By Rick Capezza
In the 1900's, thousands of books have been written predicting the identities of the Antichrist and the Beast. The mark of the beast has been said to be anything from a UPC label to a computer chip in one's hand. The rapture has been glorified, and the tribulation predicted to be anything from the Russians to Y2K. Each year new ideas pop up predicting the end times. And each year things fail to materialize, and each year the tribulation or the rapture doesn't happen….again. In this essay, I defend the moderate preterist position that maintains the bulk of eschatological prophecy has already past.
One might ask if eschatology is really important. The answer is yes. First, it affects our evangelism. If one thinks the Chinese army is starting the battle of Armageddon, this assumption will affect how he evangelizes. He might share the good news of the Cross, but it is the good news set in the wrong context. If the evangelizer's goal is to get as many people saved as possible before the Rapture, and our cars are not unmanned in a few months, then the truth suffers in the meantime. Many Christians take this "short time" approach thinking, "We are all going to be raptured soon, who cares what happens here?" With this thinking, an emphasis on the future is lost. Reaching descendants for Christ over the next seven hundred years is lost if one thinks they will not be around in seven years. Second, this view of eschatology is contrary to Scripture. One of Bertrand Russell's criticisms is Jesus was wrong with respect to the time-frame references of his future coming. Russell charges Jesus failed to do what he said.
Moreover, one must define and critique prophecy. Prophecy is the foretelling of events not yet occurred when the prophecy was made. What is the criterion for determining if prophecy has or has not been fulfilled? First, one must look at the scriptural context. The interpreter must know the verses surrounding the text and if similar passages are elsewhere in the Bible. Also, the reader must know the passage's historical context. What was the writer's situation, and what did he assume his reader's situation to be? Do we know a historical event that fulfills this prophecy?
In addition, to understand the New Testament well, one must understand the Old Testament. For example, one reads Nahum 3:15-17 and because he lives in the twentieth century, he can look back on the prophecy and know "locusts" represent the Babylonian army which destroyed the Assyrians in 612 BC. Thus, he comes to the conclusion locusts represent a destructive, invading human army sent by God in judgement. But without this passage and hermeneutic to guide him, he interprets the locusts in Revelation 9:9-10 as helicopters or missiles. He ignores the scriptural context and explains the New Testament prophecy with futurist interpretations. Finally, one must resist the urge for the Bible to have immediate application to himself. John wrote Revelation to real Christians, thousands of years ago and although the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us.
Next, one must know what Jesus taught at the Olivet Discourse. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus points to the temple and great buildings and says, "not one stone shall be left upon one another, that shall not be thrown down (Matt. 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7). The disciples respond by asking two questions: 1) When will these things take place? And 2) What will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age? Jesus responds by giving a solemn warning against false christs. Furthermore, he speaks of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, apostasy, worldwide gospel preaching, the abomination of desolation, great tribulation, and an astronomical phenomenon. He describes these as birth pangs, a term for sufferings immediately preceding a new age, the age of Messiah's reign. "These are precursors of fulfillment, things that will happen before Jesus' words are fulfilled." Thus, if this prophecy includes Jerusalem's destruction, the above events must take place before Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed (Sproul 36). So were they? Calvin says, "For shortly after Christ's resurrection, there arose impostors, every one of whom professed to be the Christ."
Furthermore, we must note Jesus said "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come"(Matt. 24:14). Thus, before the end can come the gospel must be preached in all the world. Most conservative Christians believe this has not happened, and thus the end could not have come. But Paul tells us in Colossians 1:23 the gospel was preached "to every creature under heaven."
Moreover, the preterist view includes the abomination of desolation and the tribulation as taking place prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. James Stuart Russell argues for the fulfillment of the prophecy in the first century AD:
Most expositors find an allusion to the standards of the Roman legions in the expression, 'the abomination of desolation,' and the explanation is highly probable. The eagles were the objects of religious worship to the soldiers; and the parallel passage in St. Luke is all but conclusive evidence that this is the true meaning. We know from Josephus that the attempt of a Roman general (Vitellius), in the reign of Tiberius, to march his troops through Judea was resisted by the Jewish authorities, on the ground that the idolatrous images on their ensigns would be a profanation of the law (Russell 73).
With the example of Antiochus Epiphanes in mind, Jesus didn't need unusual insight to see where Rome's nationalism would lead. Moreover, it was common practice to assert power over a nation by dethroning their gods and replacing them with the conqueror's gods (Sproul 40). Such an example would be Nebuchadnezzar when he conquered Israel.
Also, Jesus tells the disciples "There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matt 16:28). Jesus makes a clear statement about the time frame of this event. He said some standing [there] would not die. The term coming is not the word parousia used most often when referring to Jesus' Second Coming. But Jesus does speak of some sort of coming. "Matthew speaks of coming of Christ 'in His kingdom.' Also, Mark speaks of their seeing the kingdom of God come 'with power' (9:1), and Luke simply says that they will see the kingdom of God (9:27)" (Sproul 54). This is most often called a judgement-coming. It is probable Jesus' reference to his coming in Matthew 16:28 refers to the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. This would put the event within 40 years, or within one generation. There would be some standing there who would have not tasted death.
In addition, Jesus said, "This generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled." The futurist view of the term generation refers to a "kind" or "sort" of people. But this view of the term is contrary to its use all other times in Scripture. Not once is generation used to refer to a kind of people. "Of the thirty-eight appearances of genea (generation) apart from Luke 21:32//Matthew 24:34//Mark 13:30 all have temporal meaning, primarily that of 'contemporaries'" (Demar 34). In addition, this view is not only held by preterists, but also critics like Bertrand Russell.
In addition, how one approaches the Olivet Discourse depends on one's hermeneutic. "The orthodox Protestant hermeneutic follows Martin Luther's view of the sensus literalis." This means one should interpret the Bible according to its "literary sense." Poetry is to be interpreted as poetry. Parables are not to be read as historical narrative. Thus, one should not take something figurative literally but should interpret it within the appropriate literary genre. In addition, "when faced with the option of interpreting the time frame references literally or interpreting the description of the Parousia literally, the preterist chooses the former. The preterist's choice is governed by a larger hermeneutical principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture (Sproul 66)."
Furthermore, the age coming to an end was the Jewish age. The incarnation of Christ is viewed as a time of crisis (ktisis) or the New Testament word for judgement. "The coming of the Messiah is directly linked to the impending judgement of Israel. John called the nation to repentance and to cleansing by baptism because the Jews were not ready for the crisis, the 'visitation' of God in the person of the heavenly Judge, the Son of Man." This is a time of redemption for those in Christ and a time of destruction for those not in Christ (Sproul 74). This visitation is closely linked to the day of the Lord. The "day of the Lord" figures heavily into Old Testament prophecy. Initially it was a day of redemption the people anticipated with great joy, but as the faith of Israel degenerates, more forecasts of doom and judgement appear. Because Malachi 4:5 says, "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord," we must infer the day is "no great distance from the period of John the Baptist (Sproul 79)." Thus, the day of the Lord begins with the incarnation and is consummated in the destruction of Jerusalem. "Here is an 'already but not yet,' but one that spans forty years, not centuries or millenia" (Sproul 81). The last days refers to the period between the advent of John the Baptist and the destruction of Jerusalem. These last days have not been these last two thousand years. If this were the case, the end of the age is longer than the age. "More time has already elapsed since the incarnation than from the giving of the law to the first coming of Christ (Sproul 90)."
Next, an important factor in the preterist view is the signs Jesus talked about came to pass. The Jewish historian Josephus, after being captured by Rome, was able to be an eyewitness on Jerusalem's destruction. Josephus tells how the invasion was halted when news of the death of Nero arrived. Vespasian would come to power shortly thereafter. He writes about the wickedness of his own generation. He claimed the Jews were more wicked than any generation before. He tells the story of one woman, who in the middle of the famine, took her baby who had been sucking at her breast and killed it. Moreover, she roasted it, ate half its body, and then offered the rest to bystanders. In addition, Josephus tells of the burning of the temple and the mandate all Jews from babies to old men should be slain. Moreover, Josephus tells of signs of heavenly apparitions:
Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued the whole year…at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which light lasted for half an hour….at the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. (Sproul 122)
The reference to a heifer giving birth to a lamb may seem strange and raise doubts about Josephus' accuracy as a historian. But lest one think this is a concoction made up by a Jew seeking to fulfill his religion's prophecy, other historians of secular nature report signs in the sky around the time of Jerusalem's destruction. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus:
Besides the manifold misfortunes that befell mankind, there were prodigies in the sky and on the earth, warnings given by thunderbolts, and prophecies of the future, both joyful and gloomy, uncertain and clear. For never was it more fully proved by awful disasters of the Roman people or by indubitable signs that the gods care not for our safety, but for our punishment. (Sproul 123)
Thus, other's accounts confirm Josephus' account. In addition, Josephus' notes an even more astonishing account. It seems hard to believe and he almost does not mention it because of this: … a certain prodigious and incredible phenomena appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those who saw it … before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and the surrounding of cities. Moreover at the feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, "Let us remove hence" (Sproul 124).
What is remarkable about this account is its similarity to Ezekiel 1:22-28; 10:15-19. Thus, preterists see not only the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but also a Parousia of Christ in His judgement-coming. Full preterists see in this event the fulfillment of the New Testament and last things. But here is a sharp disagreement between preterists. Moderate preterists see the bulk of the Olivet discourse as fulfilled in AD 70, but there still remains a future coming (Parousia) of Christ.
Moreover, the preterist view accepts an early date for the writing of Revelation. There is much strength in choosing the pre AD 70 over the late date (AD 95-96). First, the late date requires a 90 year old John being banished to hard labor in the mines of Patmos. Moreover, if you take this late date, you have (according to Clement) John pursuing a young apostate on horseback at ninety plus years old. This seems absurd to any rational thinker. Second, Clement, who believed John to be the author of Revelation, said the apostolic revelation ended with Nero. Therefore, Clement says John wrote Revelation before Nero died. Nero died before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Third, Clement says John removed from the island of Patmos after the death of the tyrant. Nero was commonly known by the name Tyrant. Apollonius of Tyana writes: In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished. I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India, but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it can be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs….And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mothers, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet. (Sproul 144)
In addition, Revelation speaks of this sixth king as the reigning king. If one starts with Julius Caesar as the first king, as the ancient historians did, Nero is the sixth king. The order is: 1) Julius Caesar 2) Augustus 3) Tiberius 4) Caligula 5) Claudius 6) Nero. Fifth, Revelation 11:1 tells us the temple is presently standing. If this is true, to hold the late date one must either say John wrote Revelation before AD 70 or one must say the destruction of Jerusalem was at least 25 years after it was really destroyed.
Also, the preterist will maintain the Antichrist is not someone coming in the future. Scholars maintain antichrist refers to a system of belief and individual persons. "We can see that antichrist is a description of both the system of apostasy and individual apostates. In other words, antichrist was the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that a time of great apostasy would come, when 'many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another (Chilton 111).'" Gnosticism, the heresy denying the reality of the incarnation and the first-century heresiarch Cerinthus would fit in this category.
Furthermore, preterists believe the beast was someone in the first-century AD. The beast is a man whose number is 666 (Rev. 13:18). Revelation 13 clearly shows he is an extremely evil and idolatrous person. "He possesses great authority (Rev. 13:5, 7) and wears ten crowns on his head (13:1), he must be a political figure (Sproul 185)." He has seven heads (13:1). This expresses a "collective identity" like an empire. The seven heads represent seven mountains (17:9). Rome is commonly referred to as the "City on Seven Hills." With this in mind, the conclusion is the beast is Nero. He was more cruel and evil than other rulers. Kenneth Gentry lists several contemporaries of Nero who called him "a beast." The Hebrew spelling of his name is Nrwn qsr (Nero Caesar). The numeric values of these is 666 as you can see from the chart below:N R W N Q S R total 50 200 6 50 100 60 200 666In addition, "that Nero was worshipped is evident from the inscriptions found in Ephesus in which he is called 'Almighty God' and 'Savior.'" Furthermore, Nero was the first emperor to persecute Christianity (Rev. 13:7) and his persecution lasted 42 months (13:5) from November AD 64 until his death in June AD 68.
In conclusion, the preterist position is a rational and probable explanation of eschatology. First, one keeps from becoming lackadaisical in our evangelism and child rearing because it keeps us from anticipating rapture. Second, one must understand the definition and nature of prophecy. Third, one must first understand Old Testament prophecy to properly understand New Testament prophecy. Fourth, one must correctly interpret what Jesus taught in the Olivet Discourse. Fifth, one must know Scripture teaches the gospel has already been preached to all creatures. Sixth, one understands the preterist view is in the past. Seventh, one can take into account Jesus telling his disciples some of them would not taste death before He came with power and glory and their generation would not pass away until "all these things" are fulfilled. Moreover, one corrrectly realizes the end of the age was merely the end of the Jewish age and the destruction of Jerusalem fits Jesus' description of the end of the age. Furthermore, one accepts the early date for the writing of Revelation. Finally, one has ready answers for questions dealin with the identity of the beast and Antichrist.
Chilton, David. Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Fort Worth: Dominion, 1985).
DeMar, Gary. Last Days Madness: The Folly of Trying to Predict When Christ Will Return. (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (London: Allen & Unwin ? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957).
Russell, J. Stuart. The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord's Second Coming (London: Dalby, Isbister, 1878).
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