O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?




By: Michael J. Sullivan Copyright 2008

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” J.I. Packer understands this to mean “that we must give ourselves in Bible study to following out the unities, cross-references and topical links which Scripture provides.” There is nothing controversial within the Reformed community about the above principles. Reformed believers all strive to be faithful to the principle of “the analogy of Scripture.”

This being the case, why then are there so many differing opinions within the Reformed community when it comes to the question of how to form a sound eschatology? There are perhaps as many differing interpretations of eschatological texts as there are denominations. There is a need to bridge the gap and bring healing to this eschatological division that has taken place in Reformed and Protestant churches.

What is the cause of the division? It is widely assumed that the cause is the enigmatic nature of the texts in question. Though there is no disagreement that there are difficult eschatological texts, I submit in this article that the problem lies not in the vagueness of Scripture, but rather in our unwitting betrayal of the principle of the analogy of Scripture.

There is a strong preterist tradition within Reformed eschatology. This tradition argues that the eschatological statements of imminence in the New Testament must be taken literally because there are no contextual indicators leading us to interpret them in any other way. As Gary DeMar put it, “…any student of the Bible who does not interpret these time texts to mean anything other than close at hand is in jeopardy of denying the integrity of the Bible.”

To put a finer point on it, R. C. Sproul has suggested that any eschatology which denies a literal interpretation of the New Testament time texts has adopted a liberal or neo-orthodox view of God and time: “When F.F. Bruce speaks of faith making the time be ‘at hand,’ this sounds all too much like Rudolf Bultmann’s famous theology of timelessness, which removes the object of faith from the realm of real history and consigns it to a super temporal realm of the always present hic et nunc.”

Sadly, this same view is so commonly articulated among Reformed and Evangelical believers that few seem to recognize its liberal, mystical and exegetical insupportability. In the interest of preserving eschatological futurism, many have compromised the principle of Scriptural analogy by sweeping away the plain and obvious meaning of the imminence texts. In so doing, conservatives are unwittingly handling the Scriptures like Bultmann.

In an effort to mitigate this liberalism, some have become partially preterist, suggesting two returns of Christ – one in A.D.70 and then another yet-future final coming and resurrection. The obvious problem with this view is that, “Paul looked for one climactic future event, the return of Jesus Christ, the blessed hope.”

The partial preterist side of the “house divided” understands that in the A.D. 70 return of Christ in His generation, God accomplished the “gathering” and “redemption” of His church. Jesus was straightforward and clear that “all these things” were going to take place in His generation. Partial preterists thus swim bravely against a strong tide of “newspaper exegesis.”

On the other hand, Evangelical and Reformed theologians who reject partial preterism are nevertheless faithful to the principle of the analogy of Scripture when they link the imminent “gathering” in Matthew 24:31 and Mark 13:27 to Paul’s “gathering” and “catching away” (“rapture”/resurrection) in I Thessalonians 4:17 and II Thessalonians 2:1. When they tie the imminent “redemption” in Luke 21:28 to the “redemption of the Body” and of “the creation” in Romans 8:18-23, they rightly reject the exegetical breaking asunder of Scriptures that are thematically one.

In the remainder of this article, I will offer a brief examination of these texts as well as a response to the “house divided” approach of Keith Mathison and his co-authors in their critique of “Hyper-Preterism” titled, When Shall These Things Be? (WSTTB?). Mathison and his co-authors are a microcosm of the church. Though they enjoy unity in the belief of a yet-future “second coming” and resurrection of the dead, their eschatological house is divided.

Some believe the eschatology of the Bible is mostly fulfilled. Others believe it is mostly or wholly unfulfilled. Their disagreements with each other are not rooted in the difficulty of the texts, but rather in the rejection of the sure foundation of sound Scriptural analogy. In setting aside the plain sense of thematically congruent Scriptures, they have constructed their eschatological house on exegetical sand, and it therefore “cannot stand.”

"Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:27-28). Appealing to the principle of the analogy of Scripture, John Murray and other Reformed theologians understand Paul in Romans eight to be building upon the “redemption” that Jesus discussed in the Olivet discourse: “Now in Luke 21:28 . . . (t)his word ‘redemption’ (apolutrosin), when used with reference to the future, has a distinctly eschatological connotation, the final redemption, the consummation of the redemptive process (cf. Romans 8:23; I Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:14; 4:30). Hence analogy would again point to the eschatological complex of events.”

We cannot brush off Murray’s comments lightly when he connects these texts to the resurrection and redemption of Romans eight. But is it exegetically sound to say that the redemption of Romans 8:18-23 occurred in Jesus’ generation?

According to most Reformed eschatological paradigms, Romans eight is teaching a biological resurrection and molecular transformation of our corpses and of the entire universe during the return of Christ at “the end of time.” However, when we consider the preterist side of Reformed and Evangelical eschatology with regard to the restoration of creation in the various related texts (Matthew 5:17-18; 24:29, 35; Ephesians 1:10; II Peter 3; I John 2:17-18 and Revelation 21:1), we soon discover that in context, these passages are referring to the temple’s destruction or to the civil and religious worlds of men – either Jews or Gentiles. The civil and religious rulers of the old-covenant system or world, along with the temple, were the “sun, moon, and stars,” which made up the “heaven and earth” of the world that perished in A.D. 70.

In context, the time was “at hand” for the “elements” to be burned and for the world of righteousness to take its place (I Peter 1:4-12; 4:5, 7, 17; II Peter 3). Peter was describing a change of covenantal worlds. As John Owen and John Lightfoot taught, Peter was not referring to a future return of Christ for the purpose of destroying the planet. He was describing a transformation that was to be accomplished at Christ’s Parousia in A.D. 70. Kenneth Gentry and James Jordan also understand the passing of the “world” and the first heavens and earth (I Jn. 2:17-18; Rev. 21:1) to refer to Christ’s return to end the old-covenant system in A.D. 70. It is also understood within Reformed and Evangelical theology that the “times of fulfillment” to reconcile things in “heaven and on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10) is referring not to the planet earth and angels, but to the union of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. This was the “mystery” of the gospel in which the “whole family” of God, in heaven and on earth, would participate.

Lightfoot associated the “earnest expectation of the creature” and the “whole creation groaning” with the mind and heart of man, and not with the planet Earth – not even poetically. He referenced the “vanity” and “decay” of the creation (vs.20) to the groaning from the “corruption” of sin found in the hearts and minds of mankind (II Peter 1:4; II Corinthians 11:3; 15:33). And Lightfoot is on solid ground here. Not only is there lexical evidence to interpret “vanity,” “corruption” and “decay” as ethical and moral putrefaction in the heart and mind of man, but contextually the passage has nothing to do with hydrogen or oxygen or squirrels longing for a better day when they won’t get hit by cars.

Still, one might object that the ‘redemption’ associated with the coming of Christ in Luke 21:27-28 has a clear time text (“this generation”) associated with it (vs. 32) but the “redemption of the body” in Romans eight does not. Therefore, one might conclude, the two passages are not necessarily parallel. Those who argue this way suggest that the redemption in Luke 21 might simply refer to relief from persecution and nothing more. The premise of their objection, however, is false. There is an imminence text associated with the redemption of the body in Romans eight.

Romans 8:18 reads, “For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory about to be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18, YLT; cf. NSRV, AV, & WEY: “soon to be manifested”). It is important to note that the Greek word corresponding to “about to be” (Romans 8:18) is mello. Reformed partial preterists such as R.C. Sproul and Kenneth Gentry understand the word mello in the book of Revelation to refer to Christ’s return in A.D.70. Sproul also says that it is not unreasonable to apply the imminence indicators found in Romans13:11-12 (“…for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness…”) to earlier chapters in Romans that do not explicitly have time texts. (Sproul, Last Days, pp. 99, 138-140)

If mello is a time-indicator that needs to be honored, and if we can apply the time texts in Romans 13:11-12 to earlier chapters, then we cannot responsibly ignore this approach in Romans eight. Further, claims that the teaching of “the” judgment and resurrection of the living and the dead were not given with imminence indicators directly tied to them are simply not true:

“Having hope toward God, which they themselves also wait for, that there is about to be a rising again of the dead, both of righteous and unrighteous,” and, “But when he dealt with the subjects of justice, self-control, and the judgment which is soon to come, Felix became alarmed…” (Acts 24:15, YLT/WEY; 24:25, WEY/YLT, cf. Acts 17:31, YLT/WEY; WUESTNT; Emphases added).

“The sufferings of this present time.” As much as I can relate to R.C. Sproul Jr., losing his hair and gaining some weight around his midsection (WSTTB? ix), his appeal to the “sufferings” and “the redemption of the body” in our text have nothing to do with those kinds of issues. The context of the “groaning” of these first-century Christians can be found in the previous chapter. The sufferings Paul has in mind here were eschatological – the birth pains that were to precede Christ’s return in A.D.70 (Matt. 24:8; Rom. 8:22). They had to do with man groaning under the inescapable tyranny of sin brought about by being condemned in Adam under the Law of God. For Paul, this produced a “death” but it was not a physical death – he was still writing. Death in these chapters (Romans 5-6) had nothing to do with the idea of the fleshly corpse of man biologically dying as a result of Adam’s sin. “Bondage,” according to the immediate context, had to do with spiritual death and groaning under the condemnation of the Law (cf. Romans 7:2, 7, 15). The sufferings in Romans eight, then, referred to the eschatological persecutions that preceded Christ’s return (Dan. 7:21-22; Matt. 24:9, 27-31; 10:17-23) and not to present day Christians suffering the traumas of birth defects, aging, cancer, etc.


The “salvation” and “redemption” associated with Christ’s second coming in A.D.70 entailed much more than a physical flight to the wilderness of Pella, as some commentators have proposed. Christ’s Parousia in A.D. 70 was a redemptive and soteriological event that occurred “in” and “within” the minds, consciences and hearts of the church, when God consumed by fire the Adamic world of Satan, Sin, Death and Condemnation, consummately purging His church of sin through the Cross of Christ (Rom. 8:18-23; 11:26-27; 13:11-12; Heb. 8-10). The “redemption” of Luke 21:28 is the “redemption of the body” in Romans 8:18-23. Both the imminence of the time texts and the spiritual nature of their fulfillment require this interpretation.

Romans 8 and Olivet Discourse & Luke 17 Parallels:

1) Present sufferings (vss.17-18) Suffering to come (Mt.24:9)

2) Were “about to” receive & share in Christ’s glory (vss.17-18) Christ comes in glory (Mt.24:30)

3) Glory will be “in” them (vs.18) Kingdom will be realized “within” at Christ’s return (Lk.17:21-37/Lk.21:27-32)

4) Redemption & salvation – resurrection (vss.23-24; cf. 11:15-27; 13:11-12) Redemption & salvation – resurrection (Lk.21:27-28; Mt.24:13, 30-31)

5) Pains of childbirth (vs.22) Birth pains of the tribulation (Mt.24:8)
This was “about to” take place (vs.18) This would all happen in their “this generation” (Mt.24:34)

[1] Westminster Confession, I. ix.

[2] J.I. Packer, The Interpretation of Scripture, from ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (Inter-Varsity Press, 1958), pp. 101-114.

[3] Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness OBSESSION OF THE MODERN CHURCH, p.393, American Vision, Atlanta, Georgia, 4th revised, 1999, emphasis added.

[4] R.C. Sproul, THE LAST DAYS ACCORDING TO JESUS, pp.108-109, Baker Books, 1998, emphasis added.

[5] See for example, Anthony Hoekema, THE BIBLE AND THE FUTURE, p. 126, Eerdmans pub., 1979.

[6] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for AMILLENNIALISM UNDERSTANDING THE END TIMES, p.130, Baker Book House pub., 2003, emphasis added.

[7] This is a co-authored book written by Keith A. Mathison, Kenneth L. Gentry, Charles E. Hill, Richard L. Pratt Jr., Simon J. Kistemaker, Douglas Wilson, and Robert B. Strimple, WHEN SHALL THESE THINGS BE? A REFORMED RESPONSE TO HYPER-PRETERISM, P&R Publishing, 2004. David Green, Edward Hassertt, Sam Frost, and I are currently co-authoring a response to this book - for more info go to:

[8] John Murray, COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOHN MURRAY 2: Systematic Theology, p.389, Banner of Truth Pub., 1977. Unfortunately Murray was inconsistent when it came to Jesus’ teaching that all things in His discourse would be fulfilled in His generation. Had Murray faithfully followed the analogy of Scripture in this regard, he would have seen two things: 1. Christ’s coming on the clouds and the de-creation language in the discourse was metamorphic language describing the fall of religious and civil powers, as John Owen and other reformed theologians have seen. 2. The coming of Christ, the passing away of “heaven and earth,” the redemption, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment were all “about to be” fulfilled in Jesus’ generation (Rms.8:18-23; Acts 17:31, 24:15 YLT WEY).

[9] John Brown, 3Vols., Banner of Truth Publications, see Vol. 1 pp. 170-174, [1852] 1967. H.T. Fletcher-Louis (contributing author), Eschatology in Bible & Theology, pp.145-169, IVP pub., 1997.

[10] Fletcher, ibid., pp. 145-169. DeMar, ibid., pp. 141-154

[11] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Banner of Truth pub., Vol.9 pp. 134-135; John Lightfoot, COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT FROM THE TALMUD AND HEBRAICA, Vol.3, p.452, Hendrickson pub, 2003.

[12] “…this vanity is improperly applied to this vanishing, changeable, dying state of the creation. For vanity, doth not so much denote the vanishing condition of the outward state, as it doth the inward vanity and emptiness of the mind.” The Romans to whom this apostle writes, knew well enough how many and how great predictions and promises it had pleased God to publish by his prophets, concerning gathering together and adopting sons to himself among the Gentiles: the manifestation and production of which sons, the whole Gentile world doth now wait for, as it were, with an out stretched neck. John Lightfoot, COMMENTARY ON THE NEW TESTAMENT FROM THE TALMUD AND HEBRAICA, Volume 4, p. 157, Hendrickson pub., emphasis added.

[13] Lightfoot, ibid., pp. 158-159

[14] Gentry argues, “…when used with the aorist infinitive –as in Revelation 1:19– the word’s predominant usage and preferred meaning is: ‘be on the point of, be about to.’ The same is true when the word is used with the present infinitive, as in Rev.3:10. The basic meaning in both Thayer and Abbott-Smith is: ‘to be about to.” (Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, Dating the Book of Revelaiton, pp. 141-142, ICE Pub., 1989, emphasis added.) Gentry is correct. The problem however is that when the word “mello” refers to the resurrection and judgment of the living and dead in Acts 24:15 and 24:25, it is used with the present infinitive. So Gentry boldly ignores the word in those texts.

[15] Tom Holland, CONTOURS IN PAULINE THEOLOGY, pp.85-110, Mentor Imprint Christian Focus Pub., 2004. Holland is a Reformed theologian whom sees Paul’s “body” of flesh, sin, and death not referring to our physical flesh but to the corporate body of Adam as contrasted to the corporate Body of Christ – the church. He counters Gundry’s individual views of soma in Paul’s writings. He also argues for “consistency” in Paul’s use of corporate terms. I recommend this book to any serious student of Reformed theology.

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