March 05, 2024


Barry Cooper

Is it possible that the apocalypse has already happened without many of us realizing it? Today, Barry Cooper considers two related ways of interpreting the Bible's end-times prophecies.


As you know, in March every year the clocks go forward one hour. And at least as regularly, people complain about it. “Oh, I’ve lost an hour of sleep.”

You should try having children. It feels like that literally every day.

The other complaint people have is that every year, when the clocks go forward, they often arrive somewhere in the confident belief that they are arriving early, when in fact they’re arriving late, and the thing they are expecting to happen is already over. At which point, some cheery soul is guaranteed to point out the helpful rhyme “March forward, fall back,” which seems useless to me, as it’s more than possible to march back and fall forward. Either way, it’s a strange feeling, anticipating something only to discover that it has already happened.

And with that in mind, let me ask you: Is it possible the apocalypse has already happened, and many of us don’t realize?

Preterists believe so. Full preterism—or hyperpreterism—is the belief that all prophecy in Scripture has already happened. (The word preterism comes from the Latin preter, which means “past.” As in, the prophecy has already been fulfilled in the past.)

However, there’s also the partial preterist position: this is someone who thinks that most biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled, but not all—and we’ll get to those in a moment.

I should say, incidentally, that many Reformed Christians over the years have held to a historicist position rather than the preterist position. The historicist position believes Revelation to be a prophecy of church history from the first coming of Christ until the second coming. But if you’re interested in hearing an alternative though still orthodox view, keep listening.

Partial preterism says that prophecies in Daniel, Matthew chapter 24, and Revelation (setting aside the last three chapters) have already been fulfilled. They believe that those prophecies played themselves out in the first century AD, specifically in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. What we have in Revelation, therefore, isn’t a symbolic picture of things yet to be fulfilled; it’s a symbolic picture of upheavals and conflicts that happened in the first century. To give one concrete example, “the beast” spoken of in Revelation was Emperor Nero.

The reason for believing that most of these apocalyptic prophecies were fulfilled before the first century was out is that the book of Revelation is bookended with explicit statements that these prophecies “must soon take place” and that the words should not be sealed up precisely because “the time is near.”

That said, to the partial preterist, there are still some prophecies that were a long way off in the first century and are still yet to be fulfilled, such as those given in the last three chapters of Revelation: the visible, physical return of Christ in judgment, the final defeat of death and Satan, the resurrection of the living and the dead, and the coming of the new heaven, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem.

For the partial preterist, the prophecies of Revelation are very much in keeping with the pattern of Old Testament prophetic books: there’s a warning of imminent judgment that applies explicitly to the initial audience of the book, but there’s also the promise of an ultimate restoration that is set firmly in the future.

The full preterist, by contrast, believes that all these things have already taken place. The resurrection of the living and the dead has already happened, and there is no future physical second coming of Christ, because that too has already happened.

One theologian sums up the full preterist position like this: “The coming of Christ in judgment was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Satan and Antichrist have [already] been thrown into the lake of fire, the kingdom of God has arrived, the resurrection is understood in spiritual terms, the Great Commission has been fulfilled, all things have been made new (the old heaven and earth have passed away; the new heaven and earth have come), the promised restoration has arrived, and the world now continues as it is ad infinitum.”

However, there’s a significant problem with the full preterist or hyperpreterist view which says that these things have already happened. As we saw in the episode on Jesus’ second coming, Jesus Himself says His second coming will be unmistakable, public, visible, and physical. Is an event described in those terms likely to have been overlooked by so many?

And what of the promised bodily resurrection of the living and the dead? Has that already happened? In 2 Timothy chapter 2, the Apostle Paul explicitly warns against those “who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul says, “They are upsetting [or “overthrowing”] the faith of some.”

It certainly does make a profound pastoral difference to a person if they’re told that actually, because Christ has already come, and the resurrection has already happened, your present experience of life is as good as it gets.

How does that square with what we know to be true of the brokenness of our world, or indeed of ourselves?

Instead, the Apostle Paul looks forward to a day that has not yet come, a day when (quote) 

creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

Partial preterism, then, tries to capture something of an “already but not yet” balance. Enjoying the firstfruits of the Spirit while knowing that our bodies are not yet finally redeemed. Thrilled by the countless prophecies fulfilled by Christ’s first coming, but eagerly awaiting the glorious and very visible return of the King.