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In recent times, the view of preterism has been on the rise within evangelicalism although it is by no means a majority opinion. R.C. Sproul’s book, The Last Days According to Jesus (1998), popularizes a form of preterism in a well-written format that is appealing but at the same time theologically deficient. Sproul defines preterism in one chart in the book as a view in which “the Kingdom is a present reality.” This description is imprecise since many non-preterists hold to this belief. In the text of the book he more exactly describes preterism with the statement, “Preterists argue not only that the kingdom is a present reality, but also that in a real historical sense the parousia has already occurred.”
Sproul goes on to distinguish between two forms of preterism: radical preterism in which “all future prophecies in the NT have already been fulfilled” and moderate preterism in which “many future prophecies in the NT have already been fulfilled” but “some crucial prophecies have not yet been fulfilled.” Sproul rightly rejects radical preterism due to its inability to handle the final resurrection. He even devotes an extremely helpful chapter to the differences between the two kinds of preterism even raising the question of whether it is proper to label radical preterism as heresy. Others, including preterists, have certainly done so. In the end, radical preterism appears to deny the future bodily resurrection of believers and the actual visible and future Second Coming of Christ. There is no question that this teaching is outside the boundaries of orthodox and biblical Christianity. On these issues, radical preterism has more affinity with modern, classical liberalism than it does with genuine historical evangelicalism.
The more moderate preterism of Sproul, which sees many prophecies fulfilled with crucial ones remaining unfulfilled, leaves room for the future resurrection, judgment, and literal Second Coming. However, it does, in essence, teach that there are two Second Comings or two parousias. There is a kind of Second Coming of Christ that takes place as God judges the nation of Israel in 70 A.D. and then also the literal Second Coming that usually comes to mind. Commenting on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Sproul notes: “this event certainly spelled the end of a crucial redemptive-historical epoch. It must be viewed as the end of some age. It also represents a significant visitation of the Lord in judgment and a vitally important ‘Day of the Lord.’” In the end, his form of preterism sees Jesus as “coming” to judge Israel in 70 A.D. through the Roman armies. Much of the Bible’s description of “end time ” or “end of the age” events is taken to describe this particular historical “coming” and not the literal Second Coming of Christ, which in dispensational premillennial understanding follows the Church Age and the tribulation period.
What Motivates Sproul’s Preterism?
Oftentimes when genuine Christians disagree on interpretation, application, and ministry issues, both sides have a legitimate set of concerns. Oftentimes, however, one side or both sides propose a wrong solution to handle the set of concerns. This is true in the case of Sproul’s preterism. He lets the reader know that the main concern behind his preterist view is defending the credibility of the Bible. Sproul uses the example of the famous skeptic Bertrand Russell as a case in point: “One of Russell’s chief criticisms of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is that Jesus was wrong with respect to the timing of his future return. At issue for Russell is the time-frame reference of these prophecies. Russell charges that Jesus failed to return during the time frame he had predicted.”
Sproul also expresses his concern through a personal example from his own educational experience in the halls of academia.
My own academic training took place for the most part at institutions of higher learning that are not identified with conservative or evangelical Christianity. One of my chief professors in college was a doctoral student under Rudolf Bultmann. In seminary I was exposed daily to critical theories espoused by my professors regarding the Scripture. What stands out in my memory of those days is the heavy emphasis on biblical texts regarding the return of Christ, which were constantly cited as examples of errors in the New Testament and proof that the text had been edited to accommodate the crisis in the early church caused by the so-called parousia-delay of Jesus. In a word, much of the criticism leveled against the trustworthiness of Scripture was linked to questions regarding biblical eschatology.
In short, Sproul’s preterism is an apologetic designed to defend the Bible against the attacks of higher criticism. The higher critics point out that Jesus predicted a soon Second Coming within the first-century generation of His audience and that such a coming did not materialize. Thus, the Bible is blatantly in error from a historical perspective. Sproul’s response is his preterist position that such a Second Coming did occur if one understands the prophetic passages in question to refer to the special coming of Christ in judgment upon Jerusalem and Israel in 70 A.D. It is implicit that Sproul believes that a futurist position is unable to handle such attacks.
Furthermore, Sproul appears to believe that evangelicalism in general, which is currently dominated by futurism, does not grasp the seriousness of the situation:
It is my fear that evangelicals today tend to underplay the significance of the problems inherent in [Bertrand] Russell’s assumptions. Too often we take a facile approach to the problem that reveals our failure to feel the weight of such objections. This becomes particularly acute when we realize the extent to which these problems have contributed to the entire modern controversy over the inspiration of Scripture and the person and work of Christ.
There is every reason to take Sproul seriously about his stated concerns. To defend the Bible against higher criticism is certainly a noble and worthy effort. Sproul is to be respected on this score. However, it is not at all clear that preterism is the solution to the dilemma. In fact, it is one thesis of this paper that it causes more problems than it solves. At times it simply moves the problem (within the preterist system) from one set of passages to another. Proper exegesis and theological method will lead to a futurism that can effectively handle any charge that higher criticism has to offer. Thus, it remains to be seen how precisely Sproul’s arguments play out.
Evaluation of Sproul’s Presentation
Sproul states that the purpose of his book is to “evaluate moderate preterism and its view of eschatology.” In undertaking the task, Sproul does a good job of leading the reader into the issues of the debate in an apparently objective and detached way. He deals with the issues related to the debate about preterism primarily through the writings of the Congregationalist minister James Stuart Russell (1816-1895). Russell wrote a book entitled The Parousia, which was first published in 1878. An 1887 edition was reprinted in 1983. Although Sproul could be accused of appealing to an obscure figure, basing interaction on the issues around Russell’s presentation rather than his own has the effect of giving an irenic flavor to Last Days. Sproul does not follow Russell slavishly but disagrees with him at certain points. Yet the primary framework of Sproul’s presentation appears to be Russell’s own views. It is also true that Sproul interacts with preterist views that he disagrees with (the radical preterism discussed earlier) as well as with futurism. In the light of these factors, his book can be considered a positive presentation for discussing the issues.
Another positive evaluation that can be made of Sproul’s work is that he goes to the heart of the matter when he says that there are two key issues in the debate over preterism and which in fact are two accomplishments of sorts for preterism in our day: (1) the focus on the time-frame references of New Testament eschatology; (2) the highlighting of the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. in the plan of redemptive history. However, an examination of Sproul’s presentation shows the exact methodology and content of his preterism to be faulty.
Limited and Selective Use of the Old Testament
One of the most noticeable problems with Sproul’s presentation is the limited and selective use he makes of Old Testament texts. This fact is seen in the very definitions he chooses for the various forms of preterism that were discussed earlier. Preterism is defined in terms of New Testament prophecies being fulfilled or unfulfilled. Even at this basic definitional level the Old Testament seems to be an afterthought.
In addition, if one assumes that the index to Last Days is comprehensive, there are 276 entries for New Testament passages while there are only 29 for Old Testament passages. This kind of discrepancy fuels the often-voiced complaint of dispensational premillennialists that covenant theology (which most preterists would hold as the general framework for their theology) has forsaken the significance of the progress of revelation for Bible interpretation. This is especially crucial for the issue of preterism since there are a rather large number of passages about the tribulation period in the Old Testament. Most of Sproul’s comparisons of tribulation or day of the Lord passages are among New Testament passages, especially in the Gospels. Such comparisons are certainly necessary. However, resolving tensions in prophetic New Testament passages requires an understanding of any similar Old Testament prophecies that came before. Yet, Sproul does not spend much time in the Old Testament.
Such a lack of focus on the Old Testament by Sproul is also surprising on another score. He quotes John Calvin favorably concerning the expectations of the disciples about the all-important prediction by Christ in the Olivet Discourse concerning the destruction of the Temple: “But it must be observed that, having believed from their infancy that the temple would stand till the end of time, and having this opinion deeply rooted in their minds, they did not suppose that, while the building of the world stood, the temple could fall to ruins.” Sproul uses this to combine the timing of the answer to all of the questions the disciples asked at the beginning of Matthew 24 and parallel passages. He wants the timing of the destruction of the Temple to match the timing of “your coming” as the disciples worded it to Christ. Yet, is Calvin’s statement correct on the face of it? How does one know what the expectations of the disciples were unless the text tells us what they were? If the New Testament text itself does not tell us (and here it does not), where would we go to find out? It would seem that Old Testament backgrounds play a more pivotal role than Sproul allows in this particular discussion. Premillennial futurists have long suggested, consistent with their belief in the significance of the progress of revelation for Bible interpretation, that the premillennial faith is based largely upon Old Testament teaching and not just upon verses in the book of Revelation or Olivet Discourse. For this reason, futurists would fault Sproul for his apparent disinterest in the Old Testament text.
One example of the selective use of the Old Testament by Sproul may be instructive. He appeals to Amos 5:18-20 and its reference to the coming day of the Lord.
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it? (NKJV)
The context of Sproul’s discussion here leaves no question that he wants to associate this negative and pessimistic prophecy with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. He does point to other “elements of hope” found in Hosea, Isaiah, and Zephaniah, but his application appears to be individualistic and has little bearing upon the nation of Israel. The futurist wonders why Sproul did not appeal to elements of hope found in the text of Amos itself. In Amos 9:11-15 there are several predictions that have not yet been fulfilled which speak of Israel’s national future restoration. The breach in the Davidic kingdom will be healed (9:11) and ultimately it will be done so in a way that restores the nation to its land never to be removed again (9:15). In other words, the prophet who predicts the awful tribulation to come (note 8:1-9:10 as well as 5:18-20) also shows that there is a national restoration to come as well. This is the rule among the Old Testament prophets and not the exception. Consistently in the context of day of the Lord passages, both the judgment aspect of God’s dealing with Israel and the restoration aspect of the nation are discussed together. Randall Price, in a study of the “day of the Lord,” remarks:
Three elements are usually associated with this model “Day of the Lord”: 1) the judgment of national Israel; 2) the judgment of the Gentile nations; and 3) the restoration of national Israel. For this study, the first element is of primary importance, since this event is a time of punishment for Israel, although its positive purpose is ultimately Israel’s repentance and restoration. This negative focus may be seen in relation to the Day of the Lord in Amos 5:18-20 . . . However, in order to identify the scope of this eschatological event, all its elements must be considered [emphasis supplied].
In light of this inclusion of the positive national promise in the context of the pessimistic judgment passages, why does Sproul not make the connection between the two? Is he so focused on the negative aspect because of his desire to see the judgment side fulfilled in 70 A.D. and not in some future tribulation period? Certainly, if this negative day of the Lord is followed by a national restoration, then the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. cannot be in view in such Old Testament passages. It is much more likely that a future tribulation followed by a national restoration is in view. Such positive elements also raise the question of how day of the Lord descriptions are brought over into the New Testament. The burden of proof is on the preterist who wants to divorce the negative predictions from the positive ones to avoid the obvious problem that there was no national restoration of Israel in 70 A.D. Sproul’s overly selective use of Old Testament passages in this particular area causes the futurist to wonder if such selective use of the New Testament is also part of his theological method.
The End of the Jewish Age
One of the major arguments in Sproul’s presentation of preterism is that biblical teaching about the “end of the age” refers to the end of the Jewish age and not the end of the present age in which we live. In this way, the end-of-the-age passages are used to support the idea of past fulfillment in 70 A.D. when the Jewish age ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora. He comments: “Fundamental to preterism is the contention that the phrase “the end of the age” refers specifically to the end of the Jewish age and the beginning of the age of the Gentiles, or the church age.”
The Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Olivet Discourse
In making his presentation on this point, Sproul begins with Russell’s exposition of the Matthew thirteen “kingdom of heaven” parables. Crucial to the preterist viewpoint here is the fact that the word “world” (KJV) in the actual verses about judgment is actually the word “age” or “epoch” (aijwvn). Therefore, when the text says that “the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels; as therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world” (Matt. 13:39b-40), it is possible from the preterist viewpoint to see the “end of this world” as not referring to the end of the Church Age, but as the end of the Jewish Age with the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of a new (Church?) age. The imagery of fire and judgment would be the visitation of God upon the nation of Israel through the Roman armies led by Titus.
There are several flaws in this handling of the phrase “end of the age” in Matthew thirteen. No futurist will deny that the term “world” or “age” refers to an epoch. However, which age or epoch is in view? Several factors in a holistic reading of Matthew lead to the conclusion that “the end of the age” refers to the end of the Church Age with the added future tribulation period of seven years (i.e., the time of the Second Coming) and not to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
First, Sproul’s preterist interpretation of “end of the age” is inconsistent with the use of the term in the overall flow of biblical theology in Matthew. In Matthew, the phrase “end of the age” occurs five times: three in Matthew thirteen (13:39, 40, 49), in the opening questions of the disciples in the Olivet Discourse (24:3), and in the Great Commission (28:19-20). While the preterist can vaguely tie 24:3 in with his interpretation of Matthew thirteen, it is much more difficult to harmonize it with 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age [emphasis supplied].” If the preterist were consistent, he would be forced to say that the promise of protection and the command of the Great Commission only stand true until 70 A.D. Preterism could certainly fit this limitation into the scheme of Acts, which was completed before 70 A.D. But all of the epistles are written during the history of Acts, and from a preterist viewpoint, even the book of Revelation predates the destruction of Jerusalem. On what biblical theological grounds, then, would outreach, evangelism, and training be based? The preterist seems to be left with only “application” and no direct teaching on the matter. However, as far as this reviewer is aware, preterists are not known for this particular approach to the Great Commission.
It is much more plausible, taken at face value, that “the end of the age” refers to the end of the age we Christians now live in (counting also the tribulation to follow). Several textual indicators lead to this conclusion. One must begin by asking, “Is the parable of the sower in Matthew thirteen a discussion of the sowing that takes place only until 70 A.D.?” The timing of the sowing that takes place is the same as the timing of the growing of the wheat and tares in the second parable of the chapter. The overall flow of the book of Matthew would indicate that chapter thirteen marks a turning point. In chapter twelve, there is the highlighting of significant opposition to the kingdom message of Christ on the part of the Jewish leaders. Jesus’ parables in chapter thirteen accent the fact that something new is going to take place that the Jewish leaders were not expecting, namely, that there would now be a time when kingdom citizens would be raised or produced (i.e., the Gentiles) that they were not expecting to be in the kingdom. This is the mystery spoken of in the passage. Yet the calling out of kingdom citizens, whether in the parable of the sower or in the parable of the wheat and tares, continues until the end of the age. The development of Jesus’ turn to the Gentiles that begins in Matthew thirteen (recall that in Matthew ten the disciples were only sent to the house of Israel) continues with his anticipation of the Church or ecclesia (Matt. 16:18). It would seem then that the most comprehensive approach to the text is to view the term “end of the age” in Matthew 13:39-40 as a reference to the end of the future tribulation period and not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In other words, the end of the age is better seen as the end of the Gentile mission and not the beginning of it as preterists would hold.
Second, Sproul’s preterist interpretation cannot properly handle the phrase “end of the age” as it occurs in Matthew 24:3. The above conclusion from Matthean biblical theology is reinforced when one examines the details surrounding the phrase “end of the age” as it is used in Matthew 24:3 when the disciples asked Jesus “what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” Contextually, the timing of the end of the age is easy to determine. The end of the age culminates with the actual Second Coming of Christ as described in verses 29-31:
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
It is clear that all the tribes of the earth did not mourn in 70 A.D. There was no appearing of Jesus “in the sky.” There were no clear cosmic signs fitting this description at that time. Furthermore, the language of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” references the description of Daniel 7:13-14. There the Son of Man receives the everlasting kingdom from the Ancient of Days (in context, a literal, earthly and concrete kingdom). Yet the description of the timing of this event in Daniel appears to be the destruction of the little horn coming out of the fourth empire (Dan. 7:7-11) who is described in the same terms as the willful king of Daniel 11:36. The actions of this willful king continue until his destruction at a time that also leads to a literal resurrection from the dead (Dan. 12:2) and the rescue of the Jewish people (Dan. 12:1). These events do not harmonize at all with a preterist interpretation, which focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem (not a rescue) and must be taken in a non-literal way to fit into that particular scheme. It is far better to accept the expression “end of the age” as coinciding with the literal, future Second Coming of Christ.
Third, Sproul’s interpretation of the phrase “end of the age” does not take into account Jesus’ teaching on rewards, which is given in the context. This is true for occurrences of the expression in both Matthew 13:39-40 and 24:3. In Matthew 13:41-43, the end of the age is described as a time when “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43). This language is consistent with the imagery of Daniel 12:3 which asserts “and those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.” It is clear, as we have seen, that the context of this Daniel passage is the final resurrection and restoration of the nation of Israel (12:1-2). Thus, the imagery of the righteous ones shining as a reward as it is cited in Matthew 13:43 is better understood as taking place at the future post-tribulational Second Coming and not in 70 A.D.
A similar conclusion can be drawn about Matthew 24:3. As part of the answer Jesus gives to the question about “the end of the age,” we find these words: “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions” (Matt. 24:45-47; NASB). Do such words speak of temporal rewards or do they better fit the time of the Second Coming. Several factors point to the latter. There is the reference to the Second Coming in the preceding context, which we have already reviewed (Matt. 24:29-31). There is the following context, which speaks of a judgment scene with rather serious words such as eternal life and eternal fire (Matt. 25:41-46). Taken as a composite, all of these elements seem to fit a Second Coming setting more than a 70 A.D. temporal destruction of Jerusalem.
I Corinthians 10:11 and the Ends of the Ages
Sproul, following Russell closely, notes that one of the most crucial passages to suggest the nearness of the last days to the apostles is 1 Corinthians 10:11, which says “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” Concerning this verse in context Sproul comments “Here is mentioned ‘the ends of the ages’ that have come upon the Jews. This text supports the thesis that “the end of the age” means “the end of the Jewish age.” The context of the cited passage is the rehearsing of the sins of the Israelites, which should serve and were meant to serve as a warning to the Corinthians (v. 1-10). Does the summary of verse eleven so readily suggest the end of the Jewish Age as Sproul suggests?
While there is a large body of diverse literature on this one verse and phrase, there are some things in Sproul’s interpretation that need to be checked. First, he says rather casually that the ends of the ages have come upon the Jews. The text does not clearly say this. The antecedent of “whom” (ou[~) is usually taken to be the Corinthians by way of “our” (hJmw`n) in the phrase “our admonition.” While it is possible that the antecedent is “them” (ejkeivnoi"), i.e., the Israelites, mentioned earlier in the verse, the burden of proof is on Sproul to show why Paul’s antecedent would not be the nearest possibility in the text. There would need to be something in the context to make it plain. The only factor driving Sproul’s conclusion here may be a prior theological commitment. This possibility is reinforced by Sproul’s casual presentation of the passage without comment on the other more likely exegetical possibilities. Consequently, the idea that the end of the ages has come upon the Corinthians does not fit so nicely into a discussion of the end of the Jewish Age in 70 A.D.
Second, Sproul quotes Russell approvingly without comment on a couple of other points where opposing viewpoints are not even discussed. The entire citation (minus some Greek text) is provided here for the sake of completeness.
The phrase “the end of the ages”. . . is equivalent to “the end of the age” . . . and “the end” [to telos]. They all refer to the same period, viz. the close of the Jewish age, or dispensation, which was now at hand . . . .It is sometimes said that the whole period between the incarnation and the end of the world is regarded in the New Testament as “the end of the age.” But this bears a manifest incongruity in its very front. How could the end of a period be a long protracted duration? Especially how could it be longer than the period of which it is the end? More time has already elapsed since the incarnation than from the giving of the law to the first coming of Christ: so that, on this hypothesis, the end of the age is a great deal longer than the age itself.
The lack of precision is evident in Russell’s statement. For example, he does not even seem to notice the plural “ends” and ‘ages” in “ends of the ages” in his translation. Robertson and Plummer comment as follows:
‘The ages’ are “the successive periods in the history of humanity, and perhaps also the parallel periods for different nations and parts of the world” . . . In what sense have the ends of these ages reached us as their destination? ‘The ends” of them implies that each one of them is completed and summed up; and the sum-total has come down to us for whom it was intended. That would seem to mean that we reap the benefit of the experience of all these completed ages. Such an interpretation comes as a fit conclusion to a passage in which the Corinthians are exhorted to take the experiences of the Israelites as lessons for themselves.
While it is not at all clear that Robertson and Plummer are correct in their own interpretation, their observation of the plural forms points out that the interpretation of the passage is not as simple as Russell (and Sproul) would have the reader believe. In fact, most commentators mention the fact that the phrase “ends of the ages” is an obscure one in this context. Sproul’s handling of it makes the naïve reader think 1 Corinthians 10:11 is as clear as John 3:16.
A second way in which Russell’s comment above shows imprecision is his appeal to telos (end) as a point-in-time termination. The word itself can be used in such a way, although it often carries with it a different nuance. Fee argues that “whichever option one takes, almost all agree that Paul’s point is that he and the Corinthians belong to the period that marks the end of the ages (translated ‘fulfillment’ in the NIV [cp. NEB]) as a way of expressing the nuance ‘goal.’” Many theologies argue for the present reality of the eschatological kingdom during the church age under an already/not yet scheme. Others, such as traditional dispensationalists, would see the present age as the terminal age, that is, the particular dispensation that wraps up human history before the establishment of the messianic kingdom. In general, one could argue from the context that the Corinthians were already in the era that is under consideration. Paul was asking them to correct present behavior based upon past historical examples, not based upon what was about to happen (i.e., destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D). In the end, there is an uncomfortable lack of precision in Sproul’s reliance upon Russell’s terse comments in dealing with what he calls one of the “crucial passages” about the nearness of the last days to the apostles.
The Start of the Church Age
One can also sense a lack of precision in another matter as he reads through Last Days. Recall that earlier it was seen that Sproul takes the term “end of the age” as marking off not just the end of the Jewish age, but also the beginning of the age of the Gentiles or Church Age. Now here we must assume that Sproul, as a Reformed theologian is talking at a different level than most covenanters do when they talk about the start of the Church. Most covenant theologians believe in one people of God soteriologically and programmatically. For them, the Church started with either Adam or Abraham. The Church of the New Testament, the “new Israel” is either a replacement or continuation of national Israel as the people and program of God. However, granting that Sproul is talking about the start of the Church in a “new or different sense” consistent with his overall Reformed theology that has its absolute start earlier, one still must ask the question: “Does the New Testament really teach the start of the Church in 70 A.D. in any sense?” The answer to that question is an unqualified “No!”
Certainly the Gentile mission begins before 70 A.D. It appears to be going full steam under Paul’s leadership for more than two full decades before that time. Theologically, it is a relatively easy task to show also that Pauline theology teaches that the Church, which is the body of Christ, is defined in terms of the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). But when did the baptism of the Spirit begin? In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist says it starts in the future. Jesus in Acts 1:5 said it was future “not many days from now.” In Matthew 16:18 the Church is future. The reasonable conclusion is that Acts chapter two is the beginning of the baptism of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church, which is His body. Peter later confirms this when he looks back to the time of Acts chapter two and hails it as a “beginning” of the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 11:15-16). The Bible clearly teaches then that the Church along with the baptism of the Spirit begins on the Day of Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus. It says nothing at all about the Church or Church Age starting at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
What “Generation” Will Witness the End?
Perhaps the most frequently discussed text in debates between preterists and futurists is found in the Olivet Discourse. There Jesus tells his audience in the context of the parable of the fig tree, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34). Sproul argues, as do most preterists, that the term “this generation” has to refer to the contemporary audience of Jesus. Thus, within the lifetime of most of them, the events described in the Olivet Discourse must be fulfilled. The most likely time related to that would be the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. in light of the mention of the destruction of the Temple by Jesus at the beginning of the discourse (v. 1-3). It would not mean, according to the preterist, some future generation of Jews in a coming tribulation period. Sproul asks what meaning would the statements have for the original audience, if this were the case?
Such arguments, on the surface at least, sound plausible. Other passages in Matthew that use the words “this generation” or the word “generation” seem to speak to the contemporary generation of Jesus’ time (Matt. 11:16, 12:39, 41, 42, 45). The use of the word “generation” in the other Gospel accounts also seems to support this conclusion (e.g., Luke 11:50, 51; 17:25; Mark 8:38). However, the strongest passage in Sproul’s favor (in a initial reading) is one verse near the end of the preceding section to the Olivet Discourse. As Jesus wraps up his denunciation of the Pharisees, he says, “All these things shall come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36). In the context, “all these things” refers to the judgment upon the nation of Israel due to their past and continuing sins, especially their mistreatment of the prophets (v. 29-35, cp. also v. 38: “your house is left unto you desolate”). Thus, for the futurist to change to a different future generation later in Matthew 24:34 seems to be incongruous.
What can be said from the futurist vantage point in response to these arguments? The futurist would point out that a study of the details of the text will unravel the surface reading of the preterists. First, it must be pointed out that the word “generation” is not a technical term. Neither is the expression “this generation.” The context must help to determine its meaning and implication in any given text. Second, there is a clear shift to a future generation that is given by Christ Himself in Matthew 23:39. Here Jesus points to the future hope of Israel and the receiving of the Messiah by the nation. Surely, this optimism cannot fit into the preterist scheme that sees the events being described as the coming of Christ in judgment. Rather, it is much more straightforward to recognize the textually-based transition to ultimate deliverance in Matthew 23:39 and interpret the following section, Matthew 24:1ff as a description of the events leading up to that deliverance. Seen in this light, the futurist is not abandoning literal hermeneutics to suggest “this generation” in Matt. 24:34 can refer historically to a future generation that sees the future tribulation leading to the Second Coming of the Messiah. The local context governs the time-reference to the text and not any alleged global reference elsewhere. This conclusion is bolstered when one notes that there is no repentance and joy for Israel associated with the historical destruction in 70 A.D.
The generation (genea) of people living in that future day will see the completion of all the events. Jesus was not referring to the generation listening to Him then, for He had already said the kingdom had been taken from that group (21:43). That first-century generation would experience God’s judgment. But the generation that will be living at the time these signs begin to take place will live through that period and will see the Lord Jesus coming as the King of glory (emphasis original).
Third, the reference to “this generation” in Matthew 23:36 is tied to prior generations. In Matthew 23:35, Jesus portrays the scribes and Pharisees, i.e., the current generation, as the ones who killed the righteous from Abel to Zechariah (v. 35). In what way did the contemporary generation of Jesus’ day do these awful deeds? The idea is that the current generation is simply representative of how mankind in general, and the nation of Israel in particular, had mistreated the prophets and the righteous. In light of the use of “this generation” in Matthew 23:36 to represent other generations from the past, the futurist asks why the apostles, who were Jesus’ audience in the following Olivet Discourse, cannot be representative of a repentant future generation in Matthew 24:34.
Finally, it must be pointed out that Jesus’ statement to His contemporary disciples using “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 to refer to a future generation is one way of expressing an open-ended timetable. If some event could happen in Jesus’ contemporary generation but might not and it could happen in a later generation at some point instead, one way to express that would be to speak to the present audience as representative of any possible generation. This way of talking would certainly not be foreign to the Jewish mindset since Old Testament prophecies contain numerous examples of near and far elements mixed within the same prophetic train of thought (e.g., see Joel and Daniel) and they contain gaps or interludes within their fulfillment. One of the concerns that futurists have about preterists is their lack of flexibility in predictive texts, especially the so-called “nearness” texts that are open-ended with respect to time. Perhaps their approach flows from a deficiency in understanding the way Old Testament prophecies are presented as a background to how New Testament prophecies are expressed.
The Book of Revelation
Perhaps the most important issue in Sproul’s handling of the book of Revelation is its date. Sproul, following Gentry, argues for a date of the book of Revelation in the decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Much discussion on this issue has been generated by the preterists because it is potentially the weakest link in their entire theological edifice. If they are wrong on this one point, their entire system collapses. That is not true of futurist interpretations of the book of Revelation. It is conceivable to have a pre-70 A.D. date for the book of Revelation and still interpret chapters 4-22 as referring to future events.
On the other hand, if the book of Revelation was written in the 90’s during the reign of Domitian, the traditional date for the book, which is held by the vast majority of conservative scholars, then the events describing a future tribulation culminating in the coming of Christ (chapters 6-19) cannot predict in any way the earlier destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Thus, the preterist, even if he has handled other passages plausibly, would be left with this major stumbling block for his position. The problem is actually worse than that. The preterist would have two major complications, which transcend the book of Revelation itself. First, due to the correlation of the Olivet Discourse (especially Matthew 24:4ff) with the seal judgments in Revelation 6:1-17, the words of Christ to the disciples in that discourse could not be assigned to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Second, the preterist could not use the fulfillment of 70 A.D. to handle the so-called “nearness” texts scattered throughout the book of Revelation (1:1, 3, 19; 2:16; 3:10, 11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20). He would be left without any historical events in the post-70 A.D. era, which could be used as the fulfillment of the predictions in the book. Even if he could, the preterist would still lose the vitality of his interpretation of Jesus’ reference to “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 since the time frame would move beyond a standard generation. Furthermore, his appeal to other “nearness” texts in the Gospels would be in jeopardy for the same reason. Thus, in the final analysis, the preterist superstructure would begin to unravel if there is a late date for the book of Revelation. So the futurist wonders why anyone would hold dogmatically to a view that requires an early date to a difficult book written by the last living Apostle who was known to have lived into the 90s.
The technical arguments about the date of the book of Revelation will not be dealt with in this article due to space limitations. However, one interesting corollary to the date question is Sproul’s appeal to the presence of the Temple. It is his conviction that the fact that the Temple exists in the text of the book of Revelation requires a pre-70 A.D. date for the book. He writes:
If the Book of Revelation was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, it seems strange that John would be silent about these cataclysmic events. Granted this is an argument from silence, but the silence is deafening. Not only does Revelation not mention the temple’s destruction as a past event, it frequently refers to the temple as still standing. This is seen clearly in Revelation 11.
Apart from Sproul’s recognition of his argument from silence that prefaces his comment, his argument is a kind of begging the question. There is no problem for a futurist here. If indeed Revelation 6-19 refers to the events of a future tribulation period, there is only a problem if no temple exists at the time those events take place. Most futurists would believe Revelation 11:1-2 refers to a future tribulation temple. Why would this be a problem? Ezekiel gave a vision of a (future) temple at a time when no temple existed during the Babylonian captivity (Ez. 40-44). Why is not the same privilege allowed to the Apostle John? Only if one assumes there were no ongoing future for Israel and no prospective purpose in having a new and different temple can such a criticism have validity. But the supposition that gives force to Sproul’s argument is the assumption of a preterist outlook from the beginning.
Other Hermeneutical Considerations
Throughout the discussions in the preceding parts of this paper, the hermeneutical disagreements between Sproul’s preterism and premillennialism’s futurism have mostly been implicit. In this brief section, a couple of basic hermeneutical and methodological distinctions will be explicitly analyzed. First and by far the most obvious hermeneutical issue is that of literal hermeneutics versus spiritualization of the text. Sproul is aware of the issues in this debate. He applauds Luther’s demand for a literal sense of the text, a sense that Sproul takes as a literary sense. By this he means that one “should interpret the Bible according to the manner in which it was written.” In this way subjectivity would be kept to a minimum. However, Sproul adds that this approach is basically the recognition of the particular genres of the Bible. Narrative is to be read as narrative, poetry as poetry, apocalyptic as apocalyptic. There is a measure of truth to this when one understands that there is a reading of the text using the grammatical-historical approach (i.e., literal hermeneutics) that leads to genre discovery. Genre is primarily a classification and not a regulation of the text.
The real problem, however, lies in the way that Sproul uses the genre of apocalyptic to undermine a straightforward reading of the text. He acknowledges that the “graphic imagery of the events accompanying the parousia function as the chief reason many, if not most, commentators view this segment of the [Olivet] discourse as being not yet fulfilled.” He further comments “Russell and Calvin agree that the language employed in biblical prophecy is not always cold and logical as is common in the Western world, but adopts a kind of fervor common to the East.” This statement presumably sets up a discussion of allowing things in the text to be taken in a non-literal way. Sproule gets to this point when he discusses the interpretation of the Olivet Discourse:
Part of the confusion concerning biblical interpretation stems from contemporary usage of the term literal. Literal today usually refers, not to the technical sense in which Luther used it, but to the interpretation of poetic images and the like as straight-forward didactic or indicative language. To take every text “literally” in this sense in not to interpret it according to the genre in which it is written, but to interpret it in a plainindicative sense. When the Olivet Discourse is subjected to such a wooden literalism, the crisis of parousia-delay is created. The cataclysmic events surrounding the parousia as predicted in the Olivet Discourse obviously did not occur “literally” in A. D. 70. Some elements of the discourse did take place “literally,” but others obviously did not.
While it is true that people often confuse the literal versus figurative at the level of expressions in a text with literal hermeneutics (grammatical-historical) versus allegory at the level of overall approach to reading a text (a technical discussion in the field of hermeneutics), it is not at all clear that futurists are the ones who are confusing the two. The context of the discussion would suggest that Sproul is concerned about liberals, futurists, and preterists across the board as involved in the confusion. Consequently, Sproul goes on to suggest three general options for handling the Olivet Discourse:
Interpret everything literally with the result that some of Jesus’ predictions failed to come to pass;
Interpret the events surrounding the parousia as literal and the time-frame references figuratively;
Interpret the time-frame references literally and the events surrounding the parousia figuratively.
The first option is that of many liberal higher critics. The second option, to Sproul, is where futurists are in the handling of the text. The third option is the preterist handling of the Olivet Discourse. However, does the second option really fit the way that most futurists handle the words of Christ in this section of Scripture?
This analysis by Sproul of futurism is a case of critique from within his own system rather than showing a real inconsistency on the part of the futurist approach from within its own system. Does the futurist really take the time-frame references figuratively? The answer is absolutely not! Sproul is assuming that his analysis of “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is correct (see the above discussion). However, we have shown that the future time-frame reference in Matthew 24:34 is consistent with the context, both grammatically and historically. That is, the passage from a futurist interpretation made sense with respect to the language used at that time and to the historical context of the original audience as shown in the text. This is nothing more or less than literal interpretation or grammatical-historical interpretation. The futurists are literal in the Olivet Discourse taking into account any customary figures of speech. The preterist position fails to show how futurists take the time-frame references as figurative. In doing so, the preterist may be revealing that he is practicing his own version of “wooden literalism” with respect to the time references cited in Scripture. In actuality, he is doing so while admittedly taking the events of the Olivet Discourse as entirely non-literal. Sproul mentioned that most commentators see the graphic portrayal of the events in the Olivet Discourse as evidence that 70 A.D. is not in view. There is a reason for that. The graphic portrayal of those events, taken at face value (i.e., literally), gives a clear portrayal of a Second Coming. There is no need to look for hidden meanings.
With respect to literal hermeneutics one must also note the spiritualizing of passages that deal with the resurrection of the dead. To his credit, Sproul rejects full preterism’s spiritualizing of all biblical teaching concerning the resurrection of the dead. However, his presentation does not do full justice to the problem which moderate preterism still has with respect to various resurrection passages. For example, one cannot separate the details of the Olivet Discourse from the Old Testament book of Daniel. The connection is made explicit with the reference to the Abomination of Desolation (Matt. 24:15). Yet the description of the Antichrist’s (willful king’s) last battle during the time of the tribulation period or day of the Lord judgment (alluded to earlier) leads the reader to understand that his destruction occurs followed by the restoration of the nation of Israel and a particular resurrection from the dead (Dan. 11:36-12:1-2). It is hard to spiritualize the teaching on resurrection here since the text explicitly teaches a resurrection from the “dust of the earth” (Dan. 12:2). Yet the moderate preterist is forced to do so in this passage in his attempt to maintain consistency in all of the related passages and to make its fulfillment take place in 70 A.D.
Another methodological issue is the appeal to historical similarities that Sproul often makes to establish 70 A.D. as the time frame for the fulfillment of passages such as the Olivet Discourse. However, the Bible interpreter cannot cite historical events as fulfilling Bible texts on the basis of mere similarities. One example will suffice to suggest an exaggeration on the part of Sproul. He cites Josephus’ account of cosmic signs (stars, comets, and lights) to suggest fulfillment of the cosmic signs cited in various tribulation passages such as Matthew 24:29: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.” Sproul even mentions that Josephus noted that many Jews had false prophetic hopes due to many of the signs. He goes on to quote Gary DeMar’s discussion concerning the comet of 60 A.D. and Halley’s Comet of 66 A.D. These descriptions are all nice particulars but there is no matching of the details. In fact, the similarity is somewhat remote and timing is certainly off. What Sproul ends up with is something rather vague. Is the fulfillment of Bible prophecy dependent upon such hazy connections? The futurist maintains that prophetic detail will be fulfilled and that what is needed is identity not remote similarities. Since such identity for tribulation passages has not occurred in history, the futurist expects future fulfillment for day of the Lord predictions.
To respond fully to the analysis of moderate preterism in Sproul’s Last Days would take a book-length review. Hopefully, the sample elements in this assessment can serve as a grid from which to do more complete evaluation as the debate between futurists and preterists continues. Moderate preterism suffers from inconsistencies as shown throughout this article. It certainly downplays the Old Testament, especially any straightforward promises of the restoration of Israel to its land. Sproul’s form of preterism must resort to the spiritualization of some passages involving the day of the Lord events, the Second Coming and the bodily resurrection of believers. It must search for vague historical events surrounding 70 A.D. to find a fit in history for its view that the Olivet Discourse is fulfilled in that time frame. It must ignore the details in the context of some passages such as Matthew 24:34. Moderate preterism cannot survive a late dating (90s) of the book of Revelation. All of these efforts are needed to make the preterist system work.
Perhaps the Achilles heel for preterism, if it is not the dating of the book of Revelation, is that it absolutely must divorce any positive prophecies concerning the day of the Lord from the negative ones. The negative experiences of that time for the nation of Israel may be able to fit the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. However, both testaments are replete with day of the Lord passages, which connect the repentance and restoration of Israel to the prior judgment associated with that “day.” The fact of the matter is that most of the passages in question teach clearly that Jesus is coming to deliver the nation of Israel and not to destroy it. These facts cannot be harmonized with a fulfillment in 70 A.D at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation.
Moderate preterism also suffers from inconsistencies as pointed out by the fact that radical preterism is sometimes called “consistent” preterism. While having its own problems, radical preterism does handle all of the day of the Lord passages in the same way. Sproul, as a moderate preterist, does not want to deny the literal Second Coming and future resurrection of believers. Therefore, he must do a balancing act with some of the passages supporting 70 A.D. fulfillment and some pointing toward the future. Exegetically and theologically he is attempting the impossible. Sproul’s sincerity and desire to follow Christ have never been in question. However, although Sproul’s apologetic motives for his preterism are laudable, it is doubtful that the higher critics will be all that impressed.
What do YOU think ?
Not bad, coming from Baptist Bible College and Seminary..
What do these futurists think the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. was? Was that event (which is a historical fact) a fullfillment of Christ's prophecy in Matthew 24, etc. or was it just a happy coincidence with the real temple destruction happening sometime in the still yet future (after another temple gets built). As I see it, they really dance around this subject.
If no one knows the day or hour of His coming, then how do you know the coming in 70 ad. was the one He was talking about? Fortunately only the Scripture is without err, so no one can be absolutely sure. We study and pick what seems consistent with Scripture - but may still be tinted with human tendencies to err. To say it is all future or it is all past - leaves a big empty spot for the here and NOW? So what if it is past-how does that speak to me NOW. So what if it is future - how does that affect me NOW? Seems like Jesus was interested in our Daily Life and how Scripture prepares us for whatever may come. We surely are not living in the day when the whole earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord nor is every one in heaven , on earth and under the earth proclaiming Jesus as Lord - but it would seem that such a day is coming . Even so Come, Lord Jesus.
last comment by LSharp1039@aol.com on Fri. , June 6 at 1:45pm.
Date: 22 May 2007
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