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This Christian Journey:

 

Preterism

Dr. Walter D. Huyck Jr. D.Min.

www.thischristianjourney.com

 

Matthew 24.34

Preterism is a doctrinal teaching that is permeating contemporary Christianity.  It affects doctrines concerning the end times, prophecy, immanency, and the inspiration of the Bible, and others.  This paper will seek to provide a synopsis of Preterism and address some of the more obvious problems with the teaching. 

 Preterism comes is various forms, but its basic pretenses are:

  • That all of the prophecies of the Bible were fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Titus led the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem and scatter the Jewish people.  Some Preterist extend this final judgment and fulfillment to around 313 A.D., but in essence they come to the same conclusion just at a slightly later date.
     
  • That there is no coming rapture of the Church, no coming tribulation period; that Christ returned spiritually in 70 A.D. and that if there is a millennium we are living in it right now.  Some Preterist claim that we are living on the New Heaven and New Earth right now.
     
  • The ancient Church Fathers viewed Bible prophecy under this same light. 

 Certainly there are numerous other elements that make up this doctrinal position.  However, these basic pretenses form the foundation of the doctrine upon which the whole of its structure rests.

 Preterist base their position on three basic Bible passages.  These are:

Matthew 10:23 But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

Matthew 24:34
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

 Preterist claim that these three verses demand a first century fulfillment of Christ’s prophetic plan and reveal that all of the prophecies of the Bible, including Revelation must have been fulfilled within 40 years of their utterance.  They argue that Matthew 16.28 clearly declares that the second advent of Christ must occur before all of those hearing His words would die.  They also argue that the word “generation” in Matthew 24.34 could only indicate that physical generation present when Christ spoke the word; hence it must indicate a first century fulfillment.  In addition, they claim that Matthew 10.23 further confirms the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24, since it must be a quote from that same sermon, and should be understood under the setting of Matthew 24.  In that context, the statement of Matthew 10.23 demands a first century fulfillment of Christ’s Prophetic plan, as the disciples will not have preached in all the cities of Israel before Christ returned.

 Three Levels of Preterism

Dr. Thomas Ice identifies three different kinds of Preterism.  He writes,

“There are at least three kinds of Preterism. For lack of better terms we will call them mild, moderate, and extreme.”
 

“Mild Preterism teaches that the Book of Revelation was fulfilled during the first three centuries as God waged war on the two early enemies of the church: Israel and Rome. The first half of Revelation teaches that Israel was defeated in A.D.70, while the last half of Revelation is about God’s conquest of Rome in the fourth century when Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian. Thus, this earliest form of Preterism teaches that Revelation was fulfilled in the first 300 years of the church’s history.”
 

“Moderate Preterists believe that almost all prophecy was fulfilled in the A.D.70 destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They do believe that a few passages still teach a yet future second coming (Acts 1:9–11; 1 Corinthians 15:51–53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17) and the resurrection of believers at Christ’s bodily return.”
 

“Extreme Preterists, or consistent Preterists, as they prefer to be known as, hold that all future Bible prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70. If there is a future second coming, they say the Bible does not talk about it. Extreme Preterists believe that there is no future bodily resurrection which place them outside the realm of Christian orthodoxy.”[1]

 The Generational Context of Prophecy

 In order to hold the views they teach, Preterist claim to be taking the Bible literally in the context of the three foundational verses of their position and then allegorize the rest of the prophetic revelation of the Bible to make it fit their theological position.  They argue that conservative evangelicals reverse the process, in that they must allegorize the meaning of Matt 10.32; 16.28; and 24.34 in order to literally define their prophetic message. Pretereist argue that there is a literal generational time frame outlined in these three key verses that can not be ignored.

 In the instance of Matthew 24.34 Preterist contend that “this generation” can only mean the people present at the time Jesus was speaking these words.  They teach that there just is no other normal meaning for these words.   So the question arises, is there only one understanding for the words “this generation?” 

 A Simple word study reveals some interesting facts.  William Mounce defines the Greek word translated generation as:

 “A generation of mankind, Matt 11.16; 23.36; et al.; a generation, a step in genealogy, Matt 1.17; a generation, an interval of time, an age; in N.T. course of life, in respect of its events, interests, or character, Luke 16.8; Acts 13.36.” [2] 

Notice that in this definition an interval of time, an age, or course of life is also allowed.  The Classical Greek Lexicon defines the same word as:

 “Birth; Younger by birth; from birth. 2. Birth, race, descent; higher by blood: of horses, breed. 3. A generation. 4. Offspring, Descendants.”[3] 

The classical definition also allows for the inclusion of descendants and even a breed.

 From these definitions, we discover that it is possible to define a generation as a particular group of people representing a particular time period; traditionally one generation is thought to be separated by another by about 40 years.  In this sense, Jesus words in Matthew 24.34 could have meant those listening to him articulate the message.  However, in considering the text, we could also properly interpret Jesus words to mean the generation that is alive when these things begin to take place.  In other words, the generation being referenced is not the one listening to Jesus, but the one that will see the prophetic signs coming to pass.  In this context, the word generation denotes a particular group of people, but may not have referenced the particular group that was currently alive.

 It is equally possible that the word generation could also denote a type of people, using the sense of a breed.  It could reference the fact that the generation of the justified and the generation of the wicked will continue until the end is completely fulfilled.  There are usages of the word generation in the New Testament that seems to speak along this line, such as:
 

Matthew 12:39 But he answered and said unto them, An evil  and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jona.

Matthew 23:33-36 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? 34Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: 35That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. 36Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

Mark 8:38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

 For Preterist to claim that conservative evangelicals must allegorize Matthew 24.34 in order to avoid the near fulfillment of Christ’s prophetic plan is incorrect in the light of this word study.  For conservatives to hear Jesus words as futuristic in their context is a supported and literal rendering of the Biblical text.

 Yet, the Preterist still feels he has a leg to stand on when he comes to Matthew 16.28.  Jesus said:

Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

Jesus clearly could not have been referring to anyone but those hearing the words spoken.  Therefore, the Son had to have come in his kingdom before they all died or Jesus lied; according to the Preterist.

 But indeed there was one who saw the whole revelation of Jesus Christ before he died and he also heard Jesus utter these very words.  That would have been the Apostle John.  He records it all in the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.  He was exiled to the island of Patmos and was privileged to see the unfolding of the manifestation of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords at the end of time.  Hence, the literal fulfillment of Matthew 16.28 is not bound up in the complete fulfillment of the whole prophetic plan in 70 A.D.,  but instead is manifested in the vision the Apostle John saw.

 The Inspiration of the Bible and Preterism

 The weakest of the three foundational verses for the Preterist is Matthew 10.23.  Here, the Preterist must change the context of the Bible.  The words of Jesus make perfect sense in the context wherein they reside.  Jesus is giving instruction to his twelve apostles; he then sends them to carry the gospel message, and tells them that He will come for them before they reach all the cities of Israel. 

 The Preterists argue that this passage does not really belong where it resides in the New Testament text. They say that clearly the apostles did not experience the type of persecution described in Matthew 10 and the verbage sounds a lot like that of the Olivet discourse  recorded in Matthew 24.  They suggest that this is just another rendering of the Olivet discourse placed in another part of Matthew’s gospel and should really be recognized as a part of the Olivet discourse.  In making this contextual setting change, they argue that Jesus was saying that the gospel would not have time to reach all of the cities of Israel before Jesus returned to get His apostles.

 There are some problems with the Preterist position concerning Matt 10.23.  First, it falsely assumes that the apostles never experienced persecution before the crucifixion of Christ.  Clearly, there were those who opposed Christ and his followers during Jesus earthly ministry.   In John 9.42, the parents of the blind man healed by Jesus were afraid to answer the questions of the religious leaders after their son was healed for fear of persecution.  Nothing in Matthew 10 defies the type of instructions a leader would give his followers as he sent them on a hazardous journey and wanted to give them ample warning and instruction.  The fact that the language of Matthew 10 is similar in some respects to Matthew 24, does not mean that it does not record another event in the ministry of Christ and His disciples.

 Some Preterist don’t stop with the decontexualization of Matthew 10, they also explain away the whole book of Revelation.  They argue that the book of Revelation is actually John’s rendering of the Olivet discourse.  Since there is no Olivet discourse in the gospel of John, the apostle John decided later in life to write one and he wrote it in the form of the Apocalypse.  Preterist therefore suggest that John’s version of the Olivet discourse was completely fulfilled in Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as well.

 Removing Matthew 10 or Revelation from their Scriptural contexts and placing them with the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24 is not only an unnatural thing to do, but it also attacks the inspiration of the Bible.  God wrote the Bible through its penmen the way He wanted it written.  We defy the omniscience and sovereignty of God when we take liberties with the Biblical text.  Matthew 10 and Revelation must be left in their divinely ordained places in Scripture and must be interpreted from the context wherein they reside.  In the case of Matthew 10, Jesus is sending His disciples to preach the Gospel throughout Israel during His earthly ministry.  The passage has no prophetical context in its normal literal reading.  It is describing an event that occurred while Christ was yet alive and before His crucifixion.

 

 Did the Early Church Teach Preterism

 Preterist teach that the early Church Fathers held the Preterist point of view.  Through this argument, Preterists are trying to substantiate their doctrinal position as one of antiquity. However, a careful study of the available historical documents proves otherwise.  In his paper, Eschatology and Church History, Earle Cairns reveals that Premillennialism has been the expectation of the Church from it’s earliest documented foundations.  He Writes,

 “Study of ancient church history reveals that until 325 the church, faced with an unfriendly Judaism and with a hostile Roman state, studied eschatology for comfort and hope. Even the rationalistic historian Gibbon was impressed with the persistence of this note in ante-Nicene eschatology, which while not “universally received” seems to have been “the reigning sentiment of orthodox believers” from Justin Martyr on (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II, 27). Philip Schaff wrote that the prominent premillennialism which is “the most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene Age” was “widely current opinion” of distinguished teachers from Papias to Lactantius (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II, 614).”[4]

 Cairns notes numerous other Church leaders who held similar views, and notes:

 “Papias was even more clear-cut in his declaration that, following the resurrection of the dead, there will be a millennium in which Christ will personally rule on earth. Papias believed that the resurrection would be corporeal and the millennium a thousand years.”[5]

“Apologists, such as Justin Martyr, and polemicists, such as Irenaeus, also emphasized the return of Christ and the millennial kingdom on earth.”[6]

 “Irenaeus, the notable bishop of Gaul, had to deal with the Gnostics in the second century. Their philosophic concepts led them to think of that which was material as evil. They denied that Christ’s kingdom would be on earth and opposed the resurrection of the body. Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies to meet this challenge to eschatology. He looked for the end of the earth after six thousand years and for a kingdom with its center at Jerusalem (Against Heresies, V, xxviii, 3; V, 1–2). Tertullian was in agreement with Irenaeus on these matters (Against Marcion, III, 25).”[7]

 These are but a few excerpts from Cairns work that goes on to list early Church leader after early Church leader that expected the physical return of Christ prior to his 1000 year reign at the end of the tribulation period.  In his two papers under this same title, Cairns traces the premillennial eschatology of the Christian Church throughout its history.  The documents are very informative on the subject covered.  In the end, one discovers that while the teachings concerning the timing of Christ’s physical return varied somewhat from one leader to the next, the foundational principles of the physical return of Christ, and the 1000 year millennial reign remained largely consistent.

 Were there leaders in the ancient Church that did not look for a coming physical return and millennial reign?  Certainly, there were.  However, to teach that Preterism was widely taught in the early Church stands in opposition to the historical evidence.  Premillennialism has permeated the Church from its earliest documentation.  This is evidenced in the writings of the early Church leaders themselves and in the historical documentation from the era.

 

 Have All End-Time Prophecies Been Fulfilled

 It seems obvious that all of the end-time prophecies have not yet been fulfilled.  Immediately preceding the verse often quoted by Preterists is a discourse given by Jesus concerning His second coming and manifestation.  The passage reads:

 Matthew 24:26-31 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. 27For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. 28For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. 29Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

It is clear that Jesus is going to be manifested in a way that will leave no doubt that He has come.  If Jesus came, but He came spiritually, rather than physically, then there are substantial reasons to doubt His coming at all.  That Jesus will be seen from the east to the west as lightening is seen, implies a clear physical manifestation.  Other texts in the Bible reveal the level of this manifestation when they record:

Isaiah 34:4 And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.

Rev. 6:14
And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

Rev. 19:11-16
And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. 15And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. 16And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

The heavens have yet to roll back as a scroll and Jesus has yet to ride that white stallion from heavens gate to earth’s threshold to deliver Jerusalem from her enemies.  The new heaven and the new earth have yet to be established.  There is much in biblical prophecy yet to be fulfilled, and it cannot be explained away by the improper use of the hermeneutical (principles of interpretation) method by those who have a less than noble view of the millennial reign of Christ and what the eternal creation will be like.

 It is also important to consider that some Preterist claim that we are already living in the New Heaven and New Earth spoken of in the Bible.  They claim that things on earth will just continue to get better and better as mankind matures on this wonderful creation.  If this were so, then Christians have more than a little cause to be disappointed.  The Apostle John noted of this New Heaven and New Earth,

 Rev. 21:1-4 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. 2And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. 4And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Mankind is aware that death, sickness, crying and pain are still a part of our existence.  This present creation by no means fits John’s description of that place called Heaven.  There is no security in the midst of death, there is not encouragement in the face of enduring pain and suffering.  John went on to reveal,

 Rev. 22:3 And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:

The curse of sin is still among us as well.  Why will there be no curse in heaven?  Because the throne of God, which implies the physical presence of God, will be in that place, something that is not present with us in our creation today.  We are not in the New Heaven and New Earth.  We are still living, walking, serving and saving souls in that sin- ridden cursed creation that is looking hopefully toward its soon redemption at the second advent of Jesus Christ.  He is coming, and he is coming physically.  John wrote, and we must proclaim,

 Rev. 22:17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.

 

Footnotes

[1]Dr. Thomas Ice, “Has Bible Prophecy Already Been Fulfilled”, Conservative Theological Journal Volume 4, Vol. 4, Page 166-167, Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2000; 2003.

 

[2] William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon To The Greek New Testament, gene (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 123.

 

[3] Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged, Prepared by George Ricker Berry, gene (New York, Follett Publishing Company, 1927), 139.

 

[4]Earle Cairns,  Eschatology and Church History, Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 115, (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1958; 2002), Page 137-138.

 

[5]Ibid., 138.

 

[6]Ibid.

 

[7]Ibid., 139.

 

 

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