Tag Archives: end times

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


Are the “End Times” About the Future…. Or Partially About the Past?

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.

Filmwriter and author Brian Godawa encourages Christians to rethink biblical prophecy, by…. get this…. actually reading and studying the Bible.

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?

Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham, believes that her generation will live to see the Rapture of the Church. As her generation is entering their twilight years, is her speculation on the timing, cutting it rather close?

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.

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.


The Last Days … According to Jesus

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), on camera, recording one his many Ligonier conference sessions, back in 1985.

R.C. Sproul, who died in 2017, was one of the world’s most beloved Bible teachers. What a lot of people do not know, is that he held to a rather unconventional view of the “End Times.”

Most evangelical Christians today, at least in America, hold to some form of futurism, when it comes to prophecy regarding the “last days,” as taught in the New Testament, particularly with respect to the Book of Revelation. Futurism is the view that most of the prophecies regarding the “last days” have yet to be fulfilled. For example, events like the so-called “Rapture” of the church, the coming of “Antichrist,” and the “Great Tribulation” are events that will happen sometime in the future, along with the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

When I was growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s, futurism got a major boost from blockbuster books, like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Young people today have found out about futurism through Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind book series and movies.

R. C. Sproul, on the other hand, offered what he called a “minority report,” with respect to the “last days.” Sproul favored a view known as preterism, which simply means “past.” A preterist is simply someone who believes that most of the prophecies for the “last days” have already been fulfilled, mainly in the first century.

However, some people get confused as to what preterism really means. In his book and audio class, The Last Days According to Jesus, R. C. Sproul makes a distinction between what is called partial preterism and full preterism. Sproul adopts the particular view of partial preterism, which teaches that nearly all of the “last days” prophecies were already fulfilled in the first century on the church, EXCEPT for primarily the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, which are still off in the future.

This is contrast with the idea of full preterism, or what some call hyperpreterism, which bizarrely teaches that even the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead already happened, in the first century of the church. Uh…. how did we miss that? Well, this erroneous idea is why full preterism is considered to be a heresy, rejected by all orthodox-believing Christians.

So, why does R. C. Sproul believe that more Christians should reconsider partial preterism as a legitimate view of the “last days?” The main reason is concerning Christian apologetics.

Prominent skeptics and critics of Christianity, from the famous British mathematician, Bertrand Russell, to the UNC Chapel Hill evangelical-turned-skeptic religion professor, Bart Ehrman, have believed that the New Testament predicted that the “end of the world” would come within the lifetime of the apostles. But, of course, as we all know, that did not happen. Therefore, these critics of Christianity therefore claim the Christian faith to be false. Critics, like Russell and Ehrman, have shaken the faith of many, less-than-grounded Christians for well over one hundred years.

Where do they get this idea? The charge comes from examining the very words of Jesus, as found in Matthew 24. In this passage, Jesus is giving a sermon on the Mount of Olives, commonly called the “Olivett Discourse,” whereby he describes events that many say have the sense of predicting the end of the world. “You will hear wars and rumors of wars” (v. 6), “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places“(v.7), “lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (v.12), and “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 30).

With the yet-future exception of the Son of Man coming on the clouds, these sound like the conditions we experience almost on a daily basis in post-modern America, and across the globe, and countless sermons I have listened to link these signs with an expectation of Christ’s near return.

But the controversial verse is found just before the end of the sermon:

” Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.“(Matthew 24:34 ESV)

So, if Jesus is teaching that everything will be fulfilled in “this generation,” would it not make sense that everything should take place within the lifetime of Jesus’ first disciples? Is not this the most literal and straight forward reading of the text? Bertrand Russell and Bart Ehrman certainly think so.

Therefore, since the end of the world did not happen in the first century, Jesus must be dead wrong.

If Jesus was wrong about the “last days,” then why trust Jesus with anything?

Ah, this is where a study of Christian apologetics might prove to be very useful, and why R. C. Sproul offers his “minority report.”

Most futurists answer the charges of the critics by proposing some creative alternatives to the straight-forward interpretation of “this generation.” Perhaps “this generation” is another way of describing the church, as a movement, that is still continuing to this day. Others suggest that “this generation” is actually referring to the “generation” sometime in the future, whether it be our own, or a future generation, when Jesus will return. My old copy of the 1984 New International Version translation of the Bible contained an italicized note, equating “generation” with “race.” In other words, Jesus might have simply said “this [human???] race will not pass away until all these things take place.” Others say this “race” is the Jewish race, in terms of the continued ethnic identity of Jews throughout history.

Perhaps.

While many Christians find such alternative interpretations convincing, R. C. Sproul finds these arguments to be weak. They tend to play right into the hands of skeptics and critics who believe that such Christians, who believe these alternative interpretations, are simply trying to wiggle themselves out of the blatantly obvious.

But what if much of the prophecies given in Matthew 24 were actually fulfilled in the first century, just as Jesus literally said? Other particular aspects of the prophecies, that do not strictly fall under the purview of Matthew 24:34, are still yet to be fulfilled, sometime in the future. One clue comes from the beginning of the sermon:

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”“(Matthew 24:1-2 ESV)

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD — a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849). Is this what Matthew 24 is talking about? Or is it the “end times,” or perhaps, somehow, both???

Here, Jesus is most probably referring to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. One of the most well attested historical events, in antiquity, was the destruction of the Temple, in the year A.D. 70.  If the connection can be made, it would seem obvious that Jesus was really predicting an event that literally happened within the lifetime of many of his first disciples!

R. C. Sproul argues that this line of prophetic evidence could be one of the most powerful proofs for defending the integrity of Jesus and the validity of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, R. C. Sproul realizes that his “minority report” is a position he takes, without requiring dogmatic assent by other Christians, as most other evangelical Christians are more familiar with prophecy interpretations offered by futurist Bible teachers.

I only offer a brief overview of partial preterism in this blog post, as there are other pieces to the New Testament prophecy “puzzle” that need to be put together before the whole argument of partial preterism makes sense. I would highly recommend R. C. Sproul’s book or the audio/visual teaching class on the same topic, The Last Days According to Jesus, available at Ligonier Ministries.

After listening to the audio of the class myself, I walked away with two key ideas:

  • First, we as Christians should keep an open mind as to how we think about the “End Times,” and how everything fits with Jesus’ Second Coming, and not rush off with excitement every time we hear about so-called “Blood Moon” prophecies or the exotic “Mysteries of the Shemitah,” that supposedly signal the “last days.”
  • Secondly, we should extend some sympathy to the skeptical non-believer, who has probably heard more than their fair share of “Jesus-is-coming-back-this-year!” stories that have never, ever materialized. So, when a friend tends to roll their eyes, whenever someone talks about Jesus’ return, we might want to think about a different approach to our friend’s skepticism (You could try this out, as an example: Apologist Michael Licona offers a disarming conversational model as to how to approach this topic with a non-believer).

Whether you agree with R. C. Sproul or not, you will find him to be a very engaging and learned teacher of the Bible.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Are you looking for a fairly short, readable summary of how partial preterism might make more sense? Go to British Bible scholar, Ian Paul’s website to gain a better understanding of how Matthew 24 might be best interpreted. For a look at the parallel passage in Mark 13, Ian Paul has another fairly short, helpful essay. For a different look at what it means to be “Left Behind,” Ian Paul has a  group of blog posts that explores the topic in more detail. For a general overview of the Book of Revelation, read this previous Veracity post.

What are best arguments against preterism? James M. Rochford at the Evidence Unseen apologetics blog has a very good set of articles on the topic. Are you interested in trying to figure out the myriad of dispensationalist views of Matthew 24?  Here is a very helpful website resource page, by Leonardo Costa. For a review of the theologian N.T. Wright, and his provocative views of Matthew 24, I recommend the essay by Dr. J. Richard Middleton. For a “teaser,” here is the first lecture from R. C. Sproul’s class, as you find it on YouTube:

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Left Behind: A Good Thing or A Bad Thing?

Long before the popular Left Behind books and films by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a Christian filmaker, Russell S. Doughten, in 1972 produced the classic (though some say a bit cheesy) A Thief in the Night, a visual experience that haunted a great many youth groups in dispensationalist churches throughout the 1970s.

Long before the popular Left Behind books and films by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a Christian filmaker, Russell S. Doughten, in 1972 produced the classic (though some say a bit cheesy) A Thief in the Night, a visual experience that haunted a great many youth groups in dispensationalist churches throughout the 1970s.

Growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, things were not looking very good. The Cold War with the U.S.S.R., the Islamic Revolution in Iran with American embassy staff held as hostages, and runaway inflation were on everyone’s mind. So when I first heard Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” I really resonated with the message:

life was filled with guns and war
and everyone got trampled on the floor
i wish we’d all been ready

children died the days grew cold
a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
i wish we’d all been ready

there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind
a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
he’s gone
i wish we’d all been ready

two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
i wish we’d all been ready

Based on Matthew 24:36-44, Larry Norman was singing about the coming Rapture, where all living Christians would be taken up into the air to escape the approaching seven years of the Great Tribulation, prior to the Second Coming where Jesus Christ sits in judgment as the righteous King and to rule the earth for a one thousand year millennium (previous Veracity post). While most of my Christian friends were hesitant to guess any particular dates, the general sense was that Jesus would definitely come within my lifetime. I was so taken in by this message that for the first few working years out of college, I never bothered to participate in my company’s 401K plan to save for the future. Why should I plan for the future when Jesus is definitely coming back so soon?

Years later, I now wish I had given greater thought to how my view of the EndTimes had impacted my life as a young person. Even more so, I wish I had learned that the Rapture theology narrative I had so readily embraced as being identical with the very Word of God is actually a bit more complicated. Let us dig a little deeper into what the Bible teaches on the subject. Continue reading


Replacing Replacement Theology?

Clarence Larken (1850-1924) was an American Baptist pastor who developed charts like these that depict a dispensationalist view of the End Times. If you click on the image to expand the detail, you will see how Larkin divided the church on the left from Israel on the right. Contemporary followers of Larkin accuse "replacement theology" of wiping out Israel's place in Biblical prophecy.

Clarence Larkin (1850-1924) was an American Baptist pastor who developed charts like these that depict a dispensationalist view of the End Times, as popularized in the immensely influential Scofield Reference Bible. If you click on the image to expand the detail, you will see how Larkin divided the church on the left from Israel on the right. Contemporary followers of Larkin sometimes accuse “replacement theology” of wiping out Israel’s essential place in Biblical prophecy.

What is “replacement theology?”

About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. I looked out over the Sea of Galilee. I climbed part of the great mountain fortress of Masada. I witnessed orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall. I walked the streets of Jerusalem down the Via Dolorosa, the Israeli flag flying high and proudly over several of these streets. It was a breathtaking experience.

However, the exhilaration was soberly offset by a conversation I had with the bus driver for our tour group. Like many other Palestinian Christians, his family had lived in the land for centuries with their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, mostly at peace. However, the events of the past 60+ years between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors have resulted in persecution for his family. He never went into the details, but I was always puzzled by what he meant by that.

Later on in the tour, when our group came to a stone gate in East Jerusalem, our bus driver nervously pointed out the bullet holes where Israeli and Jordanian fighters clashed with one another during the electrifying 1967 Six Day War. On the one hand, I felt then the thrill of the Israeli victory and reclamation of the ancient city that was discussed in this previous Veracity post.

But I had become also deeply troubled: what side was our Christian bus driver’s family on during that bitter conflict, or were they simply caught in the middle of the violence (like in this recent piece of news)? As I am writing this in July, 2014, Israel and Gaza’s Hamas have for weeks been involved in a deadly exchange, and Christians like this Baptist church in Gaza are vulnerable to the crossfire.

What is a Christian to think about the prophetic promises regarding national Israel, while also considering the challenges faced by Palestinian Christians living in the contested land in Middle East today, like my bus driver? What does the Bible have to say?

The study of Bible prophecy is a complicated subject and passions run very, very deep when people talk about “Israel.” Most evangelical Christians believe that “Israel” has a special place in God’s future plans, but there is a growing widespread confusion as to what this really means. So I must admit that I get conflicted when some Christians begin to talk about  the errors of “replacement theology.”  What is being meant when people speak of “replacement theology?” Granted, some criticisms are indeed valid, but a quick survey of what you find on YouTube can be rather troubling. Here is the ever colorful television personality Jack Van Impe:

Well,… uh, ok… now… what in the world is this guy talking about??????????
Continue reading


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