The Long View: Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told

The minutiae of eschatology matter quite a bit to many people. This book review was my introduction to preterism, the claim that all of the events prophesied in the New Testament have already happened. Like John, I don't think this really fits into a systematic Christian theology, but systematic theology has never really been a popular endeavor.


Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told
by John Noe
Preterist Resources, 1999
300 Pages, US$ 17.95
ISBN 0-9621311-4-8

 

The idea that the eschatological prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the life and mission of Jesus is scarcely new. That is why the Old Testament is part of the Christian canon. However, most forms of Christianity have usually held that prophecy also points to events in the indefinite future, when the work of salvation will be completed along with history itself. The proposition that all the prophecies of the "end times" were fulfilled in their entirety in the first century is known as "preterism." In "Beyond the End Times," John Noe, a writer on business topics and president of the Prophecy Reformation Institute, makes a vigorous case for preterism. His intended audience are the theologically conservative evangelicals who, he feels with some reason, have been ill-served by the premillennialism that has dominated American evangelicalism for the last century and a half.

Quite a few members of the evangelical audience are likely to find this book more than a little disconcerting. All the familiar landmarks by which many believers have oriented themselves in contemporary history are systematically leveled. The founding of modern Israel becomes a political accident, with no significance for salvation history. There will be no Third Temple, no Antichrist and no Battle of Armageddon. There will be no Rapture of the Saints before the Tribulation, and no Tribulation. Indeed, there will be no Second Coming.

And, since the millenarian streak in evangelicalism is only a special case of the millenarianism that runs through American culture generally, evangelicals are not the only ones whose most cherished images of future horror are dismissed. Preterism, in Noe's understanding, requires the doctrine that the world will have no end. This means that neither the human race, nor the planet Earth, nor the universe itself will ever cease to exist. Noe makes a moderate critique of the more hysterical kinds of environmentalism. He also points out that, while a general nuclear war would be very terrible, it would not exterminate the human race. Perhaps most remarkably, this is the only book I have ever encountered which suggests that the second law of thermodynamics, at least as applied to cosmology, may be contrary to scripture.

Noe does not argue, as might a typical theological liberal, that the prophecies of the Old Testament were simply mythology or metaphor. Wherever possible (which is not everywhere), he prefers a literal interpretation of prophecy. Rather, he argues that the prophecies referred to concrete historical events that have already occurred. His particular care is to show the compatibility of Matthew 24:34 with history. That verse comes at the end of the so-called "Olivet Discourse," in which Jesus predicts great tribulation and the coming of the Son of Man. Then he says, "I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened." Noe argues that this need not be, as C.S. Lewis called it, "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible."

The basis for Noe's argument is the Book of Daniel and its prophecy in chapter 9 of "70 weeks of years." This prophecy was supposed to predict the history of the Jews after their return from the Babylonian Exile. Daniel is set in the sixth century BC, though most scholars prefer a date for its composition in the second century BC. Noe is willing to live with either date of composition. If the second-century date is accepted, then the book's "prediction" of the desecration of the Temple by a wicked tyrant was actually a contemporary account of the successful Maccabean revolt in 168 BC against the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who had in fact defiled the Temple. In contrast, the book's prediction of the coming of "Michael" to save the people really was a prediction, and did not occur. At any rate, it did not occur in the second century BC. Christian apologists, however, have long noted that, if you start the 70 "weeks" running from any of several plausible dates for the end of the Exile in the fifth century BC, then "Michael" is predicted to appear during what turned out to be the life of Jesus. Noe explicates the arithmetic in detail, capping it with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. That event, he holds, was the finale, foretold in both the Old and New Testaments, of the "end times" that began with the career of Jesus.

Noe's system has unusual implications for scripture. To begin with, if this version of preterism is to work, then the books of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation most especially included, must all have been written before AD 70. The proposal of such an early date for Revelation is new to me, as it is to both traditional and modern biblical criticism, both of which were quite happy with a late first-century date. Furthermore, the "Babylon" which is destroyed in Revelation turns out to be Jerusalem itself, which is here characterized as apostate for its refusal to accept Jesus as the messiah in the generation after his life on earth. References traditionally thought to have been prophetic of the Antichrist, such as the ruler mentioned by Daniel who would end the sacrifice in the Temple after three-and-a-half years, turn out to refer to Jesus himself, whose crucifixion made the Temple and its liturgy obsolete.

Noe attempts to be faithful to the principles of both the "plain meaning" of the text and of "sola scriptura." The result is often a cautionary example of the degree to which these principles are incompatible. There are numerous passages in both Testaments to the effect that "the earth endures forever," and Noe insists on their literal truth. On the other hand, he says that passages which speak of a "new Heaven and a new Earth" after the "time of the end" actually refer to the New Covenant, which will follow the end of the Mosaic Covenant. The images of cosmic catastrophe in the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament, from the earth being shaken to the stars falling from the sky, are just that: images. He notes that they also occur in prophecies in the Old Testament that predicted punishments against specific peoples and cities. These prophecies actually came to pass, quite without a universal conflagration.

The same method is applied to predictions of the Second Coming. When Jesus spoke of the Son of Man "coming on the clouds" in a way that would be visible "to all the nations of the Earth," he was in fact predicting his return to exact a judgment that would be famous throughout all later time, but in a mode familiar from other chastisements that God had exacted in the Old Testament. This mode was the "sign" of his coming spoken of in Matthew 24:30.

Actually, the principle of sola scriptura notwithstanding, Noe seems to come close at times to opening up the biblical canon to include the "History of the Jewish War" by Flavius Josephus, the famous turncoat of the anti-Roman revolt of AD 66-70. At any rate, it is only through reference to such nonscriptural sources that we can clearly see how the fall of Jerusalem might be interpreted as the culmination of the time of the end, since nowhere in the Bible is that event referred to directly as an accomplished fact.

Noe's use of Josephus is frequently ingenious. For instance, he uses him to identify "the Antichrist," or at any rate, the worst of the class of persons to whom that title might be given. One of the passages frequently cited as referring to a future Antichrist is II Thessalonians 2, where St. Paul says that the Lord cannot come until the "Man of Sin" sets himself up in the Temple as God. Jesus refers to an "Abomination" in the Temple in Matthew 24:15, and both passages can reasonably be taken to echo Daniel 9:27. Consulting Josephus for the events of the Roman-Jewish War, Noe identifies the Abomination as the slaughter of the Temple priesthood by the insurgent John of Gischala, the son of Levi, whose intransigence and viciousness made impossible both negotiations with the Romans and the coordinated defense of the city. This person, Noe concludes, must have been the Man of Sin Paul was predicting 20 years earlier. Well, that's settled.

People who are at all familiar with biblical prophecy can easily think of many verses that would seem to tell against this outline of Noe's version of preterism. All I can suggest is that they read the book. Noe does get around to attempting an answer to most of the familiar proof texts, though not always in the principal discussion of the doctrines to which they are supposed to relate. (Something this book needs is an index, and particularly an index of scriptural citations.) Let me put aside the labor of a close analysis of scripture, however, to ask a larger question: Does this really work? Can Christian theology, even within its own frame of reference, really claim that biblical eschatology was completely fulfilled in the first century? Most important, would such a theology be of more than academic interest?

Again, all I can suggest is that Christian eschatology has always had a large element of immanence, an element that is present in greater or lesser degree throughout the New Testament. Even within the lifetime of Jesus, even in what he says of himself, it is clear that the Kingdom of God already exists. It is accessible through prayer and sacrament, a matter of personal experience that may affect history but that transcends it. The remarks of Jesus about the Son of Man coming in glory in that generation have traditionally been linked with the account of his Transfiguration before Peter, James and John (Matthew 17) and his mock-triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The higher criticism implicitly endorses a "partial-preterist" point of view in the early church, by insisting that the synoptic gospels could not have been written before AD 70. The argument is that the fall of Jerusalem was experienced by contemporaries as an apocalyptic event, the foretelling of which was later put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelists. As for the Gospel of John, normally considered the latest of the gospels, it deals with little except eschatology, yet is quite devoid of "apocalyptic" elements in the conventional sense: God is fully revealed in the life of Jesus, and salvation is complete.

There are problems with the modern dating of the synoptics: Luke may well be post-AD 70, but I have doubts about Mark and even Matthew. Still, there is little doubt that the first century church thought of the fall of Jerusalem as a confirmation of eschatological expectations that were already well established when it happened. But did they think of the catastrophe as a complete fulfillment of prophecy? There is a dearth of evidence that they did, plus a lot of evidence that they did not, including just about all the earliest post-biblical writers on the subject.

The fact is that the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans just was not big enough to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, or even of the Olivet Discourse. To try to limit the "end times" to that single event smacks of the complacent surmise by Tacitus that the whole of Jewish messianic prophecy was fulfilled by the ascension of Vespasian to the imperial title in Rome. Christians living through AD 70 may well have expected a quick, universal end to the order of things when Titus, the son of Vespasian, took Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. As things happened, they did not get to witness the fall of Babylon the Great (which I think it is a bit perverse to associate with Jerusalem in any case), but they did understand that they were living through a "type" of the tribulation of which Jesus spoke. Four hundred years later, Christians did get to see Babylon the Great fall. Maybe they got to see it fall again in 1989. As John Newman remarked, Revelation is a drama that is produced on an ever increasing scale.

Aside from the theological issues, is there any hope that a system like preterism could ever become the basis of a living religion? Preterism presents many of the problems that Francis Fukuyama's famous "End of History" thesis presented at the end of the Cold War, when he proclaimed that the history of political theory had terminated with the triumph of liberal democracy. I share this thesis, with certain reservations, but it leaves you with the problem of what to do next. In preterism's case, we are left with the problem of what the 1,900+ years of Christian history were all about. Biblical prophecy provided a sort of plot for the story of history to follow, but preterism claims that the story ended in AD 70. Is God now to be found only in the text of the Bible and in religious practice, and not at all in history?

Noe clearly does not think so. In fact, he does not even think that revelation, broadly defined, is yet at an end. He has written on the many "theophanies" of Jesus in the Old Testament, and says he sees no reason why these cannot happen at any time. He even looks forward to the 21st century as the occasion for a new Reformation, this one concerned especially with the church's understanding of prophecy. While not precisely a Social Gospeler, he does deplore the deadening effect that millenarianism has on the participation of Christians in constructive politics and other social activities. That is something which he hopes the coming Prophecy Reformation will remedy, after people see that conventional evangelical premillennialism is a false idol.

I would not dismiss these expectations out of hand, but I suspect that preterism would have to grow in certain ways to realize them. Frankly, the model needs a future. If it cannot provide a universal eschaton, it must at least define some goals for the world short of eternity. The slightly unsettling thing about preterism is that it seems to leave itself almost absolute freedom in that regard. The Bible is capped by AD 70, and has nothing more to say about history. One cannot help but wonder whether something like preterism might be the necessary predicate for a "Third Testament."

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Soft Landings

John was an unaffiliated, but not wholly unrespectable scholar, of millennialism and millennial movements. Here is one of his conference papers on millennialism, tying together his interests in millennialism, cyclical models of history, and books.

Table of Contents:

Introduction

Generations

Tolkien

Preterism

Conclusion

Notes

Presented at the Fifth Annual Conference

of the

Center For Millennial Studies

Boston University

October 28 -- October 31

2000:

Soft Landings: "Generations," Tolkien & Preterism

Introduction

Three things often go without saying when we examine an apocalyptic interpretation of history, particularly somebody else's apocalyptic interpretation of history. The first is that the ideas in question are always chiefly concerned with expectations for the future. The second is that these expectations are always disappointed or deferred. The third assumption, often implicit, is that the system we are dealing with is naive in some way, so that serious people need not consider it on the merits. What I would like to do here is briefly sketch three models of history, models that have some popular currency and that have a strong eschatological element, about which none of these assumptions is true. All of the models, I would argue, are examples of the millennial imagination at its constructive best.

As a preliminary matter, there are a few theoretical points that have to be addressed, the chief of which is how can we talk about people's eschatological expectations being fulfilled if the world has not ended yet. We do this, as you might expect, by expanding the definitions. When we talk about familiar apocalyptic notions, such as the Tribulation or the Battle of Armageddon or the Millennium, we are talking about instances of the structural features of a kind of story. I will spare you a full structural description. As we all know, this is the kind of story that has a golden age in the past, a buildup to a dramatic climax, and often an anticlimactic postscript followed by a final resolution.(1) Some models of history with this structure take up all the time there is, so that when you reach the eschaton, there is nothing more to be said. On the other hand, with a cyclical model, it is obviously possible to have an eschaton both in the past and the future. A linear model can also do something like this, as St. Augustine did when he identified the whole era of the Church with the Millennium of Revelation 20.(2)

 

The point to keep in mind is that the age after the culmination of history, which we may call the Millennium for convenience, can be a habitable place. That is, it can be continuous with profane history, even if you have to pass through a great Tribulation to get there. However, the expectation even of a habitable Millennium can still generate familiar forms of millenarianism.

Generations

Consider the generational model of history developed and marketed by Neil Howe and William Strauss over the past decade or so.(3) Howe has degrees in history and economics, and Strauss has both an advanced degree in political science and a track record as a political humorist, but what they are most famous for is the minor cult that began with the publication in 1991 of their first book, "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." It is hard to say how well-known their ideas are, but their promotional skills are undeniable. Their 1993 book, "13th Gen," which dealt with Generation X, apparently earned them a following among this group. This was partly because of their genuine compassion for the no-hope slackers of the world, and partly because they described a vital role for them in the coming crisis of the first three decades of the 21st century. They now run two online discussion groups.(4) Their greatest coup yet, however, maybe their book published just this fall, "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation." If Hegel had written a baby-care book to promote his philosophy of history, it would have been something like this. Before we get to the up-and-coming Millennials, however, let me just briefly outline Strauss and Howe's system.

Models of history based on the idea that successive generations have character-types that repeat themselves are not new. Probably the best-known examples are the theories of fluctuating political styles developed by the Arthur Schlesingers, junior and senior.(5) (Recent books such as "Bobos in Paradise" and "The Greatest Generation"(6) suggest that a generational approach to history is becoming fashionable.) Few such models, however, are quite as comprehensive as Strauss and Howe's. Their graphs and charts are as complicated as anything you will find in astrology. There is even a personality classification system that is as much fun as sun signs.

According to Strauss and Howe, a generation is a 20-year block of demographic cohorts who might be expected to have comparable experiences at each stage of life. The key to the system is the hypothesis that a society-wide crisis tends to fix the character of the generation then in young adulthood. If the crisis is successfully overcome, they are heroes: they get special deference for the rest of their lives. The formation of a Hero generation begins a predictable sequence of four generational types that appear over a period of 80 to 100 years, during which social mores relax and then tighten again.

I could describe in detail what these four generational types are like, and I could describe the four ages within the 90-year cycle in which each matures in turn. But I won't.(7) Here is all you really have to know. The baby-boom generation, called the "Boomers" for short, are like the generations of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Generation X is like the Lost Generation of the 1920s. The generation of Jefferson and Hamilton is like the GI generation of the Depression and World War II era. The Millennial Generation, the oldest of whom turned 18 just this year, should be a Hero generation, like the GIs. Strauss and Howe have sketched their probable lifecourse to the very end of the 21st century.

Objections can be raised to every point of their model. For one thing, the very existence of the First Awakening has been questioned. (8) For another, even social scientists who share many of Strauss and Howe's ideas about the American prospect manage to do without the generational mechanism. (9) Nonetheless, whatever its ability to predict the future, the model does give us a very workable framework for the past. Grammar school history teachers, I am told, love it for that reason. The model plausibly identifies the great crises of American history as the Depression and World War II era, the buildup to the Civil War, the American Revolution and constitution-forming period, and earliest of all, King Philip's War and the Glorious Revolution. These crises really are all about 90 years apart. It is not hard to think of them in terms of the premillennial tribulation, because that is how many people did who lived through them did.

As for forecasting the future, Strauss and Howe have not done badly so far. In the early 1990s, when it seemed that kids were getting stupider every year and criminologists were predicting an impending generation of super-predators, the "Generations" model predicted better scholastic performance and lower crime rates. Strauss and Howe predicted (and advocated) the spread of school uniforms. On the whole, in fact, they anticipated the current cultural and political environment, in which you can get away with anything, provided you do it "for the children."

These Millennial children Strauss and Howe talk about are members of the generation that supposedly started to be born about 1982. They still have a few years more to appear. If all goes well, the Millennials will build a society that is safer, more orderly, and in some ways blander. `N Sync will soon prevail over Limp Bizkit. Millennials are more interested in team work than in self-expression, they value unity more than diversity. They will tend to elaborate rather than collapse gender roles. Like the GI Generation, Millennials will favor mass organizations, such as labor unions and churches, even though they will be less spiritual than Boomers.

The Millennials will gel, however, only if society as a whole passes through the next Crisis. Strauss and Howe have no idea of the content of that Crisis, so they give us numbers. They suggest that, sometime in the second half of this decade, an event comparable to the financial collapse of 1929 will mark the beginning of 20 years of menace and danger. This degree of vagueness is a little unusual in date setters. Also unusual is that they don't advise their readers to prepare by buying bottled water or shotguns, but by supporting measures for ordinary good government. (10) A theme that runs throughout all their books is to urge moderation on the Boomers. They say this generation, which will occupy the senior leadership role during the Crisis, is fundamentally fanatical and will need watching. By Generation X.

If the next three decades are negotiated successfully, the Millennials will dominate the rest of the century. Should they come into their kingdom after the Crisis, the period of their greatest power will be a time analogous in many ways to the Eisenhower era, with similar virtues and faults. Strauss and Howe identify several such periods in the past. On the whole, they tend to be characterized by prosperity, consensus, and a high level of moral obtuseness. In other words, they may be the Millennium, but they are not paradise. So here we have a model of history whose working parts resemble ordinary premillennialism. It does have lower stakes, however. All Strauss and Howe's books are profoundly patriotic, but they do make clear that the purposes of God and all his angels do not turn on the historical development of the United States. They also make historical salvation a matter of free will. They point to the Civil War era as a Crisis that America failed, because of the inflexible fanaticism of the Boomer-like generation of the Second Great Awakening. Another difference, of course, is that the model is as much about the past as the future. These are all characteristics that it shares with another model of history that, perhaps not coincidentally, also seems to hold strong appeal for young people.

Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," was first published in 1954 and apparently cannot go out of print. Tolkien, we all know, was an Oxford philologist who was best known professionally for his studies of "Beowulf" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Beyond that, he has a lot to answer for. "The Lord of the Rings" is the book that saddled us with sword-and-sorcery pulp-fiction and videogames. The trilogy itself is written in a pseudo early-modern prose that is widely imitated and often cringe-making. Still, the trilogy is on the short list for the most popular work of the 20th century. (11)

There is in fact a fair amount of serious Tolkien scholarship, but, fortunately, not enough to spoil the fun. (12) Critics tend to treat the trilogy as a conventional novel, though Tolkien himself insisted it was a romance. Be this as it may, several mysteries about the trilogy are cleared up if we think of it as an apocalyptic novel, written from a Roman Catholic perspective.

There is an asymmetry in the religious publishing industry. Premillennial Protestant apocalyptic novels have been with us since the 1930s, and there have been enough of them in recent years to create their own fiction category. (13) The number of Catholic novels of this type, at least by my count, does not reach ten, even if you include doubtful candidates, such as Walker Percy's "Thanatos Syndrome." (14) Now maybe Catholics just lack the apocalypse gene, or maybe this sort of fiction withers under the anti-millenarian eye of St. Augustine. Or maybe Tolkien's trilogy satisfies the apocalyptic impulse in people who don't know they have it.

"The Lord of the Rings" is 600,000 words long, which is a bit much to describe in detail here. There are just a few points we need to highlight. The trilogy is essentially a story about the experiences of ordinary people in a world war. The chief enemy in this war is a demonic eastern figure who relies as much on deceit as on force. Resistance to him is centered in a crumbly old empire whose capital simultaneously resembles Constantinople and Rome and Vienna. The core kingdom has been without a king for many centuries. It is ruled by a steward in the king's name, and the monarchy has become just a constitutional myth. The setting for the story is the historical crisis in which this myth comes true. The third part of the trilogy is called "The Return of the King," a title that might reasonably be said to have a millenarian overtone.

Bits and pieces of traditional Christian apocalyptic are scattered throughout the trilogy. The Enemy looks more than a little like Antichrist. The Dwarves (not "Dwarfs"; "Dwarves") are by Tolkien's own admission supposed to be like the Jews, even down to having a species of Zionism. (15) The future king descends to the land of the dead and returns. Some of these elements are familiar from any work on comparative mythology. This is true of Christian eschatology in general, but there is a difference with the trilogy.

In modern apocalyptic fiction, such as the "Left Behind" series, you will, of course, get to have lunch with the Antichrist, and you will be taught the premillennial model of history in great detail, but these stories are often really about how the everyman characters handle themselves in a morally charged situation. (16) "The Lord of the Rings" is just the same: the hero-myth is in it, but it's not about the hero who becomes king. The chief subplot concerns the exhausting journey of an everyman named Frodo to destroy a talisman on which the power of the demon ruler depends. At the moment of climax, he caves, and he loses the will to throw the magic ring into the volcano. The essential act is performed for him, by a kind of miracle. As in traditional eschatology, in fact, the whole world is saved providentially. The characters never had the power to save themselves. The moral is that some duties can be binding even in a situation that is hopeless by any rational standard .

Tolkien had a donnish sense of humor, and maybe the greatest practical joke of his career was his insistence in the Foreword to the Second Edition to "The Lord of the Rings" that the work is not an allegory, and particularly that it is not an allegory of the Second World War. (17) While this is a question of degree, we don't have to take altogether seriously his injunction to separate "The Lord of the Rings" entirely from history, especially in the light of the connections Tolkien himself drew between his service in the First World War and his first attempts at writing fantasy. (18) Certainly one of the ways that Tolkien's fans entertain themselves is by finding parallels between the world of the "Lord of the Rings" and that of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. For instance, the steward who nominally rules in the place of the king looks an awful lot like a pope, and not just any pope, but like Pope Pius X. (Actually, Pope Saint Pius X.) Both the steward and Pius were given to visions of impending crisis, and both might be characterized as successful reactionaries who were criticized later for going overboard. (19) The greatest parallel, however, is the sense throughout "The Lord of the Rings" of "here we go again."

The imaginary history of Tolkien's imaginary world is characterized by a series of epochal struggles against evil, stretching all the way back into mythological time. These apocalyptic episodes are not cyclical. What they share is a certain "type." John Cardinal Newman, another English Catholic, summed up this way of looking at history in a sermon given about a century before the trilogy was published:

"In truth, every event in this world is a type of those that follow, history proceeding forward as a circle ever enlarging. The days of the Apostles typified the last days...In like manner every age presents its own picture of those future events, which alone are the real fulfillment of the prophecy which stands at the head of all of them." (20)

This is probably the smartest thing that anybody ever said about the Book of Revelation.

"The Lord of the Rings" is in the same tradition, and not least in the final chapters, when the ancient kingdom is restored. Many of the features of traditional millennialism are there. There is a great feast after a battle like that of Armageddon. The restored king hands out judgments. Want disappears. Major warfare ceases. The world is set to rights, but it's still the same world. When the protagonists get back home to their Shire, they find that it has fallen into the hands of socialists, so they have to organize a liberation movement. Frodo the veteran gets little honor in his own country, and his adventure leaves him chronically ill. Mortality is not repealed, and neither is the prospect that the Shadow could take another form in the future.

"The Lord of the Rings" is not simply an allegory of the life and times of its author, but clearly its point of reference is the first half of the 20th century. For my money, in fact, when people in the future teach courses on the 20th century, the only items the syllabus will really need is "The Lord of the Rings" and that Terry Gilliam movie, "Brazil." (21)

Preterism

Tolkien, like Cardinal Newman, was using a method of interpretation that comes to us from St. Augustine, and which is the dominant way that the West has thought about the Last Things. Even if Tolkien's eschaton can be said to lie in the past, still the overlap of history and eschatology is typical rather than absolute. Is it possible to have a model of history that identifies some past event absolutely and uniquely with the eschaton? Sure: that is pretty much what Francis Fukuyama's did in "The End of History and the Last Man," and actually, when you see how narrowly he defined history, his thesis is still defensible. (22) Another such model, one that may have better hope of a mass audience, starts with the proposition that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the first century AD.

This idea is not new. (23) Its most recent incarnations are called Realized Eschatology, or Covenant Eschatology, or preterism, or Transmillennialism (TM). (24) Preterism is the generic term I use. In any case, I gather that most of the credit for reviving this class of eschatology goes to the Reverend Max King of the Parkham Road Church of Christ in Warren, Ohio. (25) He became vocal on the subject in the early 1970s, in opposition to the premillennialism that was then getting wide distribution thanks to Hal Lindsey's "Late Great Planet Earth." (26) Preterism has its share of schisms and schools, but one thing that all preterists seem to have in common is deep embarrassment at the game of "pin the tail on the Antichrist" that many pretribulationists have been playing with secular history these last thirty years. Something else they all have in common is keen interest in any millennial disappointment that may attend the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They believe, not unreasonably, that this state of mind could get their ideas a wider hearing.

Preterism can be viewed as an attempt to deal with the so-called "Olivet Discourse" found in the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus explains about the Last Things. In Matthew 24, Jesus speaks of future false Christs. He speaks of coming persecutions and tribulation and says, "[t]herefore when you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place -- let him who reads understand -- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." A little later Jesus says, "But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; and then all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with great power and majesty." The verses that C.S. Lewis called "the most embarrassing in the Bible" (27) are 33 and 34: "Even so, when you see all these things, know that it is near, even at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened."

Now, something is not computing here, but it is not entirely clear what. The higher criticism has said for more than a century that this chapter is an oblique reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, recast ten or twenty years later as a prophecy. However, many people have had trouble understanding why the evangelists writing at the late dates favored by the higher critics would create what was already a stale prophecy. (28) A more traditional approach, like that of Cardinal Newman, has it that the people of Jesus's generation did live to see a type of the end of the age in the destruction of the Temple. (Preterists call this position "partial-preterism.") What the preterists say is that the end of the Temple was not just a type of the end of the age, it was the end of the age, and that AD 70 was the date of the final Parousia.

The details of the argument are ingenious. A popular work, "Beyond the End Time" by John Noe (29) shows how the prophecy of "70 Weeks of Years" in Daniel 9 can be used to date the fall of Jerusalem quite precisely, assuming you start the prophecy running from the right point in the fifth century BC. This use of Daniel in Christian apologetics is hardly new. In this version, the life of Jesus and the forty years before AD 70 become the last week. Noe expands on Max King's suggestion that those last 40 years were actually the Millennium of Revelation 20, which makes perfect sense if you think of the Millennium as the pause between the climax and the final resolution of a story. (30) Noe also explains how the imagery of the Son of Man coming on a cloud fits well enough with the imagery the Old Testament conventionally uses to describe the chastisement of a city. What Noe and other full-preterists wish to emphasize is that the prophecies and the types of the Old Testament were wholly fulfilled in the New Testament period, and there is nothing more to be done.

Preterism can have some striking implications. For one thing, preterism requires that the whole New Testament canon, including the Book of Revelation, must have been completed by AD 70. This is a hard proposition to defend. (31) Preterism also discounts features of the popular religious landscape. There is no Rapture or Second Coming to look forward to. The creation of Israel in the 20th century becomes just another political event. Extreme forms of preterism are almost antinomian. The New Testament Church, from a preterist perspective, was the creature of a transitional period that ended in AD 70, and so did its charismatic gifts. These include, for instance, speaking in tongues and the office of apostle. The end of the latter is not an uncommon idea among Protestants. However, the people to whom Jesus is represented as giving these powers are also the ones to whom he gave the Great Commission, and whom he told to perform the Lord's Supper. While most preterists are at pains to distance themselves from what they call "hyper-preterism," the fact remains that preterism can make it hard to argue that Christians are required by Scripture to do anything at all. (32)

On the other hand, preterists also believe that now is still the early church, so there is lots of time to address these issues. In fact, there will still be lots of time in 1,000 or 10,000 years, since the duration of the New Covenant is infinite. Though preterism itself does not logically require any particular political or social orientation, its modern incarnation was founded by people who were alarmed by the tendency to disengagement traditionally associated with premillennialists like Hal Lindsey. Many of its adherents are in fact simply rather extreme Reformed Presbyterian post-millennialists.

While preterism is therefore not so different from more familiar forms of amillennialism, it goes St. Augustine's eschatology one better. Augustine suggested that the age of the Church was the Millennium, but there was still a futurist element in his interpretation of prophecy, one that was to some extent still linked to the geography and history of the Middle East. In contrast, Preterism, to use a $10 term from complexity theory, is "non-scalar." Without breaking the link to history, it can at least contemplate a future that is not parochial. This might not be a bad idea.

Conclusion

There are many reasons why people become interested in millennial studies. For one thing, there is all that cinematic violence. Jonestown, the Tai Ping Rebellion, the Muenster Commune; all are great, gory history. And of course, revolutionary millenarianism is a key feature of history whose importance is often still not fully appreciated. However, if destructive and pathological behavior were all the apocalypse were about, it would be hard to see why the idea persists. You might think that even the human race would have learned something by now.

It is much more likely that we keep pursuing the millennium because that is, on the whole, a sane way to deal with history. The world has yet to come crashing down universally, but it has often done so locally, and people have to deal with that. When they try to make the world a better place, they need a model that offers both hope and caution. The three models of history we have examined can provide those things, and in that I think they are typical of the way the Millennium really works.

Thank You.

Notes

(1) "The Sense of an Ending" by Frank Kermode (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967) gives a manageable treatment of the apocalypse as a feature of story structure. See also "The Perennial Apocalypse," John J. Reilly (London: Online Originals, 1998)

(2) "History of the Idea of Progress," Robert Nisbet (New York: Basic Books, 1980), p. 68.

(3) William Strauss and Neil Howe:

______"Generations: History of America's Future, 1584--2029" (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991)

______"13th Gen : abort, retry, ignore, fail?" (New York : Vintage Books, 1993)

______"The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy" (New York: Broadway Books, 1997

______"Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation" (New York: Vintage Books, 2000)

(4) (September 15, 2000):

http://www.fourthturning.com

http://www.millennialsrising.com

(5) "The Cycles of American History," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1986) "New Viewpoints in American History," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1922, 1977)

(6) "Bobos in Paradise : The New Upper Class and How They Got There," David Brooks (New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000)

"The Greatest Generation Speaks : Letters and Reflections," Tom Brokaw (New York : Random House, 1999)

(7) The "Fourth Turning" (op. cit.) gives the mature form of Strauss and Howe's system. See the review of the book in "Apocalypse & Future: Notes on the Cultural History of the 21st Century," John J. Reilly (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2000), p. 222; also online at http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/tft.html

(8) "Inventing the Great Awakening," Frank Lambert (Princeton University Press, 2000). The standard work on the importance of the Awakenings is William McLoughlin's "Revivals, Awakenings and Reform: An essay on religion and social change in America" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(9) E.g., "The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism," Robert William Fogel (University of Chicago Press, 2000) Despite the many similarities, Strauss and Howe's works are not cited.

(10) "The Fourth Turning," op. cit., pp. 305 et seq.

(11) This according to surveys by UK Channel 4 and Waterstones Booksellers.

(12) "Tolkien: Man and Myth," Joseph Pearce (London: HarperCollins, 1998) The Tolkien Society (http://www.tolkiensociety.org)

(13) "When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture," Paul Boyer (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1992), p. 106

(14) David van Meter listed the following Catholic apocalyptic novels on his "Marian Apparitions" site (http://members.aol.com/UticaCW/Mary-App.html) as of September 15, 2000:

MacFarlane, Bud Jr. Pierced by a Sword : A Chronicle of the Coming Tribulations. Fairview Park, OH: St. Jude Media, 1995.

McInerny, Ralph M. The Red Hat. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.

O'Brien, Michael D. Eclipse of the Sun. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.

________. Father Elijah: An Apocalypse. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996.

________. Strangers and Sojourners : A Novel. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997.

West, Morris. The Clowns of God. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

To these I would add:

Benson, Robert Hugh, "The Lord of the World," Long Prairie, Minn.: The Neumann Press, 1907

Walker, Percy, "Thanatos Syndrome," New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987

(15) "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien," ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p. 78

(16) The Left Behind Series is written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (Wheaton, IL.: Tyndale House). The first book in the series, "Left Behind," appeared in 1996. As of this writing, six more have been published. Five further books are planned to April 15, 2003. (There is also a children's series, "Left Behind: The Kids.") For a review of the second book, "Tribulation Force," see Reilly, op. sit., p. 20; also available at http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/trib.html

(17) "The Lord of the Rings," John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954, 1965), p. 5: "I think that many confuse `applicability' with `allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

(18) "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien," op. sit., p. 229

(19) Cf. the description of Pius X given from "A History of Christianity," Paul Johnson (New York: Athenuem, 1983), p. 469 with that of Denethor in "The Lord of the Rings," op. sit., ("The Return of the King"), p. 31.

(20) "Tracts for the Times," Vol. V, 1838-1840 (London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1840), Advent Sermons on the Antichrist, pp. 1-54

(21) "Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century," Norman F. Cantor (New York : W. Morrow, 1991), p. 207

(22) "The End of History and the Last Man," Francis Fukuyama (New York: The Free Press, 1992)

(23) "The Parousia," James Stuart Russell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1878, 1999). The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word "preterist," though not the doctrine, to 1843.

(24) The homepage for the International Preterist Association is http://www.preterist.org The homepage for Living Presence Ministries, the exponent of Transmillennialism (TM), is http://www.livingpresence.org

(25) "The Cross and the Parousia of Christ: The Two Dimensions of One Age-Changing Eschaton," Max R. King (Warren, Ohio, The Parkham Road Church of Christ, 1987)

(26) "The Late Great Planet Earth," Hal Lindsey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970, 1977)

(27) "The World's Last Night, and Other Essays," C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace,1959), p. 98

(28) "Redating the New Testament," J.A.T. Robinson (SCM, London, 1976)

(29) "Beyond the End Times: The Rest of the Greatest Story Ever Told," John Noe (Bradford, Pa.: International Preterist Resources, 1999). For a review, go to http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/betet.html

(30) King, op. sit., p. 212

(31) E.g., "Before Jerusalem Fell," Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. (Amer Vision Pub, 1999)

(32) A response to hyperpreterism can be found on the International Preterist Association website at http://www.preterist.org/articles/Walt Hibbard Responds to Misunderstandings about the Preterist View.html

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