End Times Education (Part 2): What is Preterism?
Preterists think end times prophecies were already fulfilled in the past
This is the second part of a series I began in the fall explaining some of the things other Christians believe about the end times. Not everyone who reads and interprets Bible prophecy comes to agreement. We are all reading the same Bible passages, but Christians over the centuries have come to different ideas of what these passages mean.
How you interpret the Bible’s predictions about the end of the world can sometimes be controversial—or even heretical. It’s important to know what you believe and why you believe it. That’s one reason I write these articles!
Today I want to explain to you an end times view called Preterism. Broadly speaking, it’s the idea that all the prophecies written about in the Bible are not future events for us today, but predicted events that have already happened in the past.
The prophetic future…or the past?
For instance, I read Bible prophecy and see it referring to the future. Preterists read the same prophecies and conclude that they are already history.
Incredibly, for many Preterists, this includes the Second Coming! Can you imagine living through such perilous times like today if you didn’t have the blessed hope of Jesus’ return?
The word preterist comes from the Latin word praeter, which means “past.” Preterists believe that the prophetic predictions of the New Testament—wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and the Great Tribulation—all occurred in the years leading up to 70 A.D., culminating in the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
Preterists uphold some of the basic tenets of our faith—biblical inerrancy, the Incarnation, the Atonement, etc.—and yet they nevertheless deny a future physical coming of Christ, a future physical resurrection, a future physical judgment, and a future physical new creation. They believe these things have already happened, if not physically then “spiritually.”
Those who deny these things specifically identify as “Full Preterists.” Another group identifies as “Partial Preterists.”
Full Preterism is heresy
To be perfectly clear, I believe full preterists are heretics, because the doctrines they deny are too central to Christianity. You simply can’t claim that the Second Coming, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Final Judgment, and the New Creation have already occurred in the past (in 70 AD) by interpreting these promises spiritually. The whole New Testament is clear on this.
For example, we know that Jesus’ return is both future and physical because the angels made that very clear when they appeared to the disciples as Jesus ascended to heaven. This takes place in Acts 1. After the Resurrection, Jesus gave His followers some final instructions and then, as they watched, was taken up into the sky:
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”—Acts 1:10-11
Revelation confirms this. In the very first chapter, it references Daniel 7, which is an end times passage:
“Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him.”—Revelation 1:7
This makes it clear that the return of Jesus isn’t “spiritual” but physical. He will come on the clouds of heaven and with a physical body, so that every eye will see Him.
The Resurrection of the Dead is a physical resurrection and a future event. Paul makes this clear in Philippians 3:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.—Philippians 3:20-21
I’m pretty sure nobody received transformed, glorified bodies in 70 A.D.
If they did, then I guess I’m still waiting for mine!
Full Preterists are also mistaken about the Final Judgment. They claim that this event somehow happened in 70 A.D. when Jesus “returned” to bring judgment on Israel through the conquering Roman army. But Scripture makes it clear that the Final Judgment will not be centralized in Jerusalem. It will be cosmic in scope (Revelation 20:11-15), it will be physical in nature (John 5:29), and it will be accompanied by both the dissolution and renewal of the physical universe (2 Peter 3:1-13). The Bible calls this “the New Heavens and New Earth.”
What about Partial Preterism?
Full Preterism is heresy, but Partial Preterism—its theological cousin—isn’t quite as bad. Both groups view the end times prophecies of the New Testament as mostly having already passed. When Preterists read Jesus saying, “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34), they believe it literally means that generation of people who heard Him speak.
However, Partial Preterists maintain one very significant exception that sets them apart from Full Preterists: Partial Preterists still hold that the Second Coming is still a future event. It is also a physical event, alongside other traditional Christian doctrines like the Resurrection of the Dead, the Final Judgment, and the New Creation.
While I disagree strongly with my Partial Preterist siblings in Christ, I rejoice that we worship the same Jesus. We may interpret parts of the Bible differently but their views still fall within the bounds of our faith.
Nevertheless, I believe there are major problems with Partial Preterism. Mainly, their grid for interpreting almost every prophecy as a historic event leads to some bizarre conclusions. For instance, they think that Paul’s teaching on the “Man of Lawlessness” (the Antichrist) in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is about the Roman emperor Nero, who was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.
But Nero never placed himself in the Jewish Temple, claiming to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:4), never performed signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9), and was definitely not destroyed by “the brightness of His [Jesus’] coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
In fact, Nero killed himself in the year 68 A.D., long before the destruction of the Temple actually took place in 70 A.D. (He was still responsible for it, though. Before his death, he dispatched a general to crush the rebellion in Israel, which had begun in 66 A.D.)
Anyway, you get the point. Remaining a Partial Preterist requires serious interpretive gymnastics when it comes to Scripture.
My point is that the Bible wasn’t just written for people 2,000 years ago. It wasn’t just about predicting events that have already happened and have no bearing on us today.
It was written so that, in the midst of perilous times like we now face, every generation of believers might renew their strength in the blessed hope of our Lord’s return.
Come, Lord Jesus!