Rethinking Heaven and Hell: On Preterism, N.T. Wright and the Churches of Christ

My faith tradition keeps surprising me.

There's a lot that is quirky about the Churches of Christ. Our eschatology is an example. And yet, just when I think we're weird and marginal I discover that, well, through either providence or historical accident we find ourselves right on the cutting edge.

As I've written about before, eschatology within the Churches of Christ has tended toward preterism, generally partial preterism.

To catch everyone up, preterism is the view that all biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In full preterim this includes all prophecies about Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Partial preterism is the less extreme and more common view, arguing that most of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, the book of Revelation and in Jesus's Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) were fulfilled in 70 AD (and/or with the destruction of Rome) but that Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead are still to come.

Again, many within the Churches of Christ subscribe to partial preterism. We believe that all that stuff in Revelation about the Beast, 666, the "rapture," a millennial reign and the Antichrist was referring to events that occurred in 70 AD. (Though many think that Revelation is about the destruction of Rome rather than Jerusalem. Still, we concur that most biblical prophecy is over and done with.) According to partial preterism the only event in the future that remains is the Second Coming of Jesus which ushers in Final Judgment. And that final event--the Second Coming--is wholly unpredictable and instantaneous. Jesus will come like a "thief in the night" (unpredictable) and in the "twinkling of an eye" (instantaneous).

Pore over the book of Revelation as much as you like, you will never be able to read the tea leaves.

All of which means that, in the eyes of the Churches of Christ, attempts at working out "end times prophecy," especially in relation to geo-political events (like focusing on, say, the state of Israel), is a total waste of time.

Growing up with preterism made me feel weird. Every time I engaged a Christian outside of the Churches of Christ--Baptists in particular--they had all this apocalyptic "end of days" and "rapture" theology worked out. So when I shared my belief that all that stuff they were talking about had already happened in 70 AD I was met with astonishment and incredulity.

And yet, over the years I've been noticing how preterism is becoming more mainstream. And much of this due to the work of N.T. Wright.

I don't know if Wright would describe his views as preterist. Wright is definitely not a full preterist. But much of Wright's writing articulates a partial preterist viewpoint, especially when it comes to Jesus.

Specifically, Wright argues over and over in his books, a view shared by many biblical scholars, that Jesus was calling Israel to repent as she was on a self-destructive collision course with Rome. Jesus saw the coming violent conflagration and predicted it. And about forty years after Jesus's death his predication came to pass.

All that to say, most of what Jesus was talking about in the gospels in regards to judgment--that place where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth"--isn't about an otherworldly hell in our future. Judgment, according to Jesus, was going to be a concrete historical event.

Hell was coming to earth.

And it did in 70 AD.

Here is how Wright makes these arguments in his recent book Simply Good News:
[R]eaders of the New Testament have made the mistake of forgetting (often because of the [physical/spiritual] split-level universe they live in) that language about such things as sun, moon, and stars falling from heaven was about what we would call political events...Jesus spoke of certain things that were to happen "within a generation." Many modern scholars have supposed that he was talking about "the end of the world," and that he was wrong. But, in those famous passages in the Gospels, Jesus is talking not about the end of the world but about the fall of Jerusalem...And of course Jerusalem did indeed fall to the Romans about forty years after the end of Jesus's public career...

Jesus continually warned his fellow countrymen that if they didn't follow where he was leading, the result would be disaster. He used quite lurid language for these warnings. Even so, the message didn't really get through. He wasn't saying what they wanted him to say. But a lot of those warnings, taken out of context and interpreted through the lens of much later medieval beliefs, made it sound as though Jesus was warning people not that their city and nation would be destroyed but that they were going to hell. "Unless you repent," he says twice in the early paragraphs of Luke 13, "you will all be destroyed in the same way." Read that in the fifteenth century, and it's obvious what it means: unless you give up your sins, you will be thrown into hell for all eternity. Read it in the first century and a very different meaning should be equally obvious: unless you turn from your crazy path of nationalist rebellion against Rome, Rome will come and do to you what it has done to everyone who stands in its path. Jesus's contemporaries took no notice. The warnings came true.
As you can see, all this is very consistent and supportive of the partial preterist position. And Wright's work is full of passages just like these. Jesus wasn't talking about an otherworldly Hell and Final Judgment. Jesus was predicting a concrete historical event, an event that happened in 70 AD.

And yet, there is a new emphasis here with Wright, one that was missing in the Churches of Christ of my youth.

Specifically, I was mainly taught preterist readings in the Churches of Christ so that I could dismiss the "end times" theology of other faith traditions--all that talk about the rapture and the Antichrist--as hogwash. And, to be clear, I didn't mind that. To this day I think "Left Behind" theology is hogwash. And dangerous when it justifies Christians taking sides in geo-political conflicts.

But what Wright is doing here with a preterist reading is a bit more. Wright is rethinking, in light of the gospels, what "heaven" and "hell" might mean. That conversation, the one Wright is having, never came up in the Churches of Christ I was associated with. While preterist we still talked about hell as being an otherworldly torture chamber. But if that's not what Jesus was talking about, if Jesus was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem as we were so fond of arguing, then it appears that the Churches of Christ haven't been preterist enough.

And that's what I find so interesting. Not only is preterism increasing in scholarly respectability, but scholars like Wright are prompting preterist faith traditions like Churches of Christ to dig more deeply into the doctrine.

Within the Churches of Christ we taught preterism to combat "Left Behind" theology. But we've failed to grasp how preterism might allow us to rethink heaven and hell as Wright is doing.

In the Churches of Christ we've used preterism polemically, as a weapon to rebut bad eschatology. But we've failed to invest in preterism as a positive theological resource.

In the Churches of Christ preterism is a theological resource familiar to our people. A resource, if we invested in it, that could profoundly alter how we think about heaven and hell.

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32 thoughts on “Rethinking Heaven and Hell: On Preterism, N.T. Wright and the Churches of Christ”

  1. Does not the New Testament teach that there is only one judgment, and that the one judgment has already taken place in Jesus Christ? "Now is the judgment of this world" says Jesus in John 12:31. If we are to believe the fourth Gospel then the events of 70 AD are confirmation of that one judgment in the cross, and that the final judgment is simply that one judgment long ago finally becoming seen and comprehended by the whole world. Good Friday, not 70 AD, was most certainly the true hell.

    Of course to think in this manner (meaning along the lines of the New Testament) requires that we reconsider the reality of time. Incarnation, resurrection and ascension most certainly reveal a different kind of time that is not subject to the time of our current creaturely and fallen existence.

  2. I wish I would have been brought up with this theology, instead of the pre-tribulational premillenialism (yes, I had to wikipedia that phrase. basically the left behind theology). Long story short, as an adult I am still trying to get rid of that, and especially the "end times are near" thinking. It's not easy, but what you wrote about today certainly helps a lot.

  3. Ca, c'est magnifique. This is precisely the needle that has been in my brain as I have been completely re-thinking what the term "gospel" might mean in the first instance, that is, per the biblical authors themselves.

  4. I should also mention that Wright's _Paul and the Faithfulness of God_ contains a massive account of this whole matter. It's incredible reading.

  5. Back in the 90's, I heard R C Sproul talk on about a book he wrote where he argued for a preterist understanding. I had never heard of it before that, but it made WAY more sense than the rapture stuff I grew up with. I jumped in with both feet.

    Question: Does the CofC insist on an early dating of Revelation? That's one thing I've come to reject regarding the view I got about preterism. I think the book was written later (after 70) not as a foretelling of the future but as a history of the recent past. Thoughts?

  6. Many of the CoC commentaries on Revelation (the ones I read growing up) do push for a pre-70 AD date for Revelation to keep a connection between Revelation and Jesus's Olivet Discourse in the gospels (using Jesus as the hermeneutical key to the book of Revelation). But a lot of CoC scholars just don't think that early dating is plausible. For these CoC scholars they see Revelation as being about the destruction of Rome rather than Jerusalem. That's not as neat a solution, if you're trying to keep Revelation connected to Jesus's "little apoplayse," but it does keep to the preterist position that most if not all of NT prophecy has already been fulfilled in the past.

  7. Thanks. For the record, I still see it as about the destruction of Jerusalem while dated after year 70.

  8. I don't think I've ever encountered any CofC people who have not held to some sort of "timetable" view of Revelation. Especially in my college days, the CofCers I knew were invested in premillennial rapture theology. Maybe it's the water here in California...


  9. That's strange. There was a concerted effort in the CoC in the '50s to kick everyone who believed in premillennialism out of the movement. While I like preterism, the "heresy" hunting over premillennialism was an ugly era of CoC history.

  10. Some history here might help. The early leaders of the CoC (Alexander Campbell in particular) subscribed to millennialism. Starting in the '30s premillennialism became a divisive issue in the CoC with preterists like Foy Wallace winning the day.

  11. I wonder what, if anything, the movement among Stone-Campbell churches towards a "common evangelicalism" might add to how we explain the embracing of "timetable" eschatology in the tradition. Of course, I speak as someone who's spent the most time in the Christian Church side of the family tree, and I don't think it would be unfair to characterize our branch as having been mostly grafted into the evangelical bush. Has there been a similar movement toward "evangelicalism" among CofC folks?

  12. The situation in the CoC is rapidly evolving. Many of our largest and most influential churches having, for example, adopted instrumental music. Many of our churches are also rapidly converging upon evangelicalism. What I don't know, and what would be interesting to watch, is the degree to which these evangelical-trajectory-type congregations start shifting away from preterism to dispensational premillennialism. I've seen that happening, and a lot of it is being driven by a pro-Israel political stance. Politics causing the theological drift.

  13. There are too many predictions of the soon coming Son of Man or soon coming Lord throughout the NT to take Wright seriously. See The Lowdown on God's Showdown. Also see Thom Stark' The Human Facrs of God, the chapter, Jesus was wrong, which interacts with Wright's views. Also see Dale Allison's rebuttals to Wrigt's views.and Edward Adams' demolition of Wright's ignorance concerning final judgment expectations in the first century, The Stars Will Fall.

  14. I don't know if there is a consensus answer. I'd have to look a various CoC commentaries to see how they read it. But the general gist is that Rome is the antagonist in the book, the one persecuting and killing the Christians. The Revelation, thus, a book written to sustain the persecuted Christians in the face of Roman oppression.

    Basically, rather than "Left Behind" end times prophecy Revelation is read as coded anti-Empire resistance literature.

  15. Fifty-five years ago I had a semester course titled "Premillennialism" in a CofC college. The doctrine was thoroughly debunked, typed as false doctrine from pulpits and religious papers. Since 1980 the Cof C has married conservative politics and are so absorbed in putting an aura of sacredness over political policies that premillennialism is seldom mentioned even though probably 60 percent of evangelicals now accept the view. Back then it was only 40 percent. But now the church is rather silent about the issue because preaching on it might harm the political prospects of the political right. There is a direct relationship between political conservatism and belief in premillennialism. It was claimed that GWB had frequent conference calls with the left behind folks who informed the president that war in the Middle East was a good thing; It might hasten the second coming.

    You will notice that when it comes to views on heaven and hell, preachers in the C of C always go to Luke 16 to tell us what happens at death. Yet that is not what is being discussed in the line of parables from Luke 10 to 18. The point about poverty and wealth is couched within the framework of an old Egyptian tale with which the Jews were familiar. Jesus was not telling us about the location of heaven and hell.

  16. After being a full preterist for a number of years, I now find the view of Andrew Perriman ( ) more compelling intellectually. He works out a "three-horizon" view in which judgment comes on the Jews first, then the gentiles (Jewish-Roman war, disruption of Rome). In general, I find that full preterism is forced to constrain the historical narrative to the point that some things must be shifted into a sort of dualist spiritual realm...which I think undercuts the thrust of what you're seeing here.

  17. Theo, very good observation. In my opinion, a large number CoC congregations have simply become cells for the political right wing. Their "spirituality" and their politics have become such a stew that its going to take generations to clear the waters.

  18. "In the Churches of Christ preterism is a theological resource familiar
    to our people. A resource, if we invested in it, that could profoundly
    alter how we think about heaven and hell."


    And, it took reading Wright before I began to alter my thinking about heaven and hell.

  19. Homer Hailey was a guest teacher in my high school age bible study class at Valley Congregation in Phoenix AZ. So I learned the Preterism polemic early.

  20. Early CofC leaders were mostly "Post-millennialist" which fit in quite well with the "Americanism" of the period.

  21. The minister of my hometown congregation, who had the tag of "anti-final judgement" hung on him by a few other preachers in the area, was a big fan of Foy Wallace. Though I never read Wallace myself, I heard his name quite often while growing up. So, I eventually "did the math".

    I think it ironic, yet amazing and exciting, how a view obviously held by one of the most conservative preachers of his time, could possibly become a life saving force that can pull Churches of Christ out of the pit they let themselves be dragged into by the social and political right.

  22. How many Biblical prophesies were inserted into the text after the fact, such as during the Exile?

  23. If Jesus was simply telling people not to rebel against Rome, how is that relevant to us today? Or should we not try to find personal relevance in the words of Jesus?

  24. Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for the link! I'll be thinking about that for a while.

  25. So which view is correct? I grew up in a "left behind" environment and found solace in a partial preterist view. Now you have me thinking of heaven and hell all differently

  26. Personally I think a partial preterist view is correct, as it aligns with history....however, there are certainly prophetic portions of Scripture that cannot be explained away historically. As Wright has said, we are living within the story of God's redemptive plan. I've read alot of NT Wright and have never drawn the conclusion that he doesn't believe in a literal heaven or hell. Wright's point is there is more to the story than just what's on the surface, and we only get that when we dig deeper, try to put ourselves in 1st century Palestine, and read the Bible for all its worth.

  27. Heaven n earth will pass away... = Final Judgment
    "According to partial preterism the only event in the future that remains
    is the Second Coming of Jesus which ushers in Final Judgment..."

    How can preterists then speak of a local event In Jerusalem only. The answer is quite simple: The temple was ths symbol of heaven n earth, the cornerstone of gods creation, the Holy of Holies the centre point from which God created the kosmos. God f.ex. "chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever." (Ps78,69) In OT language the temple is the place where heaven meets earth n God makes a covenant with his people to define this relationship. For the Jews the destruction of their temple was the end of heaven n earth...

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