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The Early Church and Bible Prophecy

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"The destruction of Jerusalem was more terrible than anything that the world has ever witnessed, either before or since. Even Titus seemed to see in his cruel work the hand of an avenging God."Charles Spurgeon

The Early Church and the End of the World by Gary DeMar and Francis Gumerlock asks this fundamental question: "What did the earliest of the early Christian writers actually believe about prophetic events?" We can only answer this question by studying what they wrote. Unfortunately, we do not have a complete record of the period. Many of their surviving works are only fragments of larger works no longer available to us. To make an historical investigation even more difficult, there are translation issues. Many of the works of those who wrote just before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and beyond have not been translated into English.

The Early Church and the End of the World seeks to remedy some of these problems. Thomas Ice, in his chapter on the history of preterism in the book The End Times Controversy, makes some bold claims that cannot be supported when the historical record is actually analyzed. The early church was not monolithic in its views of Bible prophecy. There was no unanimous acceptance of premillennialism, a distant futurism, or the peculiar distinctives of dispensationalism.

This book shows that some of the earliest writers commenting on the Olivet Discourse—most likely writing before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70—were referring to the judgment coming of Jesus, an event that the gospel writers tell us was to take place before that first-century generation passed away (Matt. 24:34). Adding to the confirmation of this view are the writings of the church’s first historian, Eusebius Pampilus of Caesarea (c. 260–341), whose Ecclesiastical History is a window on the first few centuries of the church.

Francis Gumerlock has undertaken the task of translating a number of ancient and medieval commentators who have written on Matthew 24 and Revelation. He shows that many early and medieval Christian writers believed that these prophecies had already been fulfilled before the "end" of Jerusalem, that is, before its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70 which resulted in the end of the Old Covenant world.

Gumerlock’s chapters fill the gap in historiography by providing English translations of a number of commentaries on prophecies in Matthew 24 by ancient and medieval Bible expositors. Did early Christian writers—long before Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Luis Alcasar—interpret prophecies in Matthew 24 as fulfilled in connection with the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans?

Matthew 24:4–14 records Jesus’ prediction of various signs that would take place before the end (24:6, 14). Not believing that these signs applied exclusively to the end of the world, many early and medieval writers believed that they had already appeared historically before the "end" of Jerusalem, that is, before its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70. To illustrate their beliefs with regard to the content and timing of these signs of the end, Gumerlock’s chapters provide a chain of comments from different Church Fathers upon the verses that they expounded.

With respect to the generation that would see all these things fulfilled (Matt. 24:34), several sources showed that a preterist [fulfilled in the past] interpretation of the passage existed in the early church. Concerning the "coming" of Christ, mentioned many times in Matthew 24:27–51, most of the Church Fathers referred it to His bodily coming at the end of the world. But patristic and medieval Biblical expositors did allow for it to be interpreted as a non-bodily advent, whether that be His coming to take residence in one’s heart, His coming to receive one’s soul at death, His continuous coming to the Church for strengthening, or a “hidden” coming in judgment. One commentary, an Irish Book of Questions on the Gospels, written about 725, interpreted Christ’s coming in Matthew 24 in light of the Judean war, as a coming in judgment through the Roman armies.

The Early Church and the End of the World is a needed addition to the discussion on what the earliest of the early church believed on Bible prophecy. Regardless of your own view about Bible prophecy, it is always important to be informed about what others, in different historical time periods, believed. Whether you agree with DeMar and Gumerlock's position is not the key issue however. The real key issue is understanding that the early church was not a homogeneous group of men that all believed the same thing about Bible prophecy (or almost anything else for that matter). Modern writers that attribute a certain interpretation to "the early church," are not being honest with the history. Just like today, many interpretations of the same biblical texts were to be found among the early writers and commentators. Like the Bereans (Acts 17: 10-11), it is our task to "search the Scriptures" to determine who is being faithful to the biblical text and who is not.

(Most of this article was excerpted from the "Introduction" of The Early Church and the End of the World.)

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