Our church is working through I and II Thessalonians, and I recently had the privilege of preaching on II Thessalonians 2:1-12, which is the passage about the infamous “man of lawlessness” whom most people identify more popularly as the “anti-Christ” (terminology from I John) and often also as the “Beast” of Revelation 13. My general strategy for the purposes of preaching was to emphasize application of the principles rather than speculation about the details, although I did wrestle a bit in my study with the more contested issues, particularly the identity of the man of lawlessness and the nature of the “restrainer” in verses 6-7. (It was relieving to be able to quote Augustine as saying “I frankly confess I do not know what he means” about the latter point. Sometimes ignorance has good company.)
The whole experience re-ignited my interest in the preterism/futurism debate, something I’ve worked through a bit in the past, so I’ve been back in some of the books this week, 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 that I think we see in the Old Testament like telescoping, dual fulfillment, intervening historical contingencies, etc. Still, if you ask me who the “man of lawlessness” is, I side with those many church fathers (from Lactantius to John Chrysostom) who say “Nero,” not with my Protestant heroes (from Luther to Edwards) who say “the Pope,” and still less with modern dispensationalists who say “a future world politician.”
The alluring appeal of preterism, once the initial shock wears off, is its explanatory power. Its like glasses which initially blind you, but once you’ve stopped squinting and can see again, puts previously fuzzy images into sharp focus. For instance, it enables you to deal with the timetable predictions of Christ (Matthew 10:23, 16:27-28, 24:34), and the more general sense of imminent expectation throughout the New Testament (e.g., I John 2:18), without projecting an interpretation onto these texts that would have been unrecognizable to their original hearers/recipients. No wonder its the fastest growing eschatological view on the market.
The problem with preterism, as Doug Wilson puts it, is that “when some people find a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” In other words, once you start to see how many New Testament eschatological texts had an immediate reference in the first century, its easy to start squeezing all of the relevant texts and topics into this mold. This is a serious theological error with devastating consequences, far more so, I think, than dispensational hype. In fact, the notion that all New Testament expectation is done and over in the first century is, in my view, in the realm of “heresy.” I don’t use that term lightly, but feel it is required of any view that denies a future bodily resurrection on the basis of II Tim. 2:18, and more generally, I Corinthians 15:12-19. For all my differences with dispensational futurism, at least with John Hagee I can still affirm the Apostles’ Creed that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead.”
I think there are many arguments against full preterism, but only with my most recent foray into the literature did the irony of full preterism hit me. The whole appeal is a consistent, common sense approach to the timetable texts. We are constantly asked, “how would the original hearers have understood his words?” J. Stuart Russell makes this case forcefully in his classic text on the topic. For instance, in dealing with Matthew 24:32-24, he writes:
Words have no meaning if this language, uttered on so solemn an occasion, and so precise and express in its import, does not affirm the near approach of the great event which occupies the whole discourse of our Lord.… Ninety-nine persons in every hundred would undoubtedly understand His words as meaning that the predicted catastrophe would fall within the limits of the lifetime of the existing generation…. Unless, therefore, our Lord intended to mystify His disciples, He gave them plainly to understand that His coining, the judgment of the Jewish nation, and the close of the age, would come to pass before the existing generation had wholly passed away.
This is a powerful appeal. It is just the kind of appeal that leads many down the pathway toward full preterism. But can the injunction to common sense consistency here itself be followed consistently?
As it turns out, when you get into topics like the resurrection, the rapture, and the millennium, full preterists lapse into the same hair-splitting and qualifying that they decry in futurists. It is fascinating to watch Russell himself struggle with Revelation 20. I admire his honesty. Ultimately, he abandons a complete preterism at this point and acknowledges that this passage is talking about the future. Some contemporary preterists go this route, but often Revelation 20 is identified with one of the following:
- 30-70 A.D. (from Christ’s ministry to the fall of temple)
- 70-73 A.D. (from the destruction of the temple until the fall of Masada)
- 70-132 A.D. (from the fall of the temple to the Bar Kokhba revolt)
But these interpretations rub against the whole premise of preterist hermeneutics, as exemplified by the Russell quote above: they don’t heed the timetable, as it would have been understood by the original hearers. Contrary to some preterist claims, the number 1000 years, whether literal or symbolic, always referred to a long period of time. It is fantastic to imagine a first century reader of Revelation perceiving the millennium to be only 3, 40, or 62 years—to say nothing of such a reader identifying the cataclysmic war with Satan depicted in Revelation 20:7-10 with contemporary events. In other words, the preterist appeal to timetables and common sense is inconsistent: it only abides by the short timetables, not the long ones. As Keith Mathison puts it, “hyper-preterists continually argue that a ‘generation’ cannot be stretched to two thousand years or more, and yet they take the ‘thousand years’ of Revelation 20 and compress it into a generation.”
Thus, ironically, preterism’s very strength becomes its undoing. The fangs that puncture so much futurist speculation (timetables and original meaning) ultimately turn back upon the preterist schema itself.
Similar difficulties crop up when dealing with the nature of the final resurrection or the rapture. When dealing with, say, the Olivet Discourse, preterism can speak confidently about an obvious fulfillment and a clear original meaning—but when it gets to passages like I Corinthians 15 or I Thessalonians 4 preterism, like futurism, tends to lapse into fine qualifications and various kinds of dual fulfillments and so forth. The appeal to an obvious original meaning loses steam.
What we are left with, then, is complex New Testament eschatology. Full preterism, like total futurism, is too simple. Increasingly, I feel that only those eschatological views that acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of their task are trustworthy. Simple schemas just don’t fit the complex facts we find in the New Testament, nor the complex tradition of interpreting prophecy handed down to us in the Old Testament.