Friday, January 24, 2020

A Refutation of Preterism (Part One)

Introduction

According to the doctrinal position known as “Preterism,” most – or all – of the events prophesied by Christ in his “Olivet Discourse” (as recorded in Matthew 24-25) were fulfilled in the events leading up to and surrounding the Roman siege of Jerusalem (and destruction of the second temple) in A.D. 70. Some readers of my blog may find it surprising to know that, shortly after coming to believe the truth of Paul’s gospel and the salvation of all in the early 2000’s, I actually came to adopt this particular “eschatological” position. The reasons I had for holding to this view at that time were varied and, in some ways, rather complex. However, the reason I was originally drawn to the preterist position is pretty simple, and could be summarized as follows: After coming to believe in the truth of the salvation of all, I found myself drawn to books on the subject that were written by 19th century American Universalists (such as Walter Balfour, Thomas Whittemore, Hosea Ballou, Thomas Thayer and Sylvanus Cobb). And according to the view of these “early modern” believers in the salvation of all, every prophesied event in the New Testament except the salvation of all had already been fulfilled (or was in the process of being fulfilled). Given my admiration and appreciation for these early pioneers of the truth of universal salvation in the United States (as well as an understandable suspicion of anything smacking of “mainstream” Christian theology, and a desire to distance myself from it), it was only natural that I became sympathetic toward – and eventually came to adopt – their eschatological position.

Fortunately, I eventually came to suspect that something was amiss with how I was interpreting much of scriptural prophecy, and began to reevaluate what I believed on this subject. Around this time I was introduced to the writings of A.E. Knoch and others associated with the “Concordant Publishing Concern” (along with related groups/ministries), and came to realize that my prior method of interpreting scripture (if one could even call it a “method”) was inconsistent and arbitrary. After coming to adopt a more consistent method of interpreting scripture (which is commonly known as the “grammatical-historical method”), I began to seek to understand what an inspired author wrote according to the plain, ordinary and straightforward meaning of what was being communicated unless I had good reason to believe that figures of speech were being used, or that the speaker/author intended something to be understood in a way other than how it would normally or ordinarily be understood. In other words, I came to believe that we should approach scripture just as we approach other forms of non-fiction literature, and should seek to understand it in accord with the normal rules of communication.

“Thus shall be the presence of the Son of Mankind”

The interpretive methodology referred to above proved devastating to the eschatological position to which I’d previously held. I was no longer able to just sweep prophetic passages under the rug of “highly figurative language” just because the event being prophesied didn’t fit with anything that had already occurred in history, or explain away portions of scripture that I’d found puzzling (such as nearly two-thirds of the book of Ezekiel) by appealing to some “allegorical meaning” that I figured it had to have. And so, when I arrived at Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:26-31, I couldn’t simply dismiss his inspired words as being some sort of “highly figurative” reference to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 (or any other historical event). In these verses we read the following:

“If, then, they should say to you, ‘Lo! in the wilderness is he!’ you may not be coming out; ‘Lo! in the storerooms!’ you should not be believing it. For even as the lightning is coming out from the east and is appearing as far as the west, thus shall be the presence of the Son of Mankind. Wheresoever the corpse may be, there will the vultures be gathered.

Now immediately after the affliction of those days the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not be giving her beams, and the stars shall be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Mankind in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land shall grieve, and they shall see the Son of Mankind coming on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory. And He shall be dispatching His messengers with a loud sounding trumpet, and they shall be assembling His chosen from the four winds, from the extremities of the heavens to their extremities.”

That Christ had in mind a personal, bodily coming and presence is evident from the fact that he contrasted the event referred to in v. 27 and 30 with certain hypothetical statements of false teachers/prophets (who are represented as falsely claiming that Christ is present in some hidden location). Unlike what these false prophets are represented as claiming, Christ’s presence will not be hidden, or secret. Following the occurrence of the celestial signs referred to in v. 29, there will be no need for anyone to go to some secret location in the wilderness (or “in the storerooms”) to verify that Christ’s coming has, in fact, taken place. Instead, Christ’s presence will be just as visible as when ”the lightning is coming out from the east and is appearing as far as the west.” Christ’s coming on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory will be an obvious and undeniable fact when it takes place.

Further confirmation that the coming of Christ referred to in this passage will be an event involving the bodily presence of Christ and his physical return to earth is found in Acts 1:9-11:

And saying these things, while they are looking, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him up from their eyes. And as they were looking intently into heaven at His going, lo! two men stand beside them in white attire, who say also, “Men! Galileans! Why do you stand, looking into heaven? This Jesus Who is being taken up from you into heaven shall come thus, in the manner in which you gaze at Him going into heaven.

Christ ascended bodily into heaven and – according to the promise of the messengers – he will come “in the manner in which” the disciples gazed at him “going into heaven.” Now, let’s compare the words of the messengers with the following words of Peter in Acts 3:20-21 (which, in v. 12, we’re specifically told were directed toward “Israelites”):

“Repent, then, and turn about for the erasure of your sins, so that seasons of refreshing should be coming from the face of the Lord, and He should dispatch the One fixed upon before you, Christ Jesus, Whom heaven must indeed receive until the times of restoration of all which God speaks through the mouth of his holy prophets who are from the eon.

Based on the words, “heaven must indeed receive him until,” some have erroneously assumed that this coming of Christ refers to the same event as that which we find referred to by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:16 (where we read that “the Lord himself shall be descending from heaven with a shout of command…”). However, as in Acts 1:11, the “heaven” referred to by Peter in v. 21 should be understood as including the atmosphere above the earth that is visible to humans (cf. Acts 2:2, 5, 19; 4:24; 7:55; 9:3; 10:12; 11:6; 22:6; etc.). Thus, in Acts 3:21, “heaven” should be understood as referring to (or at least as necessarily including) this relatively large expanse above the earth. Understood in this way, the coming of Christ which Peter had in mind here will not be fulfilled until after Christ has returned to earth (as prophesied in Zechariah 14:4).

In contrast with this fact, the “heaven” to which Paul was referring in 1 Thess. 4:16 is the location from which Christ will be descending, and is thus to be understood as distinct from the cloud-filled, atmospheric location to which we’re told Christ will be descending (and where all in the body of Christ will be meeting him after we’ve being snatched away from the earth). The location from which Christ will be descending prior to the “meeting in the air” should, therefore, be understood as the realm in which Christ is presently located (i.e., the “highest heaven,” where Christ is seated at the right hand of God).[1] Thus, there’s no good reason to equate the coming of Christ to which Peter was referring in Acts 3:20-21 with that which was being prophesied by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:15-17.

Peter’s prophecy that Christ will be dispatched from God and return to earth after Israel has repented echoes an earlier prophecy from Christ himself in Matthew 23:37-39 (which he declared shortly before his Olivet Discourse in chapter 24):

“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! who art killing the prophets and pelting with stones those who have been dispatched to her! How many times do I want to assemble your children in the manner a hen is assembling her brood under her wings-and you will not! Lo! left is your house to you desolate. For I am saying to you: You may by no means be perceiving Me henceforth, till you should be saying, ‘Blessed is He Who is coming in the name of the Lord!’

According to Christ’s prophecy in this passage, it is not until after Israel has repented and come to embrace Jesus as the Messiah (thus recognizing him as the one who “is coming in the name of the Lord”) that they will be perceiving him again. Until this time comes, “heaven must indeed receive” Christ.

Other verses in which this future coming of Christ are referred to could be provided, but the above prophecies should suffice. There’s simply no good reason to understand the coming of Christ referred to by Christ in Matt. 24:30 and that which was referred to by the messengers in Acts 1:11 (and by Peter in Acts 3:20-21) as two separate events. And since the coming of Christ referred to in Acts 1:11 and 3:20-21 is clearly one that will involve Christ descending to the earth with the same immortal, glorified body with which he ascended to heaven, it follows that the coming of Christ prophesied in Matt. 24:30 has not yet occurred.

In light of these considerations, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the coming of Christ “on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory” prophesied in Matt. 24:30 did not take place in A.D. 70. Instead, this event belongs just as much to the future as the event prophesied by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:51-52, Phil 3:21 and 1 Thess. 4:15-17 (i.e., Christ’s coming for the body of Christ, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere – will be occurring at least seven years before the eon-concluding return of Christ to earth that we find prophesied in Matthew 24).

Moreover, since Christ also prophesied that his “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and much glory” would be witnessed by those who see the preceding celestial/atmospheric signs referred to in verse 29[2] – and since these signs will be taking place immediately after the affliction of those days” (v. 29) – it must further be concluded that the time of “great affliction” that Christ had in view in verses 15-22 is future as well. It would be unreasonable and absurd to believe that the “affliction of those days” was fulfilled in 70 A.D. while, at the same time, believing that the coming of Christ referred to in v. 30 is a yet-to-occur future event. Such an interpretation of Christ’s words would either entail that Christ was completely mistaken, or would empty the words “immediately after” of any intelligible, understandable meaning. Consider the following argument:

1. The coming of Christ referred to in Matthew 24:30 is a future event.
2. This future event (which will be witnessed by those who see the preceding celestial signs) will occur “immediately after” the days of “great affliction” referred to in Matt. 24:15-22.
3. The days of “great affliction” referred to in Matt. 24:15-22 did not occur in the first century (or at any subsequent time).

“…till the Son of Mankind may be coming.”

Notwithstanding the reasonableness of the view that the coming of Christ referred to in Matthew 24:30 remains a future event, many preterists believe that there are certain passages of Scripture which undermine this view. One of the passages of Scripture commonly appealed to by preterists in support of their position is Matthew 10:21-23. In these verses we read the following:

“Now brother shall be giving up brother to death, and father, child, and children shall be rising up against parents, and shall be putting them to death. And you shall be hated by all because of My name. Yet he who endures to the consummation, he shall be saved. Now, whenever they may be persecuting you in this city, flee into a different one, for, verily, I am saying to you, Under no circumstances should you be finishing the cities of Israel till the Son of Mankind may be coming.”

I think it’s reasonable to believe that, when Christ referred to the “the consummation” and the “coming of the Son of Mankind” in these verses, he had in mind the same “consummation” and “coming” referred to later, in the Olivet Discourse (see Matthew 24:13 and 30). Thus, in these verses, Christ was declaring that he would return to earth before his disciples ran out of places to which to flee from persecution. That is, until the “consummation” and “coming of the Son of Mankind” to which Christ referred occurred, the disciples who would be in need of fleeing from persecution would always have more cities to which to flee. Thus, Christ’s words in v. 23 should be understood as words of comfort and reassurance to his disciples (and not necessarily as a “timeframe marker” whereby the disciples would know how near Christ’s return was based on how many cities were left for them to flee to). Jesus was promising his disciples that places of refuge would remain available until he returned (whenever that return occurred), and was not suggesting that they would inevitably run out of cities to which to flee before he returned.

Now, preterists assume that the “fleeing” to which Christ was referring in v. 23 would involve only the disciples to whom he was speaking at this time. This is, I believe, an invalid assumption. Christ was, of course, prophesying in these verses. And it was not uncommon for prophets to address their contemporaries as if they would be among those to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy being declared in their hearing, even when the actual fulfillment of the prophecy would not be occurring until hundreds or even thousands of years later (see, for example, Deut. 18:14-19 [cf. Acts 3:19-26; 7:37] and Deut. 30:1-6). So unless we’re already assuming that the “consummation” and “coming of the Son of Mankind” being referred to in these verses already took place in the first century (as preterists believe), there’s no good reason to believe that Christ’s words in v. 23 had exclusive reference to the disciples to whom he was speaking on this occasion. Apart from such an assumption, it would, instead, be reasonable to conclude that Christ was speaking to his disciples as representative of those who would be alive on the earth whenever the “consummation” and “coming” referred to in verses 22-23 actually took place. And this leaves open the possibility that the disciples whom Christ had in mind would belong to a future generation of people (as I believe to be the case).

Matthew 16:27-28

Another passage commonly appealed to by preterists in support of their understanding that a prophecy-fulfilling coming of Christ occurred in the first century is Matthew 16:27-28. In these verses we read that Christ declared the following to his disciples:

“For the Son of Mankind is about to be coming in the glory of His Father, with His messengers, and then He will be paying each in accord with his practice. Verily I am saying to you that there are some of those standing here who under no circumstances should be tasting death till they should be perceiving the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom.”

In order to better understand these verses, we cannot simply stop reading at verse 28. We must continue reading the verses that immediately follow in chapter 17, as well (for the sake of brevity, I’ll be quoting only the next two verses; however, the reader is encouraged to read the remaining seven verses as well): 

And after six days Jesus is taking aside Peter and James and John, his brother, and is bringing them up into a high mountain, privately, and was transformed in front of them. And His face shines as the sun, yet His garments became white as the light.

It would also be helpful to compare what we read in the verses above with the parallel accounts found in Mark and Luke:

Mark 8:38; 9:1-2
“For whosoever may be ashamed of Me and My words in this generation, an adulteress and sinner, the Son of Mankind also will be ashamed of him whenever He may be coming in the glory of His Father, with the holy messengers."

And He said to them, "Verily, I am saying to you that there are some of those standing here who under no circumstances should be tasting death till they should be perceiving the kingdom of God having come in power." And after six days, Jesus is taking aside Peter and James and John and is bringing them up into a very high mountain, privately, alone. And He was transformed in front of them.

Luke 9:26-29
“For whoever may be ashamed of Me and of My words, of this one the Son of Mankind shall be ashamed, whenever He may be coming in the glory of Him and of the Father and of the holy messengers. Now I am saying to you, truly there are some of those standing here who under no circumstances should be tasting death till they should be perceiving the kingdom of God.”

Now it occurred about eight days after these sayings, taking along Peter and John and James also, that He ascended into the mountain to pray. And it occurred, in His praying, to the perception His face became different, and His vesture glittering white.

In each of the accounts above, we find that, approximately one week after Christ declared what he did concerning some of his disciples perceiving “the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom” (or “perceiving the kingdom of God having come with power”), Peter, James and John were taken aside by Jesus to privately witness an extraordinary event atop “a high mountain.” We’re told that, while on this mountain, Jesus came to be “transformed” (or “transfigured”) in front of them. We’re also told that they perceived Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

In light of the clear sequential/chronological connection that exists between Christ’s prediction in Matt. 16:28 and the event described in the verses that immediately follow, I believe it’s reasonable to conclude that what Peter, James and John perceived at this time was the event that Jesus had in mind when he referred to “the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom” (and which, in Mark’s account, is referred to as “the kingdom of God having come in power”). In other words, I believe it’s reasonable to understand the supernatural mountain-top experience we find described in Matt. 17:1-9 as having fulfilled Jesus’ prediction in Matt. 16:28.

This can, I believe, also be reasonably inferred from the fact that what Peter, James and John perceived while on the “high mountain” was explicitly referred to by Christ as a “vision.” In Matt. 17:9 we read, ”And, at their descending out of the mountain, Jesus directs them, saying, ‘Now you may tell no one of the vision till the Son of Mankind may be roused from among the dead.’” Unless this verse is the sole exception in Scripture, the Greek word translated here as “vision” (horama) always denotes a supernaturally-induced visual and/or auditory experience occurring apart from normal sensory input. It can occur either by day or by night, and often takes place while the recipient is in a trance or dreaming. The word appears numerous times in the book of Acts, and consistently denotes something that God supernaturally causes a person to experience in their mind (Acts 9:10-12; 10:3, 9-19; 11:5; 16:9; 18:9). Acts 12:9 is especially helpful in understanding what a “vision” is in the scriptural sense of the word. There, we read that Peter “did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.” Here, an objective event occurring in the physical world is contrasted with what Peter initially thought was a “vision.”

Significantly, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint, or LXX), the term horama is used to describe supernatural visions of the future (see Dan. 7:1; 8:13; 10:1). And this is precisely what I believe the “vision” seen by Peter, James and John was – i.e., a vision of the future, after the kingdom of God has “come in power.” In other words, the mountain-top vision seen by Peter, James and John (which involved Jesus being transformed, and Moses and Elijah appearing with him) was the fulfillment of Christ’s prediction that “some of those” who were with him would “under no circumstances…be tasting death till they should be perceiving the Son of Mankind coming in His kingdom.” Christ’s reference to some not “tasting death” implies that every other Jewish believer who was alive in that day would die before they got to see what Peter, James and John saw on the mountain. Only Peter, James and John were privileged to see Christ as he will appear after he has returned to the earth and the kingdom of God has “come in power.” All other believers who were alive in that day would have to die before seeing this, and will not see it until after they’ve been resurrected by Christ “in the last day” (John 6:39-40).





[1] Concerning the heaven from which Christ will be descending at the time of the snatching away (which is not to be equated with either earth’s atmosphere or “outer space”), we read the following in Hebrews 8:1-5 and 9:23-24:

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man…Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”

Moreover, if the “heaven” referred to by Peter in Acts 3:21 is to be understood as referring exclusively to the transcendent realm in which Christ is presently located at God’s right hand, then it would mean that Peter’s prophecy concerning the “times of restoration” was fulfilled when Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; cf. 1 Cor. 15:8). But that’s clearly not the case. And given this fact, what we read in 1 Thess. 4:15-17 is perfectly consistent with the view that the coming of Christ for his body (which I believe to be imminent) is distinct from Christ’s eon-terminating return to earth, and will not involve the commencement of the “times of restoration of all which God speaks through the mouth of His holy prophets who are from the eon.” For at the time of the snatching away, there is no indication that Christ will descend any further than the highest point in which clouds may be found. 

[2] It’s common for preterists to claim that the prophecy concerning stars “falling from heaven” must involve figurative language. However, the term translated “stars” can also refer to comets or meteors (i.e., “falling stars” or “shooting stars”). Understood as a reference to this kind of literal atmospheric phenomena, it’s reasonable to conclude that, in conjunction with the darkening of the sun and the moon just prior to Christ’s coming, a great meteor shower will also take place.

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