Reflections on Revelation (2): A Brief Introduction to Preterism

Preterism is well defined at theopedia.com as “a view in Christian eschatology which holds that some or all of the biblical prophecies concerning the Last Days refer to events which took place in the first century after Christ’s birth, especially associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The term preterism comes from the Latin praeter, meaning past, since this view deems certain biblical prophecies as past, or already fulfilled.”

There are two main kinds of preterism: full preterism and partial preterism (though these labels are disputed by each side). Partial preterism is also called moderate preterism and orthodox preterism, while full preterism is also called consistent preterism, hyper-preterism, and radical preterism. I use the terms “full” and “partial” to denote the two views, because they seem to me to be both less charged and more accurate than the other labels. Some examples of contemporary partial preterists are Kenneth Gentry, R.C. Sproul, and Gary DeMar. Some examples of contemporary full preterists are Edward E. Stevens and Max King. The most historically significant case for full preterism was J. Stuart Russell’s The Parousia, first published in 1878.

Full preterists believe that all eschatological events were fulfilled in the first century, and we now living in the new heavens and the new earth. For full preterists, Jesus’ second coming was not a bodily and visible return at the end of history, but a spiritual return manifested in judgment on Jerusalem via the Roman army in 70 A.D. Full preterists also the final resurrection took place “spiritually” during the first century. Full preterism is viewed as heretical by most conservative Christians and creedally heterodox by all Christians (including most full preterists themselves).

Partial preterists believe that prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the great tribulation, the anti-Christ, and a “judgment coming” of Christ were fulfilled during the Roman siege of Jerusalem culminating in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Textually, partial preterists view the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and the majority of the book of Revelation as referring to first century events. Partial preterists maintain, however, that the second coming (bodily and undeniable), the final judgment, the final resurrection, and the inaugeration of the new heavens and new earth await future fulfillment. Partial Preterists are almost always amillennialists or postmillennialists.

With regard to Revelation, this means that chapters 1-19 (in the partial preterist view) are primarily concerned with first century events – events that most of John’s original readers would experience within their lifetime. For example, Kenneth Gentry views the seven seals of Revelation chapter 6 and the seven trumpets of chapters 8-9 as referring to various events during the 67-70 period of the first Roman Jewish War. Other examples: he views the beast of chapter 13 as referring to the Roman Emperor Nero (and more basically to the entire Roman Empire), and he views the great prostitute of chapter 17 and Babylon of chapter 18 as referring to first century Jerusalem.

Preterism is one of the four most common hermeneutical approaches to Revelation. The others are:
1) Futurism – this views holds that the bulk of Revelation refers to events in the future, just prior to return of Christ. This is by far the majority evangelical interpretation.
2) Historicism – this views holds that the events of Revelation find fulfillment throughout the course of church history. This view was very popular among the Reformers (who identified the papacy with the anti-Christ) but is less common today.
3) Idealism – this view holds that Revelation does not specific historical events as much as the timeless struggle between good and evil and the eventual triumph of Christ.

I do not have space in this post to give a thorough explanation of why I lean towards the partial preterist interpretation, but I do hope to return to this topic in future posts in more depth. For now, I will simply summarize several of the main points that incline me towards partial preterism at this point in my study.

1) The first and greatest factor that inclines me towards preterism is the teaching of Christ in the synoptic Gospels that his return would be within the lifetime of many of his hearers.

Consider these statements in Matthew:

When sending out the twelve, Jesus said to them 10:23:
“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

While teaching about discipleship, Jesus said in 16:27-28:
“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. 28I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

And finally, during the Olivet discourse, after mentioning is glorious coming, Jesus says in 24:34:

“I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”

The force of these passages in increased by these facts: (1) they each express nearness in variously different ways and thus clarify and corroborate each other; (2) they are corroborated by other New Testament passages concerning the “nearness” of Christ’s return (e.g., Revelation 1:1, 3, 22:7, 20); (3) they accord remarkably with many of Jesus’ parables and statements of judgment against “this generation” towards the end of his earthly ministry (e.g., cf. Matthew 23:35-36).

I don’t want to take the space here to go into the various reasons that I find the typical evangelical futurist interpretations of these passages unconvincing, but let me simply summarize by stating that all too often they seem to be an exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics that do not give sufficient weight to the most straightforward reading of Jesus’ statements. I encourage a fresh consideration of how Jesus’ statements would have been understood by his original hearers in their historical context.

2) The second factor that inclines me towards preterism is the nature of biblical prophecy. Too often the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation are subjected to a wooden literalism that no one uses to read Old Testament prophecy. But New Testament prophecy is consiously in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy, often using the same kind of imagistic, magisterial language. Here is one example – cf. Matthew 24:29 with Isaiah 13:10-13 or Ezekiel 32:7-8. If Scripture speaks of the heavens melting and the sun ceasing to shine to describe the historical judgments of Babylon and Egypt, shouldn’t we allow it to use the same kind of grandiose language to describe the historical judgment of Jerusalem?

3) A third factor that inclines me towards preterism is the remarkable congruence between Josephus’ account of the siege on Jerusalem and the biblical testimony. Its tough to deny, for example, the force of Gentry’s line by line comparison of Josephus and Revelation 8-9. If nothing else, reading Josephus (and Tacitus) on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple will give you a heightened appreciation for the historical and theological significance of this event, which is clearly anticipated in some texts of the New Testament (e.g., Luke 21:6, 20, 24, Revelation 11:2).

4) A fourth factor is develping a fresh appreciate for the original audience of the Olivet Discourse. Everything in the Olivet Discourse is flavored with the distinctives of Jesus’ original context and the needs of his original hearers. Consider:

a) “when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified” (21:9)

b) “before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you” (21:12)

c) “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (21:20)

d) “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it” (21:21)

e) “when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (22:28)

What meaning would Jesus’ words have had to his original hearers if the “you” and the “those who are inside the city” which are emboldened in the above sentences referred not to them, but to people thousands of years later?

I will post more on this topic in the future. To end this post I will provide some pictures of the destruction of Jerusalem.

This is an 1850 painting by David Roberts entitled The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem:

This is a map of Jerusalem in 70 AD with the temple in yellow:

This is an 1867 painting by Francesco Hayez entitled The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem:

8 Comments

  1. ErinOrtlund

    Thanks Gavin! Very interesting and helpful.

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  2. Good and very fair primer to Preterism. I always appreciate someone who is fairly presenting the topic without falling victim to preconceived notions or without being judgmental. Good job! :)

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  3. Gav – Wow, you are doing great posting! But that’s no surprise . . . I really appreciate how you’ve laid out the issues. One factor which is not always given enough weight in these sorts of discussions – although I think you do just fine on this one – is the repetitive nature of biblical prophecy – I think Isaiah and Joel and Habakkuk are describing actions of God which (from their ancient perspective) are still future, but which are eminently suited to more than one fulfillment – to being successively fulfilled in ever increasing ways. I think – as you do, from what I gather – that trying to read biblical prophecy as referring in a one-to-one way to some future event, in such a way that that event, when it occurs, exhausts what the prophet was talking about, leads to all kinds of problems in reading the Bible.Thanks for the great post!!!

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  4. Gavin Ortlund

    Thank you all for your responses! Eric, I agree, trying to read biblical prophecy without some understanding of the complexities of prophetic fulfillment leads to big problems. For example, assuming there is only one “day of the Lord” leads to big problems in reading the prophets, like you said. Although I think in SOME cases there can be a one to one fulfillment – for example, Christ’s passion as THE fulfillment of Isaiah 53. But prophecy is often layered and complex, hence the need for caution and restraint in locating fulfillment. Thank you for your input!

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  5. Gavin Ortlund

    In reading through my post, I realized I did not clearly address full preterism. So let me state here that I think full preterism runs into big problems with I Corinthians 15, Revelation 21, and other texts. I view full preterism as a major and destructive theological error because of the way Paul opposes this belief in II Timothy 2:18-20.

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  6. Esther O

    i love you, scholar!

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  7. i love you too, scholar!

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  8. […] whenever I could find a few minutes, and reviewing where I’m at. Broadly, I’m in the “partial preterist” camp—although I put more emphasis than some others on those complexities of prophetic fulfillment […]

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