Although not widely accepted, there is a teaching that the "falling away" of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to the rapture of the Church. I have encountered this particular viewpoint before, but in January 2010, I came across it again in a much broader format. It is an interesting effort to support the pretribulational rapture perspective.
Generally recognized as a teaching spread by E. Schuyler English during the 1950's (although it can be shown to date as far back as 1895), the central idea posits that the Greek word translated "falling away" in the KJV refers to a spatial departure rather than a religious departure. The Greek word is apostasia. It is derived from two Greek words, apo (meaning "away from") and stasis (meaning "standing"), and can thus be simply rendered as "standing away" instead of "falling away."
Now before anyone accuses me of setting up a straw-man argument, let me state that the above Greek construction is not inherently wrong. The subtle difference between "falling away" and "standing away" can be illustrated by viewing the same action from different perspectives. Someone who falls away from the Truth (as viewed by those who remain in Truth) may only see himself as standing away from a previously held belief. Thus, the notion that apostasia can mean "standing away" is acceptable.
The argument goes on to say that Paul made no previous reference to any departure from the faith, but he had discussed a departure from the earth by the Church, viz. the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Thus, the "standing away" is suggested to refer to all the saints standing away from the earth as they are caught up into the sky. In other words, Paul is simply reminding the Thessalonians that the "sudden destruction" which begins on "the day of the Lord" (1 Thess. 5:2-3) can not happen until the rapture has occurred. The argument then suggests that there have been numerous apostasies throughout the past 2,000 years, but not one has resulted in the "day of the Lord."
This truly is an interesting effort, but it falls short of an absolute proof. To begin with, the notion that past apostasies have failed to produce the "day of the Lord" is irrelevant. Past events do not predicate future realities. This is a logical fallacy and does not warrant much attention. However, it would be wise to touch on some of the other ideas presented in the argument.
One technique used in support of this theory involves an appeal to early English translations. They point out that these early English Bibles translate apostasia as "departing." For example, William Tyndale's 1534 edition uses "departynge," as does Miles Coverdale's in 1537 and The Great Bible of 1540. Surely, such old English translations should provide ample evidence to portrary the saints "departing" from earth in the rapture. Unfortunately, the old editions do not remain consistent.
John Wycliff's original edition of 1395 uses "discencioun" which is merely an older spelling of the word dissension (cf. Wycliff's Acts 23:7, "dissencioun was maad bitwixe the Fariseis and the Saduceis"). The 1560 Geneva Bible uses "departing," but the supporting commentary illustrates that departing is to be understood as "many shall fall away from God." The Bishop's Bible (1568) plainly reads, "fallyng away." None of these translations can be used in support of the rapture theory.
Quite plainly, the appeal to early English translations cannot be used to support the theory. The usage of "departing" by some early versions is of little importance since departing can be used in the spatial and non-spatial sense. For example, Hebrews 3:12 uses "departing" in a non-spatial sense in the same old English versions that pretribulationists use to support 2 Thess. 2:3. The usage of departing, therefore, to translate apostasia does not require us to avoid "religious departure" as the intended meaning.
To better understand how a Greek word in the NT should be understood, it is helpful to see how it was used in other contemporary literature. Vines NT Expository indicates that ancient papyri documents used apostasia politically to describe rebels. The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses apostasia (and its declensions) to translate "rebellion" in Joshua 22:22, "cast away" in 2 Chron. 29:19, "trespass" in 2 Chron. 33:19, and "backslidings" in Jer. 2:19. Robertson's Word Pictures records, "Apostasia is the late form of apostasis and is our word apostasy. Plutarch uses it of political revolt and it occurs in 1 Maccabees 2:15 about Antiochus Epiphanes who was enforcing the apostasy from Judaism to Hellenism. . . . It seems clear that the word here means a religious revolt."
Apostasia itself is the feminine form of apostasion (meaning "something separated" and used specifically for "bill of divorcement"). Thayer indicates that earlier Greeks used apostasis without any change in the word's meaning, i.e., the word still denoted the idea of defection and apostasy. Vincent's Word Studies relates that 2 Thess. 2:3 and Acts 21:21 use the word to express the same meaning and suggests the LXX for comparative usage (as previously noted).
As part of the Hexapla, the word appears seven times in Aquila's writings, twice in Symmachus', and once in Theodotion's. In each of these instances, quoting passages from the OT and Apocrypha, apostasia bears the meaning of religious or political defection. James Moulton and George Milligan, in their 1930 work The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (reprinted 1976), write that in other koine Greek literature only the idea of political or religious rebellion is found. No evidence of spatial departure is given.
Two Greek lexicon's list the primary meaning of apostasia as "defection" or "revolt," but also gives "departure" as a secondary meaning. Liddell and Scott's A Greek-English Lexicon only provides an example from the 6th century A.D., but G. W. H. Lampe's A Patristic Greek Lexicon provides an example from The Assumption of the Virgin, a NT apocryphal work. However, The Assumption of the Virgin can only be dated as early as the 5th century A.D. The texts that provide supporting evidence for spatial departure are not contemporary with the NT writings.
Another argument for the rapture idea deals with the supposed uniqueness of apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Some point out that apostasia
is only found in this verse, and this uniqueness allows it to depart from its normal meaning. The theory's supporters know full well that apostasia is used in Acts 21:21 where it is translated as "forsake," but they contend that it is being used in conjunction with the preposition apo (meaning "from") which defines the word's contextual meaning, limiting it to a religious departure instead of a spatial departure: "And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake [departure from] Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs." In other words, if apo were not found in the passage, then apostasia's meaning would not be so clearly defined. It is argued, therefore, since 2 Thess. 2:3 does not contain the word apo, that text cannot be understood to absolutely mean a religious departure. Unfortunately, this argument cannot be supported by any lexical evidence (as previously shown). If apostasia can refer to a spatial departure in koine Greek, then 2 Thess. 2:3 is the only evidence.
The context of 2 Thessalonians itself also refutes the rapture idea. Paul described in his first letter that the rapture was to occur when the Lord Himself would descend from heaven (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The Thessalonians would have understood his reference to the Lord's return from even earlier teachings concerning the physical return of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 1:11). There was no need for a detailed explanation to them concerning the fact that Jesus had promised to return; they knew that. They were only in fear that those already dead would somehow miss out (v. 13). Paul's first letter was one of encouragement (v. 18) to help them understand how those living and those dead would both be present at Christ's return (vv. 15-17). He then proceeded to tell them there was no need to explain anything regarding the time-frames when this event should happen (5:1-2ff). He simply cautioned them to be awake and alert as in the Day instead of drunken and asleep as those in the Night.
By his second letter, however, there had apparently been some that were using Paul's name to spread the idea that the Day of the Lord had already occurred or was presently occurring (2 Thess. 2:2). It was thus needful for Paul to outline a more specific time-frame. He writes beseeching them by a two-fold event: "the coming (Greek parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him" (v. 2).
The phrase "gathering together" was a direct reference back to his first letter in which he stated that both the dead and the living would be caught up "together" in the clouds (1 Thess. 4:17). "Our gathering together unto him" refers to the rapture.
Most pretribulationists believe the parousia refers to the rapture, but a small minority will argue that the parousia (coming) of Christ does not occur until the Battle of Armageddon. Yet, many New Testament Scriptures vividly portray the Resurrection occuring at Christ's parousia: 1 Cor. 15:23, 1 Thess. 2:9, James 5:7-8, 1 John 2:28. Indeed, Paul declares that the rapture occurs at Jesus' parousia in the very text that he describes the rapture itself: "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming (parousia) of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep" (1 Thess. 4:15). The parousia and the rapture cannot be separated.
Therefore, both expressions that Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 2:1—"the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "our gathering together unto him"—refer to the same event. This event is summed up in his words "the day of Christ" (v. 2). [Some later translations use "the day of the Lord;" however, to Paul, Christ is the Lord (cf. Phil. 2:11), so a distinction isn't necessary.]
Paul then elaborates that this particular event (the parousia and "our gathering") cannot come until certain things happen first: namely, the apostasia and the revelation of Antichrist (v. 3). Since the Antichrist has yet to be revealed, the rapture has not and cannot occur. Apostasia cannot be the rapture since Paul declares that the apostasia must occur before "our gathering together unto him": A ≠ R because A precedes R in time.