WHAT IS FULFILLED ESCHATOLOGY?
by R. C. Leonard
Fulfilled eschatology, also called covenant eschatology or preterism, is the recognition that the New Testament's predictions of "the end of the age" and the coming of Christ refer to events that have already occurred. In fact, these events took place in the first century, shortly after most of the New Testament was written. Therefore, the "last days" were the time of the New Testament, not our own time.
This article discusses the following topics:
The New Testament Evidence
Many Christians today continue to expect the appearance of the "last days" and Christ's return at some time in the future, whether near or remote. Parts of the New Testament, notably the Revelation to John and Jesus' discourse on the Mount of Olives recorded in Matthew 24, are thought to predict cataclysmic events which must accompany the completion of God's plan for judgment upon a sinful world — events still to occur at the coming parousia, or appearance, of Christ.
The problem with this view, however, is that the plain record of the Bible suggests a different perspective. The Christians of the New Testament clearly understood that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:16-17), or the "ends of the ages" (1 Cor. 10:11). Jesus and the apostles taught that the world-shaking events associated with the end would occur within the lifetime of the people who first heard, or read, their words.
Jesus remarked that "there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" (Matt. 16:28), and in his discourse on the Mount of Olives he said that "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matt. 24:34). What Paul said to the Thessalonians about "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to him" (2 Thess. 2:1) clearly suggests that he and his hearers expected to be personally part of these events. The same is true for remarks elsewhere in Paul's letters. The author of Hebrews encourages Christians to assemble and encourage one another, "and all the more, as you see the day drawing near" (Heb. 10:25). John, in his First Letter, writes: "Even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18). In the Revelation, John was given a vision of "the things which must shortly take place" (Rev. 1:1; 22:6); and at the end of the book Jesus declares, "I am coming quickly" (Rev. 22:12, 20). These examples show how the expectation of the immediate coming of "the end" pervades the New Testament.
People who, almost twenty centuries later, continue to believe in a future coming of "the end" have tried to find ways to explain how these New Testament prophecies could apply not to the time in which they were uttered, but to a much later time. One method is to claim that when the New Testament says the end will com "soon" it only means that, whenever it comes, it will come quickly. Another method is to say that the predicted end-time events had a partial fulfillment in ancient times, but still await their complete fulfillment.
Students of fulfilled eschatology find such arguments unconvincing. They believe it violates the integrity of the Word of God to imagine that Christ and the apostles deliberately misled the Christians and others who first heard them. To claim that their predictions of the parousia and the end of the age applied to a far distant time — perhaps twenty centuries later — one has to believe either that Jesus and the New Testament writers were concealing the truth from their hearers, or that they were mistaken. Obviously, people who accept the scriptural authorities as trustworthy cannot accept either of these alternatives. [ Return to index of topics ]
The First-Century Coming
This means that, near the end of the first century, something must have occurred which fulfilled the predictions of Jesus and the apostles, justifying the view of the early Christians that the end of the age was at hand. Students of fulfilled eschatology believe this event was the invasion of Judah by the Roman armies, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year AD 70. This event brought to an end the ancient Judaic religious system, which is the "age" or "world" referred to in the New Testament. It was this system which had persecuted the early Christians. Therefore, the destruction of Jerusalem meant salvation, or deliverance, to the Christian movement and the vindication of its martyrs. From the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, we know the end of this period to have been a time of unspeakable suffering and horror, well worthy of the New Testament portrayal of the "great tribulation" (Rev. 7:14).
But how did Christ come at this time? When they refer to his coming, Jesus and his disciples use word-pictures borrowed from Old Testament descriptions of the coming of the Lord. The Hebrew prophets often used poetic imagery such as clouds and darkness, fire, or changes in the celestial bodies to depict the judgments of the Lord against those who have opposed his rule and violated his covenant. In other words, for the Lord to judge is the same as for the Lord to come. When judgment occurs, or even when it is pronounced by his prophetic spokesmen, a parousia or visitation of the Lord has taken place.
Understood in this way, the judgment which befell the unfaithful religious establishment of Jerusalem, which had rejected God's Messiah, was the historical fulfillment of the New Testament predictions of the coming of the Son of Man. It was also the deliverance, or salvation, of his persecuted witnesses. These martyrs were now vindicated. Their cry, "How long, O Lord?" (Rev. 6:10) was answered in the suppression of the city which had been "drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus" (Rev. 17:6). Therefore, the "Babylon" mentioned in the Revelation to John is none other than ancient Jerusalem.
In the place of that unfaithful city, a new city has appeared: "the holy city, new Jerusalem" (Rev. 21:2). It is not a literal city, but a new community gathered in worship around the Lord God and the triumphant Lamb, Jesus Christ (21:22). The covenant declaration so familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures, "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33, etc.) was now to be fulfilled in the "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17) of those reconciled to God in Christ. So the vision given to John in the closing chapters of the Revelation is not a description of heaven, but of a reality "coming down out of heaven" (21:2). It is a blueprint for the church that gathers around its Lord in worship, and reaches out to those who are thirsty for new life. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come" (Rev. 22:17). [ Return to index of topics ]
Resurrection Life in the Body of Christ
It is also within this new community that resurrection and life are realized. For the New Testament writers, concepts such as "sin," "death," "the flesh" and "the world" are closely connected with the Judaic religious system. In their eyes, this system represented the self-focused efforts of people to justify themselves or prove their own worth. Such an effort is doomed to failure, now as then. But when Jesus, the Son of God, died at the hand of this very system, he exposed it for what it was. In this way, he cancelled its authority over people (Col. 2:13-15).
When people join Christ in his death, through baptism, they are set free from the power of this system of death. Therefore, Paul tells the Colossians, "You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). Jesus himself declared, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26). In other words, resurrection occurs when a person unites with the risen Christ.
And resurrection becomes visible through the life of the new community which Jesus has created. As John puts it, "Do not marvel, brethren, if the world [the religious system] hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren [the Christian community]. (1 John 3:13). The way Paul looks forward to "the redemption of our body" (Rom. 8:23), using the same word he also uses for the church, suggests that the resurrection applies not only to the individual body of the believer, but more importantly to the gathered body of Christ as a spiritual reality. Yes, Jesus indeed rose literally from the dead — and at the end of the "last days" his resurrection also became visibly embodied in a worshiping community released from suppression by a hostile religious environment. [ Return to index of topics ]
Christ Comes in Worship
If the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the fulfillment of what the apostolic church knew as the end of the age, then the "last days" have come and gone. The hope of today's church lies in another direction: the working out of Christ's vision for the covenanted people of God, the new Jerusalem in whom he now dwells and reigns, and to whom he continually comes. Our task is not to anticipate the end, but to live in Jesus' new community.
The worship of the early Christians was a fresh vehicle for the appearance of the Lord in judgment and covenant renewal. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, describes two aspects of the Christian worship gathering. The first is the prophetic assembly, in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested through different members of the congregation. In this assembly, the exercise of the gift of prophecy brings conviction of sin (1 Cor. 14:24-25). Clearly the worship described here bears little resemblance to what occurs in many churches today. Members of the congregation are speaking forth the word of the Lord, worshipers are falling prostrate in response. This is not a spectator event or an instructional program. This type of worship is an event: the Lord is coming to meet with his people. Since Jesus is the Word made flesh, the proclamation of the Word — especially the Gospels — is a parousia of Christ in the worshiping congregation.
The other aspect of early Christian worship Paul describes is the assembly for the observance of the Lord's Supper. From the church's earliest days, the breaking of bread was an event which brought the community together (Acts 2:42). At his last supper, Jesus instructed his disciples to "do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19). This remembrance is more than the memorial of something that happened long ago. It is an action which makes real the presence of the living Christ. This is clear from Luke's account of Jesus' appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). As Jesus blessed and broke the bread with them, "their eyes were opened and they recognized Him."
Whenever Christians gather in the name of Jesus, he is in their midst (Matt. 18:20), but he is known to his church in a special way when it assembles at the table of the Lord. As Paul emphasizes, the blessing of the loaf and cup are a koinonia, a communion at a deep level, in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). "We who are many are one body," the new covenant people with whom the risen presence of Christ abides.
The Lord comes whenever his people gather to celebrate his continuing presence with them. Therefore, worship must be the focus of the church's activity and the heartbeat of its life. Above all else, Jesus suggested, the Father seeks true worshipers (John 4:23). [ Return to index of topics ]
The Return to Fulfilled Eschatology
There are many students of preterist or fulfilled eschatology, and we have presented only one viewpoint. All evangelical preterists want to be faithful to the Word of God, and to the intent of the New Testament documents in their historical setting. This desire has led them to break new ground in biblical interpretation, cutting loose from the prejudices of the futuristic viewpoint which has dominated much of the church for the last century.
As they have pursued their task, students of fulfilled eschatology have discovered that Bible interpreters in previous centuries have held similar views. Nineteenth-century scholars, Puritan theologians of the English Reformation, and some of the ancient fathers of the church have all recognized that the momentous events of the fall of Jerusalem were a fulfillment of what Jesus and his apostles taught about the end of the age.
The evangelical church's preoccupation with a future return of Christ has sapped its resolve to meet the challenge of critiquing and influencing the values of world culture. As long as Christians can excuse themselves with the thought of an impending rapture or coming of the Lord, there is little incentive to confront forces and influences opposed to the principles of the kingdom of God. The revival of fulfilled eschatology can help the church to find its way once again as the vanguard of the new creation, the living demonstration of the emerging city of God. [ Return to index of topics ]
Adapted from Chapter 2 of With Unveiled Face by R. C. Leonard, ©1993, 2002 Laudemont Press, and from the final chapters of The Promise of His Coming by R. C. Leonard and J. E. Leonard, ©1996 Laudemont Press.