Today, we’re going to discuss the Christian eschatological teaching called Preterism, from the Latin praetor meaning “past”. If you don’t know what eschatology means, I’ll save you the work of looking it up. It means the Bible theology pertaining to the last days. Preterism is the belief that all the prophecies concerning the Last Days in the Bible have already been fulfilled. Additionally, the preterist believes that the prophecies from the book of Daniel were completed by the first century. He also believes that not only were Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 fulfilled before or by 70 C.E. when Jerusalem was destroyed, but that even the Revelation to John saw its complete fulfillment around that time.
You can imagine the problems this poses for the preterist. A significant number of these prophecies require some pretty inventive interpretations to make them work as having been completed in the first century. For example, Revelation speaks of the first resurrection:
“…they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:4-6 NASB)
Preterism postulates that this resurrection occurred in the first century, requiring of the preterist to explain how thousands of Christians could vanish off the face of the earth without leaving any trace whatsoever of such a stunning phenomenon. There is no mention of this in any of the later Christian writings from the second and third century. That such an event would go unnoticed by the rest of the Christian community passes belief.
Then there’s the challenge of explaining the 1000-year abyssing of the Devil so that he cannot mislead the nations, not to mention his release and the subsequent war between the holy ones and the hordes of Gog and Magog. (Revelation 20:7-9)
Despite such challenges, many support this theory, and I’ve learned that a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to subscribe to this interpretation of prophecy as well. Is it a way to distance themselves from the failed 1914 eschatology of the Organization? Is it really important what we believe about the last days? Nowadays, we live in the age of you’re-okay-I’m-okay theology. The idea is that it doesn’t really matter what any of us believes as long as we all love one another.
I agree that there are a number of passages in the Bible where it is currently impossible to arrive at a definitive understanding. Many of these are found in the book of Revelation. course, having left behind the dogmatism of the Organization, we do not want to create our own dogma. Nevertheless, contrary to the idea of a doctrinal buffet, Jesus said that, “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (John 4:23 NASB) Additionally, Paul warned about “those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10 NASB)
We do well not to minimize the importance of truth. Sure, it can be a challenge to distinguish truth from fiction; Bible fact from the speculation of men. Still, that should not discourage us. No one said that it would be easy, but the reward at the end of this struggle is surpassingly great and justifies any effort we make. It is the effort that the Father rewards and due to it, he pours out his spirit upon us to guide us into all the truth. (Matthew 7:7-11; John 16:12, 13)
Is Preterist theology true? Is it important to know that, or does this qualify as one of those areas where we can have differing ideas without doing damage to our Christian worship? My personal take on this is that it matters greatly whether or not this theology is true. It is really a matter of our salvation.
Why do I think this is so? Well, consider this scripture: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4 NASB).
If that prophecy was fulfilled in 70 C.E., then we need pay no heed to its warning. That’s the Preterist view. But what if they’re wrong? Then those promoting Preterism are inducing the disciples of Jesus to ignore his life-saving warning. You can see from this, that accepting a Preterist view is no simple academic choice. It could well be a matter of life or death.
Is there a way for us to determine whether this theology is true or false without getting into convoluted arguments over interpretation?
Indeed, there is.
For Preterism to be true, the book of Revelation has to have been written before 70 C.E. Many preterists postulate that it was written after the initial siege of Jerusalem in 66 C.E. but before its destruction in 70 C.E.
Revelation contains of series of visions depicting these future events.
So, if it was written after 70 C.E., it could hardly be applicable to the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, if we can ascertain that it was written after that date, then we need go no further and can dismiss the preterist view as another example of failed eisegetical reasoning.
The majority of Bible scholars date the writing of Revelation about 25 years after Jerusalem was destroyed, putting it in 95 or 96 C.E. That would negate any preterist interpretation. But is that dating accurate? What is it based on?
Let’s see if we can establish that.
The apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “At the mouth of two witnesses or of three every matter must be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1). Do we have any witnesses that can attest to this dating?
We’ll start with external evidence.
First witness: Irenaeus, was a student of Polycarp who was in turn a student of the Apostle John. He dates the writing toward the close of the reign of Emperor Domitian who ruled from 81 to 96 C.E.
Second witness: Clement of Alexandria, who lived from 155 to 215 C.E., writes that John left the isle of Patmos where he was imprisoned after Domitian died on September 18, 96 C.E. Within that context, Clement refers to John as an “old man”, something which would have been inappropriate for a pre-70 C.E. writing, given that John was one of the youngest apostles and so would have been only middle aged by that time.
Third witness: Victorinus, a third century author of the earliest commentary on Revelation, writes:
“When John said these things, he was in the isle of Patmos, condemned to the mines by Caesar Domitian. There he saw the Apocalypse; and when at length grown old, he thought that he should receive his release by suffering; but Domitian being killed, he was liberated” (Commentary on Revelation 10:11)
Fourth witness: Jerome (340-420 C.E.) wrote:
“In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised up a second persecution, he [John] was banished to the isle of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).
That makes four witnesses. So, the matter seems to be firmly established from external evidence that Revelation was written in 95 or 96 C.E.
Is there internal evidence to support this?
Proof 1: In Revelation 2:2, the Lord tells the congregation of Ephesus: “I know your deeds, your labor, and your perseverance.” In the next verse he praises them because “without growing weary, you have persevered and endured many things for the sake of My name.” He continues on with this rebuke: “But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love.” (Revelation 2:2-4 BSB)
Emperor Claudius reigned from 41-54 C.E. and it was toward the latter part of his reign that Paul founded the congregation in Ephesus. Further, when he was in Rome in 61 CE, he commends them for their love and faith.
“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints…” (Eph 1:15 BSB).
The rebuke Jesus gives them only makes sense if significant time has passed. This doesn’t work if only a handful of years have passed from Paul’s praise to Jesus’ condemnation.
Proof 2: According to Revelation 1:9, John was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos. Emperor Domitian favoured this type of persecution. However, Nero, who ruled from 37 to 68 C.E. , preferred execution, which is what happened to Peter and Paul.
Proof 3: At Revelation 3:17, we are told that the congregation at Laodicea was very rich and had no need of anything. However, if we accept a writing before 70 C.E. as preterists claim, how can we account for such wealth given that the city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 61 C.E. It doesn’t seem reasonable to believe they could go from total devastation to vast wealth in the mere 6 to 8 years?
Proof 4: The letters of 2 Peter and Jude were written just before the first siege of the city, around 65 C.E. They both speak of an incipient, corrupting influence just coming into the congregation. By the time of the Revelation, this has become the full-fledged sect of Nicolaus, something that could not logically have transpired in just a couple of years (Revelation 2:6, 15).
Proof 5: By the end of the first century, persecution of Christians was widespread throughout the empire. Revelation 2:13 makes reference to Antipas who was killed in Pergamum. However, Nero’s persecution was confined to Rome and was not for religious reasons.
There seems to be overwhelming external and internal evidence to support the 95 to 96 C.E. date that most Bible Scholars hold to for the book’s writing. So, what do preterists claim to counter this proof?
Those who argue for an early date point to such things as the absence of any mention of Jerusalem’s destruction. However, by 96 C.E the whole world knew of Jerusalem’s destruction, and the Christian community understood clearly that it had all happened in accordance with the fulfillment of prophecy.
We have to bear in mind that John wasn’t writing a letter or a gospel as the other Bible writers, like James, Paul, or Peter. He was acting more as a secretary taking dictation. He was not writing of his own originality. He was told to write what he saw. Eleven times he is given the specific instruction to write what he was seeing or being told.
“What you see write in a scroll . . .” (Re 1:11)
“Therefore write down the things you saw. . .” (Re 1:19)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Smyrna write. . .” (Re 2:8)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Pergamum write. . .” (Re 2:12)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Thyatira write. . .” (Re 2:18)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Sardis write. . .” (Re 3:1)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Philadelphia write. . .” (Re 3:7)
“And to the angel of the congregation in Laodicea write. . .” (Re 3:14)
“And I heard a voice out of heaven say: “Write: Happy are the dead who die in union with [the] Lord from this time onward. . . .” (Re 14:13)
“And he tells me: “Write: Happy are those invited to the evening meal of the Lamb’s marriage.” (Re 19:9)
“Also, he says: “Write, because these words are faithful and true (Re 21:5)
So, are we really to think that seeing such a manifestation of divine direction, John’s going to say, “Hey, Lord. I think it would be nice to make some mention of the destruction of Jerusalem that happened 25 years ago…you know, for posterity’s sake!”
I just don’t see that happening, do you? So, the absence of any mention of historical events doesn’t mean anything. It is just a ploy to try to get us to accept the idea that preterists are trying to get across. It is eisegesis, nothing more.
Indeed, if are going to accept a Preterist view, then we have to accept that Jesus’ presence began in 70 C.E. based on Matthew 24:30, 31 and that the holy ones were resurrected and transfigured in the twinkling of an eye at that time. If that were the case, then why the need for them to escape the city? Why all the warnings about fleeing immediately so as not to get caught and perish with the rest? Why not just rapture them up then and there? And why would there be no mention in Christian writings from later that century and throughout the second century of the mass rapture of all the holy ones? Surely there would be some mention of the disappearance of the entire Christian congregation of Jerusalem. In fact, all Christians, Jew and Gentile, would have disappeared off the face of the earth in 70 C.E.—raptured up. This would hardly go unnoticed.
There is another problem with Preterism that I think outweighs everything else and which highlights a dangerous aspect to this particular theological framework. If everything happened in the first century, then what is there left for the rest of us? Amos tells us that “the sovereign Lord Jehovah will not do a thing unless he has revealed his confidential matter to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).
Preterism makes no allowance for that. With Revelation written after the events of Jerusalem’s destruction, we are left with symbolisms to give us assurances of what the future will bring. Some of these we can understand now, while others will become apparent when needed. That is the way with prophecy.
The Jews knew the Messiah would come and they had details pertaining to his arrival, details that explained the timing, location and key events. Nevertheless, there was much that was left unstated but which became evident when the Messiah finally arrived. This is what we have with the book of Revelation and why it is of such interest to Christians today. But with Preterism, all that goes away. My personal belief is that Preterism is a dangerous teaching and we should avoid it.
By saying that, I’m not suggesting that much of Matthew 24 does not have its fulfillment in the first century. What I am saying is whether something is fulfilled in the first century, in our day, or in our future should be determined based on the context and not made to fit into some pre-conceived time frame based on interpretative speculation.
In our next study, we’ll look at the meaning and application of the great tribulation referenced in both Matthew and Revelation. We won’t try to find a way to force it into any particular time frame, but rather we’ll look at the context in every place it occurs and try to determine its actual fulfillment.
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