It’s the future not the past: The problem with Preterism

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In a previous article I argued that eschatology does matter because it can affect other aspects of belief and practice in the church.  In so doing, I mentioned a few specific examples of eschatological positions.  One I mentioned was Preterism. This is the view that most, if not all prophecies concerning the Parousia or appearing/second coming of Jesus have already been fulfilled in the past.

Now, as I said then, I have no problem with seeing that a significant number of prophecies do in fact refer to the events of AD70 when the Roman siege of Jerusalem led to the destruction of the Temple and the massacre of the inhabitants of the city.  I have previously argued for example that Mark 13’s primary focus is on those events. 

However, the purist or hyper-form of Preterism insists that all prophecy has now been fulfilled and that we should not be looking for a physical return of Jesus.   Instead, the argument is that AD70 marked the end of Temple worship and therefore revealed clearly that the old Mosaic order was over and so people had to seek Christ through the church. 

From this perspective, Jesus in his resurrected form has a spiritual body rather than a physical one.  WE should not look for his personal physical return.  Instead, his physical body, his Parousia/appearing here is through the church, described in Paul’s epistles as the body of Christ.

There seem to be two primary drivers for this view. The first is an attempt to reconcile the apparent long delay in history with the promise of an imminent or soon event.  Secondly, there is reference to 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 to show that Christ’s resurrection body was not a natural one but a spiritual one.

The first man was named Adam, and the Scriptures tell us that he was a living person. But Jesus, who may be called the last Adam, is a life-giving spirit.

1 Corinthians 15:45

Let’s take the two issues in order

Soon and very soon

The argument made is that if Christ promised his imminent return, then his disciples would legitimately expect this to be in their life time.  They would not expect it to be after they had died, centuries later.  We wouldn’t accept the promise of something arriving soon if it was then delayed for a great length of time.

The problem with this argument is that it has long been dealt with because it was already an issue in the apostle’s day.  In fact, there is the point. If you are going to take a strict, literalist view of what “imminent” means then even 30-40 years after the promise seems far too long.  Soon would have to mean days/weeks/a few years at most. 

So, even a couple of decades later and you had the issue in Thessalonica of people believing The Parousia had already happened.

 When our Lord Jesus returns, we will be gathered up to meet him. So I ask you, my friends, not to be easily upset or disturbed by people who claim the Lord[a] has already come. They may say they heard this directly from the Holy Spirit, or from someone else, or even that they read it in one of our letters.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

It is because people were already becoming inpatient and so giving up on a physical return and finding other interpretations that Paul took time to explain

  • The things that had to come to pass first
  • The nature of what Christ’s return would be like
  • A reminder that no-one could know the exact date and time!

The question comes up again in 2 Peter.  This time, it’s not that people are saying “He’s already been and gone.”  It’s that they are mocking and saying “He’s never coming back.  That’s the context for Peter to insist:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

This is important, because Peter’s intent is to show that God isn’t being slow but rather being patient.  His aim is to give time for repentance by as many as possible.  The context doesn’t really fit with an interpretation where he is saying “It’s not quite time” in about 60AD “but give us another few years and we’ll have it covered.”

Types of body

This is one of those examples where our eschatology relates strongly to other aspects of our theology. Specifically here, our Christology is at stake.  Who is Jesus? Is he fully man and fully divine or is there something lacking in relation to his human nature?  Do we just have the appearance of humanity when it comes to him (Docetism)?

A second particular risk with this kind of view is that we end up with a dichotomy where physical matter, creation, bodies etc. is seen as bad and spiritual stuff seen as good.  The story of redemption becomes about escape from our physical bodies and the prison of creation.  This was of course the Gnostic problem.

Thirdly, it is worth remembering that when it came to the question of the eucharist and exactly what happened in it, central to the reformed understanding that both the Mass and Luther’s approach were wrong because if Christ were resurrected with a body as “a man in the heavenlies” then the idea that we could somehow sacrifice his body again at different churches around the world was a nonsense and undermined the creedal position that Jesus is:

One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ;

A fourth concern is that this assumption of a spiritual resurrection and spiritual return sits very close to modern liberal views which deny Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection.  No physical resurrection means no physical return and vice versa.[1]

You see, the point that the Gospel accounts make is that the resurrected Jesus has a physical body.  He walks places, he breaks bread with his hands, consumes fish, allows people to touch him, cooks food etc. [2]

So, when 1 Corinthians 15 declares that Jesus is a life giving spirit,  it is describing his person positively as someone greater than Adam emphasising that,  whilst Adam received life, Christ gives life, and when Paul talks about resurrection bodies as spiritual, he contrast them with natural bodies not with physical bodies. Again, the point being not that they are less than corporeal but that they are not subject to the limitations of The Fall including decay and death.

The church’s hope and expectation

Our expectation is that we look forward to Christ’s personal, visible and physical return as judge and king.  As the Apostles’ Creed puts it:

“he is seated at the right hand of the Father and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”[3]

Note, that the Creed here sets out the agreed position of the Church that Christ is currently with the Father and that he will one day in the future return.

As Acts 1:11 puts it

 he will come back in the same way you have seen him go.”


It is clear from Scripture and has been the express and agreed understanding of The Church through history, as seen in the Creeds that Christ was raised physically from the dead and therefore we look forward to his physical return one day.

[1] It is important to be clear here that we are not saying that people who take this view are themselves Docetic, Gnostic or liberal but it’s important to be alert to the roots of this kind of thinking and the routes it can lead us down which we would not want to pursue.

[2] See Luke 24 and John 20-21.

[3] Apostles Creed, in Common worship, 141.

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