LCN Article
What Is the Falling Away?

January / February 2024

Gerald E. Weston

Dear Brethren, What was the Apostle Paul telling us when he said the coming of Christ would not happen until “the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed” (2 Thessalonians 2:3)? Several ideas have floated about in recent years. Some Church of God groups, and many brethren throughout, see the apostasy in the Worldwide Church of God as fulfilling in full the “falling away” part of the prophecy. More recently, the Living Church of God has taught that it refers to a broad rebellion against God at the end of the age. But, while the rebellion against God in our world is indeed broad, is that interpretation the accurate one? For context, here is the relevant passage:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day [the return of Christ] will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).

There is no doubt that what occurred in the Worldwide Church of God was an apostasy from truth. And, truly, those who fell away in that organization “did not receive the love of the truth” (v. 10). But was that what Paul was describing? Or was he referring to something larger?

Those of us who experienced it firsthand know that WCG’s apostasy was a traumatic experience, so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that it fulfilled Paul’s warning. However, the passage strongly suggests that Paul was tying the “falling away” with the “man of sin”—a “lawless one” who would come with “power, signs, and lying wonders” and will be destroyed “with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8–10). The revealing of the man of sin need not happen immediately after the falling away, as we will see later, but it is clear that Paul sees the two as related. Yet, no miracle-working false prophet who will be destroyed at Christ’s return came out of the apostasy of the Worldwide Church of God. As heinous as WCG’s apostasy was, it did not fulfill Paul’s prophecy.

Falling Away from a Previous Position

One would have to be blind not to recognize the breathtaking decline in biblical values among the Israelite nations. While the United States and the British-descended nations were founded on some biblical principles, most, if not all, of these nations no longer even consider themselves “Christian nations.” This has been expressed by no less than former U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Census data indicates that the U.K. has abandoned a Christian identity, and much the same can be seen in Australia and elsewhere.

In a very short period of time, we have seen a near-total transformation of values. In the Republic of Ireland, nominally Roman Catholic voters approved abortion for their nation. The LGBTQIA+ movement is gaining acceptance at an alarming rate. Indeed, there is a strong bias against anything smacking of biblical values. “Anything goes”—unless it comes from the Bible. But we must ask: Is this what Paul referred to? It is easy to read into the Bible whatever we see at the moment. But we must be careful not to read current events into the Bible where they do not match the context. We must look to the Bible to explain itself.

We have heard the exhortation, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” but we also know that He never was in Christmas. Similarly, though we may romanticize the “Christian past” of our Israelite nations and lament the loss of “a more innocent time,” we know there is more to it than that. I once thought that calls from the pulpit to “get back to the faith once delivered” meant nostalgically going back to the 1800s, when people read the Bible by kerosene lamps. But when Jude urged the people to get back to the faith once delivered, he was referring to the faith of Christ, His apostles, and early first-century Christianity (Jude 3–4). That kind of Christianity has very little resemblance to trinitarian “Christianity,” no matter the century.

Did people have more respect for the Bible in times past? Without a doubt. But, as we know, most of those people were not true Christians. How often I hear people express the idea that they were good people who merely “had the wrong day.” Not so, dear brethren—the Sabbath is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Without realizing it, those innocent “good Christians” had received the Beast’s mark by replacing the seventh-day Sabbath with Sunday worship.

Many of us were once a part of that satanic system. We worshiped a trinitarian god and accepted pagan holidays and practices with the name of Christ attached to them. We believed in an immortal soul, going to heaven for eternal retirement, and the wicked burning in excruciating hellfire for all eternity—including billions who never heard the name or message of Christ. Did God tell us to come out of Babylon for no reason (Revelation 18:2–4)?

Paul warned against false teachers preaching another Jesus, promoting a different spirit, and proclaiming a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:1–4). He did not mince words about who these preachers served. “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (vv. 13–15). Many of Satan’s ministers are no doubt good men, humanly speaking. Most are deceived themselves in many ways, but though they may be well-meaning, they are leading people away from the true Jesus of the Bible and His message.

Our mainstream “Christian” ancestors fought religious wars, murdering other “Christians.” Dr. Roderick C. Meredith’s The Plain Truth About the Protestant Reformation is an important book that chronicles the roots of mainstream Christianity—and the roots are rotten. Again, this does not mean that people are not sincere; we simply know that their time of judgment will come later.

I often ask people who attend our Tomorrow’s World presentations, Who are the harlot daughters of Revelation 17? Is it really better to attend with a harlot daughter than to attend with the great mother harlot? I ask this not to condemn, but to explain: Catholics and Protestants are deceived. We are not warned against “religious deception” in general, but “Christian” deception (Revelation 6:1–2; cf. Matthew 24:4–5). While we may feel nostalgic yearnings for our childhood world, we must understand what is wrong with all of mainstream Christianity as God reveals in His word.

The idea that the prophesied falling away is found in our wider world abandoning its past heritage—religious or otherwise—just does not stand up against the biblical facts. True, this world is currently moving away from a worldview it previously held, but this is not what Paul referred to. A decade or so ago, many of us thought it might be, but this is simply not the case. This is the conclusion the Council of Elders came to during our November 2023 meetings.

Of course, it is clear that the changes in our culture—and its increasing rebellion against God—are significant, and the Council noted that other passages in the Bible do speak to the fact of sin and iniquity reaching its fullness. But our conclusion was that the “falling away” passage in 2 Thessalonians 2 refers to something else.

The distractions of what happened in WCG and what is happening in our world today do not provide the answer to Paul’s warning. So, what is the answer? What really is the falling away?

Already at Work

Let us return to what Paul wrote, and look at the broad scope of history. Paul gives an important clue when he tells us that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” Whatever he is talking about, it was already at work in his day. Jude also confirms this first-century falling away from truth: 

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 3–4).

Jesus warned against those who claim His authority—who even admit that He is the Christ—but deceive many (Matthew 24:4–5; cf. Revelation 6:1–2). Revelation reveals that there is a great apostate mother church with harlot daughters. This falling away from truth did not happen all at once, but—as Paul and Jude indicate—this rebellion against the truth began in their day. Early church history, as Dr. Meredith showed in Restoring Original Christianity and Satan’s Counterfeit Christianity, took a catastrophic turn away from the Christianity of Christ, His apostles, and the early Church. This was an apostasy of gargantuan proportions—a deception now comprising the world’s largest religion. Today’s mainstream Christianity, in all its forms, was, and continues to be, a massive departure from truth.

When Paul wrote that the mystery of lawlessness was already at work, he pointed to the origin of the falling away—and to the source from which the man of sin would arise. That falling away began early, as Jesse Lyman Hurlbut and many other historians point out. “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, 1933, p. 41).

A Latter-Day Fulfillment

As God’s Church has long taught, one of the keys to understanding prophecy is to recognize prophetic gaps in time. The rebellion against the truth set in early and took time to fully develop. As it did, the bishop of Rome took on titles reserved for God. From a preserved entry in the original Catholic Encyclopedia, we read of one of these titles: “Vicar of Christ (Lat. Vicarius Christi), a title of the pope implying his supreme and universal primacy, both of honor and of jurisdiction, over the Church of Christ” (“Vicar of Christ,” Catholic Answers, Rome’s bishop is considered the head of that church, but the Bible tells us it is the living Christ who is the Head of His Church (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22–23). That difference is profound! Roman Catholic prelates are called Holy, Father, and Reverend. But while Scripture tells us that we are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15–16), it never uses that term as a title. Paul called himself a father to converts (1 Thessalonians 2:11), but never in the context of a title. We are to conduct ourselves in a reverent manner (Titus 2:2–3), but only God is “reverend” (Psalm 111:9, King James Version).

Jesus strongly warned against arrogating titles to ourselves (Matthew 23:7–10). He warned against the misuse of “father” (v. 9). He did not forbid us to use that term with our physical father, our father-in-law, or our foster father, but we are not to use it as a religious title. And even in some Protestant circles we find men calling themselves “Venerable” and “Most Right Reverend.”

While the great rebellion and apostasy set in as far back as the first century AD, there is also a latter-day fulfillment that is yet ahead. It is clear that the prophesied man of sin will not appear until shortly before Christ’s return. This final head of a satanic system, one that has made the world drunk with the wine of its fornication, will take to a new level the claim of divine status. When we read of how he will perform signs, wonders, and deceptive miracles, this is not hard to understand. The world will worship this man.

Fullness of Iniquity

The mystery of iniquity was already at work in the first century, and Paul’s reference indicates its connection to the falling away. But what we see today may not be what we see tomorrow. Will there be a pushback against what we see being promoted today? Will the man of sin continue the “woke agenda,” or will he turn people back toward a more traditional false god? Only time will tell. But we know that masses of humanity will be moved by the miracles he performs, and history shows how quickly human beings can shift their allegiances. There will be a religious revival—but not back to the God of the Bible.

Timing is everything with God. He told Abram that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). We again see God’s patience when we read of “the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their fullness” (Daniel 8:23). 

God has given the Israelite nations time to change, sending wake-up calls along the way. We saw two world wars in the twentieth century. Yes, the Israelitish nations won those wars at a great price, but it was not because of their righteousness. They also suffered through the Great Depression, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, two Gulf Wars, and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Judah has also faced ongoing wars and troubles—always coming out on top, so far, but is this because they are a righteous people, or because of God’s overall plan?

The world is coming to the fullness of iniquity as it rebels against its Creator. Our nations won their past battles not because they were righteous, but despite their sins. Is this not what God tells us through the book of Jeremiah? When the prophet asked why so many troubles came upon the nation, God answered, “Because your fathers have forsaken Me… they have walked after other gods and have served them and worshiped them, and have forsaken Me and not kept My law. And you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, each one follows the dictates of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me” (Jeremiah 16:11–12). 

We must not confuse the prophesied falling away from truth with mankind’s prophesied coming to the fullness of iniquity—the time when God will intervene powerfully to stop our madness. Both are important, but they are not the same. When Paul wrote of the “falling away,” he wrote prophetically of the apostasy that false Christianity represents. That false Christianity will grow in power, eventually culminating in global, end-time persecution for true Christians and led by the “man of sin,” whom Christ will personally destroy at His return (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

Some of what Paul wrote is not easy to understand. There are questions left unanswered for now. We do our best, with God’s guidance, to understand—but we must be ready to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). Time will reveal the answers to all our questions, but the big picture is available to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.