For over a hundred and thirty years, the Evangelical church has been looking at prophecy through the interpretive lenses of Pre-Trib, Pre-Millennialism. The charts and memorable images of people vanishing, a one world government, rebuilt temple, The Anti-Christ, and the great tribulation are deeply imprinted in the evangelical mind. Many came to Christ because out of fear of being “left behind”. Every year prophecy books that see biblical fulfillment in recent world events top the best seller charts. Seemingly, there is no other way to look at prophecy. To many, the suggestion that some of these events may have been fulfilled in the past is tantamount to denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture. However, what happens when you remove your preconceptions about the eschatological time table and let Scripture speak for itself?
In this article I will briefly examine some alternate interpretations of what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom, the Last Days, the Great Tribulation, the Beast of Revelation, and the Rapture. Pretend you are looking at the Bible for the first time and you have no ideas about the end times. Take another look.
Nebuchadnezzar, the great world ruler, had a terrible nightmare. When he awoke, he simply had to know what his dream meant. Only to Daniel did God reveal the great significance of this vision of the future. Nebuchadnezzar had seen a great statue with a head of gold, a chest and arms of silver, a belly and thighs of bronze, legs of bronze, and feet of iron and clay. A stone that was not cut with human hands struck the feet of the statute and destroyed it. The stone became a great mountain that grew until it filled the earth. Daniel explained that each part of the statue represented a world kingdom: Babylon, then Media-Persia, then the Greeks, and finally the feet of iron – the terrible Roman Empire. In the days of this Roman Empire, God would set up a kingdom which would never be destroyed and would eventually break in pieces all other kingdoms. (Dan.2)
Let’s fast forward to the days of the Romans. John the Baptist appears on the scene warning “The time is fulfilled. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus taught many parables about this imminent Kingdom. He likened it to leaven which is put in dough and multiplies until the whole loaf is permeated and to a mustard seed which is so tiny yet grows big enough for a bird to rest on it. (Matt. 13) Many Jews were aware of Daniel’s prophecy and knew they were in the days of the “kingdom of the feet.” Mothers wondered if their boys would be the Messiah who would deliver Israel and set up the foretold kingdom. Young zealots, with self induced visions of grandeur, tried to fulfill the prophecy. Jesus, recognized as the Messiah, was expected to set up this Kingdom. But, hopes were dashed with His death. Where was the Kingdom?
Daniel had a vision of the Son of Man, coming on the clouds up to the Ancient of Days; at this meeting, everlasting dominion, glory, and a never-ending Kingdom were given to Him.(Dan 7:13-14) Jesus angered the Pharisees, when He claimed to be the Son of Man. Forty days after rising from the dead, the Son of Man ascended on the clouds to meet the Ancient of Days; He stated that “All authority has been given to me, in heaven and on earth.” Paul said that He is reigning, and will reign till He has put every enemy under His feet. Has the Kingdom been established, or is this still a future kingdom?
The Last Days
The prophet Joel prophesied that in the last days God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. There would be supernatural revelations and signs and wonders. For over fourteen hundred years, the Jews had been relating to God under the rules of the Old Covenant. It was ingrained in the fibers of their very souls. Then the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus, stepped on to the scene. In just 33 short years He established a New Covenant in which the sacrificial system was done away with, the ceremonial laws were fulfilled, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, and WE became the temple of God. The Jews needed convincing: You don’t just up and abandon something that God has been telling you to do for hundreds of years! In their minds, it was a terrifying thing to risk Jehovah’s wrath and abandon their rituals and sacrifices, which were the only way they knew to appease Jehovah.
To convince the Jews, God put His signature stamp on the New Covenant: Miracles, signs and wonders, including the gift of tongues. (1 Cor. 14:22) At Pentecost, Peter boldly proclaimed that this was the fulfillment of what Joel had prophesied. God in His mercy was giving the faithful Jews a window of time to accept this New Covenant. John warned his readers that it was the last hour; James said the Judge was at the door. In the Revelation (the internal evidence points to it being written in roughly 66 A.D.), John said these things must shortly take place. God was about to pour out His wrath on unfaithful Israel. They had spurned their Lover and now they were going to pay. Is it possible these years till A.D. 70 were the Last Days of the Old Covenant?
The Great Tribulation
Jesus told a parable about a vineyard that was entrusted to vinedressers. These wicked men refused to give the owner the fruit. The owner sent messenger after messenger. Each time they were cruelly beaten or killed. Finally He sent His own Son and they killed Him as well. Jesus asked the crowd “what will the owner do?” They replied “He will destroy the wicked men and give the vineyard to others”. This angered Jewish officials because they knew the parable was an indictment of them. In other words, the Jews were given a covenant, but they refused to bear fruits worthy of such an honor. God sent judges and prophets, calling them to return to His great love. They refused. God sent His Son and they crucified Him saying, “His blood be upon us and our children”. In Matthew 23, Christ had scathing words for the self-righteous, hypocritical, Pharisees. He said that they would kill, scourge, and crucify the wise men He would send them, so that on them all the righteous blood shed on the earth would come. He swore that all this would come upon this generation. (Through past prophets, God had warned His unfaithful bride that He would punish her severely if she did not repent.) The disciples inquired as to the timing of this punishment. Jesus launched into His famous Olivet discourse (Matt 24) in which He details this punishment –The Great Tribulation. He wrapped up the prophecy of doom with the promise that the current generation would by no means pass away until all was fulfilled. (Matt. 24:34) By the time the temple fell in A.D. 70, every thing Jesus said had come to pass, including His coming on the clouds, a metaphor the Jews recognized as God’s sovereign ruling and judgment. Jesus had told the high priest that they would see the “Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, coming on the clouds.” The cataclysmic language used (sun being darkened, moon not giving light, stars falling) was familiar to the Jews. Similar language was used in prophecies of destruction for the surrounding nations. (See Is. 13:9-10; Ez. 32:7-8; Is.34:4-5) Jesus saw how horrible this destruction would be and he mourned greatly. Josephus records in graphic detail the atrocities that happened during this punishment. Have the Jews already been punished for their rejection of the Messiah in the first century? Are we incorrectly holding this punishment over their heads, saying the Great Tribulation is still to come?
In the Revelation, John describes a terrible world leader who sets himself up as God. We refer to him today as the anti-Christ. (Incidentally that phrase is not used at all in Revelation.) The popular concept of him is a future 21st-century character who is probably already born, such as Nicholai Carparthia from the Left Behind series. Is it possible that this beast has come and gone? Many historians see Nero as the fulfillment of this prophecy. John told his readers, during Nero’s reign, that “he who has wisdom will be able to calculate the number of the beast.” This begs an important question: If the beast was a 21st century character, how would anyone in the first century, no matter how much wisdom he had, been able to calculate his number? (We must always look at Scripture through the eyes of those who were its original recipients before we can properly apply the truths to our lives). When Nero’s name was transliterated to Hebrew, it was spelled “nrwn qsr” (Hebrew has no vowels) When the numerical value (letters were often used for numbers) were added up: n = 50, r = 200, w = 6, n = 50, q = 100, s = 60, r = 200, they equaled 666. John readers would have had Nero on their minds, especially when reading of the treacherous, blasphemous nature of the beast. Seeing the code, they would have immediately tried Nero’s name, and known for sure what John meant. They would have been so encouraged to read on and see that the beast is overthrown by Lamb. In the throes of intense persecution, in which those who didn’t worship Nero, were marked and couldn’t operate a business, John’s descriptions of the conquering King of kings would have given tremendous hope. Those who heeded the words of the book would have indeed been blessed. Should we be looking for one world governments and charismatic young leaders who have anti-Christ potential? Or was the beast simply one of many whose kingdom has been overthrown by the King of kings?
It is amazing that a doctrine can be so widely held without a single verse to support it! Nowhere in scripture can you find a verse proving the idea of a pre-Tribulational rapture. You can find lots of verses about the second coming, the Resurrection, and our being caught up in the air. But according to Scripture, these all happen in the same day! Unless you form the idea first and cram it into scripture, you will not find gaps of seven years, and one thousand years separating these events as is commonly believed. Jesus said that the hour is coming in which all who are dead will come forth (John 5:28-29), the good and the evil. Paul says that “we who are alive will by no means precede those who are dead.” Jesus said he would raise us up on the last day! Take the clear passages of scripture and use those to interpret the vague. For instance, when John wrote his gospel, he opened the book with the clear teaching that Jesus was and is God. Therefore the unclear parts of the book, such as, Jesus saying the Father is greater than Him, must be understood in light of the explicit. We must do the same with the rapture. Does God suddenly prevent His church from suffering, and remove it for seven years before He comes again? Or will the resurrection take place at the second coming?
These ideas may seem radical, but this was the way many within the Church understood Scripture for the first 1800 years. The current notions of eschatology are relatively new (175 years) and though widely believed, they may soon vanish due to lack of biblical support. The church has for too long been crippled by the idea that things will get worse and worse, that God will let the world slide, and hand it over to Satan. We need to re-think the passages that seem to support this idea. I believe that when you look at the Bible as a whole, you see that Christ is ruling NOW, and the gates of hell will not prevail against His advancing Kingdom. His Kingdom will fill the earth as Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.
I need to clarify something here. Throughout history, schemes to bring Utopia to earth have always ended badly, whether the means were economic, religious, or scientific. The heart of man in its natural state is so wicked and deceitful that apart from God changing the heart through regeneration, all utopia schemes will fail. My optimism for the future is in no way based on the goodness of man or some man-conceived strategy, in fact we need to be wary of those. My hope is in the promises of God as I understand them. The last few chapters of Isaiah paint a picture of the future where the curse has been partially rolled back, but not completely because it still mentions death. Because of this I see this as a pre-second coming state yet to be fulfilled. Where ever God’s Holy Spirit has brought true revival the curse is rolled back a little. Father’s become better providers, men are inspired to live for God’s glory which leads to scientific advances that alleviate human suffering. It was the second great awakening in the early 1800’s that lead to huge missionary endeavours and the abolition of slavery. Sadly, there is still that cycle of prosperity leading to complacency, but when I see the overall advances the gospel has made world-wide, even in the last 60 years, I see that with God all things are possible. I love the following quote:
“It would be easy to show that at our present rate of progress the kingdoms of this world never could become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Indeed, many in the Church are giving up the idea of it except on the occasion of the advent of Christ, which, as it chimes in with our own idleness, is likely to be a popular doctrine. I myself believe that King Jesus will reign, and the idols be utterly abolished; but I expect the same power which turned the world upside down once will still continue to do it. The Holy Ghost would never suffer the imputation to rest upon His holy name that He was not able to convert the world.”
-Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Please pursue these ideas further, examine the Scriptures. You may find that the “Partial Preterist” position has some merit. Regardless of the controversies surrounding the order, or timing of these events, never lose sight of the fact that the great truths of eschatology are extremely profound and life changing. There is unity on the essentials of eschatology. God is in control and we have much to look forward to!
For further research:
The Last days According to Jesus by R.C. Sproul
The Apocalypse Code by Hank Hanegraff
The Last Disciple; The Last Sacrifice; The Last Temple all by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraff (These are works of historical fiction set in the time of Nero, fascinating but violent, in keeping with the brutal times.)
Last Days Madness by Gary DeMar
Paradise Restored by David Chilton
 In Latin, preter means past. A partial Preterist believes that many of the prophecies in the New Testament were fulfilled shortly after they were written.