Response to the Preterist Position as Outlined in R. C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus — Part 1

One of the positions on the fulfillment of end-times events that is rapidly rising in popularity, both in scholarly circles and among “everyday” believers, is the preterist position. The term preterist means already fulfilled, and this position teaches that all of the events spoken of by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) were fulfilled in the first century when the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Although the events that transpired in the first century do not match the details of the Olivet Discourse exactly, there is enough similarity that the position has gathered many followers. Among the reasons that preterists feel so strongly about this position are the time-frame references such as “at hand” and “this generation.” J. Stuart Russell, one of the most notable the nineteenth century proponents of the preterist view, for example, argues that 99 persons in every 100 would “immediately understand Jesus to mean that the events he was predicting would fall within the limits of the lifetime of an existing generation. This means, not that every person present will necessarily be alive at the time of the fulfillment, but that many or even most will be.” [1]

Firing the preterist movement is the recent and ferocious attacks on the scriptures at the hands of critics, who often use these same time-frame references to disprove the authority of scripture. They claim that Jesus clearly believed that He would set up His earthly kingdom within the lifetime of His hearers, a promise that did not come true. Either Jesus was lying or mistaken, they argue, and either way, this proves that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. Preterists, on the other hand, believe that the prophecies did come true and desire to prove these skeptics wrong.

Time to Investigate

As readers of this column know, I do not hold to the preterist position. I am among those who see the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowing the events of the end and not as a fulfillment of them. While I do believe that the apostles thought that the prophecy likely would be fulfilled in their lifetimes, this is not an explicit statement of scripture. Thus, while a first-century fulfillment might have been the most reasonable interpretation if you were sitting at the foot of Jesus, this is not a good enough reason to hold to this position now. Particularly since the explicit statements that we do have point to a future, not a past, fulfillment (also see column, "Was Matthew 24 Fulfilled in A.D. 70?"

I am, however, always interested in learning about other rapture positions, so I decided to read a recently published analysis and defense of the preterist position.

I chose R. C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus. Although Sproul, a leading evangelical theologian, appears to hold many — but not all — of the fundamental preterist positions, I found this book to be less a defense of preterism than an analysis of it. Sproul has written many highly respected books on evangelical doctrine and apologetics (including That's A Good Question!) and does indicate his own questions and concerns about

the some of the preterist positions, although he leaves them unanswered in the text.

In this column, which will be broken into three parts because of its length, I will discuss the strengths and the weaknesses — indeed, the fundamental errors — of the preterist position discussed by Sproul in his book. In order to do so, however, it is first necessary to outline the preterist position itself. All of the examples will be taken from The Last Days According to Jesus.

Why do preterists see the prophecy of the end given to us by Jesus in Matthew 24 as having been fulfilled? Much of it has to do with time-frame references, which preterists believe require the fulfillment of this prophecy in the first century. Key scriptures include “There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28); and “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34). Other key verses include the many references in Revelation, which preterists see as paralleling the prophecy of Matthew 24, such as Jesus' repeated warnings that He would come “quickly” and that events “must shortly take place.” [2]

Another foundational pillar of the preterist position comes in the first few verses of Matthew 24. In these verses, Jesus' disciples expound to Him the virtues of the temple — how large the stones and how great the buildings. Jesus then surprised them by saying, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v. 1-2). In verse 3, Jesus' disciples come to Him — you can imagine, almost in a panic — and say, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age?”

Jesus responds by telling them the key prophecies of the Olivet Discourse: false christs, nation rising against nation, kingdom rising against kingdom, the abomination of desolation (possibly some type of idol) that will be placed in the temple in Jerusalem, the Great Tribulation, the signs in the sun, moon, and stars, followed by His coming and, many feel, the rapture of the Church.

Key to the preterist argument is that Jesus' prophecy was given in the context of the destruction of the temple. Thus, when the prophecy concerning the temple was fulfilled, the remainder of His prophecy must have been fulfilled, as well.

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