The Menace of Radical Preterism
BY WAYNE JACKSON
The word “eschatology” derives from the Greek word, eschatos, meaning “last.” It has to do with the biblical doctrine of “last” or “end-of-time” things. The term embraces such matters as the return of Christ, the end of the world, the day of judgment, and the resurrection of the dead.
One philosophy of eschatology is known as “preterism.” The term “preter” issues from an original form meaning “past.” Preterism, therefore, is an interpretive ideology which views major portions of Bible prophecy, traditionally associated with the termination of earth’s history, as having been fulfilled already.
But the term “preterism” is flexible. Some scholars, for instance, have dated the book of Revelation in the late sixties A.D. They contend that virtually the whole of the Apocalypse, therefore, was fulfilled by A.D. 70—when Judaism was destroyed by the invading Roman armies. A more moderate form of preterism moves the fulfillment of Revelation forward somewhat. These scholars hold that while Revelation was penned near the end of the first century, the major focus of the book is upon the fall of the Roman Empire (A.D. 476); consequently they feel there is little beyond that date that is previewed in the final book of the New Testament.
While we do not agree with either of these concepts of the book of Revelation, we consider them to be relatively harmless. They represent ideas upon which good men can honestly disagree with no significant error being involved.
On the other hand, there is a form of preterism that is quite heretical. This theory argues that all Bible prophecy has been fulfilled; nothing remains on the prophetic calendar.
This radical preterism was championed by James Stuart Russell (1816-95), a Congregational clergyman in England. Russell authored a book titled, The Parousia, (from a Greek word meaning “coming” or “presence”), which first appeared in 1878. Russell set forth the idea that the second coming of Christ, the judgment day, etc., are not future events at the end of the current dispensation. Rather, prophecies relating to these matters were fulfilled with Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70. There is, therefore, no future “second coming” of Christ. Moreover, there will be no resurrection of the human body. Also, the final judgment and the end of the world have occurred already—with the destruction of Jerusalem.
Advocates of this bizarre dogma claim that the preterist movement is growing wildly. It probably is expanding some—though likely not as prolificly as its apologists would like everyone to believe. Occasionally the sect will get a thrust when a prominent name becomes identified with it. For example, noted theologian R. C. Sproul has apparently thrown his hat into the preterist ring—at least to some degree. Recently he characterized J. S. Russell’s book as “one of the most important treatments on Biblical eschatology that is available to the church today” (quoted in The Christian News 1999, 17).
Radical preterism (also known as “realized eschatology” or the “A.D. 70 doctrine”) is so “off the wall”—biblically speaking—that one wonders how anyone ever falls for it. But they do. And, as exasperating as it is, the doctrine needs to be addressed from time to time. One writer, in reviewing the A.D. 70 heresy, recently quipped that dealing with preterism is like cleaning the kitty litter box; one hates to fool with it, but it has to be done. He can just be thankful that cats aren’t larger than they are.
The Basis for the Dogma
Preterists strive for consistency in their view of Bible prophecy. The goal is admirable. But when a series of propositions is linked, and they are grounded on the same faulty foundation, when one of them topples—like dominos in a line—they all fall. So it is with the A.D. 70 theory.
Here is the problem. In studying the New Testament material relative to the “coming” of Christ, preterists note that:
there are passages which seem to speak of the nearness of the Lord’s coming—from a first-century vantage point (cf. James 5:8);
they observe that there are texts which indicate a “coming” in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (cf. Matthew 24:30);
combining these, they conclude that the Savior’s “second coming” must have transpired in A.D. 70; and
furthermore, since the Scriptures are clear as to the fact that the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world will all occur on the day the Lord returns, the advocates of realized eschatology are forced to “spiritualize” these several happenings, contending that all will take place at the same time. In this “interpretive” process, a whole host of biblical terms must be redefined in order to make them fit the scheme.
And so, while preterists attempt to be consistent, it is nonetheless a sad reality that they are consistently wrong!
A major fallacy of the preterist mentality is a failure to recognize the elasticity of chronological jargon within the context of biblical prophecy. It is a rather common trait in prophetic language that an event, while literally in the remote future, may be described as near. The purpose in this sort of language is to emphasize the certainty of the prophecy’s fulfillment.
Obadiah, for instance, foretold the final day of earth’s history. Concerning that event, he said: “For the day of Jehovah is near upon all the nations” (v. 15). This cannot refer to some local judgment, for “all nations” are to be involved. And yet, the event is depicted as “near.”
There are numerous prophecies of this nature, including passages like James 5:8—“the coming of the Lord is at hand.” James could not have been predicting the literally imminent return of the Savior, for such knowledge was not made available to the Lord’s penmen. Not even Jesus himself knew of the time of his return to earth (Matthew 24:36).
The Components Explained and Briefly Refuted
Let us give brief consideration to the four eschatological events that are supposed to have occurred in A.D. 70—the Lord’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the end of the world.
First, was there a sense in which Christ “came” to folks at various times and places? Yes, and no serious student of the Bible denies this. Jesus “came” on the day of Pentecost via the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see John 14:18). The coming was representative, not literal. The Lord warned the brethren in Ephesus that if they did not repent, he would “come” to them in judgment, and they would forfeit their identity as a faithful congregation (Revelation 2:5). In describing the horrible judgment to be inflicted upon rebellious Jerusalem, Jesus, employing imagery from the Old Testament, spoke of his “coming” in power and glory (Matthew 24:30). Again, this was a representative “coming” by means of the Roman forces (cf. Matthew 22:7). Verse thirty-four of Matthew 24 clearly indicates that this event was to occur before that first-century generation passed away. For further consideration of this point, see the essay on Matthew 24.
The Lord’s “second coming,” however, will be as visibly apparent as his ascension back into heaven was (Acts 1:11). Indeed, he will be “revealed” (2 Thessalonians 1:7), or “appear” to all (2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 9:28).
It is a mistake of horrible proportions to confuse the symbolic “comings” of Christ with the “second” (cf. Hebrews 9:28) coming. And this is what the preterists do.
Secondly, it is utterly incredible that the preterists should deny the eventual resurrection of the human body—just as the Sadducees did twenty centuries ago (Acts 23:8). The entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians was written to counter this error: “How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead [ones – plural]?” (15:12).
But those who subscribe to the notion of realized eschatology spiritualize the concept of the resurrection, alleging that such references are merely to the emergence of the church from an era of anti-Christian persecution. In other words, it is the “resurrection” of a cause, not a resurrection of people.
The theory is flawed in several particulars, but consider these two points:
The Scriptures speak of the “resurrection” as involving both the good and the evil, the just and the unjust (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). Where, in the preterist scheme of things, is the resurrection of the “evil”? Was the “cause” of evil to emerge at the same time as the “cause” of truth?
As noted above, the resurrection contemplated in 1 Corinthians 15 has to do with the raising of “dead ones” (masculine, plural)—not an abstract “cause” (neuter, singular). Significantly, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is cited as a precursor to the general resurrection—in this very context (15:20,23). Christ charged that those who deny the resurrection of the body are ignorant of both the Scriptures and the power of God (Matthew 22:29).
Third, the Bible speaks of a coming “day of judgment” (Matthew 11:22). Preterists limit this to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. But the theory simply does not fit the facts. The devastation of A.D. 70 involved only the Jews. The final day of judgment will embrace the entire human family—past, present, and future (Acts 17:31). The citizens of ancient Nineveh will be present on the day of judgment (see Matthew 12:41), as will other pagan peoples. But these folks were not in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. How can clear passages of this nature be ignored?
Here is an interesting thought. When Paul defended his case before the Roman governor, Felix, he spoke of “the judgment to come,” and the ruler was “terrified” (Acts 24:25). Why would a Roman be “terrified” with reference to the impending destruction of Judaism—when he would be on the winning side, not the losing one?
Fourth, according to the preterists, the “end of the world,” as this expression is employed in Bible prophecy, does not allude to the destruction of this planet. Rather, “world” has reference to the Jewish world, thus, the end of the Jewish age. This, they allege, occurred in A.D. 70.
But this view simply is not viable. Consider these two brief but potent points.
The responsibilities of the Great Commission—to teach and immerse lost souls—was commensurate with that era preceding the “end of the world” (Matthew 28:18-20). If the “end of the world” occurred in A.D. 70, then the Lord’s Commission is valid no longer. This conclusion, of course, is absurd.
In the parable of the tares, Jesus taught that at “the end of the world” the “tares” (i.e., evil ones) would be removed from his kingdom and burned (Matthew 13:39-40). Did that transpire with the destruction of Judaism? It did not. The notion that the “end of the world” is past already is false.
The dogma of preterism—or realized eschatology—is erroneous from beginning to end. For a more detailed consideration of this matter, see our book, The A.D. 70 Theory.
A Common Method of Propagation
The doctrine of preterism is so radically unorthodox that its advocates realize that their efforts to win converts represent a formidable task. Consequently, they have developed a covert strategy that seeks to quietly spread their novel dogma until such a time when congregational take-overs can be effected. The distinctive traits of this discipling methodology are as follows.
It is alleged that this system represents an attractive, consistent method of interpretation. But there is no virtue in consistency, if one is consistently wrong!
Preterists criticize what they call “traditional” views of interpreting Bible prophecy. They suggest they have a new, exciting approach to the Scriptures—with a spiritual thrust. Of course the “new” is always intriguing to some.
The messengers of realized eschatology frequently are secretive in their approach. They select only the most promising candidates with whom to share their ideas. Eventually, then, the A.D. 70 theory will be woven subtly into classes, sermons, etc.
When ultimately confronted relative to their teachings and methods, they will argue that eschatological issues are merely a matter of opinion, and that divergent views—especially theirs—should be tolerated. This, of course, ignores plain biblical implications on these themes (cf. 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 3:16). If church leaders fall for this ploy, more time is gained for the indoctrination of the entire congregation.
Wise church leaders will inform themselves relative to the theory of preteristic eschatology. If such ideas are discovered to be circulating within a local church, the proponents of such doctrines should be dealt with quickly and firmly. It is a serious matter.