The past several decades have witnessed the dramatic rise of preterism within Protestant evangelicalism. That being said, what is preterism? The term preterism is derived from the Latin praeteritum meaning ‘the past’ and resultantly refers to the eschatological view that most if not all New Testament prophecy was fulfilled in the past, namely the first century A.D. Generally speaking, preterists fall into two camps – partial preterism or full preterism. Although partial preterists insist that the bulk of New Testament prophecy was fulfilled via the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, they, to their credit, do hold to the absolute essentials of an orthodox Christian eschatology. Hence, their eschatology can be reckoned as being within the pale of orthodoxy. In contradistinction, full preterists insist that all New Testament prophecy was fulfilled via the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 – including the five essential tenets. Put plainly, the over-realized general eschatology of the full preterist is unorthodox and heretical.
Although partial preterism does fall within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, any eschatological paradigm that is predominantly characterized by preterism is to a certain degree inconsistent with the principles of the Protestant Reformation. Why? John W. Robbins astutely observes that virtually all of the magisterial Reformers expressed complete unanimity with regard to three things:
The Reformers came to a united understanding of the sovereignty of God in predestination….2. The Reformers came to a united understanding of justification by faith alone. They unanimously upheld its primacy and centrality in the Christian theology….3. The Reformers came to a united understanding that it was the work of Antichrist to oppose and corrupt the glorious Gospel truth of justification by faith alone. To the Reformers, justification by faith alone was the great truth upon which the church stood or fell. To take this away was to take away the very life of the church. No greater harm could be done than to rob the church of justification by faith. And since the religious establishment [i.e. Catholic Rome] of their day opposed the great Reformation doctrine, the Reformers unitedly declared that that revered religious establishment was Antichrist [brackets mine].
For over two centuries, virtually all Protestants upheld the Reformed doctrine of papa Antichristus (Latin: ‘the pope is Antichrist’). This particular doctrine resulted from the consistent application of the Protestant principia (Latin: ‘first principles’) of sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. Clarence Larkin aptly describes the Protestant doctrine of papa Antichristus: “It is frequently called the Protestant interpretation because it regards Popery as explaining all that has been predicted of the Antichristian power. It was a powerful and formidable weapon in the hands of the leaders of the Reformation, and the conviction of its truthfulness nerved them to ‘love not their lives unto the death.’ It was the secret of the martyr heroism of the Sixteenth Century.” Simply put, papa Antichristus was a powerful and essential doctrine of the Protestant Reformation.
In contradistinction, one of the most prominent teachings of all forms of preterism is that the Antichrist was the Roman emperor Nero who persecuted the first-century Church and committed suicide in A.D. 68. Hypothetically speaking, had the Reformers been preterists, the Protestant Reformation would have never happened. Ronald Cooke aptly comments:
Had the Reformers been preterist in their approach to the book of Revelation and believed that the Antichrist was Nero (which teaching Gentry, DeMar and other…preterists uphold, although Calvin called this an old wife’s tale), there would have been no Protestant Reformation at all. Why? Because the Reformers main teaching called for separation from the Great Whore of Babylon, the mystical Antichrist at Rome, so that they would not commit spiritual fornication with the great prostitute church, which they all taught was still going on in the 16th century – long after the death of Nero!
In other words, without the doctrine of papa Antichristus, the Reformers would have lacked the theological impetus to separate from Catholic Rome. For this reason, I unashamedly assert that that any Protestant evangelical, whose eschatology is principally characterized by preterism, undermines the principles of the Protestant Reformation. The purpose of this work is twofold: (1) to demonstrate that full preterism fundamentally contradicts Scripture and is, thus, unorthodox and heretical, and (2) to equip the members of the Body of Christ in defending “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) against the heterodoxy of full preterism. Some of the following arguments can also be used to rebut partial preterism, but that is not the primary aim of this work.
Gary DeMar, a partial preterist, offers an ambiguous definition of preterism: “A preterist is someone who believes that certain prophecies have been fulfilled, that is, their fulfillment is in the past. For example, Floyd Hamilton, writes that there “are in the Old Testament 332 distinct predictions which are literally fulfilled in Christ.” All Christians are preterists regarding these prophecies since they believe they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jews who are still waiting for the promised Messiah are anti-preterists since they believe these prophetic passages have not been fulfilled.” See Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1999) viii. DeMar’s definition is misleading to a certain degree in that he does not restrict preterism, as the term is overwhelmingly understood, to the view that most if not all New Testament prophecy was fulfilled in the past, namely the first century A.D. DeMar is apparently attempting to influence fellow believers to embrace partial preterism by asserting that all Christians are ‘preterists’ (at least to a certain degree) in that they believe that Christ Jesus fulfilled the prophecies pertaining to His First Coming in the first-century A.D. However, this is not how the term is predominantly understood. Kenneth Gentry offers a far more helpful definition of preterism. As pertains to the book of Revelation, he defines preterism in the following manner: “‘Preterism’ holds that the bulk of John’s prophecies occur in the first century, soon after his writing of them. Though the prophecies were in the future when John wrote and when his original audience read them, they are now in our past.” See Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “A Preterist View of Revelation.” In Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Sam Hamstra, Jr., C. Marvin Pate, and Robert L. Thomas, Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 37. Similarly, R.C. Sproul, another partial preterist, offers a helpful definition for preterism: “Preterists argue not only that the kingdom [of God] is a present reality, but also that in a real historical sense the parousia [Christ’s coming]….We may distinguish between two distinct forms of preterism, which I call radical preterism [i.e. full preterism] and moderate preterism [i.e. partial preterism]. Radical preterism sees all future prophecies of the New Testament as having already taken place, while moderate preterism still looks to the future for crucial events to occur.” See Robert C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 24.
What are the absolute essentials of an orthodox general eschatology on which all genuine believers must agree? There are five such essentials: (1) a future bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ in victory; (2) a future bodily resurrection of all believers for glory; (3) a future bodily resurrection of all unbelievers for reprobation; (4) a future, final judgment for believers and unbelievers; and (5) the eternal state, consisting of both an eternal hell for the reprobate and the eternal New Heavens and New Earth for believers. As long as a believer upholds all five of these fundamental tenets, his or her general eschatology may, generally speaking, be considered orthodox.
There are two primary divisions within the field of biblical eschatology (lit. study of the last things): personal eschatology and general eschatology. Personal eschatology concerns the last things which will occur with relation to individual believers and unbelievers, such as death, the intermediate state, and their eternal destiny. General eschatology concerns the last things which will occur on a macrocosmic scale, such as the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection, the final judgment, and the eternal state.
The ‘magisterial’ reformers were the more mainstream members of the Protestant Reformation, including such reformers as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, and John Knox.
John W. Robbins, “Antichrist 1999,” Trinity Review 171 (May/June 1999): 1. I would also add that the magisterial Reformers, as well as the Swiss & South German Anabaptists, expressed unanimous agreement regarding the Protestant principium (i.e. first principle) of sola Scriptura – which can be defined as the truth that Scripture (which is the inspired, infallible, & inerrant Word of God) is the sole authority of faith & practice for the believer.
Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011), 5.
Ronald Cooke, The Unmitigated Twaddle of Jesuit-Romanist Preterism (online article of the European Institute of Protestant Studies), accessed 22 September 2014; available at http://www.ianpaisley.org; Internet.