Preterism and the Gospels: Part 1, The Problem Is Eschatology

Regular readers know that I've been exploring preterism, the belief that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the past with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Preterism is a common view in my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ.

Most within my faith tradition subscribe to partial preterism, the belief that all biblical prophecy has been fulfilled except the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Death, an event that will happen suddenly and with no warning, in the "twinkling of an eye" (1 Cor. 15.52). (Note how in this view there's no rapture, no millennial reign, no battle of Armageddon, no Antichrist, no special role for the nation of Israel, etc.)

A few in my faith tradition subscribe to a more extreme view, what is known as full preterism, the belief that all prophecy was fulfilled in 70 AD, even the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Dead. We call people in our tradition who believe in full preterism the "70 AD-ers."

Now you might be wondering, why am I exploring preterism?

First, if you read scholars like NT Wright you'll note his preterist reading of the gospels. Jesus saw a great conflagration in Israel's future. Israel was on a path toward self-destruction in seeking a violent overthrow of the Romans. Jesus was calling Israel to a different vision of what it might mean to be the People of God who would bless the nations. But Israel refused the invitation, triggering Jesus' great lamentation over Jerusalem and his prophecies about the coming destruction of the city.

So my first reason for exploring preterism is that it's simply a better way to read the gospels.

My second reason for wanting to explore preterism is more theological in nature.

Here and there, inside and outside of Christianity, you hear the claim made that transcendence is a bad thing, a problematic thing. That is, belief in God pulls you out of this world, causing you to focus on and privilege an unseen spiritual realm over human beings.

Sometimes this belief in transcendence is criticized for being infantile. "God" is a childish belief that make us feel safe and secure in a scary world.

Sometimes belief in transcendence is criticized for being a source of violence. People kill in the name of God.

So people reach the conclusion that belief in transcendence is a bad thing. Consequently, to grow as humane people we have to question and kill off transcendence. This is the classic "death of god" move, the idea that when we give up on transcendence we put childish things behind us to enter more fully into loving and embracing this world.

There was a season in my life where this constellation of ideas was attractive to me. I could use my doubts about God as fuel to make me a better follower of Jesus. Seemed like a great way to make lemonade out of lemons.

But I've come to think that the "death of god" account--to become a loving human being we must kill off transcendence--is overly simplistic. True, there are infantile expressions of transcendence. I wrote a whole book at that. And it's also true that people judge, hate and kill in the name of God.

But it's also true, and I think much more common, that people use transcendence in positive ways. Most of the people I know would say that they are better people, kinder and more compassionate, because God is in their lives. That has been the case with me.

This isn't to say that metaphysics is a prerequisite for kindness and compassion. Just the simple claim that transcendence is used by many people to become more kind and compassionate.

In short, there is good transcendence and bad transcendence. The problem isn't with transcendence, but with something else, something that potentially poisons the waters of transcendence. Curdling and souring it.

What might that something be?

I think the thing that poisons transcendence is eschatology.

When you consider the varieties of bad transcendence--from infantile beliefs in God to the hate of an ISIS or a Westboro Baptist Church--what you tend to find at work is bad eschatology. On the infantile side you find the otherworldly, escapist and triumphalist visions of heaven. On the hateful side you find the fire and brimstone of a God bringing judgment upon evildoers.

By contrast, when you find good transcendence you find better eschatology. There's a rejection of an otherworldly escape to heaven for a focus on the kingdom coming to earth. Or a rejection of hellfire and brimstone for a more inclusive vision of salvation.

In short, I think our problems are not with transcendence but with eschatology. As your eschatology goes so goes your transcendence.

Now some might jump in here to say that the issue isn't with eschatology but with one's view of God, that our view of God is what determines the goodness or badness of our transcendence. But that's just a confusion of terminology. When I'm talking about transcendence I'm talking about view of God. By "good transcendence" I mean a good view of God, God as loving and gracious. By "bad transcendence" I mean a bad view of God.

So the issue is what poisons your view of God, what curdles transcendence?

Again, I think it's eschatology. Sitting behind a "loving view of God" is a loving eschatological vision. "Love wins" is eschatology through and through.

Same goes for a bad view of God. Why does ISIS kill people? Because of eschatology, the belief that God damns infidels and will reward suicide bombers. Why does Westboro Baptist protest? Because they believe that America is facing God's coming judgment for its acceptance of things like gay marriage. Again, it all boils down to eschatology.

What you think about The End are the glasses through which you see Today.

So it seems to me that a whole lot is riding on how we think about heaven, hell and judgment. Get these wrong and everything goes wrong. If you're going to believe in God you better get your eschatology right.

So that's why I'm interested in a preterist reading of the gospels. Eschatology is huge and determative. But a lot of us find it too weird or escoteric to meddle with.

So in the next few posts I'd like to trace the preterist thread through the gospels as I think, following scholars like NT Wright, a preterist reading gets us close to the eschatological imagination of Jesus.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply