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The History of Preterism and Futurism: Poisoning the Well

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The following is a response to a critic of preterism named Darrell Myatt. While I’ve answered many of the objections he raises here and here, I wanted to discuss his opening statement about the origin of preterism. Futurists, mostly dispensational premillennialists, claim that their position has historical pedigree. The majority of the early church fathers are said to have been premillennialists. A study of the history of the period will show that this is a gross overstatement, a point Frank Gumerlock and I make in our book The Early Church and the End of the World. But even it could be proved that premillennialism was the favored position of the early church (the Ante-Nicene period), this would not be a defense of dispensational premillennialism since the dispensational variety of premillennialism is a nineteenth-century invention. Moreover, while history is instructive, it is not authoritative. In the final analysis, Christians should want to know what the Bible says on the subject of eschatology.

A modern-day competitor to dispensationalism and a long-term competitor to full blown futurism is preterism. Preterists believe the majority of NT prophetic texts were fulfilled in the lead up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in A.D. 70. Preterists base their reasoning on the use of time words like “near,” “shortly, and “quickly,” the way “this generation” is used by Jesus in the synoptic gospels, and other considerations.

The audience reference of the second person plural (“you”) is also an indicator of when certain prophetic events were to take place. For example, in Matthew 24:33, Jesus tells His present audience, “when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, at the door.” So when someone claims that “this generation” refers to the generation that sees the signs outlined by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, preterists point to Matthew 24:33, Mark 13:29, and Luke 21:31. It was that generation that saw the aforementioned signs. If Jesus had a future generation in view, He could have easily identified it by stating, “when they see all these things, then they will recognize that He is near, at the door.”

By the way, notice that “near” is defined by Jesus as “at the door,” not down the block or in the next county. Also see Revelation 3:20 where Jesus told the book’s first readers: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” To be “at the door” is to be close enough to knock. A similar self-identifying definition is found in James 5:8–9: “You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” This is the way modern-day prophecy writers understand the use of “near” and “at hand” when they write on the subject. Here are two examples from prominent dispensational scholar John F. Walvoord:

  • “Never in the history of the Church has there been a time during which more evidence existed that the Rapture is near.”[1]
  • “Never before in the history of the Church has there been more evidence that the end of the age is at hand.”[2]

He is not using “near” and “at hand” to mean the distant future. He couldn’t have sold many books if “near” and “at hand” meant anything other than “near” and “at hand.” So when John is told in Revelation 1:3 that “the time is near,” he is not being told in what follows that the prophecies are for a time far, far away. This point is reiterated in Revelation 22:10: “And [the angel] said to [John], ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’” Compare this with what Daniel is told: “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase” (Dan. 12:4). The end addressed here is not the end of everything but the end of a period of time, a time that John was given a vision of that was near to him and his first readers. Revelation is Daniel’s vision unsealed.

One of the arguments against preterism is that it was started by Spanish Jesuit Luis De Alcazar (1554–1613) who wrote a commentary titled Vestigio Arcani Sensus in Apocaplysi or Investigation of the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse in which “he proposed that it all of Revelation applied to the era of pagan Rome and the first six centuries of Christianity.”[3] Futurists use Alcazar (also spelled Alcasar) to poison the well. Since a Catholic proposed such a view, then it must be wrong because Roman Catholicism as a theological system is wrong. Of course, Roman Catholics also adhere to the doctrinal statement that we know as the Apostles’ Creed. So how much of the creed is wrong? All of it? Some of it? Poisoning the well is a poor way to argue. We might as well claim that the Volkswagen is an evil car because “Volkswagen was originally founded in 1933 by Adolf Hitler.”

At the time Alcazar wrote, the Protestant Reformers considered the Papal system of the Roman Catholic Church to be the end-time antichrist. The Reformers were nearly unanimous in identifying the Papacy as the Great Harlot of Revelation 17. “For Martin Luther,” a representative of this view, “the Catholic Church was nothing more or less than Babylon—‘it would be no wonder,’ he wrote in 1520, ‘if God would rain fire and brimstone from heaven and sink Rome into the abyss, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah of old’—and the pope the Antichrist. ‘If he is not,’ Luther exclaimed, ‘then somebody tell me who is!’”[4] Hundreds of years of Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric could fill a small library.

For centuries the papacy was the unanimous antichrist candidate.[5] The papal system was identified as “both the ‘man of sin’ and the Babylonian whore of which Scripture speaks (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 19). In the conviction of the sixteenth-century Protestants, Rome was the great anti-Christ, and so firmly did this belief become established that it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seriously questioned by evangelicals.”[6]

For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) included the following in Chapter 25 section 6:

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[7]

The antichrist designation was removed in 1789 in the American edition. The revised article reads, “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.” There are groups today that still identify the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the antichrist,[8] but most evangelicals no longer do even though they (and I) disagree with many of the church’s doctrinal claims and practices.

But those who attack preterism because a Roman Catholic originated it with his interpretation of Revelation have a problem of their own if poisoning the well is a legitimate way to argue. Francisco Ribera (1537–1591) was a Jesuit doctor of theology in the Roman Catholic Church who began writing a lengthy (500 page) commentary in 1585 on the book of Revelation (Apocalypse) titled In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentarij, and published it about the year 1590. In order to remove the Catholic Church from consideration as the antichrist power, Ribera proposed that most of Revelation refers to the distant future just prior to the second coming. “He taught that Antichrist would be a single individual, who would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, abolish the Christian religion, deny Christ, be received by the Jews, pretend to be God, and conquer the world—and all in this brief space of three and one-half years.”[9]

Let me poison the well a bit more. The Jehovah’s Witnesses follow an end-time scenario that is not much different from the one outlined in the Left Behind series. Appeals are made to 2 Timothy 3, sections of Daniel, and, of course, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. Just like the dispensationalists, the JWs point to 2 Peter 3:3–4 to support their claim that those who do not believe we are living in the last days are “scoffers.” As evidence that we are living in the last days, they, like the dispensationalists, JWs point to “a tribulation that would be greater than any that had yet occurred.”[10] Then there are the obligatory references to nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, pestilence, and what they believe is a yet future preaching of the gospel into all the world of our day.

You will also find that JWs and dispensationalist share the belief that world wars, terrorism, tsunamis, diseases like malaria, influenza, and AIDs are empirical evidence that the end must be near. There is also the common belief that Armageddon is still in our future. Like the dispensationalists, JWs “are convinced of the reality of these prophecies.”[11]

If you want to debate the history of prophecy, then make sure you tell the whole story and be honest with what you find.


[1] John Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001), 130–131.
[2] John Walvoord, The Church in Prophecy (1964). Quoted in Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1992), 262.
[3] Le Roy Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 4 vols. (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1948), 2:
[4] Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 19.
[5] Samuel J. Cassels, Christ and Antichrist or Jesus of Nazareth Proved to be the Messiah and the Papacy Proved to be the Antichrist (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1846).
[6] Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 41.
[7] The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
[8] See Dave Hunt,  A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1994) and
[9] Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 2:489–490.
[10] Awake! (April 2008), 4.
[11] Awake!, 7.

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