The term “preterism” is derived from the Latin praeteritus, meaning that which has past. (Praeteritus is the past participle of praeterire, to go before: prae (comparative of before) ire, to go.) The term is derived from Matt. 24:34 where it occurs in the Latin to describe the time of Christ’s Second Coming: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass ("non praeteribit haec generatio"), till all these things be fulfilled." Full Preterists view the Second Coming and related events as being fulfilled in the events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; Partial Preterists, although conceding Christ came in some form or manner in A.D. 70, believe there is yet a future Coming that will mark the end of the universe and resurrection of the dead.
"The Time is Fulfilled"
The strength of the Full Preterist approach is that it is the only interpretive method that honors the time element resident in Old and New Testament eschatological teaching. The Old Testament was characterized by a patient waiting for the kingdom an reign of the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus’ day recognized that the time for fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets was near. When John the Baptist appeared, "the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or no." (Lk. 3:14) Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the kingdom and reign of Christ, saying: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." (Mk. 1:15) The prophets made no distinction between the first and seconding coming of Christ, but treated them as a unity, interrupted only by a brief absence when the Messiah would be "cut off." (Dan. 9:26) However, the Messiah would return, and "destroy the city and the sanctuary." Jesus taught that his return was so imminent that the apostles would not have opportunity to fully evangelize Palestine: "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye unto another: for verily I say unto, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come." (Matt. 10:23) Jesus spoke to this coming in his kingdom when he stated: "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. 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." (Matt. 16:27,28) Luke states that the kingdom and reign of Christ would come in the events marking the destruction of Jerusalem: "So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. (Lk. 21:31,32; cf. II Tim. 4:1) The return of the Messiah would be in that generation; some of the apostles would live to witness it. Just before his ascension, John was expressly named among the disciples who would be alive at Christ’s return: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow me." (Jno. 21:22)
The nearness of Christ’s Second Coming is affirmed over and over. Paul said "But this I say, Brethren, the time is short." (I Cor. 7:29) James said "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh…the judge standeth before the door." (Jm. 5:8,9) Peter stated "the end of all things is at hand." (I Pet. 4:,7) The Hebrew writer makes several unmistakable statements to this effect when he says "For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry." (Heb. 10:37) The nearness of the day is seen in the fact that his readers would "see the day approaching." (Heb. 10:25)
The apostle John indicated the nearness of the end when he stated they were in the "last time" (Grk. hora, "hour"): "Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time." (I Jno. 2:18) The nearness of Christ’s return is repeated over and over throughout Revelation in unmistakable terms, saying the "time is at hand" (Rev. 1:4; 22:10), "Behold, I come quickly" (Rev. 2:5,16; 3:11; 22:12,20), "Behold, I come as a thief" (Rev. 3:3; 16:15), and the things of the prophecy "must shortly be done." (Rev. 1:1; 22:6)
There is nothing difficult in any of this language; all who will may plainly see that Jesus and his apostles taught the first century church to be in expectation of the Lord’s return. The difficulty arises not so much from the announced time of Christ’s return, but understanding its manner. Because men have been taught that Christ’s return would mark the end of the universe, its continued existence beyond the specified time frame has forced them to explain away the express statements of time by resort to theories of delayed fulfillment or double fulfillment, and assertions that Christ and the apostles were simply wrong. Preterism rejects all such theories, maintaining that the time elements cannot be disregarded or explained away consistent with the doctrine of verbal inspiration. The very authority of the scriptures is at stake.
It is a basic principle of hermeneutics that obscure or difficult passages must be interpreted in light of those that are clear. The great hurdle many face in understanding the Biblical eschatology is the figurative nature of apocalyptic language. The language of the prophets by its very definition is veiled and obscure; it is marked by poetic imagery, license, and exaggeration, and is impressed with hyperbole, metaphors and symbols. Hence, as between apocalyptic language describing the manner of Christ’s return and the plain statements of time given by the Lord and his apostles concerning when it would occur, it is clear that the former must be interpreted in light of the latter and not vice versa. Preterism maintains that the eschatological teaching of the Lord and his apostles was fulfilled when and as prophesied. However, Preterists insist that the manner of fulfillment was essentially spiritual, not physical, and that language which on its face appears to describe the dissolution of the chemical elements in a cataclysmic end of time and space must be given a figurative construction and interpretation. This is required, not only because of the confines for fulfillment imposed by statements of time, but by the usus loquendi (manner of speech) of the prophets. The following language describing God’s judgment upon Idumea and the nations of the world in the days of Assyria and Babylon will help make the point:
"Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come out of their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. 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. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment…The streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust
thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever." (Isa. 34:1-4,9-10)
The poetic and figurative nature of the instant language is only too obvious; none will contend that in the dissolution of Edom and the nations of God’s wrath by the Assyrians and Babylonians that the stars of heaven were literally dissolved, the heavens rolled together as a scroll, or the dust of the land was turned to brimstone. Edom ceased to exist as a separate people and nation millennia ago, yet none of the physical phenomena described attended its passing. Although language of an universal nature involving the whole fabric of the heavens and earth is employed to describe the judgments announced, its fulfillment is circumscribed in time and manner to the people and era set out. Occurrence of such language and imagery is common throughout the Old Testament in passages describing God’s judgment upon various peoples and nations; it is the usus loquendi of the prophets; invariably it is poetic, never literal.
Understanding the figurative nature of apocalyptic language in the Old Testament is essential to mastery of Biblical eschatology for at least two reasons: First, because identical language is employed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament and we must know how to interpret it. Do we give it a construction and interpretation consistent with the historical usage of the prophets, or do we suddenly cast aside long established rules of interpretation in favor of a literalistic approach? In his great eschatological discourse on the mount of Olives, Jesus said: "Immediately 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…Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." (Matt. 24:29,34) Is it the Lord’s intention that we understand him to mean that the stars would literally fall from the sky in the events he described, and not rather that these were figures used to describes events of a political and spiritual nature? If we abandon the historical usage of the prophets and adopt a literal approach, upon what ground are we to base such departure? Are we not upon surer ground to adhere to established methods of hermeneutics? If the usus loquendi of the prophets does not require as much, surely the express statement of time for fulfillment does. Surely, we look in vain for fulfillment of the events described beyond the generation addressed. Within the life of many then living Jerusalem would be destroyed and the monarchial "sun" darkened, the priestly "moon" would withdraw its light, the "stars" of the elders and Sanhedrin would be loosed from their orbit as the government and polity of the Jewish nation suffered final and irrevocable dissolution.
Second, understanding the figurative nature of apocalyptic language in the Old Testament is essential to mastery of Biblical eschatology in the New Testament because of the relation of the parts to the whole. The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Nowhere had the Old Testament ever prophesied the end of the cosmos in connection with the coming of the Messiah, or otherwise. Jesus and the apostles did not prophesy it now. Nothing should be introduced into New Testament eschatological teaching and doctrine that cannot be proved by resort to the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament nowhere teaches that the earth is to be destroyed in one final cataclysmic act associated with the reign of the Messiah, there is no basis for introducing such teaching into the New Testament. To do so severs the continuity between the Testaments as the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose for man. In the Old Testament man was told what to look to in the kingdom and reign of the Messiah; in the New Testament he is assured it is come. Far from prophesying the destruction of the cosmos, the coming of Christ was to mark an era of unprecedented peace on earth as the kingdom and reign of the Messiah extended to all nations. Christendom would serve to unite the nations of the world politically as in the church the nations were united spiritually. As fellow-members of the same spiritual kingdom, nation would not lift up sword against nation, neither would they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:4) The nations which were divided by language and region would be united in a common language in Christ, as with one mind and one mouth they returned thanks and praise to God their Saviour. However, first all enemies had to be placed beneath Christ’s feet. (Heb. 2:8) The destruction of Jerusalem and the civil wars and commotions among the Romans following the death of Nero Caesar represent the subjugation of Christ’s enemies and his entrance upon his eternal reign and kingdom. Since the time statements are clear, the apocalyptic imagery of Christ and the apostles must be interpreted so as to conform to them, and not vice versa. The fulfillment of Jesus’ Second Coming in that generation is a fact certain; no other interpretation can be placed upon this language consistent with the verbal inspiration of the scriptures and sound principles of hermeneutics.
"The Fashion of this World Passeth Away"
A good deal of the confusion about the manner of Christ’s Second Coming stems from a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the nature of the world that was to suffer dissolution and the nature of the world that would take its place. It is clear from the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mk. 13; Lk. 21) that the world which was passing away was intimately connected to the city and temple of Jerusalem.
"And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?"
To English speaking persons, "world" often carries connotations of the inhabited earth. Hence, the "end of the world" suggests the utter destruction of every living thing for all time. But this is to greatly mistake Biblical usage of the word. A world would pass away in the events culminating in the destruction of the city and temple, but not the world. The immediate world marked for destruction was the world of the Jews. The Jews had existed as a nation for approximately 1,200 years. The ordinances of the mosaic law, the monarchy and priesthood, the temple, together with its furniture and service, the manners, customs, and traditions that had grown up over the long centuries were the elements of the Old Testament world; the habitation and abode of the Jews. These all were to be suddenly for all time swept away; wiped forever from the face of the earth like food and off-scouring from a plate.
The ordinances of the law were the "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:3,9) of the mosaic dispensation; the "first principles of the oracles of God" (Heb. 5:12), the "principles" or elementary teachings of the doctrine of Christ. (Heb. 6:1) They were the stuff of childhood, a schoolmaster to lead men to Chr
ist. (Gal. 3:25) For twelve hundred years men had labored in bondage under the law without relief from the power of sin and death. Sin and death reigned from Adam to (and including) Moses. (Rom. 5:14,17,21) It was impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. (Heb. 10:4) But Christ had entered the strong man’s house and spoiled his goods (Matt.121:29) ; Christ had spoiled the principality and power of sin and death, triumphing over them in his cross. (Col. 2:14,15) The ordinances of the law had waxed old and decayed, and were soon to vanish away (Heb. 8:13); the elements of the world would be dissolved and a new heavens and earth would assume their place. (II Pet. 3:10-13; Rev. 21:1) The Hebrew writer speaks to this when he refers to the "world to come whereof we speak." (Heb. 2:5; 6:5) In fact, the effects of the cross of Christ were so far reaching, his dominion so all encompassing, that the fashion of the whole world was passing away. (I Cor. 7:31) The pagan world too would come under Christ’s dominion; all nations would serve and obey him; Christ would rule the nations with a rod of iron; like vessels of clay they would be broken to shivers. (Rev. 2:27)
Thus, the world Christ spoke of in his Olivet Discourse was not the earth with its chemical elements, but the ages that had been framed by the word of God; the mosaic age with all its attendant circumstances.
The Last Days
What has been said about the usus loquendi of the prophets regarding apocalyptic language and the judgment of nations applies with equal validity to Biblical phrases such as the "last days" and the "day of the Lord." These terms, popularly applied to the end of the world and its inhabitants at some indefinite time in the future, have a long usage among the prophets which must guide our interpretation. Space does not permit us to make an exhaustive treatment of the phrase "last" or "latter" days here, but a couple examples will suffice to show that the term was inexorably tied to the destruction of the Jewish nation at the beginning of the reign of the Messiah.
Among the earliest occurrences of the phrase “last days” is the prophecy of Balaam in the book of Numbers: “And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days…there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel…out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.” (Num. 24:14-19) The “Star” and “Scepter” are obvious allusions to Christ; he would have the dominion and return the kingdom to Israel, vanquishing all the enemies of the children of light. “Him that remaineth of the city” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70., Moab here being put for the Jews. This is confirmed by what Balaam says in Num. 24:24: “And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim…and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.” (v. 24) “Chittim” is commonly understood to refer to the Romans. This is evidenced by the Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew into Latin about A.D. 387 by Jerome, which gives the rendering of Num. 24:24 thus: “venient in trieribus de Italia” – “they will come in ships from Italy.” The same word occurs in Dan. 11:30 where it is rendered in similar terms: “et venient super eum trieres et Romani” –“and there will come upon him ships and Romans.” "Eber" is commonly supposed to be the root of the word "Hebrew," used of Abraham in Gen. 14:13, who was a descendant of Eber. (Gen. 10:16,26) If this is correct, Balaam’s prophecy of the latter days and destruction of Eber by the ships from Chittim would be the earliest and clearest reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish state in A.D. 70 by the Romans. However, no matter how we interpret his prophecy, it is certain that nothing Balaam says carries the least suggestion that the end of the world is in view in use of the term “last days.”
The Song of Moses
The Song of Moses was given to Moses by God as a warning against the future wrath upon Israel in the latter days:
“Gather unto me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears, and call heaven and earth to record against them. For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger through the works of your hands.” (Deut. 31:28,29) Note that there is not the least hint of the end of the world in these verses; national judgment alone is alluded to. The words of the Song itself make this even clearer: “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!…For their vine is the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps. Is not this laid up in store with me, and sealed up among my treasures? To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up or left.”
There are several points here worthy of notice. First, it is clear that latter days equates with Israel’s latter end. The terms are used interchangeably, each embracing and defining the other. This same pattern is present in Daniel where the “time of the end” is also referred to as “the last end of the indignation” upon the Jewish people. (Dan. 8:17,19; cf. 9:26,27; 10:14) This is the same end Jesus spoke of in his Olivet discourse when he predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. (Matt. 24:14; Mk. 13:7; Lk. 21:9,20) Second, it is significant that the Hebrew writer quotes from the Song of Moses, saying: “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.” (Heb. 10:30) The writer’s quotation from the Song of Moses is not accidental. National Israel was in apostasy. Jewish Christians were under pressure to forsake Christianity and return to Judaism. But, to join oneself to national Judaism was to apostatize from Christ and invite the vengeance of God. Moreover, it was foolhardy and futile: The imminent destruction of the nation and temple meant that there was nothing to turn back to; the tender associations of their homeland and the customs associated with the temple service would soon vanish away. (Heb. 8:13) In bringing to remembrance the prophecy of Moses concerning the coming wrath upon the people and nation, the Hebrew writer seeks to strengthen his readers’ resolve to press on. The nearness of the coming eschaton is indicated in verse 37, saying: “For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.” The literal Greek reads “mikron hoson hoson,” literally, a very, very little while.&n
bsp; That is, it was a very, very little while and Christ would come in wrath upon the Jews, avenging the blood of his covenant. Hence the Hebrew Christians were encouraged to hold out a short time more; they should keep the profession of their faith without wavering (Heb. 10:23), not forsaking the assembling of themselves together, but exhorting one another all the more as they saw the day of national judgment drawing near. (Heb. 10:25) Hence, the Song of Moses, Christ’s Olivet discourse, and the Hebrew letter all come together as separate strands of a single cord pointing to the fact that the last days contemplates the end of the mosaic economy, not the world.
The Day of the Lord
Among New Testament writers, Peter twice makes reference to the day of the Lord. The first, in preaching the gospel upon the birth of the church on the first Pentecost after the Lord’s ascension. On this occasion, Peter explained that the gift of the Holy Ghost fulfilled the prophecy of Joel concerning the nation’s last days and was a token of the approaching day of the Lord that would suddenly sweep the nation away.
"But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this know unto you, and hearken to my words: For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants and my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: and I will shew wonders in the heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved…And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation."
Sound exegetical principles require that we preserve the connection between the "last days" and the "day of the Lord." The last days speak to the closing days of national Israel; the day of the Lord to the final act of judgment that would forever terminate Biblical Israel’s national existence. Preceded by warning signs in famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, the final act of judgment occurred in the 3 1/2 year war with Rome that witnessed the destruction of the city and temple. Peter’s plea to save themselves from that "untoward generation" echoed Jesus warning that the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from Abel unto Zacharias, would come upon that generation. (Matt. 23:34-36) The reference to the destruction of Jerusalem is made a certainty by the words of the prophet Zechariah:
"Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city."
Peter’s second use of the term day of the Lord occurs in his second epistle:
"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of person ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."
II Pet. 3:10-13
Read in isolation Peter’s language seems to presage the end of earth and the material universe. However, read against the backdrop of the Old Testament such interpretation becomes wholly inadequate and, indeed, impossible. Not only does the usus loquendi of the prophets prohibit such a literalism, but the whole force and thrust of the Old Testament is manifestly against such an interpretation. By its repeated reference to the destruction of the city and temple the Old Testament makes clear that the culmination of God’s redemptive purpose included the end of the Jewish economy, and not just the cross. The cross marked Christ’s victory over sin and death, the destruction of the city and temple were the manifestation of Christ in his glory; the sign of the Son of man in heaven; the token of the kingdom and reign of the Messiah; the putting of all things beneath Christ’s feet. Besides, Peter’s own statements foreclose a literal interpretation when he assumes that, the cataclysm past, a "new" earth and heaven would remain as a habitation of righteousness for God’s people. The source of this assurance is the promise given by the prophet Isaiah, which, again, makes unmistakable reference to the destruction of the Jewish nation:
"Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart, and shall howl for vexation of spirit. And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord God shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name. For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be ye glad are rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy…Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word; Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name’s sake, said, Let the Lord be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed. A voice of noise from the city, a voice from the temple, a voice of the Lord that rendereth recompence to his enemies…For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire…For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain."
Isa. 65:14-18; 66:5,6,15,22
Here is the promise of a new heavens and new earth, intermingled among warnings of national destruction. Nowhere is there the least suggestion that the earth and its chemical elements are in contemplation in either the removal of the old or the creation of the new. The reign of the Messiah was the regeneration and restitution of all things, not the destruction of all that exists. Under the old dispensation, the kingdom of God suffered violence and the violent seized it by force (Matt. 11:12); men like Caesar and Herod were in power; the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses seat. The day of the Lord put all enemies beneath Christ’s feet and restored the kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) The violent lost dominion over the Israel of God, the new Jerusalem is under the direct administration of the throne of God and the Lamb. (Rev. 22:5)
What is Preterism? Preterism upholds the authority and integrity of the word of God against theories of purported postponement and double fulfillment. Preterism is the affirm
ation that prophecy culminated and came to an end in Christ, and that Christ’s prophetic utterances were fulfilled when and as he said they would.
"Non praeteribit haec generatio donec omnia haec fiant." (Matt. 24:34)