When was the fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians 2.3’s prophecy of an apostasy or falling away? Or is it happening today? Or is it to come only in the future? An early date in Christian history is to be preferred in identifying it, so that Christians in a longer period of church history could point to the event as proving that the Apostle Paul was a true prophet, and as evidence that Christianity is the true religion.
Examining church history 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 2 Thessalonians 2.3.
In December AD 249 the Roman Emperor Decius launched the first thoroughgoing and Empire-wide persecution against the general Christian population. There had been previous persecutions, but none had been as efficient or as complete. 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. Christians were not prepared for a persecution of any sort, let alone the worst to date. Indeed, the Christian writer Origen had noted shortly before AD 249 that Christians were “not being persecuted by the authorities as in old times.”
Under Decius, a new edict required all subjects of 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. He weakened the churches and threw them into internal chaos. A contemporary account by Bishop Cyprian of Carthagedescribes 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.
(the phrase about having gained “in the very first beginning of their nativity” is a reference to infant baptism).
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.
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”
The moral fibre of a great many members of the church was clearly not equal to the church’s tradition of martyrdom for Christ or to observing the important Christian precept against worshipping or doing homage to other gods. Here we see a large number of Christians publicly renounce Jesus and the Faith, and were instrumental in others doing likewise.
The Apostasy came in AD 249 and went in 251. Can the Second Coming be far behind?