As yet another major Christian denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, changes it doctrinal statement, to back away from its historic commitment to premillennialism, it bears reflecting upon how much Christians are rethinking the “End Times,” in the 21st century.
Dick Woodward, the late pastor emeritus of my church, and founder of the Mini Bible College, always described himself as a “pan-millennialist,” when it came to the “End Times.” When asked, what is a “pan-millennialist?,” Dick would always say that he believed that everything would simply “pan-out” in the end.
That made for a very humorous joke, but it cut across the grain of what passed for the so-called biblically “inerrant,” premillennialist view of the “End Times,” that dominated American evangelical theology, in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, many core doctrines of the Christian faith are under attack, by the surrounding culture. Surely, Christians are compelled to defend the faith, against the onslaught of these attacks. So, is the doctrine of premillennialism, one of those core doctrines?
The main problem with asserting premillennialism as a core doctrine, is historical. Premillennialism, the belief that Jesus’ Second Coming will occur prior to establishing a 1,000 year millennial kingdom on earth, has reigned supreme in many American evangelical church circles, despite being historically a minority position, within the 2,000 year tradition of the Christian church as a whole. When pressed, my pastor, Dick Woodward, would describe himself as a progressive dispensational premillennialist, but he was never dogmatic about it. But was there any other genuine alternative, that took the Bible seriously?
When I was a young Christian, any mention of the “End Times” brought up ideas about the Rapture, a 7-year Great Tribulation, the nation of Israel, the Antichrist, and, of course, the Book of Revelation. In short, the “End Times” were all about events yet to happen in the future. But what if some of, if not most of, what we read in the Book of Revelation, is about events that have already happened in the past?
Such a question might make some Christians ill at ease. After all, many Christians still hold firmly to futuristic view of prophecy, that includes premillennialism. But a recent book I read, by Christian film maker Brian Godawa, suggests that there might be a better way to read the Bible, when it comes to biblical prophecy.
Brian Godawa is perhaps best known from writing the screenplay for To End All Wars, a movie about life as a prisoner of war, under the Japanese during World War II. Based on a true story about Ernest Gordon, a Scottish soldier, this prisoner moved from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, in the midst of the horrific trials he faced. After the war, Gordon became a Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University.
But Godawa is also a book writer, and I listened to the audiobook version of End Times Bible Prophecy: It’s Not What They Told You. Godawa grew up in a Christian home, where he was taught the idea of a pre-tribulational “Rapture” of the church, followed by a 7-year Great Tribulation, to be then followed by Jesus’ Second Coming.
The problem was that Godawa was confused by all of the various speculations about the End Times, and how he was frustrated by the fact that all of the supposed prophecy predictions would continually fail.
I was reminded of the confusion that Godawa addresses by a recent statement made by Anne Graham Lotz, a daughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who believes that Jesus will return within her lifetime (listen at the 8:25 time mark). In keeping with Scripture, as she interprets it, Anne Graham Lots believes that her generation; that is, “this generation” will be the generation that sees the return of Jesus Christ. As she explained to the Christian Broadcasting Network, ” Israel was born in a day, May 14, 1948….Jesus said the generation that sees that take place is the generation that will be the last. And for me it’s meaningful. I was born May 21, 1948 so I believe it’s my generation.”
Now, I have always had great respect for Billy Graham, and his family. But what Anne Graham Lotz says here bothers me: Have not other Christians made the same type of predictions of Jesus’ expected return, only to be disappointed when such predictions fail to pan out? In other words, is Anne Graham Lotz’ view strictly based on firm biblical teaching, or is it simply speculation?
After doing years of research, Brian Godawa adopted what most theologians call a partial preterist view of the End Times. His view is “preterist,” in the sense that the word “preterist” means “past,” believing that many prophecies have already been fulfilled in the past, namely in the first century of the church. Yet his view is “partial,” in that Godawa believes that at least some of the End Times prophecies are still yet to happen in the future, such as the Second Coming of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Dead.
One of the top things that changed Godawa’s mind was that verse quoted by Anne Graham Lotz, in Matthew 24:34, where Jesus says to his listeners, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” The standard futurist way of interpreting this verse is to say that “this generation” actually applies to events at least 2,000 years into the future.
Many Christians accept this interpretation as valid, but the vast majority of scholars, and many other curious non-specialists in the Bible, are not so convinced. After all, if Jesus was speaking to his contemporaries, in the 1st century, why would he refer to “this generation,” if he really was talking about Anne Graham Lotz’ generation, some 2,000 years later? I continually meet skeptics, and other critics of the Bible, who are convinced that Jesus was predicting the end of the world, within the period of the first century, and that Jesus was simply wrong.
A partial preterist view of the End Times, on the other hand, addresses the skeptics’ criticisms, while still affirming the trustworthiness of Jesus and the Scriptures, informed by evangelical biblical scholarship. In other words, Jesus, in Matthew 24, is indeed predicting something, that historically did come to pass, in the 1st century of the Christian era, thus adding confirmation to the New Testament claim, that Jesus truly was and is the Son of God. If Jesus did acccurately predict future events, that can be confirmed historically, then this would be consistent with the biblical claim that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. Brian Godwa argues that many Christians have failed to see this as being taught in the Bible, so they are unable to effectively defend the Bible, when the critics press upon the Bible-believing Christian.
Strictly futurist views of the End Times are deeply ingrained in the minds of many Christians, so Godawa goes to great lengths, even in this popular level book, to substantiate his argument. Godawa goes through the Bible, building his case that many of the biblical prophecies are actually metaphorical in nature, and that they should be not be taken in a non-metaphorical way. Concepts such as the “Day of the Lord,” “all the nations,” and cosmic catastrophes, such as “Blood Moons,” are explained within their original context, as the original biblical writer intended.
Christians who are reticent to believe that God would make heavy use of metaphorical language, to describe prophetic events, will probably be skeptical of Godawa’s book. Yet every Christian believes that there is at least some metaphorical language in the Bible; such as, Jesus’ description that you must “hate” your family, in order to be a disciple, or that the “sign of Jonah” refers to “three days and three nights,” in the belly of a great fish, as an idiomatic expression corresponding to the three days and two nights Jesus was dead, between his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Most Christians even agree that there are at least some metaphorical elements found in the Creation story in Genesis.
The key is to evaluate the contextual evidence, found within the text itself, from the perspective of the original writers of Scripture, in order to determine the correct interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture. Only in this manner can we responsibly understand what is metaphorical and what is non-metaphorical in the Bible.
What is the point of application of Godawa’s view? While we still await Jesus’ future Second Coming, looking at the original context of a great deal of biblical prophecy, including much of the Book of Revelation, the Bible was still addressing the situation of persecution, for that first generation of believers in the first century church. For Christians living in a world today, where persecution is more prevalent than ever, the example of first century Christians under stress can provide great comfort to believers undergoing current trials for their faith.
Has Brian Godawa made his case convincingly? At this point, I am not sure. The jury is still out, in my view (UPDATE: November, 2021. The more that I have studied the Scriptures, since I have read Godawa’s book, the more that I am convinced that Godawa has it right. See my post on 2 Peter).
What I am sure about is that Brian Godawa has made his case, in a very thorough manner, citing Scripture all the way through his book, and illustrating where the original context, that the biblical authors had in mind, actually makes a big difference in how biblical prophecy should be interpreted. Godawa still has a healthy measure of hermeneutical humility, acknowledging that he could be wrong in a number of the details of interpretation, that he presents. Nevertheless, he does find partial preterism to be convincing. Otherwise, he would not have written a book about it.
Many Christians have grown up, like Godawa, being taught about a pre-tribulational Rapture of the church, as an event separate from the Second Coming of Jesus, for example, with a central role for national Israel being within that divine plan. I can not categorically rule out that scenario as a possibility. Many of my dear Christian friends strongly hold to a futurist type of view. So if Anne Graham Lotz’ prediction comes true, then God will still get the glory, no matter what!
On the other side, Brian Godawa’s case for partial preterism is certainly within the range of acceptable bounds of theological orthodoxy. Is it the best and most accurate way to interpret difficult passages in the Bible? Well, the curious reader will need to pick up a copy of Brian Godawa’s book to find out.
Godawa’s book stands as a perfect complement to something like the late R.C. Sproul’s book The Last Days According to Jesus, reviewed a year ago here at Veracity. Sproul’s argument is mainly about the apologetic concerns, that partial preterism addresses forcefully, in which more futurist approaches to Bible prophecy, tend to wobble on. Godawa’s book digs more into the exegetical details, addressing particular interpretation issues found in difficult prophecy passages.
In addition to premillennial futurism and partial preterism, there are other views about the “End Times,” that Christians throughout church history have thoughtfully considered (See these prior posts at Veracity regarding amillennialism, the most well-known view taught within Christianity, promoted by the 5th. century, Saint Augustine, and historic premillenialism, defended recently by popular prophecy blogger, Joel Richardson). Christians should not be dogmatic about timing issues, concerning the Rapture or other specific End Time chronologies. Our ultimate landing point, is that Jesus is truly coming back. The other details will sort themselves out, over time.
Granted, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, is a strong point of evidence, in favor of a futurist perspective on biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, the delay of the Rapture, now some 71 years after the founding of the Middle Eastern Jewish state, leaves many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, wondering. I can not claim absolute confidence here, but if I had to pick a particular viewpoint, that is easier to defend with a non-believer, then the partial preterism view advocated by Brian Godwa carries with it the best overall argument.
September 2nd, 2019 at 5:35 am
Very timely, gentle and necessary review of this subject matter.I myself subscribed unquestioningly to the premillennialism dispensationalist view until recently, when a disciplined approach to biblical exegesis held my feet to the fire in being strictly contextual, so that scripture interprets scripture and reader relevance made it clear that partial preterism makes far more sense with less fudging around issues such as God’s timing ( when He says ‘shortly’ ‘soon’ etc, He meant thousands of years, therefore He was speaking disingenuously to his own disciples).One final point – The Second Coming is not a phrase found in the bible, Jesus’ coming was mentioned several times by Him and the apostles before they finished going through the cities of Israel,before some standing there would taste death, and John would remain until He comes.So was He lying?Misinformed? this most crucial subject is the reason so many Christians deconvert, and atheists charge that such statements of Jesus prove he was wrong, so why should they believe anything else He says?serious business
September 2nd, 2019 at 9:15 am
Thanks, Melanie, for your comments at Veracity.
I would say that apologetic concerns do drive this current renewed interest in partial preterism, and I am glad that folks like Brian Godwa and R.C. Sproul have helped to lead the way in presenting this often neglected view, to interested evangelical students of the Bible. I started to have serious questions about premillennial dispensationalism, back during my college years in the 1980s, due to reading about Bertrand Russell’s infamous critique of “this generation,” but I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it, for a number of years. It was not until I visited Israel, in the mid-1990s, that I realized that the standard premillennial dispensationalist narrative, that I had been taught for almost 15 years, was severely flawed.
Interestingly, within about a year, I met an older Christian man, who started coming to our church, who had been a Christian radio producer. But he was out working on his own, as no Christian radio station in my area would give him a job, due to his views in favor of partial preterism.
I really was not familiar with the details of partial preterism until I started to read books like Gary Demar’s _Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church_, and Dee Dee Warren’s _It’s Not the End of the World!: A Commentary on Matthew 24 and a Response to Pop Christian Eschatology_. I think Brian Godwa’s book has a wider reach, than these two earlier books, and I highly recommend them. Partial preterists have used the easy accessibility of the Internet to advance their perspective, with great effect. I think it is fair to say that the hegemony of the Tim Lahaye “Left Behind” brand of dispensational premillennialism is pretty much dead these days.
At the same time, I have great respect for progressive dispensationalists, like Darrell Bock, at Dallas Seminary, and apologist William Lane Craig has a thoughtful critique of partial preterism:
I studied the topic of “Christian Zionism,” the belief that God, has in some sense, prophetically made room for the return of the Jews to the modern Middle East, as part of His “End Times” program, and wrote over 40 blog posts here at Veracity, and pretty much concluded that the debate concerning the “most correct position” on the End Times, among evangelical Christians, is pretty much at a draw these days.
Yet I would tend to agree with you, that having partial preterism as part of the evangelical conversation, is more important than ever. Trying to nail down the exact timing of End Times events is one thing, but the continued growth of “Christian deconversions” and the continuing rise of atheism is indeed “serious business,” as you put it. If dogmatism about asserting a particular view of End Times is leading Christians to “deconvert” to atheism, then something is seriously wrong about that.
September 6th, 2019 at 6:36 am
Thank you for your personal reply, which I concur with on every point. I think there needs to be sober and respectful debate between futurists and preterists to allow for an objective, biblically sound examination of this subject, because there seems to be a silent war going on between the two, and it is the futurists who are mostly misrepresenting or downright slandering individuals who hold to a preterist understanding ( most of whom have come out of a pretrib rapture God-has- a -plan- for-Israel-futurist worldview and therefore aren’t misrepresenting it), then when evangelical dispensationalists search online to look into preterism, they arrive at the debunking websites that usually have their facts wrong, and that then ‘confirms’ their anti preterism bias and they walk away with a ‘I’ve checked out preterism and it’s a load of rubbish’ viewpoint.Once bitten, twice shy sort of thing. Thank you once again for the opportunity to discuss this subject.
September 6th, 2019 at 9:39 am
Melanie: I would agree that most of the critics of preterism by dispensationalists are pretty shallow, from what I have read.
Thomas Ice is probably one of the better defenders of classic dispensationalism, who can adequately address preterism, but there are very few these days who are willing to carry on that torch among younger evangelicals:
There is a more progressive variety of dispensationalists today, like Mark Hitchcock, who carry on a more mature critique of preterism:
Click to access 2006_hitchcock_critique-of-preterist-soon-in-revelation.pdf
And then there are those like William Lane Craig, who is not a dispensationalist, who has his own critique of preterism:
But what I appreciate the most about Brian Godwa’s book, that I reviewed in the blog post, is that he carefully addresses these type of critiques in a very thoughtful and thorough manner, without getting too technical, for the average reader. His treatment on the importance of genre and metaphor in Scripture is essential reading for the thoughtful Christian, in my view.
My biggest concern about partial preterism is that it largely relies on an early date for the writing of the Book of Revelation. The majority of scholars, even evangelical ones, place the Book of Revelation as having been written AFTER the Fall of the Jerusalem, so after the year 70 A.D.
What I look forward to is the forthcoming magnum opus by Kenneth Gentry, who is perhaps the leading American scholar, from a partial preterist position. His “soon” to be released commentary _The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation_ will surely address that problem. Gentry has been working on this book for years (1700 pages!!!). He supposedly finished the work in 2016, but the publisher is still reviewing it.
So, when I say “soon” I sometimes wonder if Gentry’s book will really be released in “this generation,” or if we will have to wait another 2,000 years before the correct “this generation” of publishers finally puts it out to the public.
I hope you get my joke (HA-HA!).
Anyway, thanks again for your comment Melanie. And thanks for stopping by Veracity.
September 2nd, 2019 at 9:29 pm
The idea of a rapture and much of dispensational doctrine was put into place by Zionists who unduly influenced Scofield to espouse this point of view. Most Christians who don’t like Trump are against him because of his radical support of Israel and his pro-Zionist views. I think this would include Sharper Iron, the site that led me here. That is a site that is mainly known as a political site against Trump, with some other articles on Christian doctrine and issues thrown in from time to time.I have no problems with my fellow Christians who are dispensationalists, but I don’t elevate it to the prominence that they do. And on the other hand, I don’t agree with some preterists who laugh and mock at anything hinting at Bible prophecy. If prophecy were something to be mocked, then why is the Bible so full of it? I n my opinion, there is a balance to be found.
September 2nd, 2019 at 9:38 pm
The people who are radically into the End Times are the same ones who buy into conspiracy theories. For example, many people believe that Jeff Epstein was some “big time” sexual abuser who supposedly ran some sort of “well organized abuse network” of young girls to the elites of the world. Please. That is such hogwash. There is no such thing as a “global pedophile” network that “caters to the rich.” It’s because of such conspiracy theories such as this that End Times is given a bad name. Again, there is a balance to weeding out weird conspiracy theories such as this, but at the same time not writing off all of Bible prophecy as a joke or “filler” that was just put there for no reason.
September 3rd, 2019 at 8:47 am
I grew up in a traditional dispensationalist church that taught the rapture. I still have many friends in that movement. In my opinion, it is ok to disagree on this topic, as it is not one of the core and vital issues of the faith. Like the humorous comment made, somehow it will all pan out. I was led to believe that the rapture was a core, fundamental doctrine, which it is not. Like the poster above, I have since learned that the rapture is not a Christian doctrine and has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible and was made up by some shepherd girl, was it in Ireland??….Or something like that. In any event, it’s not part of the Bible. And yes, Zionism is bad and I do not support Israel. The rapture theology really got a push from Scofield, who was influenced by Zionists. Some of my dispensationalist friends think I am a heretic for not supporting Israel, and I get that, because I used to think the same thing. What they don’t seem to realize is that this is not a vital, fundamental doctrine and it’s ok for people to disagree.
I like Trump for a lot of reasons and I think in many ways he is doing a great job and is a great president. But his unabashed support of Zionism makes him a president that Christians should not support. He’s not ashamed of it and doesn’t even try to hide his support of Israel. Because of that, I along with many other Christians, cannot in good conscious support him. I don’t know a thing about this Sharp site that the poster mentioned above. I checked it out for about 4 minutes and it does seem to be anti-Trump, so that is refreshing. It’s too bad about the guy. He has so many good qualities about him, but his support of Zionism makes him have to be crossed of the list of people Christians can support.
September 3rd, 2019 at 9:20 am
I need to come to the defense of the dispensationalists at this point. The story that John Nelson Darby got his inspiration for a pre-tribulational Rapture from a young female visionary, Margaret MacDonald, is a bit of an outlier. Darby likely knew this woman, but he would have most likely concluded that her visions were of a demonic sort, and therefore unsuitable for establishing doctrine.
The idea of separating the “Rapture”, as found in 1 Thessalonians 4, from the “Second Coming” of Christ, does have its genesis in speculation by various Bible teachers, throughout the history of the church. Scholar William Watson makes this case here:
Nevertheless, it was Darby who most certainly popularized the dispensational premillennial doctrine, giving it a foothold in the minds of thousands of English-speaking Christians, in the mid-to-late 19th century. Prior to that period, the concept of a pre-tribulational Rapture was far from being a “core, fundamental doctrine,” as you put it. The irony of dispensationalism is that it does represent a theological tradition, but it is actually only a recent tradition, put within the context of the larger history of the church.
Churches that make a pre-tribulational Rapture into “inerrant” dogma are not doing believers any favors here. We need to be open to whatever God might be teaching us, in Scripture, and to be generous with others, when there is disagreement, on non-essential matters of the faith.
Thank you for commenting at Veracity!
September 3rd, 2019 at 10:16 pm
It’s a shame that now that this article is over a day old it therefore ancient history and considered “so last season. I wouldn’t be caught dead in that room.” This could have been an interesting conversation.I know that one guy is watching because he emailed me because he knows me personally from my name and said that at Sharper Iron there are people who are pro-Israel and that not all Christians are as anti-Zionist as I am. Fair enough. I do not want to put words in any other site’s mouth, so to speak…..But let me just set the record straight: being anti-Zionist is not “anti-Semitic.” I don’t dislike or disagree with someone simply because they are Jewish. Many Jews themselves are anti-Zionist! Zionism is more of a political force than simply a religion. Let’s not confuse the two, as they are not necessarily the same thing.