Why I am a Preterist, Part III


Kurt Simmons




In this article we conclude our series "Why I am a Preterist."  

As noted in a previous article, the corpus or body of writings devoted to the study of "last things" may be divided into three categories, which together make up a pyramid of interpretation.  The first story of the pyramid and very foundation of Preterism are the many Times Texts in the Bible placing Jesus' second coming in the first century.  In our first article in this series, we looked at 37 times texts, which unanimously place the return of Christ within the first disciples' lives.  Here are but a few of the many passages we examined: 



  • Matt. 24:30, 34 - "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory…Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."



The second story of the pyramid consists in historical characters and events that were to mark Christ's kingdom and coming. Here we saw that from Genesis to Revelation, the latter days were tied to Biblical Israel and Rome, and that Rome would destroy the Jewish nation in divine judgment for its murder of Christ and persecution of Christians:  

The first and second stories of the pyramid, therefore, corroborate each other and establish the second coming as a past event. We learn from scripture that there was to be a "second coming." The scripture are inerrant and immutable. Therefore we believe in the second coming as an indisputable fact and article of the Christian faith.  But the same scriptures that speak of a second coming also tell us that it would occur within the first disciples' lifetimes. Shouldn't we receive the when of the second coming in the same spirit of faith we receive the fact of the second coming? How can we receive scripture's testimony regarding one, but not receive scripture's testimony regarding the other? Yet, that is precisely what most of Christendom does.  Most of Christendom believes that Jesus' return is still future. Christians are taught that Christ's coming will be bodily and visible and that a fiery conflagration will end the physical cosmos (according to some), or that Christ will introduce a millennial kingdom (according to others). However, these scenarios create hopeless contradiction between the "what" of the second coming, and the "when."  Can the majority of Christendom just be plain wrong? If so, what is it that has led so many into error?  To answer these questions we need to turn to the language of the prophets, and thus come at last to the third story of our pyramid. 

The Usus Loquendi of the Prophets 

The chief reason so many Christians have fallen into error regarding the past fulfillment of Christ's second coming is a prevailing lack of familiarity with the usus loquendi of the prophets. "Usus loquendi" is a Latin phrase that describes the established use or custom of speaking employed by the prophets. The language of the prophets was poetic and figurative. The word pictures they painted are among the most beautiful and powerful in the world. They are also among the most terrifying. When God visited judgment upon the world, bringing war, famine, and pestilence upon the nations, the language employed was highly exaggerated, to emphasize the severity of the coming judgment and to lead the nations to repentance. The prophets described the Lord as coming in wrath, riding upon the clouds as upon a chariot; the earth melts at his presence; the isles flee from before him; mountains and hills are dissolved by the blood of the multitudes slain; the land is turned into burning pitch; rivers of brimstone go before him, consuming the wicked from off the earth; the sun is darkened; the moon turned to blood; stars fall from their courses, and men seek to hide themselves in the holes and caves of the earth from heaven's appointed wrath. This language of a "collapsing universe" occurs over and over again in the Old Testament to describe heaven's judgment upon men and nations, not the destruction of the cosmos itself. Sir Isaac Newton explains the imagery of the prophets this way: 

"The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic. Accordingly, the world natural, consisting of heaven and earth, signifies the whole world politic, consisting of thrones and people, or so much of it as is considered in prophecy; and the things in that world signify the analogous things in this. For the heavens and the things therein signify thrones and dignities, and those who enjoy them: and the earth, with the things thereon, the inferior people; and the lowest parts of the earth, called Hades or Hell, the lowest or most miserable part of them. Great earthquakes, and the shaking of heaven and earth, are put for the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby. The sun [stands], for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of common people considered as the king's wife; the stars, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ. Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom."[1]


What was true of the Old Testament is true of the New Testament.  The New Testament was not spoken in a vacuum. Jesus and his disciples were Jews and spoke to Jews. All Jews belonged to the local synagogue, and grew up hearing the Old Testament prophets read aloud every Sabbath. Most Jews were literate, and any male might be called upon to read from the prophets in the synagogue (Lk. 4:16-20; Acts 15:21). At such times, the Jews would have heard Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the "minor prophets" pronounced divine wrath and judgment upon their ancestors for apostasy, idolatry, and sin. Equally important, they would have heard historical narratives describing fulfillment of these prophecies, and how the nation was destroyed in judgment upon their sin. The language of prophecy and its historical fulfillment would therefore have been known and familiar to the Jews of Jesus' day. 

We know by comparing Jesus' pronouncements against Jerusalem that he used language identical to the prophets; we can even identify language and images appropriated from Old Testament sources in his predictions. Jews of Jesus' day would have recognized Jesus' teaching as a continuation of the prophetic tradition, and known how to interpret the things he taught and said. However, this familiarity would not have existed among the Gentiles.  Early on, while the apostles were still alive, Gentiles became the dominate people of the faith. Lacking familiarity with the Old Testament, Gentiles would not have been able to readily compare Jesus' and the apostles' teaching with that of the prophets, or to recognize its historical fulfillment. Newton's very reasonable and learned comments above should be compared with those of Lactantius (A.D. 260-330): 

About this same time also the prince of the devils, who is the contriver of all evil, shall be bound with chains, and shall be imprisoned during the thousand years of the heavenly rule in which righteousness shall reign in the world, so that he may contrive no evil against the people of God.  After His coming the righteous shall be collected from all the earth, and the judgment being completed, the sacred city shall be planted in the middle of the earth, in which God Himself the builder may dwell together with the righteous bearing rule in it…the earth will open its fruitfulness, and bring forth most abundant fruits of its own accord; the rocky mountains shall drop with honey; streams of wine shall run down, and rivers flow with mile: in short, the world itself shall rejoice, and all nature exult, being rescued and set fee from the dominion of evil and impiety, and guilt and error. Throughout this time beasts shall not be nourished by blood, nor birds by prey; but all things shall be peaceful and tranquil. Lions and calves shall stand together at the manger, and the wolf shall not carry off the sheep, the hound shall not hunt for prey; hawks and eagles shall not injure; the infant shall play with serpents.[2]


For Lactantius, the prophets do not communicate spiritual truths in poetic and figurative language, but spoke literally, so that men are taught to look for rivers to flow with actual wine! With these sorts of expectations about the second coming, it is no wonder men are still looking for Christ's return. This situation has more or less continued until today. Christians lack sufficient grounding in the Old Testament to intelligently interpret Biblical eschatology. In the balance of this article, we will survey many passages from the prophets to see how they used language and how this same language is used in the New Testament. 

Day of the Lord 

This phrase occurs in its complete form twice in the New Testament (Acts 2:20; II Pet. 3:10), though the abbreviated form "day" occurs with some frequency. It is widely assumed that it refers to the end of the world, but this is incorrect.  The phrase occurs numerous times throughout the Old Testament, where it describes times of divine judgment upon the world. Typically, it is accompanied by figurative language of preternatural phenomena in which the Lord comes in wrath upon the nations. Isaiah's description of the fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians provides a good case study. We will compare Isaiah with New Testament passages.   

First, Isaiah describes the Lord's coming in the armies of the nations. Notice that the Lord's coming is not bodily and visible, but spiritual and providential: 

This may be compared with Matthew:  

Birth Pangs  

Next, Isaiah describes the terror and destruction brought upon the world by the Mede-Persian armies in the day of the Lord. Isaiah evokes imagery of a woman in travail, a theme familiar to New Testament eschatology, describing a time of national and world calamity: 

This may be compared with these New Testament passages:

Collapsing Universe

Isaiah then describes heaven's wrath upon sinners in terms of celestial phenomena, in which the heavens themselves refuse to shine upon the world of men: 

This should be compared with Luke:

Shaking of Heaven & Earth 

Next, the very heavens and earth shake at the coming of the Lord and the destruction wrought by the armies of the Medes and Persian, symbolic of the overthrow and unsettling of world powers:

Compare Hebrews: 

Thus, all of the apocalyptic language usually associated with the "end of the world" in the New Testament has an established usage in the Old Testament associated with times of judgment upon earth's nations. The language is poetic and figurative, not literal. Here is another "day of the Lord;" this time upon Edom.  

Mountains Melted with Blood 

First, Isaiah describes a time world-wrath as the armies of Babylon spread over the earth, leaving destruction in their wake. Notice in particular how the mountains melt with the blood of the slain:

Dissolution of the Heavens 

Next, Isaiah describes the very heavens themselves as being dissolved in language identical with the second epistle of Peter. If the language of Isaiah is figurative, as surely it is, what rule of interpretation makes Peter's imagery literal? 

Compare with Peter: 

Land Soaked with Blood 

Isaiah does not leave us in doubt about what nation is under heaven's wrath, but names Idumea (Edom), saying their land would be soaked with blood.

Earth turned to Brimstone & Ceaseless Burning 

Isaiah next describes the land as burning pitch and brimstone, whose smoke ascends forever and ever. This language compares with Peter and Revelation:

Compare with New Testament passages:

Coming on Clouds 

Another familiar image of the second coming is Christ coming on clouds of glory.  Most assume this is literal, but Old Testament prophets employed this imagery rather frequently to times of national and world judgment. 

Earth Melting at the Presence of the Lord 

Most expect at the second coming that Christ will descend from heaven with a shout and that the earth will melt before him. This imagery is fairly common in the Old Testament; the prophet Miach's description of judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem is among the best in this tradition:

What about Second Peter 3? 

Some may object that, although many of the passages cited above have the look and feel of hyperbolic speech, the second epistle of Peter sounds much more "matter of fact," and does not seem to be of the same poetic genre as the prophets. There is some truth to this observation. Peter's statements about the elements melting with fervent heat appear in the midst of a plain-speaking epistle, not in the course of a long poetic book or passage. Might not Peter be speaking of a nuclear holocaust at the world's end?  No.  Peter's reference to the promised "new heavens and earth" toward the end of his epistle make this impossible (II Pet. 3:13).  This promise is from the book of Isaiah, where it clearly refers to the altered condition of world political affairs following Christ's judgment upon the Jews and Romans. 

The socio-political environment of the world had been oppressive to God's people down through the long centuries, culminating in the persecution of Nero and the Jews. But, with the ascension of Christ and his rule over the nations, dominion has come to the saints, who now find themselves in world-wide ascendancy as Daniel the prophet foretold: 

Origen and the Figurative Use of Language 

Before closing, it will be worth our while to cite one of the earliest and most learned of the early Patristic Writers, Origen.  Origen (A.D. 185-254) writings were voluminous.  His friend and patron, Ambrosius, bore the expense of seven amanuenses and an equal number of transcribers, as well as girls practiced in calligraphy, to make copies for publication of the works dictated by Origen.  Jerome says that he wrote more than any individual could read. Epiphanius related that his works amounted to 6,000 writings. His magnum opus was the Hexapala, a critical edition of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures set in six columns, including versions of the 1) Hebrew, 2) Hebrew transliterated into Greek, 3) Aquila of Sinope, 4) Symmachus the Ebionite, 5) a recension of the Septuagint, 6) Theodotion.  His works published in the Ante-Nicene Fathers include De Principiis, A Letter to Africanus about the History of Susanna, A Letter to Gregory, and Contra Celsus.  In Contra Celsus, Origen defended the idea of God “coming down” to earth, affirming that scriptural usage shows that this language is figurative:  

“And if the voices of the prophets say that God ‘comes down,’ who has said, ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord,’ the term is used in a figurative sense. For God ‘comes down’ from His own height and greatness when He arranges the affairs of men, and especially those of the wicked.”[3]   

Furthermore, the bodily descent of God is also accommodative language, not to be taken literally:  

“And as custom leads men to say that teachers ‘condescend’ to children, and wise men to those youths who have just betaken themselves to philosophy, not by ‘descending in a bodily manner; so, if God is said anywhere in the holy Scriptures to ‘come down, it is understood as spoken in conformity with the usage which so employs the word, and in like manner also with the expression, ‘go up.’[4] 

But if the “coming down” of God is figurative, and is not literal or bodily, Origen also affirms that the fire of Christ’s conflagration is merely figurative:  

“But it is in mockery that Celsus says we speak of ‘God coming down like a torturer bearing fire,’ and thus compels us unseasonably to investigate words of deeper meaning, we shall make a few remarks, sufficient to enable our hearers to form an idea of the defense which disposes of the ridicule of Celsus against us, and then we shall turn to what follows.  The divine word says that our God is ‘a consuming fire,’ and that ‘He draws rivers of fire before Him;’ nay, that he even entereth in as ‘a refiner’s fire, and as a fuller’s herb,’ to purify His own people. But when He is said to be a ‘consuming fire,” we inquire what are the things which are appropriate to be consumed by God. And we assert that they are wickedness, and the works which result from it, and which, being figuratively called ‘wood, hay, stubble,’ God consumes as a fire.  The wicked man, accordingly, is said to build upon the previously-laid foundation of reason, ‘wood, and hay, and stubble.’  If, then, any one can show that these words were differently understood by the writer, and can prove that the wicked man literally builds up ‘wood, or hay, or stubble,’ it is evident that the fire must be understood to be material, and an object of sense. But if, on the contrary, the works of the wicked man are spoken of figuratively, under the names of ‘wood, or hay, or stubble,” why does it not once occur (to inquire) in what sense the word ‘fire’ is to be taken, so that ‘wood’ of such a kind should be consumed? For (the scripture) says: “The fire will try each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work be burned, he shall suffer loss.”[5]

Here we have Origen’s answer to Celsus’ mock that God comes down as a “torturer bearing fire.”  First, the coming down is figurative; second, the bodily form is merely accommodative, not literal; third, the fire of Christ’s wrath is also figurative.

In connection with this last, a survey of the texts quoted by Origen shows all are traditional “second coming” passages: 

These “second coming” passages, coupled with Origen’s figurative understanding of prophetic language, show that Origen viewed the second coming in terms precisely as Preterists do today. Moreover, this view did nor originate with Origen; he merely defended what appears to have been the consensus of the day, as surely it would have to have been to come to the attention of an outsider and unbeliever like Celsus and make its way into his book.


The three story pyramid of interpretation of Time Texts, Characters and Events, and Symbolic Language weave into a threefold cord that cannot be broken. We hope you will embrace Preterism as the only credible and defensible interpretive school of eschatology.

[1] Sir Isaac Newton, Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel, Part i. chap. ii 

[2] Lactanius

s, Divine Inistitutes, VII, xxiv; Ante Nicene Fathers Vol. 7, p. 219.

[3] Contra Celsus, IV, xiii; Ante-Nicene Father, Vol IV, pg. 501, 2

[4] Contra Celsus, IV, xii; Ante-Nicene Father, Vol. IV, pg. 502

[5] Contra Celsus, IV, xiii; Ante-Nicene Fathers IV, pg. 502.

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