A couple of months back it was brought to my attention that prominent apologist William Lane Craig had issued a brief criticism of preterism. I have not heard it myself, but a transcript and link to the audio can be found at this location.
For the purposes of this article, I will assume that the transcript is accurate. I will say in summary to begin that I do not believe Craig has sufficiently understood preterism, and is critiquing, as our title implies, a straw man without a face. I will further state that I continue to respect Craig as an apologist but believe that here, as in a prior issue with respect to matters of social science, he has gone beyond his own area of expertise in commenting on these issues.
We will quote the transcript beginning with three reasons Craig offers for disbelieving preterism.
First, it seems to me clear that the coming of the son of man is a visible coming to earth. Now, let me give two arguments on behalf of that. The first argument is going to be a grammatical argument. I hope you follow me here. The verb "to come" just like the verb "to go" is what we could call a perspectival verb or perspectival word. That is to say it is relative to the perspective of the observer. When someone talks about someone coming that means coming to where the observer is. The person who is uttering the sentence uses the word "he comes." Where if somebody were not the observer he would say, "well, he went" or "he goes." You see the word "coming" is a kind of perspectival word that indicates the perspective of the observer.
We will discuss Scriptural examples offered by Craig shortly, but it is necessary at this point to correct a misperception in the first sentence, a rather frequent one with respect to preterism,as it happens. Preterism does not regard Jesus’ parousia as "invisible" – save in the sense that my poodle Cocoa is, as I type, "invisible" because he is not in my working room with me, but is enjoying the sunshine in another room. At the same time, Jesus indicated several quite visible signals that his advent and enthronement in heaven was near, and had occurred.
In any event, in terms of the verb "to come" being perspectival, this is hardly doubted. The question for each verse would be, from whose perspective is Jesus "coming"?
So for example take a look at Acts 1:11 for an illustration of this perspectival character. Here is the ascension of Jesus. And after Jesus ascends into heaven the two angels appear and they say, "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." And there you see perspective nature of this verse. He "will come" just as you saw him go. That it is relative to the perspective of the observer. You come to where the observer is, or you go from where the observer is. So, in that light when Jesus speaks again and again of the coming of the son of man, what that means is you’re coming to where the observer is. It doesn’t mean coming into some invisible heavenly throne room of God. It means coming to where you are – where the observer is. So Jesus says that he will come again – that means he’ll come to where you are – where the observer is. And so I find it bizarre that these exegetes can take the coming of the son of man to be something other than coming to where we are. That it means coming into some heavenly throne room that is invisible and unobservable by us.
If Craig finds this "bizarre" then one wonders what he makes of Daniel 7:13-14, a scene of one like a son of man (with whom Jesus identified himself) entering heaven to receive a throne. However, our more immediate reply hearkens back to the observation of Wright that the word erchomai, which is behind the word "come" in Acts 1:11, can mean either "coming" or "going." Thus my own answer concerning Acts 1:11:
One verse that often is seen as causing a problem for preterism, and which is of relevance here, is Acts 1:11: "Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." This is connected to the "Son of Man in the clouds" passages because it is said of Jesus, "a cloud received him out of their sight." (1:9) Thus the argument is, Jesus will return quite literally on a cloud, as he left on one.
But once again, "come" is erchomai, a word that can mean "coming" or "going." The angelic messengers therefore refer to the "going" of Jesus to the throne of God as the ascended Son of Man in Daniel 7.
If we take erchomai in the sense of "go" then certainly, Jesus will have continued to "go" – from the perspective of the disciples – on into heaven, to his enthronement. However, this is a minor issue in comparison to the following:
And in any case, this is the second point that I want to make about the coming of the son of man being a visible coming to earth. This is borne out by what Jesus and others say. Namely, that this will be a visible and observed event. Look again at Mark 13:26: "And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." And this indefinite third person plural "they" means that the people that they will see the son of man coming on the clouds with power and glory will be a visible observed coming. This is something we have already answered. Using the standard, dramatic language of his culture (as can be observed in Old Testament passages as well in which God "comes" on a cloud to deliver judgment), Jesus’ indication that all will "see" his coming in the clouds is an allusion to the Daniel 7 enthronement – and conceptually indicates not, as Wright tells us, that the disciples will literally look up and see Jesus popping a wheelie on a cumulus; rather, they will see the evidence of his fulfilled predictions about events on earth, which will validate him and his enthronement.
Craig also makes the same appeal with reference to Mark 14:61-2 and Revelation 1:7, and our answer is the same. He then offers several comments which assume the above-referenced "invisible coming" view, and as we have noted, this is a misperception: Nothing about the parousia is private or deceptive; Jesus made public prophecies about highly public events, and in line with the Deuteronomic test of prophets, could and would be inspected for fulfillment.
Thus Craig’s criticism is open to rebuttal on two points. The primary point has to do with the dramatic language of Jesus, which he interprets more literally than the cultural and linguistic template permits; and the secondary point relates to the flexibility of erchomai in terms of directionality. Craig is not here dealing with advanced exegetical arguments by preterists.
Craig’s second point relies on a misperception of a different sort:
Second point I want to make by way of critique is that the son of man doesn’t have to wait around until AD 70 in order to be enthroned. On this view, the coming of the son of man takes place in AD 70. But in between Jesus’ death in AD 30 and forty years later with the destruction of Jerusalem – I guess he’s sort of waiting around until the son of man is given dominion and authority and everything. And it seems to me that that’s not correct. That the son of man, Jesus, reigns already after his death and ascension.
Craig offers several passages from the epistles where Jesus is said, before 70 AD, to have dominion and authority, but Craig has wrongly equated enthronement with possession of dominion and authority. The enthronement in heaven circa 70 AD should be understood in what in modern terms we would call a formality. However, in ancient terms, a formality was a dreadfully important thing. The enthronement was a formal (and yes, public, even if in heaven) honoring of Jesus, described in a social setting within which personal honor was of primary importance. No one is saying that Christ has to "wait around until AD 70 to reign, and to have all things put under him."
However, we do say that the nature and scope of that reign took on a different character:
Daniel 7:14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion [is] an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom [that] which shall not be destroyed.
In this we have a picture of the new covenant terms on which Jesus is given a kingdom that was certified as his own: the church, which would not be simply Israel, but would be composed of ALL people, nations, and languages. Jesus declared his rights of possession of this kingdom in Matthew 28:18-20, and the enthronement around the time of 70 AD amounted to a formal recognition of this possession. Viewed through the social and cultural lens of the first century, the process is fully intelligible.
We will not need to address Craig’s third and final point in any depth:
Finally, the third point that I want to make is that like the rapture view I think the real Achilles heel of the preterist view is the resurrection of the dead. You see, Paul look forward as we read to Christ’s parousia, or coming, and the resurrection of the dead. Remember in 1 Thessalonians 4 he says that Christ himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command and the archangels call and the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise first. And in 1 Corinthians 15 he says that the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed. He connected the return of Christ to the resurrection of the dead and the destruction of death itself. Now, Paul’s letters were written prior to AD 70. 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians were written in AD 50s. So, what the preterist has to say here is that Paul was looking forward to some other event than the event predicted by Jesus of Nazareth in his Olivet Discourse! And to me that’s just utterly implausible.
It is to us as well. Craig has just described heretical or "full" preterism, not the orthodox variety. We do not identify the parousia and the resurrection of the dead as contemporaneous events.
That leaves us with a single question in close. Once again, we offer Craig all due respect as an apologist, but one must question his authority to speak to preterism as a subject when he has condensed orthodox and heretical preterism into one position. It is equivalent to lumping Craig as a Molinist into a camp with open theists. We may hope that Craig will look into these matters further before delivering any further judgments of his own.