Has Jesus Already Returned? (The Preterist Debate)

Dr. Jerry E. McKeehan

 

         R.C. Sproul defined Preterism as follows:

         Preterism: An eschatological viewpoint that places many or all eschatological events in the past, especially during the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 228)

         Preterism gets its name from a Latin word meaning, “to pass.” In other words, it is the view that says the apocalyptic events forecasted in the New Testament have already happened in our past, in AD 70. Thus, it is the opposite of futurism. Within preterism exists two main camps— partial preterism and full preterism, as well as a third that I will refer to as Kik preterism, based on the name of its creator, J. Marcellus Kik (An Eschatology of Victory).

         Kik’s preterism is that he divided the three questions of Matthew 24:3 to be fulfilled in two different time periods.

  1. When will this happen? (AD 70)
  2. What will be the sign of your coming? (AD 70)
  3. And of the end of the age? (Someday in our future)

         The majority of preterists hold to partial preterism, which teaches that most of the biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled.

         Almost all Christians throughout history have believed that the Lord is coming back some time in the future to finish the work of building his kingdom.  They have disagreed about the details of this return but not about the fact of the return. Recently, however, a small group of evangelicals has argued that all the teachings and prophecies about the Lord’s return were fulfilled in the first century.

         They are usually labeled preterists. However, they do not merely hold to a preterist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, a view shared by a number of evangelicals. (See “Issue 10: The Debate over the Book of Revelation.”) These Christians believe that everything the New Testament has to say about the end times—including Jesus’ return, the resurrection of the dead, and God’s ultimate victory over Satan—was fulfilled in the first century.

         Three fundamental convictions drive the preterist perspective.  First, preterists are impressed by the repeated statements in the New Testament that “the end is near” (e.g., 1 Peter 4:7).  First-century disciples seemed to believe that Jesus would return and that all the end-times predictions they had been given would come to pass in their lifetime.  Indeed, Jesus explicitly taught that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Matt. 24:34)—referring, it seems, to all the apocalyptic events he spoke of in his Olivet discourse (Matt. 24:1–33).  If it is impossible either for Jesus or his inspired disciples to err, preterists argue, then we must look to the fulfillment of the end-times in the lifetime of the disciples.

         Second, preterists argue that the apocalyptic imagery used throughout the Bible to describe the end-times is figurative.  None of it should be taken literally. For example, language about cosmic disturbances (e.g., earthquakes, sun darkening, etc.) and about the Son coming in “the clouds of glory” must be interpreted as typical biblical symbolic depictions of judgment (e.g., Matt. 24:29–31; cf. Isa. 13:6–13; 34:2–15; Ezek. 32:1–10; Micah 1:3–5).  The nonliteral nature of these apocalyptic images is clearly seen in the simple fact that Peter understood them to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when God poured out his Spirit “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17–21)!

         Third, preterists believe that all end-times predictions were ultimately fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It was at this point that Israel ceased to be a distinct nation and that Old Testament Judaism came to an end.  In their view, the Lord returned at this time, judged Israel, defeated Satan, and established his permanent presence in the world through the church. Therefore, according to preterists, there is no future return of the Lord to look forward to. There are no future battles for him to fight. He has already returned and has already won.

         The majority of evangelicals reject the preterist interpretation of the New Testament for a variety of reasons.

         First, they argue that the New Testament teaches that Jesus will return in a visible, indeed bodily form.  For example, after Jesus’ bodily ascension, two angels announced to the disciples, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, emphasis added). It is difficult to reconcile this teaching with the preterist view that Jesus returned in A.D. 70.

         Second, preterists make too much out of the disciples’ belief that Jesus would return in their lifetime. The disciples’ zeal, which flowed from their expectation that the Lord could return at any moment, was godly and should be imitated by all believers. This, most evangelicals argue, is the point of these passages.  But we do not need to conclude that the disciples were wrong because Jesus has not yet returned. Some in the early church apparently were drawing this very conclusion, for Peter corrected them by reminding them that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). We must live as though today were our last day, all the while knowing that the Lord might not bring history to a close for another thousand years (or more).

         Third, most evangelicals believe that preterists stretch apocalyptic imagery too far. While most scholars agree that the imagery of cosmic cataclysms is symbolic, this cannot be applied to, say, New Testament talk about people rising from the dead (e.g., John 5:28–29; Rom. 6:5; 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:35–52; 1 Thess. 4:13–18).  When the New Testament speaks of a future resurrection of the dead, it clearly means what most Jews of the time took it to mean: namely, a literal, bodily resurrection.  The preterists’ attempt to spiritualize the resurrection is often regarded as one of the weakest points of their theological system.

         Finally, the majority of evangelical scholars argue that preterists make too much of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and too little of the ongoing battle with evil that has characterized the world since that time. True, the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the desecration and obliteration of the temple were earth-shattering events. Everything about Judaism changed at that time.  Much of the apocalyptic imagery Jesus uses in his Olivet discourse, and perhaps (some would argue) much of the Book of Revelation, is about this monumentally important event.  

         But it requires an enormous stretch of the imagination to suppose that the kingdom of God was established at that time.  Though we may concede that there are symbolic elements in the New Testament vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the fact that evil still reigns with intensity throughout the world suggests that Satan is still “the god of this world” and “the ruler of the power of the air” (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2).  The kingdom of God has in principle been established on the earth through the church. Satan was in principle defeated at Calvary. But this victory is clearly not yet perfectly manifested.  Hence, the vast majority of evangelicals yet look forward to the time when Christ will unambiguously reign victorious over all his foes.

Look at the Contrast Between 70 A.D. and Future Temple

         The Temple described in Matt. 24:15 is not said to be destroyed, only desolation (desecrated) (Rev. 11:2).

         The Temple’s desecration would be a sign for Jews to escape destruction (Matt. 24:16- 18), “be saved” (Matt. 24:22) and experience the promised “redemption” (Luke 21:28). By contrast the destruction of the Temple in Matt. 24:2 was a judgment “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation [Messiah’s first advent].

         The generation of Jews that are alive at the time the Temple is desecrated will expect Messiah’s coming “immediately after” (Matt. 24:29), and are predicted to not pass away until they have experienced it (Matt. 24:34). By contrast, the generation of Jews who saw the Temple destroyed would pass away and 2000 years (to date) would pass without redemption.

         The text Jesus cited concerning the Temple’s desecration, Daniel 9:27 predicts that the one who desecrates this Temple will himself be destroyed.

         By contrast, those who destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70 (in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction)- the Roman emperor Vespasian and his son Titus—were not destroyed but returned to Rome in triumph carrying vessels form the destroyed Temple.

         The time “immediately after” (Matt. 24:29) the Temple’s desecration would see Israel’s repentance (Matt. 24:30), followed by, as Matt. 23:29 implies, a restoration of the Temple.

         By contrast, the time following the destruction of the Temple only saw a “hardening” happen “to Israel,” which is to last “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25)—still 2000 years and counting.

         For the Temple that is desecrated, the scope is of worldwide Tribulation “coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26; compare Matthew 24:21-22; Mark 1319-20), a global regathering of the Jewish people “from one end of the sky to the other” (Matt. 24:31; Mark 13:27), and a universal revelation of the Messiah at Israel’s rescue (Matt 24:30- 31); Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26-27). This scope with the prophesied end time battle for Jerusalem recorded in Zechariah 12:3). By contrast the A.D. 70 assault on Jerusalem predicted in Luke 21:20 is by the armies of one empire (Rome).

         The Jewish rebellion against Rome and the outbreak of war began in 66 A.D. and culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. with the exception of the retaking on Masada in 72 A.D. by the Romans.

         Jesus foretold of Jerusalem’s destruction in Matthew 24:1-22.

The Questions of the Disciples

         The four disciples ask two or three questions.

  1. “Tell us, when will these things happen?” (70 A.D.)
  2. “What will be the sign of Your coming?” (Future)
  3. “And of the end of the Age?" (Future)

         The first question related to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. The last two are still future.

A Challenge!

         The Preterist will claim that the Reformers during the Reformation held the position of Preterism.  Show me a book by any of the Reformers from 1640 to 1899 who wrote a book agreeing to Preterism?  Not a fabricated quote!

Those after 70 A.D. were not aware! Why?

         The Bible Cannon was not completed until after 70 A.D.  Some of Jesus disciples were still alive.  Why did not these disciples write about Jesus returning in 70 A.D.? 

  • The Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed (a.d. 381) was not aware Jesus returned in 70 A.D.
  • The Chalcedonian Creed (a.d. 451) was not aware Jesus returned in 70 A.D
  • The Apostles Creed (about a.d. 750) was not aware Jesus returned in 70 A.D.
  • Foxe's Book of Martyrs, is a work of Protestant history of Christians martyred were not aware Jesus returned in 70 A.D.

         Why was there NOTHING written about this event of Jesus returning in 70 A.D.?

         One of the early Church Fathers (after 70 A.D.), The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the early 2nd Century, states “the great tribulation that is coming,” which is a silly thing to state if the church believed it already took place.

         The Didache was used as a church manual, most date it written at the latest about 100 A.D.. It says it is still future. ‘Watch for your life's sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ye ready, for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh. …. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increaseth, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. … And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first, the sign of an out-spreading in heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.”  [Didache, XVI]

         Again, Irenaeus a respected early church apologist that lived AD. 120-202 had this to say about future events- “It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved. ... But he indicates the number of the name now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is: ... But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” [Irenaeus: Against Heresies, Book V, XXX].

Let Us PLEASE Understand the Second Coming!

         First, if one were to hold a correct “End Times” theology?  That theology would not change when Christ is going to return! Period!

         Second, the Second Coming is not a theory to be discussed. But a truth to be lived! Walk in holiness!

         Third, please understand our watching is an anticipation! We hold to the hope of His coming.  Our Lord asks us to “be careful of our hearts”.  My watching is NOT to predict the time of His coming!  Christ is coming back to reward those who trust in God”, NOT according to our “End Times” position.

         Christians have spent the last 2,000 years guessing at the season, the year, even the very date of the Second Coming. The apostle Paul—who expected the imminent return of Christ—had to warn the Christians of his day to get on about their business, for apparently some were spending all their time waiting for Christ’s return instead of working and earning a living for themselves and their dependents. No freeloading, Paul declared (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

         More date-guessing was indulged in by some early Christians, who thought they caught a clue in these words of Jesus to Peter, about John the “beloved disciple”:

         Jesus CLEARLY told His disciples they would NOT see Him return! (Luke 17:22; Acts 1:7-8)

         Luke 17:22 says: Then Jesus[a] told the disciples, “The time will come during which you will long to see one of these days when the Son of Man is with you,[b]but you won’t see it.

         Jesus made it clear by that statement that none of His disciples would be alive when He returns. He also told His disciples that they should not concern themselves with the timing of the establishment of the Kingdom. Just prior to His ascension, the 11 disciples asked Him if He would establish the Kingdom. He responded by saying:

         Acts 1:7-8 says: “It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father has set within His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you. And you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth. ”(Acts 1.7-8)

         “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that [John] would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:22-23).

         These verses implied to early Christians that Christ would return before John would die. Add to this belief the fact that John actually did outlive the other disciples and died a natural death on the Mediterranean island of Patmos sometime during the last quarter of the first century. Needless to say, these Christians held their breath with expectancy as John’s life passed away.

         Sadly, Christians have been date-guessing ever since. Today fortunes have been amassed by Bible preachers from supposedly reading the signs of the times—signs that are usually recent and current events, particularly in the Middle East, events that supposedly must occur before the Second Coming itself.

         Yet this reasoning, this interpretation runs counter to what Jesus said: everything that had to be fulfilled before the Second Coming would be fulfilled before his generation died out. Even Paul expected the return of Christ in his immediate future. Yet modern prophecy preachers imply that Paul didn’t understand the Scriptures as well as they do, and that of course Jesus could not have returned in the first century—not before any one of several events of the 20th and 21st centuries that prophecy preachers point to as prerequisites of the Second Coming.

         Such an assumption is arrogant. I believe that Paul was not mistaken and that modern prophecy preachers are inflating current happenings in the world with a prophetic significance that is utterly unbiblical.

         Please understand that I do not disbelieve in prophesying. It’s only that when the word is used in the New Testament, it means to preach the message of God—to tell forth rather than to foretell. If you want to prophesy as the New Testament describes it, you will tell people what God expects of them—not make specific predictions about the Second Coming based on esoteric interpretations of recent or current events.

What Does the Scriptures Say?

  • "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matthew 25:13)
  • "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matthew 24:36)
  • “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:40)
  • "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1-3)
  • It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. (Luke 12:37-38)
  • Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. And many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:4-5; 11; 23-27)
  • "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)
  • As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39)
  • For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. ((Matthew 16:27)
  • "Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:34-36)
  • "It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. "It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:28-30)
  • Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:40-44)
  • "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.' "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. "Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' "But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' (Matthew 25:1-12)
  • It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night. (Luke 12:37-38)
  • If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." (Mark 8:38)

         Again, my watching is an anticipation! I am to hold on to the hope of His coming.  Our Lord asks us to “be careful of our hearts”.  My watching is NOT to predict the time of His coming!  Christ is coming back to reward those who trust in God”, NOT according to our rapture position.

The Problems with Imminence

Warning Signs Yet to be Fulfilled

  1. Battle of Gog and Magog
  2. First Conversion of Jews and Gentiles
  3. Rebuilding of Babylon
  4. Moving of One World Church
  5. World Church and False Prophet
  6. World Economy
  7. World Government
  8. World Government breaks into 10 Divisions
  9. Rebuilding the Temple
  10. Antichrist
  11. Overflowing Scourge
  12. Appearing of Elijah
  13. A Time of Peace and Safety
  14. Signs in Space and on Earth
  15. Distress Among the Nations
  16. Rapture
  17. Jews Sign Covenant with Antichrist

         Again, the Second Coming is not a theory to be discussed. But a truth to be lived! Walk in holiness!

Further Reading

My three favorite choices on The Book of Revelation

  1. Gordon Fee.  Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary Paperback
  2. Darrell W. Johnson.  Discipleship on the Edge
  3. Paul Spilsbury. The Throne, The Lamb, & The Dragon
  • Caringola, Robert. The Present Reign of Christ: A Historical Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Springfield, Mo.: Abundant Life Ministries Reformed Press, 1995. (historicist)
  • Chilton, David. The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation. Fort Worth: Dominion, 1987. (preterist)
  • Gentry, Kenneth. Before Jerusalem Fell: The Dating of the Book of Revelation. Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989. (preterist)
  • Charles S. Meek. Chistian Hope through Fulfilled Prophecy: Is Your Church Teaching Error about the Last Days and Second Coming? An Exposition of Evangelical Preterism
  • Gregg, Steven, ed. Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Nashville: Nelson, 1997.
  • Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972. (futurist)
  • Miller, Fred P. Revelation: A Panorama of the Gospel Age. Clermont, Fla.: Moellerhaus, 1991. (historicist)
  • Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969. (spiritualist)
  • Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. (futurist)
  • Noe, John R. Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Bradford, Pa.: Preterist Resources, 1999. (preterist)
  • Pate, C. Marvin, ed. Four Views on the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
  • Wilcock, Michael. I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975. (spiritualist)
  • Keith A Mathison PH.D. When Shall These Things Be?: A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism, P & R Publishing Company. February 20, 2004 (futurist)