.” Jesus says in Matthew 24:10, “Then many will fall away / be offended.” Nowhere does Scripture teach that God’s true Church would be so completely extinguished from the earth that it would require a total restart.

 

The second question we must ask is whether the great “falling away” predicted in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 has happened yet in the past, or whether it is still future. Paul says that this “apostasy” will be followed by the unveiling of the “Lawless One, the son of destruction,” the one commonly described as the Beast (Revelation 13:1-8) or Antichrist (1 John 2:18).

 

Has this happened yet? Has the Antichrist come and gone? John says in 1 John 2:18 that “just as you have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now many antichrists have come.” (By the way, John is the one who coined / invented the Greek word Antichristos. It means one who is against, instead of, or in place of Christ.)

 

So John is teaching that there will be one quintessential Antichrist in the future, but he says that many lesser Antichrists have already gone out into the world (he’s writing around 95 AD). John is thinking of the Gnostics, the false teachers of his day who deny that Christ has come in the flesh, who think he was just a ghost, because they believe that the material world is evil. For those who lived during WWII, Hitler looked an awful lot like the Antichrist. He was an Antichrist, but he did not prove to be the Antichrist predicted by Paul and John. Neither did Stalin, Mao, or other tyrants or terrorists we have seen prove to be the one. Since the character predicted by Paul and John has not yet appeared in the 1900 years since the great falling away is alleged to have happened, I would argue that the great falling away itself has not yet happened.

 

Or what about Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against his Church? If the true Church gets extinguished in less than its first 100 years, that would sure sound to me like the powers of hell prevailed against his Church! Why would Jesus ever make such a prediction, if he knew how soon his Church would be wiped off the map? And why would he allow it, if he was truly God in the flesh who had the power to prevent it? The truth is that Jesus never did let the powers of hell prevail against his Church.

 

Prove that God’s true Church ceased to exist at the end of the 1st century AD – you can’t! The faith of 100 years later is virtually the same as the faith of the 1st century church, as found in our canonical Bible. There is development over the next few centuries. There are developments such as the doctrine of the Trinity that unpack what was already there in God’s word. But the continuity is way too strong to argue that the faith of 150 AD or 300 AD is a break from the faith taught in the NT. Only then could we say that God’s Church had fallen away from the truth.

 

Look at what we know about the Church in the early 2nd century. In 110 AD, Ignatius bishop of Antioch teaches very clearly that Jesus is “God come in the flesh,” and that there is only one God. Several times he refers to “our God, Jesus Christ,” but he also writes, “There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his word that came forth from silence.” All that has changed in the 2nd century is that bishops have become solitary leaders instead of teams who lead the local church. This is no great falling away!

 

You want to know how the early church was organized? Check out our April 18 broadcast on that subject. There is no prophet leading the 1st century church, the apostles are not actively governing it (nor do we find proof that the office was ever intended to continue), and there is no proof for a permanent team of 70 leaders.

 

Or check out our June 6 broadcast on temples and priesthood. A church with temples and a Melchizedek priesthood with millions of priests never did exist. These are much later inventions of a prophet who must be tested on his own merits for whether we can trust his very serious claims. (I discuss this in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.)

 

How do we know that our NT picture of the 1st century church is not a false picture? How do we know it has not been changed by deceivers who have taken out or altered precious parts of that picture? We talked about this in our February 21 broadcast about copies of the Bible. The answer is that God has given us so much evidence for the original text of the Bible, that very few words are left in question. The chances against any deceiver changing any original text successfully are so great, it would be like dumping a pillow full of feathers out the window of a speeding car, and then trying to get every feather back. The chance that huge changes were made in the Bible undetected without leaving behind telltale evidence, is virtually zero.

 

When variations take place in the text of the Bible, they normally leave behind evidence, and the burden of proof lies on those who would claim that such changes happened without leaving a trace. Nobody was ever in a position of being able to change all of the copies of a Biblical passage, without the original reading being preserved somewhere.

 

A great example would be in Luke 10:1, right in the one place where we are told that Jesus sends out 70 advance agents to go everywhere where he was about to appear on tour. Some early copies of Luke read “72” rather than “70.” One of the 2 earliest copies of Luke reads “72,” as do half of our earliest complete NT’s from the 300’s AD. What’s going on here? Here we see how our manuscript evidence preserves the fact that there was confusion about the number whom Jesus sends out – nobody successfully covered that confusion up. So we have no solid reason to believe that Jesus chose these 70 or 72 as anything more than temporary advance agents for his missionary tour. No such plain and precious teaching, no such vital piece of data could or would have been removed if it was an original part of the data base on Jesus, without leaving evidence of such a change.

 

The heretic Marcion (150 AD) is proof that no one could have pulled off a major chop-job revision of the Bible, without being detected. Marcion believed that there were 2 gods: the evil creator god of the Hebrew Bible, and the sweetness-and-light God of Jesus Christ. So Marcion throws away the entire OT, and accepts only a mutilated Gospel of Luke and 7 mutilated letters of Paul, with everything Jewish removed. Marcion’s attempt to remove these plain and precious teachings, however, was a colossal failure. There were too many unaltered copies floating around to correct his version.

 

Yes, Gnosticism was one departure from the faith that at one point in time threatened to swallow up the Church in falsehood. But in the end, Gnosticism failed to win the day, and was finally rooted out when it was recognized to be the false teaching that it was. Too many believers had access to the truth about Jesus and the early church for the Gnostics to succeed.

 

Around the same time (the end of the 200’s AD), the Roman emperor Diocletian claims to have wiped out Christianity with the sword of persecution. Yes, he killed so many believers and destroyed so many scriptures that it may have looked that bad, but Diocletian’s claims prove to have been exaggerated. The Church he tried to wipe out rose from the ashes to soon conquer Rome itself without a sword. And the Church that rises from those ashes proves to be the same Church with the same faith as before. Yes, after the Church was legalized and gained favor with the emperor, the Church got complacent, and a lot of fighting and wickedness and false believers crept in, but the powers of hell did not succeed in wiping out God’s true Church.

 

In the 7th century AD, Islam threatened to swallow up the Church, and Islam is still with us – it still holds much of the people and territory it took away from God’s Church. Yet Islam itself is unlikely to have been the event predicted by Jesus and Paul, but at most it was only a part of that falling away that they predicted.

 

A much more likely possibility is that the Great Apostasy predicted by Jesus and Paul is happening right now. Inside many of today’s churches, we see outright rejection of the cross as a substitutionary atonement. We see rejection of hell. We see rejection of Christ as the only way to God. We see rejection of the Biblical sexual ethic. We see such false teaching penetrating almost all the major branches of God’s Church (some places more than others). Large portions of the Church are caving in to what the non-Christian culture wants us to believe.

We also see the growth of major departures from the faith outside the Church. I would say that even those who claim that the true Church ceased to exist after the 1st century are part of the great falling away that is going on. I’m not name-calling here. The famous prophet who first made this claim called the Christian Church of his day the “Great and Abominable Church.” Was he right? Or was he himself part of the Great Apostasy predicted in God’s word? I could be wrong, but we appear to be living in that time predicted by Jesus when “many false prophets shall arise and deceive many.” False prophets have always been around, but never before have they attracted so many millions as they are attracting right now.

 

We live in a day when lawlessness is multiplied. Could we be living in the day of which Jesus spoke? see cities like Portland and Minneapolis turned into war zones where city leaders refuse to stop the violence. see prosecutors and district attorneys categorically deciding not to prosecute crimes. see department stores unable to stop thieves from stealing tons of goods in broad daylight because officials refuse to do their job.

Today, we see sexual lawlessness of all kinds not only tolerated but even promoted by government and the private sphere, while those who refuse to bow the knee to that sexual lawlessness are punished by huge financial penalties and loss of job or business. While we want to have compassion on those who truly struggle with their gender identity, we see transgender ideology being enshrined into law, plainly rejecting the scientific fact that no one can change the chromosomes that define our gender.

 

We also see the increased danger of totalitarian rule. We see the increasingly tighter control of information by companies and agencies who can dictate what we can and must believe and do. Imagine us becoming like Communist China, where thought and activity are rigidly controlled. The picture of a world where no one can buy or sell without submission to a Big Brother of some kind (as described in Revelation 13) becomes more and more believable.

 

Friends, we may be witnessing the Great Apostasy and even possibly the beginnings of what Jesus predicted in Matthew 24. How do you know that you will “endure to the end” in a day like the future Great Tribulation? How do we know that we will be able to resist a world ruler who tries to take the place of God, who tries to starve us into submission?

 

Friends, the Good News is that Jesus Christ is the One who will win the victory over the Antichrist. Jesus Christ is the One who will win the victory over all Caesars, Hitlers, and Stalins who have claimed for themselves the place of Christ. Jesus Christ will slay them with the breath of his mouth, and we’d better not be standing in the way when he does so! Like the early Christians, we must be ready to resist any person or loyalty that attempts to take the place of Christ. And unless we already belong to Christ, we will be powerless to resist.

 

Christ alone can give us the power to take a stand in the face of the worst possible pressure to conform. And whether or not we ever face such totalitarian pressure, every one of us will soon stand before God. We need to be ready for that day.

 

Jesus Christ alone can put us right with God and make us ready to face that day. We can’t do it ourselves by our own goodness. Ask Jesus Christ to prepare you for your eternal future, as you place your faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us by His saving death on the cross. That day is coming sooner than we think.

 

On our next broadcast, we’ll be taking a look at the Pharisees. We can trust what the Bible actually tells us about the Pharisees, but is it possible that we have misunderstood what the Bible says about them? Is it possible that the Pharisees were nowhere near as bad as we often think they were? Is it possible that they were victims of a disinformation campaign? We’ll talk about the Pharisees next time on Biblical Words and World!

 

Please, send us an email to let us know you’re listening, and tell us where you’re from when you do so. More than anything else you can do for us, we want to know that you are part of our audience. You can email me at g.thomas.hobson@gmail.com, or you can use the email link at either of our websites.

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