One of the most popular arguments for preterism is the question: “Was Jesus/ the apostles/ the prophets wrong?”
This argument basically goes like this:
- James said the coming of the Lord was at hand. Was James wrong? (James 5:8-9)
- Jesus said He would return within that generation. Was Jesus wrong? (Matthew 24:29-34)
- Peter said the end of all things was at hand. Was Peter wrong? (1 Peter 4:7)
- John said that the last hour had arrived. Was John wrong? (1 John 2:18)
You can do this with basically any book of the New Testament, but there may be a better way to go about asking this question. First, let's notice the various ways this question can be answered.
- “Jesus was not wrong, and the coming of the Lord was at hand. Congratulations! I am now a preterist.”
- “Jesus was not wrong, and the coming of the Lord was at hand, but it was the coming of the Lord at the fall of Jerusalem/ Rome and not the coming of the Lord at the end of the world.”
- “Jesus was not wrong because that is not what Jesus meant. Instead, He is… talking about the race of the Jews/ keeping the disciples on their toes so that they will always be ready/ not aware that He will be crucified and the second coming will be delayed/ etc.”
- “Jesus was wrong because… He was not the Messiah/ He was not the Son of God/ the Bible isn't true/ He didn't have prophetic foreknowledge/ etc.”
Unless you happen to talk to someone in the first category, you won't get anywhere by going to more and more time statements. You have to approach the subject from another angle. Instead of asking what did James mean when he said the coming of the Lord was at hand, ask why would James say the coming of the Lord was at hand?
This moves the discussion from arguing about definitions to a discussion of the character of God. Let me show you what I mean!
The God of the Oppressed
Why was Sodom destroyed? Why was Judah carried away into captivity? What did the northern tribes do to be overtaken by Assyria?
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. 50 Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.Ezekiel 16:49-50
The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. 30 I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. 31 Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD.Ezekiel 22:29-31
Therefore because you impose heavy rent on the poor And exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, Yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. 12 For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, You who distress the righteous and accept bribes And turn aside the poor in the gate.Amos 5:11-12
There were other sins involved, for sure, but these were the most abhorrent to God because “you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In all of these passages the pattern is the same: when a nation oppresses the poor, kills the righteous, and rejects the stranger, God judges them.
Jesus the Prophet
We typically think of prophets as fortune tellers; they can predict the future with crazy accuracy, and this accuracy is typically attributed to inspiration, and I have no problem with that. In Jesus's ministry, He follows in the footsteps of the above prophets, in many cases using the same language that they did.
At the same time, anyone that knows the mind of God could predict the fall of Jerusalem. This does not weaken the prophecies of Jesus, but it strengthens them because nobody else expected the temple to fall within that generation like Jesus did. In Luke 19, for instance, Jesus said,
If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, 44 and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.Luke 19:42-44
Why would Jerusalem fall? Because they did not know the way of peace. They picked up the sword, so they would die by the sword. Yes, Jesus had prophetic foreknowledge, but His statements here are based upon His knowledge of the cycle of violence and oppression that had been going on for thousands of years. He knew, because of stories like the Exodus or the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, that God would not allow the people to get away with their tendency to oppress the poor, take advantage of the widows, and persecute the righteous.
The reason why nobody else saw this besides Jesus is because Jesus presented an alternative wisdom rooted in the prophets and not in the “conquest of Canaan” attitude that many of the Jewish people had concerning Rome. He did not come to establish that kind of kingdom – the kingdom that everyone expected Him to set up. Instead He came to establish a heavenly kingdom with spiritual weapons (Isaiah 2:1-4).
The point is that Jesus knew Jerusalem would fall because God hears the cries of the oppressed and not just because He could tell the future.
The Imminence of the Coming of the Lord and the Martyrs
The following passage is lengthy, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make perfectly:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; 4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God's righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed.2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
This passage is about Jesus coming to specifically offer relief to the Christians at Thessalonica. This is no longer a question about the meaning of at hand; it is now a question of whether or not God is the God of the oppressed. This is a question about whether or not Paul/ Jesus/ James/ etc. knew God.
Did God avenge the martyrs like He said He would?
This is the same question as before, but the wording is more powerful because it moves from this abstract discussion concerning the meaning of words to one of whether or not God gave these specific people in the first century relief from their persecutors.