The Menace of Radical Preterism (Part 1)
The word "eschatology" derives from the Greek word, ESCHATOS, and means "last." It has to do with the biblical doctrine of "last" or "end-of-time" things. The term embraces such matters as the return of Christ, the end of the world, the day of judgment, and the resurrection of the dead.
One philosophy of eschatology is known as "preterism." The term "preter" issues from an original form meaning "past." Preterism, therefore, is an interpretive ideology which views major portions of Bible prophecy, traditionally associated with the termination of earth's history, as having been fulfilled already.
But the term "preterism" is flexible. Some scholars, for instance, have dated the book of Revelation in the late sixties A.D. They contend that virtually the whole of the Apocalypse, therefore, was fulfilled by A.D. 70—when Judaism was destroyed by the invading Roman armies. A more moderate form of preterism moves the fulfillment of Revelation forward somewhat. These scholars hold that while Revelation was penned near the end of the first century, the major focus of the book is upon the fall of the Roman Empire (A.D. 476); consequently they feel there is little beyond that date that is previewed in the final book of the New Testament.
While we do not agree with either of these concepts of the book of Revelation, we consider them to be relatively harmless. They represent ideas upon which good men can honestly disagree with no significant error being involved.
On the other hand, there is a form of preterism that is quite heretical. This theory argues that all Bible prophecy has been fulfilled; nothing remains on the prophetic calendar.
This radical preterism was championed by James Stuart Russell (1816-95), a Congregational clergyman in England. Russell authored a book titled, The Parousia, (from a Greek word meaning "coming" or "presence"), which first appeared in 1878. Russell set forth the idea that the second coming of Christ, the judgment day, etc., are not future events at the end of the current dispensation. Rather, prophecies relating to these matters were fulfilled with Jerusalem's fall in A.D. 70. There is, therefore, no future "second coming" of Christ. Moreover, there will be no resurrection of the human body. Also, the final judgment and the end of the world have occurred already—with the destruction of Jerusalem.
Advocates of this bizarre dogma claim that the preterist movement is growing wildly. It probably is expanding some—though likely not as rapidly and as widely as its apologists would like everyone to believe. Occasionally the sect will get a thrust when a prominent name becomes identified with it. For example, noted theologian R. C. Sproul has apparently thrown his hat into the preterist ring—at least to some degree. He characterized J. S. Russell's book as "one of the most important treatments on Biblical eschatology that is available to the church today."
Radical preterism (also known as "realized eschatology" or the "A.D. 70 doctrine") is so "off the wall"—biblically speaking—that one wonders how anyone ever falls for it. But they do. And, as exasperating as it is, the doctrine needs to be addressed from time to time. One writer, in reviewing the A.D. 70 heresy, recently quipped that dealing with preterism is like cleaning the kitty litter box; one hates to fool with it, but it has to be done. He can just be thankful that cats aren't larger than they are.
The Basis for the Dogma
Preterists strive for consistency in their view of Bible prophecy. The goal is admirable. But when a series of propositions is linked, and they are grounded on the same faulty foundation, when one of them topples—like dominos in a line—they all fall. So it is with the A.D. 70 theory.
Here is the problem. In studying the New Testament material relative to the "coming" of Christ, preterists note that:
- There are passages which seem to speak of the nearness of the Lord's coming—from a first-century vantage point (cf. James 5:8);
- They observe that there are texts which indicate a "coming" in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (cf. Matthew 24:30);
- Combining these, they conclude that the Savior's "second coming" must have transpired in A.D. 70;
- Furthermore, since the Scriptures are clear as to the fact that the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world will all occur on the day the Lord returns, the advocates of realized eschatology are forced to "spiritualize" these several happenings, contending that all will take place at the same time.
In this "interpretive" process, a whole host of biblical terms must be redefined in order to make them fit the scheme.
And so, while preterists attempt to be consistent, it is nonetheless a sad reality that they are consistently wrong!
A major fallacy of the preterist mentality is a failure to recognize the elasticity of chronological jargon within the context of biblical prophecy. It is a rather common trait in prophetic language that an event, while literally in the remote future, may be described as near. The purpose in this sort of language is to emphasize the certainty of the prophecy's fulfillment.
Obadiah, for instance, foretold the final day of earth's history. Concerning that event, he said: "For the day of Jehovah is near upon all the nations" (v. 15). This cannot refer to some local judgment, for "all nations" are to be involved. And yet, the event is depicted as "near."
There are numerous prophecies of this nature, including passages like James 5:8—"the coming of the Lord is at hand." James could not have been predicting the literally imminent return of the Savior, for such knowledge was not made available to the Lord's penmen. Not even Jesus himself knew of the time of his return to earth (Matthew 24:36).