Preterism and the Early Church

We preterists argue that our views are completely consistent with Jesus and his disciples. That is, the ideas which are represented by preterists were the views of the New Testament writers themselves, who expected the fulfillment of all biblical prophecy to take place in their generation. So, we feel that we are in good company!

But what about the church leaders after the original Apostles? Actually, there are very few extant writings from the early church before AD 300, and fewer still that commented on eschatology. Some of the writings we do have are sketchy or inconsistent on eschatology, and are interpreted differently by modern scholars. Indeed, interpreters often read their own presuppositions into the ancient writings.

So, we really don’t have a comprehensive understanding about what the early church was thinking. Interestingly, the terms “Second Coming” and “Second Advent” do not appear in the written record until about the year AD 160 when Justin Martyr invented these terms. Indeed, there has never been a formal discussion on eschatology in the church. But we do know that the early church fathers held differing views on eschatology, including the preterist view.

Works by Gary DeMar, Francis Gumerlock, and Kenneth Gentry, Jr. and others have shown that the preterist view was part of the early church, and may have been the dominant view.[1] While differing views can be found in the writings of theologians throughout history, in his book Is Jesus Coming Soon (page 17), DeMar states “On the other hand, preterism–the belief that the key New Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the first century–is by far the dominant eschatological perspective within the whole history of the church.” Author Douglas Wilkinson showed that many of the early writers believed that the prophecies of Daniel as well as the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[2]

Summarizing the above research, multiple writers in the early church expressed beliefs that certain other events associated with the Second Coming were fulfilled by AD 70, such as the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, the last days, the end of the age, the arrival of the kingdom, the arrival of the new heaven and new earth, the arrival of the New Jerusalem, the preaching of the gospel to the whole world, the general resurrection of the dead, the destruction of death, and the cessation of charismatic gifts. So, the basic outline of full preterism is found in many writings of the apostolic fathers.

Eusebius of Caesarea (born c. AD 260/263; died c. AD 339/341) was an important witness. Eusebius is considered the Father of Church History and became the Bishop of Caesarea in about the year 314. Given his preterist testimony and influence as an historian, it is likely that his thinking was influenced by unrecorded preterist writings before him in the early church.

I read all of Eusebius’ books in doing the research for my own book. In his work Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius specifically belittled the millennialist views of certain early writers, thoroughly rejecting the idea of a corporeal reign of Christ on earth during a literal millennium. Among Eusebius’ other writings are these two works: The Proof of the Gospel (“Demonstratio Evangelica”) and Theophania. In these books he touched on various aspects of fulfilled prophecy. By tracking the thread of eschatological comments throughout his writing, we can reasonably conclude that Eusebius believed that, at least, all the following things were fulfilled by AD 70:

  • the Second Coming of Christ (at least in some sense)
  • the Great Tribulation
  • the Abomination of Desolationthe Day of the Lordthe Days of Vengeance and judgment upon Israelthe “time of the end”/ “end of the world”the ushering in of the new covenant/kingdom of heaven
  • the Great Commission (gospel having been preached to the whole world)

But, given that the New Testament writers were full preterists, it is a legitimate question why we don’t have more confirmation of the preterist view from the post-AD 70 church fathers. Here are some considerations about this:

  • The so-called Great Apostasy (Matthew 24:10-12; Luke 18:18; Acts 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2:1; etc.) had a greater influence on the early Christian church than most people might suspect. Matthew 24:12 indicates that a majority (New American Standard Version) of Christians turned away from their faith. This apostasy was a result of false prophets, immorality, and persecution. So, the faith became distorted and confused in the decades after AD 70.
  • The Hellenization of the church had a great influence. In Romans 11 Paul explained that the make-up of God’s people was in transition. It could well be that because of the Gentile influence in the church, an understanding of Old Testament Hebraic apocalyptic language was lost.
  • It should not be too surprising that the early church fathers may have misunderstood the nature of the Second Coming, just as the Jews misunderstood the nature of the First Coming. It was right there in front of them, but they still missed it!
  • There was disagreement among the early church fathers on crucially important issues such as the nature of God as well as justification. Justification through faith was not fully accepted in Christianity until the sixteenth century. Even today, Christians, from sect to sect, are all over the map on justification. Other important topics on which Christians have misinterpreted (or disingenuously twisted) the Bible include slavery, abortion, homosexuality, evolution and other aspects of science such as geocentricity.
  • Some other examples that reveal interesting beliefs of the early church fathers include: Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls and castrated himself due to a literal reading of Matthew 19:12. He also said the Holy Spirit was a created being. Jerome said Mary was a perpetual virgin. Tertullian succumbed to Montanism, a prophetic movement with Gnostic overtones that was declared a heresy. Demonization of Jews was commonplace in the early centuries of the church. Ignatius, writing around AD 100, made the same mistake as countless other Christians after AD 70, thinking that the time of the end was imminent. He said, “The last times are come upon us.” Over-literalizing Scripture, Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) expected a literal temple to come down from heaven and set itself up in Jerusalem. These men were great contributors to the faith but were clearly wrong on some pretty major issues. Even today, there are wide-ranging and virulent disagreements among Christians on many issues.
  • James B. Jordan wrote, “We have to remember that we only have a few Church Fathers to draw on. Often Christian scholars have strained mightily to build on evidence from these writings, writings of men clearly not familiar with the facts in other instances. Many of the Fathers were new converts to the faith who wrote apologetics, and who did not know much about Christianity (as can be seen when we compare them with the teachings of the New Testament). What we don’t have are reams of sermons preached by pastors in local churches during the first two centuries, and that is the kind of material that would give us an accurate picture of the early church. Finally, though the Church Fathers are ‘fathers’ in a sense, and are of real value to us, they are also the ‘Church Babies’ in another sense. All this should be born in mind when it comes to their haphazard testimony. . . .” [3]
  • Doctrinal issues can be misunderstood by a large majority, and such misinterpretations often get stuck in the church’s psyche. Just consider the questionable views of Roman Catholicism, including the veneration of an ever-virgin Mary, purgatory, infallibility of the Pope, transubstantiation, and so forth. Catholics think they can trace many of these doctrines through tradition all the back to the early church!
  • Persecution would have made it very easy for the first Christians to hope for some sort of earthly relief. This would easily explain why they would have read this hope into the Bible. The human mind, being what it is, can turn desire into an illusion of truth.

Ultimately, it does not matter what the early Christian writers said. What matters is what the Bible says. As far as we can tell, no early church writer claimed to draw his understanding of eschatology from Scripture alone. Further, the imminent millennial views of certain of these men have been proven wrong by history. So, the views of the premillennalists, especially, are not credible on this.


[1] Gary DeMar and Francis X. Gumerlock, The Early Church and the End of the World (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2006). Francis X. Gumerlock, Revelation and the First Century (Preterist Interpretations of the Apocalypse in Early Christianity (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2012. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 1998).

[2] Douglas Wilkinson, Answers to Calvary Chapel’s “10 Reasons to Reject Preterism,” 2016.

[3] From “Problems With New Testament History”

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