Everyone would agree that the Great Apostasy is a significant aspect of eschatology. Charles Ryrie, representative of most dispensationalists said "at the end of the church age THE great apostasy will come on the scene before the day of the Lord." Dehaan listed the apostasy as one of the ten signs that would prove "the nearness of his return and the end of the present age." Lindsey teaches, or at least has, that our generation is experiencing the Great Apostasy.
Amillennialists seem confused about the Great Apostasy. Boatman believes Paul predicted the apostasy "in sufficient ambiguity that almost from the beginning of the Christian era some possible identification could be considered. And throughout the history of the church a succession of apostasies and persons have appeared that could be so interpreted." One can only wonder about a position that says God communicates so ambiguously when Paul’s point in Thessalonians was to correct misconceptions and give positive instruction. How could he achieve that through such ambiguity? Goebel Music says the apostasy "is still in the process of development". Moffitt holds that the Papacy is the manifestation of the apostasy and "will linger around to be slain by Christ at the Second Coming."
Interestingly, while most amillennialists believe Jesus’ Olivet prediction was fulfilled many delineate between that prophecy and the apostasy of the epistles. This delineation between Matthew 24 and the epistles is, we believe untenable.
The purpose of this article is to examine the Great Apostasy. Did the apostasy predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24 occur? How widespread was that apostasy to be; was it "limited"? Is the apostasy of Matthew 24 the same as that predicted in Thessalonians?
The importance of this study has been impressed on me within the last several years as I have conversed with several preachers. When I have asked them if the Great Apostasy happened before Jerusalem’s fall, almost invariably these good men have answered in the negative.
In these verses Jesus clearly predicted an apostasy of significant proportions.
vs. 10-many will fall away — due to persecution
vs. 11-many will be misled — due to false prophets
vs. 12-love of many will grow cold. (KJV)
Now notice verse 12 in the New American Standard Version — "Most people’s love will grow cold." (emphasis mine, DKP). The ASV, NIV, RSV, Williams, Beck, New Jerusalem, Amplified, etc all agree with this rendering.
The Greek of the text supports this view as well. In verse 10 it says "many" (greek-polloi) will fall away. In verse 11 it says the same. But in verse 12 it says the love of the many (greek-ton pollon). In other words in verses 10-11 it is simply "many" will fall away. But in verse 12 Jesus said "the many" will fall away. The addition of the definite article in verse 12 is significant.
The question then, of the scope of the apostasy predicted by Jesus is firmly established — Jesus said an apostasy of almost unbelievable proportions was to occur. The faith of almost all believers would wane; the apostasy would carry away most believers! What an incredibly sad prospect this must have been to our Lord! But Matthew is not alone in predicting a massive apostasy.
Jesus tells the parable of the widow seeking justice. The widow in Jesus’ parable represented the faithful who suffered at the hands of the wicked. Christ said "Shall not God avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though he bears long with them? I tell you He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on the earth?"
Plummer says the meaning of the question indicates that "the majority, not only of mankind but of Christians will be absorbed in worldly pursuits, and only a few will ‘endure to the end’". Theophylact, cited by Meyer, says Jesus was "indicating in the form of a question the fewness of those who will then be found faithful." The point of Jesus’ question then, a question of pathos and poignancy, is that there would be very little faith found at his return. Now note the context.
Luke 18 continues Jesus’ discussion of his coming in chapter 17. In verse 22 Jesus said the time was coming when his disciples would "desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man". Jesus was not, as suggested by Jackson, saying the disciples would desire to see the end of the world. Jesus was warning of troublesome times when the disciples would long for the peaceful days when Jesus was still among them; but they would find no peace.
Luke 17 positively cannot be describing any "end of time" scenario. Christ all but said his coming would be in that generation after he had suffered, see verses 24-25. Christ said he was going to come, but first he had to be rejected and suffer. Does an objective reading of these words actually suggest a, thus far, two thousand year gap between his suffering in that generation and his coming?
Notice verse 31 — Jesus told them "In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away". Now Jesus uttered these same words in Matthew 24:17, a verse my amillennial friends insist refers to the time prior to Jerusalem’s fall. In Matthew, we are told, Jesus’ words were an urgent warning for his disciples to flee the coming cataclysm. And since flight was possible the warning could not be of a "sudden, end of time situation". Well, why do Jesus’ words in Luke 17 not mean the same? Where is the magic key to delineate between these verses? This question is particularly significant in light of the next verse Luke 17:32 — "Remember Lot’s wife."
These words can have only one significance — the urgency of flight. In Genesis 19:14-22 is found the story of "Mrs. Lot" and three times we find warnings to flight, 14, 17, 22. The warning was "Escape for your life!" The warning was not against covetousness as some have suggested as an interpretation of Luke 17:31-32. The warning was to escape. With this in view, Luke 17 cannot therefore be referent to any end of time coming of Christ. It rather, (correctly), becomes a parallel to Matthew 24 and is set within the context of the first century.
With the context of persecution in Luke 17:22 then, and remember Jesus in Matthew 24 said one reason for the apostasy would be persecution, Jesus urged his disciples to "pray and faint not" Luke 18:1. Yet with this exhortation he nonetheless pondered "when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?" The extent of the persecution is therefore set forth as extensive. When was this to happen?
Matthew 24:34 would seem to be the end of all controversy as to whether the apostasy occurred before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus said all the things, including the apostasy when the love of "most people" would grow cold, would be fulfilled in that generation. The response to this is varied.
The amillennialist will agree that an apostasy of some degree did occur in the first century; and then insist a greater apostasy is predicted in other texts. The premillennialist does not believe Matthew 24 even speaks of events in the first century. This view is totally dependent however on redefining the word "generation" in vs. 34.
Without question the entire premillennial construction of the Olivet Discourse stands or falls on the definition of "this generation"! If by "this generation" Jesus meant his contemporary generation then the posit of a future Abomination of Desolation, Great Tribulation, Great Apostasy, Rapture, etc. falls to the ground! A study of the word is therefore
Mattill lists several definitions by commentators in an effort to escape the dilemma posed by Jesus’ seemingly clear-cut time statement. Some define it as "Jewish race"; "human race"; "this type of faithless generation"; "the generation that sees these things whenever that might be".
While the greek word translated as generation (genea) does have "race" as root meaning, Mattill notes that Bauer’s Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon gives not a single instance where genea actually means "race." Balz-Schneider hold that "genea" referred to the "Jewish people in the time of Jesus" in a special eschatological context. In other words, "this generation" in Mark 13:30 "affirms, along with Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32, that this generation (Jesus’ generation, DKP) must experience the horrors of the end time." Kittel’s says "genea" "mostly denotes ‘generation’ in the sense of contemporaries." They give no Biblical examples of genea meaning race, people, mankind, etc.
Many commentators have chosen to change the normal "temporal" significance of "this generation" because of theological bias. The problem as some see it may be summarized in the words of Mounce "The problem is obvious, the generation alive at that time has long since passed away, but the eschatological events described in the passage have not taken place". This "a priori" mindset of how things must be fulfilled is at the very least suspect. We agree with Demars "If Jesus said that all the events prior to Matthew 24:34 would occur before the contemporary generation (within forty years) passed away, then we must take him at his word."
The word generation is used 38 times outside of Matthew 24:34 (and parallels). Jesus personally used the term "this generation", apart from parallels, 10 times. An examination of these passages should convince any objective student of the meaning of the term. Let us examine the usage of "this generation" in the Synoptics.
1.) Matthew 11:16 — "to what shall I like this generation?" Jesus was clearly speaking of his contemporaries who would not accept him. (parallel Lk. 7:31)
2.) Matthew 12:41 — "The men of Nineveh will rise up in judgment with this generation." Jesus is contrasting an earlier generation with his own. (Lk. 11:32)
3.) Matthew 12:42 — "the queen of the south will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it". Same as verse 41. (Lk. 11:31)
4.) Matthew 12:45 — "So shall it also be with this wicked generation". Jesus was predicting the exceeding wickedness of his contemporaries. This corresponds exactly with his warning that his generation would "fill up the measure of your fathers" Matthew 23:32, by persecuting the saints.
5.) Matthew 23:36 — "All these things will come upon this generation." Interestingly, few millennialists deny that this occurrence of "this generation" is a specific referent to Jesus’ contemporaries and the awful events of 70 AD.
6.) Matthew 24:34 — We agree with Bahnsen and Gentry "Contextually the ‘this generation’ of Matthew 24:34 MUST speak of the same idea as that of Matthew 23:36."
1.) Mark 8:12 — "Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say unto you, no sign shall be given to this generation." Is there any dispute as to whether it was Jesus’ contemporaries seeking a sign?
2.) Mark 8:38 — "whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulteress and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes". It was Jesus’ contemporaries who were ashamed of him and knew him not, John 1:11; Luke 13:25-30.
1.) Luke 11:30-"As Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation". Jesus was raised, as a sign, in that generation was he not?
2.) Luke 17:25 — "But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation". Jesus said he must suffer at the hands of "this generation" — indisputably his contemporaries.
While we have not examined each occurrence of the word "generation", confining ourselves to those instances where Jesus personally used the term "this generation", a wider study would confirm the words of Gould: "The word is always used by Jesus to denote the men living at that time". Our examination of the term "this generation" as used by Jesus has found that "In every case it does not seem doubtful that the meaning is the CONTEMPORARIES OF JESUS". (emphasis his) He continues "If dogmatic considerations were not at stake, that conclusion would not be questioned, but Biblical exegesis must control Biblical theology and not vice versa". We agree and must reject the millennial redefinition of "this generation" and agree with Terry that to change the meaning of the term to "Jewish Nation"; "race of Christian Believers", etc, or any other unattested definition is to do so as "a reading whatever suits our purpose into the words of Scripture". Strangely, the premillennialists is the student that is always insisting on the literal interpretation of scripture. But when confronted with the consistent, textual, and literal definition of generation in Matthew 24:34 that insistence becomes somewhat less than rigid.
Consider for a moment what it would mean to define "generation" as "Jewish race". This would have Jesus saying the Jewish nation would not perish until his return. Conversely, this would indicate the Jewish nation would perish at Christ’s return. But the millennial posit is that at the parousia the Jews are converted and reign for a thousand years with Christ.
The problem is compounded when one considers the "fig tree" illustration, Matt. 24:32f. Millennialists contend the fig tree represents Israel; the budding represents Israel’s re-establishment in May of 1948. The application is then made that the generation seeing this would not pass until the coming occurred. But Luke says consider the fig tree "and all the trees" (21:29). Jesus said when the fig tree, and all the trees, bring forth leaves this indicates summer is nigh; meaning when they saw the signs they could know his coming was at hand. He then stated "this generation will not pass".
Now what does "all the trees" mean? If the fig tree is Israel, then all the trees must represent all nations. Did Jesus say there would be a restoration of "all the nations" just before the parousia? The millennial definition of the "fig tree" demands this but it is not valid. Jesus was simply giving an illustration. Some millennialists now reject the fig tree application to Israel because of these difficulties.
The point is, the fig tree illustration and Jesus’ use of "this generation" constitutes strong proof indeed that Jesus was speaking to and about contemporaries.
If it is ever granted that "this generation" actually refers to Jesus’ generation then the Great Apostasy, an apostasy so vast that "most people’s love will grow cold" did indeed happen in the first century. At this one admission the entire millennial view of Matthew 24 would tumble.
Many amillennialist would agree with this view; all the while having what might be called a "blind spot" in his own theology about the Apostasy. For you see, while many amillennialists believe an apostasy did occur prior to Jerusalem’s demise, at least they would argue this to combat millennialism, they then turn around and argue that in II Thessalonians and other epistles predict another Great Apostasy t
hat has not yet come to full fruition.
The primary passage offered as proof for a second apostasy is 2 Thessalonians 2; but a comparison with the Olivet Discourse will prove beyond doubt that these are parallel passages.
2 Thessalonians 2
In an earlier article I noted some of the similarities between Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2. I shall repeat those here to re-emphasize the parallel nature of the two discourses.
Matthew 24 2 Thessalonians 2
1.) Prediction of those 2:1-2 saying Lord had come, vs. 26 Fulfillment
2.) The gathering-24:31 Paul’s use of episunagogee, greek-episunagogee. is significant, indicating the Olivet Discourse is the source of his teaching.
3.) Prophecy of apostasy, "the apostasy", 2:3 24:10-12 already at work-2:7
(Note that Paul refers to "the" apostasy. Clearly he is referring to some previously foretold and well known apostasy. Question, where is that apostasy foretold? If Jesus’ Olivet revelation is the source for this reference we are forced to conclude Thessalonians is restricted to that generation as well.)
4.) Abomination of Desolation, Man of Lawlessness, 24:15 2:3,9
5.) False signs and wonders, working of lying wonders 24:24 2:9
6.) The Parousia, 24:3, 26 The Parousia, 2:1 greek-parousia greek-parousia
7.) When you see these things that day will not come know it (he) is near, 24:32f except there come first the apostasy and man of sin, 2:2-3
8.) This generation, mystery of iniquity doth 24:34 already work, 2:7
The list of parallels between Matthew 24 and Thessalonians can be expanded much more; these will suffice for our purposes. We believe the parallelism is clearly established.
The apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is the same apostasy foretold by Jesus in Matthew 24:10-12. But the apostasy foretold by Jesus in Matthew 24 was to occur before the Lord’s coming in judgment in 70 AD. Therefore, the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 was to occur before the Lord’s coming in judgment in 70 AD.
Jesus predicted only ONE apostasy, Matthew 24:10-12. That apostasy was to occur before his coming in judgment in 70 AD. The apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is the same as that foretold by Jesus in Matthew 24:10-12. Therefore the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 was to occur before Jesus’ coming in judgment in 70 AD. There is therefore no justification for extending the fulfillment of either Matthew 24 or 2 Thessalonians 2 into the present or the future. Jesus said the Great Apostasy and his coming at the height of that apostasy, would happen in his generation — it either happened or Jesus lied.
The apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2 is the same as that predicted in I Timothy 4; II Timothy 3-4, etc. But the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians is that foretold by Jesus in Matthew 24:10-12. The apostasy of Matthew 24:10-12 happened in Jesus’ generation, Matthew 24:34. Therefore the apostasy of I Timothy 4; II Timothy 3-4 occurred in Jesus’ generation. This being true, these passages, I Timothy 4; II Timothy 3-4, etc. cannot be referent to a yet future Great Apostasy to presage the coming of the Lord. The Great Apostasy was a first century reality.
Sadly, many amillennialists have failed to grasp the relationship of Jesus’ prediction in Matthew to Thessalonians. I recently spoke with three preachers. One of them pointedly asked me "You do not really believe the Great Apostasy happened before the fall of Jerusalem do you?" When I presented the evidence for my affirmative response he was incredulous (but open-minded) saying "I have never seen that before." Prior to that I heard a preacher say there is no Biblical evidence that an apostasy of the magnitude spoken of by Paul in Thessalonians happened before 70 AD. Interestingly, Matthew 24 speaks of the magnitude of the Apostasy; Thessalonians does not quantify it. But how much worse of an apostasy could it be than "most people’s love will grow cold"?
Testimony of the Epistles
A quick walk through the Bible should convince anyone that Jesus and Paul’s warnings of the apostasy were indeed fulfilled.
1.) Romans 16:17 — note them that cause division
2.) Corinthians — Just do a chapter by chapter investigation of the problems in that church!!!
3.) Galatians — not just a single congregation — an entire region containing who knows how many congregations — "I marvel you are so soon removed from him who called you to grace" 1:6
4.) Ephesians — compare Acts 20:29ff — grievous wolves were to rend the church — and did — Rev. 2.
5.) Philippians — Paul spoke of those "who are enemies of the cross" 3:17ff.
6.) Colossians — Christians were being deprived of their reward, chapter 2.
8.) Thessalonians — see 2 Thess. 2 — some were in danger of being deceived.
9.) Timothy — Paul told Timothy to confront false teachers 1:1:18f; 3:1ff — False teachers were already rending the flock at Ephesus, 2:2:18.
10.) Titus — "those of the circumcision whose mouths must be stopped" 1:10.
11.) Hebrews — consider the analogy in chapter 3 — the writer speaks of the generation of Israel that wondered in the desert and failed to receive the reward. His warning is for his generation not to suffer the same fate by leaving the faith. The whole book is an effort to stem the tide of those forsaking the assembling.
12.) James — "be patient brethren" Why? because of persecution.
13.) Peter — consider the antinomians, 2 Pet. 2. These were those who had been delivered but went back.
14.) I John — "they went out from us" 1:2:19; "many false prophets are gone out into the world" 1:4:1-3. Compare Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:24.
15.) Jude — the predicted scoffers — apostate members — were at work.
16.) Revelation — consider the problems of the seven churches.
The references in the specific books could be listed by the score. We have not even examined the book of Acts and its record of the problems of apostasy beginning at an early time indeed. Surely it is not hard to see that the apostasy was indeed happening as the inspired writers wrote. Specifically, the inspired writers often wrote to stem the tide of apostasy. This apostasy was in Asia and Africa; from Rome to Corinth, from Corinth to Jerusalem; North, South, East, and West. (cf. I Peter 1:1f, Rev., Gal. 1) How can anyone deny the correlation of what the epistles record and what Jesus predicted?
It is common to hear some one say that yes, an apostasy did come in the first century, and it is even true Jesus came in the destruction of Jerusalem; but those fulfillments were only a shadow or type of the yet future apostasy or final coming of Jesus. We would ask, for the scriptural authority for this?
Are we today living in the age of type and antitype or the age of the reality? Scripture patently says it was the Old Covenant world that was the world of shadows versus reality, Colossians 2:16-17. The Old Law was a shadow of good things to come, not the New, Hebrews 10:1-4. Christ and his kingdom is the substance not the shadow.
Those who suggest the Great Apostasy and destruction of Jerusalem were but types or shadows of yet future events must ask the question, what else is a type or shadow? Is the church but a type of something yet future or is it the fulfillment of the OT shadow? The table of shewbread in the Temple was a type of the Lord’s Supper — the Communion is now the type or shadow of what? The Passover Lamb was a type of Christ’s sacrifice — of what is Christ’s death a shadow; will there be another sacrifice? Some concur that there was an Abomination of Desolation in the fall of Jerusalem but it was only a type of the "real one" in our future. And if the Abomination of Desolation was typological why no
t the Great Tribulation surrounding the fall of Jerusalem? Perhaps there is to be another Tribulation after all. Upon what basis can that be denied if one takes the fall of Jerusalem as a type of a future coming and judgment? Once a person suggests we are still living in the age of shadow and type where does it stop?
It might be rejoined that Christ’s sacrifice was not a shadow of something else yet future because Scripture says he died once for all, Romans 6::9; he appeared once in the end of the ages to put away sin, Hebrews 9:26. The word rendered "once" (greek-hapax) signifies "once for all time". Therefore it might be argued that Christ’s sacrifice cannot serve as a type. But consider this.
Scripture speaks of Christ returning "a second time", Hebrews 9:28; and that coming was to be "in a very little while, Heb. 10:37. The Bible knows nothing of two "parousias"; nothing of Christ coming for judgment over and over! Christ was to appear a second time apart from sin for salvation; Christ came in judgment for redemption in the fall of Jerusalem, Luke 21:25-32. Therefore, Christ’s final coming, the "reality coming" as opposed to a "shadow or typological coming" was in his coming in judgment for redemption in the fall of Jerusalem. As surely as the death of Christ could not be a shadow of a yet future sacrifice because it was the once for all time death, even so the judgment coming of Christ in the end of the Old Covenant Age in 70 AD could not be simply a type of a yet future coming because it was the second coming "apart from sin for salvation."
To argue that the fall of Jerusalem is but a type of the "final judgment" is to deny Jesus’ emphatic statement about the significance of Jerusalem’s fall.
Wayne Jackson, out-spoken critic of Covenant Eschatology, has argued that Realized Eschatology violates a fundamental rule of typology. He correctly observes that types were always inferior to the antitype; there is a progression from lesser to greater. Jackson then argues that since the flood was greater in scale than Jerusalem’s fall the latter event could not be the antitype of the former.
Jackson’s emphasis on the physical proportions of the flood as opposed to the physical proportions of Jerusalem’s fall widely misses the mark. The "greater" aspect of the type-antitype comparison is not the physical; it is the significance, the meaning.
In Matthew 24:21 Jesus said there would be tribulation "such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be." Reader, if there is a future "end of the world", would that not be greater, in both physical and spiritual proportions than the destruction of Jerusalem? Indeed! In that sense it would fit the type-antitype comparison. But it would also be a direct contradiction to Jesus’ words. He said the fall of Jerusalem would be the greatest that ever would be — past or future. There cannot be, therefore, a future greater Tribulation; or Jesus will be found a liar! The argument that the fall of Jerusalem was but a type or shadow of the final coming is therefore found to be in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24.
Two final thoughts somewhat unrelated to each other. Proper understanding of the time-frame for and fulfillment of the Great Apostasy provides a strong answer to an objection against the early date of Revelation. It is argued that the church at Ephesus "left her first love;" but this could not have been the case so soon after the complimentary epistle of Paul. Therefore, it is argued, more time was required from 62-64 AD, the proposed time for the Ephesian epistle, to 68 AD, the proposed time of Revelation.
Since Jesus said the Great Apostasy would certainly occur in his generation before Jerusalem’s fall we must either accept that as fact or fiction. Coupled with how quickly the Galatians, Galatians 1:6ff, departed from the faith, and Paul’s warnings to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:29f, the objection to the early date is untenable.
The second point is how the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction of the Great Apostasy accounts for the "silence" in church writings from about 70 AD to the second century. If as we contend Jesus’ words of an apostasy so widespread that "most people’s love will grow cold" were fulfilled before Jerusalem’s fall, who was left with the courage or inclination to record? Their lack of courage caused them to forsake Christ when persecuted; why would they suddenly take heart after the event? In addition, the cessation of the miraculous in 70 would of preclude the writing of any inspired records after the event. We believe the Great Apostasy is to large extent responsible for the period of silence.
Summary and Conclusion
I have sought to demonstrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ words predicting the Great Apostasy. I have shown that Jesus did indeed predict one great apostasy — not two. I have examined the language and seen that he predicted the falling away for his generation. We have seen the magnitude of the event was predicted to be almost universal and seen the confirmation of that in the epistles.
The ramifications of accepting the postulate of this article are tremendous for both amillennial and premillennial schools. The amillennialist contention of two apostasies is false and therefore applications of the Pauline predictions to the future are not proper. The premillennial posit that Matthew 24 was not applicable to the first century is untenable on linguistic and contextual grounds. The millennial structure therefore falls as well — there is no predicted future Great Apostasy.
When it is acknowledged that Jesus predicted the Great Apostasy to occur in his generation, prior to his return, and when it is realized that apostasy did occur in the first century, one must also conclude that Christ came at the height of that apostasy just as predicted. The fulfillment of the prediction of the Great Apostasy demands fulfillment of the prediction of Christ’s parousia. The apostasy came — Christ also came.