House Divided Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to
When Shall These Things Be?
The Eschatological Madness of Mathison or How Can These Things Be?
Michael J. Sullivan
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Mathison says that interpreting New Testament eschatological timetexts is a “difficult problem” that has “perplexed commentators forcenturies,” and that it is therefore a subject upon which he and his coauthors do not agree (155, 178, 204). Consequently, Mathison’s treatment of the time texts is ambiguous and he casts a fog over the whole matter. Here are some examples of Mathison’s pervasive uncertainty as he wrestles against God’s eschatological time-statements.
• “You shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.”
Commentators have interpreted [Matthew 10:23] in a number of different ways. (175–176) Mathison presents five competing futurist and partial preterist interpretations.
He eventually lands on an interpretation but he does not express unequivocal confidence in it.
• “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standinghere who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
. . . [W]hat does it mean for Jesus [in Matthew 16:27–28] to suggest that [the coming of the Son of Man] will happen within the lifetime of his hearers? (176)
But of course, Jesus did more than merely “suggest” that His coming would happen within the lifetime of His hearers, as Mathison weakens the words of the Lord.
• The Coming of the Son of Man
Each of the texts we have looked at (Matt. 10:23; Matt. 16:27–28; 24–25) seems to portray the coming of the Son of Man as something that would occur soon after the words were spoken.
This has perplexed commentators for centuries. (178)
Mathison then makes reference to “all of the difficulties surrounding these [time] texts” and adds that “several” interpretations have been “suggested” (178–179).
But as preterists know, these texts are unequivocal and non perplexing. Note that Mathison admits that all of the biblical texts he cited in Matthew (including the prophecy of the sheep and goats) “seem” to say what preterists say they say. When Mathison says that the texts are surrounded by “difficulties” and that they have “perplexed commentators,” the reason is—obviously—because the texts, if left to interpret themselves, teach “hyper-preterism.” Yet five pages later Mathison says, “There is nothing in any of these texts that demands or even strongly suggests a hyper-preterist interpretation” (183).
• “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
. . . [S]everal possible interpretations [of Matthew 24:34] have been offered.
Mathison presents nine competing futurist and partial preterist interpretations (179–181). All of the “possible interpretations” of the word “generation” proposed by Mathison are puzzling though, since he tells readers in his book, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope, while refuting Dispensationalism, that they can “know” the preterist interpretation of “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is the true interpretation:
We know that the phrase “this generation” refers to the generation of Jews to whom Jesus was speaking for these reasons. . . .
Treading water in a great sea of uncertainty and contradiction, Mathison flounders among the “many possible interpretations” of these and other passages, and then miraculously arrives at the shore and concludes with curious confidence: “Just as there is nothing in the Gospels that even remotely suggests hyper-preterism, so there is also nothing in the book of Acts or in the New Testament epistles that suggests hyper-preterism” (205, emphases added). “The New Testament . . . does not even suggest hyper-preterism” (213, emphases added).
Let’s see now. Mathison admits that Jesus said (or suggested or seemed to teach) many times and in many places that His coming would happen within the lifetime of His hearers. Mathison admits that this fact has perplexed futurist commentators for centuries (176–179). Mathison admits that Paul and other New Testament writers seemed to teach that Christ was coming soon and that the end of the age was near (201–202). Then Mathison says that there is nothing in the New Testament “that even remotely suggests hyper-preterism” (205, 213). Our question to Mathison is not when, but how can these things be?
Mathison undertakes to evaluate and dismiss the preterist position while he himself is uncertain as to how to interpret the verses that “seem” to support preterism (but at the same time do not even “remotely suggest” preterism). Mathison’s particular beliefs are a matter of opinion and debate, because according to Mathison, who can know with any certainty what such terms as “near” and “soon” and “this generation” and “some of you standing here” really mean? There are many possible interpretations.
Mathison should consider that his eschatological particulars (the time texts) are vague and uncertain because his eschatological universals (the physical and yet-future second coming, resurrection, and judgment) are askew. If we all were to agree and stand “shoulder to shoulder” (155) on the universal that eschatology is all about the fall of the Soviet Union, the result would be that our interpretation of a myriad of verses would become a “difficult problem” (Mathison’s term). Mathison’s quandary vividly illustrates the centuries-old problem with futurism. Two or three flawed universals have made a vast multitude of particulars unfathomable.
. . . [O]rthodox Christianity was characterized by two eschatological doctrines: the future return of Christ to judge mankind and the future bodily resurrection of all men for judgment. . . . [A]part from these two doctrines, there was nothing approaching consensus for the first four centuries [of church history].
This problem is alive and well today, as Mathison’s multi-authored book demonstrates. Mathison uses wild understatement when he says of the authors of WSTTB: “ . . . [T]he contributors to this volume do not completely agree in their interpretation of every eschatological text” (155). The fact is that all seven of the contributors to Mathison’s volume do not agree at all on any (or at least virtually any) eschatological doctrine except the doctrine “that the second coming of Jesus Christ, the general resurrection, and the Last Judgment are yet to come” (155). Mathison can call that “shoulder-to-shoulder” agreement, but it is not impressive. Agreement on only a few points out of a myriad merely indicates that those few points are wrong.
It is more than difficult to understand how these authors can portray their historical positions as unified on these points when between their two systems (partial preterism and amillennialism) two contradictory propositions emerge when you examine the particulars – that is the passages that are used to arrive at a futurist position for these three events:
1) Partial Preterism – Imminence and fulfillment is accepted, Christ appeared a second time at the end of the old covenant age, there was a spiritual, corporate, covenantal judgment and resurrection of the living and dead which was attended by a passing of the old creation and arrival of the new in AD 70 in such passages as these: Daniel 12:1-4; Matthew 5:17-18, 13:39-43, 24-25; Acts 1:11; Romans 8:18, 13:11-12; 1 Peter 4:5-7; 2 Peter 3; Revelation 1-22; Hebrews 8:13, 9:26-28, 10:37.
And yet we are also told that this proposition is true –
2) Classic Amillennialism – The NT only teaches one coming of Christ, general judgment and resurrection of the living and dead attended by the restoration of creation at the end of the age.
How can these things be indeed? Obviously both of these propositions cannot be true at the same time unless full preterism is true and accepted. Allow me to use two particular passages in connection with my testimony on how I became a full preterist which illustrates the problem the authors of WSTTB have with their so called “shoulder to shoulder” unity. One day I was reading Reformed amillennial and partial preterist books while also studying Matthew 24-25 and comparing it with 1 Thessalonians 4-5 in my dorm room at the Master’s College. I concluded that the partial preterist was accurate in teaching that the coming of Christ in Matthew 24-25 was fulfilled in AD 70 spiritually using apocalyptic language and that the amillennialist was also accurate in that Paul was drawing from Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse and that there is only one “the parousia” of Christ in the NT. Therefore “orthodoxy” was teaching me that 1 Thessalonians 4-5 was the same coming of Christ described by Jesus in Matthew 24-25. But since the futurist errs on the nature of the resurrection assuming it is biological and at the end of time, the readers of WSTTB are forced into a contradictory “either or” situation on passages such as these when the truth is a “both and.” I think one can see the problem the authors of WSTTB are trying to sweep under the rug when it comes to how they can “unify” in teaching that the Second Coming is still future when the particulars of what they are each saying on the given texts and how they relate to each other teach otherwise.
The choice is simple. Either one continues propagating the myth that these two propositions within the futurist paradigm do not lead to a contradiction, or accept the organic development of full preterism which unites them in seeing that these events were fulfilled in AD 70 when Christ came (once a “second time”) invisibly to close the old covenant age dissolving the elements of that world while establishing the new.
It is ironic that the title of Mathison’s book is When Shall These Things Be? Not only is there no consensus among the authors as to the answer to that very question, but Mathison himself (the only author who attempts to answer the question) fails to arrive at an unequivocal and decisive answer. Within a span of six pages (177–182), Mathison tacitly admits that the question is a problem for futurism, and offers seven or eight possible “solutions.”
If we were to apply Mathison’s method in eschatological matters to all other areas of life, we would be certain of nothing; we would all be postmodernists. The truth would become unknowable. Mathison himself, in his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, teaches that “clear” and “firm scriptural proof for every article of faith” is a “necessity.”
Yet in WSTTB, Mathison demonstrates with his plethora of “possible interpretations” that he lacks “clear” and “firm” scriptural proof either for futurism or against preterism. Nevertheless, he feels at liberty to anathematize us for our preterist challenge to futurism (213).
Mathison claims that Christ died to leave the church, for 2,000 years and counting, in an “evil age.” As my editor has said, “Joy to the world!” Postmillennialists such as Marcellus Kik and Keith Mathison have produced not so much an Eschatology of Victory or An Eschatology of Hope, as a “sick” eschatology, because, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12). Preterism will stand the test of time; and as godly men embrace it and teach it, it will bring healing to the “eschatological schizophrenia” of Mathison et al, and to the eschatological division within the church as a whole.
Interestingly, Gentry and Mathison in their books pit old school dispensationalism against modern day progressives as a “House Divided” that “cannot stand” unless they move more toward covenant theology. And yet we have documented their “House Divided” approach which equally “cannot stand” unless full Preterism is embraced to “bridge the gap.” And since they also exhort progressives such as Pastor John MacArthur in his/their changes which are moving closer and closer to covenant theology, we too applaud Gentry and Mathison for coming closer and closer to full Preterism in what they have written since WSTTB. If a five point Calvinist and progressive dispensationalist such as MacArthur can be seen as “inconsistent,” holding to a “compromised” position, or being content in being a stepping stone for others to come into covenant theology, then full preterists can view Gentry and Mathison’s writings as such in their moves towards full preterism.
If not why not? As a Reformed believer, dear reader, you know that there is no middle ground between Arminianism and Calvinism. You may have tried at one time to say that you were neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian. Or you may have acknowledged that the Bible teaches Calvinism, but you rejected the teaching because you were troubled by its implications. Or you may have even been a closet Calvinist for years. Though the road was perhaps difficult, you eventually embraced the doctrines of grace, and now you know there is no compromise position between the two doctrines.
Many Reformed believers today are having the same experience with the doctrine of preterism. They are learning that it is also a hard pill to swallow and that it is nevertheless the doctrine of Scripture. They are learning that it represents “the whole counsel of God” in the area of eschatology. After we are confronted with biblical preterism, we may try to straddle the fence, but there is truly no middle ground. Just as R.C. Sproul (Sr.) would consider a four-point Calvinist to be in reality a “confused Arminian,” more and more futurists, on their way to biblical preterism, are beginning to see that partial preterism is just “confused futurism.” There is no biblical basis for “partial preterism” even as there is no biblical basis for “partial Calvinism.” This is why partial preterism
invariably leads to full preterism. This is why Keith Mathison and Ken Gentry have both come closer to “hyper-preterism” since they wrote WSTTB. Mathison now believes that the prophecy of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 was fulfilled in AD 70 and Gentry now believes that the resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3 was fulfilled in AD 70.
 Mathison, Postmillennialism, 111 (emphasis added)
 Postmillennialism, 33
 Milton Terry wrote of Hebrews 9:26-28, “The ‘end of the age’ means the close of the epoch or age—that is, the Jewish age or dispensation which was drawing nigh, as our Lord frequently intimated. All those passages that speak of ‘the end,’ ‘the end of the age,’ or ‘the ends of the ages,’ refer to the same consummation, and always as nigh at hand.” “…the writer [to the Hebrews] regarded the incarnation of Christ as taking place near the end of the aeon, or dispensational period. To suppose that he meant that it was close upon the end of the world, or the destruction of the material globe, would be to make him write false history as well as bad grammar. It would not be true in fact; for the world has already lasted longer since the incarnation than the whole duration of the Mosaic economy, from the exodus to the destruction of the temple. It is futile, therefore, to say that the ‘end of the age’ may mean a lengthened period, extending from the incarnation to our times, and even far beyond them. That would be an aeon, and not the close of an aeon. The aeon of which our Lord was speaking was about to close in a great catastrophe; and a catastrophe is not a protracted process, but a definitive and culminating act.” Milton S. Terry, Biblical HERMENEUTICS A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, 441-442.
 Ken Gentry, in another book, gave a decisive interpretation of Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question: “Christ’s teaching here is extremely important to redemptive history. He is responding to the question of His disciples regarding when the end of the age (Gk., aion) will occur (24:3). In essence, His full answer is: when the Romans lay waste the temple (vv. 6 and 15 anticipate this) and pick apart Jerusalem (v. 28).” Thomans Ice, Kenneth Gentry, The Great Tribulation Past or Future? Two Evangelicals Debate the Question (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999), 58.
 Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 32