By and large, Jesus has been bifurcated. Liberal Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of love and mercy. Conservative Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of judgment.
This division is inevitable as liberal and conservative Christians are working with incompatible eschatological visions--love wins versus eternal conscious torment--which are imported back onto Jesus. This forces you to pick and choose material from Jesus that supports your eschatological vision. Thus, two Jesuses emerge from the pages of the gospels, one liberal and one conservative.
And it's here where I think preterism is helpful. Both liberals and conservatives read Jesus as talking about a future place called "heaven" or "hell" when Jesus was actually talking about an imminent event that would happen within history. Consider the following text:
Matthew 7.13-14Most of us instinctively read this text as being about heaven and hell, a reward or punishment at some far future date at the end of the world. But according to a preterist reading, the "destruction" being spoken of here was both imminent and historical. And throughout Jesus' entire ministry he was warning about this event.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
As prophesied by John the Baptist, Jesus would sift Israel, a great winnowing that would separate the chaff from the wheat. The Great Winnowing runs all through Jesus' teachings. We saw it above in the Sermon on the Mount: "Enter by the narrow gate for broad is the way the leads to destruction."
Israel faced a fork in the road, a choice that would create a separation. The Great Winnowing.
The Great Winnowing sits at the heart of Jesus' parables. One example:
Matthew 13.47-50Read the three parables in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Goats and Sheep. Each one is a parable about a coming separation and judgment.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Again, you can't do justice to Jesus without attending to the Great Winnowing theme that runs through his kingdom message. Just as John the Baptist predicted, Jesus was bringing a fire to earth that would separate Israel:
Luke 12.49-56Note again how in this text that the coming fire, the Great Winnowing that "brings division," isn't the fire of a future hell. The fire Jesus is predicting is one that is coming soon, in the "present time."
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
Jesus' audience is told to wake up and read the signs of the times. Judgment is imminent.
Okay, here's how all this helps us overcome the liberal vs. conservative reading of Jesus.
Again, according to a preterist reading of the gospels the fiery Day of the Lord prophesied by both John the Baptist and Jesus was the violent path of self-destruction Israel was pursuing in seeking the overthrow of the Romans. Israel was seeking to make the kingdom of God come through violence and political domination.
Jesus rejected that path and declared that the kingdom of God had already come, was already available. The kingdom, where peace and mercy ruled and where swords were beaten into plowshares, was at hand. The kingdom of God is in our midst. So repent and believe this good news.
In light of this gospel proclamation, Israel was faced with a choice. (We are still faced with this choice.) Heed Jesus' message or continue on the path of self-destruction. This is the Great Winnowing.
The reason Jesus' message seems so mixed--love and grace mixed with fire and judgment--is that Jesus' kingdom proclamation was being preached at a time of crisis. Israel was driving itself off the cliff. Seeing this, and standing in the shadow of the Hebrew prophets, both John the Baptist and Jesus raised the alarm.
The grace, peace and love of the kingdom was available, right now, as the salvation of both Israel and the world. The storm clouds were coming and the lost and scattered sheep of Israel were being gathered up by the Shepherd. The Mother Hen was calling to her chicks.
But the time to accept this message was running out.
Judgment would come, said Jesus, upon that generation.