by Matthew W. Bassford
Recently, I attended this year’s Truth Lectures, which had as their theme eschatology, the study of the end times. Many of the lectures addressed preterism, the belief that the prophecies of the Bible all already have happened. In particular, preterists claim that the prophecies about the final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and the dissolution of the physical universe were fulfilled (in a figurative sense) during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
I believe that preterists are correct to recognize the importance of the first-century destruction of the temple and the downfall of the Jewish nation. In many ways, the ministry of Jesus is a last-ditch effort to turn the Jews aside from their destructive course. Their refusal to listen to Him (and the consequences of that refusal) reverberates throughout the New Testament. When we try to make everything in the Bible about us instead of its original first-century recipients, we fall into error.
However, it is equally erroneous to assume that all the climactic events of spiritual history already have occurred. Often, the falsity of false teaching becomes most evident not in the teaching itself, but in its ripple effects. In the case of preterism, I believe the biggest problems it creates arise through its denial of a general, bodily resurrection of the dead.
Among other serious difficulties, denial of the resurrection of the body casts doubt on the resurrection of Christ. As Paul says in I Corinthians 15:13, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” Preterists argue that the general resurrection of I Corinthians 15 is the figurative union of Jew and Gentile Christians in 70 AD. Before we accept this interpretation, however, we must reckon with Paul’s use of “not even”. This indicates that the resurrection of Christ is the most prominent example of a larger class, as in, “If no gymnasts can land that jump, then not even Simone Biles can.”
“Not even” allows for two interpretations. Either the larger class of resurrections is literal, and the resurrection of Jesus is literal along with it, or the larger class of resurrections is figurative, and the resurrection of Jesus is figurative along with it. It does not, however, permit a mixed figurative/literal reading.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the first part of v. 13 is about the figurative, invisible, unprovable union of Jew and Gentile in the church in AD 70. If it didn’t happen, how does that in any way undermine the bodily resurrection of Jesus in AD 30? A bodily resurrection can’t be a “not even” for a figurative class.
Therefore, in arguing for a figurative general resurrection, preterists imply that the resurrection of Christ also was figurative, a fatal problem for Christianity. As per Romans 1:4, the [bodily] resurrection of Jesus declares Him to be the Son of God with power. By contrast, the “resurrection” of Jesus only in the visions, dreams, and fond imaginings of His followers is useless as proof of His divinity. If that’s all the evidence we have, none of us should be Christians.
Preterists do well when they call us to consider the New Testament in its first-century context, but they err disastrously when they undermine the central conviction of Christianity. If the dead are not raised, not even Christ is raised, and if Christ is not raised, our faith is vain, we are still in our sins, and of all people, we are most to be pitied. Don’t take my word for it. Take the Holy Spirit’s.