Preterism: Exposition and Critique
This essay is a chapter taken from my book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2021).1 Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will encounter as your read:
GETD = Great End Time Debate
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy (OT prophecies of a coming Kingdom of God)
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism.
In recent years a small but influential group of theologians in the Reformed wing of evangelicalism have defended a view of eschatology called preterism. The name is derived from the Latin praeter, meaning past. It fits well, since interpreters of this persuasion argue that events traditionally associated with the Consummation at the end of the present evil age have already occurred. They believe that some or all of the eschatological predictions found in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Revelation were actually fulfilled in “the last days” between 33-70 AD, and especially in the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus (66-70 AD).
Most historians agree that preterist eschatologies first appeared in the 17th century writings of Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, and English Bible scholars Henry Hammond and John Lightfoot. Later on, the English Congregational pastor J. S. Russell became the father of “full preterism,” while the American professor Moses Stuart defended a milder version called “partial preterism.” In this essay I will offer a brief exposition and critique of these two schools of eschatological thought.
I. Exposition of Partial Preterism
(To view a time line for PP please click here)
Partial preterists (PPs) agree with their Reformed forefathers in teaching that the Kingdom of God enters the world in two stages: the Era of Gospel Proclamation followed by the World to Come. They also agree that we must interpret Old Testament Kingdom prophecies (OTKP’s) figuratively and spiritually, as pointing to New Covenant institutions and blessings. However, on a number of other crucial points they differ with their Protestant predecessors.
For example, the time-line indicates that partial preterists do not identify “the last days” as the eternal Era of Fulfillment introduced by the New Covenant, but rather as the closing years of the Mosaic dispensation: that brief season of time between Pentecost (ca 33 AD) and the events of 70 AD. Also, they do not identify “the greatest tribulation” as amillennarians do (i.e., as the Last Battle between the Church and the World, fomented by the rise of the Antichrist), but as the Battle of Jerusalem, which took place in AD 67-70.
As for the Parousia, Christians have traditionally identified it with the one supernatural Coming of the Lord at the end of the present evil age. But according to PP, there are two Comings, or two phases of the one Coming. The first—sometimes referred to as “the judgment-coming”—occurred in 70 AD, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. This judgment marked “the end of the age”: that is, the end of the Mosaic dispensation. It was not a supernatural judgment, but a providential judgment. The second (phase of the) Parousia is supernatural. It includes the bodily return of the Lord in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. This Coming marks the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. According to partial preterists, in Matthew 24:27-31 Jesus used OT apocalyptic language to symbolize his providential judgment-coming, whereas in Matthew 25:31ff he straightforwardly spoke about the events of his supernatural coming.
Partial preterists bring their new hermeneutic to the Revelation, which, based on their distinctive interpretation of the book’s contents, they insist was written around AD 60, prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Accordingly, all partial preterists agree that chapters 1-19 mystically picture the events of “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), and especially those of “The Great Tribulation” of 66-70 AD, when the Church endured great hardship at the hands of Israel and Rome.
Regarding chapter 20, some PPs identify the Millennium with “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), throughout which Satan was bound so that the Church could preach the Gospel to Israel and the nations. Others advance a futuristic and postmillennial interpretation, arguing that at some point in the Era of Gospel Proclamation (future even to us) God will grant his people a season of extraordinary evangelistic success, with the result that ethnic Israel will finally turn to Christ and the world will become largely Christian. Some in this latter camp—called theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists—also argue that during the millennium to come global society will become largely theocratic: that is, that the nations will be governed by the principles and statutes of the Mosaic Law.
With notable differences among them, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Gary de Mar, Hank Hanegraaff, Peter Leithart, Keith Mathison, Rousas Rushdoony, Martin Selbrede, and R.C. Sproul all embrace a partial preterist understanding of biblical eschatology.
II. Exposition of Full Preterism
(To view a time line of Full Preterism, please click here)
Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic discussed above. If our Lord used mystical, apocalyptic language in the Olivet Discourse to describe an invisible Parousia that occurred in 70 AD, who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language to describe all of the other events biblically associated with the Parousia: the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the introduction of the World to Come? Who is to say that these too were not accomplished in 70 AD?
This is the position of FP’s. In 70 AD Christ came again: not bodily, but spiritually. At that time the dead were raised and judged: not visibly and bodily, but spiritually. The souls of the wicked were raised from Hades, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and cast into a Lake of Fire. Likewise, the souls of the righteous were “raised” from their previous state, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and welcomed into a spiritual World to Come.
Obviously this view raises a question: What happens to the people who are born after 70 AD? Some FP’s reply that the Last Judgment is now ongoing, and that it takes place when a person dies (Heb. 9:27). Others reply that when a person is converted and becomes a new creature in Christ, he immediately enters the spiritual World to Come, but will do so in greater fullness at the moment of his death. Thus, for FPs, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come are not bodily and physical, but spiritual only. As for the future of the present physical universe, FPs allege that the Bible is silent on this subject.
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.
III. Critique of Preterism
We have seen that Preterism emphasizes the past fulfillment of biblical prophecies surrounding the Consummation. Partial Preterism (PP) says that many of these prophecies were fulfilled between AD 30-70. Full Preterism (FP) says that all of them were. In our eschatological journey I have addressed a number of preterist claims; however, because preterist views have lately gained considerable traction in Reformed circles, we must take a closer look. We’ll begin by going to the heart of the matter: the preterist hermeneutic, the distinctively preterist method for interpreting the NT prophetic scriptures. After that, we’ll examine PP (the most popular of the two views), and then comment briefly on FP (the most troubling).
A. The Preterist Hermeneutic
Remarkably enough, it appears that the entire edifice of preterist eschatology is largely built on a small and exceedingly shaky foundation: the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34. We recall that the Lord said, “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place.” Preterists claim that here Christ was referring strictly to the generation of his own contemporaries, the generation that would experience the events of AD 70. But having drawn that conclusion, they now have a problem. That’s because the Lord’s description of his Parousia, found in Matthew 24:29-31, looks highly supernatural, eschatological, and cosmological. But if, as preterists claim, this event really occurred in 70 AD, then obviously we cannot take his words literally (as, indeed, most Christians do). Rather, in order to preserve their truthfulness, we shall have to interpret them typologically and figuratively. We shall have to say that here Jesus was doing as the OT prophets did in OTKP: veiling the truth in typological and figurative language, and so actually speaking of his providential judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus.
Alas, the problem does not end here. For if the Lord used figurative language on this occasion, we are compelled to ask: Might he also have done so a little while later, when he spoke of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46)? Might he have done so when he previously spoke of the last things (e.g., Matt. 13:37-40; 22:23-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:27-36; John 5:21-29)? Indeed, did he predict a supernatural Parousia on any occasion? And what of his apostles? In making their predictions, were they simply following their Master by using apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem? And what of the Revelation? Did the Spirit really use these stunningly cosmological symbols simply to speak of the vicissitudes of “the last days” (i.e., AD 30-70)? In short, where in the NT does all the typological language end, and where does the straightforward teaching begin? Where are the words by which alone we can know God’s true future, and so decipher any veiled revelations used to describe it?
Happily, we have already received the answer: God has told us to listen to his Son, the appointed Teacher of the human race (Matt. 17:5). When he came, he revealed all facets of the Eternal Covenant. In particular, he (and his apostles) gave us many simple prophecies—straightforward, easily understood predictions—concerning the course and consummation of Salvation History. Having done so, and having seen to their preservation in the DNT, he has given us the keys: the revealed eschatological truths by which alone we can know the future and also decode the mystical meaning of the OT, OTKP, and the Revelation. Contrary to the claims of the preterists, Jesus Christ did not come to veil God’s truth, but to unveil it once and for all (Matt. 13:52).
Here, then, is the great faux pas of our preterist brothers. Just as premillennarians err by interpreting OTKP literally, so preterists err by interpreting simple NT prophecies figuratively and typologically. Bound by their narrow interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they feel constrained to embrace an entirely new hermeneutic for the interpretation of NT eschatological texts. Accordingly, they have fallen away from some or all of the tenets of traditional Christian eschatology.
Let us therefore take a moment to address the two main preterist stumbling blocks.
Concerning the Olivet Discourse, we saw earlier that it was the Lord’s extended reply to his disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the destruction of Jerusalem and his supernatural Coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, the reply itself was two-fold, blending the local with the global, the historical with the eschatological, and the providential with the supernatural. We need only read the text itself to see that in all these arenas the Lord was giving simple prophecies of events future to all his disciples.
This includes Matthew 24:29-31, Christ’s prediction of his (supernatural) Parousia. Contrary to the claims of our preterist brothers, it does not read like Isaiah 13, Isaiah 24, or Ezekiel 32:7-8—OTKPs that clearly employ much figurative language. Rather, it reads like a straightforward prediction of the Coming of the Son of Man in glory. This is evident from the straightforward prediction itself, the straightforward predictions leading up to it (Matt. 24:21-27), and the straightforward predictions flowing down from it (Matt. 24:32-51; 25:31-46). And it is especially evident from the many other NT predictions that so closely resemble this one (Matt. 13:37-43; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:3; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2:1-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). Clearly, this is the mother of all NT prophecies of the Parousia. If, as the preterists claim, it is not giving us a true picture of the Parousia and the Consummation, then we are completely at sea in trying to form a mental picture of the Blessed Hope of the Church.
But what of Matthew 24:34? We saw earlier that the Lord’s use of the phrase “this generation” was not monolithic, as the preterists claim. Rather, it too was controlled by the disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the Lord’s providential coming to Jerusalem in AD 70, but also his supernatural coming to the world at the end of the age. Therefore, we paraphrased his words as follows: “I tell you the solemn truth: This one generation—this one fallen but beloved and eminently redeemable race of human beings, comprised of saints and sinners living here and now in Israel, but also of saints and sinners living all over the world right up to the end of the present evil age—will not pass away until all of these things have taken place.” This interpretation re-admits the supernatural, the eschatological, and the cosmological into the Olivet Discourse. In so doing, it rescues the Church from the preterist error, and restores to her the eschatology of the classic Reformation.2
Summing up, we have seen that preterist eschatology—and the confusion it brings in its train—is based on a major hermeneutical error. Having misinterpreted Matthew 24:34, preterists have forced an alien hermeneutic upon some or all of the NT texts dealing with the Consummation. Having misunderstood the mission of the Teacher—which was to unveil all of God’s truth—they have veiled it again by imposing typological and figurative interpretations upon a precious NT body of simple eschatological prophecies: prophecies that are meant to supply the scriptural foundation for, and the keys to, all biblical eschatology. This makes perfect sense. Somewhere, sometime, someone in the Bible is going to have to speak plainly about the Eternal Covenant, the Kingdom of God, and the course of Salvation History, so that God’s people will be able to decode all the typological texts dealing with those themes. In the DNT Christ and the apostles have done this very thing (Matt. 13:10-12, 51-52; John 16:12-14, 25; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 1:8-10). Alas, our preterist brethren fail to see it.
B. Critique of Partial Preterism
Keeping these thoughts in mind, let us now take a critical look at PP by examining its position on the four underlying issues of the GETD.
View of the Kingdom
In agreement with Amillennialism, PP affirms that the Kingdom of God is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit; that it is entered through faith in the Person and Work of Christ; and that it is the promise of the Eternal Covenant. Also, the two schools agree that the Kingdom enters the world in two stages: a spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by a spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. However, as we shall see, PP holds heterodox views on certain key events proper to the Kingdom of the Son.
View of OTKP
Like amillennarians, PPs use the NCH to interpret OTKP. Rightly, they have learned to view Christ, the New Covenant, the Church, and the two-staged Kingdom of God as the true spheres of fulfillment for all OTKP. However, to the extent that they misunderstand NT teaching on the course of the Era of Proclamation, to that same extent they will misinterpret OTKPs dealing with its key events. For example, if a partial preterist believes that NT predictions of the Man of Lawlessness were fulfilled by the emperor Nero, then that conviction will shape his interpretation of OT prophecies dealing with the Antichrist and the Last Battle (e.g., Dan. 7:1-28; 9:26-27; 11:36-12:13).
View of the Consummation
Before discussing the PP view of the Revelation and the Millennium, we must first examine its understanding of the Consummation.
Like Amillennialism (and unlike FP), PP affirms the traditional elements of the Consummation: a single supernatural coming of the glorified Christ, a single resurrection, a single judgment, and a single advent of the glorious World to Come. However, on the following five points, PP departs from traditional orthodoxy.
First, most PPs assert that “the last days” are the years during which the Mosaic Covenant remained in effect (ca AD 33-70). However, no NT text teaches this. Though the early church would need time to realize it, the Mosaic Covenant ended on a single day: the Day of Pentecost, when, for the first time, through the mystery of preaching (Rom. 10:14), Christians entered the New Covenant that Christ sealed with his blood, thereby abrogating the Old (Mark 11:13-14; Matt. 27:51; John 19:30; Acts 2). As for “the last days”, some NT texts use this expression to speak of “the last of the last days”: the (difficult) days prior to the Consummation (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3). However, as a rule the Bible understands “the last days” as the season of Salvation History in which the Eternal Covenant and the Kingdom of God have been manifested in the world. They began with Christ’s incarnation, and will extend into eternity future (Is. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2).
Secondly, most PPs assert that the early Church fully evangelized the world prior to AD 70, thus fulfilling Matthew 24:14. Now it is true that in the apostolic era the Gospel spread like wildfire, thoroughly penetrating the Roman “world” (Acts 19:20; Rom. 15:18-19; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). But hyperbole notwithstanding (Col. 1:23), this was only a prelude to, and a picture of, the evangelization of the whole earth, of which the Lord Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:14; cf. Rom. 15:18-29). Many NT texts depict the Great Commission as open-ended and incomplete. The Lord tarries, not desiring that any should perish (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:7 (i.e., the witnessing Church) have not yet finished giving their testimony. Fittingly, even after 2,000 years of Gospel proclamation, the Church still hears the Great Commission as a command to finish the job of world evangelization in the power of Christ, who promises to be with her always, for that purpose, even till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).
Thirdly, most PPs teach that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness (i.e., the Antichrist). However, while Nero was indeed animated by the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 4:3), he was not the eschatological Antichrist himself, as any objective reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 will make clear. The coming of the Antichrist—with his miraculous powers, unprecedented claims to deity, and global following—still lies ahead, and is arguably the single most important sign of the nearness of the end (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:3).
Fourthly, PPs identify “the greatest tribulation” of Matthew 24:21-22 with the vicissitudes of Titus’ invasion in 67-70 AD. We have seen, however, that while the Lord did indeed have those vicissitudes in mind, and while they were indeed dire, he primarily had in view something far worse: a tribulation the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again. Set to occur at the end of present evil age, it will be triggered by the coming of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist), cut short for the sake of the elect, and end at the visible appearing of the Son of God in glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:15-31; Rev. 1:7). It is contemporaneous with, and largely constituted by, the Last Battle between the Church and the world, which, notably, is repeatedly foreseen in the Revelation (Rev. 11:7-10; 13:6-10; 16:12-16; 19:19; 20:7-10).
Finally, while it is indeed true that PPs affirm a supernatural Coming of Christ at the end of the present evil age, their teaching on this point is confused. The crux of the problem is the relation between Matthew 24:29-31 and Matthew 25:31-46. Amillennarians teach that the former is a simple prophecy of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, and the latter a simple prophecy of the (final) Judgment immediately following. PPs disagree. Constrained by their interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they assert that the former is a veiled prophecy of Christ’s “judgment-coming” to Jerusalem, whereas the latter is a simple prophecy of his supernatural judgment of the world.
But this view strains all credulity. The Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25) is a seamless teaching in which Christ gives his disciples a series of simple prophecies covering historical events that will occur between the days of his flesh and the end of the age. These two portions of the very same discourse—with their shared references to the Coming of the Son of Man, his glory, his angels, and his judgment—fit together hand in glove. Both are clearly describing the one supernatural Parousia of Christ and the one cosmological Consummation it will bring.
The preterist exegesis of the Olivet Discourse wreaks havoc on the interpretation of other NT texts dealing with the Consummation. For again, if Christ himself used veiled language to describe his providential coming, but straightforward language to describe his supernatural coming, then which of the two comings were the apostles referring to when they themselves spoke of the last things?
Inconsistencies and debates among PPs show that this is a very real problem. For example, we have seen that Matthew 24:29-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:3 are so similar that most Christians regard them as parallel texts. Yet all PPs say that the former gives us the Lord’s providential coming, while some say that the latter gives us his supernatural Coming. FPs avoid this inconsistency by saying that both texts give us the coming of AD 70, with the result that amillennarians say they are partially mistaken instead of greatly mistaken.
Again, nearly all PPs say that in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 the apostle was predicting the death (by suicide) of the emperor Nero, whom the Lord Jesus “providentially” slew with the breath of his mouth and brought to an end by the appearance of his Coming! Setting aside the historical and exegetical implausibility of this interpretation, how then can some PPs (e.g., Ken Gentry) affirm that in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 Paul was referring the Christ’s supernatural Parousia, when it is obvious that in both prophecies he was speaking of one and the same event?
Or again, how can one PP (e.g., Ken Gentry) say that in 2 Peter 3 the apostle was describing cosmic destruction and renewal, while another (e.g., Peter Leithart) says that he was actually predicting the events of AD 70? Amillennarians reply, “Because Leithart is more consistent in his application of the preterist hermeneutic, and so has slidden further down the slippery slope into error.”
The truth of the matter is as simple as it is important: Whether we have in mind their statements in the book of Acts, the epistles, or the Revelation, Christ’s apostles show no interest whatsoever in the destruction of Jerusalem (unless, perhaps, it is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:16). This is true whether it lay ahead of them (as in the case of Paul’s early writings) or behind them (as in the case of all of John’s). Their only eschatological concern is the Parousia: the one supernatural Coming of Christ, set to occur at the end of the present evil age (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; James 5:7; 2 Peter 3:12; 1 John 3:2). Yes, in the Olivet Discourse we do find the Lord referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, for his disciples had specifically inquired about this, and it was necessary for him to prepare them. But in the rest of the DNT, which is directed almost entirely to Gentile Christians, or to Jewish believers dispersed throughout the Roman empire, interest in the events of AD 70 completely falls away, seeing that the one true Blessed Hope of the universal Church was (and is) the visible Coming of Christ in power and glory at the end of the present evil age. This is the living heart of all apostolic eschatology, as indeed every major NT eschatological text makes clear.
View of the Revelation and the Millennium
Having critiqued preterist teaching on the Consummation, we are now in a position to consider its views on the Revelation and the Millennium. I will do so in two steps.
1. View of Revelation 1-19
By and large, PPs assert that Revelation 1-19 was fulfilled prior to, during, or very shortly after AD 70. For preterists, the theme of these chapters is not a supernatural consummation to be accomplished at the end of a lengthy Era of Proclamation, but rather the events of “the last days,” understood as the years following Pentecost and culminating in a “judgment-coming” of Christ at the Battle of Jerusalem (ca 33-70 AD). Of necessity, this approach requires preterists to correlate the symbols of the Revelation with concrete historical persons and events of the 1st century. Those who have surveyed preterist writing on this subject realize that the attempt is as maddening as it is vain.
Here is a very general survey of the PP view. Chapters 1-3 give us Christ’s message to the seven Asian churches—messages that were designed to equip the 1st century Church to endure tribulation until “the end” (i.e., AD 70). Chapters 4-5 give us visions of God and Christ, who, by their good providence, will safeguard the redeemed as they bring “the end” to pass. The visions of the six seals (Rev. 6), the seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11), and the seven bowls (Rev. 15-16) all depict various events and judgments up to and including “the end” itself. Revelation 7:1-8 depicts the spiritual sealing of the universal Church (or of the faithful Jewish remnant), so that the saints might safely pass through the tribulation of “the last days”. Revelation 7:9-13 depicts them as having done so and now enjoying the blessings of Heaven above. Chapters 12-14 girded the early Church for persecution at the hands of two of the Dragon’s helpers: the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome), and the False Prophet (i.e., either the Roman governor of Jerusalem, or the cabal of apostate Jewish clerics who fell in with Rome). Chapters 17-19 depict the fall of the Dragon’s third helper, the Harlot (i.e., apostate Jerusalem), who wickedly consorts with the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome). According to most PPs, none of these chapters contain a description of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, only of the spiritual and providential victories he will grant to his faithful 1st century Church.
In the course of our journey I have defended a standard amillennial interpretation of the Revelation. With that in mind, I offer the following short critique of the PP view on chapters 1-19.
First, we have seen that a large majority of NT scholars, citing both internal and external evidence, have concluded that the Revelation was written around 95 AD, and not around 60 AD, as PPs assert. If so, the preterist interpretation is impossible. The Spirit of God would not inspire a prophecy dealing strictly with events already past, or addressing believers who, for the most part, were already asleep in the Lord.3, 4
Secondly, PP misunderstands both the audience and purpose of the Revelation. The audience is the Universal Church, and the purpose is to equip her for her centuries-long journey through the howling wilderness of this present evil age (Rev. 12). It does so by keeping before her eyes (and not behind her back) the rigors of the Great Tribulation through which she must pass, the nature and tactics of the enemies she will face, the vicissitudes of the Last Battle she is destined to endure, and the eternal rescue and restoration she will experience at the Coming of her mighty King. Preterism turns the Revelation into an historical curiosity, when in fact it is an urgently needed prophecy, valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may stand complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work in these last days (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Thirdly, PP opens the door to exegetical chaos. It does so by forcing the interpreter to look outside of Scripture for the meaning of the symbols it employs. To what 1st century persons, places, things, and events does the Revelation refer when it speaks of the Seal, Trumpet, and Bowl judgments; of the 144,000 sealed Israelites, or the Two Witnesses; of the Beasts from the Sea and the Earth; of the Mark of the Beast; of the Harlot and Great Babylon; of the Battle of Armageddon; or of the stupendous judgments described at the end of each of the six visionary cycles comprising Revelation 6-20? Combing the works of Jewish and pagan historians, PPs bring back one speculative answer after another. But who is say which answer is right? By forcing us to look outside of Scripture, the preterist hermeneutic opens the door to exegetical chaos, whereas the idealist hermeneutic—which locates the meaning of all the symbols in the OT and the DNT—keeps us on solid exegetical ground.
Finally, PP obscures—indeed, trivializes—the majestic symbolism of the Revelation, which clearly does not point to the local and the historical, but instead to the global, the cosmological, and the eschatological. We have seen, for example, that the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments do not fall (exclusively) on Jerusalem or Rome, but rather 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 an obscure Roman functionary or a cabal of apostate Jewish clerics, but the religious face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the Harlot is not earthly Jerusalem, but the economic and cultural face of the 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. Being universal in scope, they therefore speak with fresh power to every generation of believers.
2. View of Revelation 20-22
Concerning Revelation 20-22, PPs disagree among themselves. Some identify the Millennium with the entire Era of Proclamation. On this view, the binding of Satan is an ongoing work of the Spirit made possible by the cross of Christ. Henceforth, the Deceiver of men and nations cannot prevent the ingathering of God’s elect, nor can he foment the Last Battle until the God-appointed time. The first resurrection is spiritual rather than physical, and refers either to the new birth or the onset of the Intermediate State. Revelation 20:7-10 gives us the book’s one and only prediction of the Last Battle between the Church and the world. However, the Man of Lawlessness will not spearhead it, since he has already appeared in the person of Emperor Nero. Other passages that seem to predict a future Last Battle were actually fulfilled during the Great Tribulation of AD 66-70, when the Church was persecuted by Israel and Rome. Therefore, Revelation 20:7-15 gives us the book’s one and only description of the supernatural Coming of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Judgment, while chapters 21-22 give us the advent of the World to Come. We have seen, however, that chapters 1-19 actually give us numerous visions of the Consummation (6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 19:11-21), and that the advent of the Man of Lawlessness is actually the preeminent sign of the imminence of the Lord’s supernatural return (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:8).
Other interpreters—like David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Keith Mathison, and Doug Wilson—defend a postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. For such as these, the Millennium is a Golden Era still future to us. The binding of Satan has yet to occur, but certainly will, probably when ethnic Israel is graciously turned back to the Lord (Rom. 11:15). This will bring about the first resurrection and the millennial 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 (dreadfully) marred by the release of Satan and a resultant global rebellion against Christ and his faithful remnant. But the Lord will reverse the reversal at his swift return, and will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth. For a critique of this view, please see my previous evaluation of Postmillennialism.4
C. Critique of Full Preterism
We have seen that Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic. If our Lord used apocalyptic and cosmological language in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:29-31) to describe what was in fact a providential and spiritual coming in AD 70, then who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language in all their eschatological predictions? Who is to say that in all their utterances about the Consummation they did not have the events of AD 67-70 in mind? Alas, in a radical departure from PP and Christian orthodoxy, FPs have taken this very position. Focusing on FP distinctives, I will briefly review and critique their views here.
View of the Kingdom
FPs teach that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God over his New Covenant people; and that it enters history in two stages: the last days of the Mosaic Covenant (AD 33-70), followed by eternal heavenly and earthly worlds to come, inaugurated at the time of Christ’s Parousia in AD 70. They also teach that the reign of God is always and only spiritual; that it will never come upon the physical bodies of the saints or the natural world in which they were created to live.
We have seen, however, that the NT supplies a dramatically different picture of the Kingdom. Yes, the one Kingdom does indeed enter history in two stages. But the first—the Kingdom of the Son—is co-extensive with the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation. And the second—the Kingdom of the Father—is not only spiritual, but also physical and eternal, and is the sudden, supernatural creation of the High King of Heaven at his visible return in power and glory. Thus, at bottom, there is no fellowship between the amillennial and full preterist views of the Kingdom of God.
View of OTKP
FPs rightly interpret OTKP typologically and figuratively, in terms of the New Covenant. But again, their great misstep is to impose a bastardized version of the NCH on all the simple eschatological predictions of the DNT. But in doing so they actually take away the master key to all biblical eschatology, making it impossible for us to discern the true shape of Salvation History, and therefore the true sense of the Old Testament prophetic texts dealing with the last days and the Consummation.
View of the Revelation and the Millennium
FPs teach that this stunningly eschatological and cosmological book was entirely fulfilled in historical and spiritual events that occurred around AD 70, though certain spiritual aftermaths remain with us to this day. Concerning Revelation 20, opinions differ: Some says it temporal sphere of fulfillment is held to be “the last days” (AD 33-70), others the Battle of Masada (AD 70 to 73), and others the Bar Kochba rebellion (AD 132). In any case, all FPs agree that Revelation 20 does not take us to a genuinely cosmological judgment and “consummation of all things” (1 Peter 4:7).
We have seen, however, that the Revelation actually scans the entire centuries-long journey of the pilgrim Church; and that its manifold symbols, which the DNT alone can illumine, confront us afresh with every element of the classic NT eschatology: the various judgments and deliverances of God administered throughout Salvation History, the Church’s serial encounters with the Dragon and his helpers, her constant spiritual nourishment at the hand of her heavenly King, the hope of spiritual perfection during the Intermediate State, the Last Battle, the Parousia, the bodily Resurrection of the Dead, the Transformation of the Living Saints, the Judgment at the Great White Throne of Christ, the Lake of Fire, and the New Heavens and the New Earth. Again, the Revelation is actually the Grand Finale of all Scripture, and is therefore one of the greatest prophetic treasures of the pilgrim Church. She must never let FP rob her of it.
View of the Consummation
Just here the preterist error is at its worst, since FPs, while disagreeing among themselves on fine points, stand united in expressly denying the traditional elements of the biblical Consummation. Having already discussed NT teaching on these points, I will simply describe the basic FP view here, and then let you, the good Berean, decide for yourself how they compare.
There is but one Parousia of Christ, and it is not a future bodily return of the Lord in glory. Rather, it is a past “judgment-coming” that occurred in AD 70, a coming that (somehow) brought the suffering first-century Church into the fullness of her spiritual inheritance. Therefore, as never before, Christ has now fully come to his people, and will not come again, bodily, to this earth.
The Resurrection is not a future event in which Christ, at his bodily appearing, will join the spirits of the dead with their physical remains, thereby creating eternal physical bodies. Rather, it is a past spiritual event in which he raised the souls of the biologically dead out of Sheol/Hades and gave them new “spiritual bodies” suited for Heaven or Gehenna. Now that the one general Resurrection has occurred, and also the transformation of the living saints (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4), the souls of all who die physically are spiritually “raised” at death and go directly to Heaven or Gehenna.
Again, the Judgment is not a future event in which all mankind will appear bodily before the judgment seat of Christ, there to receive eternal reward or retribution. Rather, it too occurred in AD 70, when Christ opened Heaven, created Gehenna (also called the Lake of Fire), raised the souls of the dead out of Sheol/Hades, and assigned them to their eternal spiritual habitation. Also, at his return in AD 70 the Lord “destroyed” the earth and its works (see 2 Peter 3:10), but only in this sense: Having fully entered his Church, he has now inaugurated a whole new world order, such that, through the Gospel preaching of the Church, he will ever-increasingly destroy the powers of evil and bend the wayward nations to his will.
Thus, concerning the World to Come, it has in fact already come. Why? Because Christ has already come (in AD 70), the Resurrection has already occurred, the Judgment has taken place, and the New Jerusalem (i.e., his Spirit-filled Church) has “descended” onto a new, spiritually transformed Earth, in which she will continually summon all men and nations to enter her blessed precincts through faith in Christ and the Gospel (Rev. 21:2, 22-27; 22:22:1-2; 17).
You may ask: “But what of the present physical world in which we live, ‘the whole creation that groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now’” (Rom. 8:22)? What is her future? Alas, on this subject the Scriptures are (allegedly) silent. Ours is simply to occupy: not until he comes, but until we go.
Again, having closely examined NT teaching on all these themes, I will not offer further criticisms here. Suffice it say that if Amillennialism really is the eschatology of the Bible, then FP clearly stands under the stern rebuke of Holy Scripture (Matt. 24:26-27; Acts 1:11; Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:18). Having read some of the writings of my FP brothers, I sense that they do indeed love the Lord, and that in developing their eschatology they are trying to be faithful to their best understanding of the NT. Nevertheless,, if we may define heresy as a persistent and harmful departure from widely accepted biblical doctrine, then the historic creeds of the Church unanimously declare that FP is eschatological heresy (1 Cor. 11:2, 19, 2 Thess. 2:15). Let every good Berean decide for himself.
By imposing an alien, spiritualizing hermeneutic on the simple eschatological predictions given by God’s appointed Teacher and his apostles, PP badly damages our Blessed Hope, while FP destroys it altogether. Therefore I would urge all my preterist brothers to return swiftly to the traditional amillennial faith of the Church. I think it likely that we are living in the last of the last days. If so, the Bride of Christ will need all the eschatological truth, clarity, and encouragement she can get. And she will need you to help her receive them all.
1. Available here.
2. For a more detailed discussion of Matthew 24:34, please click here.
3. For a brief discussion of the internal evidence favoring a late date for composition of the Revelation, please click here. External confirmation comes from second century scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202). Citing earlier sources, he wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).
4. In defense of an early date preterists cite verses in the Revelation stating that the events in view “must shortly come pass” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and that “the appointed time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10). But these texts hardly prove an early date of composition or a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the prophecies. To begin with, there are two verses in chapter 22 stating that all things, including the advent of the World to Come, must shortly come to pass, and that their time is near. So unless one is a full preterist, these verses rule out a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the book. More to the point, the progressive idealist interpretation of the book richly illumines the nuanced meaning of these expressions. Since the Revelation speaks to all believers of all times, it is indeed true that many of its predictions came true in the lives of first century Christians, just as they will for believers of subsequent generations. As for the prophecies that speak of the end of the age (i.e., of the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Judgment, etc.), they too will soon come to pass, for against the backdrop of eternity a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it has passed by, and like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8).
5. For an exposition and critique of Postmillennialism, please click here.