The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Preterism and the Judgment of the Goats

I just thought this thread [on the judgment of the goats] needed a little more preterist representation, so here’s my contribution. :mrgreen:

Christ’s words in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel are part of an unbroken discourse that began at the beginning of the previous chapter - which itself is but the continuation of a subject begun at the end of chapter 23. It is not until chapter 26, v. 1, that we are told Christ “finished all these sayings.” There is no indication that Christ ever departs from the subject he began in chapter 24 to begin speaking about something more than 2,000 years into the future in chapter 25. There is no change in subject or shift in the frame of reference. Consequently, we cannot understand or interpret chapter 25 in isolation from chapters 23 and 24. And, as I attempted to show in another thread (Matthew 24:1-35) the subject in chapter 24 is Christ’s coming in judgment at the overthrow of the nation of Israel in 70 AD, when the age of the Messianic reign began. This, then, is the context of the passage under consideration.

Now, it is evident that the events depicted in this passage were to take place when Christ received his kingdom and began to reign, for we are told that, at this time, Christ would “sit on the throne of his glory” (cf. Matt 19:28). Thus, this scene corresponds to the vision Daniel received concerning the Messiah “coming with the clouds of heaven” and receiving a kingdom from the “Ancient of Days” (Dan 7:13-14). But if this scene in Matthew 25 takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ Messianic reign, then it must take place before the time of which Paul speaks in 1Cor 15:22-28. For in this passage, Paul describes the end of Jesus’ reign, when he delivers up the kingdom to the Father after subjecting all of his enemies to himself and abolishing death. If the judgment spoken of in Matthew 25 is to take place at the time of which Paul speaks in 1Cor 15:22-28, then it would mean Christ is to deliver the kingdom back to God right after he receives it from God - meaning that his reign ends as soon as it begins! From this consideration it is evident that the judgment described in Matt 25 cannot refer to an event taking place at the period of which Paul speaks in 1Cor 15:22-28.

Moreover, if what Christ describes in chapter 25 is but a more figurative and colorful (even parabolic) description of the events already referred to in chapter 24, then the entire scene pertains to the coming of Christ at the overthrow of the nation of Israel, and took place before that generation passed away (Matt 24:34). But in what sense were “all the nations” gathered before Christ at this time? Answer: Christ had already used this same expression twice back in chapter 24. So if we are to understand the expression “all nations” in chapter 25 as referring to a literal gathering of everyone who has ever lived from every nation that has ever existed, then to be consistent we ought also to believe that every individual of the same “all nations” not only heard the gospel (Matt 24:14), but that they hated the apostles as well (v. 9)! It’s evident from the way Christ uses the expression in these two chapters that we are not to understand the “nations” in such an all-inclusive sense.

Similarly, in the Abrahamic covenant God promised that “all nations” would be blessed. But few Christians would affirm that this promise embraces every person who has ever lived; instead, most see the people in view as being representative of all the nations in the world. “All nations” is instead understood to denote believers from all over the world - i.e., those who have been ransomed by the blood of Christ “from out of every tribe and language and people and nation…” (Rev 5:9). In Matthew 25, the expression is being used in a similar sense. There, Christ has in view the Jewish people from every nation who had gathered to celebrate the great Passover feast in 70AD. Not only were the Jews of the land of Palestine present in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, but the Jewish descendents of those who had been “scattered to the four corners” of the earth (by the Assyrians in 722BC and the Babylonians in 586BC) attended this holy feast as well.

In Acts 2:5-11, we read of a similar gathering of Jews for Pentecost:

Thus we see that “all the nations” that were to be gathered before Christ at this time may be identified with “all the tribes of the earth” referred to in Matthew 24:30. But in what sense were these people gathered “before Christ” when the nation of Israel was overthrown by the Romans? There is no reason to understand this language literally, for similar language is used in a figurative sense throughout Scripture (e.g., Gen 6:11; Ex 18:12; Deut 29:10, 14, 15; Josh 22:27, 24:1; 1 Sam 1:22; 1 Chron 13:8; Isaiah 19:1; Lam 2:19; Luke 1:6, 24:9; Acts 10:33; 2 Tim 4:1). Such expressions (e.g., “in the presence of the Lord” or “before the Lord”) were commonly used among the Hebrew writers when anything was done by divine appointment, or on an especially solemn occasion.

Further evidence that the “nations” here represent Jewish people from all over the world is that the image of “sheep” and “goats” is used elsewhere in Scripture to represent the people of Israel (e.g., Eze 34:17-24). Here, they represent the faithful and unfaithful Jews of that time. The “sheep” correspond to the “faithful and wise servants” of Matt 24:45-47, the “wise virgins” of 25:1-13 and the “good and faithful servants” of vv. 14-23. The “goats” correspond to the “wicked servants” of Matt 24:48-51, the “foolish virgins” of 25:1-13, and the “wicked and slothful servant” of vv. 24-30. Those who endured faithful to the “end of the age” (i.e., the age under the Mosaic Law) in holding fast to the gospel and manifesting the fruit of their faith (i.e., the good deeds of which Christ speaks in vv. 35-36) were blessed with an inheritance in the spiritual kingdom that was then established (God’s reign in and among his New Covenant people), and thus entered into “life” along with all the believing Gentiles. Those who didn’t endure faithful to the end (or who never believed on Christ to begin with) faced severe judgment. It is these who were “cast out of the kingdom” into the “outer darkness” at this time.

We know from history that those Jews who did not escape this judgment of “eternal (age-abiding) fire” upon their nation by fleeing the capital city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area (as the Christians did), either perished within Jerusalem from starvation or the sword, or were “led captive among all nations” as exiles (Luke 21:24) and thus “cut off from the city” (Zech 14:1-2).***** In calling this national judgment by the Romans a “punishment,” Jesus is referring specifically to the fact that it resulted in the exile of the Jewish people from their land. In Lamentations 4:22, we read: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer.” The punishment of exile referred to in Lamentations lasted only 70 years; the one of which Christ spoke has lasted nearly 2,000 years, fully justifying his use of the qualifying adjective, aionios (“age-abiding”).

It may be objected that this judgment of “eternal fire” was said to be prepared for “the devil and his angels,” and must consequently be at some future time since only human beings were judged in the overthrow of the Jewish nation. The assumption behind this objection is that “the devil and his angels” cannot refer to humans, but must refer instead to rebel supernatural beings. This assumption, however, is erroneous. Though space forbids us from going into an in-depth study of these words, we may note that the word translated “angel” simply means “messenger,” “minister,” “emissary,” or “agent,” and is used to describe both human and supernatural beings. It does not describe a nature but an office or function. It refers to human beings in at least the following places in the NT: Matt 3:1; 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52; Phil 2:25; 2 Cor 8:23; James 2:25; Rev 2:1, 18; 3:1, 7, 14.

Similarly, the word translated “devil” (diabolos) is not the proper name or title of a single person or being, but is an ordinary word meaning “slanderer,” “liar” or “false accuser.” Any person or corporate entity that slanders or falsely accuses another may be styled a “devil” (John 6:70; 1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 3:3; Titus 2:3; Rev 2:10). The use of the definite article (Gk: ho) is no objection to the view that a human slanderer/accuser is in view here, as we have conclusive evidence from the LXX that the definite article used together with the word “devil” was used by the Jews themselves to refer to a definite, but mortal and human, adversary. In the LXX translation of Esther, we read the following:

The phrase “the slanderer” is the Greek phrase ho diabolos (the enemy or accuser). What is the identity of ho diabolos in this passage? The next two verses provide the answer:

The identity of “the devil” (ho diabolos) here is Haman, the entirely mortal human enemy of the Jews. When Christ spoke the words recorded in Matt 25, the religious representatives of the Jewish nation (i.e., the high priest, chief priests and elders of the people - see Matt 26:3-5, which immediately follows this discourse) were his primary opposition and false accusers. The “devil” or “slanderer” of whom Christ spoke in this passage was likely the wicked high priest himself, with the chief priests and elders of the people being his “angels” (i.e., his messengers, ministers or agents). As they were responsible for instigating Jesus’ death (and consequently bore the greatest guilt), the judgment that fell upon the Jewish nation could be said to have been prepared especially for them. An alternative, though similar, understanding is that “the devil” refers to the religious leaders of Israel as a collective whole (embracing the high priest as well as the chief priests and elders of the people), with the devil’s “angels” being the unbelieving people of Israel in general - i.e., those who were neither “sheep” nor “goats” (assuming the “sheep” and “goats” refer to the faithful and unfaithful Jewish Christians, respectively).

*****Although I’m not all that convinced of it, some believe Christ was alluding to this passage from Zechariah when he spoke of “all the nations”:

“Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.” Zech 14:1-2 (cf. Luke 21:20-24).

This portion of Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled when Jerusalem finally fell to the Romans under General Titus at the climax of the Jewish-Roman wars. If Christ was indeed referring to Zechariah 14 (see also Zech 14:5 and compare with Matt 24:16), then the gathering of “all the nations” would have included not only the people of Israel but the Roman armies as well (which were made up of soldiers from all the various nations Rome had conquered; cf. Luke 2:1).

Hi Jason,

Perhaps I just have amnesia, but I don’t recall having already made “an argument for a preterist understanding of Matt 25” prior to what I posted on this thread, so I’m not really sure I understand what you’re suggesting above. Are you saying I should have posted my interpretation of Matt 25 elsewhere and provided a link to it on this thread?

As I’m sure you’re aware, this passage is one of the primary proof-texts raised in opposition to universalism. To completely remove this passage from the partialist’s “arsenal” (which I believe my interpretation does quite well) is a pretty substantial blow to the doctrine of endless punishment. So, I must respectfully disagree with your assertion that my “argument doesn’t have much to do with universalism vs. non-universalism.” I think it has a lot to do with it.

Why is it necessary or preferred to interpret this passage as having a multi-level prophetic fulfillment? I think a single fulfillment works just fine. And as I’ve noted elsewhere on this forum, even those who believe that certain prophecies (the Olivet Discourse, for instance) should be understood as having more than one fulfilment (e.g., a primary and a secondary) would agree that not all or even most prophecies in Scripture should be thus understood. In fact, I’d say that while there are numerous examples in Scripture of prophecies that clearly have (and can only have) a single fulfilment in history, there are few undisputed examples of prophecies having double (let alone multiple or “cyclical”) fulfilments. I think this fact alone should caution us against assuming that any given prophecy has, or might have, more than one fulfilment. Unless we are given some kind of revelation or inspired commentary in Scripture on how a prophecy has been fulfilled in more than one sense, I don’t think we’re in a position to assume that any prophecy has more than one fulfilment, or to speculate on how it might. While some might see a lack of such revelation or inspired commentary as giving the reader a certain amount of freedom to view any prophecy they choose as having multiple fulfilments, I think the exact opposite is the case. Instead of speculating beyond what is written, I believe every prophecy which Scripture does not reveal as having been fulfilled should be viewed by the reader in the simplest and most straight-forward way possible (taking into account, of course, various Hebrew idioms, figures of speech, etc.) - i.e., as pointing to a single period or event in history. Otherwise, each additional prophetic fulfilment on which one speculates inevitably makes all fulfilments that much less specific, and consequently that much more difficult to confirm as having had (or as ever having) an actual, historical fulfilment.

Moreover, it seems to be the case that the idea of multiple fulfilments is unjustifiably imposed upon certain prophetic texts simply because the reader already presupposed a future (and perhaps more “global”) fulfilment. Of course, it could perhaps be said that those who understand a prophecy as having a single fulfilment may do so because they already presuppose a past fulfilment - but I think if we’re going to err in our understanding of prophecy it should be because we did not go beyond that on which Scripture is silent in regards to there being more than one fulfilment, and not because we were involved in unjustified speculation (which I think would be the case if the language of the text itself does not demand more than one fulfilment - and of which I view the Olivet Discourse as being a prime example).

With that said, I’m curious as to know what part of my interpretation of Matt 25 you think relies “on the reality of multiple levels of prophetic fulfillment being a valid and proper way of interpreting OT prophecy.”

When I first became a universalist I believed that the promise to Abraham should be understood in an all-inclusive sense (and I’m aware that this is the common understanding among universalists today; this was also the view of a number of 19th century universalists whose writings significantly shaped my theology). However, I’ve since become of the opinion that the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant most likely pertains only to believers in this world - i.e., those whom (I believe) John is referring to when he speaks of certain people who were ransomed by the blood of Christ “from out of every tribe and language and people and nation…” (Rev 5:9)

Moreover, understanding the “all nations” of the Abrahamic promise in a limited sense is not all that necessary to my argument (nor does an inclusive understanding of this expression weaken my overall argument). Since you are of the opinion that it should be understood in an all-inclusive sense, then simply disregard this part of my argument (the earliest draft of what I’d written on Matt 25:46 didn’t even include it, if that says anything about how much importance I ascribe to it). I think my argument for a limited understanding of the expression “all nations” really derives its strength from the fact that Christ himself uses the expression in a limited sense twice before in this very context. :wink:

Hopefully that was meant as a joke! I seriously doubt anyone who’s read more than a page worth of what I’ve written on this forum since I joined would question for a moment my universalist convictions. In fact, I consider myself more of a “fundamentalist” in regards to the doctrine of UR than many of the posters on this forum, since I understand a belief in it to be essential to a right understanding of the Gospel.

Hi Jason,

You wrote:

To which I responded:

I find the above assertion by you (although rather vague) to be quite significant, so some elaboration on what you meant would be greatly appreciated!