Three Schools of Thought

The Hebrew Prophets, especially Daniel, laid the foundation for prophecies concerning the end of the present evil age and the coming of a new age. Jesus himself gave his disciples the most comprehensive teaching about the end times in what is referred to as his Olivet Discourse (so named because it took place on the Mount of Olives). When he and his disciples were walking in Jerusalem and approaching the great Temple, the disciples marveled at the magnificence of the structure. Jesus said that there would not be one stone left upon another. The disciples asked him, "when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3)  He was therefore not discussing only the destruction of the Temple, but the signs of his coming and the end of the age (the word for "world" in this verse is aion, or age). He began by warning them not to be deceived, and described things that would continue from his time forward.

Matthew 24:
4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
9 Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
10 And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
15 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
17 Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
18 Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
19 And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
20 But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:
21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
23 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
25 Behold, I have told you before.
26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
[see NASB]

There are basically three schools of thought regarding the words of Jesus and the understanding of prophecy in general. They are called Preterism, Historicism, and Futurism. There are certain variations within each school, but most systems of interpreting prophecy fall within one of these three categories. (Another school of thought regarding prophecy is called Idealism, which holds that all of the prophecies, especially the Book of Revelation, are merely symbols of a spiritual conflict between Satan and God, and not to be taken literally at all. Having established the physical nature of the Kingdom of God in other articles on this site, I won't take the time to examine this view here.)

Preterism (from the Hebrew language's preterit, or past perfect tense) is a system which holds that all, or nearly all, of the prophecies have been completed and fulfilled. There are two subdivisions, "Full Preterism" which says that all of the prophecies are fulfilled, and "Partial Preterism" which says that most of the prophecies have been fulfilled, with the exception of Christ's bodily return and the final judgment, which are yet future. Christ's return in 70 AD is said to be in judgment, but not bodily.

Preterism believes that Jesus' predictions of the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation were fulfilled in 70 AD. The emperor Titus in that year oversaw the destruction of the Temple and the driving out of the Jews from Jerusalem. But while the Temple was destroyed, none of the other things Jesus said would immediately precede his return took place.

According to Daniel, the antichrist would meet his end at the time of the destruction of the Temple following a period of Great Tribulation, such as has never been or ever would be. This would then be followed by the resurrection of the dead and the ushering in of the Messianic Age. But General Titus did not meet his end at that time, and while the suffering of the Jews at the time could be described as great tribulation, it was not The Great Tribulation, because it was not followed by the resurrection and the ushering in of the Kingdom (see Dual Fulfillment of Prophecy).

The biggest problem Preterists have with other ways of understanding eschatology (the study of the end times), is that Jesus said, "This generation shall not pass until all these things have been fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32). This is understood by Preterists (and others) as the contemporaries of Jesus, who were around at the time that he spoke these words. It is held that if the events of 70 AD were not the fulfillment of Jesus' predictions, then he was wrong and the disciples were all mistaken about the timing of his return. (More about this in the article, This Generation.)

Preterists therefore reinterpret the Kingdom and the Age to Come as spiritual things which are fulfilled in the Church, and consider "the end of the age" to be the end of the Old Covenant. However, the Kingdom is never redefined that way in the New Testament. Jesus' partial fulfillment of Kingdom prophecies involved literal healing and miracles (see here). Furthermore, the Old Covenant was never called an age in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Age to Come is a term that is repeatedly used in Scripture to refer to a literal reign of righteousness on a renewed earth ruled by the Messiah. Preterists consider the resurrection and return of Christ to have happened spiritually, and invisibly. However Revelation 1:7 says, "Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen."

Besides the misunderstanding of “this generation,” Preterists believe that the end must have come within the lives of the Apostles, because of several references that seem to be indicating time.  The New Testament writers spoke of being in “The Last Days,” and of end time events happening “soon” or “shortly.”  These passages are examined in the article, Refuting Preterism.

Another school of thought regarding eschatology is known as Historicism. This view holds that the prophesied events have been taking place throughout history since the first century. There are a number of different versions of this view. Virtually all of them hold that the Roman Catholic Church in general, and/or the Pope in particular, are the Beast and the Antichrist referred to in prophecy. While the first part of Jesus' Olivet Discourse speaks of things that would happen from that time forward, Historicism says that the Abomination of Desolation, the Great Tribulation, and the other specific signs in the second part have also been taking place throughout history.

Some versions of historicism claim that the Tribulation ended three and a half years after Christ, and that the Millennial Reign has been in place since then, but it is not literally a thousand years. Others see the Great Tribulation as the entire period of Church history, while others assign a date to the time when the Tribulation ended and the Millennium began. Such dates include 1799, when Napoleon captured the Pope of his day, or 1914, when the Jehovah's Witnesses say the return of Christ happened, albeit invisibly. All versions of this theory have the same problems that Preterism had, that is, they don't fit with the prophecies from the Old Testament.

Many versions of Historicism simply declare the meaning and interpretation of various symbols in Revelation without offering any Biblical basis for such interpretation. The Bible itself enables us to interpret prophecy when we adhere to the principles discussed in the previous article, especially that of linking different passages which use the same terminology. As mentioned before, the Book of Revelation makes many references to the Old Testament, and those references must be understood in order to properly understand Revelation.

One of the principles on which Historicism is based is the "day-year" theory. This states that in prophecy a day represents a year. As a result, when Revelation refers to 1260 days, it is interpreted as 1260 years, and various schemes of setting times and identifying events result. The problem with the day-year theory is that it was only referred to indirectly, in Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:5-6. Both of these scriptures speak of a day for a year in regards to specific instances. There is nothing to indicate that this is a general principle to be applied to all prophecies, any more than Peter's declaration "...that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day" (II Peter 3:8) is to be interpreted literally regarding the timing of prophecies.

Some versions of Historicism identify the 70th "week" of Daniel to include Jesus' ministry plus another three and one half years. But there is no historical evidence that anything changed three and a half years after his ministry, much less the resurrection of the just and the ushering in of a new age. It is obvious that Satan is not bound today, but continues to deceive the nations (Revelation 20:3).

Many versions identify a particular point in history as the time when the Tribulation ended and the Millennium began. But without a visible resurrection from the dead and return of Christ to reign on earth, none of these theories fit the prophecies. And those that consider the Tribulation to be still continuing, with the Millennium yet future, must deal with how the Great Tribulation can have lasted throughout the last two thousand years. It was said to be a time that would be “shortened” (KJV) or "cut short" (NASB) (Matthew 24:22). Could it really be referring to a period that is now longer than the Millennial Reign? And we still have to consider the words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse.

The Futurist view fits best with the words of Jesus. He began his discourse by declaring that the Temple which they were looking at would be destroyed, not one stone being left upon another. The disciples asked him when these things would happen and what would be the sign of his return and the end of the age. In the first part of his answer (vs. 4-14) Jesus describes things that would happen over an undetermined period of time, but the end would not be yet. Then in the second section (vs. 15-31), beginning with the Abomination of Desolation, he describes the specific events that would immediately precede his return.

The first part of Jesus' answer (vs. 4-14) speaks of wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes. These are things that would happen from Christ's time onward, as opposed to what would happen immediately before the end. They are described as "the beginning of sorrows" (verse 8). The word literally means "birth pangs" and is translated as such in the NRSV and the NASB. The beginnings of birth pangs are to go on for a while, increasing in frequency and intensity towards the end as labor pains do. But Jesus said that while these are happening the end would not be yet.

In contrast, in the second part of Jesus' response (vs. 15-31), he says that when they see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel, that would indicate the beginning of the end. As we saw in the Foundations of Prophecy, Daniel tells us that the future tyrant will destroy the city and the Temple, and that before he does so he will stop the sacrifices and set up the Abomination of Desolation in the Temple (Daniel 9:26-27; 11:31; 12:11). Matthew 24:15 also speaks of the Abomination of Desolation standing "in the holy place," and Mark 13:14 speaks of it " standing where it ought not..."  The masculine singular pronoun implies that it is either an object or a person standing where it (or he) shouldn't. This also fits with Paul's description of the Man of Sin.

II Thessalonians 2:
3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.
[see NASB]

Jesus told his disciples that the Abomination of Desolation would be the trigger that will start the Great Tribulation, and we know that this will be just before the return of Christ, from the timing given in Matthew 24 and Mark 13.

Matthew 24:
29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Mark 13:
24 But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light,
25 And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.
26 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
27 And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.
[see NASB]

Notice Matthew says that immediately after the tribulation the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. The prophet Joel wrote that the sun would be darkened and the moon turned to blood "before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come" (Joel 2:31). Putting these prophecies together (along with what we read in Daniel), we conclude that the Great Tribulation will be immediately followed by the sun and moon being darkened, and then comes the Day of the Lord, when Christ returns, at which time the dead in Christ are raised. Then Christ’s reign begins, and will be characterized by no more war. This further establishes that the prophecy was not fulfilled in 70 AD, since these events obviously did not happen then.

The record in Mark 13 follows Matthew's record pretty closely, but in Luke 21 we see a few variations. We read of the wars, earthquakes, famines, etc., but the end is not yet. We read of the persecution and being delivered into bondage as well. But then, where Matthew and Mark say that the Abomination of Desolation is the sign to flee, in Luke we read of Jerusalem being under siege.

Luke 21:
20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
[see NASB]

Some commentators have concluded that the armies surrounding Jerusalem is the Abomination of Desolation, and conclude that the siege in 70 AD was the fulfillment. But it doesn't say that; it just says that when you see Jerusalem surrounded, you will know that the desolation is near. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus links the Abomination of Desolation with the evil tyrant of Daniel, and states that it will mark the beginning of the Great Tribulation. And all three Synoptic Gospels have the time of Great Tribulation followed by signs in the heavens and the Son of Man coming in the clouds.

Since the prophecies involve the coming evil tyrant defiling the Temple and stopping the sacrifices, we know that another Temple will be built sometime before these events. This will be a carnal undertaking, not in accordance with God's will, since God no longer requires physical sacrifices. Even before the establishing of the modern state of Israel in 1948, there were Bible scholars who foresaw the need for the Jews to be in the land in order for prophecy to be fulfilled. Such an idea was thought ridiculous at the time, but it came to pass nevertheless. The establishment of the modern state of Israel began to set the stage for these prophecies to be fulfilled. There is even now talk of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Time will tell how these events play out.

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This page was last updated on June 20, 2018.

Mark Clarke