Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to have a great discussion with my sister-in-law on the topic of Bible prophecy. It was very encouraging. Because of it, I thought I would resurrect something I wrote some years ago on the topic since there are a lot of Christians in churches where they are getting less than accurate teaching on eschatology. Some pastors don’t realize that other views approach the topic with an interpretive method they claim to use, that is, literalism.
Consider Milton Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics, a well-respected manual on Bible interpretation, praised by dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists alike. It is fully preterist on Matthew 24 and 25 and much of Revelation. So is his Biblical Apocalyptics. Robert L. Thomas (1928–2017), who served as a professor of New Testament at the Master’s Seminary, extols the virtues of Terry who “insisted on letting the text speak for itself, without allowing ideas foreign to the text to intervene in its interpretation.” Thomas did not inform his readers that Terry was a preterist or show how he contradicts nearly every element of dispensationalism.
In the September-October 1999 issue of the Message of the Christian Jew newspaper, a publication emphasizing Bible prophecy, an article appeared on preterism. I appreciate the fact that the author, Gary Hedrick, was willing to deal with this important issue. Most futurists either ignore or misrepresent the position.
Is Jesus Coming Soon?
Wars and rumors of wars, famines, plagues, and earthquakes. These are the biblical signs. All of them are realities of planet earth each and every day. Is Jesus coming back soon? Did Jesus provide an exact, predictable scenario as so many modern prophecy writers advocate?Buy Now
For those of you who are not familiar with the debate over futurism and preterism, definitions are in order. Futurists believe that the majority of New Testament prophetic passages are yet to be fulfilled. A preterist maintains that if a time text is attached to a prophecy, then the fulfillment is governed by the time text. Words like “near,” “shortly,” “soon,” “quickly,” “a little while,” “at hand” are critical guides in determining the time frame of a given prophecy. If these words mean what they mean elsewhere in the New Testament, then a majority of New Testament prophecies have already been fulfilled, thus the fulfillment is in the past (the definition of preterism). Hedrick, a dispensationalist, does not interpret the time indicators literally even though he insists that dispensationalists are the only ones who practice a literal hermeneutic.
In addition to dispensationalists, amillennialists, who are also futurists, generally follow the same pattern on the time texts by squeezing them into a preconceived futurist mold. Vernard Eller, writing for Christianity Today, is representative of this method. He concludes that if the texts are taken literally “then they are all false claims, and all these writers were just plain wrong: they said something was going to happen ‘very soon,’ but it still hasn’t happened almost 2,000 years later.” Instead of interpreting the time texts the way they are interpreted elsewhere in the New Testament, Eller strips them of any concrete meaning.
It may be that these different writers were meaning to say, “For all we know, the time is short,” or “Although we have absolutely no ‘knowledge,’ we ought always to assume that the time is short (and be ready to go on assuming that as long as necessary).” This would be a proper way of describing and fostering perpetual readiness: “Precisely because I don=t know, I had better operate under the continual assumption that the time is short.”
Similarly, some events are such that in their very nature they display the character of “soonness,” no matter when they may be scheduled to occur. They are so “big” that their own moment cannot contain them; they bulge over even into the present. A little child could lead us into understanding how “Grandma is coming” is a “soon” event whatever the calendar indication might be.
The suggestions above would indicate that the “time is short” expectation is to be understood as a subjective description rather than an objective claim; the statement refers to the stance of the subject (the believer) rather than to the factuality of the object (the historical time scale).
This is typical futurist gobbledygook that sounds more like Eastern mysticism and turn-of-the-century liberalism than biblical exegesis. It’s a form of Gnosticism, a type of special knowledge (Gr. gnosis = “knowledge”) that only an expert can determine.
Nowhere in Scripture are these time words used in the way Eller interprets them. Apply Eller’s “subjective description” to other time-sensitive events: Jesus’ “time is near” (Matt. 26:18; cf. John 7:6, 8), the “festival of Booths was near” (John 7:2), “the Passover of the Jews was near” (John 11:55). Every reader of these passages knows exactly what they mean, even a little child. Try telling your daughter that she will be going to visit her best friend “soon” when what you really mean is “we ought always to assume that the time is short even though it might be next year when we go, therefore always be in a perpetual state of readiness.” Interpreters like Eller who relativize the time texts want us to believe that we can live in some non-historical “eternal now” where time is relativized. This is Gnosticism pure and simple. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that has taken hold in today’s church. It is the tendency
to replace the historic facts of Christianity with philosophical ideas. Gnosticism is the tendency to de-historicize and de-physicalize the Christian religion. Gnosticism transforms history into ideology and facts into philosophy. Gnosticism tends to see religion as man’s reflections about God and reality, instead of as God’s revelation of Himself and His Word to man. As a tendency Gnosticism has always plagued the Church, and it is alive and well today, openly in “liberalism,” and in a more concealed fashion in “evangelicalism.” … Similarly, the New Testament writings frequently speak of certain events as drawing near, as “at hand,” as coming “soon,” or “on this generation.” All of these time-markers used to be taken seriously and were understood to reveal events that were going to take place in the first century, soon after Jesus’ ascension: a conversion of many people, a falling away of many into apostasy, a great persecution at the hands of Jews, apostates, and Romans, and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. When we turn to 20th-century evangelical writings, however, and especially those of Calvinists, we find that these time-markers have been somehow eternalized. God is always “near”; the events are always “at hand”; “this generation” is always the generation of judgment; etc. The events “near at hand” are also simultaneously “far off,” and thus predictions about first-century events can be transferred to the events of the end of human history in the future.
The irony here is that Eller, an amillennialist, sounds like a dispensationalist on the time texts. Futurists have a huge dilemma on their hands. If they admit the time texts are accurate time indicators, then their futurism must be abandoned. If they assert that the time texts should be relativized, then the integrity of the Bible is called into question and prophecy becomes undependable.
In subsequent articles, I’m going to publish an edited version of the letter I sent to Gary Hedrick in response to his extended remarks on preterism generally and my book Last Days Madness (LDM) in particular. It’s evident by his article that he has not read very much of LDM or other contemporary works by preterist authors (e.g., Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., and R.C. Sproul). Because Hedrick fails to deal with the substantive arguments outlined in LDM, the astute reader will find some repetition in my response. This should prove helpful for those who are looking for a succinct statement of prophetic reasoning.
A Beginner's Guide to Interpreting Bible Prophecy
With so much prophetic material in the Bible — somewhere around 25% of the total makeup of Scripture — it seems difﬁcult to argue that an expert is needed to understand such a large portion of God’s Word and how so many ‘experts’ could be wrong generation after generation. This mini-course has been designed to help Christians of all ages and levels of experience to study Bible prophecy with confidence.Buy Now
Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ in the Canonical Scriptures (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1898).
Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883). Biblical Hermeneutics has been reprinted numerous times by Zondervan, both in an abridged and unabridged edition.
Robert L. Thomas, “The Origin of Preunderstanding,” Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002), 48.
Jay Adams is a noted exception. See his The Time is at Hand (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970).
Vernard Eller, “Stop the Dating Game,” Christianity Today (October 25, 1999), 79. Robert Thomas, a dispensationalist, follows the same line of argument. A literal fulfillment would require the events to have taken place close to John’s lifetime. (Revelation 1–7 [Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992], 55).
James B. Jordan, “Gnosticism Versus History.”