Tag Archives: R. C. Sproul

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.
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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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Was the Reformation a Mistake?: A Book Review

Is Roman Catholic doctrine “not unbiblical?” Have you ever thought of that?

The late, beloved Bible teacher, R. C. Sproul was a champion of Martin Luther’s reformation. Sproul died in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s defiance of the medieval church. But was Luther’s reformation, back in 1517, simply all one huge mistake?

More than anyone else in recent times, R. C. Sproul sounded a call to the church of the late 20th and 21st centuries, to reaffirm the message of Martin Luther. Sola Scriptura, the authority of Scripture, and Scripture alone, must be the watchword of a truly godly church. Many Christians, unfamiliar with the history of the church, have largely forgotten what Luther was all about. Others have heard Sproul’s clarion call, and seek to continue the work of the Reformation, for yet a new generation. At the same time, there are defenders of Rome, who believe that this renewed enthusiasm for Luther, while well intentioned, is unfortunately misplaced.

On a road trip over Christmas, to visit family in the American Midwest, I listened to an audiobook, that inspired me to write the following book review (SPOILER ALERT: this review is in-depth, as the subject matter itself is pretty deep). But first, let me give you some background, and why the idea of the Reformation as a “mistake,” is actually a very good topic to consider.

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Reformation: R. C. Sproul

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

Robert Charles Sproul, known to most people as “R. C.,” was one of the most influential theologians in 20th/21st century evangelical Christianity. A primary architect of the 1970’s Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and an outspoken critic of the 1990’s dialogue statement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Sproul was first and foremost a Bible teacher, whose passion was to help Christians integrate their thought life with the teachings of Scripture.

I first heard of R. C. Sproul when a friend handed me a set of cassette tapes, on the relationship between modern philosophy and Christianity. Sproul had given these talks at various retreats held at Ligonier Valley, a study center Sproul had founded, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a young believer, I was blown away at how articulate R. C. Sproul was in addressing the type of intellectual challenges I was facing in college.

Not too many Christian Bible teachers were doing this at the time. R. C. Sproul was against efforts within the evangelical church to “dumb-down” the Gospel message. Every Christian, not just professional pastors, needed to know the basics of theology, and he had the gift of taking difficult theological concepts and making them understandable to the average believer.

R. C. Sproul had zero interest in God, and plenty of interest in sports, until he got to college. He became a believer in college, and eventually studied theology under John Gerstner, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. At first, Sproul resisted the Reformed theology of Gerstner, making himself into a “pest,” but he gradually came around to Gerstner’s perspective. Later, Sproul pursued doctoral studies under the preeminent Dutch scholar, G. C. Berkouwer, in Amsterdam. The Ligonier ministry was moved to Orlando in the mid-1980s, sponsoring dozens and dozens of weekend and week-long conferences. He was able to pass the leadership of Ligonier Ministries, along with a magazine he had founded, Table Talk, and his Renewing Your Mind radio program and podcast to a new generation of teachers. Over his half century of ministry, R. C. Sproul lived a life of impeccable integrity.

As an ardent Calvinist, R. C. Sproul nevertheless had his critics. He left the mainline Presbyterian church (the PCUSA), over concerns of a drift towards liberal theology. He joined the younger, more conservative, Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in the 1970s, identifying himself as an heir to the Reformed tradition of the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith, to the chagrin of other evangelicals who would embrace “believer’s baptism” only, or elements of Arminian theology. Others criticized him for not taking a firm stand regarding the age of the earth, with respect to the doctrine of creation, while others accused him of holding to “replacement theology,” by his not taking a stronger stand to support national Israel’s role in biblical prophecy. He was drawn to taking a more preterist view of the Book of Revelation, that suggests that many events described in that book of the Bible have already taken place, to the consternation of many evangelical futurists, who see most of Revelation being fulfilled in the End Times. Sproul publicly rebuked the late theologian, Clark Pinnock, for the latter’s advocacy of the controversial doctrine of open theism. Some thought Sproul was too heady, in promoting theology, at the expense of practical spirituality. However,  R. C. Sproul resisted pressures by other evangelical leaders, to make political statements, preferring to stick to his core themes of teaching Christian theology and apologetics.

It is fitting that R. C. Sproul would finish his earthly life in the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. R.C. Sproul loved to tell the story of Martin Luther’s encounter with Rome, generally marked by the year 1517, with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Sproul saw in Luther’s theology the missing ingredient in much of evangelical thought and life today, a consciousness of the holiness and sovereignty of God. If there was one note that R.C. Sproul sang loudly and sang well, it would be to call the church back to God’s sovereignty and The Holiness of God, the title for perhaps his most important book.

R. C. Sproul was truly a man of the Reformation. He is remembered here at Ligonier Ministries, and with this obituary at The Gospel Coalition. Below is a video set of snapshots of Sproul, over the years, teaching on his favorite subject, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (check out that head of hair!!).


Vatican II, Embracement, and Pope Francis: Roman Catholicism Today

Martin Luther, a “heretic” or “a witness to the Gospel?” How has the Roman Catholic communion changed in 500 years? (credit: Finland stamp from 1967, from a ETWN web page)

I need some help from my Roman Catholic friends. It is difficult to figure out exactly what is going on in Rome today.

An Italian evangelical leader, Leonardo De Chirico, gave a very thoughtful 30-minute message at a recent Ligonier Conference, in this year of remembering the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the video below, Chirico argues that in order to understand Roman Catholicism today, we need to have in mind three concepts/names:

  • Vatican II: The 16th century Council of Trent codified for hundreds of years what has been traditionally understood to be Roman Catholicism, the high water mark for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a formulation of doctrine that sought to refute many of the reforms of Martin Luther and other Protestants. The next major council, Vatican I, set much of Roman Catholicism against the changing modern world of the 19th century, affirming the work of the Council of Trent, and reinforcing traditional boundaries. But the early 1960s, Vatican II council changed all of that. However, Vatican II did so, not by altering the doctrine of the church, but rather, by changing the tone and attitudes towards those outside of the Roman communion.
  • Embracement: Vatican II set the wheels in motion, whereby this change of tone and attitude has characterized the trajectory of the Roman church for the past fifty-plus years. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict put the brakes on much of this Vatican II trajectory, embodying the doctrinal commitments that have traditionally defined Rome. Still, incremental changes in smaller ways, in terms of a warmer spirit of embracement and inclusiveness of others, made their way into the church. But the doctrine remained effectively the same.
  • Pope Francis: Now however, unlike his recent predecessors, Francis has downplayed the doctrine and turned up the warmth of this new spirit of embracement. Arguably, Francis is the first truly “Vatican II”-like Pope. In the past four years since his ascendancy, Francis has hinted at or suggested various reforms in the church, some that point towards reconciliation with other parties in the universal Christian community (like Protestants and Eastern Orthodox), some that thrill liberals and others outside of  the church, and some that horrify Catholic conservatives.

What are we to make of all of this?

Briefly stated, on the one hand, Roman Catholicism has never been a monolithic movement, even during the era of the Council of Trent. On the other hand, Protestants can easily misrepresent what Roman Catholics believe and think, and that does harm to efforts to try to heal the divisions of the last 500 years. That being said, here are two things that come to mind as examples of what puzzles me, as to what is coming out of Rome in the Pope Francis era:

  • A generation ago, those Catholics who experienced the tragedy of divorce, were conscience-bound to go through the process of securing an annulment for improper Catholic marriages. Nowadays, fewer divorced Catholics even bother with the annulment proceedings. Also, according to authoritative Catholic tradition, regular confession is a required sacrament of the Catholic Church, and yet, I know many Catholic friends who rarely, if ever, go to confession. What are we to make of all of this?

Leonardo De Chirico offers some insights from a Reformed Protestant perspective. I can imagine that many traditional Catholics might be terribly dismayed by all of the changes. Can any of my Roman Catholic friends help me out here? Are Chirico’s observations correct?

Ligonier Ministries, associated with Bible teacher R. C. Sproul, has some great resources, particularly for those with interest in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. In this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Ligonier sponsored their annual conference, with the theme of the Reformation, and you can even view all of the videos of the conference on YouTube.

 


Podcasts for the Thinking Christian

Plumb LineJohn’ s recent post on William Lane Craig’s Defender Series of podcasts brought to mind that I should update my list of recommended podcasts for the thinking Christian (here is an earlier list John and I have discussed).  I do not have the time to read books as much as I would like, but the marvel of MP3 players is that I can download audio files and listen to them while I work in the yard or drive to and from work.

John’s suggestion of William Lane Craig as the “graduate school” for the next step following after Dick Woodward’s Mini Bible College is very appropriate. Dick was an amazing teacher who continues to impact the world through his unique ability to “put things on the bottom shelf” for people by exploring the basic contours of the Bible. Dr. Craig then makes it more in-depth in terms of helping you grasp and develop your own understanding of God (theology) founded on Scripture and then applied in terms of being able to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith (apologetics).

But just as there are fine and different academic graduate schools out there, there are different “graduate school” approaches to theology and apologetics. For example, Dr. Craig is probably one of the leading Christian apologists alive today, such that atheist Richard Dawkins awkwardly still refuses to debate him. But Dr. Craig is known for his “Middle Knowledge” approach to the issue of God’s sovereignty vs. free will. He is also known for his classical/evidentialist approach to apologetics.  Without digging too much into those things right now, let me just say that not everybody is totally with Dr. Craig on these issues. But, PLEASE, do not let that dissuade you from digging into William Lane Craig! He is awesome! It is just important to know that there are other approaches that Christians take to these issues. You might want to check out some of the other podcast resources available to get a flavor of what is out there. So here we go!

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