The mainstream interpretation of Bible prophecy today teaches that mankind is currently waiting for a future Great Tribulation. Earthquakes, peals of thunder, famine, deadly world wars, and destruction have all been said to be a global calamity that bring planet earth to a catastrophic end. But is this interpretation of prophecy really what the Bible is trying to communicate? A careful examination of certain key phrases in Scripture force us to conclude that the majority of Bible prophecy has already come to pass during the first century AD.
Interpreting Bible prophecy as already past along in history is known as Preterism. The term is derived from the Latin word Praeter, which simply means “past.” Preterism is an interpretation method that views most of prophecy, although future for the original audience, as past for us today. Particular prophetic passages such as the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), most of the book of Revelation, and many other passages of Scripture all find their fulfillment in the 1st century leading up to and including the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. Preterists understand this event to be the fulfillment of the imminent coming of the Son of Man (Jesus Christ) to judge apostate Israel, and to finalize the ushering in of the New Covenant.
The Preterist interpretation has both differences and commonalities with the competing interpretation methods. It is in some sense the opposite of “Futurism” which holds that most of prophecy is impending or awaiting its fulfillment. It also differs from “Historicism” which interprets most of prophecy as foretelling events that are spread throughout all of human history.
Although these three views seem quite different, one must be careful not to overlook the common ground which they stand on. Falling into one of these camps does not necessarily mean that one interprets all of prophecy as the title of the method suggests, but rather most of prophecy. For example, if a Christian believes Jesus the Messiah has come into history to die on the cross for our sins (Isa 53:5) then they are a Preterist on at least one issue. Likewise, if a Christian believes Jesus will eventually return physically (1Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15:23-24; Acts 1:11) then they hold to a futurist perspective to at least a small degree. Being a Preterist typically means one views most of prophecy as past, not necessarily all.
Why Interpret prophecy as past?
The New Testament (NT) authors tell us plainly the approximate time of prophetic fulfillment. The NT is filled with these approximations such as: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mk 1:15; Lk 10:9; 10:11), “the time is near” (Rev 1:3; 22:6), “it is the last hour” (1 Jn 2:18), “I [Jesus] am coming quickly” (Rev 3:11; 22:7; 22:12; 22:20). There are many more passages like these that anticipate an imminent fulfillment. For the futurist and historicist, these passages present a problem; but for the Preterist, they reveal the timing of prophetic fulfillment.
The coming of the Son of man
A large volume of prophecy speaks of Jesus’ imminent return (Matt 16:27). It is the Preterist understanding that this prophecy found its fulfillment in 70 AD when Titus besieged Jerusalem (Luke 21:20), destroyed the city, and demolished the temple (Luke 21:6). The first century historian, Flavius Josephus was an eyewitness to this event and wrote about it in great detail in his writing The Jewish Wars. This event surpasses all other stories in history as one of the most horrifying massacres ever recorded. Over one million people were slaughtered by the Roman army without any discrimination regarding age or gender. Almost 100,000 were taken captive and sold into slavery. It was truly a “great tribulation.”
The destruction of the temple and the coming of the Son of man must be the same event for the reason that the Scriptures connect the two together. We find this connection in passages like Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 commonly known as the Olivet Discourse. Between these two events we find no break in the discourse, no indication that Jesus has changed the subject, and no reason to believe these events are separated in time, but rather they occurred during the generation of the apostles (Matt 24:34).
The Olivet Discourse begins with the disciples pointing out to Jesus all the buildings of the temple, to which he makes what must have been an upsetting statement to them: “…Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2). Jesus’ statement happened quite literally. The temple was known for its gold (Matt 23:16) and much of it was used for decoration. After the city went up in a blaze of fire, much of the gold melted and began to trickle in between the cracks of the temple walls. To maximize their plunder, the Romans tore the temple apart brick by brick to retrieve the gold. Jesus’ prediction about the temple came true in 70 AD. After the disciples ask Jesus, “…when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” he begins the discourse detailing “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt 24:21). At this point Jesus has not changed the subject. He is still answering a question that was brought about by his statement, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” He then brings his audience to a climactic point in the discourse with the “coming of the Son of man.”
The coming of the Son of man is not to be confused with the physical second coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15:23-24; Acts 1:11), but a coming in local judgment of apostate Jerusalem that must have occurred during the lifetime of the apostles. As we see from the words of Jesus, we read: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened… Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:29-30). Clouds are often used as a sign of judgment in the Old Testament (Psalm 97:2; 104:3; Isa 5:30; Jer 4:13; Eze 30:3; Joel 2:2; Nah 1:3; Zep 1:15), and just as these judgments were local, the events spoken of in the Olivet Discourse were also local (Matt 24:16).
The apostle John also writes about the coming of the Son of man in the book of Revelation and states that the ones who are responsible for the crucifixion will be eyewitnesses to this event: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him…” (Rev 1:7). Compare this verse to when Jesus, before Caiaphas and the council was asked if he was the Christ, to which he replied, “… You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64). Jesus tells the disciples that he will come back before all of them pass away, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:28). We know that John was apart of this group for the reason that Jesus tells Peter, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?…” (John 21:22). Careful attention to these passages lead us to conclude that the coming of the Son of man occurred before the last apostle died.
What might be the strongest text to support the Preterist view is found in Jesus’ own words, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt 24:34). When it comes to Bible prophecy, no other text has been so greatly abused as much as this one single verse. To not interpret Jesus’ words as revealing the timing of the Great Tribulation to be within the lifetime of His contemporaries would require assigning completely different meanings to several words. This is often done by the Futurists for the reason that such a text is devastating to their view that the Great Tribulation has yet passed. Instead of taking Jesus’ words at face value, the Futurists tell us that what Jesus meant by “generation” was either the Jewish race or the future generation that would witness these events. But there are several problems with both views.
First, the word generation does not mean race but is translated from the Greek word γενεά which simply means – generation, or a group of people born and living around the same time. This is how Matthew always uses the term (c.f., Mat 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36; 24:34). If he was trying to indicate race he could have used the more appropriate word γένος which is used to denote a people group (c.f., Mat 13:47; Mar 7:26 Act 4:36; 7:19; 13:26; 18:2, 24; 2Co 11:26; Gal 1:14; Phil 3:5; 1Pe 2:9; Rev 22:16).
Furthermore, if Matthew meant a future generation he would have used the far demonstrative – that generation, but instead, he uses the near demonstrative – this generation.
There is one more attempt the Futurists make in trying to reconcile this verse to their view and that is the idea that Jesus was making a prophecy with a far term fulfillment as well as a near term fulfillment. This nuance of Futurism admits that Jesus is referring to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD but would insist on allowing much of the discourse to also be referring to events much further off in history. The problem is that Jesus’ statement does not allow for this view for the reason that he says “all these things take place,” not just some.
The Preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34 not only fits the context of Jesus’ description of the events surrounding the destruction of the temple (Matt 24:2), but it passes a careful study of the particular words our Lord chose to use to clarify to the disciples what would take place within their generation. The great Baptist preacher, John Gill was correct in his commentary of this text:
Not the generation of men in general; as if the sense was, that mankind should not cease, until the accomplishment of these things; nor the generation, or people of the Jews, who should continue to be a people, until all were fulfilled; nor the generation of Christians; as if the meaning was, that there should be always a set of Christians, or believers in Christ in the world, until all these events came to pass; but it respects that present age, or generation of men then living in it; and the sense is, that all the men of that age should not die, but some should live till all these things were fulfilled.
The Book of Revelation
Futurist also interpret many sections of Revelation to be referring to a distant future Great Tribulation. The book’s dramatic themes such as the seven seals, the four horsemen, the beast, and the harlot are all believed to be part of a narrative describing the world apocalypse. Once again the Futurists have missed an important chronological clue. In the very first verse of the first chapter the author starts his letter by saying, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). He also repeats this phrase at the end of the book (Rev 22:6). Some Futurist have interpreted this phrase to mean that once the apocalypse starts, its sequence of events will have a short duration. In other words, the phrase “soon take place” means the end of the world is going to be a hasty process. This interpretation might be feasible if it weren’t for what John says next.
In verse three he says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (v. 3). This has to mean that the events will be taking place in the near future and not the distant future. In response, we usually hear the Futurist use the verse, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet 3:8) thus, the word “near” may be a couple of millennia since God does not look at time the same way humans do. But the book of Revelation was not written to God but to human beings who are inside time. If what John meant by “soon take place” to mean several thousand years into the future, he couldn’t have expected any of his audience to understand his chronological clues. The phrases “soon take place” and “time is near” should urge us to look back to the first century to see the fulfillment of the events in the book Revelation.
Futurism, a stumbling block for Christians and Non-Christians
For some of us who have been submerged into other prophetic interpretation methods for many years, Preterism can be a difficult leap for the reason it would require a drastic transformation of how we view most prophecy. Careful consideration of Preterism is highly recommended for the reason that futuristic interpretations of prophecy can be a stumbling block for both Christians and Non-Christians. As we have already demonstrated, the NT authors were clear in conveying the timing of their prophecies’ fulfillment, yet futuristic prophetic traditions create a difficult and unnecessary situation for those who read the Bible through their lenses. These traditions create the illusion that Jesus made false predictions. The well known Christian author, C.S. Lewis found himself in one of these situations which compelled him to conclude erroneous notions about our Lord Jesus. He writes:
It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed, created their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.
Sadly, we see the very same consequence apply to the Non-Christian community. The famous agnostic philosopher, Bertrand Russell includes in one of his essays that Christ’s false prediction of returning in the Apostles lifetime as one of his reasons why he is not a Christian. He also includes his concerns of the destructive behavior he has witnessed of Christians who became negligent of their vocational responsibilities due to a futuristic interpretation of the imminent return of Christ. He writes:
I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, He certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance: ‘Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of Man be come.’ Then He says: ‘There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom’; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, ‘Take no thought for the morrow,’ and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a person who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and he was certainly not superlatively wise.
The New Testament authors were clear about when prophecy would be fulfilled. The phrases “this generation will not pass,” “soon take place,” “the time is near,” “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” all point us to the first century to see their fulfillment. What does this mean for us? First, we can be encouraged by the fact that these prophecies came true. Christians are strengthened in their faiths when they see Jesus, the Master prophet’s predictions about the temple and the judgment of those who rejected him come to pass. This is one more reason to believe Jesus is who he says he is. Finally, Now that the idea of an impending tribulation is debunked, the possibilities of the growth of Christianity are wide open! The Christian church can start thinking about more long term plans of promoting the gospel to future generations, in hope that Christ will return to a Christian earth.
Gill, John. An Exposition of the New Testament: In Which the Sense of the Sacred Text Is Taken
C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays.
Russell, Bertrand, Why I am not a Christian.