Idealists, Preterists, And Futurists
By Jack Kelley
When you boil it all down there are only three schools of thought for interpreting prophecy. There are idealists, who interpret prophecy symbolically and don’t expect any of it to be fulfilled in the literal sense. Then there are preterists, who see the complete fulfillment of prophecy in past events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And there are futurists who see the fulfillment of prophecy in events still to come. All the major views fit under one of these headings.
In this study, I’m going to focus on preterists and futurists because they both claim to interpret prophecy in terms of a literal fulfillment, whereas idealists treat it allegorically, symbolic of the ongoing struggle between good and evil. Because of that there are many opinions among idealists as to what it all means, with about the only areas of universal agreement being that none of it will really happen as written, and the “good guys” will eventually win. When you read an idealist’s interpretation of prophecy you’re reading what someone wishes the Bible did say, instead of what it does say.
For the most part preterists and futurists both agree on the basics of the Gospel. But when it comes to prophecy it’s hard to imagine how any two groups could be farther apart. Unlike idealists both preterists and futurists look for the fulfillment of prophecy in actual events, but as I said preterists see its fulfillment in events long past, while futurists look for it in events to come.
Preterist comes from the Latin word praeter, a prefix that defines something as being in the past. Think of the “pre” in preterist as standing for previous, as in previous to 71 AD. As an example, let’s take one of the Bible’s most important prophecies, Daniel’s 70 Weeks (Daniel 9:24-27). Preterists believe the entire prophecy has been fulfilled. According to the preterist interpretation, after Jesus was crucified, the Romans desecrated the Temple, and the Roman Emperor Nero fulfilled the prophecies of the coming prince, also known as the anti-Christ.
Preterists believe the day of the Lord took place in 68-70 AD with the Roman conquest of Israel. The Millennium was actually only 40 years long and took place from 30-70 AD. The Earth will last forever and there will be no coming judgment and no rapture of the Church. Since there’s no prophecy left to fulfill we’ll simply transition from time into eternity on a future day of the Lord’s choosing.
On the other hand, futurists believe there is a gap of time between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel and all of Daniel’s 70th week is yet to be fulfilled. According to the futurist view the rapture of the Church, the rebuilt Temple in Israel, the Great Tribulation, the 2nd Coming, the Millennium and the Great White Throne judgment are still to come.
How Could This Be?
God knows the end from the beginning so He always knew the Israelites would reject the Messiah and open the door for the Gentile Church. But in order to preserve Israel’s first right of refusal regarding God’s Kingdom offer, all end times prophecy had leave Israel’s options open. If Isaiah or Daniel or any of the others had come right out and said that Israel would reject the Messiah and forfeit the Kingdom, the Lord’s instructions for the disciples to preach that “the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matt. 10:7) would not have been legitimate.
But if the prophets had clearly confirmed Israel’s acceptance then there would have been no place for the Church. The prophecies had to be given in such a way that both possibilities could legitimately exist in their fulfillment.
The way Daniel’s 70 Weeks prophecy reads allows both Preterists and Futurists to defend their interpretation. Someone who has only heard the Preterist interpretation can see how it fits the prophecy. Every event Preterists use to support their claim that the 70th week is in the past actually happened. Jesus was crucified, the Romans did destroy the city and the sanctuary and they did bring judgment upon Israel. You can even come up with a form of Nero’s name that has a numerical equivalent of 666.
Likewise someone who has only heard the Futurist position can see how it fits, too. Every event that Futurists use to support their claim that the 70th Week is yet to come has also happened. In fact both camps use some of the same historical events in support of their positions. Here’s why.
I’m convinced that had the Jews accepted Jesus as their Messiah so He could die for their sins like Daniel 9:26 prophesied, there would have been no gap in the 70 weeks prophecy. The 70th Week would have begun immediately after the resurrection and would have culminated in the Risen Lord leading His armies against Rome to restore the Kingdom to Israel and usher in the time we know as the Millennium. All the 2nd Coming prophecies would have been fulfilled at that time. (From Acts 1:6 we know this is how the disciples expected it to happen.)
By the way, the idea that that Jews should be condemned as Christ killers for putting the Messiah to death misses the point. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly show that Jesus had to die for the sins of the people. He came for that reason, to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Everyone knew that lambs were sacrificed as an offering for sin.
Their problem with God is not that they put the Messiah to death. Their problem is that they refused to allow His death to pay for their sins, and in so doing rendered His perfect sacrifice as being of even less value to them than the actual lambs that could only temporarily set their sins aside. It was an unbelievable insult to God that has left them dead in their sins and out of fellowship with Him for nearly 2000 years.
Because of this, James announced that Israel was being set aside while the Lord took for Himself a people from the gentiles. When He has finished doing that, He’ll turn His focus again to Israel and fulfill the remaining 70th Week (Acts 15:13-18). This was the first time on earth that a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy had been revealed. This is what gave gave rise to the idea that God is not finished with Israel and there’s a lot of Bible prophecy yet to be fulfilled. Paul confirmed this in Romans 11:25.
But Wait There’s More
There are other prophecies that confirm the idea that Israel’s options were open. For example, 750 years before the fact, Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:6-7).
There’s no indication of a gap in the middle of this prophecy’s fulfillment. Absent any other information a rational person would conclude that the two paragraphs are connected, with the second immediately following the first.
Likewise, when Gabriel announced the Lord’s coming to Mary, he promised that her child would be called the Son of God. He would sit on David’s throne and reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:30-33). Gabriel didn’t mention a 2,000 year gap between the child’s birth and His ascension to David’s throne either.
Both of these prophecies have only been fulfilled in part. The child was born, the son was given and He is called the Son of God by many. But because Israel rejected Him, He hasn’t been seated on David’s throne, He is not Israel’s King, and the Earth is not experiencing everlasting peace. By inserting a gap between the part that has been fulfilled and the part that hasn’t, you can see that what could have been the past to us has become the future and the meaning of the prophecy remains just as clear as it would have been with out it.
Can You See It?
Only when we really dig into these prophecies with supernatural insight can we see that the Preterist view requires a departure from a strict literal translation. I say we need the assistance of supernatural insight because as far as we can tell not one of the Jewish scholars “saw” the gap between the 69th and 70th weeks into which the Church Age so neatly fits. The Apostle Paul was arguably the most intellectually gifted of the New Testament writers, and had been educated by Gamaliel, who was revered as a pre-eminent Hebrew scholar (Acts 22:3). Yet even Paul did not understand this until it was revealed to him by God Himself. He said it was a mystery not made known to men in other generations (Ephes. 3:2-6).
Futurists who adhere to a literal interpretation of Scripture accuse Preterists of spiritualizing some prophecies in order to give them a historical fulfillment. For example, most Preterists cling to the opinion that God is finished with Israel. They say prophecies that Futurists see as pertaining to Israel’s future have been inherited by and fulfilled in the Church. In this they are like others who embrace replacement theology. (Replacement Theology is the false teaching that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s plan.)
And to those who ask for evidence that the 2nd Coming has already occurred, preterists have several responses. Some say that 2nd Coming prophecies were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the 2nd Temple in 70 AD. It’s based on their belief that when Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34) He was speaking of the people alive at the time. Since the phrase “all these things” includes the 2nd Coming, then it had to have been fulfilled in the judgment that came upon Israel through the Roman conquest.
But in the context of the passage it’s also possible to see a future fulfillment. Matt. 24:34 can be interpreted to say, “The generation that sees these things begin to happen will not pass away until they have all happened.” Believing the second coming has already happened, preterists use the first interpretation of Matt. 24:34, and believing the second Coming has not happened, futurists use the second one.
Some preterists say that while the judgment part of the 2nd Coming was fulfilled that that time, the Lord’s actual appearance, the resurrection that accompanies it, and the gathering of His elect are still in our future. (Those who hold this view call themselves partial preterists.)
What Does It All Mean?
In essence then, while Futurists look forward to the ultimate fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, Preterists look back and find its fulfillment in history. As you can imagine, while people are looking in opposite directions it’s almost impossible for them to have the same view.
So which one is more consistent with God’s word? If you adhere to a strict literal interpretation of His word a careful study of prophecy will lead you to the inescapable conclusion that there has to be a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel 9:24-27 and the Church Age is filling that gap. There’s no other way to make everything fit without having to reinterpret parts of it.
For example, preterists have to assume that what the Bible calls End Times judgments involved only the Middle East and not the whole world. That way they can see the fall of Jerusalem as the fulfillment of Armageddon, the Roman legions as the armies of Heaven, etc.
Likewise they see the representation of the Roman Eagle that King Herod affixed to the Temple wall as “the abomination that causes desolation” of which Daniel had spoken (Daniel 9:27), even though it doesn’t match the description of the only event in history to be known by that name.
In 168 BC Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes invaded Israel and took over the Temple, using it to worship the Greek god Zeus, and by extension himself. (The title epiphanes means manifestation, so in effect Antiochus was claiming to be Zeus in human form.) He set up a statue of Zeus in his own likeness which he required the Jews to worship on pain of death. This rendered the Temple unfit for worshiping God, so Jewish historians called it the Abomination that Causes Desolation. (source: 1 Maccabees, Josephus, New World Encyclopedia)
200 years later Jesus (Matt. 24:15) Paul (2 Thes 2:4) and John (Rev. 13:14-15) said that a coming event that does fit the above description will be a sign that the end of the age has come. Jesus even referred to it as the abomination that causes desolation. There has never been a repeat occurrence of the one recorded in Jewish history. Therefore it has to be still in our future.
And finally, in order to have it apply to the fall of Jerusalem preterists have to date the Book of Revelation prior to 70AD to fit the time of Nero’s reign, even though the most reliable estimates place it around 95AD, 25 years after the fall of Jerusalem.
History Repeating Itself
Theologians often speak of a dual fulfillment in end times prophecy. They point to partial fulfillments in history as God’s way of validating that a complete fulfillment will take place in the future. This has proven to be a reliable tool for predicting how end times fulfillments will take place, since they’ll be a more complete version of the earlier partial fulfillment.
The abomination that causes desolation is a good example. When Jesus said to look for another one to come as a sign that the end of the age is upon us He was giving His only specific answer to the disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). It was something people alive at the end of the age can identify with confidence because it happened once before, and Jewish historians recorded all the details.
I’m convinced another purpose of this dual fulfillment concept was to keep Israel’s option open. If they accepted the Messiah there would be an immediate complete fulfillment. If not, there would only be a partial fulfillment with the complete one coming in the future.
I believe the preterist position is built on the belief that what turned out to be a partial fulfillment in history, caused by Israel’s rejection of the Messiah, is the only fulfillment of end times prophecy and there isn’t a more complete fulfillment to come. Holding this view requires that preterists mold events to fit the prophecies in some cases and mold prophecies to fit the events in others. Only the futurist position remains true to the complete, literal sense in which the prophecies were written. You can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah.