Posts tagged ‘preterist’

May 14, 2015

Eschatology Between the Extremes

Background

Bible students (as all reformed Christians are) must be careful to distinguish among New Testament prophetic references to ”coming” (Greek: parousia) –– whether applicable to the end of the age in which they were written, or applicable to the end of the world at the end of time.1 That is, whether the correct interpretation of each prophecy is in the past or in the future, with respect to us in the present. Prophecies, by definition, of course apply to what was then the future at the time they were prophesied; the question is: whether they were fulfilled in our past (already), or are still in our future (not yet).

The destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 AD was clearly the fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy rendered in the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24 during the time of His humiliation. The desolation of the temple capped off the end of the old covenant age. Those were “…the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled” (Luke 21:22) 2. After having ascended to the right hand of God the Father almighty, the Lord’s “coming” of which He foretold was not in Person but via the Roman armies, in judgment against apostate Judaism including those who called so vehemently for His crucifixion (Luke 23:21). It was the sign of His exaltation; the vindication of His identity as Christ, just as He had foretold before being condemned to death (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62).

There can hardly be any doubt that the book of Revelation was written prior to 70 AD, as from our historical perspective, the events which happened then manifestly align with the things signified to John in the Apocalypse shortly before they were to take place (Revelation 1:1; 22:6). The questionable “evidence” of a quote attributed to church father Irenaeus simply does not sustain a later date of its writing, which has been propounded as the majority report.3

Even so, the 1st coming of Christ and His finished work on the Cross in 30 AD is the pivotal focus of all of Scripture. Our glorified Lord’s reign has continued since His Ascension, well beyond 70 AD to the present day, unless the “millennium”4 (the time of Messianic reign) was only 40 years. The Lamb of God rose from the dead 3 days after His crucifixion; 40 days after that the Son of Man ascended (“…came up to the Ancient of Days…” per Daniel 7:13 [NASB]) and has been reigning ever since. This selfsame divine Person (“…and His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” –Isaiah 9:6), the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, is reigning now! He will continue to reign in heaven and by His Spirit in His people until “…the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. -1 Corinthians 15:24-25. The 2nd coming of the Lord which will happen then (the end of time) is still in our future.

The invisible “coming” of the Son of Man in wrathful judgment upon that wicked generation in 70 AD is certainly a frequent prophetic reference in Scripture as an outworking of the signal events of 30 AD; nevertheless “…it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” -1 John 3:2. A few verses earlier John exhorted believers to abide in the Lord with perseverance, so as not to be ashamed before Him at His coming (1 John 2:28). This is a clear reference to the yet to be fulfilled final judgment at the 2nd coming, when everyone must give account personally (cf Romans 14:10-12).

The Extremes

Rather than studying to arrive at an interpretive understanding of Bible passages according to context in light of the full counsel of Scripture, one extreme school of thought automatically relegates all “coming” passages to a preterist (fulfilled in our past) interpretation. At the other extreme, another school of thought presupposes “coming” passages to have a futurist (still in our future) interpretation. The all-preterist system can be called pantelism5; the hyper-futurist hermeneutic is adhered to in the system commonly known as dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism, considered to be “losing steam” more and more in recent decades, was propagated with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible at the beginning of the 20th century. It refuses to accept at face value the text of Matthew 24:34: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” The events including the “great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21) and the coming of the Son of Man in judgment to destroy the temple (Matthew 24:30), which happened leading up to and in AD 70, are among “all these things” spoken of by our Lord in the text. Furthermore, dispensational futurism does not allow for the many time texts such as “soon”, “at hand”, “near”, “coming quickly”, etc., employed throughout the New Testament, to apply according to the standard usage of those terms. Rather, almost 2,000 years (so far) are arbitrarily added to the interpretations in order to keep the occurrence of the predicted events in our near future. This provides for a continuingly impending end times perspective that may be sensational, but it just doesn’t make good sense. Besides, any interpretation that makes the text to have been meaningless or misinforming to the original audience must be rejected.

Pantelism may be seen as an overreaction to dispensationalism. Pantelism presupposes that all prophetic passages must have a preterist interpretation, inclusive of references to the resurrection of the body and the final judgment. With pantelism, the end of the old covenant age was the consummation of all things, and we are in the eternal state now. According to this thinking, the Lord’s still future descent from heaven (when the dead rise and the living are caught up together with them in the clouds) written of in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, which corresponds to His Ascension depicted in Acts 1:11, somehow already happened and was not a physical event. There is a variety of explanatory particulars amongst the system’s adherents as to how that is reconciled with the Lord’s clearly physical Ascension, when the angels testified that He will come “in just the same way” (Greek hos tropos) as he was seen taken up.

Even recognizing the eschatology of the New Testament as predominantly preterist, elevating the events of 70 AD over and above the events of 30 AD in their redemptive-historical significance is problematical to say the least. Denial of the future, bodily 2nd coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to physically resurrect the dead and eternally judge all who ever lived puts pantelism outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

While the outright erroneousness of both of these extremes may be apparent to seasoned students of Scripture, many of today’s Christians have grown up under dispensationalist teaching, which has been popularized in the modern culture by best-selling books and movies such as the “Left Behind” series. Others, who have become disenchanted with dispensationalism, may have been swayed by pantelism as a seemingly logical alternative; but while pantelism eviscerates the interpretive errors of dispensationalism, the arbitrary misconceptions inherent in pantelism are just as bad to the other extreme, and even worse.

Context Not “Consistent”

The interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture is informed by the context, over and apart from the understanding gleaned from the usage of similarly framed wording in a different context. To presume otherwise leads unswervingly to a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible, which is certainly not so simplistic as to apply the same meaning for a word or phrase every time it is used. The same word(s) or phrase(s) may have differing meaning, usage and interpretation in different instances, dependent upon the context. This simple hermeneutical principle may seem to be very basic and easy to understand, yet the failure to grasp it, or to override it with a presupposition of forced “consistency” has become a stumbling block to deriving sound, balanced counsel from God’s word, which unavoidably leads to one erroneous extreme or another.

As noted above, in the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24, the Lord foretold in verse 34 that “all these things” would take place before the passing away of the generation then living. So contextually “all these things” must apply to those stated in the preceding verses of that discourse. This does not mean, however, that whenever the Lord spoke, sentences preceding must necessarily be interpreted according to a subsequent statement. There is no such viable application of “consistency”, yet it is claimed to hold by some interpreters of the passage in Matthew 16 beginning with verse 24 where the Lord’s “take up your cross and follow Me” teaching is recorded. In this passage, Jesus encourages His disciples to self-denial through sufferings, by comparing worldly afflictions with eternal life (cf Romans 8:18), and associating material gain with loss of immortal soul. In that context, v. 27 sets forth the weighty consideration of His (2nd) coming to judge all men at the consummation of the kingdom: “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.” Then, in v. 28 which follows, he assures them that His coming into His kingdom will be manifest before some of them die: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

He does not give His disciples any time frame for the final judgment at His 2nd coming, which we know from other passages of Scripture is at the end of time, but He foretells that some of them standing there would see the outworking of the Son of Man’s (1st) coming in His kingdom in the fullness of time and history, the kingdom announced by John the Baptist in the spirit of Elijah. The reference of v.28 to the Lord’s near term “coming” (as a sign of the ascended Son of Man in heaven per Matthew 24:30) does not automatically mean that His coming referred to in v. 27 was also near! The Lord was teaching His disciples that at the end of time (cf 1 Cor. 15:24), He shall come with final reckoning, in His Father’s glory with His angels; and that while some of them were still alive, He was to come in the power of the kingdom of His mediatorial reign with the destruction of Jerusalem which was fulfilled in 70 AD.

What awesome encouragement! Not only that all things will be set right by the Lord in the end, but that the process of putting all enemies under His feet (cf 1 Cor. 15:25) was at hand, and some standing there would live to see the powerful manifestation of it. Presumptuously absorbing v. 27 in with the interpretation of v.28, causes a drastic missing of the mark. There is no sound reason why both verses, even though adjacent to each other, must together be preterist, or futurist for that matter. Indeed hyper-futurists have an insurmountable problem with the clearly indicated time frame of verse 28. On the other extreme, to preterize v. 27 further exacerbates error when it is then assumed that nearly identical wording in Matthew 25 (v. 31) must also have a preterist interpretation. Thus error spreads like gangrene, and the only thing that is consistent is the predetermined interpretations of those who refuse to let Scripture speak for itself.

Notes

1 What was the “age to come” for the New Testament writers is the age we are living in now, the gospel age, the new covenant age which began as the old covenant age passed away. The New Testament was written in the “last days” of the old covenant. We won’t be in the eternal state until the end of the present age which will be the end of time & history.

2 The Lord here references Old Testament prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, most notably Daniel 9:26 .

3 For a thorough, scholarly exposition in support of a pre-70AD date for the composition of the book of Revelation see Kenneth L. Gentry’s Before Jerusalem Fell.

4 The millennium is a reference to “a thousand years”, mentioned in Revelation 20 as the period of Christ’s interadvental reign. Postmillennialism (that the Lord’s 2nd Coming must be after His Messianic reign) is assumed here. Amillennialism is technically postmillennialism as far as timing; differing in the expected nature of the millennium. Premillennialism (that the Lord’s 2nd Coming must be before the millennium to set up His reign on earth) is the view routinely adopted by dispensationalists.

5 The term pantelism (from the Greek words for “all” and “fulfilled”) was coined by C. Jonathan Seraiah, who has written an excellent refutation of the viewpoint (see The End of All Things: A Defense of the Future). The label pantelism (instead of hyper- or consistent preterism) is a neutral term that does not use the pejorative “hyper” prefix nor define non-pantelist preterism as somehow “inconsistent”.

Here is an excerpt from a review of Pastor Seraiah’s book which is highly recommended: This book is a rich source of solid, confessional, biblical theology on important issues such as Christ’s resurrection and the believers’ resurrection, the Second Coming, final judgment, and the renewal of heaven and earth. Readers will be enlightened by his chapters on end-time views in historic Christianity, the development of the creeds, and the importance of God’s final triumph over sin and its consequences.