A Brief Introduction to Preterism
The term Preterist comes from the Latin praeter, which means past. A preterite verb is a past-tense verb. Thus, when discussing the topic of eschatology, Preterism is the viewpoint that all eschatological prophecies—including the Second Coming, the General Resurrection, and the Judgment—have been fulfilled in the past.
One of several driving forces for the Preterist interpretation is the many timing passages which, at face value, limit the expectations for these events to the first-century generation. On the other hand, the driving force for most of Christianity is its understanding of the nature of how these events are to be fulfilled. An over-simplification of this can be illustrated from the following passages:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things
which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His
servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of
Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those
who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written
in it; for the time is near.
The time indicators (shortly, near) certainly imply a fulfillment of the prophecy that was imminent to the original audience. One would not conclude from a face-value reading of the text that there were to be some two thousand years before the prophesied events would occur. Therefore, for reasons explained below, Preterism looks for fulfillments within that prescribed timeframe. Futurism, on the other hand, argues that because Christ’s return was not seen by anyone in the first century (let alone “every eye”), we must look to our future for the fulfillment of these events. It becomes immediately obvious that for Preterism to believe that Christ actually returned in the first century, something other than a literal understanding of “every eye shall see him” must be employed. Conversely— although often not readily recognized—Futurism must also employ nonliteral meanings to “shortly” and “the time is near.”
Literal vs. Spiritual
When the topic of “literal” interpretation surfaces, phrases such as “we hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible” and “they spiritualize or allegorize everything” are often thrown around. Although not necessarily intended, any nonliteral interpretation can often become “guilty by association” with liberal Christianity, which does not accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Such is not the case with Preterism (obviously, although there are fringe elements that attach themselves to any doctrinal position). The debate is not whether Preterism or Futurism accepts the Bible as the inspired Word of God. That is a given in both cases. Rather, the debate is over which portions or passages of Scripture are meant to be understood by something other than a strictly literal interpretation. As demonstrated above, both sides must employ a nonliteral view to either the time statements or the nature statements. But which side is more scriptural? Unfortunately, we all come to such biblical issues with a bias, as J. I. Packer notes:
“We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. . . . It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be ‘catholic’ tradition, or ‘critical’ tradition, or ‘ecumenical’ tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures.” (Fundamentalism and the Word of God, by J.I. Packer. [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958.] pp. 69-70; emphasis added)
Because most of us have been raised within a Futurist paradigm, we easily
accept nonliteral interpretations of the timing statements—for example, “shortly”
cannot literally mean shortly, and “near” cannot literally mean near if we are
still waiting for Christ’s return two thousand years after those words were
written. Nevertheless, we still claim to “interpret the Bible literally.”
Likewise, knowing that Scripture describes God as a spirit, we realize that,
even though passages speak of the “arm of the Lord,” God does not have a
physical arm. Therefore, the debate is not over the literal interpretation
of the Bible, but in how to interpret the various genres presented in the text.
In helping to determine which biblical elements we should interpret in a nonliteral fashion, an important consideration is the concept of audience relevance. Audience relevance dictates that we must ascertain who wrote ( or spoke) the words, why, when, and where they were written (or spoken), and how the original audience would have understood them. We often have a tendency to read Scripture from a 21st-century, Western culture mindset. Thus, we read Scripture within a paradigm that is familiar to us, and assume that that is how the original audience would have understood it. In other words, we read ourselves and our culture back into the text. While this may be unintentional on our part, John Calvin warns:
“So great is the influence of preconceived opinion, that it brings darkness over the mind in the midst of the clearest light.”
In order to rightly divide the Word of Truth, we must strive to understand how the original audience understood it in their contemporary setting. For example, the English word let typically means “to allow.” However, several centuries ago let meant just the opposite to English-speaking peoples; it meant “to hinder.” This usage has been retained in the game of tennis: situations in which a serve clips the top of the net is called a “let.” Rather than allowing the tennis ball to pass, the net actually hindered the tennis ball. Thus, as diligent students of God’s Word we have a responsibility to determine, to the best of our ability, how the original audience would have understood the message given to them.
Relationship of Old and New Testaments
Part and parcel with audience relevance is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians believe that the Old Testament is the foundation upon which the New Testament is built, and that when there are perceived inconsistencies between the two, the Old Testament takes precedence. Thus, we must interpret the New Testament in light of the foundation laid in the Old Testament. However, many others (including Preterists) believe that the New Testament actually interprets the Old Testament, and when perceived inconsistencies exist between the two, the New Testament takes precedence. This is because the Old Testament contains things which were shrouded in mystery, types, and shadows—things that were fulfilled in Christ and the New Covenant. The Holy Spirit revealed the truths behind these mysteries to the New Testament apostles:
. . . and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning
of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ . . . .
(Eph 3:9 NKJV)
Furthermore, in the specific area of eschatology (the study of “last things”), Peter states clearly that the Old Testament prophets did not always understand the substance and timing of their prophecies, whereas Jesus promised His apostles that when the Spirit came He would teach them the things to come:
Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of
the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of
Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ
and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to
us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who
have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels
desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:10-12 NKJV)
Thus, those things which were hidden in ages past and not understood clearly, were revealed to the first-century apostles and saints. As such, the New Testament serves as a divine commentary on the Old Testament. This is not to imply that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament, for Paul stated that he taught nothing but what was found in Moses and the prophets. Rather, the New Testament completes the foundation of Scripture upon which our doctrines and theology must be built.
. . . having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone . . . . (Eph 2:20 NKJV)
In the example above from the opening verses of Revelation, we focused on the timing statements “shortly” and “near.” When one examines the New Testament, they will find a multitude of similar statements of which these are just a few:
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He
will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing
here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
(Matt 16:27-28 NKJV)
While there are over one hundred such “imminency” statements concerning Christ’s return, the Judgment, and/or the Resurrection, there is not one passage which so much as hints that any of these eschatological events were to be expected beyond the first-century generation. However, just the opposite is true of Old Testament predictions of Christ’s first coming and the Resurrection—events which were stated as being far off:
I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but
not near . . . . (Num 24:17 NKJV)
While Daniel’s words were sealed until the “time of the end,” John’s Revelation was not sealed:
And he said to me, "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand. (Rev 22:10-11 NKJV)
Likewise, Daniel was told he would die (rest) and be raised at the time of the end, while Paul wrote the Corinthians that they would not all die (sleep):
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed . . . . (1 Cor 15:51 NKJV)
It is these timing passages, and many, many more, which cause Preterists to consider the possibility of first-century fulfillments for prophecies regarding Christ’s Second Coming, the Resurrection, and the Judgment.
As mentioned above, if we are to assume that Christ actually returned to His generation, we cannot take the phrase “every eye shall see Him” in a strictly literal sense. Keep in mind, however, that if we believe that Christ has not yet returned, there are over one hundred imminency statements (near, at hand, shortly, quickly, etc.) which we cannot interpret in a strictly literal sense either. Much of the imagery used to describe the events which accompany the Second Coming—e.g., the sun not shining, the moon turning to blood, the various plagues of Revelation—is the use of what is called “apocalyptic language.” Apocalyptic language is recognized by Bible scholars as the use of symbolic, metaphorical descriptions applied to commonplace events orchestrated by God. For example, when God delivered David from the hand of Saul and his enemies, David described his deliverance using apocalyptic language:
Then the earth shook and trembled; The foundations of heaven quaked and were shaken, Because He was angry. Smoke went up from His nostrils, And devouring fire from His mouth; Coals were kindled by it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down With darkness under His feet. He rode upon a cherub, and flew; And He was seen upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness canopies around Him, Dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. From the brightness before Him Coals of fire were kindled. . . . Then the channels of the sea were seen, The foundations of the world were uncovered, At the rebuke of the Lord, At the blast of the breath of His nostrils. (2 Sam 22:8-13, 16 NKJV)
Interestingly, in the historical narratives relating David’s conflicts with Saul, we never
read of astronomical or tectonic activity playing a role; neither is God seen physically at any
time, even though the text states He was seen upon the wings of the wind. Yet this is how David
describes his deliverance.
Behold, the day of the Lord comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, And the moon will not cause its light to shine. (The Lord judging Babylon; Isa 13:9-10 NKJV) All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree. (The Lord judging Edom; Isa 34:1 NKJV) The earth quakes before them, The heavens tremble; The sun and moon grow dark, And the stars diminish their brightness. (The Lord judging Israel; Joel 2:10 NKJV)
Conversely, an increase in the brightness of the moon and sun is representative of blessing:
For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem; You shall weep no more. He will be very gracious to you at the sound of your cry; When He hears it, He will answer you . . . . Moreover the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, And the light of the sun will be sevenfold, As the light of seven days, In the day that the Lord binds up the bruise of His people And heals the stroke of their wound. (Isa 30:19, 26 NKJV)
Surely it would not be a blessing to life on earth if the sun’s brightness were to literally increase sevenfold! Note that this same type of Old Testament imagery is used to describe Christ’s Second Coming:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matt 24:29 NKJV) I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. (Rev 6:12-14 NKJV)
If the Old Testament apocalyptic passages described God’s judgment upon nations, could not this same type of language in the New Testament also be associated with God’s judgment? Was it not predicted that Christ would come to judge the nations in His Second Coming? Consider also the fact that Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, and His disciples associated that event with His coming!
Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another [judgment], that shall not be thrown down." Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matt 24:1-3 NKJV)
Moreover, Jesus stated that He only did what He saw the Father do, and that the Father had committed all judgment to the Son. Should we not expect Jesus to judge the nations as the Father had judged them in the Old Testament?
Then Jesus answered and said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. . . . For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son . . . .” (John 5:19, 22 NKJV)
If we can accept that the apocalyptic language describing Christ’s Second Coming
is not to be understood in a literal sense—just as the manner of God’s judgment is
not literal in the Old Testament—we can begin to see that the nature of Christ’s Second
Coming is not necessarily what we may have believed it to be.
Closely associated with apocalyptic language is the concept of “coming in the clouds.” We are all familiar with the fact that Jesus’ Second Coming is to be with clouds:
Behold, He is coming with clouds . . . . (Rev 1:7 NKJV)
Recalling the principle of audience relevance described above, we must ascertain how first-century readers would have understood this cloud-coming language. Furthermore, when we consider that the New Testament was written largely by Jewish authors to a predominately Jewish audience, we realize that we must seek to understand how cloud-coming language was used and understood by the Jews. Upon examining the Old Testament, which was the basis of Jewish culture, we find that the concept of God coming on the clouds is part of their religious language and often used to describe God coming in judgment of His enemies or deliverance of His people:
The burden against Egypt.
Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud,
And will come into Egypt;
The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence,
And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.
(Isa 19:1 NKJV)
Even though there were literal judgments and/or deliverances occurring in these passages, they were described figuratively using cloud-coming language—God Himself was never seen on the clouds or on the earth. If this is the pattern established in the Old Testament, and Jesus said that He would come in judgment just as He had seen the Father come in judgment, and Jesus described His Second Coming using cloud-coming language, why should we expect to see Jesus physically and bodily in the clouds at His coming? The Father was not seen when He came in judgment.
End of the World
One may object that, while God’s Old Testament cloud comings were described in apocalyptic language, the end of the world was never predicted along with those judgments. Christ’s return, on the other hand, is to occur at the end of world; therefore, there is a significant difference between the Old Testament descriptions of God coming on the clouds and Christ’s Second Coming on the clouds. Unfortunately, this concept of the “end of the world” is due largely to a poor translation in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. Modern versions have corrected this phrase to read more accurately “the end of the age.” Thus, it was not the end of world that was expected to accompany Christ’s return, but the end of the age—the end of the Old Covenant age. Note the difference between the KJV and NKJV translations of Matthew 24:3:
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying,
Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the
end of the world? (Matt 24:3 KJV)
Just as the timing passages confine Christ’s Second Coming to the first-century generation, they also place the end of the age squarely in that generation as well:
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our [first-century audience] admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Cor 10:11 NKJV) . . . but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Heb 9:26-27 NKJV)
The Old Covenant was drawing to a close in the first century, and when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 the Old Covenant was forever abolished. In circa AD 30 Christ wept over the city and predicted its judgment in that generation. Forty years later—the span of a biblical generation—the city was destroyed. Just as God had used foreign armies to carry out His judgments in the Old Testament, so Christ has used the Roman armies to come in judgment upon apostate Israel. Just as God’s Old Testament judgments were described in apocalyptic language and God’s coming was associated with clouds, so Christ described His Second Coming in apocalyptic language and as coming in the clouds. Just as God was never seen with the physical eye during His judgments against nations in the pre-Christ era, so Christ was not seen by the physical eye during His Second Coming.
Preterism believes that the timing passages confine all eschatological fulfillments
to the first century. Preterism also believes that Christ’s Second Coming, precedented
by Old Testament descriptions of identical apocalyptic and cloud-coming language, was
fulfilled in the same nature as God’s Old Testament comings.
When all of the above is taken into consideration, the logic of Preterism begins to
come into focus. The promised return of Christ was taught and expected within the
timeframe of the first-century generation. It was foretold in the same type of language
used in the Old Testament to foretell divine judgments against rebellious nations. While
this language spoke of astronomical signs and God coming on the clouds, there is no
evidence of any astronomical phenomena or of God ever being seen with the physical eye.
The Second Coming of Christ is described in identical language, and we see a strong
similarity between the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the judgments rendered
upon the Old Testament nations. As promised, this judgment—and thus Christ’s Second
Coming—took place forty years after Jesus foretold it—within that generation.
Introduction to Preterism
Introduction to Preterism