It should be pretty plain from the things I have written on eschatology that I am what is called a partial preterist, and so I don’t think I am giving away any secrets here. At the same time, I don’t believe that I have ever written down my reasons for rejecting full preterism, at least not in one place. So why do I not go all the way? If one’s good, two’s better, right?
My arguments on this are both theological and exegetical, but I do confess right at the beginning that some might categorize some of these reasons as somewhat off the beaten path. So brace yourselves. Some of this is odd, and some of it is not.
A word about method. It is a basic principle of exegesis that you not use the much disputed Daniel 12:2 as the key to unlock Phil. 3:20-21. As many wives have said to their spouse, while standing on the front porch in the dark, with him fumbling at the lock, “it goes the other way.”
Clear passages should provide the framework for understanding the difficult ones, and not the other way around. This of course raises the question of how to identify which ones are in fact the clear passages, about which more in a little bit. But it also means that we have to allow the obscure passages to remain obscure until we have better light (which is why my view that Dan. 12:2 is about the general resurrection of the dead remains tentative). We are not allowed to establish a system with the clear passages and then force-fit the unclear passages into our system. That would be to put together a jigsaw puzzle using the ever-alluring tools of scissors and a mallet.
So here goes. There are ten of these, and they are all interrelated. Not only are they interrelated with one another, they are also interrelated with all the reasons I failed to bring up here. Keep that in mind as well. Because they are so interrelated, I have not tried to place them in any particular order. You will just have to read them all, and I will begin in just a moment:
But if you are pressed for time, or you have other reasons for jumping to the areas that interest you most, here is a cheat sheet. 1. Chesterton taught us not to take down fences rashly; 2. We should consider the eschatology of Martha, sister of Lazarus, friend of Jesus; 3. What is the doctrine of the resurrection in 2 Maccabees?; 4. Remember that the created world is pregnant with the eternal order; 5. The firstfruits and the harvest must resemble each other; 6. David was still dead on Pentecost; 7. The millennium cannot represent just a few decades ; 8. Preterism is precious and must be defended; 9. The role of the ecumenical creeds must be carefully defined in all of this; 10. And I finally get to what I mean by theological jenga.
Default Assumptions & Chesterton’s Fence
Although it is actually not in his oath, the ancient physician Hippocrates once wrote that a physician should, in the first place, “do no harm.” You never want to come to the aid of somebody, and make everything worse. But in order to not make everything worse, you need to have a deep knowledge of interrelated systems. How are all these things connected? Too many people approach the question of full preterism as though it were hang nail surgery when it is actually quadruple by-pass heart surgery.
And an essential part of being able to heed the advice of Hippcrates in this is to understand what has come to be called Chesterton’s Fence.
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”G.K. Chesterton
In its distilled form, Chesterton’s Fence is expressed this way:
Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.
So we need to begin by recognizing that it is the testimony of thousands of biblical and systematic theologians that the doctrine of the final coming of the Lord Jesus is an essential part of the system of faith that we call the orthodox Christian faith. The fact that some do not see any conceivable reason why it should occupy that space is an argument for leaving it in, not for taking it out.
Now, to the merits.
The Confession of Martha
When the Lord delayed coming at the sickness of Lazarus, that delay resulted in Lazarus dying. When the Lord arrived, Lazarus had already been in the grave for four days. Martha heard Jesus was coming to them late and went out to meet Him. Jesus then told her that Lazarus was going to be raised, and Martha said this in reply:
“Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24 (KJV)
In common with faithful Second Temple Jews, Martha believed in a general resurrection at the end of history. She calls it “the resurrection.” And Jesus in no way contradicts this conviction of hers—rather He is about to give her a potent proleptic sign that the resurrection that was coming at the end of history was going to be grounded in Him. This is why He says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He was going to give her this sign by raising Lazarus from the dead.
Now this raising of Lazarus was not the same kind of resurrection that will happen at the end of history because Lazarus eventually died a second time. What happened with Lazarus was more akin to a resuscitation than a resurrection, and this is why I call it a sign, and not part of the ultimate reality itself. The Lord’s resurrection body was the embodiment of an indestructible life (Heb. 7:16, ESV), which was not true of the raised Lazarus. Christ was raised, “never to die again” (Rom. 6:9). The son of the widow at Nain also died again (Luke 7:11-16).
So the last day has not yet arrived, which means Martha’s hope stands secure. We know what Second Temple Jews thought about the resurrection at the last day. We know, in broad outlines, what their eschatological assumptions were. The Sadducees were the ones who denied the general resurrection, and recall that Jesus refuted them and took all their lunch money (Matt. 22:29-32). In debating them, the Lord was defending the resurrection (te anastasei). The Pharisees taught a general resurrection at the end of time, Martha agreed with them, and Jesus obviously agreed with her.
This means that when we debate whether or not we agree with the doctrine of the resurrection, we should not begin our studies with a blank sheet of paper, a sharpened pencil, and a mind full of theories. We must begin with the outline of history that had already been hammered out by the orthodox believers before the time their Messiah arrived. Like Martha, we also stand by graves with the knowledge that the resurrection is coming at the last day. We stand in the same place, and we stand with the same hope.
2 Maccabees gives the account of the martyrdom of seven brothers who defied Antiochus Epiphanes. That cruel ruler had demanded that they eat pork, and when they refused to do so, they were all tortured to death. As they died, one by one, the surviving brothers all witnessed what would happen to them if they didn’t buckle, and yet they continued to defy the beast. As this gnarly drama unfolded, a number of the brothers repeatedly testified to their faith in the coming resurrection, with their mother looking on, encouraging them to stay strong.
Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”
2 Macabees 7:23 ()
And of course we know this is not Scripture. But this episode is mentioned in the eleventh of Hebrews, and the example of these martyrs is commended to us by Scripture as a good example to follow—along with the reason they had for staying strong. That reason was the resurrection of the dead, and their tenacity in holding to that reason is endorsed by Scripture.
“Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:”
Hebrews 11:35 (KJV)
Paul here points to women in the Old Testament who received their dead back to life, as the Shunammite woman did (2 Kings 4:36). But others accepted torture rather than deny their faith, and they did it so that they might receive a better resurrection at the resurrection.
Again, for Jews of the Second Temple period, this resurrection was going to occur at the end of history, and again, that should be our starting point. As a matter of historical fact, it was the starting point for the early church, which is why the broad outlines of this eschatology was so widely accepted by the Christian church. When the Christians connected the resurrection at the end of history with the final coming of Christ, the doctrine of that resurrection was already old.
Subtract the Sadducees from it—because Jesus already took them out of contention. What did conservative Second Temple Jews believe about the end of the world? They all believed the same thing that I do, and were willing to be tortured on the basis of that faith. And that faith is set before us in the book of Hebrews as a model for us to follow.
This Pregnant World
When Adam fell, the realm over which he had dominion fell also. And when the sons of God are revealed and manifested (Rom. 8:19), everything will be restored again. Adam was the lord of this world, and his defection from God had massive implications—red in tooth and claw—for that created order. The created order, naturally, longs for its release, and we learn in the pages of Scripture that it is a promised release.
The created order was reduced to corruption because of the sin of mankind. The created order will be liberated from that corruption when we believers receive our final adoption as sons, the redemption of the body. The future of this world and the future of the elect are inextricably linked.
The telos toward which the whole creation groans is therefore the consummation of all things.
“For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
Romans 8:22 (KJV)
This is the world that is pregnant with a future glory. So we do not believe that an external force is going to come down at the end of time and zap everything to make it different. We believe He already came down, and He already rose in the middle of history, such that things are already different—just as a pregnant woman is already a mother and not yet a mother. The transformation of the cosmic order is working its way out from the inside. A decaying world was infected with radical life and the infection site was a tomb outside Jerusalem.
It is not possible for a man to come back from the dead in this world without that altering forever the nature and prospects of this world. Christ rose from the dead two thousand years ago here, and this is the reason why this world cannot continue on in the same old way. If Christ had wanted to leave this world as it was, He wouldn’t have come back from the dead here. He would have been given a brand new body up in Heaven, and sent us pictures.
So this creation, this world, will be delivered “from the bondage of corruption” and will be ushered into the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). This is why our resurrection is something that the whole created order is longing for. Paul here calls that resurrection the “redemption of the body,” and he also teaches us that when we are raised, the whole created order will be put right as well.
“Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Romans 8:21 (KJV)
But if we are not raised, then this poor world would have to continue to stagger and weave down a road of endless history, no end in sight. And if that sorry world asked me for an inspirational quote to sustain it on the way, I would encourage it with this . . . why isn’t God keeping His promise?
What Fruitfruits Should Tell Us
The death, burial and resurrection of Christ was an eruption from the end of history right in the middle of history. The beginning of the end of the world happened two thousand years ago.
Now Christ was raised in a very specific way. He had a grave, and after He rose from the dead that grave was empty. We are told in many places that this event was the down payment on our salvation—and our salvation extends from the purpose of the Father in eternity past all the way up to our own individual resurrection. So Christ was raised from the dead. The Spirit of God was then given to us to serve as an earnest money guarantee that the very same thing was going to happen to us (2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:14).
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.”
1 Corinthians 15:20 (KJV)
So Christ’s resurrection was given to us as a template, or pattern of our own resurrection. Now if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy (Rom. 11:6). And just as a man reaps what he sows (Gal. 6:7), so also a man harvests that which first appeared as the firstfruits.
Now it makes no sense to say that the firstfruits rose from the grave in this particular way, but then to have the harvest show up in a completely different way. As my friend Jared Longshore put it, “If the firstfruit rose in manner A, will the lump rise in manner B? If the root in manner A, will the branch in manner B?”
God is not mocked. You cannot plant thistle and harvest wheat. But neither can you plant wheat in one field and harvest the crop in another field. Still less can you harvest the crop in different world.
The Tomb of David
There is an odd little passage at the end of Matthew (that Christopher Hitchens actually asked me about one time) that says that the earthquake at Christ’s death opened many tombs, and after the Lord’s resurrection a number of the previously deceased went into town to look folks up and say hey. I can easily imagine a young widow saying to her resurrected husband, “Don’t do that to me!”
“And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
Matthew 27:52–53 (KJV)
But after this happened, when Peter was preaching on the day of Pentecost, he told the assembled there that David was still dead and buried, and that they could walk over to his tomb if they still wanted to see it.
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.”
Acts 2:29 (KJV)
This leads me to believe that those who appeared to the folks in Jerusalem when Christ rose were not sum total of all the saints of the Old Testament era, but rather were just recently deceased—they had people in the city that they knew. So perhaps these people were simply resuscitated, as Lazarus had been, and eventually died again, or perhaps they had new bodies and were taken up to Paradise when Christ ascended. I suspect it needs to be the former.
But in any case, David was not in their number, which means that this was not the general resurrection that Martha was looking forward to. That is still to come.
As all preterists know, not all the language of Scripture needs to be taken literally, or woodenly. I do not believe that the one thousand years of Revelation 20 has to mean a literal one thousand trips around the sun. But when language is symbolic, we have to remember that the symbol is always less than the reality. The wedding ring is a symbol, and the marriage is much the greater. The flag of a nation is the symbol, but the country it represents is far greater than the symbol.
So if someone wants to say that the millennium represents ten thousand years of gospel glory, they have not lost me. But if they want everything to fit in between 30 and 70 A.D.—without using a shoehorn and a copious amount of axle grease—I begin to manifest a significant amount of incredulity.
Preterism is Precious
Preterism has been a huge hermeneutical gift in my life. It has been a key that has opened up countless passages of Scripture. It has deepened my faith, and strengthened me in my walk with God. Preterism really is precious to me. It is hard for me to express how grateful I have been for this hermeneutical gift. But precious things must be defended, and things left undefended are not precious—whatever words are used.
Now I regard full preterism to be a threat, not to futurism, but rather to partial preterism. Full preterism is actually a major boon to the futurists. It makes it possible for futurists to argue, and to argue plausibly, that to adopt partial preterism is like trying to be partially pregnant. If you accept just a little bit of it to help you navigate the tough parts of the Olivet discourse, the first thing you know you will find yourself denying that Christ will ever come back again at all.
Speaking of the Olivet discourse, my thought is that the divide between the first century and the final coming of the Lord is at least by Matt. 25:31. Not to change the subject.
The questions raised by full preterists represent a border that simply must be guarded, and partial preterists are the only ones in a position to do it. If I were a dispensationalist (and a Machiavellian) I would be cheering the full preterists on. I would be standing on my chair and whooping.
It is as though you were among evangelicals with an extremely low view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, such that they observed it quarterly, with grape juice and crackers, and with a mere memorialist vibe. But you somehow discovered Calvin’s view of the sacrament, and it bowled you right over. You introduced it to your congregation, and they received it warmly, and were gladly growing in their understanding of the richness of Reformed worship. That’s the moment when a couple of your former students decide to become Roman Catholic, and another one starts flirting with becoming EO.
You know, you guys aren’t helping. Not even a little bit.
The Only Eschatological Truth that the Universal Church Has Ever Agreed On
One of the reasons for rejecting full preterism needs to be the fact of the overwhelming teaching of the universal church. Throughout the two thousand years of church history, the only eschatological doctrine that has ever garnered universal agreement has been the conviction that full preterism is in error. That’s the only thing we all agree on. From the Apostles Creed on, we have confessed that “from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
I have not listed this one near the end because I am somehow sheepish about it, or embarrassed to argue in this way. I am not surreptitiously tiptoeing away from sola Scriptura. I am not trying to trump a passage of Scripture with my Nicene card. But at the same time, we believe in sola Scriptura, not nuda Scriptura.
There really is a complex interaction between the creedal confessions of the church and the Scriptures. What I want to do here is just (briefly) sketch the outlines of the problem, and to do so without opening up another battle on my right flank with Roman Catholics. To them I say that testimony can truthfully point to authority without aspiring to become an equal authority itself. To use Martin Luther’s example, John the Baptist can point to Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God,” without setting himself up as Christ’s equal.
When a full preterist says that he does not recognize the authority of “the creeds,” but wants to rest his case on the authority of Scripture and only Scripture, he has set himself a real problem. The boundaries of the Scripture he is appealing to are creedally defined. Put another way, the Table of Contents in his Bible is not inspired. Nobody maintains that the Table of Contents is God-breathed. The Table of Contents is actually the foundational Christian creed. So anyone who appeals to Scripture cannot do it in a way that is entirely “creed-free.” That’s the first thing. No Christian is ever creed-free. To take a “Scripture, not creeds” approach is logically incoherent.
And here is the second thing, one that follows hard on the first. There are many instances where we have to grant some measure of “creedal” authority to lexicons and other forms of extra-biblical knowledge. This is especially the case when we are dealing with a hapax—a word that occurs only one time in the New Testament. Take the word Tartarus, which Peter uses once (2 Pet. 2:4). Not only is it used only once in the New Testament, it is also a basic word describing an important place in ancient cosmology. We are not bound to every detail of that broader cosmology, of course not, but we are bound to what Peter says about it. And we need to know something of how the word or concept is being used outside of Scripture to even know what we are talking about.
So if the Scriptures were to say in some place that “Christ will not return at the end of the history to judge the quick and the dead,” we should not be able to negate that by pulling out the Apostles Creed, which says that He will. That’s not how the orthodox should ever use the Creed. Rather, I use that confession as yet one more piece of evidence (and there are many such pieces) that reveals the outlines of first or second century thought forms. I also see those same thought forms throughout the pages of the New Testament. The creed tells me what believers were saying in the second century A.D., which turns out to be basically the same thing that Jewish believers were confessing in the second century B.C.—which is that history will end with the resurrection. And it is also the same set of thought forms that I am operating with twenty centuries later.
And if we wanted to connect these two points, the Apostles Creed is about two centuries older than the Table of Contents Creed. Neither creed is inspired, but both of them are true, which means they are infallible. Two plus two is not inspired, but it is true, and therefore infallible. The truth is always infallible.
As Uri Brito pointed out in a couple of his podcasts (here and here), the implications of this issue are massive. It is not a matter of abandoning congregational polity for presbyterian polity, or deciding to baptize with heads upstream from now on.
I could not embrace full preterism without that undoing the entire architecture and fabric of my mind. And I say this as someone who knows what it is like to go through theological paradigm shifts—I have been to the fair, and ridden on all the rides. Got sick on some of them. I have transitioned from Arminianism to Calvinism, from credo to paedo, from premillennial to postmillennial, and you know. One of those guys. If any one of those transitions was like bumping into the table and spilling a glass of water, full preterism would be like the Great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
I am telling you all that all Reformed theology hangs together, and this is a theological jenga game—and full preterism is like trying to pull out a long block second from the bottom. It is not possible to talk about this issue all by itself.
Futurists and partial preterists disagree with one another about numerous passages of Scripture. But we don’t disagree with one another about the structure and framework of human history. We line the books up differently, and sometimes have fierce debates about that, but we both use the same bookends—creation and the eschaton.
What this means is that my difference with the full preterist does not fall in the same category, not at all. It is actually a difference about the meaning and teleology of all human history in its entirety. This is not a trifle, in other words. The ramifications are massive.
I like living where I do, and have no desire to move to an Arminian dispensational neighborhood. Let us be frank, I would have trouble adapting. But if an angel told me to move there, and to grow some five-point tulips in my backyard as a testimony to them, I think I could do it. Moreover I think I could do it without quarreling with the neighbors. But moving to a full preterist neighborhood would be like moving to an alien world. If an angel told me to move to Jupiter in order to grow giant cabbages, I confess that I would not even know where to start. I would be at an utter nonplus. And not only would I have difficulty not quarreling with the neighbors, I think I would have difficulty not quarreling with the angel.
Some of you might be saying aha! “He wouldn’t change his mind even if an angel told him to.” Yeah, well (Gal. 1:8).
It will not have escaped the notice of some of you that I am writing about all of this shortly after a debate on the topic broke out between Andrew Sandlin, Ken Gentry, et al, on the one hand, and Gary DeMar on the other. As it happens, I was also a signatory to the letter that was sent to Gary. Now I believe that Gary mentioned in one of his podcasts that I had contacted him privately with a suggestion for heading all of this off, which is the case, and I wanted to mention here what that suggestion was.
It is my belief that Gary ought to make a statement something like what I have written below. If he were to do that, I would be happy to request that my name be removed from the letter. If not, then my name remains—but without throwing any rocks at Gary personally. As the other signatories have indicated, I owe too much to Gary to treat him that way.
But if Gary were to say something like this, or anything in this ballpark, I would be more than delighted to drop my name from the letter.
Here it is:
“I am willing to affirm the three doctrines you mention in your letter (the return of Christ, the general resurrection, and the end of a fallen creation). But for the sake of intellectual honesty, I also need to register a clear distinction as I do this. In my current understanding, I am unable to make a strong exegetical case for these three doctrines, and virtually all my work on eschatology has been exegetical in nature. At the same time, I do understand that these doctrines are theologically crucial, and on these theological grounds, I am willing to submit to the teaching of the broader church regarding these doctrines. I say this knowing that all sound theology has to be ultimately grounded in Scripture, and I accept that it is. It is just that I am not the man to make that case.”A hypothetical Gary
Sorry, Not Sorry
This has been lengthier than most posts, but let’s be honest. You are the one who kept reading, and that part was certainly not my fault.
What was my goal? I hope it demonstrates an irenic spirit on eschatological issues, while at the same time testifying to my belief that full preterism represents much more than a mere eschatological issue. Way bigger than that. Full preterism is not an eschatological debate. It is a total world and life view debate, and needs to be treated as such.
Comments are open, and please behave.