Preterism: Exposition and Critique
Note: This essay is drawn from my forthcoming book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and (Amillennial) Answers in Biblical Eschatology. 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 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 a season of global judgment and persecution set to occur just prior to the Lord’s return in glory, but rather 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 preterists 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. Other preterists 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 full preterists. 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 full preterists 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, full preterism 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, full preterism has not gained much traction among evangelical Christians. Indeed, many regard it as eschatological heresy.
- Critique of Full Preterism
Turning now to a critique of preterism, I want to begin by examining FP. But 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.
Once again, FP is the view that the Consummation, whole and entire, occurred in 70 AD. According to full preterists, the last days are the last days of the Mosaic Covenant: the (brief) season between Christ’s ascension and his (spiritual) Parousia in 70 AD. During this time the whole Jewish and Roman world was evangelized, the fullness of ethnic Israel came in, the Antichrist (i.e., Nero) arose, and the Great Tribulation (i.e., the years leading up to Titus’ invasion) occurred. In 70 AD the Parousia, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment all took place: spiritually rather than physically. The Kingdom in its fullness appeared, the new heavens and the new earth arrived: spiritually, rather than physically. Since then, believers, at their death, are resurrected into the World to Come: spiritually, rather than physically. Unbelievers, at their death, are resurrected into the Lake of Fire: spiritually, rather than physically. You may ask, “What then lies ahead for the physical remains of the saints, or for our sin-cursed earth?” So far as I can tell, no full preterist seems to know.
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, full preterists 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.”
- Critique of Partial Preterism
Partial preterism (PP) 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, partial preterists 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: Partial preterists 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.
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.
1. For a brief discussion of the date of the Revelation, click here.