Introduction: The following series of articles are developed to warn, instruct, and exhort the church against the heresy of full preterism (from the Latin preter meaning past). Full preterism is the false teaching that asserts that the return of Christ, the last judgment, the resurrection of all people, and the fullness of the New Heavens and New Earth were all inaugurated in the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Full preterism goes by many names such as pantelism (pan- comes from the Greek panta meaning all), Hymanaeism (per the heresy of Hymenaeus and Philetus cf. 2 Tim. 2:17-18), consistent eschatology, inaugurated eschatology, and hyper-preterism. For the sake of consistency, I will simply refer to it as full preterism. In order to provide a sufficient refutation for this heresy, the first article in this series will deal with some of the post-apostolic church’s writings concerning the nature of Christ’s final Advent, the resurrection, the final judgment and other associated eschatological teachings.
The Problem: When full preterists argue that all prophecy was fulfilled in the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, they are proclaiming that the Church has been wrong about eschatology for almost 2,000 years. Of course, I’m not making an argument from incredulity, but consider that full preterists are essentially claiming that the truth about Jesus’ second coming hasn’t been taught correctly until the late 19th century with the writing of J. Stuart Russell’s The Parousia. They are saying that the Holy Spirit was unable or unwilling to teach the Church the proper view of the nature of Christ’s second coming, the resurrection, the final judgment, and the consummation.
Not an Argumentum Ad Populum: While we will appeal to historical Christian sources in part 1 of this series, we are not making a mere argument from the majority view. A presuppositional feature of the Christian worldview is that the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Believing that the church was in major doctrinal error for approximately 2,000 years about something as significant as the final Advent seems to run quite contrary to Jesus and Paul’s claims above, especially when much of the New Testament deals with eschatological issues. Thus, in order to help us see through the error of full preterism, it can be very helpful to historically investigate what those who were associated with the apostles or lived during the apostolic era believed about final eschatology. Though not inspired by the Holy Spirit, the history of the Church is a record of the work of the Spirit in the world. Because of this, we can learn much from apostolic and post-apostolic Christian writings about how to understand and deal with pantelism.
Maturity of the Church: Since full preterism teaches that all prophecy was fulfilled in A.D. 70, that includes passages like Ephesians 4:11-13,
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . .
According to full preterism, this would entail that the church is operating in the full unity of the faith and in perfection of the knowledge of Christ. 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 is even more specific,
For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
According to full preterism, this has already been fulfilled; I currently see Christ face to face and I know him just as he knows me. Given the assumptions of full preterism in conjunction with the above verses, this means that our knowledge of the faith lacks any error whatsoever. The full preterist must argue that no further maturation of the church has occurred since A.D. 70; thus, if anything is left to be fulfilled, then their entire eschatological system crumbles. So, to maintain consistency, they must argue that the church has been brought to maturity in knowledge and spirituality in the areas Scripture, individual sanctification, and spiritual knowledge. Of course, this is absurd, but for sake of argument, if it is true that the church attained perfect knowledge by A.D. 70, then how could early, post-apostolic Christians make such a gross error in affirming a consummating coming of Christ after A.D. 70? One can’t have it both ways; for either the church’s knowledge was perfect and she didn’t fall into immediate error concerning eschatology post A.D. 70, or her knowledge wasn’t perfect, thus proving that there were things left unfulfilled after A.D. 70.
It gets worse than this, for if Christians have been deluded for two thousand years about the truth of Christ’s second coming in A.D. 70, then not only did they quickly change their position contrary to what the apostles had taught them, but this would’ve amounted to wholesale apostasy akin to what Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses teach about great apostasy occurring in the early church even while at least one of the apostles (John) was still alive (cf. Matt. 16:18). Those who would have best known the teachings of the apostles would have been those who were directly taught by the apostles or by their disciples. Soon thereafter, that first and second generation of pastors and leaders wrote to address these types of issues and left us a record of what they thought about these things. While there is no doubt that there are times when the church fell into considerable doctrinal error, but it is quite another thing to teach that she has been in gross error for nearly two thousand years concerning even the most rudimentary teachings of eschatology. It is with this presumption in mind, that we turn to the historical writings of the early church fathers.
Church Fathers: There is no doubt that many of the early fathers held to an orthodox preterist view of various sections of New Testament Scripture. However, one thing is clear based upon the evidence that we have: none of them affirmed that all prophecy was fulfilled in the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Thus, in the following sections, we will endeavor to show that the early fathers also affirmed a consummating coming of Christ that was future to them that included Jesus’ physical return, a physical resurrection, and judgment day.
1st Clement: 1st Clement is dated by many scholars to have been written @ A.D. 95-96. Though there are some who would say it was written as early as the late 60s, the Neronian persecution mentioned therein is said to have already occurred (chs. 5-6), thus seemingly placing the writing of the book after that event. There is mention in ch. 44 that some appointed by the apostles and their assistants are still living, thus giving support that it was written in the first century A.D. Thus, it is possible that if 1st Clement was written pre-A.D. 70, then it’s possible that some of what is mentioned below is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However, given Clement’s affirmation of an orthodox eschatology (as we will see below), pigeon holing all of Clement’s statements about future judgment, resurrection, and the return of Christ into A.D. 70 is simply without warrant.
Though Clement is probably writing in the last decade of the first century A.D., he was surely alive during the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and so would have had some knowledge of the events and New Testament prophecies concerning it (cf. Matt. 21:41; 22:7; 23:37-38; 24:2; Lk. 19:42-44; 21:20; Acts 6:14). Thus, given Clement’s assumed background knowledge of the A.D. 70 event, it’s important to note that he still affirmed an orthodox eschatology.
1. Clement interprets Psalm 110:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:25 in 36:5 as a scriptural reason for not being one of Christ’s enemies. This is significant because it shows that he believes that Christ is still upon his throne waiting for all of his enemies to be made his footstool, which would include the last enemy, death. If Clement views Christ as still being on his throne, then according to 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 he believed that the end and the coming of Christ referred to in that passage had not yet come in his day. Full preterists J. Stuart Russell (The Parousia, 199-212) and Leonard and Leonard (The Promise of His Coming, 161-182) contradict this and teach that this passage has already been fulfilled.
2. Clement clearly speaks of a future Day of Judgment. In 28:1-2, he notes that through His mercy, we may be protected from the judgments to come. [http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-roberts.html] Clement desires this shelter since nothing is hidden from God’s omniscient eye (28:3-4).
3. Clement affirms a resurrection that is future to him in 24:1, Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. [ibid.] Again, this is a reference to 1 Corinthians 15:23, which as noted in # 1 above, refers to a future return of Christ in Clement’s mind because Paul says, But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. (1 Corinthians 15:23). Clement understands the close connection that Paul made between Christ’s resurrection and ours to indicate that they are going to both be physical. As Christ’s was physical and he was our example (i.e., firstfruits), so ours will be in like manner. This is Clement’s (and Paul’s) reasoning. Clement also notes later in 26:1 that the resurrection is both physical and future when he says that God will raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith [ibid].
4. After quoting Job 19:26 (you shall raise up this flesh of mine . . . [ibid]) in the previous chapter, Chapter 27 is titled as In the Hope of the Resurrection, Let us cleave to the Omnipotent and Omniscient God [ibid]. In 27:1, Clement says, Having then this hope, let our souls be bound to Him who is faithful in His promises. In the context, this is likely an allusion to 1 John 3:3 where John the apostle speaks of a hope in the future resurrection that purifies the believer. He just quoted Job 19:26 in the previous chapter (26:3) wherein Clement takes Job to be speaking of God raising up this flesh which has endured all these things,. Thus, following the apostle John, Clement continues his resurrection theme by exhorting believers to hope in a physical resurrection (we shall be like him 1 John 3:2), and that this hope has a sanctifying effect on the believer.
2nd Clement: It is unlikely that this letter was written by the same person who authored 1st Clement. Dating it is difficult, but scholars indicate it was probably written between 100-150 A.D., even though there are some who dispute this [Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 65-67.]. Thus, there is no doubt that the dating of this letter is after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and therefore, any mention of a future physical resurrection, return of Christ, and judgment are highly significant for the purposes of this article.
1. In 2nd Clement 17:4, quoting Isaiah 66:18, I come to gather all nations [kindreds] and tongues, the author states in response, This means the day of His appearing, when He will come and redeem us–each one according to his works.[http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/2clement-roberts.html] The author here obviously understood this passage to be speaking of a coming of Christ that was future to him that involved a gathering together of his sheep and the judgment of all people. Notice that the author appeals to a passage that speaks of God gathering together all nations unto judgment, not just the Judaical religion and state in 70 A.D. The judgment upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was a single nation judgment, not al all nations judgment. All nations have yet to be gathered to Christ for judgment.
2. In 16:3, while reminding his readers/hearers of the need for good works in light of a coming day of final Judgment, he says, the day of judgment draweth nigh like a burning oven, and certain of the heavens and all the earth will melt, like lead melting in fire; and then will appear the hidden and manifest deeds of men.[Ibid.] Thus, at this Judgment that was thought to be future to the author, the secret sins of all people will be exposed and laid bare in the open. This didn’t happen in the destruction of Jerusalem.
3. In a few verses later the author states in 17:5-6, their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be a spectacle unto all flesh.’ It is of the great day of judgment He speaks, when they shall see those among us who were guilty of ungodliness and erred in their estimate of the commands of Jesus Christ. [Ibid.] Quoting Isaiah 66:24, the above verses are a clear reference to a final day of judgment that was future to the author. Again, this can’t be a reference to A.D. 70, for the author states that the wicked will be punished with punished with grievous torments in fire unquenchable [Ibid.] (17:7); and this is said in the context of the righteous viewing this Judgment. The pains of both a temporal earthly torment such as in the flames of the temple burning in Jerusalem in August, A.D. 70 are quenchable, but these flames are unquenchable. They go on forever without end, again, this isn’t speaking of temporal judgement, but the eternal torment of the wicked.
4. Our author notes in 18:2 that his reason for pursuing righteousness wholeheartedly is because he fear[s] the judgment to come. [Ibid.] Though a temporal judgement came upon Jerusalem for rejecting her Messiah, he still looks to a final judgment future to him, wherein all the unrepentant of all the nations will be punished with unquenchable fire.
5. Like 1st Clement, the author of 2nd Clement also looked to a future resurrection when he says that believers have the hope of the imperishable fruit of the resurrection. [Ibid.] He describes it as blessed is the time that awaits him there; rising up to life again with the fathers he will rejoice for ever without a grief. [Ibid.] The author obviously wasn’t a full preterist since he believed that this rising that was future to him would involve an existence that is for ever without a grief. This is clearly a belief in the future, physical resurrection of all people at the end of space-time history wherein all believers will be raised up in physical bodies that are appropriate to the eternal state of the blessed.
6. Finally, the author earlier warns those who denied a physical resurrection by stating the following: And let no one of you say that this very flesh shall not be judged, nor rise again. Consider ye in what [state] ye were saved, in what ye received sight, if not while ye were in this flesh. We must therefore preserve the flesh as the temple of God. For as ye were called in the flesh, ye shall also come [to be judged] in the flesh. As Christ the Lord who saved us, though He was first a Spirit became flesh, and thus called us, so shall we also receive the reward in this flesh. [Ibid.] The author obviously viewed the nature of the body that dies and decays as being of the same nature as the body that is judged, namely, physical and not merely spiritual.
Ignatius of Antioch: It is generally agreed among scholars that Ignatius wrote sometime between 105-115 A.D [Holmes, Apostolic, 82.]. Thus, we have the same situation we have with 2nd Clement; if Ignatius was looking for a future return of Jesus and it’s associated events, then there is no doubt that it was viewed as occurring after A.D. 70. Ignatius wrote several letters to individuals and churches, thus we have a plethora of information to glean from regarding his views on final eschatology.
1. In 1 Sm. 3:1, Ignatius defends the physical nature of Christ’s resurrection over and against the heresy of docetism. Docetism taught that Christ wasn’t actually incarnated, but only appeared to suffer in the flesh. He states in that verse, For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now.
2. He makes a similar statement later in 1 Sm. 12:2 to point out that Christ was physically and not merely spiritually resurrected. This is important, for he later uses Christ’s resurrection to speak of the physical nature of the believer’s future resurrection when he states, He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus (1 Tr. 9:2) [http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-trallians-longer.html]. Thus, Ignatius looked to a physical and eternal resurrection that was like Christ’s resurrection, yet was future to him.
Polycarp: Tradition holds that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. Only one extant letter from Polycarp exists, but it provides us plenty of information for our study. Polycarp was writing @ 110 A.D. to the church of Philippi [Holmes, Apostolic, 120.]. We can certainly date it to after the time of Paul’s death since that event is mentioned in the letter itself (9:1-2).
1. Just as 1st Clement viewed 1 Corinthians 15:25 viewed Christ as still on his throne at the right hand of God still reigning until all his enemies are placed under his feet at his consummating coming, so Polycarp held the same views. He notes in 2:1, as those who have . . . believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory,” and a throne at His right hand. [http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-roberts.html]
2. Within the same verse, Polycarp states, He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. [Ibid.] The word Polycarp uses for require is a future active indicative (Gk. ekzetesei); which means that he viewed this as a future event that has yet to occur.
3. In 2:2, Polycarp states, But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also . . .[Ibid.]. The phrase will raise us up is the Greek egerei, a future active indicative which tells us again that this was a future event yet to occur in his day. Thus, within the space of two verses we find Polycarp telling us his convictions that (1) Christ’s consummating coming is future to him, (2) there is a still future judgment day for all people, and (3) we still await a future physical resurrection of all people.
4. Polycarp later argues in 5:2 that If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead. [Ibid.]
5. Regarding the final, future Day of Judgment, Polycarp says in 6:2 that If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself. [Ibid.]
6. In 7:1, Polycarp states that anyone who whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. [Ibid.] Given what we’ve read from Polycarp’s letter already, he obviously took the resurrection and Final Judgment to be a future event, not something that occurred in A.D. 70. Thus, Polycarp clearly believed that to deny a future physical resurrection and Judgment is to imperil one’s soul.
Epistle of Barnabas: It is unlikely that the Barnabas of Acts 4:36 wrote this epistle. Holmes notes that it is commonly dated after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 [Holmes, Apostolic, 160.], and the linked URL for the onsite database Early Christian Writings dates it from 80-120 A.D. The author employs an early form of the allegorical method in some of his Scriptural reasoning, thus, our present study will avoid passages that use that approach as much as possible. With this faulty hermeneutic in mind, it is still important to note that just because a faulty method is used, this doesn’t mitigate against what the author himself clearly states about his beliefs. For the purposes of this study, he could just as easily have used baleen whales to interpret Scripture; for we’re interested in the theological conclusion that he draws from his faulty allegorical method. Many church father, especially those of the 3rd through 4th centuries used the faulty allegorical hermeneutic to defend the deity of Christ. Are we then going to reject this true doctrine because they used faulty logic to draw their conclusions? Of course not!
1. In 15:5, the author notes his belief in the consummating coming of Christ in passing when he states, when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the-sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. [http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-roberts.html] This event is not only viewed as future to the author, but note the cosmic language used here not to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., but to events surrounding the future coming of Christ, the Final Judgment, and the eternal state.
2. In 15:7 he clearly refers to the end of the present space-time continuum and the inauguration of the eternal state, when we ourselves, having received the promise, wickedness no longer existing, and all things having been made new by the Lord, shall be able to work righteousness. [Ibid.] Moreover, there are multiple mentions of a future Day of Judgment which I list below:The Lord will judge the world without respect of persons. (4:12)the Son of God, who is Lord all things, and who will judge the living and the dead . . . (7:2)Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in judgment . . . (11:7; cf. Psa. 1:5)Thou shalt remember the day of judgment, night and day. (19:10)And be ye taught of God, inquiring diligently what the Lord asks from you; and do it that ye may be safe in the day of judgment. (21:6)
Though he used an allegorical interpretive method, it is clear that the author of Barnabas is looking forward to a consummating coming of Jesus Christ in Final Judgment to usher in the new creation. Such is perfectly in accord with the Scriptures, his fellow church fathers, and historic, creedal and confessional orthodoxy.
It should be noted that the early church fathers sometimes misinterpreted a text that referred to the destruction Jerusalem as a prophecy of the final advent of Christ at the end of history. This is understandable given that many early churches didn’t possess the entirety of the New Testament writings until many years after A.D. 70. However, many fathers did, in fact, correctly interpret several of the prophecies referring to the destruction of Jerusalem [Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, 68-109.]. But if the apostles never taught that there was to be a final, physical coming of Christ, a physical resurrection, and a final judgment, then why did the church only misinterpret some of the prophetic texts?
IN CONCLUSION, the above data convincingly demonstrates that the early church from @ 90-150 A.D. believed in a yet future physical resurrection, return of Christ, final judgment, and consummation of all things unto an eternal state. Given that such is the case, it is hard to imagine that such important doctrines could have been so badly misunderstood by the post-apostolic fathers. The apostles taught in word and letter that there was a final, consummating coming of Christ that was to occur in the future beyond the A.D. 70 event. This included the physical return of Jesus, the physical resurrection and final judgment of all humanity, and the consummation. So, the question for the full preterist is this:
How is it possible that those early church fathers that were so close to the time of the apostles so grossly misunderstood their teachings regarding the final coming of Christ, the resurrection, and the Final Judgment? If in fact, the apostles never intended to teach a physical, literal, and future occurrence of these events beyond the judgment coming of Christ in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem, how could the apostolic and post-apostolic fathers been so mistaken?
**Full Disclosure: Credit is to be given to Dr. Kenneth Gentry, Keith Mathison, and C. Jonathan Seraiah for the major ideas contained in this article. All of the ideas contained herein are summations of their arguments against full preterism found in their own writings. Thus, they deserve full credit for all of the major ideas contained in this article. I am greatly indebted to their work and am merely republishing a summary their own refutations of full preterism for the benefit and protection of the church against this repugnant and gangrenous heresy.**