"In Depth Bible Studies" on Preterism

A reader directed me to a Christian site that presented some arguments against preterism and asked us to evaluate their arguments. This site goes under the name "In Depth Bible Studies" and is run by two apparently earnest people who are laymen.

We are not inclined, of course, to doubt their earnestness, but the arguments presented against the preterist view are, regrettably, symptomatic of the sort of casual Christian lay-scholarship we have warned about on this site for years. Our response will not be harsh but it will be definitive, for we wish to make it clear that the sort of thinking expressed by this site needs to be avoided. (The site also does not always distinguish between heretical and orthodox preterism.)

Generation Ex

The site first tackles the matter of the time texts in the Gospels. It begins, interestingly, by agreeing with the preterist idea that prophecies speaking of "this generation" do refer to a time within a short span (they say, a "human lifespan"). However, they try to get around the preterist implications of a 70 AD fulfillment with a rather unusual twist. Noting that Jesus' "generation" words are preceded by the words "I say to you," focus is put on the you and it is said:

The Preterists assume that "ye" CAN and does ONLY refer Jesus to immediate physical audience, specifically the apostles. As such, Preterists assume the generation that "shall not pass" is the generation of the apostles.
The problem is that Preterists completely fail to understand a very prominent principle in scripture, a principle so obvious and so instinctive, in fact, that it typically goes without commentary. In order to spotlight this often overlooked but absolutely essential principle we have given it a name. We call this principle Transcendence, or the principle of the Transcendent "You."

From this it is explained that God speaks to an immediate audience but is actually addressing "future unborn generations with just as much certainty and absoluteness." An example is drawn from the Great Commission, which though it says "you" obviously applies to every Christian thereafter.

This is quite a creative solution, but it fails on a point that skeptic C. Dennis McKinsey also failed on. Put simply, moral codes and commissions (like Jesus' teachings, or like the Ten Commandments, or like Confucius' Analects) by their very nature are intended to be transcendent. They are indeed directed to a specific audience, but their genre implies universal application.

In contrast, the Olivet Discourse is not a moral instruction, but a prophetic discourse; moreover, if this were a "transcendent you" then every believer should expect to see the prophecies repeatedly fulfilled over and over again over the years! The site unwittingly admits this when it says:

If the principle of Transcendence is not true then every generation of believers after the first generation (which Preterists claim ended in 70 AD) would NOT have the great commission. In other words, without the principle of the Transcendent "You," Christians today have no commission to spread the Gospel.

By the same token, then, one would have to say that the Olivet Discourse to true of "every generation of believers". Yet from their view, it is still only going to be true to one specific generation -- the one that sees the fulfillment and a destroyed temple.

Of course some of the warnings have fit many generations (false Christs, persecution) but the burden is on the claimant to prove a "transcendent you" outside of a didactic genre, and the Discourse begins with "yous" specific to those present (24:2, "And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.")

At the same time, no method is given for determining how to differentiate between a "transcendent you" and an "immediate you" in the context of the Discourse. The argument that the Discourse's "yous" are transcendent is theorized in a way that makes it unfalsifiable.

The site continues on in this vein, also with a false comparison to Moses' prediction of a coming prophet (which did not specify "this generation" or any timeframe), but it is all in vain -- the only reason given to read a "transcendent you" into the Discourse is a begged question against preterism which does not actually disprove it, and it is never explained how every word in the Discourse could possibly apply to all believers for all times the way a moral teaching would.

The advice to peoples in Judaea alone (24:15ff) certainly doesn't rest well in that paradigm. Simply put, the destruction the Temple then standing in 70 limits the fulfillment of the rest of the passage to the same time frame. The questions asked by the disciples were referred in answers to the Temple standing THEN. All versions of the Olivet Discourse contain the very solemn declaration by Jesus, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." (Matthew 24:34, Luke 21:32, Mark 13:31)

We know when the city and Temple were destroyed. It was in 70. If that is "one" of "all these things," then ALL of the rest of that passage, at least up to Matthew 24:33, Luke 21:31, and Mark 13:31 happened in the first century as well.

It is inescapable. The destruction the then existing Temple is a completely unique, datable, and non-repeatable event. If the prophecy was not primarily fulfilled in the first century, it can never be.

More Gospel Time

Matthew 10:22-3 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.

The preterist stance notes that this makes a great deal more sense in view of an "end" in 70. As a reply this site calls up the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:

Luke 9:6, 10 And they departed, and went through the towns, preaching the gospel, and healing every where...and the apostles, when they were returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.

It is said:

Luke 9 records in verse 6 and 10 that after the Apostles received their instructions from Jesus, the departed to the towns of Israel and then returned to tell Jesus what they had done. In fact, Luke 9:6 says the apostles went "every where."

The conclusion given, then, is that "according to both the Luke and Mark accounts, the apostles had already completed their mission of preaching the Gospel to the people of Israel before the close of the chapter" long before 70 AD.

That's quite clever, but it fails on a couple of points.

First of all, if the mission was completed in just that short time, what is the point of the marker, "till the Son of Man be come"? One may as well say, "You will finish your dinner before the year 2120." The time marker in Matthew becomes remote and senseless.

Second, Matthew as a compiler has "dischronologized" Jesus' warnings and collected them topically -- he tells the disciples in Matt. 10 that they will be scourged in synagogues; their family will abandon them; they will be persecuted. This didn't happen on the "road trip" as recorded in Mark and Luke. This actually serves as an example of the sort of careless analysis Christians need to abandon -- the topical nature of Matthew's compiliations shows us that the "till the Son of Man be come" was not spoken at the same time as the "road trip" commission.

Interestingly, the site actually acknowledges this, but doesn't "get" the problem for their position. It rightly notes that the "events described by Jesus in verse 1-15 were completed before the crucifixion and the events described by Jesus in verse 16-23 did not come to pass until after the resurrection." But then it misses the point: "Thus, it is inaccurate for Preterists to link the apostles 'fleeing from city to city' in verse 22, with their commission to preach the Gospels to the Israelites found in verse 6."

Well, here's news: They don't! Preterists see v. 23 as standing independent of v. 6, and knowing that Matthew has been a good compiler, see v. 23 as reflecting instructions related to the Great Commission.

The site tries to equivocate a bit with this:

...if we were trying to use Matthew 10:22-23 as a timeframe marker we would have to be able to point to some historic indication that by 70 A.D. the apostles had nearly run out of Israelite cities to flee to. (And, as we have said, that is a rather strange and difficult thing to try and prove.)

This isn't "strange" or "difficult" at all -- the Gospel had made it to Rome by the 40s; did the Apostles just skip everyone next door on the way out?

Instead of going from city to city to preach the Gospel there, we find them going from city to city to flee persecution. Now, we know as a matter of historic fact that the early Christians did preach the Gospel in every city that they fled to including such cities as Damascus. But that fact has nothing to do with Jesus words here because Jesus words do NOT point to preaching, they point to fleeing. The truth is Jesus' words here clearly state he would return before the disciples run out of places to FLEE to, not before they run out of places to PREACH to. Preaching, had nothing to do with the timeframe reference in Matthew 10:22-23.

This is quite a stretch! It makes nonsense of the instructions -- if the Apostles were not preaching about Jesus (v. 18, "for MY sake") then why were they fleeing? Is this an instruction to just go to cities, live normally, and then just flee when people start turning mean for no reason? Does this site envision the Apostles not preaching at all in these cities? Why are the Apostles "going over" the cities of Israel if not to preach the Gospel?

The site reads the preterist view of this passage as saying that the Apostles would run out of refuges before the return, and says rather that it means, "refuges will always be available to you until I return." Thus they say there can be no 70 "deadline" as the number of refuges dwindle.

This view, according to Keener, is false [Matthew commentary, 324]. Keener understands the meaning as a preterist would, even though he does not accept a preterist viewpoint: "The persecution in Israel would not subside fully until the Son of Man's return."

N. T. Wright [Jesus and the Victory of God, 303] agrees: "Everything had to be done in a hurry." The words here "limit the mission to a single drive with a particular, historically delimited purpose, which makes the passage effectively useless for literal translation into a subsequent, generalized ethic." Of course the nation of Israel perished in 70.

At that point as well, under this site's view, the instruction would become meaningless.

It is noted that in Acts 8:1 the apostles did not flee Jerusalem when the church was persecuted, and it is concluded that:

Since in Matthew 10:22-23 Jesus was speaking to his 12 apostles when he gave the instructions to flee from one city to city when persecuted and since Acts 8:1 tells us the apostles remained in Jerusalem when that occurred, we know the apostles must have understood Jesus words in Matthew 10:22-23 to incorporate the principle of the transcendent "you." Thus, they knew when Jesus said to them, "flee ye" he wasn't referring to them (the 12 apostles) but to them as "stand-ins" for the future converts and who would come to Christ and join the Jerusalem Church by the thousands during the book of Acts.

Here again the site makes a mistake also made by those skeptical of the text. As I responded in another context:

Critics, however, miss a very subtle point in this verse. It does not say that the Apostles were not persecuted; it only says that they were the only ones who did not leave Jerusalem. [Bck.BAPS, 428-9] This does not mean that the rest of the Jerusalem church was not persecuted, and it does not even necessarily mean that the Apostles were not persecuted. One of two options is possible: Either they were persecuted, and they decided to withstand the pressure; or, they may indeed have escaped persecution - in that regard, Witherington [With.AA, 278n] observes that we cannot apply here the modern notion of "kill the head to destroy the body". Even if they were despised, holy men who were able to perform miracles, especially healing miracles, might be left alone out of awe or respect. (It is perhaps significant, in this light, that while Paul reports in his letters that he persecuted the church, he nowhere says that he persecuted the Apostles.) Thus the foundation upon which the Baur hypothesis stands is merely thin air.

So likewise this site's anti-preterist hypothesis is groundless.

The site next argues that if the preterist view is true, and if this verse says "the persecution will stop at the end when Jesus returns," then there is a problem because:

Did the persecutions of Christians cease in 70 A.D? If Christ returned in 70 A.D. then we should expect, based upon Matthew 10:22-23 and other New Testament precedent that persecution would have ceased. But it did not. History records that the persecution of Christians continued onward right through 70 A.D. up until the conversion of Constantine.

The site goes on to quote an encyclopedia (!) about persecution by Romans -- but they advance on a false premise from the start, noting that Christians "would enter the kingdom of God through persecutions, thus, necessitating that when the kingdom of God arrived, their persecutions would cease."

But none of this, nor any cite offered, says that all persecution would cease from that point on. The site falsely connects the dots, assuming that just because then-believers would enter the kingdom through persecutions, that means there would be no more persecution once the Kingdom of God came. That's simply an unwarranted and unsubstantiated leap.

Next up, with Mark and Like parallels:

Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

The site argues, "The best way to address this question is to first note that Jesus does not say exactly how many persons must not taste death until they see him come in his kingdom." This much is obviously true; the site argues further that maybe as few as one person was intended, and makes this person John, and his "seeing" of the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom the vision of Revelation. From this the claim is made:

The event was still in the future at the time John saw the vision. That is to say, what John saw (Jesus coming in his kingdom) was not actually occurring at the time John saw it, yet he did see (eido) it before he died, even though the actual event of Jesus coming in his kingdom was still in the future.

This is a rather clumsy eisegesis, for if John saw a vision then he did not see Jesus coming in his kingdom, but a vision of it, which is not what is said. Jesus did not say, "till they see a vision of the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." They would see the kingdom inaugurate -- period. As is often the case, a popular eschatological view involves adding language that simply isn't present in the text. But even if it did, this depends on a popular view of Revelation as well.

The site refers to preterist arguments using John 12:23 and 31, and Luke 17:20-1, which I have never seen used and do not see a need for. They are perhaps from "full" preterist views, as the site then makes remarks about the kingdom coming yet being unobservable which do not apply to partial preterism. It does not deal with any positive preterist evidences, notably the evidence offered by Wright and DeMar connecting the "coming/going" of the Son of Man with Daniel 7, but in the next section it does deal with evidence derived from Josephus.

Disrespecting Josephus.

The section dealing with Josephus is, to put it mildly, far too short and terribly obscuratanist. The site refers derisively to "unbelieving historians such as Josephus," says that "Preterists are quite fond of appealing to the historical record when it suits them and then using appeals to Luke 17 to deny its relevance whenever it contradicts them" (I have as yet never heard of this; perhaps full preterists do this) and then summarizes Josephus' life and career. It is noted without details that from Josephus' material, "Preterists like to infer the fulfillment of the Olivet and other Gospel prophecies as well as the prophecies found in Revelation and the epistles."

Thus the entire case from Josephus' data is summarized, and not actually dealt with in detail. The site then proceeds to wave off Josephus by ad hominem: He is not a valid source because he "was not a Christian...does not mention the return of Christ," and because later church writings did not agree with the interpretation of preterism.

Not one of these is a valid reason for dismissing his testimony. This is ignoring evidence, not dealing with it. We have condemned this sort of naivete from Christians several times: It is of no relevance that Josephus was not a Christian. In the same light, it is absurd to object that he did not report the return of Christ, for of course as a non-Christian that is not how he would have understood the matter.

To merely use loaded language (i.e., referring to preterist use of Josephus as "pilfering") is not an answer. To object that his account is "secular" is not an answer. It is a red herring to demand that there be a Christian witness to these events. (Especially since almost all writings from this period have been lost!) This is how the site sweeps away all of the evidence from Josephus, and it is simply insufficient.

Nero and the Number

The next section simply quotes later Christian writers who did not agree with the preterist view. We regard this as meaningless evidence without disproof of the preterist view from the text of Scripture itself; otherwise it would only suggest that the later writers were mistaken. We next move to the section we'll call Zeroing in on Nero. Here the site raises the claim that "Preterists completely twist, distort, and even reverse some of the relationships presented in the Biblical passages they claim to be finding fulfilled in the historical record." Their first cite is 2 Thess. 2:1-6:

Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.

We noted in our study on Paul some of the confusion that likely arose in Thessalonica because of Paul's use of the word parousia. At the time we did not offer any speculation on who the "man of perdition" might be.

Presently I am inclined to understand the "man of sin" is none other than Titus, the general who destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and who, by the custom of the time, would have proclaimed himself to be superior to the God of Israel by virtue of his having been able to achieve victory over the Jews. The planting of the Roman standards in the Temple courtyard would have been seen as "opposition and exaltation" of Roman power, represented by Titus himself, over the God of Israel.

The site works under the assumption that preterists will identify the "son of perdition" as Nero. That's actually not true. Their only knowledge of positive arguments for this identification is: 1) the supposition that preterists merely look for any person who is of "exceptionally perverse character"; 2) the identification of the "666" in Rev. 13 with Nero's name.

Their view of 1) is incomplete. No preterist commentator thinks that this is "all there is" to the identification. I have noted above that Titus committed historical acts that fit the description of 2 Thess. 2. I also see no connection, obviously, between him and between the Rev. 13 figure.

On the identification of Nero with the 666, the site has this to say:

However, there are two points that we want to bring up here. First, why are we using the Latin numbers instead of the Greek? The New Testament was written in Greek including Revelation. So what cause do we have to look to the Latin? Perhaps simply because Nero was Roman and the Roman language was Latin. But this conversion from Greek to Latin is itself an unfounded assumption and the main reason for the use of Latin is simply because if we use Latin "Nero works."

The identification with Nero is actually more complex that this (see here), but it is clear the site has not done enough research. They claim that the value of Nero's name in Greek is 225 but only use the "Nero" part (not "Nero Caesar") and thereby contradict as well scholarly sources that say Nero's name in Greek added up to 1005. They also erroneously state that the case is that in Latin Nero's name adds up to 666; the actual case is that it adds up to 666 in Hebrew -- in Latin, it gets to 616, which is a known textual variant of this verse.

Nor, then, is there much need to answer the argument that Nero didn't fit is described in 2 Thess. 2. In fact the site commits the classical dispensational error of collapsing down all figures named into a single figure, with no exegetical or logical justification. But with this in mind, let's examine their attempt to wrest 2 Thess. 2 from the preterist viewpoint.

Our first detail concerning the antichrist was from II Thessalonians 2:4. It said that the antichrist would sit in the temple of God. Does history record that Nero sat in the temple of God? No. Did Nero ever even visit Jerusalem? No.

Nero didn't, but Titus did, and here is a telling passage from....er....that "heathen" historian Josephus:

And now the Romans, upon the flight of the rebellious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings around it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them near to its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy. (War 6.1)

A note in this edition of Josephus adds that Tertullian remarked that "the entire religion of the Roman camp almost consisted in worshipping the ensigns, in swearing by the ensigns, and in preferring the ensigns before all the [other] gods." The making of Titus to be imperator in this context fulfills Paul's words.

Our second detail was from II Thessalonians 2:8 and Revelation 19:15,20. It tells us that the antichrist will be defeated by Christ when Christ returns.
Was Nero defeated by the returning Christ? Well, look in any encyclopedia and you'll quickly find out that Nero committed suicide on June 9, 68 AD. This is two years before 70 AD. That puts Nero's death two years before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. That's also two years before Preterists claim Jesus returned.

Here the site's arguments are based on a flawed equation; they read Rev. 19 of course as a literal, physical war rather than a war for the hearts of men (see link above); beyond that, what of Titus being "defeated by Christ when Christ returns"?

There is, to begin, no reason to think that Titus had to be "defeated" in 70 AD. As we have noted in other contexts, the Jews did not see it as necessary to think that judgment was immediate. Titus himself suffered serious judgment as Emperor. His reign lasted but 26 months (79-81 AD) and was marred by natural catastrophes (Vesuvius, a plague, and a fire at Rome). He died at a young age of a fever. Parallel this from Paul, now, with a verse like Jer. 9:12:

Who is the wise man, that may understand this? and who is he to whom the mouth of the LORD hath spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land perisheth and is burned up like a wilderness, that none passeth through?

Or Is. 1:20:

But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

Like many critics of preterism, this site is engaged in what Wright calls "the folly of trying to fit the hurricane of first-century Jewish theology into the bottle of late-modern western categories..." Their next two points shows this further as they object that Nero never gathered forces at Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-14). They may wish to consider that there is no statement at all that the "beast" will be the one who gathers this army -- this is merely the assumption of dispensational teachers who are trying to force the winds of that hurricane to conform to their view of a summer storm.

Their fifth detail offered represents a curious judgment: "Revelation 19:20 tells us that the antichrist will be thrown alive into the lake of fire. Since Nero died in 68 AD, he could not have been thrown live into the lake of fire."

It is enough to note in reply that the site does not even begin to deal with a preterist understanding of Revelation, which does not try to force-fit Jewish apocalyptic symbolism into literal events. The lake of fire represents judgment; Nero and the Roman establishment were certainly judged by God. (Consider again the language of the OT, Is. 66:16: "For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many."; Amos 7:4, "Thus hath the Lord GOD showed unto me: and, behold, the Lord GOD called to contend by fire, and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part.")

Their sixth and seventh details essentially repeat the point that Nero never gathered armies against God, and offers the dispensational interpretation of Rev. 19 that reads it as, "The returning Christ is then recorded as defeating the armies of the antichrist as they come to attack Jerusalem. He is not depicted as in agreement with their destruction of the city."

The gathering of forces is in Rev. 16; Jerusalem is declared destroyed in Rev. 18; by Rev. 19, there is no literal "defeating of the armies" -- there is judgment, and war for the hearts of men.

The site in any event, again, does not deal with the preterist view of Revelation, and so has not even begun to address the matter; they do not even think preterism has accounted for details like the "false prophet" (it is seen as Jews who encouraged aligning with pagan Rome) or the "mark of the beast". For the present, then, we merely again refer to our essay on Revelation, noting that the site has a long way to go before it has covered its bases.

Delay that Order

In the next section the site works to justify the idea that, contrary to the time texts that speak of Jesus' judgment as "soon" or in "this generation," the idea was that Jesus' "second coming will be delayed, later than expected, or a long time in coming." To this end they cite texts warning believers to be on guard, noting that no one knows the day or the hour, and so on, as in Matthew 24:48: "But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming..."

DeMar has already answered this from the preterist view: The people whom the Lord left in these parables are the same people he comes back to. Far from indicating a lengthy delay, these indicates a time that IS short, but that will be long enough, nevertheless, to encourage some to get complacent.

(Note that the first "time texts" speak of "this generation," while the "soon" texts appear in Revelation, written perhaps 30 years later when indeed only 10 years remained on the generational measure, thus making it indeed "soon" by that time.)

The one appeal they make that falls outside this paradigm relates to 2 Peter 3:8:

2 Peter 3:8 But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

The site then asks:

This is unbelievable given that Preterists insist at the time this epistle was written the second coming was only a few years away. How could Peter not have known this? Why does he not remind his audience that the second coming of Christ was about to occur? Why does he not remind the believers that Jesus said he would come within their lifetimes? Why instead does he speak of God's patience, God's timing, and thousands of years being as a day to the Lord?

Again, DeMar has answered this use of this verse. The primary point is that dispensationalists never use this verse anywhere else - does this mean Jesus' three days in the tomb lasted 3000 years? Of course not. The point is that for God, time is meaningless (note: not a day "is" a thousand years, but "is AS"), it isn't for US. God doesn't care about your mockeries, because as far as He is concerned, the parousia is set in stone and has already happened. That is the point of 2 Peter 3:8 - it is not a way of excusing away the lateness of the parousia.

The site also offers an argument for a late date for Revelation, but barely touches any of the data on the subject, merely focussing on Irenaeus' testimony and addressing none of the arguments we offer in our link above. We conclude that this is an earnest but misguided attempt to route preterism.