According to the Apostle Paul, the coming of Jesus is preceeded by two great signs. The first, and apparently foremost, is apostasy....or as the KJV puts it, a "great falling away." It is really quite unfortunate that the English translation of apostasia comes nowhere close to communicating the real sense of meaning.
2Th 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and [by] our gathering together unto him,
2Th 2:2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
2Th 2:3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
While Strong's also translates apostasia as "falling away," and "turning away," the tensing and deeper meaning of apostasy is that it involves a conscious decision and willing turning away from, or rejection, of revealed truth. Further, in the context in which it is presented, and in conjunction with other scriptures, it appears that the revealed truth that is turned away from pertains very specifically to certain basic tenets of the Christian faith.
One of the great rallying cries today of Christianity in general is that apostasy is rampant....and then some proceed to point out how "everyone else" is apostate. How the teaching at that other church down the road is downright heretical, and therefore they are "apostasizing." And, of course, no one at "our" church is "that way."
First, let's get something very clear....there is a very large difference between snares (from which one can recover), errors (from which one can recover), heresy (from which one can recover), and genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue APOSTASY! Many churches, denominations, and individuals are involved in being trapped in snares, some in errors, and some in what could be considered heretical thinking or teaching, but NOT ALL of them rise to the level of true apostasy.
Jude urges us to "contend earnestly for the FAITH ONCE DELIVERED to the saints..." (Jude 1:3), and then goes on to explain why. He tells us that there are those WITHIN THE CHURCH (professing Christians) who are NOT Christian. How do we know they aren't really Christian? Because scripture tells us that they were "of old (times) ORDAINED to condemnation,"...in other words, God, in His foreknowledge, KNEW that these people would come along, that their professions of faith were worthless, but HE ALLOWED THEM INTO THE CHURCH ANYWAY!
What is it that they do that marks them for what they are (by their fruits ye shall know them...)? It's really pretty simple - they "turn the Grace of God into lasciviousness (Gr. aselgeia: unbridled lust, excess, licentiousness, lasciviousness, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence), and DENY the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude 1:4)
Combine what Jude says here, with what Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12;
"And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Add to that Pauls instructions to Timothy;
2Ti 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
4 And they shall turn away [their] ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
And what we see very clearly is that apostasy involves a rejection of the truth of God as revealed to mankind IN AND THROUGH HIS SON JESUS CHRIST. This truth is basic, simple, and absolutely necessary, and cannot be changed or altered. This truth (capital T) concerns the deity of Jesus Christ, His atonement for our sins through His shed blood, and His resurrection from the dead.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, these doctrinal tenets have been at the core of belief...they were preached by Peter at Pentecost, by Paul, Matthew, James, John, Jude and more during the first century, and carried on by those who followed. Sometimes the message got a little garbled, and many times it was embellished, added to, subtly changed, but basically the message, and the essential doctrine of that "faith once delivered" remained the same. Every now and then, some upstart would come along and begin to deny parts of that core doctrine, or give "new" definitions to certain words and phrases, but they were (generally) quickly and decisively dealt with, and their heretical and apostate ramblings were shoved back into the pit from which they came.
Over the past 140 years, though, there has been a marked departure from these core doctrines within the Christian church, and in just the past 20 years, what appears to be a wholesale defection. I'm not talking about the resurgence of Pentecostalism, or the ordaining of women, or the inordinate interest in being slapped on the head and falling into a stupor.....I'm talking about those individuals, and worse, entire denominations that have run headlong into the never-ending debate about Jesus' divinity, atonement, and resurrection.
Some recent pronouncements by the Jesus Seminar (Crosson, et al), and a multitude of leaders in the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal and Baptist denominations leave no doubt in any listeners minds that they no longer believe that Jesus is God, that His shed blood is the ONLY way to salvation, or that He rose from the dead. Some have even questioned whether or not He ever actually existed, claiming that He is a "character" fictionalized by some to "portray the virtues of Godly living."
It was for just such a time that Paul told Timothy to "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.", because " ...the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away [their] ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (2Ti 4:2-4).
Is apostasy on the rise? Yes, indeed. Is it a "great" apostasy? Based on history, I would have to say that it is much greater than it ever has been. Is it as great as it's going to get? I'm afraid not....I think it's going to get much worse, and I also happen to think that it is going to get much worse much quicker. With the advent in recent years of the internet, and mass communications media, and instantaneous communications, the juggernaut of apostate thinking has picked up speed. Twenty years ago, one would be hard pressed to find many church "leaders" and scholars who would openly question Jesus' existence, divinity, atonement or resurrection. But, in just the past five years, the secular media has gleefully "examined" the claims of Christianity, and has brought to the forefront of attention the increasing numbers of these "leaders" who have publicly proclaimed their lack of belief. Most often, they preface their remarks with statements such as "careful scholarship requires an adjustment in our historical belief system...", or "no rational individual could lend credence to some of the far-fetched claims that have accompanied the Christian faith for centuries. Those are ideas of the past, and should be relegated to the dust-bin of history."
Now that we have seen what apostasy is, let's take a look at what it isn't. Talking in tongues or getting slain in the spirit is not apostasy. Neither is woodenly partaking of the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Nor is singing praise choruses, or believing ONLY in the KJV, or reading the NIV, or believing in the rapture, no rapture, partial rapture, or pre; post; or a-millennialism. Dinging bells during the service, or giving the same sermon on the same day every year, or piggin' out at dinner-on-the-grounds isn't apostasy, either.
What is true, though, is that in any of these things mentioned lie the seeds of apostasy, just waiting on the right time, the right person, and the right circumstances to sprout forth in all its hideous glory. Like the snares that satan lays, and the error he introduces, apostasy can rise up suddenly. Usually it is cleverly hidden in the middle of scripture taken out of context, and mixed with "scholarship" and "research" that appeals to the modern "thinker." But, just as pointed out by the previously quoted scripture, it boils down to a rejection of the TRUTH....the TRUTH of God as revealed in and by His Word.
One such recent example is the apparent success of the book (NY Times best seller) and movie, "The Da Vinci Code." It's author, Dan Brown, presents his thesis in a pseudo-scholarly fashion, and weaves in supposition, superstition, folk-lore and outright lies to convince readers that Jesus was not divine, was in fact a sinner, got married and had children, and his descendents are alive and well today.
Mr. Brown calls himself a Christian, although he says that he is "not one like you've met before." In his book, however, he draws not only upon the Gnostic heritage and writings, but also those of the New Age movement, interweaving the two until they are not distinguishable from each other....and just as confusing and ridiculous as the originals! Additionally, he has a "fact" sheet which contains not only disputable "facts", but some that are blatant falsehoods, and unsupported by any reasonable scholarship or historical facts. In short, Mr. Brown has seized upon an idea, an undocumented thesis (read old wive's tale) and turned it into a money maker disguised as scholarship. The sad thing is the number of people who have made him rich simply because it appealed to their own "itching ears." Surely these are the ones Paul spoke of in 2 Timothy 4:4.
Also at the forefront of post-modern criticism and "scholarship" is the media darling, "The Jesus Seminar." Originally composed of over 400 alleged scholars, the Seminar was begun in the early 80's by Robert W. Funk, former chair of the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.
According to an address given by Funk in the spring of 1994;
€"Jesus did not ask us to believe that his death was a blood sacrifice, that he was going to die for our sins."
€"Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was the messiah. He certainly never suggested that he was the second person of the trinity. In fact, he rarely referred to himself at all."
€"Jesus did not call upon people to repent, or fast, or observe the sabbath. He did not threaten with hell or promise heaven."
€"Jesus did not ask us to believe that he would be raised from the dead."
€"Jesus did not ask us to believe that he was born of a virgin."
€"Jesus did not regard scripture as infallible or even inspired."
The Jesus Seminar held that its view of Jesus was also held by all scholars, but that few would admit it publicly out of fear of a fundamentalist backlash. Funk summed up the seminar's mission in his opening remarks to the Seminar's first convention in Berkeley in 1985: A "rude and rancorous awakening lies ahead" once people discover that according to "the intelligence of high scholarship," the Gospels are mostly "mythological bunk" and Jesus was, at best, a "mere wisdom teacher who inadvertently got crucified."
In a 1993 book, "The Five Gospels" (the canonical four plus the Gnostic "Gospel of Thomas"), the Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus spoke no more than 18% of the words attributed to him in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. In 1998, the Jesus Seminar published "The Acts of Jesus," which was even more negative about the historical accuracy of the New Testament. The scholars decided that of 176 events in Jesus' life narrated in the Gospels, only 16% - maybe 28 - were even likely to have occurred. Excluded were not only the Gospel narratives on Jesus' passion and resurrection but also the stories of his miraculous conception, birth and early childhood.
In its august deliberations, the Seminar participants held the heretical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas in higher regard than they did the accepted four Gospels of the Bible.
This line of thinking dominated and continues to dominate the curricula at many theology schools, university religion departments and mainline Protestant sermons and discussion groups. Jesus Seminar member Marcus Borg, who contends that Jesus was one of many 1st century leaders of Jewish renewal movements, is a favorite guest lecturer at Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.
Among the historical and current groups who do not accept the divinity of Jesus (among other things) are: the Ebionite church, Arians, Nestorians, Copts, Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, Universalists, Iglesia ni Cristo, and many Friends, Methodist and United Church members and leaders. Some well known personalities such as Martin Luther King, Jr (Baptist), Albert Schweitzer (Lutheran) and Bishop Pike (Episcopalian) also take this position.
It is against the backdrop of these "free-thinkers" that much of the modern-day media moguls such as Peter Jennings have presented hours of pedantic pronouncements about Christianity in general, and Jesus Christ in particular. Relying heavily on such scintillating figures of scholarship as John Dominic Crosson (The Jesus Seminar) and other obscure but allegedly astute religionists, Jennings et al have lent credence to all who would "lean to their own understanding..." - something that God definitely told us NOT to do.
Apostasy? or merely mislead miscreants? I would submit that these are truly apostate, having willingly, knowingly and definitely turned away from the Truth of God, and turned instead "unto fables."