Question from a Site Viewer
Tim, I’m hearing and reading more people say that they believe that the second coming of Jesus has already occured in A.D. 70. My question is more about that rather than what you believe about the second coming, although I believe you can’t discuss one without discussing the other. Isn’t this called partial preterism?
Thank you for your question on the timing of the second coming. There certainly has been a surge in recent years of a belief in what is known theologically as — you’re right — partial preterism, with people like Gary DeMar, R.C. Sproul, and Hank Hanegraaff contributing to the legitimacy of this view. (In fairness to Mr. Hanegraaff, he does not place himself in this camp, but he has argued for positions that come close to partial preterism, including that Nero was the Antichrist and that other Biblical events should be seen as fulfilled in 70 A.D.) Preterists teach that Christ returned in 70 A.D. and fulfilled all of the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation. Partial preterists believe that most of the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation had their fulfillment in 70 A.D., but that there is still a future coming of Christ at the end of the age.
Preterists are generally considered heretics in the church because they cannot ascribe to the Nicene Creed in believing in a future return of Christ. Partial preterists fit within the Nicene Creed and are not heretics, at least in my view.
I am neither a preterist nor a partial preterist. Their view of the texts are not very compelling to me. They argue that their reading is the only way to give reasonable meaning to the time texts of Matthew and Revelation (“this generation” and “I am coming quickly”).
In my view, there are many fatal flaws in their arguments, not least of which is the dating of Revelation. Irenaeus, an early church father from Lyons, France, an individual who remembers listening to Polycarp, the great bishop of Smyrna and friend of the Apostle John, this Irenaeus wrote around 150-175 A.D. these words: “We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” Ireneus, “Against Heresies,” Book 5, Chapter 30, section 3. The apocalyptic vision refers to the book of Revelation. Irenaeus had reason to know when Revelation was written, since, as he says, it was not very long before his day. Also, given the fact that he learned from Polycarp who learned from John, Irenaeus would have been directly impacted by John’s teachings. His testimony is most credible. Domitian reigned from 81 A.D. to 96 A.D. If Revelation was written towards the end of his reign as Irenaeus states, then Revelation had to be written around 95 A.D. This is the date most conservative scholars accept for dating the book.
To date the book based on one’s theological position is dangerous, and puts the cart before the horse. There is no historical support for a date of Revelation other than around 95 A.D. Preterists and partial preterists are stuck. Either they re-date the book even though there is no historical support, or they must abandon their theological position. It is impossible to be a partial preterist with respect to Revelation if Irenaeus is right. One cannot have Revelation written after the fulfillment of its prophecies.
Because I put a great deal of faith in the early church fathers, as they were taught personally by the Apostles or by those who were trained by the Apostles, and because they would best know what the Apostles taught, and because there is no reason to think that Irenaeus was lying to us as to the date of the book, I accept that Revelation was written after 70 A.D. Accordingly, the words of Christ saying “I am coming quickly” cannot be a reference to 70 A.D. The words are “I am coming,” not “I have come.”
Second, all Christian writers in at least the first two centuries of the church were futurists, not preterists. Even most partial preterists will concede this point. Am I to conclude that they all were wrong, that the Holy Spirit has now revealed something to us that He did not reveal to them? People such as Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch and one who was personally acquainted with the apostles themselves; Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis (across the valley from Colossae), a friend of the apostle John; and Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and another person who knew the Apostle John, were strong futurists. Did they misunderstand what they had been taught? Ignatius writes to Polycarp and urges him to “Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes . . .” (Chapter 3). The Epistle of Barnabas, written around 100 A.D., anticipated the coming of the Antichrist and the return of Christ (Chapter 4). Polycarp writes “He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead” (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2). Papias writes that there will be a millennium after the resurrection of the dead when the personal reign of Christ will be established on the earth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 39). Justin Martyr who lived from 110 to 165 A.D. writes: “But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare” (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 80). Ireneus states that those who heard Jesus teach testified that Jesus taught a future literal millennial reign on the earth, a time when the earth will yield a richness unimagined. Irenaeus goes farther to state that the coming of Christ will be preceded by the Antichrist reigning 3 and 1/2 years in Jerusalem, setting Himself up as God Himself. Irenaeus also tells us that there there will be 6,000 years of this earth before Jesus returns and sets up His thousand year reign. Irenaeus states all of this in the second century A.D.
Even closer to the apostles, Clement of Rome, who may have been the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3, and who probably was with Paul at Philippi, expected the return of Christ. The preterists and partial preterists will argue that Clement wrote before 70 A.D., because he speaks about sacrifices being offered in Jerusalem. But most scholars disagree and date Clement’s letter around 90 A.D. In any event, the unbroken view of those closest to the apostles and those who had a reason to understand what the apostles taught on the subject were all futurists. There is not a preterist among them.
The preterists will cite to Clement of Alexandria who wrote in the early part of the third century as support and to Eusebius who wrote in the fourth century. But Clement is largely credited with bringing an allegorical interpretation into the reading of Scripture, a reading that most in evangelicalism would not find comfortable. And Eusebius notes his disagreement with Papias, the friend of the Apostle John, on the meaning of the end times prophecies.
Third, the big argument of the preterists and partial preterists is that the destruction of Jerusalem was such a huge event that it must be what Christ and John were referencing. But the destruction of Jerusalem is hardly even mentioned in the early church writings. Those closest to 70 A.D. did not mention it. It was not until the third century (depending on when one dates the Clementine literature) that some in the church began to equate the events of 70 A.D. with the statements of Christ. And linking Revelation to the events of the first century did not arise until a couple centuries later. The destruction of Jerusalem was not a big event for the early church.
Further, while it was a terrible blow to the Jews at Jerusalem, it was nothing in comparison to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. where the Jews were scattered everywhere and remained scattered throughout the world even at the time of Jesus. Virtually every city Paul visited had a synagogue of the Jews. History tells us that there were Jews in Indian and even China at the time of the apostles. The great scattering was by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. for the northern kingdom and 586 B.C. for Judah. There had been no general return of these Jews to the land of Israel prior to the coming of Christ. There was no similar scattering after 70 A.D. In fact, Jews still inhabited Jerusalem until the Bar Kochba rebellion in 136 A.D.
Fourth, one of the big prophecies of Christ in Matthew 24 is that not one stone of the temple would be left standing, one upon another (Matthew 24:2). This is another problem for the preterists and partial preterists, because this did not happen in 70 A.D. and has not yet happened. To this day, Jews regularly visit the “Wailing Wall,” a wall of stones that remains standing several rows high, with over half of the rows dating from 19 B.C. when Herod built them.
Finally, and most important to me, the events of 70 A.D. simply cannot enfold the statements of Christ, Paul, Peter, or John, unless one is to develop a different hermeneutic for these passages. The argument of the partial preterists is that apocalyptic language should be read with a different hermeneutic; they argue that these texts were not meant to be read literally. But my question to them is who in Scripture said this? While I will agree that there are metaphors in Scripture, am I to have two hermeneutics, one when Christ is talking about history or spiritual life and another when Christ is talking about coming events? Should I take the second coming as a metaphor; our own resurrection as meaning something other than a physical resurrection, and the hope of eternal life as simply being allegorical? On what basis do I choose between what is intended to be metaphor and what is intended to be literal? And should we really think that Christ, when He spoke, intended His disciples not to take Him literally? At least in John 6, when there was a misunderstanding, Jesus explained that He was speaking of the spiritual. In Matthew 24, Christ gives us no indication that He is doing anything other than speaking about what will literally happen, even as He did about His own death and resurrection.
I note that most prophecies have a more literal fulfillment than we might have expected. The prophecies of the piercing of Christ, something readily given to metaphor, were fulfilled literally (unless one is to make an allegory of the account of the crucifixion). The prophecy of 30 pieces of silver in the apocalyptic passages of Zechariah were fulfilled literally. The prophecy of being cut off in Daniel, another apocalyptic author, was fulfilled literally. Some will argue that Christ appearing in the clouds should not be seen as literal, but I simply note that Christ was taken into the clouds in Acts 1:9 and the angels said he would come back the same way (Acts 1:11).
A second problem with the allegorical school of interpretation is that it leaves all passages so interpreted as being without any set meaning. Each interpreter seems to see the allegory differently. And some can go to great excesses. I do not think Scripture was written so that we could all guess at what it said. With John, the author of Revelation, I say that Scripture was written so that we might read, without the aid of a teacher, and know (1 John 2:27).
As explained elsewhere on the site, I am premillenial and pretribulational. I think such accords best with passages such as Isaiah 26:20-27:1; Zephaniah 2:3; Luke 21:36; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; Revelation 3:10; and many other passages; including Matthew 24. I have a hard time concluding that Christ did not intend us to understand His words in a literal way. Stated another way, I find no indication that Christ was speaking in a way intended to obscure what would happen.
For instance, when Jesus said that there would be wars and rumors of wars, I expect He meant exactly what He said. Yet, history does not record the period of time from 33 A.D. to 70 A.D. as being particularly filled with wars. We often refer to this time as “Pax Romana,” meaning the peace of Rome. There were no wars or rumors of wars between 33 A.D. to 70 A.D., at least no notable ones.
Jesus said there would be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. When did this happen before 70 A.D? History records a famine in Jerusalem stemming from a drought from 44 to 48 A.D. But one famine is far from famines in various places. There is no record of pestilences, except at Jerusalem when they were shut up by the Roman armies. And earthquakes were not particularly active in this time period. The Romans record three earthquakes in the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder records in 77 A.D. that the greatest earthquake in human memory occurred in 17 A.D., before the time of the Olivet Discourse. Jesus certainly was not referencing something that happened before the Olivet Discourse. There was another earthquake in 33 A.D., probably the one referenced in the gospels, and one in 48 A.D., both of which only caused minor damage. Since there were not earthquakes in diverse places before 70 A.D., what meaning are we to give to Jesus’ words? Why should we think that Jesus in mentioning earthquakes did not intend us to understand that there would be earthquakes?
Jesus said that the Christians would be hated by all nations? Again, did Jesus mean for us to understand this metaphorically? If literally, when did this happen before 70 A.D. The Romans hated the Christians but the Persians, the other great empire of that time, did not. What other nation hated the Christians during this time period? And did Jesus really intend us to understand that “all nations” really was only one nation, Rome?
One of the main problems with a 70 A.D. interpretation of the Olivet Discourse is Jesus’ statement that this gospel of the kingdom would be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations. When was this done before 70 A.D? Did Jesus not know about the nations in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia? Did Jesus not intend for them to have a witness? And if this was accomplished, then is the Great Commission completed? Are we done with our work? When Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel, is the “world” there to be interpreted the same as the “world” in Matthew 24? And if not, why should we interpret one statement concerning preaching the gospel to the world differently than another statement? This is where one’s theological position begins to drive one’s interpretation, rather than letting the words of Scripture drive interpretation.
Jesus said that there would be the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet. Some partial preterists argue that this is the continuation of the sacrificial system after the death of Christ. But this does not seem to accord with Paul’s view. Paul, after the death of Christ, purified himself according to the law (which would have required sacrifices as I understand the law) and purposely went to the temple to make an offering (Acts 21:26). The reference to an offering would also seem to indicate a sacrifice. Paul did not understand the sacrificial system as being the abomination of desolation, or he would never have gone through a purification ceremony or brought offerings for himself and others. But there is no event known to history that would otherwise seem to qualify as the abomination of desolation. And whatever it was, it had to be at a time when people could see it, recognize it, and flee. There is no historical event that qualifies before 70 A.D.
Jesus warns of a great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world and shall never be afterwards. Can we honestly say that the destruction in 70 A.D. was worse than the extermination camps of Hitler, the destruction of Israel and most of Judah by the Assyrians, or Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem? Can anyone make an argument that 70 A.D. was the worst tribulation the world ever has or ever will see? The horrors of the Khmer Rouge seem far worse, or the Rwandan horror, or the horrors of World War 2, including the saturation bombing of German cities, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. John writes in Revelation that with one plague 1/3 of the earth will be destroyed. He seems to be describing something much worse than what happened in 67-70 A.D, when Josephus records that during the years of the siege 1,100,000 people perished, most by pestilence and famine, and 97,000 were taken captive.
Further, the horror of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 134-136 A.D. was a far greater disaster for the Jews than the events of 70 A.D. Quoting from Wikipedia: “Modern historians have come to view the Bar-Kokhba Revolt as being of decisive historic importance. The massive destruction and loss of life occasioned by the revolt has led some scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish diaspora from this date. They note that, unlike the aftermath of the First Jewish-Roman War (the 70 A.D. War) chronicled by Josephus, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was either killed, exiled, or sold into slavery after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed far more brutally.” The Talmud states that millions of Jews were killed in Hadrian’s effort to stamp out Judaism. The Talmud states that Romans went on killing until their horses were submerged in blood up to their nostrils. Cassius Dio states that 580,000 Jews were killed and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were razed. Jews were banned from Jerusalem and even the name of the city was changed.
And when Jesus speaks of all the tribes of the earth seeing the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, can He really have meant that no one would actually see Him and most of the world would not even notice that He had come? How can we possibly think that this is what Jesus meant with the words Jesus chose?
And what are we to think about the gathering of the elect together? The elect were scattered in 70 A.D, not gathered. Could Jesus really have used the wrong word?
About the only thing the partial preterists take as literal in this entire passage is the “this generation.” But “this generation” needs a referent. The partial preterists would have us believe that Jesus pointed to those around Him and while pointing to them said “this generation.” But this is a private conversation between Jesus and His disciples (Matthew 24:3; 26:1). It is simply impossible to determine with any definiteness what “this generation” references. But we have some clues. First, Jesus did not say “your generation.” If Jesus intended to refer to the generation of the disciples, then He would have most naturally said “your generation.” But rather than say “your,” He said “this.” Because of the “this,” it is incumbent on the interpreter to discern what the referent is for “this.” In the preceding verse, Jesus said that it would be the generation that sees “all these things.” Again, in Mark 13:29-30, Jesus refers to the generation as those who “see these things happening.” In Luke 21:31-32, Jesus said that when “you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.” Then Jesus said that this generation would not pass away.
In each case, Jesus spoke of “when you see.” Jesus was speaking to his apostles. And most of them never saw these things. They were dead before these things happened. Because the “you see” cannot refer to the apostles, then it must refer to a coming people. And if it is some people yet to come, why would we be compelled to make the referent of “this generation” to be the generation of the apostles? The plain reading is to read the referent as being the generation that sees these things.
What is true of the Olivet Discourse is true of the many other end-time prophecies. For instance, Hank Hanegraaff argues that Nero was the Antichrist. But Nero died of suicide in a village outside of Rome in 68 A.D. How can it be said that he was destroyed by the brightness of the coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:8)? Was there a secret coming of Christ in 68 A.D? Hanegraaff does not believe in a coming of Christ in 68 A.D., but yet believes that Nero was the Antichrist. If Jesus did not come in 68 A.D., then in what sense can we say that the Antichrist was destroyed by the brightness of Christ’s coming? And looking to Revelation 19, how can the description of Christ’s coming there and the overthrow of the Antichrist be linked to 68 A.D? For that matter, when did Nero ever set himself up in the temple of God as if he was God (2 Thessalonians 2:4)? In fact, when was Nero ever in Jerusalem?
The problems outlined above with respect to partial preterism and the Olivet Discourse are only compounded with respect to the book of Revelation.
In my view, partial preterism is an over-reaction against some futurist’s interpretations that seek to see fulfillment in every interesting detail that arises in history. It is a response to the long litany of those who attempt to set dates for the coming of Christ and the many who try to identify the Antichrist as being a contemporary figure. I sympathize with partial preterists in trying to undo the damage that comes from people who seek to identify current events with Biblical prophecies. But I think partial preterists run into the same error as those at Thessalonica who taught that the day of Christ had already come. They were wrong then and I think they are still wrong today. The day of Christ is still future and will remain future until He comes and gathers us to Him, as 2 Thessalonians 2:1 describes.
I do not think partial preterism is consistent within itself, with the Biblical texts, or with the views of the apostles passed on to their disciples. I also do not think it is possible to develop a hermeneutical principal of interpretation that can be applied to remove subjectivity from an allegorical approach to Scripture. And I worry that moving away from a historical-literal approach softens the effect of Scripture on our lives. For these and many other reasons, I am not a partial preterists. I suspect some of these reasons are also behind the hesitancy of Mr. Hanegraaff to join with the partial preterists, despite his leanings towards their view on the Olivet Discourse.
Nevertheless, while I disagree with partial preterism, I disagree respectfully as a brother, not as an opponent. I do not think this relatively new phenomenon of partial preterism is the best answer to the excesses of premillenial thought. Nor do I think that 70 A.D. can explain the Olivet Discourse, the Thessalonian epistles, Peter’s statements on the coming of Christ, or the book of Revelation.
I hope this is helpful.
a fellow servant.