Preterism: Exposition and Critique
Concerning full preterism I cannot help but see it as eschatological heresy. Obviously it robs the Church of her Blessed Hope. But more than this, it radically undermines her confidence in the perspicuity of Scripture, thereby discouraging us from turning at all to the life-giving streams of the Word of God.
This essay is largely excerpted from my book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2021).
Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will find in the essay:
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the NT)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism.
In recent years a small but influential group of theologians in the Reformed wing of evangelicalism have defended a view of eschatology called preterism. The name is derived from the Latin praeter, meaning past. It fits well, since interpreters of this persuasion argue that events traditionally associated with the Consummation at the end of the present evil age have already occurred. They believe that some, or all, of the eschatological predictions found in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Revelation were actually fulfilled in “the last days” between 33-70 AD, and especially in the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus (66-70 AD).
Most historians agree that preterist eschatologies first appeared in the 17th century writings of Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, and English Bible scholars Henry Hammond and John Lightfoot. Later on, the English Congregational pastor J. S. Russell became the father of “full preterism,” while the American professor Moses Stuart defended a milder version called “partial preterism.” In this essay I will offer a brief exposition and critique of these two schools of eschatological thought.
- Exposition of Partial Preterism
(To view a time line for PP please click here)
Partial preterists (PPs) agree with their Reformed forefathers in teaching that the Kingdom of God enters the world in two stages: the Era of Gospel Proclamation followed by the World to Come. They also agree that we must interpret Old Testament Kingdom prophecies (OTKP’s) figuratively and spiritually, as pointing to New Covenant institutions and blessings. However, on a number of other crucial points they differ with their Protestant predecessors.
For example, the time-line indicates that partial preterists do not identify “the last days” as the eternal Era of Fulfillment introduced by the New Covenant, but rather as the closing years of the Mosaic dispensation: that brief season of time between Pentecost (ca 33 AD) and the events of 70 AD. Also, they do not identify the Great Tribulation as amillennarians do (i.e., as the perennial spiritual warfare of the saints, begun at the fall, and ending at the Parousia, Rev. 7:9-17), but as the Battle of Jerusalem, which took place in AD 67-70.
As for the Parousia, Christians have traditionally identified it with the one supernatural Coming of the Lord at the end of the present evil age. But according to PP, there are two Comings, or two phases of the one Coming. The first—sometimes referred to as “the judgment-coming”—occurred in 70 AD, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. This judgment marked “the end of the age”: that is, the end of the Mosaic dispensation. It was not a supernatural judgment, but a providential judgment. The second (phase of the) Parousia is supernatural. It includes the bodily return of the Lord in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. This Coming marks the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. According to partial preterists, in Matthew 24:27-31 Jesus used OT apocalyptic language to symbolize his providential judgment-coming, whereas in Mt. 25:31ff he straightforwardly spoke about the events of his supernatural coming.
Partial preterists bring their new hermeneutic to the Revelation, which, based on their distinctive interpretation of the book’s contents, they insist was written around AD 60, prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Accordingly, all partial preterists agree that chapters 1-19 mystically picture the events of “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), and especially those of “The Great Tribulation” of 66-70 AD, when the Church endured great hardship at the hands of Israel and Rome.
Regarding chapter 20, some PPs identify the Millennium with “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), throughout which Satan was bound so that the Church could preach the Gospel to Israel and the nations. Others advance a futuristic and postmillennial interpretation, arguing that at some point in the Era of Gospel Proclamation (future even to us) God will grant his people a season of extraordinary evangelistic success, with the result that ethnic Israel will finally turn to Christ and the world will become largely Christian. Some in this latter camp—called theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists—also argue that during the millennium to come global society will become largely theocratic: that is, that the nations will be governed by the principles and statutes of the Mosaic Law.
With notable differences among them, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Gary de Mar, Hank Hanegraaff, Keith Mathison, Rousas Rushdoony, Martin Selbrede, and R.C. Sproul all embrace a partial preterist understanding of biblical eschatology.
- Exposition of Full Preterism
(To view a time line of Full Preterism, please click here)
Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic discussed above. If our Lord used mystical, apocalyptic language in the Olivet Discourse to describe an invisible Parousia that occurred in 70 AD, who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language to describe all of the other events biblically associated with the Parousia: the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the introduction of the World to Come? Who is to say that these too were not accomplished in 70 AD?
This is the position of FP’s. In 70 AD Christ came again: not bodily, but spiritually. At that time the dead were raised and judged: not visibly and bodily, but spiritually. The souls of the wicked were raised from Hades, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and cast into a Lake of Fire. Likewise, the souls of the righteous were “raised” from their previous state, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and welcomed into a spiritual World to Come.
Obviously this view raises a question: What happens to the people who are born after 70 AD? Some FP’s reply that the Last Judgment is now ongoing, and that it takes place when a person dies (Heb. 9:27). Others reply that when a person is converted and becomes a new creature in Christ, he immediately enters the spiritual World to Come, but will do so in greater fullness at the moment of his death. Thus, for full preterists the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come are not bodily and physical, but spiritual only. The final destiny of the physical universe remains unclear.
Needless to say, FP is a dramatic break with historic Christian orthodoxy—a break that men like John Bray, (the late) David Chilton, Max and Tim King, John Noe, Don Preston, and Edward Stevens have openly made. Accordingly, they do not hesitate to remind us that the historic creeds of the Church are not infallible, and that a majority theologians can be, have been, and (in this case) presently are, wrong. Nevertheless, FP has not gained much traction among evangelical Christians. Indeed, many regard it as eschatological heresy.
Critique of Preterism
We have seen that Preterism emphasizes the past fulfillment of biblical prophecies surrounding the Consummation. Partial Preterism (PP) says that many of these prophecies were fulfilled between AD 33-70. Full Preterism (FP) says that all of them were. In our eschatological journey I have addressed a number of preterist claims; however, because preterist views have gained considerable traction in Reformed circles, we must take a closer look. We’ll begin by going to the heart of the matter: the preterist hermeneutic, the distinctively preterist method for interpreting the (NT) prophetic scriptures. After that, we’ll examine PP (the most popular of the two views), and then briefly comment on FP (the most troubling).
- Critique of the Preterist Hermeneutic
Remarkably enough, it appears that the entire edifice of preterist eschatology is built on on a small and exceedingly shaky foundation: the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34. The Lord said, “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Preterists claim that here Christ was referring strictly to the generation of his own contemporaries, the generation that would experience the events of AD 70. But having drawn that conclusion, they have a problem. Why? Because the Lord’s description of his Parousia, found in Matthew 24:29-31, looks highly supernatural, eschatological, and cosmological. But if, as preterists claim, this event really occurred in 70 AD, then obviously we cannot take his words literally (as, indeed, most Christians do). Rather, in order to preserve their truthfulness, we shall have to interpret them typologically and figuratively. We shall have to say that here Jesus was doing what the OT prophets did in OTKP: veiling the truth in typological and figurative language, and so actually speaking of his providential judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus.
But the problem does not end here. For if the Lord used figurative language on this occasion, we must ask: Might he also have done so a little while later, when he spoke of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46)? Might he have done so on previous occasions, when he spoke of the last things (e.g., Matt. 13:37-40; 22:23-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:27-36; John 5:21-29)? Indeed, did he speak about a supernatural Parousia on any occasion? What about his apostles? In making their predictions, were they simply following their Master by using apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem? And what about the Revelation? Did the Spirit really use these stunningly cosmological symbols simply to speak of the vicissitudes of “the last days” (i.e., AD 33-70)? In short, where in the NT does all the typological language end, and where does the straightforward teaching begin. Where are the words by which alone we can know God’s true future, and so decipher any veiled revelations used to describe it?
Happily, we received the answer early in our journey. God has told us to listen to his Son, the appointed Teacher of the human race. When he came, he revealed all facets of the Eternal Covenant, and gave them to us in the DNT. In so doing, he (and his apostles) gave us many simple prophecies—straightforward, easily understood predictions—concerning the course and consummation of Salvation History. And in so doing, he therefore gave us the keys: the revealed eschatological truths by which alone we can know the future and decode the mystical meaning of the OT, OTKP, and the Revelation. Contrary to the claims of the preterists, Jesus Christ did not come to veil God’s truth, but to unveil it once and for all.
Here, then, is the great faux pas of our preterist brothers. Just as premillennarians err by interpreting OTKP literally, so preterists err by interpreting simple NT prophecies figuratively and typologically. Bound by their narrow interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they feel constrained to embrace an entirely new hermeneutic for the interpretation of NT eschatological texts. Accordingly, they have fallen away from some or all of the tenets of traditional Christian eschatology.
Let us therefore take a moment to address the two main preterist stumbling blocks.
Concerning the Olivet Discourse, we saw earlier that it was the Lord’s extended reply to the disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the destruction of Jerusalem and Christ’s supernatural Coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, the reply was also two-fold, blending the local with the global, the historical with the eschatological, and the providential with the supernatural. We need only read the text itself to see that in all these arenas the Lord was giving simple prophecies of events future to his disciples.
This includes Matthew 24:29-31, Christ’s prediction of his (supernatural) Parousia. Contrary to the claims of our preterist brothers, it does not read like Isaiah 13, Isaiah 24, or Ezekiel 32:7-8—OTKPs that clearly employ much figurative language. Rather, it reads like a straightforward prediction of the Coming of the Son of Man in glory. This is evident from the straightforward prediction itself, the straightforward predictions leading up to it (Matt. 24:21-27), and the straightforward predictions flowing down from it (Matt. 24:32-51; 25:31-46). And it is especially evident from the many other NT predictions that so closely resemble this one (Matt. 13:37-43; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). Clearly, this is mother of all NT prophecies of the Parousia. If, as the preterists claim, it is not giving us a true picture of the Parousia and the Consummation, then we are completely at sea in trying to form a mental picture of the Blessed Hope of the Church.
But what of Matthew 24:34? We saw earlier that the Lord’s use of the phrase “this generation” was not monolithic, as the preterists claim. Rather, it too was controlled by the disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the Lord’s providential coming to Jerusalem in AD 70, and his supernatural coming to the world at the end of the age. Therefore, we paraphrased his words as follows: “I tell you the solemn truth: This one generation—comprised of Jewish saints and sinners living here and now in Israel, but also of saints and sinners living all around the world at the end of the present evil age—will not pass away until all of these things, in one form or another, have taken place.” This interpretation re-admits the supernatural, the eschatological, and the cosmological into the Olivet Discourse. In so doing, it rescues the Church from the preterist error, and restores to her the eschatology of the classic Reformation.
Summing up, we have seen that preterist eschatology—and the confusion it brings in its train—is based on a major hermeneutical error. Having misinterpreted Matthew 24:34, preterists have forced an alien hermeneutic upon some or all of the NT texts dealing with the Consummation. Having misunderstood the mission of the Teacher—which was to unveil all God’s truth—they have veiled it again by imposing typological and figurative interpretations upon a precious NT body of simple eschatological prophecies: prophecies that are meant to supply the scriptural foundation for, and the keys to, all biblical eschatology. This makes perfect sense. Somewhere, sometime, someone in the Bible is going to have to speak plainly about the Eternal Covenant, the Kingdom of God, and the course of Salvation History, so that God’s people will be able to decode all the typological texts dealing with these themes. In the DNT Christ and the apostles have done this very thing (Matt. 13:10-12, 51-52; John 16:12-14, 25; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 1:8-10). Alas, our preterist brethren fail to see it.
- Critique of Partial Preterism
Keeping these thoughts in mind, let us now take a closer look at PP, and its teaching on the four underlying issues of the GETD.
View of the Kingdom
In agreement with Amillennialism, PP affirms that the Kingdom of God is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit; that it is entered through faith in the Person and Work of Christ; and that it is the promise of the Eternal Covenant. Also, the two schools agree that the Kingdom enters the world in two stages: a spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by a spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. However, as we shall see, PP holds heterodox views on certain key events proper to the Kingdom of the Son.
View of OTKP
Like amillennarians, PPs use the NCH to interpret OTKP. Rightly, they have learned to view Christ, the New Covenant, the Church, and the two-staged Kingdom of God as the true spheres of fulfillment for all OTKP. However, to the extent that they misunderstand NT teaching on the course of the Era of Proclamation, to the same extent they will misinterpret OTKPs dealing with its key events. For example, if a partial preterist believes that NT predictions of the Man of Lawlessness were fulfilled by the emperor Nero, then that conviction will shape his interpretation of OT prophecies dealing with the Antichrist and the Last Battle (e.g., Dan. 7:1-28; 9:26-27; 11:36-12:13).
View of the Consummation
Before discussing the PP view of the Revelation and the Millennium, we must first examine its understanding of the Consummation.
Like Amillennialism (and unlike FP), PP affirms the traditional elements of the Consummation: a single supernatural coming of the glorified Christ, a single resurrection, a single judgment, and a single advent of the glorious World to Come. However, on the following five points, PP departs from traditional orthodoxy.
First, many PPs assert that “the last days” are the years during which the Mosaic Covenant remained in effect (ca AD 33-70). However, no NT text teaches this. As for the Mosaic Covenant, it ended on a single day: the Day of Pentecost, when, for the first time, Christians entered the New Covenant that Christ sealed with his blood, thereby abrogating the Old (Mark 11:13-14; Matt. 27:51; John 19:30; Acts 2). As for “the last days”, some NT texts use this expression to speak of “the last of the last days”: the (difficult) days just prior to the Consummation (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3). However, as a rule the Bible understands “the last days” as the season of Salvation History in which the Eternal Covenant and the Kingdom of God have been manifested in the world. They began with Christ’s incarnation, and will extend into eternity future (Is. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2).
Secondly, most PPs assert that the early Church fully evangelized the world prior to AD 70, thus fulfilling Matthew 24:14. Now it is true that in the apostolic era the Gospel spread like wildfire, thoroughly penetrating the Roman “world” (Acts 19:20; Rom. 15:18-19; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). But hyperbole notwithstanding (Col. 1:23), this was only a prelude to, and a picture of, the evangelization of the whole earth, of which the Lord Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:14; cf. Rom. 15:18-29). Many NT texts depict the Great Commission as open-ended and incomplete. The Lord tarries, not desiring that any should perish (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:7 (i.e., the witnessing Church) have not yet finished giving their testimony. Fittingly, even after 2,000 years of Gospel proclamation, the Church still hears the Great Commission as a command to finish the job of world evangelization in the power of Christ, who promises to be with her in power till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).
Thirdly, most PPs teach that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness (i.e., the Antichrist). However, while Nero was indeed animated by the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 4:3), he was not the eschatological Antichrist himself, as an objective reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 will make clear. The coming of the Antichrist—with his miraculous powers, unprecedented claims to deity, and universal following—still lies ahead, and is arguably the single most important sign of the nearness of the end (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:3).
Fourthly, PPs identify “the greatest tribulation” of Matthew 24:21-22 with the vicissitudes of Titus’ invasion in 67-70 AD. We have seen, however, that while the Lord did indeed have those vicissitudes in mind, and while they were indeed dire, he primarily had in view something far worse: a tribulation the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again. Occurring towards the end of present evil age, it will be triggered by the coming of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist), cut short for the sake of the elect, and end with the visible appearing of the Son of God in glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:15-31; Rev. 1:7). It is contemporaneous with, and largely constituted by, the Last Battle between the Church and the world, repeatedly foreseen in the Revelation (Rev. 11:7-10; 13:6-10; 16:12-16; 19:19; 20:7-10).
Finally, while it is indeed true that PPs affirm a supernatural Coming of Christ at the end of the present evil age, their teaching on this point is confused. The crux of the problem is the relation of Matthew 24:29-31 to Matthew 25:31-46. Amillennarians teach that the former is a simple prophecy of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, and the latter a simple prophecy of the (final) Judgment to follow. PPs disagree. Constrained by their interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they assert that the former is a veiled prophecy of Christ’s “judgment-coming” to Jerusalem, whereas the latter is a simple prophecy of his supernatural judgment of the world.
But this view strains all credulity. The Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25) is a seamless address wherein Christ gives his disciples a series of simple prophecies covering events that will occur between the days of his flesh and the end of the age. These two portions of the very same discourse—with their shared references to the Coming of the Son of Man, his glory, his angels, and his judgment—fit together hand in glove. Both are clearly describing the one supernatural Parousia of Christ, and the one cosmological Consummation it will bring.
This preterist exegesis of the Olivet Discourse wreaks havoc on the interpretation of other NT texts dealing with the Consummation. For again, if Christ himself used veiled language to describe his providential coming, but straightforward language to describe his supernatural coming, then which of the two were the apostles referring to when they themselves spoke of these things?
Debates in PP circles show that this is a very real problem. For example, some PPs say that in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul is speaking about the supernatural Coming of Christ to raise the dead, whereas in 1 Thess. 5:1-11 he suddenly turns to the providential coming of AD 70 to judge Israel.
Or again, some PPs assert that in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 Paul has the judgment-coming of AD 70 in view, even though he speaks of the Lord being revealed from Heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire!
Similarly, many PPs insist that in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 the apostle is not describing the demise of a distantly future Antichrist, but rather of the emperor Nero (or possibly Vespasian), whom the Lord Jesus “providentially” slew with the breath of his mouth and brought to an end by the appearance of his Coming!
The truth of the matter is as simple as it is important: Whether we have in mind their statements in the book of Acts, the epistles, or the Revelation, Christ’s apostles show no interest whatsoever in the destruction of Jerusalem, whether it lay ahead of them (as in the case of Paul’s early writings) or behind them (as in the case of all of John’s). Their only eschatological concern is the Parousia: the one supernatural Coming of Christ, set to occur at the end of the present evil age (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; James 5:7; 2 Peter 3:12; 1 John 3:2). Yes, in the Olivet Discourse we do find the Lord referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, for his disciples had specifically inquired about that, and it was necessary for him to prepare them. But in the rest of the DNT, which is directed almost entirely to Gentile believers or Jewish believers dispersed throughout the Roman empire, interest in the events of AD 70 completely falls away, seeing that the one true Blessed Hope of the universal Church was (and is) the visible Coming of Christ in power and glory at the end of the present evil age. This is the living heart of all apostolic eschatology, as indeed every major NT eschatological text makes clear.
- For a brief discussion of the internal evidence favoring a late date for composition of the Revelation, click here. External confirmation comes from second century scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202). Citing earlier sources, he wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).