The word “preterism” finds its roots in the Latin word praeter, which means “past.” Thus, the preterist interpretation of The Revelation is that most of the book’s prophecies have already been fulfilled in the past. This makes preterists the opposing camp to futurists, who believe that most of the book’s prophecies remain to be fulfilled in future days.
And when, according to preterists, were those prophecies fulfilled? The answer is: in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Jewish temple, and killed literally millions of Jews in the process. While there is a difference in the belief systems of “full” and “partial” preterists, preterists more or less believe that chapters 5-11 of The Revelation describe the early church’s victory over Judaism, chapters 12-19 describe its victory over pagan Rome, and chapters 20-22 describe its glory in light of these victories. As for the gruesome persecutions spoken of in such detail by the book, preterists assign those to the reigns of the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian. The full (hyper) preterist will even contend that Jesus returned at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem but that His return was not a physical one but, instead, one akin to God “visiting” certain Old Testament cities and kingdoms by raising up enemy armies to conquer them.
In keeping with this general approach to scripture, preterists also apply non-traditional definitions to other prophetic events. For example, to the preterist:
- The “last days” spoken of in the New Testament refer to the final days of God’s covenant with Israel rather than the final days of human history as we know it.
- The resurrection of the dead is the resurrection of a deceased person’s soul from the realm of the dead (Sheol in the Old Testament, Hades in the New Testament) rather than the physical resurrection of the body.
- The 1,000 years of Christ’s reign on earth (Revelation 20:1-7) shouldn’t be taken as a literal number but instead as a symbolic way to describe the entirety of the time between the beginning of the church age and the time of Christ’s bodily return to the earth.
- The passing away of the first heaven and the first earth and the institution of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-2) are symbolic of the annihilation of God’s old covenant with Israel and the beginning of His new covenant with the church (Christians).
By saying that God’s covenant with Israel ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, preterists find agreement with a teaching known as “replacement theology,” which maintains that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan. Under “replacement theology,” whatever promises remain unfulfilled from the covenant agreement God made with Abraham and Abraham’s genetic descendants (the Jews) will be fulfilled in Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Christians). In other words, God is done with Israel and has no plans to ever work through that nation again.
In their attempts to provide scriptural support for the interpretation that most of The Revelation has played out already, preterists point to various passages. Here are some of them:
- In Revelation 11:1-2, the apostle John is told to measure the temple of God. Whereas futurists take this command to refer to a new Jewish temple that will be built either before the seven-year tribulation period or during it, preterists understand the command to refer to the Jewish temple that was destroyed in A.D. 70.
- In Matthew 24:34, as part of Christ’s most detailed teaching on future events, He says, “…this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (N.K.J.V.). Futurists take the term “this generation” to mean the generation that is alive on earth when the tribulation period begins, but preterists take it to mean the generation of Christ’s chosen 12 apostles.
- In Matthew 16:28, Jesus says to His apostles, “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (N.K.J.V.). Here again, preterists go with a highly literal interpretation of this promise rather than the interpretation futurists favor, which finds the promise’s quick fulfillment in the experience Peter, James, and John had with Jesus shortly afterward on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).
- In 1 Peter 4:7, Peter says, “…the end of all things is at hand.” This is similar to other passages such as James 5:8-9 — which says the coming of the Lord is “at hand” and “the Judge is standing at the door” — and Revelation 22:12 and 20, where Jesus says, “I am coming quickly.” Preterists contend that such passages simply cannot be explained by a return over 2,000 years delayed. Futurists, on the other hand, understand the passages to mean that Jesus could return at any moment even though He hasn’t done so yet. Futurists note that even under the preterist interpretation of Christ returning “spiritually” in A.D. 70 by way of the Romans destroying Jerusalem, that event didn’t take place until a full forty years after Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Furthermore, in Isaiah 13:6 the prophet Isaiah says of the Babylonian empire, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand! It will come as destruction from the Almighty” (N.K.J.V.) even though Babylon’s fall to the Persians wouldn’t actually happen until some 200 years later.
- In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the apostle Paul explains that if a person is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Preterists seize upon this description to draw a direct correlation between the idea of the Christian being a new creation and Revelation 21:1-2 speaking of a new heaven and a new earth. Futurists, of course, reference 2 Peter 3:7-13 as a parallel passage and go with a literal interpretation of the old being replaced by the new.
And so, in the end, what are we to do with preterism? The answer is that there are just too many crippling problems with the system for us to embrace it as the correct interpretation of The Revelation. Basically, it’s one of those belief systems that seems fairly plausible at first glance but upon closer examination is proven to be severely lacking.
First and foremost is the problem of the date when The Revelation was written. For preterism to be the truth, the book must have been written sometime prior to Jerusalem being destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. If the book was written after that date, it means the so-called “prophecies” were in actuality historical events, not future ones.
But what date do the vast majority of Biblical scholars (conservatives and liberals alike) ascribe to the writing of The Revelation? A date of A.D. 95-96. To say that such a date is a colossal problem for preterists is a landmark understatement. Actually it’s nothing less than an end-game kill shot.
As for support for the A.D. 95-96 date, it is immensely impressive, coming from notable early church “fathers” such as Justin Martyr (A.D. 140), Irenaeus (A.D. 180), Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 200), and Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 220). For example, Eusebius recorded that the apostle John wrote The Revelation on the island of Patmos in A.D. 95-96 and returned from the island following the death of the Roman emperor Domitian. Likewise, Irenaeus — who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John himself — stated that John wrote the book toward the end of Domitian’s reign, returned from Patmos, and lived in Ephesus until the reign of Trajan, who became the Roman emperor in A.D. 98. These words from Irenaeus carry serious weight with Bible scholars because, as is also the case with Justin Martyr, many of The Revelation’s original readers were still alive during the lifetime of Irenaeus.
Additionally, there are certain internal matters embedded in The Revelation that make an early date for the book’s writing a virtual impossibility. For example, Jesus tells the church of Ephesus, “You have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Okay, so why is this simple statement a problem for preterists? Well, if The Revelation was written before the destruction of Jerusalem — written let’s say in approximately 64-65 A.D. — that would mean that the church of Ephesus lost its love for Jesus just 35 years or so after His ascension. Such a thing seems odd in light of the fact that Paul and Peter were both still alive at that time and Paul states in Colossians 1:23 that this was an era when the gospel was preached to “every creature under heaven.”
Similarly, Christ’s words to the church of Laodicea present an even greater problem to those who require an early date for the writing of The Revelation. While Jesus described that church as being wealthy and having need of nothing in terms of worldly goods (Revelation 3:17), history records that a great earthquake completely decimated the city of Laodicea in A.D. 62. Are we to believe, then, that those citizens rebuilt that city to a state of wealth and prominence in a span of just a few years? Surely it would have taken them much longer to get the city back to such a level, and that fits in nicely with a date of A.D. 95-96.
And then, of course, there are all the obvious contradictions to preterism. I mean, if Satan is currently bound (Revelation 20:1-3) I’d hate to see what the world would look like if he was running loose. Also, if this is the “kingdom age” in which Jesus is ruling and reigning over the world by way of the church, then somebody needs to tell the world because they certainly aren’t being obedient subjects. Seriously, such talk is absolute nonsense.
Oh, and as for that whole thing about the resurrection of the dead being a spiritual type deal rather than a literal one, preterists might want to read Paul’s take on that in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. More to the point, they should read what he said about Hymenaeus and Philetus and their teaching that the resurrection is already past (2 Timothy 2:15-18). You see, that whole “spiritual resurrection” false teaching has actually been around for a long, long time.
In conclusion, despite the fact that the preterist take on prophecy seems to be gaining some momentum today, especially with younger Christians, it remains a thoroughly cracked foundation upon which to build a worldview. It makes the destruction of Jerusalem vastly more important than God ever intended it to be, and it symbolizes the intricately described events of The Revelation to such a degree as to allow them to refer to just about anything. As for me, I’d much rather get to heaven and have God rebuke me for interpreting the Bible too literally than have Him ask me, “Why did you take as symbolic those things that I clearly meant to be literal?” That’s why I’m still expecting all the events of Revelation chapters 4-22 to play out in a highly literal way in days to come, and I’m advising you to do the same.