by Riley O’Brien Powell, MDiv, Ed M, 2011
Early in my journey to a past fulfillment or preterist view of Scripture, I had the question, “How could the mainstream church have been so wrong for so long about eschatology?” I asked the question this way, because I held to the presupposition that God wouldn’t let the mainstream western church body be in error about something as significant as the coming of Jesus for “most” of history.
I had the perspective that the majority of Christian thinkers, we often call them ‘Church Fathers,’ who have been interpreting Scripture and deciding truth and doctrine for the Church, have been right about… nearly everything. And I was taught that what the Early Fathers and Catholic church were wrong about, surely the Reformers fixed. And if they had missed something big, certainly someone would have pointed out their error by now. And if someone had pointed out their error, surely the mainstream of Christians would have embraced this correction. So I would have heard of it by now.”
To accept that the mainstream of Christian believers could miss or lose a Biblical view of eschatology for so long would turn my view of history – and how God works in history – on its head.
Why did I think what I did? It was mostly due to the presuppositions I held about God and time. If humanity is nearing the end of history – and most of my life I thought it was – then God should have given us all the answers by now, right? It only made sense. What would be the point of God allowing us to miss the truth and believe error for most of history?
But if all of Bible prophecy has been fulfilled, and we’re living in the everlasting New Covenant age, then we’re just at the very beginning of church history. And if we’re still just starting out, as it were, then it makes sense that we’re only at the starting point of our learning. We’re still biting on the basics of what it means to know God. Maybe the church fathers are just the starting point of our understanding all there is to know about God in Scripture. In which case, the Church “Fathers” are more accurately likened to Church “Babes”.
Looking back at church history from a distance, it’s easy to paint in broad strokes and to see the church as the source of good and truth in the world. As in, the leader of justice movements rather than the oppressor, the ones on ‘God’s side’ of an issue. Sometimes this is true, but very often in history it hasn’t been the case. The church has been late to the ‘truth and justice party’ on a number of issues, ranging from human rights to scientific matters.
In fact, many beliefs that the mainstream catholic and protestant church holds as truth were first considered heresy. And the only reason the church changed its position was because a small group of people acted on their convictions about Scripture and God and made incredible sacrifices for the sake of truth. And that small group of people, fueled by their passion for truth, made a difference, and became a large group of people. For better or worse, this is how we came to believe what we believe today.
But before the victories for truth, there was opposition.
Here’s a short-list of five landmark examples of ideas that the church once thought were heretical, but which it now accepts as truth. These are currently accepted church errors that each took a long time to fix. But, thankfully, nearly all believers today, admit that these past beliefs are untrue and that the church’s treatment of the people who opposed them was unjust. All five of these categories begin with the letter “S” which helps me remember them.
1. Slavery (and it’s sisters, Segregation and Anti-Semitism)
Do you believe in slavery? Would you hire a pro-segregation pastor? Would you attend a church that banned attendees of a different race? It’s likely that you would view a pro-segregation or pro-slavery pastor today as someone who needed to turn in his badge and get some psycho-therapy and a lot of prayer.
Why did Christians in the past believe in – and preach – slavery and segregation from the Bible? One reason is found in Scripture. Paul seems to advocate slavery in some of his New Testament teachings, like this one:
1 Corinthians 7:17, 21, 24
“17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches…21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you…each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
This verse, and others like it, have been used to support the institution of slavery, around the world, and in America. However, looking closely at the context of this passage, one recognizes that the key to understanding what Paul is saying here is in the imminent time statements. Negligence of the imminence and the original context of Paul’s words regarding slavery have caused people to lose sight of their relevance to the original audience to whom they were written. These words have been used to justify immeasurable pain in countless people’s lives. Here are the coordinating key time statements.
1 Corinthians 7:26, 29, 31b
“26 Because of the PRESENT CRISIS, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is…
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the TIME IS SHORT…31b For THE PRESENT FOR OF THIS WORLD IS PASSING AWAY .” [emphasis mine]
Paul explains his reasoning for his command about slaves remaining in their current position rather than gaining their freedom is that he knew the time was short. He is teaching this because he believed that his world was passing away very soon. So because the world as we know it is still here, we must ask, what world is Paul talking about? I believe a close examination of Scripture reveals that he is talking about the passing of the Old Covenant world or age.
When did Paul believe this would happen? Based on Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse and Peter’s teaching that they were in the Last Days, that is, in the 30’s AD, Paul knew that the Old Covenant age would end before that generation of believers passed away. This is his consistent message through all of his teaching. Based upon Jesus’ same teaching, Paul also knew the End would be preceded by the Great Tribulation. So, Paul’s advice to his fellow believers was to focus on preparing for this ‘Day of the Lord’ by focusing on God, and not fighting to gain freedom. It seems he believed this spiritual focus would increase their chances to survive what they were about to go through.
Paul uses similar apocalyptic reasoning towards the Roman church regarding being submissive to their government’s institutions as well.
“11Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore….”
Paul’s message was explicitly apocalyptic. He believed the end was near. And his teaching was taken to heart by the Romans and Corinthians in light of the soon coming disaster that was on their horizon (Christians fled to Pella). Paul was not endorsing slavery as an institution for all people in all times, nor was he condemning government reform. He was not reversing God’s larger message about a just and merciful use of power, which rules out slavery and oppression. God made a bold statement against slavery as demonstrated in setting the Israelites free in the Exodus, the great climax of the Old Testament.
So if the church is wrong to use these verses to justify slavery, then what is an example of a right way to apply them to us today? Through his message to the Roman and Corinthian churches, Paul was demonstrating that, for one, he took Jesus’ teaching about the coming Tribulation as truth – for them. And two, God confirmed the same warning through Paul as he did through Jesus, and the same timing, too. If we believe that what they said would happen actually happened, then this is a great confirmation of their authenticity and lends credibility to our faith. In the text, Paul says his answer to their question was from the Lord. I am more apt to believe him, given that he was accurately warning people about the approaching Great Tribulation and end of the Old Covenant Age.
Returning to our American context, even after slavery was abolished in the United States in the 1860’s, segregation was the official norm until the 1960’s (and sadly it continues today most distinctly in churches). Segregation was promoted, and inter-racial marriages were condemned in Bible-based, futurist preaching. I say distinctly futurist preaching, based upon their own admission.
For example, conservative Christian college, Bob Jones University, in SC, only repealed their ban on inter-racial DATING as of the year 2000. In an interview with CNN, then college President, Bob Jones III said he couldn’t back up the ban on inter-racial dating with a Bible verse. Then why did he enforce it?
Jones said the university first implemented the dating ban more than five decades ago, “because we were trying…to enforce something, a principle…We stand against the one world government, against the coming world of the antichrist. The principle upon which it was based is very important, but the rule is not. So we did away with it. We realize that an interracial marriage is not going to bring in the world of antichrist.”’ (CNN U.S., March 30th, 2000 http://articles.cnn.com/2000-03-04)
It’s interesting that an institution would base their race-based dating policy on a fear rising out of their eschatology. If only Bob Jones had known that the world of the antichrist, Caesar Nero (whose name in Hebrew numerology adds up to 666, who ruled during the 3 ½ year Great Tribulation, and who church fathers have taught was the anti-christ for 2000 years) has come and gone.
For the majority of believers in the world today, it seems there has been a shift away from accepting that God endorses racism, and away from using Scripture to support it. This didn’t come without a fight, however. The institutional church was forced to reassess how it viewed the teachings of certain Scriptures in the Bible and how they relate to the overall message of love for neighbor and the imago Dei. Unfortunately, without a contextual and past fulfillment view of Paul’s teaching, rejecting what he said about slavery as simply being racist and about an imminent ‘End’ as being wrong, has discredited him, Jesus and Scripture.
Let’s dig deeper into history and look at another of the 5 S’s.
Do you believe sexual desire between spouses is evil? Would you attend a church that preached it was only allowable for married couples to engage in love-making when they were trying to conceive a child? No?
Would it surprise you to hear that this was the unanimous the position of the Church Fathers and Catholic church rules until the early 1900’s? Some church fathers even taught that love-making in marriage, unless trying to conceive a child, was a sin, and should be punishable by death. Reformers Calvin and Wesley also had dire things to say about marital sexuality or filial love. These views also fueled negative views towards women as the ‘temptresses’ or causes of ‘sinful’ desires.
Why the hate? Their cultural paradigms and indoctrination colored the way they read scripture.
1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-7, 29, 35
“1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband… 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am…
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not … For this world in its present form is passing away… 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Paul’s teaching was pertinent to them because they were the people upon whom the ‘ends of the ages’ had come (1 Cor 10:11). The coming destruction by the Roman armies that would sweep away the unwatchful, just as the waters of the flood swept away the unrighteous, were on their horizon. Jesus himself said it would be worse for nursing mothers. And women can only become nursing mothers when they procreate. So Paul’s warning makes sense in light of Jesus’ teaching. Part of Paul’s mission was to relay Jesus’ message and help them survive their hour of trial.
Today pastors teach the opposite about married sexuality to couples based upon a different understanding of Paul’s teaching. Most protestant pastors I’ve heard on the topic of sexuality teach that couples should NOT stop coming together except for special cases of intense prayer, and only for a limited time. They teach about the blessing of marriage and the importance of nurturing all aspects of married love as a safeguard against unchastity. How different our views are on this topic nowadays – and we’ve been reading the SAME scriptures all these years!
Do you believe that the Bible teaches, scientifically, that the EARTH is the CENTER of the universe, and that the sun revolves around the earth, because some verses in the Bible seem to suggest this? The book of poetry, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that, “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” and was used to “prove” geo-centrism (earth-centered universe) and call helio-centrism (sun-centered universe) heretical for thousands of years.
Geocentrism was the orthodox teaching of the Church for most of the past two thousand years. Early Church Fathers, such as Origen, argued against the truth of helio-centrism, or a sun-centered universe, put forth by the Greeks in the 3rd century. This debate raged long before Copernicus’ predictive mathematical model proving helio-centrism in the 16th century. Copernicus’ heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed. Copernicus initiated the Scientific Revolution, which was continued by Galileo. Galileo’s heliocentric theory of circular orbits was further refined by Kepler, and his theory of elliptical orbits. This is the view that the modern scientific community holds today based on proof ascertained by measuring the parallaxes of stars and based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
For most of church history, Church doctrine taught that certain verses in Scripture meant that the earth is the center of the universe, and the sun revolves around it. Eventually the church came to accept that scriptures which say that the “sun rises in the east and sets in the west” were poetic ways of speaking from one’s point of view, descriptively. And the author was not trying to assert a scientific truth, prescriptively.
Would it surprise you to know that people were persecuted, put on house arrest and excommunicated for questioning the church’s belief of geocentrism? Helio-centrism was seen as contradicting the Bible until the Scientific Revolution changed the church and the way it viewed the world.
Today most, but not all, people agree that the earth revolves around the sun. Because of the independent thinking and sacrifice of a few, the church has progressed. But it was a process, and the change was built on the cumulative work of many thinkers building off of each other’s work over time. It seems that this is one way God likes to teach us; giving many people different pieces of the puzzle over time and forcing us to work together to come to the best conclusions. (As a sidenote, a 1999 Gallup Poll showed that 18% of Americans still believe the sun revolves around the earth, despite how things appear. This is mostly among conservative Christian and Jewish groups who advocate and indoctrinate this idea today based on a “literal” reading of several verses. Source: Wikipedia).
Do you believe that it should be illegal for lay-people to own a copy of the Bible and read it? Can you imagine living in a time when it was against the law – the Church law of the official state religion – to own a Bible? Welcome to the Middle Ages in Europe. This was the position of the Church until the 1600’s. Many people were burned alive simply for advocating that lay people ought to be able to read their own a Bible. For most of Church history, clergy gave only themselves the right to read the Bible. They had exclusive rights to interpret what it said (hence the selling of indulgences, and purgatory, etc). Today pastors teach the opposite. In fact, many people feel guilty if they don’t read the Bible everyday and do ‘devotionals’.
To give more detail on this, in the 1300s, John Wycliffe was an orthodox Roman Catholic with a doctorate in theology who took issues with certain Roman Catholic beliefs. He believed that the Bible alone contained the truth. He did not agree with papal infallibility or the doctrine of “transubstantiation.” He was considered to be a precursor to the Reformation.
Wycliffe also produced the first complete English version of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, making Scripture available to the common man. This was considered a heresy at the time. Having a Bible was heretical. The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe in 1415 to be a heretic and under the ban of the Church. Because Wycliffe was considered a heretic, the Catholics dug up his dead buried bones and burned them for opposing the Roman Catholic Church’s authority.
Can you imagine? It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed in 1428. At the command of Pope Martin V, his remains were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth. (source: Wiki)
Do you believe that you need to do things or pay money to earn your salvation? Church lost sight of salvation by grace for a long time and only recovered it in the 1600’s. It was only after the sacrifice and insistence of a few, based upon their convictions from scripture, that the Church recovered the idea of salvation by grace through faith. Those who, like Martin Luther, read New Testament letters themselves and saw a message of salvation different from the institution, were threatened with their lives.
This one, in particular, struck me: How could the church lose sight of ‘Salvation by grace alone’ – the very heart of Jesus’ message? How could this happen? Furthermore, attempts to recover it were adamantly opposed by the Church and the mainstream of believers for a long time. When Reformers tried to recover it, arguing from Scripture alone, they were met with great opposition. The heart of the Gospel was recovered through great sacrifice and bloodshed. The call to reform to get back to the basics, the Solas, set off an entire Reformation against the established beliefs, mainstream practices and institutionalized ‘truths’ of the church.
This paradigm shift – the Protestant Reformation – was forged into the mainstream of Christianity and into the minds of believers, by force- against the established norms. Today, Protestants see that Scripture plainly teaches that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith, which is a free gift from God. In other words, once again, today pastors are teaching the opposite doctrine from that which the church unanimously taught as truth for hundreds of years of Christianity (and which still continues in the Roman Catholic Church today, which, on a worldwide scale, is larger than all Protestant denominations combined).
Looking back, many Christians today would agree that these changes – big, vast, scary to the original people experiencing them – were necessary improvements in Christian belief and doctrine. Most importantly, these changes give modern believers access to a clearer picture of Scriptural understanding. It is more Scripturally accurate to believe that God loves all races equally, that God delights when married couples enjoy the marriage bed, that God wants all of his people to study the Scriptures. I believe God, as the ultimate scientist, supports human scientific discovery because all creation bears witness to the glory of God. I believe the heart of Jesus’ message, and the consistent belief of every New Testament writer, is that salvation – making friendship with God through faith in Messiah – is a free gift of God’s grace, open to all to receive.
I hope these “Five S’s” serve to remind us how far we’ve come, and cause us to be open to reflecting upon the necessary changes we need to embrace in the future. Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with just a small handful of the church’s former erroneous beliefs, hopefully we can more clearly see that the church is a work in progress.
When I assess church issues today, I think of these past mistakes and they humble me. What are we not seeing today? What beliefs do we hold today that the church will teach the opposite about in the future? Well, preterism, for one. It is time for a major paradigm shift in the church so we can get on with doing and being the Gospel and loving a world in need. Lets not waste any more time waiting in a holding pattern for someone else to come down and fix things for us.
North Korea and Indoctrination
I recently watched a well-done National Geographic documentary about people’s lives and beliefs in North Korea. It depicts the shocking horrors of human rights abuses happening there to millions of innocent people. They are indoctrinated from birth to worship, revere and never question their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. Despite the desperate conditions, starvation and torture, which keep people controlled, they praise their leader for everything good in their lives as if it came from his hand. They worship his image the way that a charismatic church in America worships Jesus with clapping, jumping and praises. This reminded me that mass indoctrination is real. Its alive an well in the world today and seeing its abuses should serve to remind us that we are no smarter or stronger against it than they.
Kim Jong Il completely controled the minds and hearts of the people in his country [when he was alive ans even after]. If someone was suspected of questioning his regime, he employed the Rule of Three Generations, which empowered him to send you, and three generations of your family to suffer in concentration camps like those from Nazi Germany in the 1940’s. The only books they were allowed to have in their humble homes were the books the “Dear Leader” wrote. The only pictures they have on their walls are of – guess who? Their Dear Leader. They are not allowed cell phones or internet or any contact with the “polluted” outside world. If you look on a Google World Map, the entire country is blacked out.
What astonished me about this situation is the power that, even today, one person, with a well organized regime, can have to completely control the beliefs of an entire nation of modern individuals. This is the 21st century! How is this still happening? How can one regime control all of what people believe is true and real and how they see the world? It is a grim reminder of what power, fear and the ‘herd effect’ can do to control people’s beliefs.
The most shocking part of Lisa Ling’s rare interviews with North Koreans was what they said when she asked them what they thought of their isolate kingdom. They answered with such heart-felt emotion that many begin to cry just talking about it. They said they were the luckiest people in the world! Why? They believe they are the luckiest people in the world because they have been told to feel that way. If they Question anything, they will be punished. And they don’t really know anything else – like true freedom.
When it seems that everyone around you believes the same thing, and that every message you get on a topic is in agreement, it can feel true. And feelings are powerful to control our thoughts and decisions. Our brains can become wired to believe that it is true and our hearts get emotionally attached to these ideas. This is what most Christians’ experience with futurism. It’s all they’ve ever heard, beginning with their parents teaching, to their Sunday school and church, to songs, books, movies and images – all powerful influences from the same perspective. They form one, unified message.
That is, I believe, the main reason why most Christian readers of Scripture are blind to the more than 100 time statements in Scripture pertaining to ‘the time of the end’ of the Old Covenant – not the end of time. Each of those time statements are 100% imminent to the first century audience. Yet, we pass right by them or explain them away instead of considering that they might have meant… exactly what they said. Interestingly, the same people who claim to take the Bible “literally” (which is a relative cultural construct that doesn’t really exist, but anyway…) are the same people who often choose to explain away the imminent and consistent time statements.
If most of Christianity has been indoctrinated with futurism, then none of us are coming at this issue from a neutral or objective stand-point. Like the North Koreans, our objectivity is being controlled by a larger narrative that was handed to us. We were brain washed into one kind of thinking: futurism. And its time to break free. Or at least consider Question the beliefs that were handed to you in one seemingly unified chorus and give a Fulfilled view a full investigation. Thousands of people are questioning the system that was handed to us, and waking up to the validity of this view. After much skepticism and study, I did. It was the best thing that happened to my faith! Most of us feel like this is the best taste of true freedom we’ve had in a long time.
What strikes me as hopeful about this issue with the futurist indoctrination of Christianity, is that, one notable author and teacher who presents a comparative view of preterism to churches over a three month period of time, said that ¾ of people who hear the message explained thoroughly, come to see it in Scripture and believe it. This is astonishing! This suggests to me that most Christians today are futurist because they simply don’t know that there is an alternative, much less a phenomenal alternative. And those who are aware of preterism – even scholarly pastors and academics – I can tell by their questions and objections that they do not really understand it. They are too bus believing they are the luckiest people in the world.
This is one reason why more people don’t see a Fulfilled Salvation view of Scripture. They have a lack of exposure to the possibility and knowledge of what was fulfilled, how and when. I’ll admit, it is quite a shift. It requires patience, study and re-learning. It may mean feeling disoriented at first for some. For others, it feels like Good News and freedom right away. That is why I would like to see a Fulfilled View on the radar of Christians today. Preterism has never had its day in court. Proverbs 18:17 says “The first to present his case seems right until the cross-examination begins.” It’s time for futurism to get “Cross” examined.
Reading early Christian writers, and even Reformation writers, I’m becoming more aware of the competing forces that they were responding to as they did theology. Well, there were the Dark Ages, when most were just praying to survive, and no one had a Bible of the own, or the ability to read it. For nearly 1500 years the church granted itself the power to torture or kill anyone who disagreed with them. When we ask what people in the past believed, this over-riding force cannot be ignored. We have a tendency to think that people of past ages had the benefits we have like freedom to question, literacy, access to Bibles and scholarship. But this isn’t the case.
The European world looked much more like North Korea in times past. This is why I get frustrated with educated people who ask, “Well if Preterism is true, then why didn’t more people in the past believe it?” Ugh. Why didn’t more people in the past believe the earth was round? Why didn’t more people believe helio-centrism? Why didn’t more people in the past believe women and men and all races deserved equal treatment? Why didn’t more people…the list could go on. We’re at the mercy of others to teach us things in life. When those others are not working with all the information, they make wrong conclusions and teach us poorly. When we get better information, we have a choice. We can take the reigns and learn something new or bury our heads in the sand.
There was a conflagration of limiting factors were at work stifling past theologian’s access to good perspectives. For example, most early church fathers didn’t know Hebrew. AND they were anti-semitic! Can you imagine? Men who didn’t know Hebrew had the authority to interpret the New Testament! No wonder they didn’t see the Old Testament allusions and symbolism there. No wonder they didn’t seem to constantly ask how a first century Hebrew would have understood a given passage. Their anti-Semitism stopped them from sitting at the feet of Jews and learning about their Hebrew Covenant, Hebrew language, Hebrew symbolism.
While talking about the Bible, a Jewish friend once asked me, “You know we read the Scrptures on three levels at once, right?” And she went on to tell me about the literal, moral and spiritual levels that many preterists today call reading the Bible in a “covenant context”. I had been around Bible teaching my whole life and didn’t know about this. It made me wonder if that’s how the Bible was intended to be read and how much we’ve missed as Christians by not doing this.
The three levels are essentially the literal level, or the basic story, the moral level and the spiritual-covenantal level. Jesus was Jewish and he read and taught the Scriptures as an ancient Jew would. When I re-read the Gospels with a multi-dimensional covenant context in mind, it impresses me how much more sense it makes.
But going back to the Early Church Fathers, they were expected to interpret Hebrew soaked Scriptures and yet they didn’t have many of the same tools we have access to today, like language skills or the benefits of the Enlightenment and other movements that effect how we discern truth today. When you look at what else the Early Church Fathers believed, I don’t think most Christians today would hire the Early Church Fathers in their church, or schools or let them near their children. Consider that Origen castrated himself because of an overly literal interpretation of two verses in Matthew. Based upon that alone, I would not want him teaching an adult Sunday School class at my church!
The point is, that the Early Church Fathers’ erroneous beliefs about what it means to be a human made in the image of God, about healthy sexuality, about science and the laws of nature, about salvation and grace and about Scripture, and their other limitations, did not operate like independent variables, separate from their views on eschatology. They were correlated ideas. What they saw, or failed to see in Scripture, arose from a particularly cultural and limited paradigm. You can’t expect someone who thinks the Bible supports works-based salvation, racism, geo-centrism, no sex in marriage, and no Scriptures for lay-people, to have a flawless eschatology. That’s not the way thinking works. The variables, regarding one’s eyes of understanding, are correlated. A limited paradigm, that is, one that doesn’t include enough of the critical pieces of information, simply won’t get you to a good understanding of the whole. Since no one person can know ‘all’ of the pieces, the question is, when do we have enough of them to support a ‘good’ understanding?
Theologian Louis Berkof, who spent his life studying early church theology and history, in his History of Christian Doctrines exaplains that eschatology was not a focus of the Church Father’s attention, it is not incorporated into any historic church confessions and it remains one the least developed doctrines in traditional Christianity. Though deviating views sometimes occupy a portion of one’s discussion, no one fully explains it. Even the Reformers Calvin and Luther wrote a commentary on every book of the Bible except Revelation. Berkof says it is high time for us to deal with this long neglected doctrine of eschatology.
So where are we now? Do we have all of the pieces yet? Are we equipped to make good sense of Biblical eschatology? We may not be perfect, but we are at a better vantage point than ever to understand eschatology and revise the work of the people who thought about this topic before us.
Scrutinize Second Century Slip-ups
What should we do now? Well, if I were to add another “S” to the list, it would be for “Scrutinize Second Century Slip-ups”. What I mean is that I see this as one starting point for a solution to the question, ‘How did we get to where we are in eschatology today?’ It appears that even the first and second century believers struggled to understand eschatology correctly. Even Peter, in 2 Peter 3:16, written in the 60’s, said these were “difficult” things to understand – and he was taught by Jesus himself. Beyond that, Peter was the one tapped to start the church! So if the leadership was confused from the beginning, perhaps it now lands in our laps to sort things out.
According to Ed Stevens, “The early church believed very strongly that Christ and His Church was the fulfillment of all prophecy as best as they understood it, [though] they still had some materialistic concepts, unfortunately.” Stevens believes these overly literal-physicalizing tendencies were leftover from Judaism, Paganism, Gnosticism that had already started, Greek philosophy and Greek-Hebrew Syncritists such as Philo. And that these competing influences caused the early church to shift away from the realized concepts. At the same time, any attention that might have been given to developing a good understanding of difficult eschatological ideas was quickly eclipsed by the more central matters of their time, namely coming to an understanding of the nature of God and Jesus, which became the Trinitarian wars.
So, development of eschatology was put on the shelf. The second century theologians began to wrestle with the time statements of Scripture, rather than come to a more covenantal and spiritual understanding of the nature of their fulfillment. So this is where the preterists come into the picture today. The preterist movement is calling traditional Christians to go back to Scripture, and seek a more consistent understanding regarding Jesus’ return; one that starts from the perspective that asks, “Where does it take us if we assume that Jesus was right about the timing of his return?” Rather than assuming that Jesus – and all the Apostles – were wrong about Jesus’ plain, repeated, literal claim to an imminent return to that first century generation.
I keep coming back to the simple fact that 100% of over 100 time statements in Scripture promise an imminent return of Jesus to that generation. Consistently, they also promise an imminent resurrection and an imminent judgment, addressed to that generation of first century believers to whom the letters of Scripture were written. I have found that re-examining eschatology from a ‘what-if-Jesus-was-right?’ stand-point brings us to a very good, hopeful place, that has exciting implications for our salvation and for our role in the transformation of our world, our culture and politics. It calls us out of a holding-pattern mentality where we’re waiting to be rescued off the planet, and into engagement with a world in transformation.
The Biblical text is clear and consistent. Both Daniel and all New Testament Apostles are 100% consistent in preaching a first century fulfillment of all things, with a growing sense of imminence in the language leading right up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. Even the Dead Sea Scroll writers speak of the imminent end of their world just before AD70. And the book of Enoch, which was one of the most plentiful works found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, was kicked out of the western Biblical canon for supposedly ‘incorrectly’ predicting the ‘consummation of all things’ would be in AD70. Are these coincidences?
I think its interesting that a more Hebrew and contextual reading of the New Testament is what leads many to a preterist understanding. This makes me wonder if the mainstream churches missed a fulfilled view of eschatology for most of the past 2000 years because of the church’s anti-semitism, and resulting lack of Hebrew perspective of New Testament Scripture. Is misunderstanding eschatology a natural consequence of this sinful attitude? Did it blind us? Is it judgment from God for the church’s overwhelming anti-semitism?
On the one hand, some of the early church fathers who were taking Jesus’ teaching too literally were operating out of leftover pagan and Jewish tendencies. An overly literal and materialistic interpretation of OT Scripture caused many Jews to not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps it was this same overly literal physical interpretive tendency that caused early church writers to lose sight of the fulfillment of eschatology.
Now I see that it is possible and even most probable that the church let erroneous beliefs about the nature and timing of Christ’s Parousia slip into the church. To err is human, this is why Thomas Jefferson said every generation needs a revolution. Every generation gathers new information, so it is healthy to question old beliefs, or to even scrap them, get out a blank piece of paper and rebuild one’s beliefs from the bottom up. If we end up in the same place we began, then great. But if not, then it is an opportunity to change directions and make better choices for our children and those who follow us. Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants, but other times we realize that we’re all still just crawling, like babies, and we haven’t yet learned to walk.
It is high time for a re-examination of traditional options in eschatology. I hope I’ve provided you with some motivation to look back into Scripture and history and question the traditional view of the mainstream church.
God challenged me, as He is challenging countless people right now, to take Jesus at his word. To see that what Jesus promised would come to that first century generation, truly came on time to that generation of people to whom Jesus spoke. Jesus fulfilled his promise, both to return to that generation, and to fulfill his mission within the span of one natural lifetime, from 0 to 70AD, through the cross and the parousia. And, his mission is continuing to be fulfilled through us, his resurrected church body, in the world today.
History of Christian Doctrine, p.259
Early Teaching of Last Things, Ed Stevens, Seminar at Valley Forge, PA, 1993, MP3.
Audio of this Presentation on the radio show AD70.net, which is now Rev23 radio.