What follows is a post coming out on my blog this week. I post it here as it has to do with the doctrine of hell, but I’m also pondering how UR might be integrated with a preterist account.
When it comes to eschatology my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, has leaned heavily toward preterism.
According to preterism almost all end-times prophecy in the bible is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
I say “almost all” end-times prophecy as there is some diversity among the various preterist positions. A lot of this diversity has to do with the relationship between the book of Revelation and Jesus’s apocalyptic discourses in the gospels.
Just about everyone agrees that Jesus’s apocalyptic discourses in the synoptic gospels–sometimes called the Olivet Discourse or the “Little Apocalypse”–are discussing the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. These discourses can be found in Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21.
In light of Jesus’s prophecies in the synoptics, the question is how the vision of Babylon in the book of Revelation relates, if at all, to the destruction of Jerusalem. Most preterists want the book of Revelation to be discussing the fall of Jerusalem. But to pull that off you have to get the dating of Revelation prior to AD 70. Most scholars don’t think that’s possible, putting the writing of Revelation in the AD 90s. And if that’s the case then the Babylon of Revelation can’t be Jerusalem and is more likely a vision of Rome.
Another aspect of the book of Revelation is the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22. Most Christians read that text as being about the future, about heaven and the Final Judgment.
All that to say, some preterists–in a view called partial preterism–believe just about every “end times” prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 except for what is discussed in the book of Revelation, the fall of Rome and the Final Judgment. Thus according to this view, since the fall of Rome occurred in AD 476, the only “end times” event remaining is the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgment. Everything else in the bible, eschatologically speaking, has already happened. Only one event remains, the Second Coming. Which can happen at any moment and will happen “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15.52). No rapture, tribulation, or thousand year reign. All that stuff has already occurred, fulfilled in the events surrounding either the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 or the fall or Rome. The only thing left in salvation history is the unpredictable “flash event” of the Second Coming.
That’s partial preterism, and it represents what most people in the Churches of Christ have believed. But there is an even more extreme view called full preterism, a view that has rattled around within the Churches of Christ since the 1970s.
Full preterism contends that every “end times” prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70. And this includes the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. This view is sometimes also called “realized eschatology” as it contends that every aspect of biblical eschatology has already been fulfilled or “realized.”
The key interpretive move to make this view work is to read every eschatological text in the bible (Revelation included) through Jesus’s Olivet Discourse, which, again, most agree is focused on the events of AD 70.
For example, consider the “Second Coming.” To start, note how the Olivet Discourse is kicked off by Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple:
So the event being prophesied about is AD 70, the destruction of the temple. And hearing this the disciples ask a question about the timing of Jesus’s “second coming”:
The association here is pretty clear. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is described as the second “coming” of Jesus and as the “end of the age.” That AD 70 is indeed being described as the “second coming” of Jesus is made more clear later in the discourse:
So in the Olivet Discourse the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with great power and great glory”–what many would describe as “the Second Coming”–is associated with the events of AD 70.
All that to say, according to a full preterist eschatology the Second Coming of Jesus has already happened. Just as Jesus prophesied that it would happen in AD 70.
(One might ask here about Revelation 21-22. A full preterist reading of Revelation 21-22 argues that the “New Jerusalem” coming to earth is not heaven but the church. The church–as the New Jerusalem and new temple on earth–replaces the former Jerusalem and temple destroyed in AD 70. So again, the New Jerusalem prophecies of Revelation 21-22 have already been fulfilled.)
Okay, so that’s the Second Coming. What about Final Judgment?
Again, when we turn to the Olivet Discourse we find Jesus saying this:
Notice how the events of AD 70 are described as “the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Now if you read that phrase literally–“in fulfillment of all that has been written”–then every mention of hell, eternal judgment or “the lake of fire” in the bible is referring to AD 70.
Simply, when the bible speaks of hell it’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.
In short, just like the Second Coming, Final Judgment also occurred in AD 70.
Now you might be asking, if the Second Coming and Final Judgment have already occurred what, according to full preterism, is going to happen to us when we die and what happens to the earth?
Well, answers vary. Regarding the fate of the earth a common answer is that the earth just goes on according to the physical laws governing it. Our biological fate on the planet is just that, our biological fate. No supernatural event in our future is going to disrupt those processes.
Incidentally, while preterism hasn’t been theologically linked to creation care, I think there’s something to explore here. That is, preterism is better than the notion that creation is going to be destroyed by God in a cataclysmic act of destruction. Creation might get destroyed, but according to preterism that would be our doing, not God’s. The assumption here being that God’s command to care for the earth, for as long as it lasts, remains very much in effect. And the longer we care for the earth the longer we might last upon it. According to preterism, it’s all in our hands. It lasts as long as it lasts.
Turning to our fate after death.
Upon our death, according to most preterists, you simply go to heaven or hell. There is no “holding area” (e.g., Hades) where the dead must await a coming Judgment Day. Again, in Christ God’s Judgment has already occurred. That is, in Christ the kingdom/church has been established upon the earth and your “eternal fate” at death is dependent upon your relation to that kingdom. Are you in or out? Heaven and hell, in this sense, is already a reality upon the earth. And the kingdom of heaven on earth marks the boundary.
Basically, according to full preterism, every significant event in relation to salvation history has already occurred. God’s kingdom has been established upon earth and Christ has won the victory over sin and death. The biblical story of salvation history has reached The End.
There is nothing in human history, now or in the future, that we are “waiting on.” All that is left is your decision in relation to the inauguration of the kingdom. Repent and believe the Good News, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.
So that’s full preterism.
Let me move to conclude my making a scholarly observation and then get to the point of why I’m sharing of all this.
First, while you might find the preterist view weird, biblical scholars have long recognized that this view is grounded in the biblical witness. Most NT scholars would argue that the first century Christians really did think that the Second Coming of Jesus and the Final Judgment was going to happen in their lifetime. And the theological cataclysm of AD 70 seemed like a good fit for the timing of that event. For the earliest Christians, centered as they were in Jerusalem, the events of AD 70 did seem like “the end of the world” and “the end of the age.”
And yet, in the wake of those events many Christians didn’t see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” So the parousia of Jesus was pushed into the future. Christian eschatology was created to explain the “delayed parousia” of Jesus who failed to materialize in the clouds, as he had predicted, in AD 70.
What this means is that in the pages of the NT we have a mixed and matched eschatology. On the one hand you have early texts that seem to expect the Second Coming of Jesus in the lifetimes of the first century Christians, perhaps in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem. On the other hand you have later texts, written after AD 70, that push the Second Coming into the future in response to the delayed parousia.
That’s how you see the situation as a NT scholar. Which is to say, there are texts, like the Olivet Discourse, in the NT that really do point to the Second Coming and the Final Judgement as occurring in AD 70. So the preterists aren’t totally crazy. The early Christians really believed that. What the preterists are doing is taking all the “delayed parousia” material from the later NT texts and forcing them to harmonize with the AD 70 expectation material.
That is to say, according to the preterist account, there was no mistake about the AD 70 parousia, Jesus really did come back in judgment at that time. The “Son of Man coming on the clouds” stuff was poetic imagery for events that really took place. In short, preterism is a way of harmonizing the mixed eschatological witness of the NT by reading everything through the earliest Christian expectations regarding the Second Coming of Jesus by claiming that those Christians were correct and that those expectations really were fulfilled.
Of course, such a harmonization creates its own suite of historical, textual and theological problems. But that can be discussed at another time.
I bring all this up for a different reason.
Specifically, as debates about hell continue to rage among Christians more and more I’ve seen people discuss how, when Jesus discusses Gehenna, hell and judgment, that Jesus is really discussing the destruction of Jerusalem.
And I think that’s right. The Olivet Discourse makes that point clear.
But if that’s so then the question becomes, if that’s what Jesus meant what about the other NT writers?
We’re back to the mixed and matched eschatological witness of the NT, those who expected final judgment in AD 70 and those who, in light of the delayed parousia, pushed “hell” into the future.
How, in our debates about hell, are we to deal with that disjoint? The disjoint between Jesus’s this-worldly hell of AD 70 versus the other-worldly hell in the future?
Scholars, of course, know how to do deal with this disjoint. They just leave it as a disjoint and claim that the NT doesn’t have a consistent or coherent eschatology. Eschatology was a “work in progress” as the coming of Jesus was indefinitely delayed.
But I can’t see that view being something most Christians will be able stomach. Such a view is too disruptive of doctrines regarding biblical inspiration as it asks us to believe that some early biblical writers were “wrong” in expecting Jesus to come in their lifetime.
Thus, for most Christians the push will be toward harmonization, to get all the eschatological texts to “agree.”
That may be a fool’s errand, but that seems to be where most Christians are. Which brings me to my point.
If 1) we increasing start seeing Jesus’s teachings regarding hell as being about the Destruction of Jerusalem (and I think a good case can be made for that), and 2) our view of Scripture pushes us to harmonize the eschatological texts of the New Testament, then I think 3) we start moving toward preterism.
That is, if Final Judgment occurred in AD 70, as Jesus predicted, then we also have to consider the Second Coming as having occurred at the same time. Both events are tied up together in the Olivet Discourse.
You can’t point to AD 70 as your definition of hell without AD 70 also being your definition of the Second Coming.
And if that’s the case, is preterism–this weird and fringe view espoused by nutty Christians–poised to become more prevalent in discussions about heaven, hell and Christian eschatology?