Previous article in this series: April 15, 2011, p. 320.
Non-Christian Reconstruction Preterism
In evidence of my contention that a preterist interpretation of the biblical passages forecasting the last days as troublous times for the church is essential for postmillennialism, I have quoted the Christian Reconstructionists. Preterism, it will be remembered, is the interpretation of such passages as having been fulfilled in the past, whether in AD 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem, or in the persecution of the early church by the Roman empire, or during the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church. The reason for quoting the Christian Reconstruction postmillennialists is that they are the ones promoting preterism most openly and aggressively today.
By no means, however, is the preterist interpretation of New Testament passages prophesying apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation limited to the Christian Reconstructionists. Preterism is essential to all postmillennialism. The biblical prophecy of apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation yet in the future does not produce, or permit, the postmillennial dream of the church’s earthly future as a “golden age.”
J. Marcellus Kik, whose preterist interpretation of Matthew 24 in his book An Eschatology of Victory¹ is, as we have seen, fundamental to contemporary postmillennialism, was not a Christian Reconstructionist.
Many of the Puritans were preterists in their interpretation of the New Testament passages forecasting heresies, apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation for the church in the last days. Jonathan Edwards regarded all such passages as a “great damp” to the postmillennial dream. Summing up the reality of all these passages as the rise and raging of Antichrist in Revelation 11, 13, 17 and as the related killing of the two witnesses in Revelation 11, Edwards taught that these prophecies were fulfilled at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation, that is, in the past. According to Edwards, the biblical Antichrist is the Roman Catholic Church. It dominated the world, slaughtering the saints, prior to and at the time of the Reformation. But the Reformation decisively defeated Rome, so that Rome will never regain its former power and worldwide influence (thus, the obviously utterly mistaken Edwards). Therefore, no world-dominating Antichrist will ever again threaten and no great tribulation will ever again befall the church.² The Reformation was the “destruction of Antichrist.” The time of the Reformation was “probably the darkest [day] that ever it [the church] will see.”³
This is preterism, particularly regarding the book of Revelation, that is as extensive and insistent as that practiced and promoted by the Christian Reconstructionists.
Also Iain H. Murray has recourse to preterism in defense of the Puritan “vision” of a coming “golden age” for the church. Murray explains the main New Testament passages that teach that the church in the world is always a church “under the cross,” Matthew 24 and II Timothy 3, as having been fulfilled in the past, either in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 or in the time of the apostles. Having taken note of the objection to the Puritan doctrine of a coming great revival and a “golden age” (which Murray vigorously promotes) that consists of pointing out that “Scripture witnesses to a steadily worsening world and thus demands from us a very different expectation with regard to the whole period which lies between us and the coming of Christ,” Murray explains the main scriptural witness to a “steadily worsening world,” Matthew 24, as follows:
The Olivet discourse of Christ, recorded in
…followed Christ’s announcement concerning the temple, “There shall not be left one stone upon another”…clearly a reference to the destruction of the city which came about at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70. In the discourse itself there is much that applies specifically to the “breaking off “,
of the Jewish nation in the first century A.D. The convulsion of the Roman Empire, earthquakes, “Jerusalem compassed with armies,” “the abomination of desolation…in the holy place,” the exhortation to pray that flight from the city would not be necessary on the Sabbath day, the appearance of false Messiahs—all these things point to events which were shortly to take place and which are now past history.4
Murray’s explanation of the “great tribulation” of Matthew 24:21, 29 as applicable to the Jews and as having been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is of extraordinary significance. “The great tribulation predicted for the Jews on account of their apostasy has been fulfilled.”5 This is basic to the postmillennial expectation. The tribulation foretold by Christ in Matthew 24 was a Jewish matter. The reality of the tribulation prophesied by Jesus is not the persecution of the church by Antichrist in the days preceding the second coming of Christ.
Regarding II Timothy 3, another passage appealed to by opponents of postmillennialism in support of the view that the “world will progressively darken” in the last days, Murray contends that when Paul spoke of “perilous times” he “was thinking primarily of his own time!” The “evil men and seducers” of whom the apostle warns the church “were alive at the time when Paul wrote.” “Their public influence according to Paul was soon to pass.”6
If the Bible does, in fact, teach somewhere that the days immediately preceding the second coming of Christ will be dark for the church, this prophecy in no wise opposes the “Puritan hope,” for such prophecy, according to Murray, must be applied to the short time after the “golden age” and just before the coming of Christ.7
No prophecy of the New Testament concerning apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation for the church may interfere with the postmillennial hope of a glorious earthly kingdom of Christ. If a prophecy resists explanation that finds the fulfillment in the distant past, then it must be explained as referring to the distant future.
In our own day, the influential Presbyterian theologian R. C. Sproul is an astoundingly enthusiastic advocate of preterist interpretation of those New Testament passages that warn of the last days as troublous times for the church. With explicit reference to the preterist exegesis of Christian Reconstructionists on behalf of postmillennialism, specifically that of Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Sproul has recently declared: “I am convinced that the substance of the Olivet Discourse [Jesus’ doctrine of the last things in Matthew 24, 25—DJE] was fulfilled in A.D. 70 and that the bulk of Revelation was likewise fulfilled in that time-frame.”8
This endorsement of the past fulfillment of the prophecies of Matthew 24, 25 and of the bulk of the book of Revelation, with the necessary implication that all the New Testament warnings of apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation for the church in the last days have already been fulfilled, is serious enough. What is astounding is Sproul’s glowing and unqualified recommendation of James Stuart Russell’s book advocating full and consistent preterism, The Parousia. Russell’s The Parousia denies the future bodily coming of Jesus Christ, the future resurrection of the dead, and the future final judgment. The book contends that all the prophecies of Scripture concerning the last days and the second coming were fulfilled, in reality and finally, at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
About this book—this book!—R. C. Sproul has written, in public recommendation:
I believe that Russell’s work is one of the most important treatments on Biblical eschatology that is available to the church today. The issues raised in this volume with respect to the time-frame references of the New Testament to the Parousia are vitally important not only for eschatology but for the future debate over the credibility of Sacred Scripture.9
What Sproul ought to have written is that Russell’s work is a damnable denial of the bodily, visible coming of Jesus in the future and, with this, a denial of the supreme glorification of the triune God in Jesus Christ before all the world and of the one hope of the church in all ages. The issue raised in this book—the denial of the future bodily coming of Christ—demolishes the credibility of Holy Scripture, which promises the bodily coming of Jesus Christ as fundamental to the message of Scripture from beginning to end, and has as its practical result, if not its purpose, unbelief and immorality. If Christ is not coming again, in the future, bodily, visibly, and publicly, to raise the dead, in our body, and to conduct the final judgment, the whole gospel of Scripture is a lie—the most pernicious lie ever told in the history of mankind; we and all men are without hope in the world; and the shrewd human will choose between “eat, drink, and be merry” and suicide (as soon as possible).
And all of this theological and spiritual outrage (so, Sproul should have written) is due to Russell’s ignorance “with respect to the time-frame references of the New Testament to the Parousia”—as though “near” and “at hand” mean that the reality of the second coming would take place within the lifetime of those living in Jesus’ and the apostles’ day.
1 J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971).
2 Jonathan Edwards, Praying Together for True Revival, ed. T. M. Moore (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2004), 127-144. See also Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d. [Edwards wrote the book in 1773]), 259-325.
3 Edwards, History, 264. Edwards did allow that the time immediately preceding the millennium will be dark (303). And, as I have already noted, Edwards explained the loosing of Satan in Revelation 20 as a final revolt against King Jesus of hordes of wicked at the very end of the millennium (325-328), a view that is unacceptable to the more optimistic contemporary postmillennialists.
4 Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971), 79; emphasis added.
5 Ibid., 79, 80.
6 Ibid., 80. What Murray adds concerning some possible application of some of the signs of the destruction of Jerusalem to the days preceding the end of the world is of no consequence. His interpretation of the foundational eschatological passages of the New Testament, especially Matthew 24, is decidedly and decisively preterist.
7 Ibid., 81, 82.
8 R.C. Sproul, The Last Days according to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 158.
9 R.C. Sproul, back-cover recommendation of the recent, new edition of James Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (Bradford, PA: Kingdom Publications, new ed. 1996).