In a previous article, I dealt with “Confronting Eschatological Gnosticism” when very specific time words in Scripture are redefined but only when it comes to the topic of Bible prophecy. For example, when the Bible says that Jesus was “near Jerusalem,” dispensationalists have no problem understanding “near” to be close in proximity: “Now while [the people] were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem and they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately” (John 19:11). Jesus was physically near Jerusalem. “Near” cannot be “understood as a subjective description rather than an objective claim.” What’s true of distance is also true of time. The same is true of the word “immediately” (Matt. 24:29). See my books Last Days Madness (141–142) and Wars and Rumors of Wars (121).
The following is a direct response to Gary Hedrick who wrote in the September-October 1999 issue of the Message of the Christian Jew newspaper a critique of preterism, therefore, it is written in the second person.
First, the literalist/symbolic argument. As you know (and admit) not everything in the Bible is to be interpreted literally. Even a stalwart dispensationalist like Hal Lindsey admits that “Premillennialists interpret literally and allegorically. The issue is to let the text dictate when to interpret allegorically instead of our theological presuppositions.” To claim that preterists do not interpret the Bible literally is a gross misrepresentation and oversimplification of the sophistication and complexity of biblical hermeneutics. Similar to dispensationalists, we interpret the majority of texts literally and some texts “spiritually” or symbolically because we believe, following solid hermeneutical principles, that at times the Bible demands, for the lack of a better description, a “spiritual interpretation.” I could cite numerous examples from dispensational writers to support this easily provable and accepted claim.
Jesus calls His body a temple (John 2:21). His opponents understood Him literally (Matt. 26:61). We’re not sure what His disciples thought. To be “born again” refers to a spiritual rebirth (John 3:3), not a re-entry into the womb, something Nicodemus, “a teacher in Israel,” should have understood (3:10). As you know, a reincarnationist takes Jesus very literally on this point. Then there’s the discussion of “living water” that the woman at the well thought was “literal” water (4:15).
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And what do we do with Jesus’ statement that He is “the bread that came down out of heaven” (6:41)? In what way did Jesus “come down”? Was He physically present in the wilderness? Did the Israelites see Him in bodily form? Sounds literal to me. Jesus hints at His physical ascension in 6:62. We know that Jesus ascended bodily before the eyes of His disciples (Acts 1:11). Then why isn’t His “coming down” in John 6:51 similarly literal since they appear in the same chapter? How do you answer the transubstantiationist when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink” (6:53-55)? The Jews took Jesus’ words literally. They asked, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat”? (6:52). Jesus’ disciples called it a “difficult statement” (6:60). They thought Jesus was speaking literally. Jesus tells His disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (6:63).
Based on these examples alone, the literal/spiritual issue is not as cut and dry as you claim. Every interpreter struggles with the tension. Prophecy is no different. I could go through the book of Revelation and challenge you on the literalism claim. Here’s one example. The Bible says, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In Revelation 19 Jesus is said to be riding a “white horse” when He returns. He is also “clothed with a robe dipped in blood.” In addition, a literal sword is coming out of His mouth. John Walvoord writes, “This passage contains one of the most graphic pictures of the second coming of Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture.” How can this be? Jesus is to return “just the same way” that He was taken up. Did Jesus go up to heaven riding a horse wearing a robe dipped in blood and with a sword coming out of His mouth? Dr. Walvoord does not attempt to reconcile the apparent differences in the passages by appealing to literalism, and neither does any other dispensational commentary I have in my library. Of course, the passages can be reconciled if all aspects of one of them are not interpreted literally. Few commentators would interpret every element of Revelation 19 literally and still maintain that Acts 1:11 and Revelation 19:11–16 are describing a similar event.
None of this means that we have a license to spiritualize to make a passage fit a pre-conceived eschatological system. You ask a very good question: “Where do we draw the line?” While the question is good, it’s not the right one. Let me give you an example.
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; the idols will tremble at His presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them (Isa. 19:1).
What is the “literal” interpretation of this passage? Did Jehovah ride a literal cloud into Egypt so that He was literally seen (“His presence”) by the Egyptians? This language is not much different from any number of New Testament eschatological passages depicting Jesus coming “like lightning” or “on the clouds of heaven.” And yet every Bible commentary I checked — dispensational included — did not interpret this passage “literally,” that is, as the bodily/physical coming of Jehovah to Egypt. Here are two examples:
• “Judgment was coming against Egypt from the Lord. God is pictured as riding on a swift cloud” (John Martin, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty).
• “Isaiah pictures the coming Egyptian civil war between the competing Ethiopian and Libyan dynasties as resulting from the intervention of the LORD” (Ed Hindson, Liberty Bible Commentary).
Neither author claims that the coming is physically literal, that Jehovah rode a physical cloud to Egypt. Martin says “God is pictured.” This verse describes, as many more like it, a judgment coming of Jehovah that does not require a bodily/physical presence of Jehovah.
What if I took the same passage and put it into a New Testament context so that it read this way: “Behold, [Jesus] is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; the idols will tremble at His presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.” You and I know that a majority of dispensationalists would interpret this passage “literally.” No questions asked.
How are the threatened comings of Jesus in Revelation 2:5, 16, and 3:3 explained in light of a literal-only hermeneutic? I will quote Walvoord again: “The Ephesian Christians were also sharply warned that if they did not heed exhortation, they could expect sudden judgment and removal of the candlestick. As [Henry] Alford comments, this is ‘not Christ’s final coming, but His coming in special judgment is here indicated.’” Three times Revelation describes Christ’s “coming,” and Walvoord says they do not refer to the physical-every-eye-will-see-Him-yet-in-the-future coming of Jesus. The Greek word erchomai not parousia (that means “presence”) is used in these passages. Of course, this does not solve the problem since erchomai is also used in Matthew 24:30 to describe “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”! How should we understand Revelation 3:20 where Jesus is standing before a door and knocking following the literal-only hermeneutic?
Charles Ryrie’s claim that “The prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ … were all fulfilled literally,” and that “there is no non-literal fulfillment of these prophecies in the New Testament,” cannot be supported by an appeal to the actual texts. For example, in Zechariah 13:7 we are given the following messianic prophecy: “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones.” This was most certainly fulfilled except that Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. The scattered sheep are His disciples (Matt. 26:31). Matthew 2:18 quotes Jeremiah 31:15 after the slaughter of the infants in Matthew 2:16. In what literal way was long-dead Rachel weeping for her children? The mothers whose babies were slaughtered were the ones weeping. What is the relationship between Ramah and Bethlehem where the slaughter took place? Was this prophecy fulfilled? Yes. But can we say it was fulfilled literally, using the common definition of the word? A further question is in order: Would those who first read the prophecy in Jeremiah had associated the prophecy with the death of infants at the time of the birth of the Messiah? I don’t think so.
The NT is our guide in understanding what non-literal messianic passages were fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44). You write, “With the benefit of hindsight, we now see that the first advent of the Messiah was a prophetic truth that was meant to be taken literally.” The same can be said for determining what prophecies were not to be taken literally. Since we know that Jesus said He would return within a generation, that this would take place before the last disciple died (Matt. 16:27–28 and John 21:22), therefore His coming in judgment is not to be understood literally. His coming in judgment in AD 70 is literal in the same way that Jehovah came to judge Egypt was literal (Isa. 19:1).
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Hal Lindsey, The Road to Holocaust (New York: Bantam House, 1989), 65. Emphasis in original.
John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 274.
Walvoord, Revelation, 57.
Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 88.
For a detailed discussion of this topic, see Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, updated ed. (Memphis: Footstool Pub;icans,  1989).