by David W. T. Brattston
The State of the Question1
“Aha! Aha! Apostasy!” Television and the internet abound with people who claim to find the fulfillment of Bible prophecies in our day, including the apostasy or falling away from Christianity predicted in Matthew 24.10 and 2 Thessalonians 2.3. Many such people identify as apostasy any recent changes in the church do not like, especially ones initiated by Christian leaders of whom they are envious.
In teaching about the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world, 2 Thessalonians 2.3 prophesies: “that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition”, i.e. the Antichrist. Matthew 24.10 is to a similar effect. Some Christians are ever ready to point to the deeds of other Christians in their own times and categorize them as this falling away. In identifying the supposed fulfillment of these and other Bible prophecies, these people say they read with the Scriptures in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This is probably true; it is certain they do not use a history book. They assume—without considering that there may be equally valid alternatives—that all end-times prophecies will be fulfilled in their own eras, e.g. the twenty-first century for the current crop of televangelists, tract writers, and internet preachers. Not knowing church history, they do not avert to the possibility that such prophecies may have been fulfilled in the past, even centuries ago. Based on nothing more than unconscious assumption, they believe New Testament predictions can relate only to the present day. My opinion is that fulfillment in early Christian centuries is more in keeping with the doctrine that Scripture is a message to all humanity in all time periods, and gives Christians in every age something to point back to as the realization of prophecy and therefore a confirmation of their faith. In interpreting events, we should look for an early date in church history, instead of implying that passages of Holy Writ held no meaning and were beyond the understanding of believers for almost two millennia.
Like the Latter-day Saints, the present article sees the Apostasy as having happened very long ago. According to Joseph Smith’s account, his prayer in 1820 about which denomination to join was answered with:
join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.
Thus, corruption of Christianity need not be something new, or necessarily confined to our own century, or a process that people must be able to see happening with their own eyes.
But what is apostasy? We need to know the exact meaning of the term in order to ascertain the era in which Matthew 24.10 and 2 Thessalonians 2.3 were fulfilled, if it does not still lie sometime in the future. Dictionaries indicate that “apostasy” is the complete renunciation or abandonment of a religion, and refusal to have further connection with it. It is not merely a change within a religion, such as introduction of new doctrines or practices, when the innovators see themselves as continuing or restoring the original faith. Members who introduce a radical change within a religion but still hold to the original name and organization are more correctly termed “heretics” rather than “apostates.” Note that the word “apostate” does not occur in the answer to Joseph Smith’s prayer. Its language is more indicative of heresy or gross distortion rather than of outright renunciation of Christianity.
Indeed, the New Testament’s use of the Greek word for “apostasy” or “falling away” indicates nothing less than transferring from one religion to another. It appears only twice in the sacred text, once in 2 Thessalonians 2.3 and once in Acts 21.21. The latter case deals with allegations that the Apostle Paul had taught Jews to abandon circumcision and Jewish traditions, and otherwise “forsake Moses.” This implies a total change from the Jewish religion to the Christian, not an internal development within Judaism as if Paul wished to continue well inside the older faith. Muslims fit the proper description of “apostate” perfectly, for they abandon the name “Christian” and follow another religion.
Apostasy by individual Christians was fairly common in the first two and a half centuries AD. At least this is the impression from the large number of warnings and comments about it in Matthew 10.33, Mark, Luke 12.9, 2 Timothy 3.5, Hebrews 6.6, 2 Peter 2.1 and 3.17, and Jude 4. These were continued in the second century by the Letter of Barnabas 5.4, The Shepherd of Hermas, ((Shepherd of Hermas Vision 3.6.5; Similitude 8.8.2, 8.8.4, 8.91.)) Martyrdom of Justin and Companions 4, and the Revelation of Peter 23f. Centuries later, Barnabas and Hermas were so highly regarded that they were given places in some versions of the New Testament.
Tertullian, Origen, and the author(s) of the Didascalia are also to be included among Christians who wrote and preached about apostasy before the Persecution of AD 249 to 251. Tertullian was centered in Carthage in what is now Tunisia. He is of double value in the study of Christianity in the late second and early third century because he wrote both from inside the majority/mainstream church, and later after he had joined a rigorous, apocalyptic denomination. Indicating that apostasy was a continuing and frequent phenomenon in his day are De Corona 11; On Idolatry 22; and On Modesty 9, 19, and 22. The same is true of Origen’s books and sermons in Egypt and Palestine: Commentary on Matthew 14.16; De Principiis 1.4.1, 3.1.17; Exhortation to Martyrdom 7, 18, 36f, 40, 48; Homilies on Ezekiel 12.1.2; Homilies on Judges 2.1, 7.2; Homilies on Numbers 19.2.1; and Homily on Psalm 82.2 Origen is our best source for the study of church conditions in the first half of the third century because he traveled frequently as a theological consultant at the invitation of local bishops throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and thus could observe any difference in Christian practice from place to place. His repeated comments on falling away indicate that it was widespread and common. The Didascalia, a manual of church and individual Christian life compiled in the first three decades of the third century, devotes most of Chapter 19 to apostasy.
Reasons for Apostasy
Apostasy and Christian writers’ preoccupation with it were to be expected because of the periodic persecutions that Christians could escape only by publicly denying their faith. Besides fear of death in a persecution, some Christians apostatized to pagan philosophy or Judaism because they made more sense from the point of view of pure logic, and provided a more realistic way of life as regards ethics and self-denial.3 Having observed pagan freewheeling sexuality and freedom from considering the needs of anyone but themselves, other Christians apostatized because they found their faith just too demanding and arduous. Christianity burdened its adherents with a comparatively rigorous and exacting morality and self-sacrificing generosity. The Christian life was oppressive and highly restrictive in contrast to the relatively bright and breezy lifestyle of the surrounding culture. Hence Christ’s counsel in Luke 14.28-33 to count the cost of discipleship before conversion.
An example. Written sometime between AD 198 and 220, Tertullian’s treatise on idolatry furnishes an example of apostasy that could occur in everyday life, when references to pagan deities were in common speech, such as well-wishing and expressions like “by Jove”:
To be blessed in the name of the gods of the nations is to be cursed in the name of God. If I have given an alms, or shown any kindness, and the recipient pray that his gods may be propitious to me, my oblation or act will immediately be an honour to idols, in whose name he returns me the favour of blessing. But why should he not know that I have done it for God’s sake; that God may rather be glorified, and demons may not be honoured in that which I have done for the sake of God? If God sees that I have done it for His sake, He equally sees that I have been unwilling to show that I did it for His sake, and have in a manner made His precept a sacrifice to idols. I think a Christian ought not to deny himself. For whoever dissembles in any cause whatever, by being held as a heathen, does deny; and, of course, all denial is idolatry, just as all idolatry is denial, whether in deeds or in words.4
It must be noted that Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2 do not say the entire church or even a large part of it would apostatize, merely that there would be “a falling away,” without specifying the proportion of believers involved.
Apostasy AD 98 to 117. Some present-day Christians, who hold that Matthew 24.10 and 2 Thessalonians 2.3 predict a mass apostasy that would not occur until the twenty-first century, should consider the account of Hegesippus, a churchman who died in AD 180. He visited churches in many parts of the Roman Empire and learned much of events in Christendom from independent but corroborating sources. Recording events in the time of the Emperor Trajan (AD 98 to 117), he noted:
the Church up to that time had remained a pure and uncorrupted virgin, since, if there were any that attempted to corrupt the sound norm of the preaching of salvation, they lay until then concealed in obscure darkness. But when the sacred college of apostles had suffered death in various forms, and the generation of those that had been deemed worthy to hear the inspired wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers, who, because none of the apostles was still living, attempted henceforth, with a bold face, to proclaim, in opposition to the preaching of the truth, the “knowledge which is falsely so-called.”5
Pliny the Younger was Roman governor of Bithynia in AD 112, within the period Hegesippus described. Among his duties was to search out Christians and persecute them. Pliny reported to the emperor that many people had confessed to having been members of the church, but had left it before his time. Many of them told him they had abandoned Christianity a long time before, some as long as twenty years.6
Thus, twenty years after the apostles there occurred a widespread departure from the true and original Christian teaching, if this is what “apostasy” means.
Apostasy ca. AD 100. Many believers in our time assign an earlier period for the falling away: the penning of the last word of the Revelation of John (about AD 100). They hold that it was the last New Testament book to be written, and that the entire worldwide church then sank immediately into utter corruption all at once, after which all Christian writings are full of error and are worthless as a guide to the original Christian teaching, which they believe went extinct or underground so thoroughly that it left no trace in the ensuing historical record. This theory conveniently rationalizes why early Christian writings after the Apostle John cannot be construed to agree with what some of these modern groups now teach. However, it fails to take into account that The First Letter of Clement, and probably the church manual The Didache, were written by churchmen before Revelation and some other books in the present New Testament. Even if they do not believe in a first-century apostasy, today’s leading Bible scholars date the Second Letter of Peter after the writings of the church fathers Barnabas, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Aristides—all of whom depict a Christianity different from that hypothesized and practiced by some (but not all) denominations of our time that purport to have restored the pre-apostasy doctrines and practices. If we draw the cut-off point at the time of 2 Peter was written, the New Testament might include in the Revelation of Peter and other books bearing the names of apostles that almost found a place there.
Apostasy AD 249-251. Examining history books in addition to the Bible and daily newspaper, we can identify events in the middle of the third century AD as the most likely fulfillment of Matthew 24.10 and 2 Thessalonians 2.3.
In December AD 249 the Roman Emperor Decius launched the first systematic and Empire-wide persecution against the general Christian population. There had been previous persecutions, but none had been as efficient or as thoroughgoing. The most recent crackdown had occurred in AD 235-238, but it was directed only against clergy. The latest persecution against all Christians had ended in AD 206, and was thus beyond the memory of most people of Decius’ time. Indeed, Origen had noted shortly before AD 249 that Christians were “not being persecuted by the authorities as in old times.”7 Christians were not prepared for a persecution of any sort, let alone the worst to date.
Under Decius, a government edict required everyone in the Empire to sacrifice to the gods of Rome, an act Christians had always considered idolatry and a disavowal of the divine lordship of Christ. Refusal to perform the pagan rite was long the main reason for government execution of the faithful. The only ways of avoiding torture and death were sacrifice, long-term hiding, or producing a certificate from a corrupt government official falsely stating that the bearer had performed the rite.
The Emperor’s program was highly successful. It weakened the churches and threw them into internal chaos, leading to an apostasy of unprecedented numbers. A contemporary account by Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, describes how the majority of Christians traded their religious convictions for earthly considerations:
Immediately at the first words of the threatening foe, the greatest number of the brethren betrayed their faith, and were cast down, not by the onset of persecution, but cast themselves down by voluntary lapse. …. Nor did they even leave it to be said for them, that they seemed to sacrifice to idols unwillingly. They ran to the market-place of their own accord; freely they hastened to [spiritual] death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired. . . . But to many their own destruction was not sufficient. With mutual exhortations, people were urged to their [spiritual] ruin. And that nothing might be wanting to aggravate the crime, infants also, in the arms of their parents, either carried or conducted, lost, while yet little ones, what in the very first beginning of their nativity they had gained.8
The Persecution in Egypt was described by Dionysius of Alexandria, who had become bishop of the city in AD 246. Dionysius recorded the categories of reactions to the Emperor’s decree that everyone must sacrifice: “a large number . . . speedily accommodated themselves to the decree in fear,” “others, who were engaged in public service, were drawn into compliance,” “others were dragged on to it by their friends,” “others yielded pale and trembling,” and “others . . . hurried up to the altars with greater alacrity, stoutly asserting that they had never been Christians at all.”9
There were so many intending apostates that in some places government officials had to ask them to come back and sacrifice on another day. Not satisfied with renouncing their own faith, some Christians urged others to sacrifice.
A great many members of the church were clearly not equal to its tradition of martyrdom for Christ or to observing the important Christian precept against worshipping or doing homage to other gods. No previous persecution involved such large numbers or as large a percentage of the Christian population.
The present article identifies at least three probable fulfillments of the prophecy in Matthew and 2 Thessalonians of a falling-away from the Christian faith, and should give pause to people who identify it only with events in our own day, and should prompt them to read church history before they do so.
Except where otherwise indicated, all patristic quotations are as translated in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the Edinburgh ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), herein abbreviated “ANF”.
Quotations from Eusebius Ecclesiastical History are as translated in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series vol. 1 (New York: Christian Literature Co.; Oxford and London: Parker, 1890; reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, l986). ↩
Homily on Psalm 82 is found only in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 6.38. ↩
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians: Religion and the Religious Life from the Second to the Fourth Century AD (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) pp. 270f. ↩
Tertullian On Idolatry 22; ANF 3.74-75. ↩
Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.32.7-8, trans. in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church vol. 1 p. 164. ↩
Letter 10.96, To Trajan. ↩
Origen Against Celsus 3.15; ANF 4.470 ↩
Cyprian of Carthage On the Lapsed 7-8; ANF 5.439. ↩
Dionysius of Alexandria Letter to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch; ANF 6.98-99. ↩