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The Last Days According to Jesus

by
R.C. Sproul

Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998, 250 pages.

This book deals with the Olivet Discourse of Jesus, recorded in its most complete form in Matthew 24-25, and in more abbreviated form in Mark 13 and Luke 21. The stated purpose of the book is “to evaluate moderate preterism and its view of eschatology” (page 24). In general, preterism believes that the kingdom is a present reality, in contrast to dispensationalism, which Sproul says “regards the kingdom as yet future” which “will not come until the parousia” (the second coming of Christ) (pages 23-24). But Sproul distinguishes between two distinct forms of preterism: 1) radical preterism, which holds that all future prophecies in the New Testament have already been fulfilled (including the parousia), and 2) moderate preterism, which holds that while many prophecies in the New Testament have already been fulfilled, some crucial prophecies have not yet been fulfilled. The principal concern of the book is to evaluate preterism, and in particular these two forms of preterism, in regard to the interpretation of such verses in the Olivet Discourse as Matthew 24: 34 (“Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”), as well as other verses in the NT with specific time-frame references with respect to the coming of Christ, such as Matthew 10:23 (“Verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come”).

Throughout his book, Sproul interacts with a book first published in 1887: The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming, by J. Stuart Russell. Sproul regards Russell as “perhaps the most important scholar of the preterist school” (page 24), whose “chief concern was the time-frame references of NT eschatology, particularly with respect to Jesus’ utterances concerning the coming of the kingdom and to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse” (page 24). Sproul says that “the central thesis of Russell and indeed all preterists is that the NT’s time-frame references with respect to the parousia point to a fulfillment within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ disciples,” with some preterists holding to a “primary fulfillment in AD 70 (the destruction of Jerusalem) and a final fulfillment in the yet-unknown future” (page 25).

Sproul says that “whatever else may be said of preterism, it has achieved at least two things: (1) it has focused attention on the time-frame references of NT eschatology, and (2) it has highlighted the significance of Jerusalem’s destruction in redemptive history.” (page 25). In regard to the first of those achievements, Sproul feels that the failure of evangelical scholars to deal adequately with the time-frame references in NT prophecy has resulted in a wholesale attack on the trustworthiness of Scripture by radical critical scholars. The main problem is that Jesus’ predictions in the Olivet discourse “include not only predictions regarding Jerusalem and the temple, which did come to pass with astonishing accuracy, but also predictions of his own coming in glory, or his parousia.” The response to the predictions regarding the parousia on the part of radical critics is to say that Jesus was wrong, that His predictions did not come to pass. Futurist scholars, on the other hand, have, according to Sproul, gone through exegetical gymnastics to interpret the time-references in a manner that allows for an extended time period before their fulfillment. Preterists, however, take the time-references at face value and say that Christ’s parousia has occurred, in the short time frame predicted by Christ. They say that His prophesied parousia was fulfilled in a coming in judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. This takes into account the heavily symbolic nature of apocalyptic language used in prophetic passages in the Bible, and shows how similar language in the OT was used to prophesy of other judgements on Israel which by common agreement had historical fulfillment (such as the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BC). It also entails a close examination of other (non-Biblical) historical accounts of the details of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (such as by Josephus).

It is here that the differences between radical or full preterism, and moderate or partial preterism, come into play. The full-preterist view is that all specific eschatological events predicted in the New Testament, such as the second advent, the resurrection of the dead, the rapture, and the last judgment have already taken place. In contrast, the partial-preterist view is explained by Sproul when he says: “I am convinced that the substance of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in AD 70 and that the bulk of Revelation was likewise fulfilled in that time period “ (page 158)—but this does not exhaust all specific NT prophecies. Therefore, the central issue between full and partial preterists is: “What events prophesied in the Bible are as yet unfulfilled” (page 158). Sproul would then look to other NT passages, rather than to the Olivet Discourse, for those events which are yet to be fulfilled. Partial preterists then would acknowledge that in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, there was “a” parousia or coming of Christ, but it was not “the” parousia. As Sproul says: “The coming of Christ in AD 70 was a coming in judgment on the Jewish nation, indicating the end of the Jewish age and the fulfillment of a day of the Lord. Jesus really did come in judgment at that time, fulfilling His prophecy in the Olivet Discourse. But this was not the final or ultimate coming of Christ” (page 158). Thus Sproul distinguishes between the end of the Jewish age, and the end of human history.

The partial-preterist view is summarized in a chart on page 170:

    AD 70

    Still Future

    A coming (parousia) of Christ

    The coming (parousia) of Christ

    A day of the Lord

    The day of the Lord

     

    The resurrection of the dead

     

    The rapture of the living

    A judgment

    The (final) judgment

    The end of the Jewish age

    The end of history

While futurist scholars would see part of the Olivet Discourse as having been fulfilled in AD 70, they would say that the remainder of the Discourse is yet to be fulfilled. In other words, they would say that Jesus began by speaking of events that would be fulfilled in AD 70, but then looked ahead to events that would not be fulfilled until the far-away future, at the end of human history. Preterist scholars would see substantially all of the Olivet Discourse as having been fulfilled in AD 70, but with partial preterist scholars recognizing other NT prophecies (outside the Olivet Discourse) as yet to be fulfilled.

To conclude, The Last Days According to Jesus is an intriguing book, which presents a different perspective on the interpretation of NT prophecies regarding Jesus’ second coming and eschatology in general. It is not “light” reading, but is yet very readable considering the complexity of the topic. It is written in Sproul’s lucid style, and is also enhanced by numerous charts and summaries. Regardless of your viewpoint toward these prophecy issues, you can profit from a reading of this book.

I would like to add that I (and others I have talked to) had always assumed that Sproul was amillennial in his understanding of Bible prophecy, although he has not been specific on the issue in the books I had read. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that he (at least now) is postmillennial. This was confirmed in the January 1999 issue of Tabletalk, the monthly magazine published by Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. That issue is titled “Some of You Will Not Sleep,” and the theme is NT prophecy regarding the last days, and in particular the preterist view. In the opening article, Sproul says that in his eschatological pilgrimmage, he has fluctuated, at times being drawn to the amillennial position and at other times, the historic premillennial view (though he states he “has never been enticed by dispensational eschatology, despite its being the contemporary majority report among evangelicals”—page 6). However, despite having given little credence to postmillennialism in the past, he says: “Yet to my surprise, I have found myself more and more attracted to an orthodox post-mill position with its moderate preterist perspective” (page 6). So it would appear that the post-mill and preterist perspectives are ones that we will hear more about in upcoming days.

Related Topics: Christology, Eschatology (Things to Come)