The Preterist View of Christ’s Second Coming
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 8:48am
QUESTION: Can you give a brief evaluation of the view of the end times known as preterism?
ANSWER: Preterism is a particular approach to prophecy concerning the end times. Some preterist views are more moderate than the more popular one, which I will discuss here. The following material is mostly from my book, “The Faith Once for All,” pp. 541-543.
The prefix “preter-” means “beyond,” and in a grammatical context it refers to the past, as in “past tense.” In eschatology “preterism” is the view that, from our perspective, everything related to the second coming of Jesus is in the past. Now, most theologians agree that some events that can be called eschatological are in the past, e.g., the resurrection of Jesus. The view I am presenting here is usually qualified as full, consistent, hyper, or radical preterism. Advocates of this view include James S. Russell, David B. Curtis, John Noe, Max King, and John Bray.
The dominant version of preterism says that everything—EVERYTHING—associated with the second coming of Jesus happened in A.D. 70, in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem as an act of judgment on OT Israel. This includes the antichrist, the man of sin, the second coming of Jesus, the rapture, the resurrection, and the judgment day. Everything predicted in Matt. 24 and in the book of Revelation (which is dated c. A.D. 65) was fulfilled at that time (says preterism).
The only way to affirm this, of course, is to say that many of the prophecies were fulfilled not literally or visibly but spiritually. Jesus’ return was not visible (Noe, “Top Ten Misconceptions About Jesus’ Second Coming,” 29-43). Curtis says that when Christ came (in A.D. 70), “he literally, yet spiritually, gathered those that were alive to be caught up in the kingdom with Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ spiritually returned with the believers to the earth, to ever be with them. This was a spiritual event that was visibly manifest in the destruction of Jerusalem” (“The Rapture—Physical or Spiritual?” accessed online). The “resurrection of the dead” happened in A.D. 70 when Christ emptied Hades and took the saved to heaven in “heavenly” bodies; they will experience no further resurrection (Noe, “Shattering the ‘Left Behind’ Delusion,” 59-86). The old “heaven and earth” was the world of Old Covenant Judaism; in A.D. 70 it was replaced by a new “heaven and earth,” or the New Covenant world (Noe, “Beyond the End Times,” 223-264). The world we now live in will never be destroyed; it will just continue on without end, with its death and evil enduring forever (ibid., 41-66; Noe, “Top Ten,” 51-52).
A basic rationale for the preterist view is the desire to take seriously the various biblical texts that speak of Jesus’ coming as “near” and has happening “soon.” Since God’s Word never lies, all these texts must have been literally fulfilled within a short time after they were written. At stake is the trustworthiness of God’s Word (Noe, “End Times,” 99-109; Curtis, “Inspiration and the Second Coming of Christ,” accessed online). And since some of the “imminent return” texts seem to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, we can then conclude that all references and events related to the second coming were fulfilled at that time.
At this point I will offer a brief critique of the preterist view. First, it is to be commended for wanting to take the Word of God seriously in every respect. Also, it is to be commended for understanding that much biblical prophecy is figurative, or that it is fulfilled spiritually in spiritual realities rather than in physical realities. Because of this insight preterists are able to offer thoughtful critiques of dispensational premillennialism; see Noe’s book, “Shattering the >Left Behind= Delusion.”
However, I conclude that preterism pushes the spiritualization of prophecy to an extreme. Denying the visible components of the Parousia, including Christ’s own presence (see above), the attending angels, and the resurrected and transformed bodies of the saints, simply cannot be reasonably squared with the biblical data. The “spiritual bodies” of those who are raised are much more like the physical bodies we have now than the spiritual essences of angels. Jesus speaks of the resurrection as people coming forth from their tombs (John 5:28-29). The more we spiritualize our resurrection bodies, the more we must spiritualize Christ’s own resurrection, in view of the correspondence between them (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 John 3:2). Curtis’ point about 1 John 3:2 illustrates this. He says that “we will see Him just as He is” means we will see him spiritually, not physically. I.e., we will see him as loving, kind, gentle, and merciful (“Rapture”).
I also conclude that preterists are in many ways guilty of the same kind of errors found in dispensationalism. Especially, just as dispensational premillennialists tend to apply many prophecies to the second coming that were actually fulfilled in the first coming, so do preterists wrench many prophecies and statements away from what happened at the first coming and likewise apply them to their version of the second coming. Here are some examples:
(1) Our union with Christ in death, burial, resurrection, and enthronement (as in Eph. 2:6-7; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1-3) is not fully experienced until the “rapture” occurred in A.D. 70 (Noe, “Delusion,” 105-111). Thus “post-A.D.-70 Christians have a tremendous advantage over pre-A.D.-70 Christians. After A.D. 70 we have the fullness of salvation-resurrection reality” (ibid., 87).
(2) According to preterists, A.D. 70 was a key date for the establishment of the kingdom. Noe says the only kingdom the NT knows about is the one “Jesus announced and ushered in during His earthly ministry, and consummated in 70 A.D.” (“Top Ten,” 47-48). This ignores the significance of Christ’s ascension and its connection with Pentecost as the key events for the establishment of the kingdom (Dan. 7:13-14; Matt.10:23; 16:28; Acts 2:32-36).
(3) Preterists say the destruction of Jerusalem was necessary for us to know that Christ’s atonement and thus our own salvation are complete. He had “to appear ‘a second time'”–i.e., in A.D. 70–“to show that his sacrifice had been accepted.” Otherwise “we can’t know for sure if our sins are fully forgiven” (Noe, “End Times,” 192). This gives the destruction of Jerusalem–an event not even recorded in Scripture–the evidentiary significance the Bible gives the resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:12-19).
(4) One of the most serious examples is the idea that the Old Covenant and the role of Judaism in God’s plan were set aside not at the time of Christ’s death but at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is seen in Curtis’ statement that “the old covenant was taken away in A.D. 70” (“Rapture”). Noe says, “After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, all separation between God and his people was thereby removed” (“Delusion,” 104). This in effect denies the reconciling power of the blood of Christ, and Paul’s specific teaching that the blood of Christ had already brought both Jews and Gentiles near to God at the time he wrote Ephesians 2:11-22, for “through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). The Old Covenant was fully set aside (Matt. 27:51) and the New Covenant established (Luke 22:20) when Christ died. A.D. 70 had nothing to do with it.
I will sum up this point with the general critical observation that preterism is guilty of magnifying and exalting a very limited historical event, one that has a relatively marginal significance in Scripture, to the status of a cosmic redemptive event with eternal significance. The centrality and gravity bestowed upon the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem is completely out of proportion to its treatment in the Bible. Yes, Jesus’ Olivet discourse addresses Jerusalem’s fate, but even then most of his teaching about this event is in the form of instructions to his followers on how to understand it and cope with it and be saved physically from its horrors. For the Jews themselves it is described simply as “days of vengeance” (Luke 21:22). The awesome universal saving significance attached to it by preterists is without any biblical foundation, and is completely unlike the global event which the Bible pictures the second coming to be (e.g., Matt. 24:30; Acts 17:31; Rev. 1:7; 6:14-17).
It should also be noted that the biblical texts that refer to the second coming as “near” or happening “soon” do not require that Christ’s return be within the lifetime of those contemporary with Jesus, as preterists claim. All these texts are perfectly consistent with a still-future Parousia (see “The Faith Once for All,” 540-541).
Wayne Jackson refers to this radical preterism (the “A.D. 70 doctrine”) as “quite heretical” and “radically unorthodox” (“The Menace of Radical Preterism,” 2, 5). I agree that it is, both in content and in method. Regarding the latter it reminds me of a book I saw several decades ago called “I Found an Elephant in the Bible.” I do not remember what caused the author to begin looking for an elephant in the Word of God; but once he began looking for it, he found it literally everywhere. For preterists A.D. 70 is the elephant.