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Church-State Relations and the Book of Revelation
An Introduction to The Parousia: A Careful Look at the New Testament Doctrine of the Lord's Second Coming
by James Stuart Russell (1878) // Written by
Todd Dennis, Curator
 


 

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Response to the Preterist Position as Outlined in The Last Days According to Jesus by R.C. Sproul

By H.L. Nigro


Part I

One of the positions on the fulfillment of end-times events that is rapidly rising in popularity, both in scholarly circles and among “everyday” believers, is the preterist position. The term preterist means already fulfilled, and this position teaches that all of the events spoken of by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) were fulfilled in the first century when the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Although the events that transpired in the first century do not match the details of the Olivet Discourse exactly, there is enough similarity that the position has gathered many followers. Among the reasons that preterists feel so strongly about this position are the time-frame references such as “at hand” and “this generation.” J. Stuart Russell, one of the most notable the nineteenth century proponents of the preterist view, for example, argues that 99 persons in every 100 would “immediately understand Jesus to mean that the events he was predicting would fall within the limits of the lifetime of an existing generation. This means, not that every person present will necessarily be alive at the time of the fulfillment, but that many or even most will be.” [1]

Firing the preterist movement is the recent and ferocious attacks on the scriptures at the hands of critics, who often use these same time-frame references to disprove the authority of scripture. They claim that Jesus clearly believed that He would set up His earthly kingdom within the lifetime of His hearers, a promise that did not come true. Either Jesus was lying or mistaken, they argue, and either way, this proves that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. Preterists, on the other hand, believe that the prophecies did come true and desire to prove these skeptics wrong.

Time to Investigate

As readers of this column know, I do not hold to the preterist position. I am among those who see the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowing the events of the end and not as a fulfillment of them. While I do believe that the apostles thought that the prophecy I am, however, always interested in learning about other rapture positions, so I decided to read a recently published analysis and defense of the preterist position.

I chose R. C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus. Although Sproul, a leading evangelical theologian, appears to hold many — but not all — of the fundamental preterist positions, I found this book to be less a defense of preterism than an analysis of it. Sproul has written many highly respected books on evangelical doctrine and apologetics (including That's A Good Question!) and does indicate his own questions and concerns about the some of the preterist positions, although he leaves them unanswered in the text.

In this column, which will be broken into three parts because of its length, I will discuss the strengths and the weaknesses — indeed, the fundamental errors — of the preterist position discussed by Sproul in his book. In order to do so, however, it is first necessary to outline the preterist position itself. All of the examples will be taken from The Last Days According to Jesus.

Why do preterists see the prophecy of the end given to us by Jesus in Matthew 24 as having been fulfilled? Much of it has to do with time-frame references, which preterists believe require the fulfillment of this prophecy in the first century. Key scriptures include “There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28); and “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34). Other key verses include the many references in Revelation, which preterists see as paralleling the prophecy of Matthew 24, such as Jesus' repeated warnings that He would come “quickly” and that events “must shortly take place.” [2]

Another foundational pillar of the preterist position comes in the first few verses of Matthew 24. In these verses, Jesus' disciples expound to Him the virtues of the temple — how large the stones and how great the buildings. Jesus then surprised them by saying, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v. 1-2). In verse 3, Jesus' disciples come to Him — you can imagine, almost in a panic — and say, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age?”

Jesus responds by telling them the key prophecies of the Olivet Discourse: false christs, nation rising against nation, kingdom rising against kingdom, the abomination of desolation (likely some type of idol) that will be placed in the temple in Jerusalem, the great tribulation, the signs in the sun, moon, and stars, followed by His coming and, many feel, the rapture of the Church.

Key to the preterist argument is that Jesus' prophecy was given in the context of the destruction of the temple. Thus, when the prophecy concerning the temple was fulfilled, the remainder of His prophecy must have been fulfilled, as well.

Were the Prophecies Fulfilled?

How do preterists see these prophecies having been fulfilled? Let's look at the elements of Jesus' prophecy one by one:

False christs — Early historians report that false messiahs were epidemic in the first century. For example, John Calvin wrote, “for shortly after Christ's resurrection, there arose imposters, every one of whom professed to be the Christ...Josephus tells us `the country was full of robbers, magicians, false prophets, false Messiahs, and impostors, who deluded the people with promises of great events.” [3]

Nation rising against nation; kingdom rising against kingdom — There was tremendous ethnic and national strife and war at the time of the first century. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in itself, is a witness to this. J. Stuart Russell writes, “In Alexandria, in Seleucia, in Syria, in Babylonia, there were violent tumults between the Jews and the Greeks, the Jews and the Syrians, inhabiting the same cities...In the reign of Caligula, great apprehensions were entertained in Judea of war with the Romans...” [4]

Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes — J. Stuart Russell writes, “During the reign of Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), there were four seasons of great scarcity. In the fourth year of his reign, the famine in Judea was so severe that the price of food became enormous and great numbers perished. Earthquakes occurred in each of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius.” [5]

Gospel preached to all nations — Preterists point to verses such as Col. 1:23, in which Paul writes, “...if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven [italics mine], of which I, Paul, became minister.”

The abomination of desolation — Eagles were seen as objects of religious worship by the Romans and were prominent parts of their standards. Preterists see the prophecy of the abomination of desolation as being fulfilled when Roman General Vitellius, in the reign of Tiberius, tried to march his troops through Judea, “a move that was resisted by the Jewish authorities on the grounds that these idolatrous images on their ensigns would be a profanation of the law.” [6]

The great tribulation — As the Romans marched through Jerusalem, burning the city and destroying the temple, they slaughtered 1.1 million Jews in and around the city.

Sun turning dark, the moon into blood, and the stars falling from the sky — The Jewish historian Josephus reports seeing a star resembling a sword during the destruction of Jerusalem, an event he says was foreshadowed by a comet sometime earlier. Historians suggest that this was likely Halley's Comet, which appeared in A.D. 66. [7]

The sign of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory — The evidence of this is largely speculative. The only practical evidence comes from Josephus, who reports that, during the destruction of Jerusalem, there was a quaking on the earth, a great noise, and a bright light shining around the altar and the temple. Furthermore, he saw a vision of chariots and solders running around among the clouds and surrounding cities, much like the vision seen by Ezekiel in Ezek. 1:22-28.

The angels gathering together the elect from one end of earth to the other — Preterists see this gathering [the rapture] as spiritual and unseen. The only somewhat tangible evidence of this fulfillment comes from the vision of Josephus, in which he heard the sound of a great multitude saying, “Let us remove hence.” [8]

Does Preterism Work?

Does preterism work? Is the fulfillment close enough that we can say that the beginning of sorrows, the rise of the Antichrist, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the Second Coming of Christ, and the rapture of the Church have passed? Certainly, some of the events in A.D. 70 are similar to the prophecy given by Jesus, and if the vision of Josephus is true, some are supernatural. However, remarkable as they may be, as my mother would say, “they are close, but no banana.” They are not perfect enough to be the fulfillment of a prophecy given to us in the inerrant Word of God.

In brief:

  • While there were famines, pestilences, and earthquakes during this time, Revelation says that they will take the lives of up to one-quarter of the earth's population. This did not occur in A. D. 70.
  • The gospel was not preached to all nations at the time Jerusalem was destroyed. It had been preached only to the known world.
  • The abomination of desolation is a very specific event that requires a human being to stand in the temple and declare himself to be God, or as God; to stop the daily sacrifices; and defile the sanctuary temple. Rome marching eagle-decorated standards doesn't count.
  • The slaughter of Jews and Christians, as terrible as it was in the first century, does not meet the standard given by Jesus as being worse than any other in history — past or future.
  • The triple cosmic sign in the sky did not occur.
  • Jesus did not coming as conquering King.
  • The rapture did not take place.

One of the defenses preterists give for the imprecise A.D. 70 fulfillment is that Matthew 24 is apocalyptic imagery, and as apocalyptic imagery, it does not need to be fulfilled precisely. I do not agree. Unlike apocalyptic literature, this prophecy is clear, chronological, and highly detailed. It was meant to be clearly understood by those reading or listening to it because it would have practical (both near and far-term) consequences that would require them to act upon it in very specific ways...

  • “When you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place...then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matt. 24:15-16);
  • “If anyone says to you, here is the Christ, or there...do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand” (Matt. 24:23;
  • “When these things begin to occur, look up, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28).

If this were apocalyptic imagery, these warnings and exhortations would be useless. It makes more sense to see this prophecy as a future event that will fulfill the law and the prophets rather than as an apocalyptic metaphor fulfilled in times past.

For this and other reasons, I see the preterist view as well meaning but fatally flawed. I also believe that it results in logical scriptural consequences that are unacceptable. It is often said that errors in a position can best be seen when that position is taken to extremes. This is the case with preterism. When only Matthew 24 is in view, a somewhat plausible case can be made, but when its logical consequences are multiplied out in the rest of the gospels, the epistles, and Revelation, the results are unacceptable.

In Part II of this column, I will begin to outline the specific scriptural problems with the preterist position as taken from the examples in Sproul's book.


Footnotes

[1] The Last Days According to Jesus, by R. C. Sproul, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000, p. 44

[2] In his book, R. C. Sproul compiles these references on p. 139.

[3] Ibid., p. 34.

[4] Ibid., p. 36.

[5] Ibid., p. 36.

[6] Ibid., pp. 38-40

[7] Ibid. p. 125

[8] Ibid., p. 125


Part II

By H. L. Nigro

In my last column, I discussed the basis for the preterist view of end-times events, or the view that the end-times prophecies given to us by Jesus in Matthew 24 were fulfilled by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. According to this position, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the signs in the heavens, the rapture of the Church, and the Second Coming of Christ have already occurred.

In Part I, I gave my basic take on this position, which is that it is well meaning but fatally flawed. Although it attempts to take the scriptures literally and in their normative sense — so literally that time indicators like “soon” and “quickly” are interpreted as requiring this prophecy to be fulfilled in the first century — I believe the fulfillment required by the preterist view is imperfect, and in many cases, irreconcilably different from what is recorded in scripture. Furthermore, it results in larger scriptural consequences that are unacceptable. However, I left the critique of the individual points for another time.

In this column, I will begin to outline the major problems with the preterist view, point by point. Part III will conclude this discussion with the last set of points and my final analysis.

What About Daniel's 70th Week?

Unlike preterists, who teach that all of the events described by Jesus in Matthew 24 have been fulfilled, I believe that Matthew 24 is a prophecy, not for the end of the “Jewish age,” as preterists believe, but for the end of the world, to be fulfilled at a future time.

One of the main evidences for this future fulfillment is that these events take place within a time frame called “Daniel's 70th Week. We know from Daniel 9:24 that God has determined 70 weeks “to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.” The term “weeks,” or shabuwa, means seven years. So the 70 “weeks” refers to a time period made up of 70 seven-year periods, or 490 years.

This 70 weeks, or 490 years, is broken up into two separate periods: the first 69 weeks, which ends with the crucifixion of Christ (Dan. 9:24), and the final 70th Week, which will begin when the Antichrist signs a seven-year treaty with Israel (Dan. 9:27). In the middle of the 70th week, scripture tells us that the Antichrist will break his treaty, declare himself to be God — or in place of God — and defile the Jewish temple in an event Daniel calls “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31).

Among premillennialists, the view is taken that the 70th Week is yet future, and that the time period between the 69th Week and the 70th Week is what is called a parenthesis containing the Church Age. In this view, the temple that is defiled by the Antichrist (the abomination of desolation) is not the first century temple, but a temple that is yet to be rebuilt (plans for this rebuilding, incidentally, are in progress.) When God's purposes for the Church have been fulfilled, God will once again turn His attention back to Israel. The Church Age will conclude and the 70th Week will begin.

One of the scriptural indicators for this view is Daniel 11:42. Eleven verses earlier, Daniel describes the abomination of desolation, when an unnamed, apostate ruler brings an end to sacrifices in the temple and breaks his covenant with the people of Israel. Up to this point, the passage has been describing the future actions of Antiochus Epiphanes, an ancient Greek conqueror who lived several centuries before the birth of Christ. In a selfish rage, Antiochus Epiphanes defiled the sanctuary in Jerusalem in the second century (various Bible translations give dates ranging from 175 to 168 B.C.) by slaughtering a pig on the altar. Then, he capped off this heinous act by murdered many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In verse 42, however, the perspective of this prophecy suddenly switches to the end times. We know this because Daniel writes, “At the time of the end, the king of the South shall attack him...” This tells us that the acts of Antiochus are a foreshadowing of a future ruler who will arise at the time of the end. This end-times ruler, which we know as the Antichrist, will commit a similar, but even greater, atrocity. Other evidence for this reading comes from the fact that the remaining details of the 70th Week prophecy have not yet been fulfilled.

Not everyone agrees with this view. There are many who believe that the 70th Week immediately followed the other 69 weeks and therefore has long been concluded. The problem with this view is that Jesus Himself placed the Matthew 24 events squarely within the Daniel's 70th Week when He warned, “And when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains...” (Matt. 24:15-16).

Daniel's 70 Weeks prophecy is never mentioned in Sproul's book. Whether preterists in general do not address the 70th Week or whether it was not Sproul's purpose to address the 70th Week in his analysis, I do not know. However, the lack of mention of this is loud.

The Loud Absence

The issue regarding Daniel's 70th Week, in my mind, is a fundamental flaw in the preterist position. If the 69th Week and the 70th Week follow one another, which they must do in the preterist view, then the 70th Week must have occurred in A.D. 40. This would have been 30 years too early for the destruction of Jerusalem. Furthermore, it would not have fulfilled the purpose of the 70th week: to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Has the transgression been finished? Has an end of sins been made? Has there been reconciliation for iniquity? Has everlasting righteousness arrived? Is Jesus reigning on the throne of Jerusalem? Absolutely not.

Then there is the issue of the fulfillment of Revelation, which also describes the events that will occur during Daniel's 70th Week. If Matthew 24 was fulfilled in the first century, then so has Revelation. Has there been a worldwide famine and pestilence that killed one-quarter of the earth's inhabitants? Have there been locusts swarming from the bottomless pit? A third of the trees been burned up? And all of the green grass? Has a “burning mountain” fallen from the sky, turning one-third of the seas to blood? Have we seen the Battle of Armageddon?

The only way to argue that the 70th Week prophecy has been fulfilled is to spiritualize all of these elements. Preterists see the reigning kingdom of God as being fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ, the New Covenant, and the “kingdom of God” as it now exists in the Church and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the bodies of believers. They see the God's fiery judgment in Revelation as allegorical for general plagues and pestilence that occurred in the first century.

However, preterism's own beliefs argue against this interpretation. Preterism presents itself as a historical position, the evidence for which is argued from the tangible results of history. Furthermore, one of preterism's strongest arguments is its claim to be the most natural reading of the text. To have to fall back on spiritualization on these points is both inconsistent with its own position and highly unconvincing.

The Abomination of Desolation

Then there is the question of the abomination of desolation, which Jesus says will occur — and preterists believe has occurred — in the middle of the 70th Week. We have no record of such an event transpiring in the first century. As I discussed in Part I, the closest we can get is the presence of the idolatrous images of eagles on the standards of the Roman soldiers in the courtyard of the temple.

In spite of the preterists' strong belief that the scriptures should be taken in their most common sense meanings, nineteen century preterist scholar J. Stuart Russell has this to say on the subject: “Whether the abominable sacrilege refers to actual idolatry, or to the entrance of Roman imperial eagle standard into the temple area, is immaterial. It was common practice then and for long centuries before, to assert sovereignty over a nation by dethroning its gods and replacing them by those of the conqueror.” [1]

Unfortunately for J. Stuart Russell, history tells us that this dethroning did not take place. And, in spite of Russell's insistence that whether or not the prophecy was fulfilled precisely is “immaterial,” I strongly disagree. I believe that it is material whether or not a prophecy given by Jesus was fulfilled precisely or not.

The Great Tribulation

In Matt. 24:21, Jesus said that the time of the end will include great tribulation “such as the world has never seen, nor ever would be.” Can we really say that this was fulfilled in the first century? Certainly, the Holocaust was much worse than the first century persecution. Preterists answer this by arguing that the phrase “the world” actually means “the Jewish world,” or “the Jewish age.”

If phrase “the world” is to be read this way, then the preterist argument would make sense. However, using this position's own argument for the plain reading of the scriptures, use of “the world” to refer to the Jewish age — which it teaches was replaced by the Church Age at Pentecost — simply defies this natural reading. The only reason to read it this way is that, otherwise, the preterist argument would go down in flames. The argument is so weak, in fact, that if Rome had not destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, no one would be calling for it. If this twisting of scripture is a necessary casualty to make the rest of the preterist argument fit, the price of this casualty is too high.

Preterists try to bolster their argument by pointing to Jesus' use of the terms “tribes” and “land,” which would have been interpreted by first century Jews as making this prophecy exclusive to the land of Israel. They believe that this, combined with time references such as “this generation,” create compelling evidence that this passage should be read as exclusive to the Jews and the land of Israel in the first century.

It is true that the people listening to Jesus' prophecy may, in fact, have believed that this prophecy applied to them, but this is not justification for making `the world” into “the Jewish age” and for changing it from a geographical reference into a conceptual reference. Jesus said that the tribulation would be “such as the world has never seen, nor will again.” In no way should this been seen as a conceptual period of time rather than a straightforward geographical reference.

But what of the fact that most first century Jews thought that Jesus was teaching that He would return in their lifetimes? Again, this may be so, but I am thankful that the common understanding of the time is not always the standard by which scripture is judged. When Jesus used the terms “tribes” and “land,” Israel was gathered into one place — into the land of promise. Could these first century Jews have imagined the great dispersion? Today, despite the Zionist movement, Jews live in every corner of the world. It is no wonder that scripture tells us that, in relation to end times prophecy, the earlier generations are limited in their understanding (Dan. 12:4,9). How limited is our human perspective!

The history of God's promises is often that the fulfillment is delayed beyond the expectation of the hearers. It is for exactly this reason that, by divine inspiration, Peter wrote, “But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8).

The context of both 1 and 2 Peter is time of the end and the Second Coming of Christ as described by Jesus in Matthew 24. Peter wrote this passage in response to skeptics who were saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (v. 4). Although Peter was among those who listened to Jesus give this prophecy, even at this early date, he had become aware of the dangers of holding it to our human timetables. To require the Matthew 24 prophecy to be confined to the first century, I believe, is to ignore the limitations of human perspective — and Peter's warning.

The Gospel Preached to All Nations

Jesus said the gospel would be preached to all the nations and then the end would come. Preterists try to make the case that this prophecy has been fulfilled based on verses like Col. 1:23: “...if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven [italics mine], of which I, Paul, became minister.”

This would be the literal reading of this passage, but we know that there is danger in holding passages to a strict literalism in all cases. For example, when Jesus said that He was “the door,” we know that He is not literally a framed door way with swinging hinges. And when He said, “It is not what goes into a man that defiles a man, but what comes out of a man,” He was not speaking of food, but of spiritual things, such as thoughts and the intents of the heart. Here, in this passage, we must again be careful about holding to a reading that is more literal than it was intended.

This passage, which states that the gospel was preached “to every creature under heaven,” cannot be taken in its strictly literal sense because history tells us that the gospel had not reached places like North America or China. It had reached the known world, or the Roman Empire, but this is not the same thing as the gospel being preached to all nations. We see the same hyperbolic language in Daniel 2:39, in which the Greek Empire is prophesied to "rule over all the earth." We know from history that the Greek Empire was, in fact, the dominant world power during the third century, but its boundaries reached only to the edges of the Mediterranean.

This language, throughout "all the world" or "the whole earth" is used frequently in the scriptures, but is limited to the perspective of the writer. The exception, of course, is Christ, whose perspective is omnicient. The Nelson Study Bible has this to say on Col. 1:23: “Paul uses this exaggeration to illustrate the rapid spread of the gospel. Compare Acts 17:6, where the apostles are said to have turned the world upside down, even though their ministry up to that point had been limited to a small portion of the eastern Mediterranean region.”

The Cosmic Signs

One of the most difficult Matthew 24 prophecies for preterists to justify as being fulfilled is the signs in the heavens. Preterists try to justify this interpretation by suggesting that this is apocalyptic imagery, or metaphorical language, used to create a sense of doom, judgment, and destruction — not that it necessarily represents literal events. This is a nice way of side-stepping the issue, but it doesn't work. The wording throughout Matthew 24 is anything but metaphorical. It is precise, and the details of the prophecies are concrete. Even the passage in question is written in very concrete language:

“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. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in ?heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:29-31).

Throughout the Matthew 24 prophecy, Jesus used natural language from beginning to end. And when we look at the content and the purpose of this prophecy, we see why. It was intended to provide practical advice to His audience. When you see the abomination of desolation, run for the hills! When they say, “Here is the Christ!” or “There is the Christ!” do not believe them...Be of good cheer — after the tribulation of those days, your deliverance will come. These were instructions to help believers get through the last and perilous days. Are we to believe that Jesus simply switched gears to metaphorical language at the last moment?

Sproul, himself, seems to have trouble with the preterist position on this as well, citing the word-for-word correlation between Matt. 24:30-31 and the concrete rapture verses in 1 Thess. 4:16-17 and 1 Cor. 15:52.

  • “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
  • “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52).

If these verses, which are nearly a word-for-word correlation with Matthew 24:30-31 (and are certainly tightly correlated in content) are to be taken literally and concretely, he argues, Matthew 24:30-31 must be taken literally and concretely, as well. I agree.

Furthermore, in Luke 21:28, Jesus said, “When these things begin to happen, look up, for your redemption draws near.” This admonition clearly indicates that these are specific prophecies that will be identifiable to the generation that sees their fulfillment. What good would it do to say, “Look up!” if the language were metaphorical?

Because of the concrete nature of this prophecy, Sproul has a difficult time believing the preterist argument that it has been fulfilled. Therefore, he leans toward “partial preterism,” or the position that sees the earlier parts of the Matthew 24 prophecy as having been fulfilled but not the latter portions, such as this. In my mind, however, the breach between partial preterism and complete preterism is terribly difficult to justify, since the signs in the heavens, which are accompanied by the Second Coming and the rapture, are linked inextricably to the great tribulation. Throughout this prophecy, Jesus linked the events to one another in rapid succession: “When you see...” “Then there shall be...” “Immediately after the tribulation of those days...” If the rapture is yet future, the great tribulation and all of its associated trappings must be future, too. In my view, either one must be a full preterist, accepting that Matthew 24 has been fulfilled completely, or one cannot be a preterist at all.

Evidence from Acts

Further evidence that Matthew 24 does not apocalyptic imagery but is a concrete description of actual events comes from Acts 1:9-11, where Luke writes, “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, `Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.'” The angel is telling us that, when Jesus returns, it will be a physical, bodily return visible to men on earth. It will not be the kind of invisible, spiritual return that preterists are trying to suggest.

And yet, this is exactly what preterists argue. For Matthew 24 to be completely fulfilled, they must believe that we are resurrected in spiritual bodies that cannot be seen by the human eye. Writes Russell, “Is a spiritual body one which can be seen, touched, handled? We are not certain that the eye can see the spiritual, or the hand grasp the immaterial.” [2]

Therefore, they say, there does not need to be physical confirmation of this fulfillment. I find it ironic that Russell uses the natural reading argument to justify his position, and yet regarding Acts 1:9-11, he says “the expression `in like manner' must not be pressed too far” (p. 46).

But we can, and should, press the issue. The similarity of Matt. 24:31 to 1 Thess. 4:16-17 and 1 Cor. 15:51-52 are of the utmost importance. Paul's writings create a vivid expectation of how this blessed event will occur. The Second Coming and the rapture, including the bodily resurrection, will be physical and material, visible to the entire world. This is a key element in God's end times plan. When the rapture occurs, cutting short the great tribulation, the earth will rip open, the dead will pop out of their graves, and living believers will join those who sleep in Jesus to rise to meet Jesus in the sky. As they do so, the world will watch, mouths agape, realizing that they have made a terrible mistake. When God's judgment falls, just like the days of Noah, they will not be in doubt as to why.

The insistence that the resurrection and rapture must be spiritual in order to maintain consistency with the preterist position reminds me of the arguments used by the pretribulation position. This position also teaches a spiritualized coming of Christ for His Church. It teaches that Christ will come spiritually and invisibly for the Church before the 70th Week, then visibly and bodily with His Church at the end of the 70th Week. It is a creation necessary to make the position work, but there is no credible evidence from scripture. In a similar vein, a spiritual resurrection of the dead and the spiritual rapture of the Church and the invisible Second Coming of Christ of the preterist position must be taken on faith.

Considering that the Second Coming is one of the most important promises in scripture, I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Lord would have this occur invisibly and that its fulfillment must be taken on faith by the millions of believers that live from the second century onward. It is ironic that preterists, which rely heavily on the “natural reading” of the text, find no difficulty accepting a spiritualized version of these events.

The Day of the Lord

Not only is the fulfillment of the Second Coming and the rapture of the Church difficult to accept on grounds of the context in which the verses arise, but it is also difficult to accept because of their correlation of the verses with one another. We have already seen that the precise descriptions of the Second Coming and the rapture in 1 Thess. 4:16-17, Matt. 30-31, and 1 Cor. 15:51-52 require them to be concrete descriptions of the same event.

We see the same correlation in the verses that detail the Day of the Lord, or the time period that will contain God's final judgment. Joel 2:31 tells us that the sun will turn dark, the moon into blood, and the stars will fall from the sky prior to the great and terrible day of the Lord. Matt. 24:29-31 tells us that the sun will turn dark, the moon into blood, and the stars will fall from the sky prior to the return of Christ and the rapture. 1 Thess. 4:16-5:2 tells us that the return of Christ and the rapture will usher in the Day of the Lord. Rev. 6:12-13 tell us that the sun will turn dark, the moon into blood, and the stars will fall from the sky immediately prior to the sudden appearance in heaven of “those who come out of the great tribulation” (the rapture), followed by the trumpet and bowl judgments that make up the Day of the Lord.

If this were apocalyptic imagery, we would not expect this perfect correlation to exist — not just in wording but in these verses' relation to each other and their placement in the order of end times events. All of the evidence points to the fact that the signs in Matthew 24 are precise, detailed descriptions of real, future events.

In Part III of this column, I will go through the final arguments against the preterist position and conclude with some final thoughts.


Footnotes

[1] Ibid., p. 40

[2] Ibid., p. 16


Part III

By H. L. Nigro

This is Part III in my discussion of preterism. In Part I, this discussion began with an explanation of the basic tenets of this eschatological position, which maintains that all end-times references in the New Testament (specifically the Matthew 24 prophecy) were fulfilled in A.D. 70, followed by my basic assessment of this view's biblical credibility. Part II discussed the problems associated with this view in detail, particularly the imperfect and incomplete fulfillment of the specific prophecies described by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse.

Beyond the problems in reconciling the specifics of the prophecy itself, however, preterism has additional implications that make it unacceptable. These problems revolve around the larger implications for the relevance of the scriptures in the lives of believers. These problems will be discussed here.

It is important to remember that, according to the preterist position, the Second Coming has occurred in A.D. 70. If this is, in fact, the case, then all of the judgments – of Israel, of Christians, and of the nations — have been fulfilled, as well. This means that all of the familiar parables: of the day and the hour, the faithful servant and the evil servant, the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the talents, the judgment of the nations, the testing of believers works by fire, are in the past. In some cases, such as 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and Revelation, the prophecies of entire books have been fulfilled and therefore have little or no practical consequences for believers' lives today.

This makes the New Testament a first century faith, not a living faith for believers of all ages, including today. And if these events are fulfilled, what is there left for us to look forward to? Where is our purifying hope? Will there be judgment beyond A.D. 70? Will there be rewards for the works of believers? Or were the judgments and rewards given in the first century? If there will be future judgment and rewards, where can they be found in scripture if preterism teaches that all of the end times prophecies have been fulfilled? How can the scriptures motivate us for today?

The more I study end times prophecy, the more amazed I become at how tightly the Second Coming of Christ and the Day of the Lord are woven throughout the fabric of the New Testament. Hardly a page goes by without an exhortation, warning, or promise based on this expectation. To suggest that all of the end-times prophecies have been fulfilled, would leave the scriptures in tattered shreds. And yet, Paul said that all scripture is useful for edification for all Christians (2 Tim. 3:16). How can both be true?

Here are the key books that would be left in shreds by the preterist view:

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Philippians
  • Ephesians
  • Hebrews
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • James
  • 1 John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

When Is the Final Judgment?

There is another inconsistency in the preterist view, as well. Like non-preterists, many preterists seem to expect a final day of judgment — indeed, a final day of history as we know it — but once we remove all of the relevant scriptures, where do we find it? If all of the eschatological events have been fulfilled, including the judgment of Israel, the rewards given to believers, and the judgment of the nations, what scriptures are left to point to this future day?

Repeatedly, preterists take issue with scholars of other positions who, they believe, are not using the natural reading of the text, stretching it beyond credulity. Let's apply the same test to preterism. Stepping back from the requirements to “prove” the preterist position, do we really believe that the emphasis that Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers placed on “the end of the world” have been fulfilled? I think of the reference to 1 Cor. 3:11-15: “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test each ones' work, of what sort it is.” Is the natural reading really that the judgment of all Christians occurred in A.D. 70? If so, what judgment awaits the rest of us? It simply has no satisfying meaning outside the end-times context.

As I discussed in Part II, one of the ways preterists get around this problem is by redefining “the end of the world” and “the last day” to mean the end of the Jewish age. However, this reminds me of the awkward definitions and re-analyses of the Greek given by pretribulationists. In each case, if they try hard enough, pretribulationist scholars can create a justification for interpreting certain verses in ways that support their position. But when they must do this over and over and over, the end result is a force-fit that belies the natural reading of the text. This is also the case with preterism. If one must force the interpretation of each individual end times passage into a Jewish age context, it does tremendous violence to the natural reading of the scriptures.

For example, one of the pillars on which preterism stands is the redefining of “the end of the age” and “the end” as “the end of the Jewish Age.” And yet, Jesus never defined “the end” this way. It is true that He used the word “tribes” [phulai], but just because all of the tribes will mourn does not make this an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. Preterist scholar J. Stuart Russell says, “The restricted sense of the word ge [land] in the New Testament is common; and when connected, as it is here, with the word “tribes” [phulai], its limitation to the land of Israel is obvious.”

I disagree. If Jesus has not yet come, and this prophecy has not yet been fulfilled, when Jesus comes in the future, all of the tribes will still mourn! This will be particularly poignant in the modern land of Israel, which is zealously Zionist but still in denial about her Messiah. Furthermore, the tribes of Israel could not have imagined the Great Dispersion; nor could they have envisioned the formation of the Church, which was to spread the gospel throughout all the world. When Christ comes, all the tribes of Israel will mourn, but so will the tribes all over the world, including those living in the United States, in Europe, in Russia, and Africa. And when Jesus comes — with the gospel having been spread to the four corners of the earth — the mourning will not be exclusive to them.

Although Russell uses terms like “undeniably” and “obvious,” his point is not obvious at all. The substitution of “the end of the age” for “the end of the Jewish age” is a human interpretation that, once adopted, impacts nearly every page of the rest of the New Testament. This ought to be a red flag for anyone concerned about the integrity of scripture. The argument for redefining “the end of the world” to read “the Jewish age” requires the substitution of one meaning for another, with enormous ripples for all aspects of doctrine and a believer's life.

Furthermore, this redefinition is not consistent even within the text at hand. Matthew 24 opens because the disciples ask, “When will these things happen and when is the end of the age?” In other words, when is the end of the age for us? Throughout Matthew 24, Jesus was not talking to Old Testament Jews. He was talking to believers. He was talking to His future disciples who, not too long hence, would become the foundation of the New Testament Church. These disciples asked, When is the end of the world...for us? They did not say for unbelieving Israel. They said for us. They may not have realized that there was a distinction, but Jesus surely did.

Misplaced Emphasis

To this, preterists would likely cry “foul!” They would suggest that there is no way the first century hearers of this prophecy would have imagined that the fulfillment of this prophecy would occur not just centuries, but millennia, in the future. Thus, they would say, this is simply not an acceptable reading.

I believe that preterists place too much emphasis on the perspective of first century hearers. How often has the fulfillment of a prophecy been farther removed than when the hearers expect? David was promised that his son would sit on the throne of Jerusalem forever. Does a son of David sit on the throne today? Did the Messiah come in the lifetimes of the Old Testament prophets who foretold Him? Even when the Messiah did come — hundreds of years later — did He come as the conquering King that Israel expected? No, He came as the suffering servant that caused so many Jews to reject Him and cry “Crucify Him!” before Pontius Pilot.

To suggest that a prophecy must be fulfilled within the lifetimes of the hearers, in the way that the hearers expect, simply because they expect it, is simply not reasonable.

The limits of the “first century hearers” argument become even more evident when we consider that God Himself has said that much of end times prophecy will be a mystery to all except those who witness its fulfillment (Dan. 12:4, 9). On page 36 of The Last Days According to Jesus, which form the basis for this analysis of preterism, Sproul asks a critical and relevant question for preterists. He writes, “If this prophecy [Matthew 24] includes the prediction of Jerusalem's destruction [italics mine], then the natural meaning of His words is that these things must take place before Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed.”

The flip side of this argument, however, is what if this prophecy does not include the prediction of Jerusalem's destruction? The word “if” requires there to be two possible answers, yet Sproul does not seem to consider this possibility. The disciples may have thought that the return of Christ and the end of the world would happen in their lifetimes, but they did not have perfect knowledge of the future. When they asked, “When will these things be fulfilled and when is the end of the age,” just because they may not have realized that there was a distinction between the destruction of the temple and the end of the age doesn't mean there wasn't one.

Enduring to the End

There is yet another question that must be asked regarding Matthew 24. If these prophecies are fulfilled, as preterists claim, what does Jesus mean by “he who endures to the end will be saved?” (Matt. 10:22, 24:13; Mark 13:13). The salvation in view here is clearly temporal — physical redemption out from the midst of the terrible suffering and persecution that will occur during the Great Tribulation.

If Matthew 24 was fulfilled in A.D. 70, what is the meaning of this promise? In the preterist view, the Second Coming of Christ and the rapture of the Church are spiritual and nonmaterial. Thus, if there is no physical salvation out of the Great Tribulation (by rapture), the promise that “he who endures to the end shall be saved” is no promise at all. Enduring to the end is its own salvation. If, by the grace of God, you weren't killed during this terrible time, congratulations — you made it.

Furthermore, the preterist view applies the judgment on Jerusalem as solely for rebellious Israel. If the Great Tribulation were only for the Jews, it does not make sense that Paul and Peter would repeatedly talk about this time period as relevant to the Church. Paul talks about watching for the Day of the Lord, preparing for the Day of the Lord, that our works will be declared on that Day. Peter talks about the intense period of testing that will precede the Coming of Christ and the Day of the Lord, that we should not be surprised by this fiery trial “as if some strange thing happened to you” (1 Peter 3:12). Often, the admonitions to holiness and obedience are framed in the context of this Day as the motivation for obedience.

This tribulation and testing is a critical part of Church doctrine that only makes sense in the context of purification for the Church in preparation for a future return of Christ. To suggest that we have already seen the fulfillment of verses like 1 Cor. 3:11-15, “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test each ones' work, of what sort it is,” as part of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, is truly a stretch.

Interpret the Unclear by the Clear

Preterists repeatedly mention the exegetical rule that one interprets the unclear passages by those that are clear. The only requirement for taking the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem as a complete fulfillment of Matthew 24 are the time frame references such as “at hand” and “this generation.” As I discussed earlier, “this generation” refers to those who see the fulfillment of the prophecy, not the hearers of it; and the term “at hand” is not the clear and unambiguous reference to the first century that many scholars would like it to be. Sproul mentions the “either/or” approach as a poor basis for a proof-text. And yet, this is what the argument about imminence has become. It starts with the premise that these references must be first century references. Therefore, A) either Jesus was lying or mistaken and His prophecies were not fulfilled; or B) Jesus was telling the truth and His prophecy did come true in the first century.

The flaw in this is the premise is in the belief that these time frame references must require first century fulfillment. Preterists do not seem to consider that these references might be otherwise. That first century hearers thought them to require a first century fulfillment is not a good enough argument. It must be backed up by scripture — clearly, consistently, and accurately — and it is not.

One of the arguments used by preterists is the reasonable and logical argument that, by all natural understanding, “at hand” and similar references require the prophecy to be fulfilled in a time period that would seem to the hearer to be “at hand.” I prefer to look at these references in God's time table, not my own. The Earth, at the least, is 10,000 years old (I believe it to be far older) and in this time frame, 2,000 years is at the very end of history. Perhaps not 11 o'clock, but 10 o'clock. If the earth is far older, in the billions of years, then it is but the blink of an eye. To suggest that “at hand” must mean within a few years, when taken in God's eternal perspective, is simply forcing the definition. Especially in light of the fact that Jesus' observation about “this generation” is grounded, not in the first century timetable, but in the fulfillment of the prophecy for which no timetable is given. Furthermore, it must be considered that “the end,” in the sense of bringing an end to iniquity and setting up the permanent reign of Christ, may extend further back than simply the fall of man to include the entire question of the conquest of evil, which goes back to the rebellion of Lucifer. Again, in this context, 2,000 years is truly “at hand.”

And yet, preterist scholars continue to require these terms to insist that this prophecy must have been fulfilled in A.D. 70, even though the scriptural and historic record tell us that it is not. If these nebulous terms push us toward an interpretation that is not in perfect agreement with the scriptures, would it not make more sense to interpret the nebulous terms in light of what is certain (that the scriptures have not yet been literally fulfilled) than the other way around? (The one time frame reference, Matt. 16:28, not discussed here will be discussed in a future column.)

Conclusion

I appreciate Sproul's scholarship, both in The Last Days and in his other works. However, I respectfully suggest that this book contains logical inconsistencies that do not do a justice to an accurate interpretation. Whether or not Sproul agrees with all of the points of the preterists is difficult to tell. In certain cases, it is clear that he is uncomfortable with some of the more “extreme” consequences of this position. I don't blame him. On one hand, preterists defend the clear, natural reading of the text; but in repeated cases, the “clear natural reading” is not clear or natural at all. On one hand, preterism requires the Word of God to be inerrant; on the other, it requires a sloppy fulfillment of very specific prophecies.

In a sense, preterism is admirable in that it attempts to answer the challenges of modern day scholarship to the authority of the scriptures. But being well meaning, in itself, is not enough. The impact of this “well-meaning” reminds me of the legacy of the pretrib movement, which came out of an attempt to take all of the scriptures literally after centuries of posttribulationism and amillennialism. Unfortunately, while its intentions were good, the movement's proof-texting wrenched the scriptures in an abominable fashion and created scriptural problems even deeper than the ones it was trying to correct. In my view, preterism has the same flaws. While trying to answer the challenges of modern scholarship, it plays loosely with prophetic fulfillment, removes the blessed and purifying hope, and has made the vast majority of the scriptures irrelevant to modern day believers.

Many believers, including Sproul himself, are disturbed by some of these issues and take what is called a “partial preterist” position. However, the break between full preterist and partial preterist is not convincing for me. It is like, I suppose, being “sort of pregnant.” I believe that either one sees the events of A.D. 70 as fulfilling the prophecies of Matthew 24 or one sees them as foreshadowing the complete fulfillment at the end of time. One cannot argue that some were completely fulfilled and others were not. Wording such as then and immediately after create the sense that this passage is a unified whole that can be understood only when taken in its entirety. The wording simply does not allow for partial fulfillment. Moreover, the events of Matthew 24 cannot be separated from the rest of the book (not to mention the rest of the New Testament), which place Christ's return with the judgments, not just on Israel, but on all of the world for its wickedness and rebellion. This clearly did not happen in A.D. 70.

After analyzing this position, I am once again, and continually, thankful that the scriptures don't have to be this confusing, inconsistent, or difficult. God has given us a much better way. What I find most appealing about the prewrath view is that it is perfectly consistent, from one end of the scripture to the other. There are no holes. There are no deep scriptural problems. There are no nagging questions or scriptural re-interpretations. It fits together like a puzzle, creating a perfect picture that is not only consistent, but explains God's purposes. It answers more questions than it creates. To me, this is something that only God's truth can do.

 

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Date: 10 Dec 2009
Time: 21:35:52

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Matthew 16:27-28

27. For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
28. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

Jesus is not saying here that He will physically return from heaven before some of them die! What he said is that his coming in his kingdom will be SEEN (not experienced) by some standing in front of him before they die.

Seeing Christ in his glorious coming can be through a vision of his coming like in the case of John in Patmos or the three apostles (Peter John and James) during the transfiguration of Christ which Peter described in his second epistle as "the power and COMING of our Lord Jesus Christ... [in his majesty]."

He said the number of those who would see his coming before they die as some. Some would mean two or more. That is Peter, John and James.

And who would say that Stephen, a disciple of Christ and contemporary of the apostles who saw Christ before he was stoned to death, was not one of the disciples described as "some standing here"?

Acts 7:56 (King James Version)

56. And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.


 

 

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