• Ian Huyett

Preterists, Are You Kidding Me?

Updated: Nov 17

Daniel is written with such clarity that ancient writers accurately predicted the future by reading it. But preterists twist eschatology into a puzzle known only to themselves.

Destruction, from Thomas Cole's Course of Empire

Editor’s note: This column is part 4 in a series, but can also be read by itself. Also check out part 1, part 2, and part 3.

In previous columns, I’ve argued that biblical prophecies are designed to communicate understandable and public information about the future. I’ve also argued that we should strive to read eschatology from the perspective of its original audience. I’ll now turn to the contemporary view that—I will argue—does the worst job of meeting these criteria: preterism.

A word on the impetus behind preterism is important. One recurring topic in eschatology is the issue of the “delay of the Parousia”—the question of why the Second Coming did not occur in the lifetime of the apostles. Among educated Christians today, preterism is one of the most popular answers to this question.

Consummation, from Thomas Cole's Course of Empire series

Preterists answer that most of eschatology—including the Second Coming of Christ—actually occurred in the first century AD. To make this claim, preterists adopt a reading of eschatology, and especially Revelation 17-19, which means that Revelation was utterly inscrutable in the lifetime of its original audience. [1] In particular, preterists assert that the Great City of Revelation 17-19 is Jerusalem rather than Rome. This claim will be the focus of the remainder of this column.

Preterism has changed since its popularization. The 19th-century pastor J. Stuart Russell, sometimes called the father of preterism, claimed that all John's language about the Great City directly addressed Jerusalem. Today, preterists like David Chilton and Douglas Wilson have adopted a more subtle position. They hold that the Great City is essentially Jerusalem, but that it is also "Jerusalem supported by Roman power." Both of these views do violence to the plain meaning of John's vision. My view is that the Great City simply is Rome, and that Revelation accurately foretold—in startling detail—the fall of the Roman Empire. Revelation may also be foretelling a larger pattern in history, but—if so—that pattern is about world empires. It is in no way about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Some caveats here are important. First, my goal in this column is to address the normal preterist view of the Great City. I will not be focusing on the question of the delay of the Parousia, as others are already doing a good job of addressing the preterist concerns in that area. If this is a question you are struggling with, I commend to you William Lane Craig’s “Contextual Ambiguity” reading. [2]

Desolation, from Thomas Cole's Course of Empire series

Secondly, I think it is important at the outset that we completely dismiss and ignore so-called “full preterism.” Those new to eschatology are often confused by the common statement that so-and-so “is a partial preterist, not a full preterist.” This disclaimer is not actually very helpful, as virtually nobody is a “full preterist." While you can find a few full preterists in the dark corners of the internet, they are not a real going concern in the church. Almost everyone uses the term “preterism” to mean so-called “partial preterism,” and this is the sense in which I will use the word. In fact, most preterists would agree with me that full preterists are heretics.

I by no means accuse preterists of heresy. What I do say is that anyone who is already passionate about ancient history when he studies Revelation 17-19 will regard preterism as so obnoxiously wrong that it is shocking the church has allowed it to exist.

This is not an attack on preterists as people. I think most preterists are thoughtful and well-meaning believers who happened to research ancient history in order to understand the text, rather than reading the text with a background in ancient history. There is nothing necessarily wrong with learning the facts in one order rather than another. The problem is that, when one begins with the text and then starts learning history to discover what the text means, he brings with him the temptation to radically decontextualize the Bible’s message.

My own journey to understanding Daniel and Revelation led me through ancient history first.

As I mentioned in my first column, I spent years of my regenerate life having no interest in eschatology. During that time, however, I read widely in ancient history. Eventually, in studying Daniel, I was forced to reckon with the fact that eschatology needed to be taken seriously. After I had digested Daniel and the major historic commentators, I moved on to Revelation.

Alexander the Great conquered Persia and built a Hellenistic Empire extending to India. The Battle of the Hydaspes, depicted here by André Castaigne, was fought in today's Pakistan.

The order in which I studied eschatology was unintentional, or at least not intended by me. But I now think this was exactly the right order in which to study it. The result was that I studied the information in the same order that an ancient reader would have learned it: the Jewish audience of Daniel knew the historical context in which Daniel was written when they first encountered the text. And an Anatolian Christian listening to John’s Revelation would have heard it in the context of ancient geopolitics refracted through Daniel.

As I first seriously considered the visions of Daniel and John, their meaning often seemed to leap out from the page, just as it must have when these texts were first read. It was encouraging to see that, when I turned to the ancient commentators, they independently verified these intuitive impressions. It seemed as if Daniel’s prophecies were a kind of math problem: just as a modern mathematician can independently replicate the work of Archimedes, we can independently reach the same interpretations of prophecy as Theodoret of Cyr. Our God is truly a God of order.

In Daniel 8, for example, I read about how Daniel saw a one-horned goat, which attacked and defeated a ram. The goat’s horn then broke apart, becoming “four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.” From one of these horns, an evil “little horn” grew, which desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem before eventually being defeated.

Gabriel was at hand to interpret the vision for Daniel. As I read on, Gabriel provided the key to unlocking Daniel’s vision: the ram, he told Daniel, represented the kings of Media and Persia, and “the goat is the king of Greece.” With this key in hand, the meaning of the whole chapter suddenly presented itself. The goat defeating the ram obviously represented Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. That made the “four conspicuous horns” the four main kingdoms of Alexander’s successors: the Diadochi.

Antiochus III the Great, not to be confused with the later genocidal Antiochus IV Epiphanes, is one of the most famous rulers of the Seleucid Empire.

The largest of the Diadochi kingdoms was the Seleucid Empire. Sure enough, the Seleucid Empire’s most evil ruler, Antiochus IV, desecrated the Temple at Jerusalem before being defeated by the Maccabean Revolt. Antiochus IV, I realized, must be the “little horn” of Daniel 8. I consulted the commentators, and my impression checked out. This is the opinion of—as far I’ve seen—every single Christian commentator who has written on Daniel 8, from the ancients to the Reformers.

What about Daniel’s series of four empires, appearing in Daniel 2 and 7? The first empire is explicitly identified as Babylon—and Daniel also tells us that the four empires succeed one another in turn. The identity of the next three empires, then, is not hard to figure out. Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, as we discussed in our first column, who founded the Persian Empire. The Persian Empire was then overthrown by Alexander the Great, creating the Hellenistic empires of the Diadochi. The Hellenistic world was then conquered by Rome. After the Roman Empire fell, no new ancient empire arose.

Other signs, I noticed, strengthened these identifications. Daniel 7:6 says that the third beast had four legs and four heads. This fits nicely with the description of the Hellenistic empires in Daniel 8, which uses a symbolic pair of fours: “four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.” [3]

Ancient commentators accurately predicted future events by reading Daniel.

The ancient commentators again affirm an intuitive historical reading. The identifications of these four empires with Babylon, Persia, Hellenism, and Rome were shared by the large majority of ancient writers. The church father Hippolytus, writing only a few generations after John wrote Revelation, said that the fourth empire was obviously Rome: “That there has arisen no other kingdom after that of the Greeks except that which stands sovereign at present is manifest to all.”

Jerome, who actually read Daniel in Hebrew, [4] wrote that the fourth empire “clearly refers to the Romans.” The fourth beast is the Roman Empire, “which now occupies the entire world… all nations have either been slain by the Romans or else have been subjected to tribute and servitude.” Jerome said that it is part of “the traditional interpretation of all the commentators of the Christian church” that the fourth empire is Rome. Other major commentators, such as Theodoret of Cyr, also agreed. [5]

The Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus, French altarpiece c. 1225–1250

This raises a striking question. Daniel was written well before the Roman Empire rose—let alone fell—regardless of whether we accept the secular or the conservative dating of the book. Did Daniel correctly predict that one last and greatest empire would follow the Hellenistic age and that no new ancient empire would follow it?

Perhaps you suspect that I am only interpreting Daniel's prophecy this way with the benefit of hindsight. Fortunately, there is an easy way for us to test my theory. If I am right, ancient readers should have been able to predict future events by reading Daniel. Incredibly, this is exactly what happened. While we do not have any Jewish commentary on Daniel from the Hellenistic period, ancient commentators clearly did understand Daniel to mean that Rome would fall and that no new empire would succeed it.

For example, Hippolytus—who died in 235 AD—noted that the fourth beast in Daniel 7 is said to devour the whole earth, “for there is no other kingdom remaining after this one.” Jerome, who died in 420 AD, said of the same chapter that “in the one empire of the Romans, all the kingdoms at once are to be destroyed, because of the blasphemy of the antichrist. And the [succeeding] empire shall not be an earthly empire at all, but it is simply the above of the saints, which is spoken of here, and the advent of the conquering Son of God.” Both of these church fathers seem to have made accurate future predictions by reading Daniel.

Map of Attila's Hunic Empire, at one time apparently poised to succeed Rome.

That Rome would have no immediate successor is, by itself, a remarkable prediction, as it was far from obvious at the time. At various points in the late Roman period, groups like the Goths and Huns seemed like plausible successors to Rome—yet were ultimately unable to form stable empires. Nonetheless, using Daniel, ancient commentators correctly anticipated that no new empire would follow their own.

More stirringly, Jerome understood that the ancient world would thereafter come to be ruled by the “abode of the saints,” who would rule without any centralized state. Anyone interested in history should quickly piece together the significance of this prediction, which we will return to in a future column. For now, let’s turn back to Revelation.

Revelation 17-19 is most naturally read as describing Rome.

Revelation 17-19 seems to have been written, in large part, as a high-resolution reaffirmation of Daniel. When they first heard the text, John’s readers already knew that three of Daniel's empires had come and gone, and that Rome was the fourth. John seems almost to say to his readers: “Are you wondering whether Rome is really the fourth and final empire? I am here to tell you that it is.”

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent, shown here, not long after John wrote. Rome encircles the entire Mediterranean Sea: the "many waters" of the ancient world.

To John’s first-century audience, every single detail about the Great City introduced in Revelation 17 would have screamed “Rome.” The City appears as a woman arrayed in purple and scarlet, and is introduced as “the great prostitute who is seated on many waters.” An angel then explains to John: “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages… the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

Only one city in the first century AD could be described as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth”: Rome. The language “many waters” also would have invoked the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by the power of Rome.

An angel also describes the City as the woman “with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” She is “Babylon the Great, mother of prostitutes"; it is said of her that “all nations were deceived by your sorcery.” Revelation is putting its readers in mind of Jeremiah 51, in which the Babylonian Empire was described as a woman who has made all the nations drunk. Jeremiah had described the first Babylon by saying “the nations drank of her wine,” an obvious reference to Babylon's geopolitical powerthe very power wielded by Rome. Likewise, John could not have accused any contemporary nation except Rome of deceiving “all nations.”

When the Great City burns, all the sea merchants cry out “What city was like the great city?”. This would have immediately brought to mind Rome, the number one consumer city in the world.

Rome was known throughout the world for its seven hills. In the 19th century, preterists pointed to the seven highest points in Jerusalem and tried to claim that they were the "seven hills of Jerusalem," but some of these "hills" have never even had names.

The woman is also said to be “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Already in the late first century, Rome was almost certainly the top persecutor of Christians in the world. Even setting Nero aside, multiple sources show that—by the very early second century—the persecution of Christians was systematized throughout the empire. [6]

Perhaps most importantly, the woman is riding upon a beast with seven heads. Revelation 17:9 explains that this means the woman is seated on “seven hills.” In the first century, any functioning adult who spoke Latin or Greek would have recognized the phrase “seven hills” as a reference to Rome.

Notably, 19th-century preterist leader J. Stuart Russell attempted to claim that Jerusalem actually sat on seven hills, but he could only name four of those hills. Later, more sophisticated preterists—like David Chilton and Douglas Wilson—have recognized that Jerusalem does not sit on seven hills, but nonetheless insist that the Great City is Jerusalem. In Chilton’s words, preterists take the seven hills to refer to “Jerusalem as riding upon, dependent upon, the imperial city [of Rome].”

To ancient readers, the identity of the Great City as Rome was so glaringly obvious that it required no explanation.

Ancient commentators who went on record about the identity of the Great City of Revelation unanimously referred to it as Rome. Preterists do not deny this. In fact, many preterists take pride in the fact that preterism is an innovative view that rejects “traditional” eschatology. Nonetheless, I have argued that the purpose of biblical prophecy is to communicate information in advance of the events it describes. The views of ancient readers are therefore relevant to understanding Revelation.

Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome. Photo from Italy Magazine.

While many ancient authors used the word “Rome” when discussing Revelation 17-19, they usually did so while addressing some issue other than the City’s identity. This is because no educated person in the ancient world needed to have it explained to them that the Great City was Rome. The city’s identity was so obvious that it was not even treated as a question.

The church father Victorinus, for example, mentioned that the Great City is said to be “drunk from the blood of the saints.” He explains: “For all the saints have suffered martyrdom because of a decree of the Senate of this city [Rome]… it is she who has given to all nations every law against the preaching of the faith.” Note that Victorinus does not bother explaining to his readers why he thinks Revelation is about Rome: he simply reminds them of why God’s judgment will fall upon Rome. [7]

Jerome, in his 46th Letter, cautions a reader against embracing Roman culture: “Read the Apocalypse, and consider what is sung therein of the woman arrayed in purple… ‘Come out of her my people.’” Jerome adds that although “it is true that Rome has a holy church,” Roman society remains corrupt. Once again, it is so obvious that the Great City is Rome that Jerome does not need to explain the meaning of Revelation 17-19: he only has to apply that meaning pastorally.

Saint Jerome Writing, Caravaggio, c. 1607

A minority ancient position recognized that Revelation 17-19 was focused on Rome, but said that Rome should be seen as an idealized symbol for secular empire in general. The Greek patristic commentator Andrew of Caesarea entertained this position. A church father named Primasius also said that Revelation “in the name of Rome symbolizes the power of the entire earthly kingdom.” [8]

The further we get from antiquity, the more we start to see Christian commentators focusing on identifying the Great City. For example, Oecumenius—who wrote an early medieval Greek commentary on Revelation—explained that: “By many waters [the angel] refers to the nations that [Rome] rules and governs,” and that it is “clearly evident that the passage refers to Rome, for it and no other city is reported to be on seven hills.”

In short, if we place any weight at all on the context in which Revelation was written, we should identify its imagery wholly with Rome. Jerusalem, which was not contemplated as a candidate for the Great City, should merit no consideration.

The contrast in Daniel and Revelation is between God’s people and secular empire.

We've now seen many reasons to identify the city of Revelation 17-19 as Rome. What arguments do preterists give for identifying the Great City as Jerusalem? Let’s respond to a few of their principal claims.

First, preterists claim that we have reasons, other than the alleged timing of the Parousia, to expect Revelation to focus on Jerusalem. One reason is that Jesus clearly foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in Mark 13:1-2, as well as in parts of Jesus' Olivet Discourse. Additionally, Revelation seems to set up a contrast between the Great City and the New Jerusalem. To quote Douglas Wilson, preterists argue that “because the bride, descending out of Heaven, is the New Jerusalem, it stands to reason that the harlot is the Old Jerusalem.”

An artist's impression of the Baths of Caracalla, built c. AD 212-216.

Yet the fact that Jesus prophesied about Jerusalem is not evidence that Revelation is also about Jerusalem. The Bible never confines itself to prophesying about a single place or event. Isaiah and Daniel each foretold complex timelines involving grand geopolitical narratives and containing multiple events. [9] Likewise, it would be unsurprising if the New Testament contains some prophecies about Jerusalem in the Gospels and prophecy about another city in Revelation.

In fact, we actually have compelling reasons to expect Revelation to be about Rome. Revelation 17-19 fits together powerfully with Daniel 2 and Daniel 7. For example, in all three narratives, the rule of the saints is said to begin after a final world empire collapses. If Revelation 17-19 is about Jerusalem, then—bizarrely—it seems that the Fourth Empire must be Judea, or else some kind of invisible demonic force. Judea was a small, conquered province, and does not fit in the series of Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic empires in Daniel.

Nor does it make sense for the Fourth Empire to be some kind of invisible spiritual enemy. We know that the Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic Empires were physical, international powers that geopolitically collapsed. A plain reading of Daniel tells us that the collapse of this Fourth Empire should also be a concrete power, and that its collapse should be a public, global event.

It is undeniable that Daniel 2 and 7 are broadly geopolitical. No one would claim, for example, that Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia was an unseen heavenly victory. What are the chances that the genre of Daniel would switch from geopolitics to spiritual abstraction at the very moment needed to support a preterist reading of Revelation 17-19? Preterists cannot shoehorn Jerusalem into this narrative unless they start with the premise that preterism is true.

Alexander the Great, Roman copy of a Greek original, 3rd century BC.

Next, let’s turn to Wilson’s claim that Revelation contrasts Old Jerusalem with the New Jerusalem. The biggest problem with this argument is that, once again, it fails to read Revelation within the context of Daniel.

Although the Old Testament authors constantly condemned the Judaic elite, Jerusalem was never the leading antagonist of eschatology. Rather, Daniel sets up a contrast between God’s people and secular empire. Revelation brings this contrast to fulfillment: the story of Revelation 17-22 begins with the fall of a secular world empire and ends with a universe in which all things have been made new.

The New Jerusalem itself is symbolically contrasted with Rome. As NT Wright observes in his commentary on Revelation 21, the size of New Jerusalem makes it “roughly the same number of square miles as the Roman Empire.” The New Jerusalem is, in fact, a new kind of imperial power, which has replaced secular empire once and for all: “and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it… They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

Harlotry is a symbol of secular empire, not just covenantal apostasy.

A related point, made by seemingly all preterists, is that the Great City must be Jerusalem because she is a prostitute. In Wilson’s words, “The image of harlotry, taken from the Old Testament, overwhelmingly refers to covenantal apostasy.”

The most glaring problem with this argument is that—while Israel is often called a harlot—the language in Revelation 17-18 strongly parallels the structure of Jeremiah 51. In this chapter of Jeremiah, the Babylonian Empire is portrayed as a woman seducing the nations with drink:

Flee from the midst of Babylon; let every one save his life!... Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad. Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her!... O you who dwell by many waters, rich in treasures!

When Jeremiah says “the nations drank of [Babylon’s] wine,” this clearly does not mean the Babylonian Empire was engaged in covenantal apostasy. Rather, Jeremiah is condemning Babylon’s seductive and evil influence over the many nations she rules. Likewise, the angel in Revelation 17 leaves no doubt as to why the Great City is a “prostitute.” It is not because she has betrayed her husband, like Israel, but because “the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality” with her. Israel was a prostitute because of her faithlessness, while the Great City is a prostitute because of her seductive power.

The Dying Gaul, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, c. 230 BC. Roman sources curiously lionized and romanticized their barbarian enemies while simultaneously celebrating their defeat.

Yet, on an even deeper level, it is unsurprising to see a secular empire portrayed as a harlot. Imperial cosmopolitan culture was frequently associated with sexual degeneracy. According to Herodotus, every single Babylonian woman worked as a temple prostitute for Myltitta, the Assyrian version of Aphrodite. Many Greek cultures had notoriously libertine sexual values: multiple ancient authors attest to the Spartans sharing their wives, for example. And at the dawn of the Roman Empire, the conservative Caesar Augustus struggled constantly against the libertine lifestyles of the childless and adulterous Romans—even banishing his own daughter Julia for her many public affairs. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul often had to explain Jewish values on sex and gender to his gentile audience: these were not values that ancient gentiles naturally understood.

For these reasons, when the elite in ancient Israel and Judah embraced cosmopolitanism, Israel’s sexual values naturally became degenerate. As a result, conservative monotheistic reformers repeatedly had to ban temple prostitution. In 1 Kings 15, Asa is said to have “put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land and removed all the idols that his father had made.” In 1 Kings 22, we learn that Jehoshaphat “exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa.”

Appropriately, then, the Phoenician princess Jezebel is presented as seducing the Kingdom of Israel away from the conservative monotheistic tradition and towards a cosmopolitan universalism. At the same time, Jezebel—like the Great Prostitute herself—used her power to oppress, killing numerous prophets and other innocent victims. Jezebel is especially relevant here, as Jesus uses the name “Jezebel” directly in Revelation 2. The Great City is a woman of the same kind as Jezebel: not the Harlot of Hosea, but the seductress of Baal.

Biblical authors repeatedly use the motif of a disgraced woman to refer to secular governments.

Another argument, used by both Chilton and Wilson, is that the judgment on the Great Prostitute has parallels with Ezekiel 16, a prophecy against Judah. Let’s compare the two at length. In condemning the idolatry of Judah, Ezekiel prophesied as follows:

Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure… I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. And I will give you into their hands… They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.

There is no detailed structural parallel between the Ezekiel 16 prophecy and Revelation, as there is between Revelation 17-18 and Jeremiah 51. Yet it is true that the Great City of Revelation is portrayed as being disgraced by the nations she rules. Revelation 17:16 says “the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast [on which the prostitute is riding] will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.”

The Woman Taken in Adultery, Edward Henry Corbould, 1842.

The problem is that this motif of a disgraced woman is a standard Ancient Near Eastern expression of judgment upon a nation. Its use in the Old Testament is far from unique to Judah: it is also used to express God’s judgment on Babylon, Egypt, and Phoenicia.

Isaiah 47, for example, prophesies judgment on the Babylonian Empire: “Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon… you shall not more be called tender and delicate…. your nakedness shall be uncovered and your disgrace shall be seen.” [10] Jeremiah 46, a prophecy against Egypt, says “The daughter of Egypt shall be put to shame; she shall be delivered into the hand of a people from the north.” And what of the Phoenicians? According to Isaiah 23:

You will no more exult, O oppressed virgin daughter of Sidon; arise, cross over to Cyprus, even there you will have no rest… the Lord will visit Tyre, and she will return to her wages and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.

Preterist exegesis effectively assumes at the outset that the Great City must be Jerusalem.

As we earlier noted, 19th-century preterism began by asserting that Jerusalem literally sat upon seven hills. As access to information and international travel has increased, however, this claim has become obviously untenable. It's easy to imagine that—as preterist evangelicals started to travel to Jerusalem in the late 20th century—they asked the locals to show them the "seven hills" of the city and were answered with funny looks. Preterists have therefore had to resort to the more subtle argument of Chilton and Wilson: that the Great City is seated upon "seven hills" because she is supported by Roman power.

Already, this modification should make preterism seem suspiciously results-oriented. But what can we say of this “Roman power” argument on its own merits?

The Augustus of Prima Porta, Roman, c. 20 AD.

Wilson’s claim, that John saw “Jerusalem as riding upon, dependent upon, the imperial city,” might be somewhat more tenable if John had actually seen the symbolic woman herself seated on seven hills. Yet this is not what John saw: he saw the woman riding on the seven heads of a beast.

Where does the “seven hills” language come from? It does not appear in John’s symbolic vision of a woman riding on a beast, but in the angel’s literal explanation of that vision: “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated… And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

To make the Great City Jerusalem, then, preterists must assign symbolic meaning to an angel’s literal explanation of a symbol. Preterism is therefore a kind of symbolism Inception, which no first-century reader could have deciphered. John sees a symbolic vision that an angel deciphers in plain language, but—according to preterists—the angel’s explanation is itself a symbol that must be further solved by the reader.

Even this reading would not come close to solving preterism’s problems. Next, preterism must explain the fact that the Great City rules over “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages,” and that “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

This time, there is no way for preterists to escape the fact that it is “the woman” herself who has imperial power over the nations, not some other entity. Preterists respond with a variety of mutually contradictory explanations.

J. Stuart Russell argued that “the kings of the earth” represent local Jewish leaders in Judah. In contrast, Chilton claims that these verses represent “the great and pervasive influence the Jews had in all parts of the Roman Empire before the destruction of Jerusalem.” In other words, Russell had the Great City literally rule over figurative kings, whereas Chilton has the Great City figuratively rule over literal kings. In either case, though, she is of course Jerusalem.

David, Cordier, c. 1610, a parallel to the Augustus of Prima Porta. Cupid is replaced with a cherub.

Wilson has a similar view to Chilton’s, adding that that “instead of being a light to the Gentiles, Jerusalem had led the kings of the earth astray.” Wilson offers no explanation as to how “the kings of the earth committed fornication” with a small conquered province, as they had with the great Babylonian Empire in Jeremiah 51. But the really salient point is not that preterists adopt different interpretations from one another. It is that, when preterists are called upon explain how the Great City rules over kings and nations, they all must use a different hermeneutic than the one they used explain how she sits on seven hills.

For preterists, the only consistent rule seems to be “Anything that will make the words refer to Jerusalem is true.” If preterists can get away with these elaborate mental gymnastics, then Christians can surely make Revelation mean anything we might want it to mean. If this is our method for interpreting Revelation, why can’t Darbyists make everything in Revelation about America?

Preterists, at this point, must recourse to a form of pietism. The political language must be read in this highly figurative way because “Revelation is not a book about politics: it is a book about Covenant,” says Chilton. Yet preterism’s interpretive problem is deeper than this Enlightenment-sounding premise. It lies in the commitment that, before we approach the text, and regardless of what it actually says, it must have occurred in the first century AD.

Preterists are therefore in error, not merely about the identity of the Great City, but about the whole scope of eschatology. While it is true that God was incarnate in only one century, his providence over human events is not bounded by his embodied presence on Earth. God’s story encompasses the whole sweeping drama of history, and we are in neither the epilogue nor the conclusion.

I extend an open challenge to preterists to debate this issue.

I hope that preterists will be excited, rather than dismayed, about this interpretation. If Revelation is read in the context of Daniel and ancient history, then it provides a powerful apologetic for the Christian faith that preterism cannot.

Stained glass window of Irenaeus, Lyon.

The delay of the Parousia has never especially troubled me—not least because Christ himself repeatedly anticipated that his coming would appear to be delayed. [11] If I was troubled by the delay, however, then this difficulty would be more than offset by the predictive power of Daniel and Revelation. Biblical eschatology, if read historically, accurately predicted and communicated the arc of world geopolitics. In contrast, under preterism, Revelation’s meaning was hidden beneath so many layers of symbolism that literally nobody understood what it was referring to until long after the fact.

Preterism has a further problem: early church fathers like Irenaeus and Victorinus dated the book to the reign of the emperor Domitian, thus putting its composition after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. This means that, far from being able to use Revelation as an apologetic for Christianity, preterists must do hard work to explain why these early fathers were actually wrong about the date of Revelation.

In his book Before Jerusalem Fell, which argues for a pre-70 AD date for Revelation, preterist author Kenneth Gentry has to spend about a quarter of the book explaining away the statements of various early Christian authorities or attacking their credibility. Of course, if Revelation was written after Jerusalem was destroyed, as the early fathers claimed, then it is particularly unsurprising that Revelation would not focus on Jerusalem.

For the reasons expressed in this column, I think the preterist identification of the Great City as Jerusalem is an astonishing discredit to the church. Aside from being historically groundless, preterism needlessly deprives biblical prophecy of powerful evidence for its veracity. It also promotes pietism and quietism in the church by resorting to a labyrinth of layered abstraction. I therefore extend an open offer to debate the identity of the Great City in any reasonable live format with any preterist who has done substantial work on preterism.


[1] Preterism and pietism are often interrelated. Like circles in a Venn diagram, however, these two views are overlapping but distinct. NT Wright, for example, is sometimes identified as a preterist—yet the main focus of his eschatology is really on promoting pietism and quietism. In contrast, the eschatologies of David Chilton and Douglas Wilson are primarily focused on preterism as such. Because preterism involves a highly esoteric reading of Revelation 17-19, however, both Chilton and Wilson deploy pietistic arguments in support of their views. [2] William Lane Craig gives the following example to show that contextual ambiguity occurs in the New Testament, as paraphrased on Mars Hill Apologetics:Essentially, Jesus sends out His disciples in Mark 6:7-13. Matthew draws from Mark's writing in Matthew 10:5-15. Subsequently, however, Matthew in verses 16-23 adds a portion which he draws from the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13:9-13.” This seems to have occurred in the Matthew 16:28 adaptation of Mark 8:39-9:1. I take the “these things” in Mark 13 to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but not to the coming of the Son of Man. As I discussed in a previous column, the Second Coming will occur only once: at the Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment. [3] Probably for this reason, even the ancient anti-Christian writer Porphyry identified the third beast with Alexander the Great. Porphyry identified the four empires as Babylon, Persia, Alexander, and the Diadochi, respectively. This is a much better argument than the standard critical argument that one of the empires is the Medes: the Diadochi were at least the clear successors of Alexander, and Porphyry's view offers at least some explanation for the “four winds” symbolism shared by Daniel 7 and 8. My objections to Porphyry are as follows. First, Daniel 8—which addresses the Diadochi much more explicitly than Daniel 2 or 7—does not treat the Diadochi as a separate beast from Alexander. The goat is Alexander, and the Diadochi are the pieces of Alexander’s horn. Secondly and relatedly, the fourth empire is portrayed as the most powerful empire of them all. Daniel 7:23 says “there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces.” The Diaodchi were understood by Daniel and all his readers as weaker, not greater, than Alexander, a fact that Daniel acknowledges in Daniel 8:22: “four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power.” Thirdly, Porphry’s identification does not fit the pattern of the chapters: the Diadochi would be the first beast in the series not to conquer a distinct predecessor nation-state. Even the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. Finally, the four winds element is incorporated into the third beast, not the fourth beast. [4] Jerome studied Hebrew with a Jewish convert to Christianity. This gives Jerome important insights into the text. For example, in responding to Porphyry’s argument that Daniel was originally written in Greek, Jerome responds that this is only true of two later additions to Daniel: “the [Greek] stories of Susanna and of Bel and the Dragon are not contained in the Hebrew, but rather they constitute a part of the prophecy of Habakkuk, the son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi…. [Christians] are not obliged to answer to Porphyry for these portions which exhibit no authority as Holy Scripture.” [5] Theodoret also picked up on the “four winds” parallel between Daniel 7 and 8 that I noticed when first trying to identify the empires. He likewise divided the Diadochi into Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Anatolian, and Macedonian kingdoms.

[6] Writing between AD 111 and 113, Roman governor Pliny the Younger casually reported to the emperor Trajan that he had arrested several Christians, and that “those who persisted I ordered executed… There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.” In his short response, which is extant, Trajan agreed that “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished.” Writing about 130 AD, the Roman author Celsus wrote that Christians commonly “offer their bodies to be tortured and killed to no purpose when they think that in so doing they are defying the demons and going to their eternal reward.” These practices did not begin suddenly after John wrote Revelation. [7] Elsewhere, Victorinus dates Revelation: “This must be understood in terms of the time when the Apocalypse was written for Domitian was Caesar at that time.”

[8] Interestingly, one of Primasius’ disciples, Junillus, was Qaestor under Justinian I. [9] Of course, if Revelation was written after Jerusalem was destroyed—as both Irenaeus and Victorinus claimed—then it is particularly unsurprising that Revelation would not focus on Jerusalem. Preterists naturally discount these church fathers and date Revelation to before AD 70, but I need not respond to these arguments here, as they would do little to show that Revelation was about Jerusalem even if successful. [10] Jeremiah relatedly says God’s people should flee from the midst of Babylon. Jeremiah 50:8-9: “Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats before the flock. For behold, I am stirring up against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her.” [11] Matthew 24:45-51; Matthew 25:1-13; Matthew 25:14-30.

Get Staseos Delivered to Your Inbox
Join the Cause

©2020 by Staseos. Proudly created with Wix.com