Previous article in this series: November 15, 2010, p. 80.
A third fundamental element of postmillennialism’s doctrine of the last things is “preterism.” “Preterism” in postmillennial eschatology is a certain way of explaining all the New Testament passages that predict abounding lawlessness, apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation in the last days, that is, the days immediately preceding the return of Christ. Preterism explains all these passages as referring to events that, with regard to the church in the twenty-first century, have already happened, in the distant past.
The word “preterism” derives from the Latin word meaning “past.”
Contemporary postmillennialists make a verb out of this new theological term: “preterize.” When a postmillennial interpreter of the Bible exerts himself to explain some New Testament passage prophesying struggle and persecution for the church in the last days as referring to that which has already occurred in the past, he is said to “preterize” the passage.
The importance, indeed necessity, of preterism for postmillennialism is immediately obvious. Postmillennialism forecasts earthly victory for the church in the last days. Vast numbers of converts will swell the membership of the church worldwide, at the very least a majority of the human race. The world of nations will be “Christianized,” that is, live in obedience to the law of God in all spheres of life. The church will enjoy earthly peace and prosperity. She will exercise earthly dominion. The church will rule the world. The future of the church in history is the “golden age.”
Against these optimistic prospects stand all the numerous New Testament passages warning the church of abounding lawlessness in the world of the ungodly and in the churches (Matt. 24:12; II Tim. 3:1ff.); of the becoming cold of the love of many church members and a great falling away from the truth (Matt. 24:12; II Thess. 2:3); of the rearing up of the world power of Antichrist (II Thess. 2:3ff.; Rev. 13); and of great tribulation for the disciples of Christ (Matt. 24:21; Revelation).
If these passages apply to the church throughout the time of the new covenant (for the whole of the present age is the “last days” and “last hour,” as Acts 2:17 and I John 2:18 teach) and if they apply especially to the church in the time immediately before the coming of Christ, postmillennialism is exposed as an empty dream and a dangerous delusion.
What to do with these most unwelcome passages, these surds in the postmillennial calculation?
Why, explain them all as referring to events that took place long ago! “Preterize” them, one and all! Then, the warnings, which to postmillennialism are “pessimistic,” do not apply to the church of the twenty-first century. All such passages (a huge section of New Testament Scripture!) hold merely historical interest for the church and believer today.
“Preterizing” Matthew 24
The main instance of preterism for contemporary postmillennialism is undoubtedly the explanation of most of Matthew 24 as referring exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The theologian whose interpretation of the passage is decisive for postmillennialists is J. Marcellus Kik. Rousas J. Rushdoony indicates his dependence on Kik’s interpretation of Matthew 24 in his endorsement of the new edition of the book containing Kik’s exegesis of the chapter: “The writings of J.M. Kik give us that eschatology of victory which Scripture sets forth.”¹ Martin G. Selbrede has acknowledged that “virtually all reconstructionists appreciate the service Kik performed for postmillennialism by successfully preterizing the first half of Matthew 24.”²
With appeal to verse thirty-four, “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,” Kik insists that everything foretold by Christ in Matthew 24 prior to verse thirty-four happened completely and finally in the days leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The key to Matthew Twenty-four is verse 34…. Everything mentioned in the previous verses were (sic) to be fulfilled before the contemporary generation would pass away…. The first thirty-four verses of
along with verse 35…deal with the destruction of Jerusalem.³
On Kik’s interpretation of Matthew 24:1-35, the wars of verse six; the catastrophes in creation of verse seven; the persecution of verse nine; the heresies and apostasy of verses eleven and twelve; and the false prophets and false christs (the many antichrists and the personal Antichrist) happened, fully and exhaustively, before AD 70. Indeed, Christ’s prophecy that the gospel would be preached worldwide was realized by the year AD 70 (which absurd explanation of verse fourteen by itself exposes the falsity of preterism and, therefore, of postmillennialism). The “end” of verse fourteen, which immediately follows the preaching of the gospel to all the nations, is not the bodily return of Christ in the future (as the churches of the Reformation have always taught), but the end of the Jewish nation as the covenant people and the end of the types and shadows of the old covenant, especially the temple and its service, in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman army.
In addition, the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21does not at all apply to the church, but to the Roman persecution and slaughter of the Jews in the days leading up to AD 70.
Even the Lord’s promise of His coming, a visible coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, in verse thirty, was fulfilled, not merely typically, but actually and fully in AD 70 in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Danger of “Consistent” Preterism
Here the difficulty, if not impossibility, of the preterism of Kik and his exegetical disciples to hold at bay the full preterism of such men as James Stuart Russell, R.C. Leonard, and J.E. Leonard is evident. Russell and the Leonards teach that all the eschatological prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled in AD 70. According to them, there will be no future bodily coming of Christ, no future resurrection of the bodies of all humans, no future final judgment, no future destruction of the present form of creation by fire, and no future new heaven and earth.
Since the coming of Christ, as predicted in the New Testament documents, has already taken place, little scriptural basis exists for perpetuating the doctrine that it still lies in the future…. We have presented the evidence that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 represents the fulfillment of what the apostolic church knew as the promise of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. The future hope of today’s church, therefore, lies in another direction…. For today’s Christians, the last days to which the New Testament refers lie in the past. Our task is not to anticipate the end, but to live in the new community inaugurated by Jesus Christ.4
These are the end-time scoffers, who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (II Pet. 3:3, 4).
The contemporary postmillennialists in the Reformed sphere insist, loudly and even angrily,5 that their form of preterism be distinguished from the full, consistent preterism of Russell and the Leonards as only a “partial” and (ominously) “inconsistent” preterism. Kik and the Christian Reconstructionists want to hold on to a bodily, visible coming of Jesus Christ in the future. But their explanation of the coming of Christ promised in Matthew 24:30, 31must prove fatal to their desire, no matter how sincere, to maintain the future coming of Christ. The reason is not so much that the description of the future coming of Christ elsewhere in the New Testament, for example, I Thessalonians 4:14-17and II Thessalonians 1:7-10, is unmistakably similar to the description in Matthew 24:30, 31. But the reason is that the testimony of the apostles to the coming of Christ is based on Christ’s own teaching of this coming in Matthew 24 and in the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21. If Christ, in Matthew 24:30, 31, was referring, not only typically and provisionally, but also actually, exhaustively, and finally to His coming in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, so also must the apostolic testimony to the coming of Christ refer exclusively to that past event.
At the very least, the postmillennialists are playing an exceedingly dangerous game with their preterist explanation of Matthew 24. It is a game that jeopardizes nothing less than the promise of the bodily coming of Christ—the climax of all the promises of the gospel, as of all the ways and purposes of God in history, and the great hope of the church. That the danger is real is evident in the full and consistent preterists—Russell, the Leonards, and others. The contemporary full and consistent preterists aggressively promote their eschatology, or rather complete lack of an eschatology. That the danger is real is also evident from the falling away of one of the Christian Reconstructionists’ own, David Chilton, into full and consistent preterism, that is, the hope-destroying and soul-damning heresy of denying a future, bodily, visible coming of Jesus Christ. And the reason why the postmillennialists in the Reformed churches are willing to play this risky preterist game is their dream of an earthly kingdom of Christ in a “golden age” in history.
It is this very obsession with an earthly kingdom of Christ that drives the full and “consistent” preterists to deny a future, bodily coming of Christ altogether: “Our task is not to anticipate the end, but to live in the new community inaugurated by Jesus Christ.”6
1 Rousas John Rushdoony, “Introduction,” in J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), ix.
2 Martin G. Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter, 1998): 159.
3 Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 59, 60, 67. For a Reformed, amillennial refutation of Kik’s interpretation of Matthew 24; explanation of the “key text”—verse thirty-four; and critique of “preterism” in eschatology, see David J. Engelsma, “Matthew 24,” “A Timely Question about ‘Preterism,'” and “The Preterism of Christian Reconstruction,” in Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, CA: The Reformed Witness, 2001), 69-89, 129-158.
4 R.C. Leonard and J.E. Leonard, The Promise of His Coming: Interpreting New Testament Statements concerning the Time of Christ’s Appearance (Chicago: Laudemont Press, 1996), 216, 219, 220. The Leonards are heavily dependent upon James Stuart Russell, The Parousia: a Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (Bradford, PA: Kingdom Publications, 1996). This latter work is a new edition of the book originally published in 1878.
5 See the response of Gary DeMar and Andrew Sandlin to my charge of preterism against the postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists in David J. Engelsma,Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, CA: The Reformed Witness, 2001), 146-149.
6 R.C. Leonard and J.E. Leonard, The Promise of His Coming, 220; emphasis added.