You are hereToward a Preterist Understanding of God’s Plan
Toward a Preterist Understanding of God’s Plan
by John Evans
In meditating about matters theological, I have often recalled lines from A. E. Housman’s marvelous poem in The Shropshire Lad whose opening line is “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” Somewhere in its first half lies this provocative couplet, “And malt does more than Milton can To justify God’s ways to Man.” The atheist Housman goes on to acknowledge that the psychological lift derived from imbibing copious quantities of ale soon proves illusory, which leads him to resolve: “Therefore, since the world has still Much good, but much less good than ill . . . I’d face it as a wise man would, And train for ill and not for good.” Regrettably (from my perspective), at no point in this magnificently rhythmical poem does he consider that a person might try prayer. In meditating about matters theological, I have often recalled lines from A. E. Housman’s marvelous poem in The Shropshire Lad whose opening line is “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” Somewhere in its first half lies this provocative couplet, “And malt does more than Milton can To justify God’s ways to Man.” The atheist Housman goes on to acknowledge that the psychological lift derived from imbibing copious quantities of ale soon proves illusory, which leads him to resolve: “Therefore, since the world has still Much good, but much less good than ill . . . I’d face it as a wise man would, And train for ill and not for good.” Regrettably (from my perspective), at no point in this magnificently rhythmical poem does he consider that a person might try prayer. Housman’s “To justify God’s ways to Man” serves as a constant reminder to me of a challenge that is fundamental to the case for Christianity. Many Christians will automatically respond to this line by arguing that it is not up to God to justify His ways to man, but for men to individually justify their ways to God. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it evades Housman’s real challenge. Suppose that we substitute “clarify” for “justify.” (I use “clarify” instead of “explain” in order to maintain the proper syllabication of the poetic meter.) Then, I think, we have before us the challenge that Housman’s poem really poses, a challenge that is central to Christian theology in general and preterism in particular: How can we explain God’s way to man?
About ten years ago on C-Span, I watched Bryan Lamb interview philosopher Mortimer Adler (a late-in-life convert to Catholicism who was raised a Jew and died in 2001). Adler stressed the point that it is impossible for man, who is finite, to comprehend the mind of God, who is infinite. True enough, I concluded, if I take “comprehend” to mean “fully understand”; but if the Bible is divinely inspired or “God-breathed,” it surely contains indications of God’s “mind” that inform us about what how God wants us to behave and what He intends our destiny to be. Otherwise, what would be the point of the Bible’s divine revelations? God works in mysterious ways, no doubt, yet those ways are not so mysterious as to be totally beyond the reach of human speculation. We have it in our means to know what we really need to know.
If, as I believe, the Bible merits our confidence in its divine inspiration, then we know where to begin if we are to learn something about the mind of God. An inspired Bible means that God has intervened in history. And if He has intervened by allowing the Bible to be compiled and preserved for posterity, it stands to reason that He has intervened during the long interval since the biblical canon became decided. It is simply implausible to believe that He would have provided the Bible for our guidance and then ceased His oversight of humanity’s progress toward the realization of the “kingdom [that] will never end” (Luke 1:33). To argue the contrary is to hold that human history was so mechanistically predetermined by AD 70 that God has chosen to adopt a “hands off” policy until the neverending kingdom exercises dominion over the earth. I cannot claim the ability to pinpoint specific instances in which God’s intervention in post-AD 70 history can be demonstrated, but I insist that if the Bible is the product of God’s inspiration, then we can reasonably assume that He has not abandoned us to our own folly even though a great portion of humankind has chosen to abandon Him. If this reasoning is sound, the general course of human evolution since the first century AD should tell us something more about the mind of God and His plans for humanity than we find in the Bible. I hasten to add that when I employ the word “evolution,” I have something in mind other than the Darwinian concept of a process of survival of the fittest in which the hand of God is absent.
In this article, I speculate about the mind of God based on my understanding of post-AD 70 history. Because I am acutely aware of my lack of background in theological studies, I worry about my presumptuousness in publicly expressing my views on a matter that would tax the abilities of those who possess far more knowledge of the relevant subject matter than I do. On the other hand, despite the abundance of fine articles that have appeared here, it strikes me that not many of them have addressed head-on an issue that is vital to the construction of a complete preterist theology, namely how to reconcile the long-deferred emergence of preterism as a major branch of Christian thought with the fact that one form or another of futurist exegesis has dominated Christian theological speculation since the time of the early church fathers. I have observed that those who adhere to futurist theology often dogmatically insist that God would never permit misinterpretations of Scripture of the magnitude that preterists insist have persisted for almost two thousand years and led the great majority of the Christian faithful into false belief. I have concluded from this that we preterists therefore have an obligation not only to demonstrate the falsity of futurist teachings, but also to explain how this great error can be reconciled with what we can understand about the mind of God.
In an article posted here in May 2005 (“Returning to the Road Not Taken”), I undertook to contribute to this needed reconciliation by examining some of the history of Christianity’s “wrong turn” into futurism. I did so with some misgivings since not only am I not a trained biblical scholar and theologian, but neither am I a scholar of early church history or, for that matter, ancient and medieval history. I don’t think you have to much of a scholarly background in these areas, however, to see that some of the early church fathers had a better grasp of the Second Coming than many of our prominent authorities of today possess, but such “preterist-friendly” understandings of Scripture were relegated to the background after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Its rise to dominance became evident under the emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 312 and took it upon himself to enforce greater doctrinal uniformity with the Council of Nicaea in 325. Once the union of church and state was achieved, I argued, Christianity transformed itself from a faith that frowned upon warfare and exhibited great doctrinal diversity into one that sanctioned the use of force against the enemies of the official church and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the enemies of the state. Although it seems clear that the church (both Roman and Greek) exercised some restraint upon the venality and brutality of rulers, there is no escaping the fact that it demonstrated plenty of venality and brutality on its own account.
In retrospect, I am inclined to believe that the union of church and state was historically necessary for the development and protection of the Christian faith, at least for most of the time between the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the burning of John Hus at the stake in 1415. This union helped insulate Christianity from undesirable schismatic tendencies and provided it with enough military support so that much of the area that became Christianized was able to withstand the Islamic onslaught that began in the seventh century and continued intermittently until the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Nevertheless, I also recognize that the manner in which the Byzantine Empire brought about the union of church and state may have had the effect of initially weakening the ability of Christianity to withstand Islam.
During the first few centuries of the church’s existence, its doctrinal integrity was severely tested by both Jewish and pagan intrusions. This is made clear in the opening chapters of Revelation. It is also shown by information that has been collected about Gnosticism and other pagan-saturated belief systems that competed with what was taught by Paul, the other Apostles, and their successors as they carried Jesus’ message to the Gentile world. Admittedly, there is much that we do not know about the first few centuries of the church’s history, but we know enough to be certain that minimizing Jewish influence was a major concern of the church’s leadership in its earliest years and that pagan influence was also a problem from the outset and became much more serious during the second, third, and fourth centuries.
The early church evidently developed five main centers of patriarchal authority: Rome, Byzantium/Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. There seems to have been broad agreement among the leaders in these centers—with some differences, to be sure—about which writings by the followers of Jesus should be considered clearly inspired and which should not. Particularly noteworthy is that the leadership of the early church seems to have settled firmly on the inclusion of the four gospels that we have today as the inspired and reliable accounts of the life of Jesus and to have excluded other accounts, most notably the Gospel of Thomas, which some modern writers have insisted had at least as valid a claim for inclusion in the biblical canon as the traditional four. For conservatives, the selection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John reflects the careful judgments of the early church fathers about which accounts of the life of Jesus were the most authentic. Many liberals assert, however, that the choice of the four gospels and the other books that made it into the New Testament simply reflects the outcome of a competitive struggle in which writings of equal or even superior merit were suppressed.
Those who would deny the preeminence of the four gospels and the twenty-three other books of the NT that appear in Protestant Bibles—I call them “liberals”—enthusiastically endorse the idea that history is written by political winners and their apologists. This means, they claim, that we can never precisely know the truth about the past. The knowledge vacuum allows those with sufficient imagination to indulge themselves in various speculations about the past that provide psychological satisfaction to themselves and to those who approve of their work. Applied to the study of Christianity, the psychological lift includes the pleasure derived from undermining traditional Christian beliefs, the appeal of novelty, and the outcome of making Christianity more conformable to lifestyles and activities that have been taken in the past to be incompatible with it. Then there are the material rewards for those who engage in such speculations. At the more modest end of the rewards spectrum are the salary increases and promotions for academics based on the publication of scholarly works that shed “new light” on the history of Christianity. At the other end come the bonanzas accruing to those who corral the financial benefits from such pop fiction triumphs as The Da Vinci Code and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
In my judgment, four factors underlie the successes realized by those who insist on impugning the validity of the NT canon: (1) the scarcity of hard historical data about early church history, which provides opportunities for the construction of myths about it; (2) the widespread acceptance by liberals, and even by some conservatives, of late date authorship for the four gospels, Acts, Revelation, and some of the other canonical texts; (3) the culmination of a long period of growing skepticism toward traditional religion among the West’s intellectual and media elites that has led to a “postmodern” era in which this skepticism, deconstructionist thinking, and moral relativism have combined to shape the views of their membership and to determine who is admitted to membership; and (4) the search for substitutes for traditional religious beliefs in response to the inborn hunger to find a higher purpose for human existence. Of course, most members of these elites have political and (even more so) religious views that are considerably more “postmodern” than those of the general population of the United States and other high-income democracies.
A great strength of preterism is that it directly undermines factor (2) in the above list and thereby undermines the other three factors as well. In pointing out that the end-time prophecies of the NT are only compatible with first century AD fulfillments and did have them, preterists present readers of the NT with a simple choice between these two alternatives: either (1) the many end-time prophecies of the NT were genuine prophecies given during the approximately forty years from the ministry of Christ to the beginning of the Jewish War, or (2) these “prophecies” were after-the-fact creations of writers who somehow succeeded, with help from co-conspirators, in convincing many of their contemporaries of their genuineness and in suppressing evidence to the contrary.
I shall deal with the second of these alternatives by noting with approval the now-famous comment—among conservatives—of John A. T. Robinson at the beginning of the second chapter of Redating the New Testament: “One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period—the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple—is never once mentioned as a past fact.” To Robinson’s comment I shall facetiously append the observation that it is indeed remarkable that those who inserted all the after-the-fact “prophecies” into the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation were able to so masterfully hide the evidence of their handiwork and to resist the temptation to insert comments relating to the post-AD 70 years during which these works were supposedly written. In addition, I want to mention approvingly the work of the recently deceased German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede, which strongly supports the belief that the canonical four gospels were all completed before the Jewish War of 66-70.
While the conclusion that the NT’s end-time prophecies are genuine and were fulfilled by AD 70 is at odds with the beliefs of futurists hoping to witness the Second Coming during their lifetime, it greatly strengthens the overall case for accepting Christianity’s validity. Applying the old saw “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” prophecies that are both genuine and fulfilled are far more demonstrative of God’s existence and power than “prophecies” whose future fulfillment can be claimed only by doing violence to biblical texts—which is what biblical futurism does. Moreover, because the case for preterism rests on solid evidence that the books of the NT were all authored no later than AD 67, preterism undermines the argument that the selection of the NT’s canon was the result of ecclesiastical politics rather than evaluations of authenticity and merit.
Although some prominent liberals claim early authorship for the Gospel of Thomas, it is generally the case that the various writings that liberals have put forward as being of equal or superior merit to some of the canonical books, Thomas included, contain features that stamp them as clearly being post-AD 70 compositions. Their claim for being of equal or superior merit rests upon the assumption of late dates for the writing of the four canonical gospels, Acts, Revelation, and some of the epistles. To refute that assumption is to destroy the validity of the claim. To this I add that in his thorough evaluation of the merits of the claim that a strong case exists for the early writing of the Gospel of Thomas, Penn State’s Philip Jenkins, a moderate conservative by academic standards, persuasively argues that the evidence favors a late date for the completion of Thomas. Among the statements he makes in favor of this conclusion, the following is particularly noteworthy: “The most important reason to argue a late date for much of Thomas is that the text as we have it contains many sayings which unmistakably suggest Gnosticism and other heresies which developed during the mid- and late second century.” This point regarding “Gnosticism and other heresies” cannot be applied to the canonical gospels. Jenkins, incidentally, is not a preterist, and he believes that the canonical four were all completed after AD 70. He also believes, however, that while parts of Thomas could have been written before AD 70, it was completed considerably later than the four.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 came about in response to the heretical teachings of Arius and his followers, who preached that Christ was a created being and, therefore, not fully God. Arius feared that to treat Christ as fully divine would undermine Christianity’s claim to being monotheistic. The Council, of course, produced the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” It also cleared the way for achieving greater uniformity of church practice and doctrine. That the ensuing enforcement effort had considerable success in limiting the impact of Gnosticism and other pagan influences cannot be doubted, but the church continued to be beset by profound doctrinal disputes, particularly in the eastern part of the Empire. The most important of these disputes, those involving the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies, followed the pattern established by the Arian controversy in that they swirled around issues pertaining to the nature of Christ.
In 428, Nestorius, a priest from Antioch, was named Patriarch of Constantinople. He was a vigorous opponent of Arianism and other heresies that called the full divinity of Christ into question, but he soon came into conflict with much of the church’s leadership because of the perception that he was nevertheless overemphasizing the human aspect of Christ’s dual nature. A particularly significant sticking point was that whereas church officials in Rome and Constantinople preferred to call Mary, the mother of Jesus, “the mother of God,” Nestorius preferred to call her “the mother of Christ” so as to emphasize the human nature of Christ and downplay her theological importance. Resistance to Nestorius led to the Council of Ephesus in 431, which denounced his views and proclaimed that in Christ there was a union in one person of divine and human natures. Nestorius was excommunicated and withdrew from the contest, but his teachings lived on, particularly in the Assyrian Church of Mesopotamia, which has managed to survive to the present day despite its relegation to dhimmitude in a predominantly Muslim area for more than thirteen centuries. Lest the survival of the Assyrian Church be taken by some readers as a testimony to Muslim tolerance, I invite readers of this article to visit christiansofiraq.com and other websites that deal with Nestorianism and the history of the Assyrian Church.
Of greater consequence than the Nestorian heresy was the complex controversy that developed soon afterwards involving an alliance of the church leaderships of Rome and Constantinople against the doctrine of Monophysitism. My grasp of this doctrine and the controversy it provoked is superficial, but since the Monophysite heresy played a great role in the subsequent history of Christianity, I shall comment about it briefly.
It is commonly claimed, as its name seems to imply, that Monophysitism is a doctrine that claims that in Jesus, separate human and divine natures were somehow commingled so as to form a divine person with a single nature. At the highly contentious Council of Chalcedon in 451, the dominant patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople worked out a compromise between Nestorianism and Monophysitism that portrayed Jesus as one person with two different natures. As far as I can determine, scholars are still debating the extent to which the differences between the two sides were real as opposed to semantic, but it seems likely that the cleavage between them had as much to do with political and ethnic divisions as it did with theology. In any event, the condemnation of Monophysitism assured the breaking away of the churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, and Armenia from the ecclesiastical authority of Constantinople and the formation of separate national churches.
The religious divisions resulting from the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies undoubtedly weakened the ability of the Byzantine Empire to withstand the Islamic onslaught that became evident with the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 638. On the other hand, the Monophysite churches of Egypt and Syria inspired much national loyalty, which probably helps to explain how the Christian churches in those lands managed to survive the many centuries of Islamic dominion that commenced in the seventh century and has persisted until the present.
In a remarkably short time, the conquering armies of Islam drove through Egypt all the way to Spain, and they were not turned back until the great Battle of Tours in 732. Some centuries later, the Ottoman Turks succeeded in weakening and finally destroying the Byzantine Empire. Through these conquests, much of what had once been predominantly Christian territory was brought under the control of Islam; and in due course, most of the population of North Africa and the Middle East converted to that faith.
Having completed my excursion into the early history of the Christian church in the Middle East, I shall now address the futurist argument that preterism must be in error because God would never have allowed such a huge misinterpretation of Scripture as preterists perceive to have persisted for almost two thousand years and led the great majority of Christians into false beliefs. As a starter, I shall sardonically observe that God has evidently allowed the very heartland of Christianity to be dominated by Islam for almost 1,300 years. Frankly, I much prefer having people being misled by Christian futurism than by being induced or forced to accept any branch of Islam!
Early in this article, I suggested that if we are to understand something of the mind of God, we must begin with the Bible, for it is there that we have evidence of divine intervention in the course of history. As a convenient example, consider the Exodus and the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant. The period during which that covenant was in effect was well over a thousand years. If I reasoned like a futurist who can’t believe that God would have allowed people to misunderstand the dating of the Second Coming, shouldn’t I be asking why God decided to fool around with the Mosaic Covenant at all instead of going directly to Christ and the New Covenant? I am not satisfied with the argument that God chose to give the Jews a chance to conform to his requirements, but they muffed the test and forced Him to try something else. It makes far more sense to me to believe that God’s purpose in taking the Jews through the period of the Mosaic Covenant had to do with bringing humanity to a higher stage of religious and cultural development in which behavioral norms that conformed to the tenets of the New Covenant had a chance to establish a firm foundation. It also makes sense to me to believe that the land of Canaan was chosen as the ideal location for God’s project because of its location where three continents merge.
Here’s another example. Daniel 9:24-27 present the prophecy of the seventy weeks or “sevens,” which I understand as the allotment of a very literal and precise period of 490 years to the Jews for the completion of the Mosaic Covenant. The starting point was to be the decree that authorized the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem, which I identify as having been issued in 458/457 BC. What was God’s purpose in delaying the arrival of the “Anointed One” (9:25, NIV) until the last of the seventy sevens? Why didn’t He just bring the Anointed One to Babylon in 539 BC and save everyone a lot of trouble? I think the answer to such questions has to be found in the notion that the process of shaping the human character to God’s liking is necessarily a long and complicated one. I also believe that this process was a long way from having been completed in the first century AD.
Returning to Housman’s poem, how can I justify the virtual obliteration of Christianity in much of the Middle East and elsewhere by Islam? I can’t fully justify it, but I can try to explain it. For what it’s worth, I believe that Christianity was able to establish a solid foundation in the Roman Empire because, the Neronic and other persecutions notwithstanding, the social conditions and religious environment that existed there were conducive to religious pluralism and experimentation. The pacifistic Christianity preached by Paul, the other Apostles, and the early church leaders who succeeded them was vulnerable, however, to the kind of onslaught that came from Islam, which was masterfully designed to be a religion to be spread by force of arms. Although Islam tolerated, to a considerable degree, “the people of the Book,” it forced them into dhimmitude and pursued policies designed ultimately to bring about the disappearance of such competitors. It should be noted that Islam does teach a version of morality that encourages the upright behavior of believers toward each other, and I suspect that as far as most people were concerned, the practical day-to-day behavioral differences between most Christians and most Muslims did not become truly significant until some time after the Reformation began. One has only to think about how eagerly Christians of different persuasion, including church leaders, killed each other until fairly recent times to get some glimpse of just how far Christian practice varied from Christian theology.
Recall that I pointed out earlier that the Nicene Creed expresses belief in a future Second Coming “to judge the living and the dead.” This indicates that even by the fourth century, it had become standard Christian theology to pin the ultimate hope for humankind’s salvation in a future general resurrection. Interestingly, Islam offers its adherents a promise of a great judgment day in which Allah settles his accounts with humankind. It is my belief that the hope for such an ultimate outcome has played an important role in the past in bringing humankind to embrace religious faith. It is also my belief that the time has now arrived when such notions of a last judgment can be discarded without undermining religious belief, but I shall not elaborate on this idea in the present article.
I shall close this article by stating that I am confident that we have entered into the beginning of one of the great events of human history, the collapse of Islam. How long this process will take for its completion I can only guess, though I do think that we should keep in mind how rapidly the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred once people lost their faith in its Marxist ideology. I am quite certain, however, that Islam’s collapse will be bloodier than Communism’s, and my heart goes out to Christians living in nations controlled by Muslims.
Over two years ago, while beginning the writing of my book on the four kingdoms of Daniel, I wrote the following:
if the United States stands firm against Islamist terrorism and acts forcefully against any government that harbors terrorists and promotes their activities, the “sales pitch” that “Allah is on our side” used by “holy men” and terrorist leaders to attract recruits to Islamist ranks will rapidly lose its attractiveness. There will be much bloodshed, however. Islam cannot allow its holy scriptures and history to be subjected to the kind of critical analysis that has been unleashed against the Bible during the past three hundred years. Christianity has survived the onslaught against it. Islam will never be able to match that performance. Unfortunately, since it cannot do so, intimidation tactics and violent actions to prevent the application of critical analysis to its scriptures, history, and mythology are an inevitable rearguard action against the forces arrayed in opposition to its archaic theology and practice.
I see no reason to revise this passage.
John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Norwich, England: SCM Press, 1976; Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, Ore., 2000, reprint), 13.
In particular, see Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona, Eyewitness to Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1996), which makes a powerful case for the pre-Jewish War writing of the Book of Matthew.
Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 70.
Ibid., 58-63, 68-73, 79.
John S. Evans, The Four Kingdoms of Daniel: A Defense of the “Roman” Sequence with AD 70 Fulfillment (Xulon Press, 2004), 37.