This is one of the most comforting eschatological texts in all sacred Scripture. It is also one of the most controversial, since our dispensational brethren claim that here the Lord is speaking of a secret rapture of the Church. Let us therefore look first at the text itself, and then at the dispensational arguments.

An Amillennial View

The disciples are troubled. Jesus has just said that one of them will betray him (John 13:21-30), and that another, their leader, is about to deny him three times (John 13:37-38). Worst of all, he has told them that soon he will go away to his Father, and that they themselves cannot join him (John 13:33, 36). Aware of their fears (and forgetful of his own), he therefore devotes the remainder of the Upper Room Discourse to preparing them for what lies ahead.

He opens with three commands: “Let not your hearts be troubled: Believe in God, believe also in me” (v. 1). The antidote to their fears—and ours—is implicit trust in the character, sovereignty, promises, and salvation of God; and not only of God, but also of his Christ, in whom all of these precious gifts and remedies are found (2 Cor. 1:20).

Next, he makes a very special promise, a promise designed to cheer their hearts and calm their fears:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. – John 14:2-3

To benefit from these words we must understand Jewish marriage customs, which were very much in Jesus’ mind when he spoke them. Broadly, an ancient Jewish marriage had three components. First came the betrothal. Here the parents of a young man arranged a suitable marriage for their son. This involved the father paying a “bride-price” to her parents, after which the families usually exchanged gifts and drank a cup of wine to seal the marriage covenant. At this point the couple were legally married. Next there came the waiting period. During this time—which could be quite lengthy—the groom prepared a house (or rooms) for his bride, sometimes on his father’s estate. Meanwhile, the bride prepared herself to live and serve with her husband as a skillful keeper of his home. Finally, there came the wedding ceremony. On the night of the marriage the groom and his friends would make their way in a joyful procession to the bride’s house (Matt. 25:1f). When they arrived, she and her maids would join the groom, after which they would typically return to his father’s house for the marriage ceremony, the marriage feast, the consummation of the marriage, and more festivities when the couple emerged from the chuppa, or bridal chamber, to join the party. Henceforth they would live together as husband and wife.

Time would fail us to discuss all the ways in which the Holy Spirit drew upon these ancient customs in order to depict the romance of redemption in Scripture. For our present purposes, however, only one thing is needful: to see that here, in John 14:2-3, Jesus was doing that very thing. He knew that at Calvary the Father would pay the bride-price. He knew that immediately afterwards he himself would return to his Father’s heavenly house to prepare a dwelling-place for his Beloved. And he knew that at the appointed times he would return to receive her to himself, so that she might be with him where he is (Matt. 25:1-13).

Keeping the Didactic New Testament (DNT) in view, let us carefully probe Jesus’ exact words, for they are eschatologically richer than we may think.1

First he says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places” (v. 2). The reference here is two-fold: not only to heaven above, but also to heaven up ahead: the new heavens and the new earth that he will create at his return. In this two-fold house there are (and will be) many dwelling-places. In other words, in both of these realms God has carefully prepared, or will prepare, not physical shelters, but spiritual niches: spheres of life and service specifically designed for each of his dear children. And there are many such niches, for both the world up above and the world up ahead will be filled with a great multitude whom no man can number, drawn from every nation, people, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9f).

Next, Jesus assures the disciples that “I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2). Again we have a two-fold meaning. First he goes to prepare a place for the saints in heaven above. That is, he is soon to enter heaven as their High Priest and Sacrifice, there to make eternal intercession for them, with the result that the Father can welcome them into heaven as his beloved children (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 6:19-20, 7:25). But secondly, at his return he will create new heavens and a new earth, thus “preparing” an eternal chuppa (or dwelling-place) for himself and his beloved Bride (Phil. 3:20-21; Rev. 21:1-2).

Finally, Jesus promises his fearful disciples that “ . . . if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (v. 3). Once again we encounter layers of meaning, layers that the DNT equips us to discern and enjoy. There are three of them.

First, at the moment of their new birth, Christ will come to his disciples in the Spirit and receive them to himself (John 14:16-18). In the case of the eleven, this occurred on the Day of Pentecost. In the case of the rest of God’s children, it occurs in the centuries to follow. As a result of this initial coming, the saint’s bodies continue to dwell and serve the Lord upon the earth, but their spirits are raised to newness of life, so that henceforth they are also seated in the heavenly places in Christ (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:20). Even now they are “with Christ where he is.” Even now—though only dimly, as if in a mirror—they behold his glory (John 17:24; 1 Cor. 13:12; Cor. 3:18).

Secondly, at the moment of their physical death Christ will again come to his disciples in the Spirit, this time to perfect their souls and take them to live with him in heaven above. In other words, Jesus’ words are also fulfilled when, at their death, the saints enter Intermediate State (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 14:13). As we saw earlier, this is true burden of Revelation 20:4-6. In all such texts the Lord would have us know that throughout the Intermediate State the saints will be where he is: in heaven itself. But there, at long last, we will be like him, for there we will see him face to face, just as he is (1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christ will come to his disciples on the Day of his Parousia. Yes, when he descends from heaven he will be bringing their (perfected) spirits with him. But then, at the Resurrection, he will join those spirits to new glorified bodies, so that in their flesh they will see God (in Christ) with their own eyes (Job 19:26-28). In that Day he will yet again take his Bride to himself, but this time once and for all, so that henceforth they may dwell together forever in the glorious new Chuppa to Come (Rev. 14:1, 21:1-5).

Here, then, we have a powerful host of reasons why the Bride of Christ must not let her heart be troubled. When fear and sorrow threaten to overwhelm, she is to steady herself by listening afresh the voice of her heavenly Husband: “Beloved, always remember that through your new birth I have already come for you, and that even now you dwell with me where I am. But more than that, always remember that great things are waiting for you up ahead; that at the moment of your death—and also at the Resurrection of the Dead—I will again come to you and receive you to myself, so that where I am—and as I am—you may be also. Beloved Bride, be faithful until death: truly, it will be worth the wait!”

The Dispensational View

We have seen that John 14:1-3 harmonizes quite well with amillennial eschatology. How does the dispensational view fare? To find out, let’s listen to John MacArthur on our text:

“This is one of the passages that refer to the Rapture of the saints at the end of the age when Christ returns. The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom (Rev. 19:11-15), but taking believers from earth to live in heaven. Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked (Matt. 131:36-43). Rather this describes his coming to gather his own.”

In reply, I offer three observations.

First, if the rest of the DNT explicitly taught a pre-tribulation Rapture, then we would have to admit that this text could be referring to it. It is, as it were, a blank eschatological slate, amenable to different interpretations. We have seen, however, that the DNT always teaches a single Coming of Christ and a single Consummation. Accordingly, it is certain that this text does not refer to a pre-tribulation Rapture.

Secondly, MacArthur says, “The features in this description do not describe Christ coming to earth with His saints to establish His kingdom, but taking believers from earth to live in heaven.” We have seen, however, that the Lord’s actual words display a studied ambiguity. That is, they can indeed be interpreted to say that he will come to his disciples and take them to heaven, whether through the new birth, or through the first resurrection at the moment of their death (Rev. 20:4-6). However, they also can be interpreted to say that at his return he will take his disciples to be with him in the new heavens and the new earth. Since the DNT teaches this three-fold fulfillment, it is biblically justified to read it into our text. But since the DNT does not teach or support the dispensational interpretation, it is not biblically justified to read it into the text.

Finally, MacArthur says, “Since no judgment on the unsaved is described here, this is not the event of His return in glory and power to destroy the wicked.” Now this is perfectly true, if we are thinking of the first and second kinds of coming. But what of the third: the Lord’s bodily coming at the end of the age? Does Jesus’ silence about a general resurrection and judgment mean that he did not have them in mind? What if he elected not to mention them here, not only to leave room for the first two kinds of coming, but also, in regard to third, to focus the disciple’s attention on the supremely comforting prospect of being with him forever in the glorified World to Come? MacArthur’s argument from silence is not convincing. Moreover, there are many NT texts that refute his assertion by positively teaching that Christ will indeed judge the unrighteous at his bodily Coming (Matt. 13:37-43, 24-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess. 1:3-12, 2:1-12).

We conclude, then, that the amillennial interpretation of this text supplies a truer, richer, and far more comforting meaning than that of our dispensational brothers. The Lord is not speaking here of a pre-tribulation rapture, but of a three-fold coming to his disciples: first at the moment of their new birth, second at the moment of their death, and finally at his Parousia at the end of the age. When the heart of the Bride is troubled, let her meditate on all three, but especially on the eternal union that will be hers at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7).2

Notes

1. I define the Didactic New Testament as the teaching portions of the NT: Select passages in the Gospels, the Epistles, and select passages in the book of Acts.

2. This essay is an excerpt from a book in progress, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). It should be released later this year or very early in 2022.

Note: This essay is drawn from my forthcoming book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and (Amillennial) Answers. For a closer look at the various biblical texts cited here, please consult that book or the one of which it is an abridgement, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys of the Great End-Time Debate (Redemption Press).

______________

 

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 during the Jewish War (66-70 AD), and especially in the destruction of Jerusalem in 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.

1. Exposition of Partial Preterism (PP)

(To view a time line for PP please click HERE)

Partial preterists 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, we see from the time-line 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 of struggle and persecution for the saints, begun at the fall and ended at the Parousia, Rev. 7:9-17),  but as the Battle of Jerusalem, which took place in AD 67-70, when Titus attacked and destroyed the city.

As for the Parousia, our time line reveals yet another departure from Protestant orthodoxy. According to the latter, Christ will return once at the end of the present evil age to consummate all things. But according to PP, the one Parousia actually has two distinct phases. 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. This 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.

This too is a dramatic departure from Protestant orthodoxy. Traditionally, interpreters have held that in Matthew 24:27-31 the Lord gave us a true picture of the contours of his one supernatural Parousia. Yes, his words allude to various OTKP’s, but they do so in order to reveal, at long last, exactly how those prophecies will be fulfilled. Preterists, however, introduce an entirely new hermeneutic (i.e., method of biblical interpretation) by which they claim to understand not only this text, but also many others in the Gospels and epistles that describe the Consummation.

Partial preterists bring their new hermeneutic to the Revelation, which (against much good evidence) they insist was written prior to 70 AD, the year of 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 PP’s 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 camp—called theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists—also argue that during this future millennium 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, (the early) Gary de Mar, David Chilton, Ken Gentry, R.C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, Rousas Rushdoony, and Martin Selbrede all embrace the partial preterist understanding of biblical eschatology.

 

2. Exposition of Full Preterism (FP)

(To view a time line of Full Preterism, please click HERE)

Full Preterism 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.

 

3. Critique of Full Preterism

I will begin my critique of preterism by examining FP. But please bear in mind that, with minor differences, the criticisms cited here apply equally well to PP, upon which I will offer a few further comments following the present discussion.

View of the Kingdom  

In agreement with amillennarians, FP’s affirm that the Kingdom is the direct reign of God, through Christ, by the Spirit; that it is entered through faith in the Person and Work of Christ; and that it is, in essence, the promise of the Eternal Covenant. Also, they would agree that the Kingdom enters the world in two stages, though they conceive of these differently. They are correct in asserting that the first phase of the Kingdom began at Pentecost; they err in saying that the second began at the destruction of Jerusalem.

This is a serious misreading of NT doctrine. As we saw earlier, the second stage of the Kingdom begins at the Parousia of Christ at the end of the present evil age, when he himself will cast out all things that offend, and destroy every enemy, the last of which is death itself (Matt. 13:36-43; 1 Cor. 15:20-28). In the second and eternal stage of the Kingdom (the Kingdom of the Father), God’s will is done on earth exactly as it is done in heaven. In other words, his reign is cosmic and all embracing (Matt. 7:10). This means that it will descend upon the entire physical side of his creation, lifting the curse from all things and making all things new (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-5, 22:3). No amount of preterist spiritualizing can rid the Scriptures of these glorious promises, which belong essentially to the Blessed Hope of the Church.

View of the Consummation

The full preterist view of the Consummation completely undermines Christ’s teaching about the Consummation, leaving the Church unprepared for the Last Battle and robbing her of her Blessed Hope. It does so by misreading the Olivet Discourse, and then by making their flawed interpretation of that text into a Procrustean bed for the rest of NT eschatology. In particular, FP fails to see that in his discourse Christ spoke both of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the Consummation at the end of the age. He was employing “prophetic perspective,” blending together the local and the universal, the temporal and the eschatological. Full preterist’s refusal to acknowledge this crucial characteristic of the Olivet Discourse guts NT prophecy of its futuristic component, plunging us into exegetical chaos and destroying our Blessed Hope.

Let us take a moment to contrast preterist teaching on the last things with the traditional amillennial view.

First, “the last days” are not the last days of the Mosaic Covenant: the years between Calvary and 70 AD. Some NT texts do indeed use the phrase to describe the last of the last days, the days just prior to the Consummation (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). But as a rule, the Bible understands the last days as the days in which the Eternal Covenant has been manifested in the earth. 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, the nations were not fully evangelized prior to 70 AD. Yes, Paul and his companions had effectively evangelized the Roman “world” of their day (Ro. 1:18; Col. 1:6, 23). But as he himself would admit, this was only a prelude to, and a picture of, the evangelization of the whole earth, of which the Lord Jesus himself 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 of his elect should perish (2 Pet. 3:8f). Not all of 144,000 have been sealed (Rev. 71:f). The Two Witnesses have not yet finished giving their testimony (Rev. 11:7). Fittingly, even after 2000 years of preaching the Gospel, the Church still hears the Great Commission as an exhortation and encouragement to finish the job of world evangelization in the power of him who will be with us till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18f).

Thirdly, and most emphatically, the re-grafting of ethnic Israel into the God’s New Covenant Vine did not occur prior to 70 AD, when in fact most of Israel was dispersed or destroyed. Rather, it still lies ahead, and is a great sign of the imminence of the Parousia (Rom. 11:11ff).

Fourthly, though the emperor Nero was indeed moved by the spirit of the antichrist (1 Jn. 4:13), he was not the eschatological Antichrist, as any impartial reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 makes clear. The coming of the Antichrist—with his miraculous powers, unprecedented claims to deity, and universal following—still lies ahead, and is yet another great sign of the nearness of the end.

Fifthly, the vicissitudes of Titus’ invasion were not “the greatest tribulation” of which Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse. The former, which were indeed dire, stand as a picture of the latter, which will be unparalleled in world history, cut short for the sake of the elect, and culminate in the visible appearing of the Son of God in glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:15-28; Rev. 1:7).

Sixthly, it is indeed true that in 70 AD Christ “came” providentially and judged ethnic Israel (Matt. 10:23). But that coming was not “the” Coming about which the disciples primarily inquired. Nor was it the coming of which their Master primarily spoke, and for which the Church ever yearns (Matt. 24:29-31, 25:31ff). Indeed, one of the Lord’s great burdens in this discourse was to safeguard his flock against false Christs by urging them to remember that he, the true Christ, will come bodily, visibly, audibly, and in great power and glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:23-27). The rest of the NT repeatedly affirms this expectation (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:16f; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 1:7, 19:11-16). Again, no amount of preterist spiritualizing can overthrow the plain sense of these texts, or drain us of the thrilling hope they engender.

As for the Resurrection, it is certainly not the case that it occurred in 70 AD, or that it is spiritual only, rather than bodily. On this score whole tracts of the NT challenge the full preterists. Jesus went toe to toe with the Sadducees on the resurrection of the body, emphatically affirming it (Matt. 22:23-33). The apostle Paul did much the same, warning the Corinthian Christians against the very teaching now promoted by FP. Notably, he urged them to remember that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body belongs essentially to the Christian faith, and that without it “ . . . we are of all men most pitiable.” Paul’s later words to Timothy, in which he identifies the denial of the resurrection of the body as heresy, should strike fear in the heart of every full preterist (2 Tim 2:16-18).

And what of the Last Judgment? Has it really already occurred? Obviously not, seeing that the Scriptures repeatedly associate it with the bodily return of Christ, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the physical destruction of the present earth and its works by fire (Matt. 13:37-43, 24-25; John 5:21-29; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). As for the Parousia, so for the Judgment: There is but one of them, set to occur at the end of all things.

Finally, the World to Come has certainly not come, nor have the new heavens and the new earth appeared. Here I find the full preterist teaching to be especially discouraging, since, by spiritualizing the cosmic transformation promised throughout Scripture, it robs the saints of their true eternal home, and leaves behind a groaning, sin-cursed earth to decay forever. Or is that God will one day put the earth out of its misery by destroying it altogether? Happily, biblical teaching on this theme powerfully refutes the full preterist error, promising us a beautiful new physical universe freed from its bondage to corruption, and lifted up into the life-giving glory of God (Is. 35, 65:17-25; Ezek. 47; Matt. 13:37-43; Acts 13:19-24; Rom. 8:18-25; Phil. 3:20-21; 2 Pet. 3:3-13; Rev. 21-22).

Please note that while partial preterism avoids some of these errors, it does not avoid the first six I have just cited. Moreover, having embraced the first six, PP’s will be sorely tempted to fall into last three.

View of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP)

Like amillennarians, FP’s use the New Covenant Hermeneutic to interpret OTKP. Rightly, they see Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church as the true sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP.

Their great misstep, however, is to apply the same hermeneutic to NT prophecies of the Consummation and the completed Kingdom. In other words, they interpret such prophecies figuratively and typologically. They would have to if they hope to see them fulfilled in 70 AD!

But the DNT (i.e., the Didactic New Testament: the Gospels and the epistles) bars the way. Prophetic texts in this part of the Bible do not use figurative language. Quite to the contrary, they give us “simple prophecy”: straightforward eschatological predictions that are meant to supply the hermeneutical keys for interpreting OTKP and the Revelation. This makes perfect sense. Somewhere, sometime, someone in the Bible is going to have to speak plainly about the Kingdom and the Consummation so that we can decode the symbolic materials. In the DNT Christ and the apostles do this very thing (Matt. 13:10-12, 51-53; John 16:12-14, 25; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 1:8-10; 1 Tim. 4:1-3). But our full preterist brethren fail to see it.

Along these lines, let us consider Matthew 24:29-31, our Lord’s great prophecy of the Parousia. Contrary to the claims of FP’s, it does not at all read like Isaiah 13:9-10, 19:1f, or Ezekiel 32:7-8, OTKP’s that clearly employ a great deal of figurative language. Rather, it is a straightforward prediction of the Parousia, giving us the true contours of that awesome event. Notably, this is evident from the straightforward predictions that lead into it (Matt. 24:21-27), and also from the straightforward predictions that flow from it (Matt. 24:32-51, 25:30-46). It is evident from the language itself, which, by alluding to various OTKP’s, finally supplies us with the true nature of their eschatological fulfillment. And it is especially evident from the fact that other NT descriptions of the Parousia closely resemble this one, which clearly serves as the NT prototype, and is therefore the mother of all NT prophecies of the Parousia and Consummation (Matt. 13:37-43; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). In short, if the Olivet Discourse is not speaking straightforwardly about the Parousia and the Consummation, we are completely at sea in trying to form a mental picture of the Blessed Hope of Christ’s Church.

The instincts of the preterists are right: The New Covenant gives us the key for interpreting OTKP. But by attempting to insert that key into the door of simple NT prophecy, they take from us the key to all biblical prophecy. Happily, amillennialism gives it back.

View of the Revelation

Astonishingly, full preterists assert that the entire Revelation was fulfilled prior to, in, or shortly following 70 AD. Its theme was not a supernatural consummation at the end of the Era of Proclamation, but a providential consummation accomplished in the Jewish War (AD 66-70). On this view, chapters 1-3 give us Christ’s message to the seven Asian churches, messages designed to prepare them for “the end.” Chapters 4-5 give us God and the High King of Heaven preparing these saints for “the end.” The vision of the six seals (Rev. 6), the seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11), and the seven bowl judgments (Rev. 15-16) depict miscellaneous aspects of the judgment against Jerusalem. Revelation 7:1-8 depicts the spiritual sealing of the Christian Church, so that she might pass safely through the Jewish War. Revelation 7:9-13 depicts her having done just that, and now enjoying the blessings of heaven. Chapters 12-14 are meant to gird up the Church for Jewish and Roman persecution at the hands of the Beast (Nero/Rome) and the False Prophet (according to some, the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Gessius Florus). Chapters 17-19 depict the fall of the Harlot (Jerusalem), who wickedly consorts with the Beast (Rome). Chapter 20 symbolizes the spiritual “reign” of the saints on earth during the years between Pentecost and 70 AD. Chapters 21-22 use earthly language to symbolize the glories of heaven.

We have seen, however, that for a great many reasons this line of interpretation is untenable. Let us touch on a few of the most important.

First, a solid majority of scholars agree that the Revelation was written around 95 AD. If so, the entire preterist thesis is overthrown.1

Secondly, this interpretation runs counter to the prophetic purpose of the book, which is to instruct, exhort, and encourage Christ’s disciples of all generations, especially by keeping before her eyes (and not behind her back) the rigors of the Great Tribulation (i.e., the afflictions of the present evil age), the inevitability of the Last Battle, the assurance of spiritual life in heaven during the Intermediate State, and the Blessed Hope of Christ’s return in order to consummate all things (Rev. 1:1). In sum, FP turns the Revelation into a practical irrelevancy for the vast majority of Christians, thereby demonstrating its falsehood.

Thirdly, while the preterist interpretation does leave room for the idea of six visionary recapitulations of the Era of Proclamation (Rev. 6-20), it mistakenly substitutes 70 AD for the end of that era. As a result, it grievously misconstrues much of the rich symbolism of the book, eclipses the glory of Christ at his Coming, and robs the Church of much-needed encouragement and her Blessed Hope itself.

Fourthly, FP beclouds—and even trivializes—the powerful symbolism of the Revelation. We have seen, for example, that the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments do not fall (exclusively) on Jerusalem or Rome, but upon the entire world system; that the Beast from the sea is not Nero, but the governmental face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the False Prophet is not a mere Roman functionary, but the religious face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the Harlot is not Jerusalem (though she did indeed play the harlot with Rome), but the economic and cultural face of the anti-Christian world-system; that Babylon the Great is not Rome or Jerusalem, but the City of Man of all time, the fallen world-system as a whole; etc. Yes, the preterist approach may give us some valid historical applications of these symbols, but it by no means exhausts them, seeing that they are universal in scope, and therefore speak with fresh power to every generation of believers.

This brings us to our final criticism, namely that FP altogether misses the cosmic scope and weightiness of the Revelation. By limiting its expansive symbolism to the Jewish War it shrinks and shackles a majestic prophecy that is clearly meant to give us something far, far greater: a heaven’s eye view of the full sweep of Salvation History. Here we have nothing less than serial depictions of the course and destiny of the entire universe from the time of Christ’s first Coming to his second, and beyond that into eternity future. On this score, Robert Mounce therefore states the case well:

“The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse [and in the earlier chapters as well] was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of [all] evil, and the eternal reign of God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message, or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.”

 

4. Critique of Partial Preterism

Partial preterism is an inconsistent form of FP. That’s a blessing, since its inconsistency keeps partial preterism within the pale of orthodoxy. In this section I will briefly explain where the two camps agree and disagree, where PP errs, and why this eschatology really is an inconsistent form of FP.

Points of Agreement

Above all, FP and PP agree in taking their eschatological stand on the Olivet Discourse, and in using a preterist hermeneutic to interpret it. As a result they generally agree that in this discourse: (1) Christ refers exclusively to the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD; (2) “the last days” are the few remaining years of Mosaic Law, during which Jews may find pardon and new life through faith in Christ; (3) the Jewish and Roman world was fully evangelized during this time; (4) Nero (who initiated the Jewish War) was the Antichrist; (5) Titus’ banners, planted on the temple grounds, were the abomination that makes desolate; and (6) the Great Tribulation was the three and a half year siege of Jerusalem, culminating in its destruction.

Also, the two camps agree that the main theme of Revelation 6-19 is the divine preservation of the early Church throughout the lead up to, and the administration of, God’s Judgment of Jerusalem at the invisible and providential return of Christ.

Points of Disagreement

Partial preterists do not agree with full preterists that the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and advent of the World to Come are invisible spiritual events that occurred in and around 70 AD. Rather, in accordance with historic orthodoxy, PP’s affirm that all these are visible and supernatural, and that they will occur in the future, at the end of the present evil age. Here their view accords fairly well with the amillennial view of the Consummation.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems.

To begin with, partial preterists assert that Matthew 24:29-31 does not depict the final, supernatural Coming of Christ, but rather the Lord’s providential “judgment-coming” against Jerusalem. This is indeed a departure from orthodoxy, and a grave one. The historic view of the Church, defended above, is that Matthew 24:29-31 and Matthew 25:31-46 both describe the one Consummation: The former accents the Lord’s Parousia, the latter accents the Last Judgment that he will administer at that time.

But again, PP’s disagree, asserting that Matthew 25:31-36 alone gives us the supernatural Last Judgment. But this stretches all credulity. Does Matthew 24:29-31 look like a providential judgment against Jerusalem? Is it not, on the face of it, a supernatural Coming bringing a supernatural Judgment? Is it not altogether global—indeed cosmic—in its scope (Matt. 24:35)? Is it not the ultimate Coming about which the apostles inquired (Matt. 24:3)? Is it not clear that 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? And is it not therefore the case that PP separates what God has joined together, thereby shattering the majestic unity of Scripture’s premiere text on the Consummation (Matt. 24-25)?

Secondly, this mishandling of the Olivet Discourse works havoc on the exegesis of other NT texts dealing with the Consummation. If Matthew 24-25 gives us two different kinds of coming and judgment, how can we determine which coming and which judgment the apostles were referring to in their own writings? For example, some partial preterists say that in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul is speaking about the supernatural coming of Christ to raise the dead, but that in 1 Thess. 5:1-11 he suddenly turns to the providential coming of 70 AD to judge Israel. Or again, some partial preterists assert that in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 Paul has the judgment-coming of 70 AD in view, despite the fact that he speaks of the Lord being revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire! Similarly, most partial preterists 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 source of all this confusion is plain: PP’s fail to discern prophetic blending in the Olivet Discourse. They see only the near, and not the far; the historical, but not the eschatological. As a result, they must resort to an alien, hyper-spiritualizing hermeneutic in order find in Matthew 24:29-31 a reference to the events of 70 AD. And as a result of that they feel compelled to use the same hermeneutic to interpret other NT texts that refer to the one true Parousia. Henceforth the door is open to exegetical chaos.

The bottom line here is as simple as it is important: Whether we have in mind the epistles or the Revelation, the apostles of Christ show no interest whatsoever in the destruction of Jerusalem, whether it lay ahead of them (as in the case of the early writings of Paul) or behind them (as in the case of all the writings of John). Their concern, only and always, 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 Pet. 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 it, and he had to prepare them for it. But in the rest of the NT, which is directed almost entirely to Gentile believers or to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the empire, interest in the events of 70 AD completely falls away, seeing that the one and only 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.

Partial Preterism on the Revelation

We have seen that in regard to Revelation 1-19 partial preterists are in agreement with full preterists: All is focused on the Jewish-Roman persecution of the early Church, the rise of the Beast (Nero), and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

In regard to Revelation 21-22, partial preterists typically stand with historic orthodoxy, viewing these chapters as a picture, cast largely in OT language, of the glorified Church situated in the glorified World to Come.

However, in regard to Revelation 20 there are some serious differences of opinion among themselves.

On the one hand, we have partial preterists who identify the Millennium with the entire Church Era. On this view, the binding of Satan is a work of the Spirit made possible by the Cross of Christ. Because of these two redemptive events, Satan can no longer deceive the nations so as to prevent the ingathering of God’s elect, nor can he foment the Last Battle until God so decrees (Rev. 20:1-3). The first resurrection is spiritual rather than physical, and refers either to the new birth or the onset of the Intermediate State (Rev. 20:4-6). Revelation 20:7-10 gives us the book’s one and only prediction of the Last Battle between the Church and the world, in which the Antichrist, who has already come (i.e., in the person of Nero) plays no part. Other texts in the Revelation that seem to predict the Last Battle were actually fulfilled during the Great Tribulation of 66-70 AD, when the Church was persecuted by Israel and Rome (Rev. 11:7-10, 13:7f, 16:12-16, 19:19-21). As for Revelation 20:11-14, it gives us the Revelation’s one and only description of the Last Judgment at the end of the age. I have critiqued these earlier.

On the other hand, we have interpreters like Ken Gentry and Doug Wilson, who advance a postmillennial view of Revelation 20. Recall that for postmillennarians the Millennium is a Golden Era still future to us. The binding of Satan has yet to occur, but certainly will, perhaps when ethnic Israel at large turns to Lord (Rom. 11:15). This will bring about “the first resurrection” and “the reign of the saints,” these being understood as fresh bursts of Gospel vitality that will fill the earth, not only with multitudes of devoted Christians, but also with widespread Kingdom righteousness, peace, and joy. Alas, the Golden Era will be marred by the release of Satan, and therefore by a final rebellion against Christ and his faithful remnant (Rev. 20:7-9). But this unexpected reversal will be offset by the Lord’s swift return (Rev. 20:9), at which time he will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 20:10-15). Note carefully, then, that for all partial preterists Revelation 20 alone gives us the supernatural Parousia of Christ, the bodily Resurrection, and the Last Judgment. All the other texts that seem to predict these things were allegedly fulfilled in 70 AD (see Rev. 6:12-17, 11:11-19, 14:14-20, 16:17-21, 19:11ff).

Having discussed the Revelation at length in Part IV of this book there is no need for further critical comments on partial preterist views. Suffice it to say that an over-emphasis on the events of 70 AD, together with a faulty hermeneutic arising from it, have kept our partial preterist brethren from fully seeing the structure, purpose, and scope of the Grand Finale of all Scripture. This is a tragic loss, not only for them, but also for those who travel with them. Our Lord meant the Revelation to be a mirror in which all Christians of all time could see their own face, and the face of the world; in which they could be strengthened for persecution, prepared for the Last Battle, and profoundly encouraged by manifold representations of the sovereignty of Christ and of their Blessed Hope. Like most of the NT, the Revelation does not utter a single word about a providential coming of Christ to destroy Jerusalem. It does, however, utter many words about the one supernatural Coming of Christ to consummate the redemption of his beloved Bride and take her with him to his eternal home. If we see and remember all this, we shall come to enjoy—rather than dread or dismiss—the Grand Finale of All Scripture.


Conclusion

I have lingered long over preterist eschatology, not because it is an especially popular view, but because in recent years it has gained a foothold in circles that hitherto were bastions of amillennial orthodoxy. This troubles me. At a time when my Reformed brethren should be calling Christ’s Church back to their amillennial heritage, I now find some of them mired in error—or worse.

 Concerning FP, 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.

As for PP, I am only slightly less concerned. That’s because PP is simply an inconsistent form of FP. Both of them stand upon the same corrupt foundation: a faulty exegesis of Matthew 24 that fails to discern prophetic blending; that collapses the far into the near, and the cosmic into the local; that therefore hyper-spiritualizes and misinterprets Scripture’s premiere description of the Parousia (Matt. 24:27-31); and that thereby creates a false hermeneutic and a false emphasis that spread like a cancer to other crucial eschatological texts, including many in the Revelation. In short, if hermeneutical consistency counts for anything, the partial preterist must sooner or later become a full preterist or else turn back altogether.

I would welcome the latter. Indeed, I would urge all my preterist brothers in Christ to retrace your steps, to re-examine your exegetical foundations, to let the sweet simplicity and crystal clarity of the apostolic eschatology strike you afresh with their mighty power, and to let them bring you home to the good old paths of our Reformed forefathers.

I believe we are living in the last of the last days. Christ’s pilgrim Church will need all the eschatological truth, clarity, and encouragement she can possibly get. She will need you to help her receive them all.

 Notes

1. For a brief discussion of the date of the Revelation, click here.

 

This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options and Amillennial Answers.  It  is an abridgment of a previously published book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys of the Great End Time Debate. For further discussion of the various evangelical options in eschatology please consult these two works.

 Exposition

(To view a timeline for Postmillennialism please click here)

The word postmillennialism means after the millennium. Thus, like amillennialism, postmillennialism teaches that Christ will come again after the thousand years of Revelation 20. Nevertheless, the two schools differ, primarily because postmillennarians are highly optimistic about the progress and societal impact of the Gospel during the Era of Proclamation. The seeds of this persuasion were first planted by Augustine, who was quite confident about the redemptive power and future growth of the City of God (i.e., the Church). In Reformation times certain Dutch theologians modified his view, asserting that the thousand years symbolize a later portion of the Era of Proclamation, during which time the Jews will be converted and the world will be more or less completely Christianized.

Though hardly the majority report of the Church, postmillennialism has had some astute defenders. Most of the American Puritans were postmillennarians. They believed that God would use the American experiment in a special way to advance his universal Kingdom. Recent postmillennarians include Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Lorraine Boettner, John Jefferson Davis, Jeff Durbin, Marcellus Kik, Keith Mathison, James White, and Doug Wilson. The disciples of Rousas Rushdoony—the founder of a theological school called Christian Reconstructionism—are also postmillennial. They include Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Gary North, and Martin Selbrede.

By way of review, here is the postmillennarian take on the four underlying issues of the Great End Time Debate: The Kingdom of God, the interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy (OTKP), the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature of the Consummation.

1. The Kingdom of God: Postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brothers that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God, and that it enters history in two fundamental stages: the purely spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by the spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. But, as we just saw, some postmillennarians think of the Millennium as a distinct phase of the Kingdom of Son, in which Christ suddenly binds Satan and then triumphantly extends his spiritual reign over the face of the whole earth. For these interpreters, postmillennialism is not really a species of present-millennialism, since here the Millennium is present with some, but not all, Christians who live in the Era of Proclamation.

2. The Interpretation of OTKP: Once again postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brethren in interpreting these prophecies typologically and figuratively, and as being fulfilled under the New Covenant and among its people, the Church. There is, however, a crucial difference: In texts where amillennarians find the prophets speaking of the World to Come, most postmillennarians find them speaking of the triumphs of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. More on this in a moment.

3. The Meaning of the Millennium: Here postmillennarians differ among themselves. Some identify the 1000 years of Revelation 20 with the entire Era of Proclamation, others with its final thousand years, still others with a season of indeterminate length situated towards the end of the present evil age. In the latter case, this season is held to commence with a special, latter-day binding of Satan, possibly leading to the conversion of ethnic Israel at large (this is the view I have pictured in the time-line linked above). All agree, however, that the basic trajectory of Church history, despite occasional setbacks, is one of Gospel triumph.

4. The Consummation: Regarding the Consummation, postmillennarians concede that Revelation 20:7-10 does indeed anticipate a final, global rebellion against Christ and his faithful people (i.e., the Last Battle). This painful interlude—so out of character with the preceding years of triumph and blessing—will quickly lead to the Parousia, the several other elements of the Consummation, and the advent of the World to Come.

Thus, for most postmillennarians the true locus of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil is the Era of Proclamation itself, with Christ’s Second Coming serving largely as a glorious capstone upon all that he was able previously to accomplish through the faithful preaching of his Church and the activism of Christian citizens.

Does Scripture justify this optimistic scenario? Does the course of Church History to date confirm it? In the following critique we will seek to answer these important questions.

Critique

With the help of the diagram above, let’s review the postmillennarian understanding of Salvation History, paying special attention to the four underlying issues we have just identified and discussed.

View of the Kingdom

Amillennarians divide the Kingdom of God into two simple stages: the temporary Kingdom of the Son, followed by the perfect and eternal Kingdom of the Father. But as we have seen, most postmillennarians go on to divide the Kingdom of the Son into two sub-stages: an initial stage of real but difficult and partial gospel progress, followed by a millennial stage characterized by enormous gospel progress. Postmillennarian Ken Gentry speaks for many when he says of the Millennium: “The Kingdom will grow and develop until eventually it exercises a dominant and universal gracious influence in a long era of righteousness, peace, and prosperity on the earth and in history.”

This view of the Kingdom of the Son is not supported in Scripture. Nowhere in the Didactic New Testament (DNT) do we find any suggestion that it is divided into two stages, or that it includes a long, future Golden Era. Quite to the contrary, we find both Christ and the apostles repeatedly girding the loins of the saints for constant opposition and persecution, though also for a real measure of success as God gathers together his little flock through the faithful preaching of the Gospel (Matt. 24:9-14; John 10:16; Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:2; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:12; 1 John 3:13, 5:19).

On this score, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is paradigmatic (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). Here the Lord clearly assumes that throughout the entire Era of Proclamation the tares will grow up alongside the wheat. Indeed, so abundant are the tares that the angels regard them as a threat to the safety of God’s crop (Matt. 13:27-28). This is the template of all NT eschatology. Believers ever live and serve in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4). They constantly struggle against the world-forces of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). To the very end the world-system lies in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Always and everywhere the Church is a light shining in the deepening darkness of the world-system (Matt. 5:14; John 1:5). Her ongoing experience is one of Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14). She is constantly making a hard pilgrimage through the wilderness of a hostile world (Rev. 12:6, 13-17). The Last Battle is simply the final and most extreme engagement of this perennial war. Where, in all of this, is there room for a Golden Era of peace, righteousness, and prosperity?

View of OTKP

Postmillennarians argue that many OTKP’s predict a global triumph of the Gospel in the Era of Proclamation (Psalms 72, 110; Is. 2:1-4, 45:2-3, 65:17-25; Mic. 4:1-3; Zech. 9:10, etc.). But here we encounter some serious confusion. Yes, postmillennarians are correct when they assert that these prophecies are fulfilled under the New Covenant, and that we must therefore interpret them typologically and figuratively. But they err when they assert that the prophecies are largely fulfilled in the Era of Proclamation, and not at all in the World to Come. The truth here is nuanced, and accessible only through a careful use of the DNT and the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH). The DNT always depicts the Kingdom of the Son as a temporary season of measured Gospel success amidst tribulation, and the Kingdom of the Father as an eternal season of complete success following the removal of all tribulation at the Consummation. Under the discipline of this rubric we will understand OTKP’s prophecies well. Apart from it we will will stumble into error, false optimism, and deep disappointment.

Let us view these principles at work by considering a text that is especially dear to the hearts of our postmillennial brothers.

In Psalm 72 the writer (likely David) supplies his fellow Israelites with a prayer that they can offer for Solomon and all his royal successors. In so doing, he gives us a picture of Israel’s ideal king, and of the blessings that must attend his reign. Premillennarians say that here the Spirit is describing the fruits Christ’s earthly millennial reign, begun later in the Era of Proclamation when he specially binds Satan and launches a fresh season of gospel conquest. But amillennarians, operating under the discipline of the DNT, say, “No, here the Spirit is describing the fruits of Christ’s heavenly reign during the Era of Proclamation, at the Consummation, and throughout the World to Come. However, he was pleased to hide the great mystery of the two-staged Kingdom from the eyes of the Psalmist, with the result that David gave us a seamless vision of the total fruitage of the Messiah’s redemptive reign. Having received the gift of the NCH, we who are privileged to live in these last days are able to see the Spirit’s true meaning at last.”

Accordingly, we can see that even now the heavenly King defends the cause of the poor (v. 4; Matt. 5:3; 1 Cor. 1:26-30). Even now he gives deliverance to the oppressed and needy (v. 4, 12; Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 3:3f). Even now he is to his thirsting people as showers that water the earth (v. 6; Acts 3:19; 1 Cor. 12:13; Phil. 1:19). Even now, through the faithful preaching of the Gospel, his far-flung dominion is spreading from sea to sea and to all the ends of the earth (v. 8; Matt. 13:33; Acts 1:8; Col. 1:23).

However, this psalm also anticipates the Consummation, as well as the eternal stage of the Kingdom that will follow. At his return the King’s enemies will lick the dust (v. 9; Luke 19:27), all the rulers of the earth will fall down before him (v. 11; Phil. 2:10), and every remaining oppressor, including death itself, will be crushed (vv. 4, 14; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 15:25). Then, in the completed Kingdom of God that Christ himself will usher in, the mountains will bring forth perfect prosperity (v. 3; Heb. 12:18f; Rev. 21:10), the peoples will flourish like the grass of the field (v. 16; Rev. 22:2), the saints will praise his name forever (v. 17; Heb. 13:15), and all the nations of the saved will call him blessed (v. 17; Rev. 5:6-14). Long shall he live, and long shall his redeemed Bride and Family live with him in the eternal Kingdom of God (vv. 14, 15; Rev. 1:18, 21:3-4).

The skilled use of the NCH enables us to open other texts to which postmillennarians appeal. For example, Psalm 110:1-3 does not picture a universal reign of Christ through the advance of the Gospel, but rather the ongoing spiritual warfare of the Church Militant, and the real but measured evangelistic success that the High King will grant. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 do not refer to the universal triumph of the Gospel prior to the Parousia, but to the progress of the Gospel in the first stage of the Kingdom, and its final triumph in the second. Isaiah 65:17-25 is not, as postmillennarian Marcellus Kik avers, a picture of “the moral and spiritual revolution in human affairs fostered by the gospel.” Rather, it is a picture of the new heavens and the new earth, cast in the familiar tropes of the OT (1 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:2). Zechariah 9:10 will not be fulfilled in the Era of Gospel Proclamation, but at the Consummation, when Christ will speak peace to all the nations of the redeemed, and his dominion will extend to the ends of the earth.

Again, it is not that these OTKP’s cannot be understood to promise a Golden Era of gospel prosperity; it is that the DNT requires us to interpret them otherwise. The OT does indeed promise a universal reign of Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s God. But that reign will overspread the earth in part through the preaching of the gospel, and then in fullness at the Lord’s return. In that day the OT prophets will rejoice, for the Golden Age of Israel’s ideal King will have come at last.

View of the Consummation

Fundamentally, the postmillennial view of the Consummation is sound since it looks for a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ. There are, however, a number of problems.

First, many postmillennarians anticipate a latter-day conversion of ethnic Israel prior to the Millennium (i.e., the Golden Era of gospel prosperity). But this is not the teaching of the NT, which looks for Israel’s conversion at the end of the Millennium (i.e., at the end of the Era of Proclamation). This is a serious error, since it robs the Church of an important sign of the imminence of the Parousia: the grafting of many ethnic Israelites back into the vine of Christ, after which we may soon expect “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15).

Secondly, postmillennialism vitiates biblical teaching on the Last Battle. Yes, postmillennarians confess that a Last Battle will indeed occur prior to the Parousia. But by placing it on the far side of their Golden Era they leave the Church looking first for a Golden Era (that will not come), and only then for the Last Battle (which, for postmillennarians, will come all too soon). In other words, this teaching effectively cuts the nerve of several powerful NT texts warning us that the Last Battle could swiftly fall upon us, and that we must always be watchful and prepared for it (2 Thess. 2:1f; Rev. 16:15). It leaves a naively optimistic Church vulnerable to the shock of the sudden rise of the Antichrist, and to all the spiritual disillusionment that must flow from it. Again, this dire consequence is rooted in postmillennialism’s failure to see that the entire Era of Proclamation is a season of gospel combat and conflict, a season of “great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14).

Finally, postmillennialism tends to trivialize the Last Battle and the Last Judgment. Both are profoundly solemn events, events that will engulf huge swaths of humanity. Postmillennialism pictures the Last Battle as an unfortunate ripple upon a sea of millennial bliss. Similarly, it minimizes the gravity of the Last Judgment by implying that in virtue of the Golden Era of gospel progress relatively few souls will be lost.

On both counts the NT sharply disagrees. Our Lord said that throughout the Church era, and especially at its end, his disciples will be hated by all nations (Matt. 10:16ff, 24:9). John relates that the number of those who wage war against the eschatological camp of the saints will be “like the sand of the seashore” (Rev. 20:8). As for the ratio of the saved to the lost, I believe we are wise to eschew undue speculation (Luke 13:22f). Nevertheless, it is sobering to recall that wide is the gate and broad the way that leads to destruction, and that many go in by it (Matt. 7:13, 13:24-40, 36-43); that Christ refers to his Church as “a little flock” (Luke 12:32); and that those will follow him upon the slopes of the eternal Zion are the first fruits (i.e., the smaller part) of the total harvest of God and the Lamb (Jas. 1:18, Rev. 14:1-4, 14-20).

We find, then, that despite its welcome nod to orthodoxy, postmillennialism gives us a flawed and potentially injurious view of the Consummation. 

View of the Revelation and the Millennium

Like premillennarians, postmillennarians generally teach that the events described in Revelation 20 follow those described in Revelation 19:11-21. This means, of course, that Revelation 19:11-21 cannot be speaking of the Parousia/Consummation. Accordingly, Loraine Boettner argues that Revelation 19 gives us “ . . . a vision setting forth in figurative language the age-long struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the world, with its promise of complete victory.” In other words, it gives us Christ triumphing during the Era of Proclamation through the preaching of the Word of God. This leads to a special binding of Satan, which in turn inaugurates the golden millennial era (Rev. 20:1-3). In that era, the world will allegedly experience “the first resurrection,” by which postmillennarians mean a “ . . . restoration and vindication of the cause for which the martyrs died” (J. J. Davis), or “a rebirth of the martyr spirit” (A. Strong). Vast numbers of millennial saints, now fully subject to the Spirit of the High King of Heaven, will reign victoriously on a peaceful and prosperous earth (20:4-6). At the close of the Millennium, this global victory will seem, for the briefest of moments, to end in defeat, as Satan is released from his prison and gathers an evil multitude against the faithful people of God. However, at his Parousia Christ will swiftly intervene to destroy his enemies (Rev. 20:7-10), effect the Last Judgment (Rev. 20:12-15), and bring in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:1-22:21).

By my lights this is a serious misreading of the Revelation. As I argued earlier, Revelation 20 runs parallel to Revelation 17-19, and does not follow it chronologically.1 Revelation 19:11-21 most certainly does give us the Parousia, as do Revelation 6:12-17, 11:11-19, 14:14-20 and 20:10-15. The binding of Satan took place at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation, through Christ’s work on the Cross; it is not still future, even to us who live 2000 years into that era (Matt. 12:29; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; 1 Pet. 3:22, Rev. 12:7f)! The first resurrection is not a revival of the martyr’s cause or spirit; it is the attainment of spiritual perfection awaiting all the saints who die in the Lord; it is their entrance upon the Intermediate State (Rev. 14:13; cf. 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). And finally, the millennial reign of the saints does not take place upon the earth, but rather in heaven, where the spirits of the saints reign in life with Christ, even as they await the final triumph of life at “the second resurrection”: the resurrection of their body on the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:1f; Rev. 20:11-15).

Conclusion

Certainly we can be grateful to our postmillennarian brethren when they remind us that God has predestined the gospel to redeem a great multitude of believers out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (2 Cor. 2:14; Rev. 5:9, 7:9). And certainly we can join them in affirming that the advance of Christ’s Kingdom will leaven the evil world-system in such a way as to have positive impacts on its various institutions, whether cultural, political, or economic (Matt. 5:13-16). By all means, then, let individual Christians serve the Lord in every legitimate sphere of life, and let them be grateful for whatever good their presence and witness is able to  accomplish, whether great or small (John 17:15).

Nevertheless, the Church should regard postmillennialism as a seriously flawed eschatology, and perhaps even a dangerous one. Its root problem is that it misunderstands God’s true purpose in the Era of Proclamation, which is not to Christianize the Domain of Darkness, but rather to rescue a chosen people out of it, and to transfer them into the Kingdom of his beloved Son (Gal. 1:4, Col. 1:13). This means that from start to finish Christ’s Kingdom and Satan’s kingdom are in constant contact and conflict, and that the Era of Proclamation is, above all else, a spiritual battlefield upon which a great war is being fought for the souls of men. “Even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined” (Dan. 9:26).

If it is received, the unbiblical doctrine of a future Golden Era will seriously undermine the spiritual health of the saints. It sets them up for disappointment and frustration, since the Era they dream of will never come, no matter how hard they toil for it. It distracts them from their true mission, which is not to transform the world-system, but rather to preach the Gospel so that God may gather his elect out of it. It distorts the believer’s hope, focusing it upon an illusory stage of Church history rather than upon the Consummation at Christ’s return (Tit. 2:3; 1 Pet. 1:13). It fails to prepare the Church for inevitable persecution, and also to warn her against the perils of the rising tide of lawlessness that will characterize the last of the last days (Matt. 24:12). And again, it effectively robs her of the three outstanding signs by which she can know that the Coming of her Lord is at hand: the fulfillment of the Great Commission, the conversion of ethnic Israel, and the Last Battle.

For all these reasons I would invite my postmillennial brethren to come home to your true birth mother: the amillennial eschatology of the classic Reformation. Truly, she has prepared her table well, and is eager to forgive, forget, and savor all good things with her beloved sons.

Notes:

  1. To view a chart giving the structure of the Revelation, click here.

 

“But I have this against you: You have left your first love.
So then: Remember the place from which you have fallen,
and repent and do the first works.”
(Revelation 2:3-4)

This word arrived as a gut punch to the Ephesians. It can do the same when we read it today.

Before it hit, the Lord was all commendation, praising these busy Christians for their toil, endurance, and holy intolerance of evil. After it hit, he did the same, lauding them for their hatred of the lawless works of the Nicolaitans. But in between there came a stern and urgent reproof, flashing like dark lightning against a deep blue sky. What can account for it?

When I asked myself this question, a memorable poem by William Blake came to mind:

O Rose, thou are sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Hath found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Doth thy life destroy.

When people looked at the Ephesian rose, all seemed well. These believers were abounding in the work of the Lord. What’s more, to judge from the King’s commendations, they were doing their works in the Spirit and power of the Lord. This should give us pause: Though the Lord may be granting us fruitful labors, it also may be that a dark and dangerous love has begun to creep, worm-like, into our bed of crimson joy: into the life of love that was purchased for the Bride of Christ by his blood.

But what exactly was the nature of that invisible worm? And how was it enticing the Ephesians to leave their first love?

Perhaps we find our answers in a story about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38ff). The Lord had come to town. Martha invited him into her home for dinner. Her sister Mary sat herself at the Lord’s feet, listening to his words. But Martha was distracted with her many preparations.

What’s more, she was angry. With an unholy boldness that shocks the reader, it is written that she came up to the Son of God himself and said, ““Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me!” But the Lord, wise and gentle, answered with firmness: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is truly necessary. I’m saying this because Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken from her.” 

Is this how it was with the Ephesians? Yes, their service was partly in the Spirit; but was it also partly in the flesh? Was it partly motivated by a sincere love for the Lord, but also by some “dark, secret love” that was creeping into the sacred space? What might it have been? Pride, independence, selfish ambition, worldly pleasure?  Whatever it was, it was causing many to drift away from their first love. The story in Luke suggests that they had done so by departing from the feet and living word of their Master. Their work for the Lord had somehow become an excuse to abandon their time with the Lord, which alone can keep the saints in squarely in the crimson bed.

This brings me to the “first works” which the Lord urged upon the Ephesians. Obviously they are vital. What are they?

Speaking personally, whenever I read those words I am reminded of my daily quiet time. For years I have reckoned it to be the first of the first works.

When I come to the Lord, I try to come early: If he is first in my life, he needs to be first in my day, as much as possible. I come alone, Bible in hand. Mary-like, I seat myself at his feet. I try to go low: to empty myself of myself, and to place myself in a posture of hearing, seeing, receiving. I want to receive his living word.

I begin by remembering the love of God: The love of my Father in choosing me;  the love of my Savior in redeeming me; the love of the Spirit in calling, sanctifying, and preserving me. I speak of this love and thank them for it. In the miraculous chemistry of spiritual life, such heartfelt thanksgiving for the love of God somehow rekindles my love for him.

Next, I ask for a fresh infusion of the Lord’s light and life through the opening of his Word to my heart. Believing that it will come, I slowly read and mediate upon today’s text. When I am stricken by a word I love, I will sometimes share it in love (smart phones are a big help). Usually, I simply go into my day in the strength of any quickened words, sharing them and/or the life they have brought me with my neighbor, as opportunities arise.

Then I pray, asking above all to be led by the Holy Spirit in my prayers. I know he is leading when he brings specific needs to mind, and when I experience life, liberty, longing, love, and (on occasion) laughter, as I lay my requests before him.

Finally, I pray for guidance for my day, sometimes jotting down the errands of love that I believe the Lord has placed on my heart. When I execute those errands I again go low, waiting upon the wisdom, beauty, and power of a ministry done in the Lord’s love.

All of this is easily said; most assuredly, it is not easily done. How swiftly the alien worms of pride, selfish ambition, haste, distraction, and preoccupation encroach upon the holy rose!

But here is good news: The Lord is committed to guarding the rose. He has given us a new heart, a holy heart; and he has told us that he will watch over it with all of his heart. He has sealed it for himself. He has said, “I am a jealous God.” The triune God of the Bible has sworn: Though dark, secret loves beckon and entice my children and my Bride, they will not prevail.

In all of this there is his part, and there is our part.

On his part there are invitations to come and sit at his feet; there are promises of life-giving openings of his Word; there are seasons of refreshing and streams in the desert; there are fruitful goings out and comings in.

But all of this is contingent on us doing our part. And the first part of our part is to meet him daily in the crimson bed. As long as I am abiding there, I know that all will be well, and that the fragrance of Christ will be upon the flower of my life.

This is the first of the first works. Let us labor to do it with all our hearts.

 

 

My all time favorite Gospel tract. May it bring you a fresh sighting of the Pearl of Great Price. d

 

The Matchless Pearl

A HEAVY SPLASH was followed by many ripples, and then the water below the pier was still. An American crouched on the low Indian pier, his eyes riveted on the place where a stream of little bubbles rose to the surface from deep under the water. In a moment a black head appeared and a pair of bright eyes looked up. Then the old Indian pearl diver was clambering onto the dock, grinning and shaking the water from his shining, oily body.

“As nice a dive as I’ve ever seen, Rambhau!” cried David Morse, the American missionary.

“Look at this one, sahib,” said Rambhau, taking a big oyster from between his teeth. “I think it’ll be good.”

“Rambhau! Look!” exclaimed Morse, “Why it’s a treasure!”

“Oh, yes, but there are better pearls, much better. Why, I have one—” his voice trailed off. “See this one—the imperfections—the black speck here, this tiny dent, even in shape it is a bit oblong, but good enough as pearls go.”

“Your eye is too sharp for your own good, friend,” lamented Morse. “I would never ask for a more perfect pearl!”

“It is just as you say of your God. To themselves people look perfect, but God sees them as they actually are.” The two men started down the dusty road to the town.

“You’re right, Rambhau. And God offers perfect righteousness to all who will simply believe and accept His free offer of salvation. He says, ‘The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom 6:23). Can’t you see that, my friend?”

“No, sahib. As so many times before I have told you, it’s too easy. That is where your good religion breaks down. I cannot accept that. Perhaps I am too proud. I must work for my place in heaven, or I would always be uncomfortable.”

“Oh, Rambhau!” Behind the missionary’s words were years of prayer for this man. “You are getting older now. Perhaps this is your last season of diving for pearls. If you ever want to see heaven’s gates of pearl, you must accept the new life God offers you in His Son.”

“My last season! Yes, you are right. Today was my last day of diving. This is the last month of the year, and I have preparations to make.”

“You should be making preparations for the life to come.”

“That’s just what I’m going to do. The first day of the New Year I begin my pilgrimage. All my life I have planned it. I shall make sure of heaven this time. I am going to Delhi on my knees.”

“No! Never! It’s nine hundred miles to Delhi! The skin will break on your knees, and you’ll have blood poisoning or leprosy before you get to Bombay.”

“But, I must get to Delhi. And then the immortals will reward me. The suffering will be sweet, for it will purchase heaven for me.”

“Rambhau! My friend! You can’t! How can I let you do this when Jesus Christ has died to purchase heaven for you!”

But the old man could not be moved. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Morse answered a knock at the door to find Rambhau there.

“My good friend!” cried Morse. “Come in, Rambhau.”

“No,” said the pearl diver, “I want you to come with me to my house, sahib, for a short time. I have something to show you. Please do not say no.”

The heart of the missionary leaped. Perhaps God was answering his prayer at last.

“Of course I’ll come,” he said.

“I leave for Delhi just one week from today, you know,” said Rambhau as they neared his house ten minutes later. The missionary’s heart sank.

Inside, Morse was ushered to a seat his friend had built especially for him. Rambhau left the room to return soon with a small but heavy English strongbox.

“I have had this box for years,” he said. “I keep only one thing in it. Now I will tell you about it. Sahib Morse, I once had a son.”

“A son! Why, Rambhau, you have never said a word about him!”

“No, sahib, I couldn’t.” Even as he spoke the diver’s eyes moistened. “Now I must tell you, for soon I will leave, and who knows whether I shall ever return? My son was a diver too. He was the best pearl diver on the coasts of India. He had the swiftest dive, the keenest eye, the strongest arm, the longest breath of any man who sought for pearls. What joy he brought to me! He always dreamed of finding a pearl beyond all that had ever been found. One day he found it. But when he saw it, he had already been underwater too long. He lost his life soon after.” The old pearl diver bowed his head for a moment.

“All these years I have kept the pearl,” he continued, “but now I am going, not to return. I know that this is a day among Christians for the giving of gifts, and to you, my best friend, I am giving my pearl.”

The old man worked the combination on the strongbox and drew from it a carefully wrapped package. Gently opening the cotton, he picked up a mammoth pearl and placed it in the hand of the missionary. It was one of the largest pearls ever found off the coast of India, and it glowed with a luster and brilliance never seen in cultured pearls. It would have brought a fabulous sum in any market.

For a moment the missionary was speechless and gazed with awe.

“Rambhau! What a pearl!”

“That pearl, sahib, is perfect,” replied the Indian quietly.

“Rambhau,” he said, “this is a wonderful pearl, an amazing pearl. Let me buy it. I would give you ten thousand dollars for it, or if it takes more I will work for it.”

“Sahib,” said Rambhau, stiffening his whole body, “this pearl is beyond all price. No man in all the world has money enough to say what this pearl is worth to me. I will not sell it to you. You may have it only as a gift.”

“No, Rambhau, I cannot accept that. As much as I want the pearl, I cannot accept it that way. Perhaps I am proud, but that is too easy. I must pay for it or work for it.”

The old pearl diver was stunned.

“You don’t understand, sahib. Don’t you see? My only son gave his life to get this pearl, and I wouldn’t sell it for any money. Its worth is in the lifeblood of my son. I cannot sell this, but I can give it to you. Just accept it in token of the love I bear you.”

The missionary was choked and for a moment could not speak. Then he gripped the hand of the old man.

“Rambhau,” he said in a low voice, “don’t you see? That is just what you have been saying to God.”

The diver looked long and searchingly at the missionary and slowly, slowly he began to understand.

“God is offering you everlasting life as a free gift. It is so great and priceless that no man on earth could buy it. No man on earth could earn it. His life would be millions of years too short. No man is good enough to deserve it. It cost God the lifeblood of His only Son to make the entrance for you into heaven. In a million years, in a hundred pilgrimages, you could not earn that entrance. All you can do is to accept it as a token of God’s love for you, a sinner. Rambhau, won’t you accept God’s great gift of eternal life, in deep humility, knowing it cost Him the death of His Son to offer it to you?”

“Sahib, I see it now. I have believed in the doctrine of Jesus for two years, but I could not believe that His salvation was free. Now I understand. Some things are too priceless to be bought or earned. Sahib, I will accept His salvation.”


Christian Light Publications, Harrisonburg, VA 22802