When Shall These Things Be? (Book Review)

wsttbThe doctrine of “last things,” known as eschatology, is one of those areas in Christianity where there is a wide variety of opinion—even within traditions that are unified on most other doctrines. One of the easiest ways to start a long discussion in Christian circles is to ask whether you are “pre-mill,” “post-mill,” or “a-mill.” Dispensationalists will argue that only Bible-believing Christians are pre-mill, but even they have their disagreements, arguing over the Bible teaches a “pre-wrath,” “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” or “post-trib” rapture. And then there is that last book of the Bible: the mysterious book of Revelation. The “Apocalypse” of Saint John (that makes it sound downright scary!). How to interpret its prophecies: from a preterist, historicist, futurist, or idealist framework? For the uninitiated, talk of the end-times from a Christian perspective might seem hopeless because it seems there is so little consensus. But there is a core of eschatological teaching that the Christian church has always agreed on. This core is stated in her brief creeds, and confessed in the more lengthy confessions of the various historical branches of Church. What does this core entail? Three foundational doctrines that are essential parts of the gospel.

  1. Jesus Christ is coming again a second time, and this coming is still future.
  2. There will be a general bodily resurrection of both believers and unbelievers, and this general resurrection is still future.
  3. There will be a final Judgment Day when every person who has ever lived will stand before God and give an account, with God assigning people to either heaven or hell, and this Judgment Day is still future.

The Church has always confessed these doctrines, going all the way back to Jesus and the apostles’ teaching.

eschatology-kidsBut a recent historical movement has begun to arise, drawing some away from this core. Hyper-preterism denies that all three of these core beliefs are still future. In fact, hyper-preterists teach that all of biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. They believe Jesus returned a second time (spiritually, not physically), raising believers in the general resurrection (spiritually, not materially), and judging the world (spiritually) at that final Judgment Day when Jerusalem was destroyed in the first century. Thus the Church has been quite wrong in her core beliefs regarding the last days since the end of the apostolic era, and Christians who understand this realize that we are not waiting for anything on God’s eschatological calendar because this reality as we experience it is the new heavens and new earth. There is nothing more than to believe God’s promises of a renewed creation are fulfilled spiritually before our eyes right now, and that death will eventually release us to an eternal non-material existence in a non-material heaven to be with God.

Needless to say, hyper-preterism is very different than the faith once for all delivered to the saints throughout the ages. But since this teaching has been gaining some traction in various traditions (i.e., Churches of Christ, Reformed churches), it requires a response.

Enter Keith Mathison, editor of the book When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism. Mathison assembled a team of scholars and pastors to contribute lengthy essays in response to the particular errors of hyper-preterism. Chapters include:

  1. The Historical Problem with Hyper-Preterism (Kenneth Gentry Jr.)
  2. Eschatology in the Wake of Jerusalem’s Fall (Charles Hill)
  3. Hyper-Preterism and Unfolding Biblical Eschatology (Richard Pratt Jr.)
  4. The Eschatological Time Texts of the New Testament (Keith Mathison)
  5. Hyper-Preterism and Revelation (Simon Kistemaker)
  6. Sola Scriptura, Creeds, and Ecclesiastical Authority (Douglas Wilson)
  7. Hyper-Preterism on the Resurrection of the Body (Robert Strimple)

Some of the chapters in this book have been touted as better than others (particularly Gentry, Hill, and Strimple), but I found that all essays hit their mark. It seems that hyper-preterists themselves, especially those willing to honestly and humbly examine their beliefs, think that all seven chapters present material that could powerfully refute hyper-preterism if true. One former hyper-preterist testifies to the usefulness of this book in his chapter-by-chapter book review.

Much has been made that the book is not as unified in its presentation of eschatology as it could have been. But this is not an overlooked feature of the book. Mathison stated this up front.

It should also be noted that the contributors to this volume do not agree on every detail of eschatology. For example, some of the contributors are amillennialists, while others are postmillennialists. Some of the contributors would take a moderately preterist approach to the book of Revelation, while others would take a more futurist or idealist approach to it. Despite these and other differences on secondary eschatological issues, all of the contributors stand in complete agreement on the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christian eschatology. All of them agree in confessing that the second coming of Christ, the general resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment are future. (pp. xvi-xvii)

You don’t have to be interested in eschatological debate, or a hyper-preterist, or someone who knows one, to profit from this book. It is written in such a way to bolster orthodox beliefs about last things from first a biblical perspective, and then supplemented by historical evidence. But it is clear the audience for this book is those flirting with or deeply committed to hyper-preterism, and those trying to understand hyper-preterism’s appeal so as to help others to escape this destructive teaching.

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