I’ve been reading more and more comments recently, to the effect that “I used to be a Christian, but am now an atheist. But before I left Christianity, I was a Preterist.” This naturally raises the question of whether there is something within Preterist theological understanding that inclines towards skepticism and/or infidelity.
Of course, I will state at the outset that I don’t personally believe that a moderate, conservative Preteristic theology will lead anyone to renounce God. There have been conservative Preterist theologians within the church from earliest times. However, one will need to be careful how far one takes that approach, else it can become a slippery slope.
I think it’s mainly the lack of real depth of theological understanding among modern Preterists that causes some of its members to fall away. Interpreters who take huge chunks out of the Book of Revelation and apply them to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 belong to this class. I have learned over the years, that once you start spiritualizing resurrection passages, you are on the high road to heresy. Unfortunately, that is what modern Preterists do.
The resurrection of believers is a vital doctrine, and is inseparably connected with the truth that Christ died for us. Because He died for us, the death of believers is not inevitable, and therefore we should be waiting for our transformation. Of course, these concepts all tie back to the Cross. If a Christian does not properly understand the centrality of the cross and Christ’s atonement within the whole scheme of theology, it can be tempting for him/her to wander away from truth into the quicksands of heresy. It’s easy to wander astray when you pull down all the fences.
The centrality of the cross is important. Most Christians already believe in the “penal substitutionary” view. But have they fully articulated their understanding of the atonement? When Christ died on the cross, He was paying the “wages of sin” (Romans 6: 23), by undergoing the penalty incurred by the First Adam. As Christ’s death was physical, so was His physical resurrection. It is proof that He was the sinless Lamb Of God (John 1: 29), and that through faith in Him our sins are washed away. Because He was the sinless Lamb of God, death had no power over Him (see Acts 2:24). Because His resurrection was the first-fruits of a harvest (1 Corinthians 15:23), ours must follow, in accordance with the Levitical type (see Leviticus 23).
Unless this point is understood, it may be easy for a Christian to be blindsided by the doctrines of Preterism. One starts assuming that because a physical resurrection of believers didn’t take place in A.D. 70, that the resurrection was actually spiritual or ‘covenantal,’ and that Adam’s penalty (and therefore Christ’s atonement) did not involve physical death. This amounts to denial of the Cross. Having inferred that Bible eschatology was fulfilled in A.D. 70, one has to massage all the theological evidence to make it fit, ultimately overthrowing the whole scheme of Christian truth and teaching.
In the end, one is too often left with a post-modernistic “Gospel” that is stripped of truth and life. Post-Modernists dislike meta-narratives in general, and that is what Christianity is. The post-modernist likes to convert grand, universal narratives into small, local ones. Thus, the ‘nations of the earth‘ become ‘tribes of Palestine,’ the cataclysmic upheavals of nature become mere political phases, and so forth. The more one applies Preterist interpretive methods to God’s word, the more one is left with a stripped-down and essentially de-supernaturalized Gospel. According to this scheme, Christ’s parousia is a history lesson, and not much more.
In all fairness, many Preterists (particularly the ‘partial preterist’ class) do believe in a future second advent. However, they make the doctrine of “none effect” by placing it so far into the future that it becomes of no practical significance to the here and now. But the New Testament doctrine holds it forth as the Christian’s present hope, and as a purifying influence (1 John 3: 3). One may adjust the futuricity of the second coming and think he/she has done no real harm. But to downgrade the importance of this doctrine as it relates to the practical effects of our faith upon character and conduct is to set a dangerous precedent.
Left with a world filled with sin, sickness, and results of the fall, the confirmed Preterist may very well ask: “So if it was all fulfilled, is this the best that God could do?” The question is really a turning point at which many may experience a violent reaction against Christianity in general, and embrace atheism as the most logical answer to the problem of evil. But let’s face it. Like Preterism, atheism is just another form of reactionism. And it springs (as a lot of it does) from intellectual pride.
While 2,000 years of Christian teaching have been pretty uniform on the doctrine of the 2nd advent, we are told that we don’t understand language. The language of the prophets was poetical, and Christ was simply giving us beautiful poetry in the Olivet Discourse. Then again, we don’t understand science. Recent advances in scientific knowledge, etc., etc. Nor have we studied philosophy or comparative religion (as if one really needs philosophy to understand the Word of God!). In short, we evangelicals are not “in the know.”
Basically, whether one is a Preterist or an atheist, the same approach is utilized. It is the assumption of superior knowledge on their part, which usually results in a belittling of our position, regardless of the weight of historicity on our side, or any demonstration of the practical effects of Christianity on conduct and character. Granted, we may not all understand language. But we understand the Cross, just as our forefathers did. If this understanding is central to the conversation, as we believe, we may have an ‘edge’ over our opponents. In fact, I believe we actually do.
More on this topic later…