*Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D. is a retired Presbyterian minister and director of GoodBirth Ministries. He is the author of over thirty books, several in the field of eschatology, including two Zondervan CounterPoint series books on eschatological themes.
Christianity promotes a full-orbed world-and-life view that flows out of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For a worldview to be an actual, complete, holistic worldview it must deal with both the world’s beginning at creation as well as its ending at the consummation — and all that lies in between. Thus, it should show where history came from and where it will end.
The Biblical Science Institute has powerfully demonstrated that the Christian worldview is firmly rooted in Scripture, even generating the creation science that flows out of it. This presents us with special-revelation evidence for the personal, rational, divine origin of the earth and the universe. Though founded in creation, a proper worldview analysis does not end with the original creation. It must proceed all the way to the consummate new creation. Creation provides us with a proper protology, which requires as its counterpart an appropriate eschatology.
The Presence of a New Theology
In this brief article, we are focusing on eschatology, i.e., the doctrine of the “last things” (eschatoi) of temporal history. But we will focus specifically on a major corruption of the biblical doctrine of the last things.
The universal, historic Christian faith has always held to a consummation that includes three key elements: the future physical second coming of Christ, the future physical (material) resurrection of the body, and the future final judgment of all men. These glorious realities close out temporal history and initiate the consummate eternal order: the new heavens and new earth wherein righteousness dwells (Rom. 8:19–23; 2 Pet. 3:10–13).
Unfortunately, a new theological movement has arisen from within evangelicalism that stands against the historic understanding of the consummation. This new view calls itself by various names, such as full preterism, consistent preterism, fulfilled eschatology, covenant eschatology, etc. The term “preterism,” which characterizes all branches of this system of thought (including both the orthodox and heterodox views), is based on the Latin word preteritus, which means “passed by.”
All Bible-believers are necessarily preterist to some extent because we believe that the Old Testament prophecies of Messiah’s coming have been fulfilled by Jesus in the first century. But the proponents of “Full Preterism” reject much of standard Christian eschatology. For this view holds that all prophecy was finally fulfilled in AD 70. Thus, they believe that Christ’s second coming was spiritual and invisible, occurring when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed per Christ’s prophecy (Matt. 24:2). In their view the resurrection and great judgment were also involved in this first-century catastrophe. Thus, this view goes beyond being a hermeneutic tool useful in interpreting certain eschatological passages. In fact, it becomes a whole new alien theology that controls the understanding of virtually all passages of the New Testament.
This theological system is continually evolving new dimensions, so that it actually currently exists in several mutating varieties. Yet at the heart of this eschatological error in all of its permutations are three significant denials of orthodoxy that render it heterodox. But tragically, as is the case with many “new discoveries” in Scripture, Full Preterism also has begun to negatively impact Christology, anthropology, and soteriology. Thus, it is rightly called by orthodox Christians “hyperpreterism” in that it goes way beyond (hyper) mere hermeneutic insights into several passages.
The Novelty of This New Theology
The proponents of Full Preterism deny three fundamental doctrines of historic Christian eschatology:
- They deny a future, bodily, public second coming of Christ. They argue that Jesus’ metaphorical judgment-coming against Israel in the first century was, in fact, his second coming in its fullness. It was not simply a distant adumbration of it, a prefiguration and type of the actual second coming. Therefore, they argue, Christians are not to expect a literal, physical, public, visible return of Christ in our future.
- They deny a future, bodily, physical resurrection of all men. Advocates of Full Preterism are divided over their understanding of the resurrection, holding various differing views — not only of the resurrection of believers but even of Jesus himself! But perhaps the leading view in this movement is that the resurrection of men is not a corporate, physical (material) resurrection of the bodies of all men. Rather, limiting our focus to the righteous, many Full Preterists hold that the resurrection is (a) an ongoing series of (b) resurrections that introduce deceased believers into eternity (c) in a new “spiritual body” (d) at each individual’s moment of death. Thus, the resurrection does not occur corporately (en masse), nor at the end of history, but is transpiring on a daily basis as believers die in history.
- They deny a future, final, public judgment of all men. They hold that the great judgment is not expected at the conclusion of history, engaging all men in one great judicial scene. Rather, it is either associated with the destruction of Jerusalem (where all men are judged representatively) or is an ongoing spiritual reality that occurs as each person dies and enters into eternity and his final, irreversible destiny.
Historic orthodoxy has always affirmed these three core doctrines. In fact, these have been embodied in the historic, ancient, ecumenical creeds of antiquity, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These creeds were rooted in the exegesis of Scripture and were stated in a summary fashion in order to fight against various heresies afflicting the young church. A particularly troublesome heresy in antiquity was gnosticism, which infects unorthodox preterism through its spiritualizing tendency.
Orthodox Christians hold that Christ will return publicly, bodily, and gloriously in our future, as may be seen in Acts 1:8–11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17; and 2 Thessalonians 1:7–10. We also hold to a future, corporate, physical resurrection of the dead bodies of believers and non-believers alike at the end of temporal history, as may be seen in John 5:21, 28–29; Romans 8:22–23; and Philippians 3:21. We also hold that there will be a future, final judgment of all men at the end of history, as may be seen in Matthew 13:36–43; 25:31–46; Acts 17:31; and Revelation 20:11–15.
As noted above, Full Preterists not only radically alter biblical eschatology, but other vital doctrines as well:
First, Full Preterists alter Christology, by holding that Christ was only temporarily incarnate in the flesh while on earth, rather than continuing in his incarnate existence since the first century. They are forced to this conclusion due to their commitment to a spiritual resurrection of believers which is linked to Christ’s resurrection. Thus, they must declare that Christ’s physical body vanished and was replaced by an eternal spiritual body. Because of this Christ is no longer incarnate in heaven. But Scripture teaches that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells [present tense] in bodily form” (Col. 2:9; cp. Acts 1:9; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 2:14).
Second, Full Preterists corrupt biblical anthropology by holding that man can be complete without his physical body. They believe our eternal estate will be lived out in a spiritual body. Thus, our physical body will serve no further purpose and will be done away with at death. But God created man as a body-soul unit from the very beginning (Gen. 2:7). God created angels as “spirits” (Heb. 1:14), who are unlike man in that important respect. In fact, he does not even offer angels salvation if they fall (Heb. 2:14–16) since they are fundamentally different from men.
Third, Full Preterists consequently deny full redemption, by denying that the physical body is included in our redemption. This is despite the clear teaching of Scripture that believers are saved body and soul (Rom. 8:19–23) while unbelievers are condemned body and soul (Matt. 10:28).
The Danger of This New Theology
These errors are serious, striking at the vitals of the Christian religion, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 (see especially vv. 1–19). Elsewhere Paul warns that a certain Hymenaeus (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 2:17), who declared that the resurrection was already past (2 Tim. 2:18), was causing people’s faith to be “shipwrecked” (1 Tim. 2:19; cp. 2 Tim. 2:18), was evidence of his blasphemy (1 Tim. 2:20), involved him in “worldly and empty chatter” and “ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16), and was spreading “like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17). Paul powerfully rejected the notion of a hidden, spiritual-only resurrection that Hymenaeus promoted in declaring the resurrection was already past.
Sadly, the Full Preterist can gain a hearing among unsuspecting believers by engaging in a certain “craftiness” whereby the minds of the untrained are “led astray” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3). Thus, unprepared Christians can be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
In this brief article, we cannot engage every element of the massive (and growing) unorthodox system. So we must limit ourselves to a few major texts regarding the key elements of eschatology mentioned above. Why do Full Preterists deny these historic eschatological doctrines?
The Error of This New Theology
First, why do Full Preterists deny a future, bodily, public second coming of Christ? We have shown above that the Scriptures clearly present the second coming. How do they attempt to get around these verses? The New Testament teaches that Christ’s second coming will involve his coming with his angels in flaming fire taking vengeance on his enemies (2 Thess. 1:7–10). And in Christ’s Parable of the Tares he links this with “the end of the age” (Matt. 13:39–43). But the Full Preterists believe “the end of the age” is the end of the old covenant era, which occurs in the first century. This is plainly mistaken.
The New Testament teaches there are two ages, “this age” and “the age to come” (Matt. 12:32; Eph. 1:21). “This age” covers all of history from Adam’s fall to the end of the world, whereas “the age to come” (or “that age”) points to the consummate order and eternity. This is why Matthew 12:32 speaks of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as never being forgiven, in either this age or the one to come. This obviously speaks of its eternal consequence. In Luke 20:34–35 “the sons of this age” marry, but those who “attain to that age and the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Thus, “the end of the age” is the end of history, not the end of the old covenant.
Second, why do Full Preterists deny a future, bodily, physical resurrection of all men? One reason (which we will not be able to engage) is that they do not believe history will end at all. This is because they believe all prophecy is fulfilled in the first century, which does not allow any prophetic word about the end of history.
However, I would point out that they believe that our resurrection provides us with only a “spiritual body,” not a physical body. They argue that our resurrection will involve God giving us a different body from the one in which we die (cf. 1 Cor. 15:37). And this, they aver, is actually a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:45). This seems to be a rather powerful argument. But looks are deceiving. After all, these verses have been in the New Testament for 2000 years — without discouraging the universal Christian church from believing in a physical resurrection. How do we explain these verses?
The context of 1 Corinthians 15:37 shows what is going on here. It explains that the nature of the difference is not in terms of substance (spirit vs. matter). Rather, it is in terms of glory, which involves a transformation of the resurrected material body so that the former nature of the body as perishable becomes imperishable (vv. 42, 50, 52), the dishonorable is raised in glory (vv. 41, 43), and the mortal puts on immortality (v. 53). Thus, in eternity we are no longer subject to animal needs, such as water, food, rest, shelter, etc.
And the “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:45) no more calls for a body made out of spirit than a “Coca-Cola bottle” is a bottle made of Coca-Cola! The “spiritual body” is not an ethereal, immaterial body composed of rarified spirit. Rather, the “spiritual” mentioned here refers to the action of God’s Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 1:4; 8:11). That is, the resurrected body will be directly, fully controlled by the Holy Spirit. Paul uses this term “spiritual” elsewhere in 1 Corinthians to refer to “spiritual” believers (2:15; 3:1). These people are not immaterial; they are motivated and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Third, why do Full Preterists deny a future, final, public judgment of all men? Two basic arguments drive this denial. (1) In Matthew 25:31–46 Jesus’ coming to judge all nations (Matt. 31–32) is a part of the Olivet Discourse, which was prompted by Jesus’ statement that the temple would be destroyed (Matt. 24:2) in “this generation” (Matt. 24:34). Thus, they claim that the latter part of Olivet shows that the judgment must be in that generation. But this overlooks the fact Jesus divides the Olivet Discourse into two parts. The first part involves the temple’s destruction and the second involves the final judgment and the end, which the disciples (wrongly!) thought must occur simultaneously (Matt. 24:3).
We see a transition in the Discourse at Matthew 24:34–36. Matthew 24:34 sounds like a concluding statement: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Why would he state this so early in his Discourse (only one-fourth into it!) if it covered the entirety of it? Plus when you compare what happens before v. 34 with what happens after it, you find a wholly different atmosphere. Before this, we hear of wars, earthquakes, famines (vv. 6–7), desperate flight to escape (v. 16) persecutional death (v. 9), and such tribulation that it is a wonder that any life would be saved (vv. 21–22).
But after these verses Jesus transfers his thought from “this [near demonstrative] generation” (v. 34) to “that [far demonstrative] day and hour” (v. 36). After the destruction of the temple prophecy, we see calm, mundane daily activities transpiring, which will allow people to be caught off guard when Jesus returns at his second coming: people are marrying and giving in marriage (v. 38), men are working in the field (v. 40), women are grinding at the mill (v. 41).
And Jesus declares the earlier prophecies will occur in “this generation” (Matt. 24:34). Thus, he knows full well when they will occur. But the later prophecies in the Discourse will occur at a time that not even he himself knows (Matt. 24:36). And “all these [many!] things” (v. 34) in the earlier section will transpire over an extended period of time (e.g., wars, desperate flight). Whereas, those engaging in mundane daily activities will be caught off guard at the return of Christ in an instant, at a specific “day and hour” (v. 36).
(2) In Acts 17:31 Paul states that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed.” Full Preterists argue that the phrase “will judge” includes the Greek verb mello which can be translated “about to,” as if it were near. However, when you check all Greek lexicons you will discover that it is an ambiguous term that can speak of something that is either about to transpire or that is certain to transpire. And all standard translations of the Bible by various scholarly committees do not use the “about to” translation.
Much more could be said, but it is clear that Full Preterism is unorthodox and should be avoided. There is no reason that Christians should deny the three core issues of 2000 years of historic eschatology. They should, however, reject this new innovation in theology which is already unorthodox but getting worse as it continues to mutate.