Did Christ Already Return?
We have eschatology questions today and on Monday. Here’s the first one: “Good morning, Pastor John. I am a high-school science teacher in Alabama. I love your passion and Christ-centered joy. I write because I recently had a student tell me that her church believes that the second coming of Jesus has already occurred. She said that they believe Revelation was written about the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70. I was caught off guard because I had never heard anyone say that Jesus had already returned. I believe the term for that belief is ‘preterist.’ Have you come across this position? And how do you respond to it?”
Yes, I have heard this position. But let me see if I can distinguish between a view that says the second coming of Christ has already happened and the view that sees some of the book of Revelation as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Types of Preterism
The view that you are referring to — namely, that the second coming has already happened — is a very rare view. I don’t think it has ever been considered orthodox. It is sometimes called full preterism or hyper-preterism. Now, preterism is the view of the book of Revelation that argues that much or all of it lies in the past from our perspective — not the future. Praeter is Latin for “past”; hence preterism. It was future from the standpoint of John’s writing, but now it has already happened.
So, full preterism, hyper-preterism — this rare and unorthodox view, I think — thinks that all of the book of Revelation, including the second coming, has already happened. The coming of Christ is interpreted in such a way that it refers only to his power being shown in various historical manifestations, like the sack of Jerusalem. He’s not hidden somewhere in the world — you can get that out of your mind; that’s not what they mean. He’s not hiding out somewhere in the world because he’s already come back; he’s in heaven and has “come back” in the sense that he showed up in judgment at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now, what you might call partial preterism — that’s the more common and, I would say, orthodox kind — doesn’t think that the second coming of Christ has already happened, even though many of the events described in Revelation have already been fulfilled in history, including the destruction of Jerusalem.
End of History as We Know It
The question I’m being asked, however, by this teacher, is how I would respond to a student who says that her church believes that Jesus has already come back, and there’s no future hope of Christ coming on the clouds personally, bodily, to establish his kingdom. And the way I would respond is to say to her,
The book of Revelation has perplexed Christians for two thousand years, and I probably won’t be able to set you straight on this point from the book of Revelation alone. Instead, what I would like you to do with me is to look at a few passages of Scripture in the letters of Paul, which I think simply will not fit into the scheme that says there’s no future coming of Christ in judgment and salvation.
“The trumpet blast is not a point in history, like a battle against a city. It’s the end of history as we know it.”
And I would take her to 1 and 2 Thessalonians, probably — not only, but first. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul is trying to comfort believers who have lost loved ones in death. And the way he encourages them is not by pointing to the fact that there’s going to be a sack of Jerusalem someday. His way of encouraging them is by showing that those who have died will not miss out on the coming of Christ because they’re going to be raised from the dead, so that, together with the living, they will meet the Lord in the air. He says,
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.
Let me pause right there. This trumpet blast at the coming is the way Paul describes the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:52. It’s not a point in history, like a battle against a city. It’s the end of history as we know it, marked by the resurrection of all believers who have died. Now he goes on:
And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
Now, that’s the description of a decisive coming of Christ that gathers all believers, dead and alive, into one people under the reign of Christ. It simply will not do to say that this is somehow a reference to an unseen visitation of Christ at some point in the past.
King Jesus Revealed
And then he gets even more graphic in 2 Thessalonians, where he says in 1:7–10 that the Lord Jesus will be
revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
“Throughout the New Testament, the second coming of Christ is presented as a precious and blessed hope.”
Or as he says in verse 6, God will “repay with affliction those who afflict you” and “grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (verse 7). This is God’s judgment on all unbelievers, and his rescue of all Christ’s people. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 8, Paul argues that the day of the Lord cannot have already come like this. There are people in Thessalonica who were thinking, “It’s already here! It’s already here!” And he says,
For that day will not come unless . . . the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, . . . whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
And I would say to my young student, “I don’t think these and many other references to the second coming of Christ in the New Testament can be legitimately interpreted as somehow symbolic references to the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.”
Throughout the New Testament, the second coming of Christ is presented as a precious and blessed hope of resurrection for all believers and relief for all the living saints and rescue from the wrath to come. Over and over, the New Testament pictures the people of Christ waiting eagerly for what Christ will do for us at his second coming — not for something a long time ago, but what he will do for us at his second coming. And here’s an example I’ll close with:
Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21)
And I would look at my student friend right in the eye and say, “Neither you nor I have such a glorious body yet, because the Savior has not yet returned. But he will. And that’s our hope.”