Preterism and the Confused Sea of Modern Eschatology


In their recent, and excellent book, How Now Shall We Live, (1) authors Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey make the strong point that followers of Christ need a sound and complete Biblical worldview. We are commanded to do this by the Bible itself when we are told to always be ready to give a reason for our hope, to divide the Word correctly, and to watch our doctrine closely. Paul told Timothy the Scripture was all that was needed for a man to be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This, however, is not what Christians usually do today. While a lot of people go to church, it seems few know the Bible and fewer still take following Christ seriously. Secularized Christianity (Country-Club Christianity) has watered down both the truth and the impact of God's Word and its meaning. As a result, there is deep division and confusion concerning many sections of the Bible.

Questions about the nature of God, the nature and purpose of man, the reasons for Israel, the promise of salvation through an incarnate Messiah, God's laws and rules for men, and what the future holds are all answered in the Bible. But to find these answers, the Bible must be read -- not in bits and pieces, but cover to cover. One cannot look up "key" verses and find doctrine and explanations. Life itself is too complex for that, and God's Word does not shortchange us in our lives.

The Bible is the book where the answers to these and many more questions are given. But the Bible is not an encyclopedia or a handy reference guide. It opens its secrets only to the humble and pure in heart. Its treasures escape the arrogant, the proud and the self-righteous. The Bible teaches truth "here a little, there a little, line upon line, precept upon precept." This means we can only understand a given subject well if we first know the whole Book. Truth on any subject in the Bible unfolds gradually chapter by chapter in an always-consistent manner. The Author intended His book to be straightforward and easy to understand.

In reading the Bible, the clear, literal sense of the Word is always to be preferred. Allegories and parables are clearly presented as such, symbols used in one section are explained in others, and poetry is clearly marked. God is a master teacher. Even children can understand the basic message. When allegory, parable, or symbolic material is presented it is clear from the context and from similar passages elsewhere in Scripture how we are to proceed with interpretation. God seeks personal and intimate relationships with His people, He is a Master teacher, and His style is such that even children can grasp the basic message. God means what He says and says what He means; He announces, or prophesied the future and then acts accordingly. God announces what He is going to do in advance, then He acts and does exactly what He has said He would do. Though the Bible is a supernatural book, penned by different men who lived over a time span of at least 1500 years, it is self-consistent, accurate and authoritative from cover to cover. Since the Author backs what He has written with His own character, the Word of God is weighty, life-changing, dependable and infallible.

In the writings of the early church fathers, we can see how they wrestled with various issues. Some important issues were, however, never widely resolved. The second and third centuries saw a move towards treating the Bible as completely allegorical. In Alexandria, Egypt, Origen (185-254 AD) and his followers, desiring to accommodate neo-Platonist philosophy among the intelligentsia of the day, adopted the view that the Bible was mostly allegorical and need not be taken as literal, historic truth. In due time this view of the Bible as allegory was rejected as heresy, but damage had been done. Augustine (354-430) headed the church back towards a straightforward reading of Scripture--except for the book of the Revelation, which he considered allegorical.

Thus the Roman Catholic Church was led into the same theology concerning Biblical prophecy (eschatology). Catholicism became "amillennial" -- denying the coming thousand year reign of Christ on earth spoken of in Revelation 20 and referred to many times in Isaiah. In the process another strange theological twist appeared known as "replacement theology." This view claims that the church has replaced Israel in the plan of God. Clear refutation of this heresy is presented in Isaiah 48-52, among other places. The entire book of Hosea ought to be enough to settle the issue of God's enduring commitment to his wife, Israel, in spite or her spiritual adultery. Though Yahweh is seen as divorcing his wife Israel under the terms of the Old Covenant, yet the story ends when God buys back His wife and restores her forever under the terms of the New Covenant. In Scripture, there is a clear distinction between Israel and the Church as well as in regard to God's calling and God's plans for these separate entities. The Apostle Paul spends three full Chapters in his letter to the Romans (9-11) to make this distinction clear to all who are willing to hear.

Although Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the other Protestant reformers of the 16th century brought Christianity enormous strides back to accepting the Bible's full authority, these leaders did not try to deal with, or reform, their eschatology. Today, as a result, few Christians consider the Bible literally true and historically accurate. And when men consider the Bible's history as allegorical, what happens to prophecy is even worse.

Within a century of the Reformation's beginnings a view of the prophecies of Revelation was becoming popular which denied the clear intent of this book. This view, referred to as preterism has been picked up in our time by some notable theologians such as R.C. Sproul. (2) Preterist theology states that the prophetic statements referring to the end times as presented in Revelation were fulfilled in the first century of Christendom. Preterists feel this wrapped up God's plan for Israel and that the church has now inherited all that God promised Israel.

According to Sproul, Preterism is, "an eschatological viewpoint that places many or all eschatological events in the past, especially the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70." This school of Bible prophecy actually teaches that the second coming of Jesus (the parousia) really occurred nearly 2000 years ago, and the "last days" are over and done with. When the Romans under Titus destroyed the Second Temple prophetic history was completed and fulfilled, especially with regard to Israel. All that is left is God plus Christ's church.

Preterism takes its clue from Revelation 1:1 which says these things will "soon take place." From there it valiantly defends itself against all sorts of theological difficulties, point by point. However, in doing so, it effectively excises the Lord from management of history, claiming He has abandoned His promises to Israel. Preterism allows great sections of the Old Testament to be relegated to allegory, thus denying New Testament teaching the foundation it was built on. It ends up claiming that much of the Bible is not relevant for us today. Then all we have left is a few rules for living and the promise that we can "believe on Jesus" and go to heaven. This "Christianity Lite"--as a friend of mine refers to it--is deadly, lulling people into complacency in dangerously troubled times and denying them the assurance of God's complete knowledge and control and love as the world situation and personal lives crumble.

Dr. John F. Walvoord in his book Every Prophecy of the Bible (3) has taken the time to examine a thousand individual Bible verses and to analyze 500 specific prophesies from both the Old and New Testaments. His work is meticulous and reverent. He notes that fully half the examined prophecies have been fulfilled in minute detail in history so far. Should we then not expect God to continue in that same way, fulfilling His prophecies literally, accurately, and historically?

Not many Christians today look at Genesis and believe it means what it says. Not many Christians look at Revelation and understand or believe what it says. But the symbols are explained by the prophets of the Old Testament. The entire Bible is not only relevant for today, it is completely indispensable as we move towards the final act of the human drama. The events in Revelation are what wrap up ALL of human history, not just history to 70 A.D. Knowing this we can take comfort that God is completely in control and we can trust Him. It takes humility to turn away from pride and our natural human reasoning when trying to "make sense" of the parts of God's Word we don't understand. But it is that humility God looks for in His people, as God tells Isaiah in 66:2,

"This is the one I esteem:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit,
and trembles at my word."



1. Tyndale House, Wheaton, IL 1999

2. R. C. Sproul, The Last days According to Jesus, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids 1998)

3. John F. Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible, Chariot Victory Publishing, Colorado Springs 1999.

See also "Progressive Dispensationalism" from Zola Levitt's newsletter. 3/00.

Lambert Dolphin
Originated January 24, 2000. Special thanks to Helen Fryman Setterfield.