Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 4)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
Today we come to a second interpretation that also holds to multiple returns of Christ, and this is the Preterist view. Preterism says that the return of Christ predicted by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse has already occurred. You may have heard from your English teacher when she taught you English grammar something about the past-preterite tense. The idea there is something that is in the past. This is what the preterist thinks with regard to the return of Christ.
According to the preterist, the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse has, in fact, already occurred. It occurred in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem. With that event the Son of Man was enthroned in heaven. This view was defended by the notable New Testament scholar G. B. Caird, and also by the late R. T. France, a fine New Testament scholar, and most notably perhaps today by N. T. Wright, a very well-known and highly respected New Testament scholar.
According to this interpretation the events of the Olivet Discourse that Jesus predicted are not end-time events at all; rather, these predictions were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman legions. The descriptions of the Great Tribulation that Jesus refers to was, in fact, the horror of the Roman siege of Jerusalem which, as we know from the descriptions of Josephus, really was indeed terrifying – a horrible siege as people began even to eat their own children, to cannibalize one another, in order to stay alive under that terrible Roman siege.
In Mark 13:24-27 we have a description in apocalyptic imagery of the coming of the Son of Man. Jewish apocalyptic literature was literature about the advent of God, or the judgment of God, that would often be characterized in highly symbolic imagery. So the description that we have in Mark 13:24-27 is taken to be such an apocalyptic, symbolic account. There we read,
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The preterist says this is not a literal description of astronomical events; this is a description of the events in AD 70 and the presentation of the Son of Man before God in this apocalyptic symbolism. Compare, for example, Isaiah 13:10. In these verses, as you see from verse 1, this is a prophecy concerning Babylon and the destruction of Babylon. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light.” This is very similar sort of imagery that you have in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Or turn over to Ezekiel 32:7. This is, as you can see from the first and second verse, a prophecy concerning Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. In verse 7 Ezekiel says,
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness upon your land, says the Lord God.
Here in Ezekiel as well as have this astronomical language used in symbolism for the judgment of God coming upon Egypt.
Lest anyone think this should be taken literally, turn over to Acts 2:19-20. This is part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. You will remember what people experienced there was hearing the disciples speaking in other languages and there were tongues of fire resting upon their shoulders. In Acts 2:19, Peter explains that this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel (verse 16). Then he quotes Joel’s prophecy from the Old Testament: “And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day.” Clearly those things weren’t literally happening on the day of Pentecost yet Peter says this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. It is apocalyptic imagery describing this sort of earth shaking significance of the events that God was bringing to pass.
So this description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man that is cast in this astronomical image shouldn’t be taken in a literal sense, says the preterist.
Moreover, if you turn back to Daniel 7 where the coming of the Son of Man is predicted, they will point out that this is not a description of the coming of the Son of Man to Earth. Rather, it is a description of the presentation of the Son of Man before God in the throne room of heaven. In Daniel 7:13 and following, Daniel says,
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
So what we have in Daniel is the coming of the Son of Man into the throne room of heaven and his presentation before Yahweh – before God – who then delivers to the Son of Man all Kingdom authority and dominion. So the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus predicts in Mark 13 is not meant to be a sort of visible return of Christ to the earth but rather his enthronement in heaven.
What about the gathering of the elect from the four winds, however, where he sends out his angels to gather the elect? The preterist would say that this is, again, in symbolic terms the prediction of the worldwide preaching of the Gospel and the gathering of this great harvest for the Kingdom of God from every nation in the world. They will all be brought into the Kingdom of Christ through the preaching of the Gospel.
This is certainly an interesting interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, but I think what really drives this view hasn’t been mentioned so far. What really drives this view, I’m persuaded, is Mark 13:30 where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” The preterist wants to solve the problem of the delay of the parousia by saying all of these events predicted by Jesus did take place in the lifetime of his hearers. They did occur just as Jesus predicted they would in verse 30 within the lifetime of those who heard Jesus. So these events literally occurred and Jesus’ prophecy literally was fulfilled.
What might we say by way of assessment of this interpretation? I think we have to say that initially this is an attractive view because it solves the very knotty problem of verse 30 where Jesus says “all these things will take place before this generation passes away.” We don’t have to do any fancy explaining away of that verse because they literally all did happen. So this makes the interpretation, I think initially, attractive. But I have to confess that after thinking about it and, with all the best will in the world, being quite open to it I just can’t buy it at the end of the day. I am just not persuaded that this is the correct interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Like the Rapture view, in the end the Preterist view also winds up positing an invisible coming of the Son of Man prior to his second final coming to Earth to establish his Kingdom. So Preterism, like the Rapture view, winds up postulating multiple returns of Christ.
How might this be seen? Let me make a few points about this.
1. It seems to me that, according to Jesus and according to the New Testament (Paul as well), the coming of the Son of Man predicted by Jesus is a visible coming to Earth. Notice that the verb “to come” is a perspectival word. What do I mean by that? I mean when somebody “comes,” that represents the situation of the speaker – somebody comes to you. If you want to describe how you go to them, you use the verb “go” instead – you don’t say “I come to them.” You say, “I go to them and they come to me.” “Come” and “go” are perspectival words; sort of like “here” and “there.” “Here” is where somebody comes; “there” is where somebody goes. To see how this is used in the New Testament, look at Acts 1:11. This is a very good illustration, I think, of the perspectival nature of coming and going. Here the angels say to the disciples who are standing about having just witnessed Jesus’ ascension, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
So when Jesus in Mark 13 talks about the “coming” of the Son of Man, this is a description of his coming to Earth. It is where we will see him and experience him. The language of the coming of the Son of Man indicates that he is coming to the place where the observer is. What that means then is that Jesus coming to Earth that is described is going to be visible and public. It is going to be observed; it is not going to be some secret, invisible event. Look at Mark 13:26: “And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” The people who are on Earth will see the Son of Man coming with great power and glory. Also, if you look at Mark 14 – the trial of Jesus – you have on Jesus’ own lips similar words. Mark 14:61-62:
But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Here he says to the Sanhedrist, “You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” – just as he said in the Olivet Discourse. Notice that this is in sharp contrast to the false Messiahs that are predicted in Mark 13 in the Olivet Discourse where someone will say “Here is the Christ, or there is the Christ.” As Robert Gundry points out in his commentary, the distinction between the true coming of Christ and these false Messiahs will be in the public, visible, demonstrative nature of Christ’s real coming. These false Messiahs come in deceptive private ways which are seen but by a few. But the coming of the Son of Man described by Jesus is a public overpowering event that will be overwhelmingly evident to everyone. Compare in this connection, Matthew’s description of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:24-27. There Jesus says,
For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
It is going to be a visible overwhelming event that everyone will see; not something that takes place privately in the inner rooms or out in the desert, as these false Christs claim.
Also look at Revelation 1:7 to see that this was the view that the early church held as well: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” So this is a public event that will be witnessed by all people.
If that is right, what that means is that the coming of the Son of Man that is predicted by Jesus is not some invisible secret thing that took place in AD 70 that nobody saw. It will be a public, visible, overwhelming advent of the Son of Man to Earth that will be experienced by everyone.
2. The Son of Man doesn’t have to wait around until AD 70 in order to be enthroned. Remember on this view with the coming of the Son of Man and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 Christ is enthroned on his Kingdom as the Son of Man. But what happened in between AD 30 (or 33) and AD 70? For some forty years did the Son of Man have to wait around in order to be enthroned? That seems preposterous. Jesus rose triumphant and glorified from the grave and ascended into heaven to the right hand of the Father. He doesn’t have to wait to assume his Kingdom. He assumes his Kingdom with his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Look at what Paul has to say about this in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28 in his discourse on the resurrection of Jesus. Keep in mind that 1 Corinthians was written by Paul around AD 55. That is in advance of the coming of the Son of Man which supposedly took place in AD 70. So this is looking forward to that event. It hasn’t occurred yet in AD 55 when Paul wrote this letter. He says,
But each in his own order: [referring to the resurrection] Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
[In AD 55, Christ is already on his throne. He is reigning as the Son of Man, but will deliver the Kingdom over to the Father when he comes again.]
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him.
[That is to say, the Scripture says God has already put all things under Christ’s dominion. But obviously that excludes God himself, Paul is saying. God put all these things under his feet but that doesn’t mean God is under his feet. God is the one who put all things under Christ’s feet.]
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.
Christ will deliver the Kingdom to God the Father and himself be subject to God the Father when Christ’s return is finally accomplished.
So on this view, it seems to me, Christ doesn’t have to wait around until AD 70 to be enthroned in his Kingdom. He is the risen and ascended King already when Paul writes in AD 55. Compare this to Hebrews 2:7-9, a very similar reflection. The writer says, quoting from the Old Testament,
“Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels,
thou hast crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.
So I am not persuaded that what Jesus describes in the Olivet Discourse is the presentation of the Son of Man in the throne room of heaven where he then is crowned and receives his Kingdom. It seems to me much more evident that what is described is the coming of the Son of Man as King and Conqueror – the glorious return of Christ to the Earth as the risen and conquering Lord.
3. It seems to me that the real Achilles Heel of the Preterist view is once again the resurrection of the dead. Paul, in his letters, looks forward to the parousia. Remember all of these letters were written prior to AD 70. Paul was martyred somewhere in the mid-AD 60s. His Thessalonian correspondence, where he describes at length the appearing and coming of the Son of Man, was some of the earliest material in the New Testament (it was written around AD 51 from Corinth to the church in Thessalonica). Paul looks forward to the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead at his return. Now obviously the resurrection of the dead didn’t occur in AD 70. So what the preterists are forced to say is that what Paul is looking forward to in describing as the coming of the Son of Man is not the event that took place in AD 70 but rather an event that will occur at the end of history when Christ comes back once again and then the dead will be raised. I remember at a conference at which N. T. Wright was speaking, someone asked him, “If you believe that the coming of the Son of Man occurred in AD 70, what about the resurrection of the dead? Do you think that that is already passed?” And Wright responded, “Of course not. I think Christ will come again at the end of the age, and then the dead will be raised.” So you see, you wind up doing exactly what the Rapture folks had to do. You have to postulate that Paul isn’t talking about the same event that Jesus is talking about in the Olivet Discourse, despite the commonality of vocabulary and the connections between the two. What Paul is really talking about in Thessalonians and his other correspondence is this end-time event, not the event that Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse which occurred in AD 70. That seems to me to be just extremely ad hoc and artificial. It seems to me that the natural interpretation of Paul’s teaching is that he is talking about the same event when Christ will return as the Son of Man, the dead will be raised, the angels will gather the elect from the four corners of the Earth, and they will welcome Christ back to Earth to establish his Kingdom visibly.
So, again, with all the best will in the world, at the end of the day I just don’t buy Preterism. It would be nice if it were true because it would solve the problem of the delay of the parousia so adroitly. But it seems to me that this interpretation is implausible.
Question: I’d say that as somebody with sympathies toward the Preterist view myself, I think you actually covered the material very well. I would agree that the central thing here is saying that what is described in the Olivet Discourse is not Christ’s Second Coming but, as you alluded to, this scene in Daniel 7 where Christ is coming into the throne room of God. I think that the things you mention actually are pretty good objections to it and things that are worth further study, but what I think I would say in response to that is that we need to evaluate what Jesus is saying chiefly in the context of his ministry to the people of Israel. Jesus talks throughout the Gospels about the judgment that is coming to Israel. He says, “Who will I compare to this wicked and perverse generation?” The thing about the generation comes up over and over and over again. Jesus’ central claim here is that the temple is going to fall. You will see it collapse. You will see me vindicated. So what I would argue Jesus is talking about with the coming of the clouds and everyone will see is everyone will see Jesus’ very public claims of the destruction of the temple and the fulfillment of all these prophecies he is giving as being vindicated because Jesus has been going around very loudly proclaiming this to everyone in Israel. Everyone has heard the news about this by now. So when this happens people aren’t going to go, “Well, this is just some inexplicable event.” They are going to go, “Oh, no, Jesus was right! He was telling the truth about this. His claims have been vindicated.” So in that sense I would say it is a very public affirmation of what Jesus claimed in this passage.
In response to what you said about Paul looking forward to the Second Coming rather than Christ’s coming as described in Daniel is that Paul’s ministry is, of course, outside of Israel. What Jesus is talking about chiefly affects the people of Israel who are affected by all of these prophecies concerning the temple. But if you look at, for example, the Corinthian church or the Ephesian church, that is not really an issue for them the same way it is for the people in Israel. I feel like if we saw Paul writing letters to a church in Israel he might talk about totally different stuff. So Paul is, in his letters, focusing on the Second Coming because that is the most pertinent issue involved for the people in the cities to which he is writing.
Answer: Let me say a couple of things before you go on. I find it very hard to think that Paul made that kind of differentiation consciously; that he was using the same sort of vocabulary and wording about the coming of Christ to refer to a different event. After all, there were lots of Jews in these Christian churches as well. They were in a very large part Jewish as well as Gentile.
With respect to the first point, I do think what you are saying has some merit. Certainly the early Christians did think that these predictions were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. I wonder here if we might have not a case of a sort of double-fulfillment where there is a kind of preliminary fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies of the final destruction of Jerusalem at the end of the age that takes place in AD 70. You have other examples of this in Scripture where you have a kind of dual fulfillment. That would allow us to say that, yeah, these prophecies (though not completely fulfilled) were, in a kind of preliminary way, fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Followup: I think that is a very good point. I guess the other thing that I would add to that is that it can be very challenging for us to read the Gospels from the perspective of first century Jewish people because our natural inclination as 21st century Westerners is to look at it and say “What does this say about me?” and kind of miss a large chunk of what Jesus talks about to the people of Israel. Even if you just directly read the text it can be difficult to get back to that. That is one of the reasons why I found this view to be pretty compelling because it makes sense of all of that.
Answer: Let me just respond to that by saying this is one of the strengths of N. T. Wright’s work. He wants us to get back in touch with the mentality and worldview of these first century Palestinian Jews. I hear that emphasis. I appreciate that. But I don’t think any of my objections that I’ve raised here depend upon taking this sort of outsider’s perspective on the problem. I’ve tried to consider the interpretation within the Jewish context that you mention and asked “Is this a plausible understanding of the text?” But your emphasis is certainly quite right. That is why, for example, you will notice I didn’t criticize the claim that this could be apocalyptic imagery. I think that that is very likely that this could be apocalyptic imagery rather than actual astronomical events. You see that in Acts 2. That would be an example of where we’ve got to be careful to read this literature in a Jewish sort of way.
Followup: The last thing I’ll say: another relevant piece of Scripture is Isaiah 19:1 where it is describing an oracle concerning judgment on Egypt and God says he comes riding a swift cloud. I think Jesus is deliberately invoking this passage because when you read this obviously God is not physically coming down riding on top of a cloud to go fight some idols in Egypt. He is using it as a metaphor. In this passage too, coming is describing a judgmental act. I think that what Jesus intended for his audience to hear was for them to put themselves in those same shoes, like, “Oh shoot, God is coming to judge us.” That was one more thing.
Answer: Good point. That kind of connects with what I said about Ezekiel 32:7 which was also a lament over Egypt that used this apocalyptic imagery.
Question: If you compare Matthew 24 to Luke 21, which is a parallel passage, if we look at Christ’s answer to the disciples beginning in verse 4 of Matthew 24 he says that there is going to be deception, there is going to be wars, rumors of wars, nation against nation, these are just the beginning of birth-pangs. Then we will have tribulation, you will be hated by all nations because of my name, many will fall away, betray each other, false prophets are going to arise, etc. We are very familiar with this. He also mentions, when it comes to verse 15, after he has given a pretty much overview of the end days, “therefore when you see the abomination of desolation,” we can correlate this to the book of Revelation and know what happens around the time of the seventh trumpet which is the midpoint. We know that. Now go to Luke 21 beginning in verse 7. They question him, “When will these things happen?” The same event, the same time, they are coming to him. He says to them, “Don’t be misled.” We have that deception again – very similar. “Many will come in my name, don’t go after them. When you hear of wars and disturbances, don’t be terrified. But these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.” Then he said, “Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes and various plagues and famines. There will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” So we see these as parallel. But the next five words, in my opinion, have been so overlooked. It says, “But before all these things.” That would be these events that are marking the last days of Earth. Some time before, we are not told how long before but certainly before, what is going to happen? They will lay their hands on you, persecute you, and deliver you, bringing you before kings and governors. We read that in the New Testament with Paul, with Felix, etc. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. You will be put to death. Hated. Then go down to verse 20, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” – now remember in verse 24 he said “when you see the abomination of desolation standing in the place you shouldn’t,” here it says “when you see Jerusalem surround by armies recognize that her desolation is near. Then they must flee.” Very similar to Matthew, but I believe this is a totally different time frame. This is 70 AD. When you see that Jerusalem is surrounded, get out of town. Then he says, “Woe to those who are pregnant.” But notice what he says in verse 24, “They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive into all the nations.” We would say, yes, well that is what happened in 70 AD. The temple was destroyed; the people were taken into all the nations, “Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” That has continued to this day. Jerusalem is still being trampled.
Answer: Everything you’ve said so far would be exactly what the Preterist would say.
Followup: Yeah, but what I am saying is the verses from 7 through 11 have not happened because the fall of Jerusalem has to happen before then. He says, “Before all these things” – before! – “you will see these apocalyptic signs.”
Answer: I think I understand you. You are saying before these end time events have to take place, we are going to see Jerusalem fall, etc, etc. So we shouldn’t identify the fall of Jerusalem with these other things. This is going to occur first. And the preterist errs in putting them together and making them the same.
Followup: So here we see that the Jews are sent into all the nations where in 24 they are going to have great tribulation and then Christ is going to come. So this cannot be the same time.
Answer: OK, that is a very good point and a fine emphasis on the text.
 Total Running Time: 38:50 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)