To The Point: Preterism
[Note: this is about “full preterism”, where nothing at all remains of Bible prophecy. I consider “partial preterism” to be completely untenable due to even greater inconsistency than full preterism.]
In general, if the detailed prophecies of the last days are symbolic, what reality do they point to? John was shown a vision of “things that must soon/quickly take place”, but what were the things to be? If they pointed to nothing that could be seen or observed, then why give the prophecy at all, and why in such detail? The whole Revelation is stripped of all meaning and relevance if we were never to take it as a prophecy of real and observable events. The same can be said for Daniel, whose prophecies were undeniably literal (see the book “Daniel in the Critics’ Den” by Sir Robert Anderson, or later similar books by Josh McDowell or Joyce Baldwin).
As a precedent for literal fulfillments we can look to the OT prophecies of the Messiah, who would both suffer and reign, die and live, be destroyed and live forever. Preterists, using the same principles of interpretation they now use, would not have looked for a literal coming of the Messiah at all, yet in hindsight we cannot deny it. And what about Jesus on the road to Emmaus with two disciples? “He said to them, ’How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-26).
see also Bible Prophecy: Past or Future?
If preterists accept that the first 69 of Daniel’s 70-weeks prophecy were “weeks of years” or 70x7 years, then the last “week” must also be a period of 7 years, rather than 7 days to match the final week of Jesus’ mortal life. But nothing happened in that time frame; the Temple was not destroyed until 70 years after Jesus was born, ten times longer than all the other “weeks”. No explanation is given for this special treatment; it is thus the fallacy of special pleading.
Some say that the phrase “abomination of desolation” really means that Jesus would destroy the temple defiled by the Jews, 3-1/2 years after he was baptized by John and began his public ministry. Thus he would be the “prince” that would put an end to the sacrifices and offerings halfway through an alleged 7-year covenant begun at his baptism. Yet there are several critical flaws in this argument.
First of all, note the purpose of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27):
- It concerns the people of Israel and Jerusalem.
- to finish (complete) transgression.
- to put an end to sin.
- to atone for wickedness.
- to bring in everlasting righteousness.
- to seal up (complete) vision and prophecy.
- to anoint the Most Holy Place in the Temple.
Now note the clear sequence of events, regardless of the length of time:
- Command to rebuild Jerusalem
- Arrival of the Anointed One
- Death of the Anointed One
- Destruction of the city and sanctuary
- The end comes like a flood
- Cointinuing war until the end
- “He” confirms a covenant with many for one ’seven’
- The same “he” ends sacrifice and offering at the midpoint
- The same “he” will do something to the temple, and finally an end is decreed upon “him”. (There is disagreement over whether it should read “abomination that defiles” or “one who causes desolation will come upon the wing of the temple”.)
Preterism necessarily includes a form of Replacement Theology, where most or all of every prophecy concerning the nation of Israel is appropriated by the church. So they see the purpose of the prophecy as about figurative, spiritual Israel and not the literal, physical nation. The preterist interpretation of this prophecy could not stand without it.
But even if this were true, the sequence cannot be denied. While all prophetic views largely agree on the first five to seven items, the sticking point is on the identity of “he”: is it Jesus or someone evil? Let us examine each of the remaining items in the list:
- There is no indication in the Gospels or anywhere else that the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry or his baptism signified the confirmation of any covenant. There is also no firm proof that his ministry lasted 3-1/2 years. And since his ministry began and ended on Passovers, there is no room for a half-year. And Jesus himself stated, at the Last Supper, that his death would be the signing of a new covenant.
- Sacrifice and offering at the temple did not end at Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, or at Pentecost. It did not end until the destruction of the city and temple about 40 years later.
- If Jesus was the one who did something to the temple, then what he said in Mat. 24:15 makes no sense: “So when you see standing in the holy place ’the abomination that causes desolation’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel…” The Greek of that verse is unambiguous: something abominable stands in the Holy Place of the temple. And there is no record of people immediately running to the mountains at the sight of Jesus being killed or of the curtain of the Holiest Place being torn in two.
- Conversely, if an evil person was to defile the temple, and if this was future to Jesus and Paul (2 Thes. 2:4) and not already fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes (2nd century BC), then it clearly was not fulfilled in 70 AD since no one went into the temple to be declared God but demolished it instead.
But most critical of all is the undeniable fact that the covenant is not confirmed until after the city and sanctuary are destroyed. Even if preterists take Jesus’ baptism as the covenant’s beginning, it still predates his death. In other words, the sequence according to this argument is as follows:
- Jesus confirms a covenant with many for one ’seven’.
- Jesus ends sacrifice and offering at the midpoint.
- Jesus causes desolation upon the wing of the temple.
- The city and sanctuary are destroyed.
Either the stated sequence of Daniel is true, or the preterist sequence is true; both cannot be true. Regardless of what or when preterism claims the final ’seven’ began, it has to happen after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Yet some preterists hold that this sequence is anything but clear. Operating from the presumption that the prophecy can only be speaking of one particular temple, the events are shuffled according to whether or not the temple is standing. That is,
- Events of AD 26–30:
- Jesus’ death (vs. 26a)
- He confirms a covenant for one ’seven’ (vs. 27a)
- He ends sacrifice and offering midway (vs. 27b)
- Events of AD 66–70:
- Jerusalem and temple destroyed (vs. 26b)
- War and desolations to the end (vs. 26c)
- The abominable temple and city are destroyed (vs. 27c)
Yet even in each sub-list there is a critical error: why is the death of Jesus before the confirmation of the covenant, which is before the ending of sacrifice by his death? Why are Jerusalem and the temple destroyed before the war and desolations, then destroyed again? This too must be shuffled in order to fit Preterist belief.
[One might recognize the so-called chiastic format in each sub-list, where arguments lead up to a central point and then go back in referse order. But this is not a rhetorical passage, and the chiasm is not in the text itself but only in the Preterist interpretation.]
One wonders how the angel could have made the Preterist interpretation any less clear. And we have precedent for multiple temples, since the one standing in Jesus’ day was at least the second. Preterism must also brush off the “span of time” indicators “the end will come… war will continue until the end” as limited to 70 AD. But a circular argument always seems airtight.
[Note that “ekklesia” was a common word for any community or gathering, including those of the heathen.]
Jesus only mentioned the future ekklesia once (Mt. 16:18). His primary mission was to “the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 15:24), so we can’t presume that all or even most of what He said concerned the coming ekklesia. His reference to “other sheep not of this pen” (John 10:16) is the only other clear reference to the gentile believers, again in the future.
If Jesus is to be taken literally when referring to “the abomination of desolation” and the destruction of the Temple and “this generation”, then He must also be taken literally when He said all of the following:
- And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt. 24:14)
- For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now— and never to be equaled again. (Mt. 24:21)
- Immediately after the distress of those days
’the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
- At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Mt. 24:29-31)
It is another case of special pleading to take only some of Jesus’ predictions literally, since there is nothing in the context to indicate a parable or figurative speech. (Contrast with His statement to the Jews in John 2:13-22 after he drove the merchants from the Temple. They asked for a sign of His authority and He said He’d “destroy this temple and raise it again in three days”. But John adds, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”)
What did Jesus mean by saying that some in his day would still be living until his kingdom would come?
- Matthew 16:27-28:
For the Son of Man will surely come in the glory of his Father, along with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to their deeds. I assure you that some here will still be alive to see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
- Mark 9:1: Jesus continued:
I assure you that some here will definitely be alive to see the Kingdom of God arrive with power.
- Luke 9:26-27:
For whoever is ashamed of me and what I say, that is someone the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his his glory, and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels. I assure you that some here will still be alive to see the kingdom of God.
Before each of these passages, Jesus talked about the personal cost of following him, followed immediately by the statement that within a week the Transfiguration took place. But what is meant by
until they see the kingdom of God with power?
It could refer to the Transfiguration, but this makes nonsense out of Jesus’ emphatic statement about it happening long enough in the future that only some would still be alive to see it. Or it could refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but that was still too soon. Yet if it refered to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD and thereby met the
still alive criterion, the other details must be allegorized, since Jesus made no glorious appearing, the angels were not seen, and the kingdom of God did not arrive in any visible sense. If the
church is deemed the kingdom, the problem is that it had already begun on Pentecost.
We should also consider that this phrase about coming in power with the angels is seen as well in the Sheep and Goats passage in Mat. 25:31-46, which would place this arrival at the end of the Tribulation, clearly well beyond any normal mortal lifetime. Rev. 1:7 says,
Look! He is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him; those who pierced him and all the tribes of the earth will grieve.. There are obviously two groups of people here.
Those who pierced him (the Jews) are distinguished from
every eye (the Gentiles). The phrase
all the tribes on the earth is always applied to all the world; see Gen. 12:3, 28:14, Ps. 72:17, and Zech. 14:17.
What are we left with then? Though a more nuanced interpretation is less ideal, it may be the only one to solve the problem. We know that the kingdom was genuinely offered to Israel, but they rejected it, and as a result it was greatly delayed. Could it be that this statement Jesus made was also contingent upon their acceptance of the offer? We have all but ruled out any other possibility, if we remain consistent and reject the easy path of spiritualization.
There could not be a clearer statement of delayed prophecy than that of James at the Jerusalem Council: “Israel is being set aside until the Lord takes from among the gentiles a people for Himself. Then He’ll return to rebuild David’s fallen tabernacle” (Acts 15:13-18). Israel’s “being set aside” was not completed until the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. So if that marks the end of all the prophecies, then the Gentiles were never gathered since the setting aside must precede the gathering. Neither can the setting aside have been completed with Jesus’ death and resurrection, since it is only afterwards when James says it’s “being” set aside (at least present and ongoing, but possibly also future). And clearly, “David’s fallen tabernacle” had not yet been rebuilt. Israel did not have a sovereign kingdom in the first century, and its presence was not drawing the Gentiles to seek the Lord. Just as Peter’s citation of Joel at Pentecost did not see the fulfillment of every detail of the prophecy (e.g., signs in the heavens), so also the gathering of the Gentiles beginning in the first century did not constitute the final fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12 as referenced by James.
Paul wrote, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us… asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.” (2 Thes. 2:1-2) A figurative or symbolic coming would hardly alarm anyone, especially if the judgments to follow were likewise symbolic. The people’s very alarm was ample proof that they believed in the literal fulfillment of the coming of the Lord and the Tribulation to follow.
Preterists may argue that the people could only have been fooled if they understood that this was all symbolic, since it was not observable. But again, they were not only fooled but fearful— a reaction that makes no sense if the judgments were likewise symbolic. And once again it would be special pleading to take the signs as symbolic but the persecutions as literal.
Scholars have determined* that the Revelation was seen and written toward the end of the reign of Domitian, the Roman emperor following Nero. Nero died in 68 AD and Domitian in 96 AD (source). The consensus is that it was seen and written around 95 AD. So the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD was long past and thus not the fulfillment of Revelation. And since there is little doubt that Revelation is referring to the same final “week” as Daniel, it must therefore be that prophecy’s final and complete fulfillment.
* Citing Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Victorinus, Eusebius, and Jerome. Some who are not scholars have tried to argue that the references in these writings were ambiguous; e.g. “The problem here is that the word ’it’ in the Greek could refer to the visions John saw, the book he wrote, or John himself.” (source) But such alleged ambiguities are not mentioned by scholars, and ’it’ would not refer to John himself.
Preterists may ask why John would not mention the destruction of the Temple if it post-dated it, but there is no compelling reason for him to do so since this was not a historical record but a vision from God. And we might also ask why none of the early “church fathers” mentioned it as being a fulfillment of John’s prophecy.
The letter to Laodicea in Rev. 3:17 treats it as a prosperous city. But it had been ruined by an earthquake around 61 AD, which makes a date during Nero’s reign impossible. Cities could not so quickly be rebuilt, much less return to a high level of prosperity.
Polycarp states that his church, the church in Smyrna, was not even in existence in the days of the apostle Paul, leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. Smyrna is never mentioned in the Book of Acts, or in any other New Testament epistle. (source). How did this church so suddenly appear, and so quickly be slandered by “those who say they are Jews but are not”?
If Nero had been the Antichrist, he would have been destroyed as scripture states in 2 Thes. 2:8 (“whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.”). But Nero committed suicide, two years before the Temple was destroyed. There is also no evidence that Nero ever set foot in Jerusalem, much less the Temple. And there is no evidence of a mark on the heads or hands of the people so that they could buy and sell, any time in history. Preterists must somehow justify naming Nero as the literal Antichrist while making everything else about him symbolic— and symbolic of what, they cannot say.
Preterism can only stand by denying historical evidence for the date of the Revelation, and by inconsistently applying the label of “symbolic” to select scriptures. Paul warned against such teachings in 2 Tim. 2:17b-18: “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”
John was undeniably the last apostle to die, yet he of all people should have been “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes. 4:17) had all things been fulfilled by 70 AD. There was no return of Jesus to rescue Israel or keep the Temple from being destroyed, and clearly Satan has not been bound for a thousand years nor thrown into the Lake of Fire. To say this all happened but life goes on as if it didn’t, is to remove all meaning from words and make it impossible to really know anything at all— including whether Jesus rose from the dead.