July 24th, 2008
By Gary DeMar
Paul N. Benware’s revised and expanded edition of Understanding End Times Prophecy includes a chapter on Preterism. This is a good sign. Preterists teach that certain prophetic passages have already been fulfilled (e.g., Matt. 24), while futurists claim that these same passages are yet to be fulfilled. The debate centers (mostly) on how specific time indicators like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “this generation” should be interpreted. Benware also claims that preterists regularly mix “the literal and allegorical” which results in “very inconsistent interpretations to a passage.” The following quotation encapsulates Benware’s argument on how he believes preterists interpret certain prophetic texts:
[P]reterist Gary DeMar concludes that the cosmic disturbances in Matthew 24:29–30 (the sign of the Son of Man, the darkened sun and moon and the stars falling from the sky) is symbolic of the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism in [A.D.] 70. This conclusion is based on the illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another as well as some full-blown allegorization.
For the record, my book Last Days Madness includes a 14-page chapter with the title “Sun, Moon, and Stars.” Benware never interacts with it and the detailed arguments I present. In fact, he depends on secondary sources to make his arguments.
In evaluating Benware’s analysis, let’s begin with Matthew 24:29 where Jesus says, “But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Applying this passage as well as the rest of Matthew 24 to events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has a long and distinguished interpretive history. Dispensationalist author Thomas Ice, a prophecy writer who Benware quotes approvingly, states that Eusebius (c. 265–339) rightly argues “that the first-century destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans fulfilled biblical prophecy and was thus a ‘proof of the gospel.’” This is more than 1600 years before the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible and the systemization of dispensationalism. Benware accuses me and other preterists of an “illegitimate transference of meaning from one verse to another” when we apply Old Testament passages to Matthew 24:29. His indictment would have to go back beyond me to the earliest writings of the church fathers including many of the finest biblical expositors the church has ever produced.
Note that Matthew 24:29 includes a section that is in SMALL CAPS. The New American Standard translators did this to identity OT citations in the NT (Isa. 13:10; Dan. 8:10; Joel 2:10 ). Jesus is the one making the “transference of meaning from one verse to another.” Even The Popular Bible Prophecy Commentary, edited by dispensationalists Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, cites Isaiah 13:10 as a cross reference for Matthew 24:29. This means that they believe that there is some relationship between these two passages. If we know how Isaiah was using the passage, then we can determine how Jesus was using it. There is also a reference in Matthew 24:29 to Isaiah 13:13 which reads: “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the LORD of hosts in the day of His burning anger.” (cf. Isa. 34:4 [Rev. 6:13]; 2 Sam. 22:8; Isa. 24:19; Jer. 50:46).
Then there’s the description of a male goat in Daniel 8:10 that causes “stars to fall to the earth,” an action in itself that would destroy the earth. These fallen stars are then “trampled” by the goat. Most likely the goat refers to a civil ruler, and the stars are civil powers under the ruler’s dominion. How do the literalists handle Judges 5:20 when it states that “the stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera”?
Benware and other dispensationalists claim that the only way Revelation can be interpreted is literally. Let’s put their standard to the test. “The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters” (Rev. 8:10). If one star hits the earth, the earth will be vaporized in an instant. In fact, if a star gets even close to the earth, the earth is going to burn up before it hits. Then there’s Revelation 8:12: “Then the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.” How can a “third of the sun” be smitten without catastrophic results on the whole earth and not just a third of it? All of this language is drawn from the Old Testament and only has meaning as it is interpreted in light of its Old Testament context—the judgment and destruction of nations (Isa. 14:12; Jer. 9:12–16). To ignore how a passage is used in the Old Testament is like trying to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.
Benware argues that “Matthew 24:29 reflects the prophecy of Joel, who describes the day of the Lord, which will be characterized by cosmic events such as darkness brought about by the diminishing of sun, moon, and stars (Joel 2:1–10, 30–31; 3:12–17)” that are to take place in a future Great Tribulation. But anyone reading Joel 2:1–10 can see that the language is being used figuratively to describe events that were near for Joel and his readers: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near” (2:1). Writing in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Richard D. Patterson states, “Joel portrayed a coming army, in particular, that of the Assyrian armies of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The appearance and martial activities of the locusts were analogous to those of a real army.”
The cosmic language of Joel 2:30–31 is quoted by Peter after the events of Pentecost because he saw them as being fulfilled in his day in those events (Acts 2:16). There is no indication that he saw Joel’s prophecy either as a partial fulfillment or a distant future fulfillment. It makes no sense to quote a passage of Scripture in answer to a question or complaint that had little to do with the people making the complaint.
Charles L. Feinberg, writing in the dispensational Liberty Bible Commentary, writes: “The sun, moon, and stars indicate a complete system of government and remind the reader of Genesis 37:9.” Notice that Feinberg argues that sun, moon, and stars relate to “a complete system of government” and not literal stellar phenomena. He also references Genesis 37:9 where sun, moon, and stars are used as symbols for Israel. Other dispensational authors follow a similar pattern of interpretation.
John A. Martin, writing in the dispensational-oriented Bible Knowledge Commentary, argues that “the statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars … sun … moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction.” So why couldn’t Jesus be using the language from Isaiah 13:10 to “figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of” Israel that took place with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70?
Consider the comments of dispensational author John F. Walvoord on Revelation 12:1 and how he draws from the Old Testament to explain the meaning of the cosmic language used: “The description of the woman as clothed with the sun and the moon is an allusion to Genesis 37:9–11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Rachel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies.” If sun, moon, and stars represent Babylon (Isa. 13:10) and Israel (Gen. 37:9) in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Rev. 12:1), then why can’t sun, moon, and stars represent Israel in Matthew 24:29? Benware never discusses these issues and seems oblivious to what his fellow dispensationalists say about the nature of cosmic language and how the prophets use it to describe past local judgments.
R.T. France’s comments on the use of cosmic language are helpful since he is a well known New Testament exegete who is respected by all eschatological camps for his fair-minded handling of Scripture. The following comments are from his commentary on Mark 13:24–25 which parallel Matthew 24:29:
The passages cited in [Mark 13] vv. 24b–25 use the language of cosmic disintegration to denote, as often in prophecy, climactic (not climatic!) changes to the existing world order. The lights are going out in the centres of power, and the way is being prepared for a new world order. . . . The language of v. 24b is paralleled at several points in the prophetic literature (Ezk. 32:7; Jo. 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9) but is verbally most closely related to LXX Is. 13:10, part of the oracle against Babylon. . . . In most of these passages the immediate reference is to the imminent downfall of specific nations (Egypt, Babylon, Edom, Israel, and Judah). . . . In the original prophetic context, therefore, such ‘cosmic’ language conveys a powerful symbolism of political changes with world history, and is not naturally to be understood of a literal collapse of the universe at the end of the world. . . . The natural sense of such language, used in a Jewish context, is surely clear. Mk. 13:24b–27 is not about the collapse of the universe, but about drastic events on the world scene, interpreted in the light of the divine judgment and purpose. What is startling about the use of such language by Jesus in this context is not that he uses the same language as the prophetic, but that he uses it with regard to the fate of Jerusalem and its temple.
A good way to test interpretive methodologies is to compare Psalm 18 with the actual historical events when “the LORD delivered [David] from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” The language of the Psalm is as apocalyptic to what we find in Isaiah 13:10, Matthew 24:29, and Mark 13:24–25, and yet Psalm 18 describes God’s deliverance of one man over his flesh and blood enemies with depictions of a “volcanic eruption that shook the mountains and raised the sea bed.” A reading of David’s encounter with Saul in the historical narratives of 1 Samuel will show that no series of events line up with the narrative of Psalm 18. Following the standards of dispensational interpretive principles, the events of Psalm 18 are yet to be fulfilled in some future prophetic scenario when David and Saul are raised from the dead to battle again.
Benware and other dispensationalists insist on a literal interpretation of Revelation. If the claim is made that the “stars” are actually meteorites, then there is a problem with Revelation 12:4 where a “great red dragon” uses his “tail” to sweep a “third of the stars of heaven” to throw “them to the earth.” Such a barrage would destroy the earth, making it uninhabitable for man and beast for millennia. And yet, we are to believe that the armies of the entire world are going to pick a fight with Israel (Rev. 16:13–16) after a third of the earth’s population has been wiped out. Robert L. Thomas, who consistently criticizes those who interpret much of Revelation as symbolic, interprets the stars as “angels who fell with Satan in history past.” He might be correct, but this seems to violate his interpretive premise and that of dispensationalists in general that “a symbolic interpretation assumes the absence of strict realism in a vision.” So why not a real red dragon and literal stars in this context?
And I thought the following response to the above was quite revealing as well. Edward wrote:
“While agreeing completely with Gary regarding the interpretation Of Matthew 24:29 using the OT, I must ask for the verses that differentiate between the soon coming judgment on Jerusalem and the temple (OT Judaism) and the future judgment on humanity. According to Gary and the dispensationalists, both judgments exhibit exactly the same characteristics. I can not find any verses that refer to a judgment far off into the future. Every verse, whether Gospels or epistles, refers to this time as a near, nigh, soon, shortly coming to pass, at hand, at the door type of event. I repeat, where are the verses dealing with the far away future judgment that are supported directly from Scripture and why didn’t the authors (Jesus included) explain to their audience the NEW context of the future?
Why does the inspired apostle John say at the beginning of Revelation “to shew unto his servants things which MUST shortly come to pass” (Rev 1:1) and (Rev 1:3) and express those things written therein “for the time is at hand.” The apostle John closes the book of Revelation with the identical time factor. Rev 22:6 - “to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done.” Rev 22:10 - “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.”
I have heard what I term as “feeble” explanations for the reasons why John said ALL the events written therein were NOT going to come to pass even though “Divine inspiration” is absolutely perfectly clear as to the timing of the when. When did “at hand” come to mean 1,945 years (and ticking) and when did “shortly come to pass” mean at least 50 generations of people? There is not one Scriptural precedent for such thinking. Concerning the passover and feast of Tabernacles as being an event that was “at hand” are we to assume this as representing almost 2,000 years into the future (Matthew 26:18; John 2:13; John 7:2). We surely should because it is the same identical Greek word (Strong’s 1451 - eggus), not to mention the other 26 usages of “eggus” (Matthew 24:32, 33; 26:18; Mark 13:28, 29; Luke 19:11; 21:30, 31; John 2:13; 3:23; 6:4, 19, 23; 7:2; 11:18, 54, 55; 19:20, 42; Acts 9:38; 27:8; Romans 10:8; Ephesians 2:13, 17; Philippians 4:5; Hebrews 6:8; 8:13; Revelation 1:3; 22:10;)
The same identical Greek word for “shortly” (Strong’s 5034) rings true throughout the New Testament as well. See Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Romans 16:20; Revelation 1:1; 2:5; 22:6;
It is high time that the same consistency in interpretation be maintained throughout BOTH testaments! Forget our presuppositions on both sides and let us believe by faith what Jesus and inspiration tells us lest we turn into scoffers as C.S. Lewis has aptly stated a few years back:
“The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (Essay; “The World’s Last Night (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385)
Many blessings to all in this regard, Edward