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The Biblical Last Days - Part II

                                       by Charles S. Meek

Many American evangelicals regularly pray for Jesus to come soon. And then they search the daily newspaper for events which seem to affirm that Jesus is answering those prayers. Do you realize that, in actuality, they may be praying for a holocaust in which two-thirds of Jews will die, based on Zechariah 13:8-9? (This is, at least, the view of prominent Christian Zionists/Dispenationalists such as Tim LaHaye and John Hagee.) That seems more than a bit anti-Semitic to me.

Shouldn't Christians be reading the Bible through the lens of the writers of the New Testament? Reading the Bible through the lens of news events has led to false end-times prophecies throughout Christian history. These predictive errors are a result of (a) ignoring the plain reading of numerous imminency passages, and (b) failing to understand Jewish apocalyptic literature in interpreting key passages such as Matthew 24 and 2 Peter 3. (The latter will be critically analyzed below.) Indeed, their continual disturbingly false predictions look more like those of the cults than of sound biblical exegesis. Here are some examples of predictions about when the world was supposed to end:

•    Ellen G. White (co-founder—Seventh Day Adventist Church): 1843, 1844, 1850, 1856.
•    Joseph Smith (founder—Mormon Church): 1891.
•    Jehovah's Witnesses: 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1975, and 1984.
•    Hal Lindsey: 1982, 1988, 2007, with contingency dates going as far as 2048.
•    Jack Van Impe: 1975, 1992, 2000, 2012.  
•    Chuck Smith (founder of Calvary Chapel): before 1981
•    Pat Robertson: 1982.
•    Edgar C. Whisenant: 1988. 1989.
•    Bill Maupin: 1988.
•    J.R. Church: 1988.
•    Charles R. Taylor: 1992.
•    Benny Hinn: 1993.
•    F. M. Riley: 1994.
•    John Hinkle: 1994.
•    Grant R. Jeffrey: 2000.
•    Lester Sumrall: 1985, 1986, 2000.
•    Kenneth Hagin: 1997 to 2000.
•    Jerry Falwell: 2010.
•    Louis Farrakhan: 1991.
•    John Hagee (at age 71): before he dies.
•    Harold Camping: 1994, 2011.
•    Ronald Weinland: 2011, 2012.
•    Perry Stone: 2009-2015
•    Billy Graham: Even this venerable preacher began telling us in the 1930’s to expect the soon return of Christ.

Pastors all across America’s fruited plains have books of some of these authors proudly displayed in their office libraries. The same books, and videos too, fly off Christian bookstore shelves, and the money continues to flow to these authors and many others of the same ilk. While some of these authors may be good teachers on other subjects, their false predictions force us to doubt their views on eschatology.

Many of the above people will be forgotten, but there always seems to be a new generation of false teachers. What’s wrong with this picture?

I spent 10 years studying the Bible to get to the bottom of this problem (kicking and screaming the whole way). Bear with me on this: The Bible never speaks of the end of the physical universe! We have been deceived. All mentions of the “last days” or “the end” refer to the end of the Old Covenant Age rather than the end of the planet. Many Christians are increasingly embracing this interpretation, known as preterism. Please don't let your eyes glaze over at this is; test all things. You may disagree, but as we continue this study, please follow carefully as we walk through this.

There are four basic places in the Bible that Christians find what they think concerns the end of the world:

•    the “last days” in various books, including Acts 2 and Hebrews 1

•    the “time of the end” in the book of Daniel

•    the “end of the world” as rendered in the King James Version of the book of Matthew

•    the “universe-burning” language in 2 Peter 3

We covered the first two in Part I of this series. Now let’s add some color to these two and examine the second two.


                                      The Book of Matthew

In the book of Matthew, the King James Version has Jesus speaking in several verses of “the end of the world.” Here is where we find them: Matthew 13:39, 40, 49; Matthew 24:3; Matthew 28:20.

When we examine the Greek, we see that the word translated as “world” in the King James Version is aion, which is best translated as "age." The King James Version mistranslated this word, or at best gave it a biased translation. Readers of the King James Version of the Bible have been misled for 400 years! While “world” is a possible translation of aion, if what Jesus meant was the end of the physical world, the Greek word kosmos would have been used here by Matthew. You may want to take a few minutes to look up these passages in the KJV as well as other versions.

Almost every modern translation has correctly translated each of these instances as “end of the age.” So what age was Jesus speaking about in these passages? One of the passages above about the end of the age is in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:3). In the preceding verse, Jesus specifically mentioned the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:2). As the chapter progresses, Jesus lists other events that were to happen. Then near the end of the chapter He gave a time constraint as to when all those things would happen—in his generation (Matthew 24:34). Since the initial thrust of the prophecy is the destruction of the temple at the end of age, it makes perfect sense that Jesus is talking about the end of the Old Covenant Age, sometimes called the Mosaic Age, or the Jewish Age.

This is confirmed in the parallel account in Luke 21:20-24, where in verse 24 we see the phrase “the times of the Gentiles.” The period between Jesus’ earthly ministry and AD 70 was a transition period that fully grafted Gentiles into Christianity, which was initially a Jewish movement. The Old Covenant Age ended in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, the important Hebrew genealogical records were destroyed with the temple, the nation of Israel ceased to exist, and the ancient system of temple sacrifices for sin ended forever.

So, these references to the “end of the age” are not about the end of the planet. They are about the end of the Old Covenant Age.


                                       First and Second Peter


The fourth place people think they find the end of the world is in Peter’s epistles. These epistles are filled with eschatological expectations. You might want to take the time to read both books straight through. What Peter discusses is the expectation of a culminating cataclysmic event to happen very soon.

The language Peter used might seem to imply the total destruction of the visible creation. He used a variety of phrases in his epistles such as the “Day of the Lord,” the “destruction of the heavens by fire,” the “new heaven and earth,” the “elements shall melt,” etc. I consider these terms in detail in my book. But first note that such cosmic language was commonplace among the Old Testament prophets, speaking in non-literal language about theological or covenantal events, and especially about actual judgments by God on guilty groups of people. Scholars are in general agreement that at least many (if not all) of the Old Testament Day of the Lord passages are already fulfilled! These previously fulfilled events set the stage for understanding Peter’s words.

In this article, I want to set the biblical context for Peter's statements, then examine specifically the melting "elements" language. If you want a fuller explanation of "Day of the Lord" and "New Heaven and Earth" passages throughout the Bible, see my articles here:

Articles on Eschatology

Like the other New Testament writers, Peter gives us important time-reference statements. In his first epistle, Peter used the phrase "last times" in a way that is consistent with his own comments in Acts 2:

"But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you."  (1 Peter 1:19-20, NKJV)

This declaration obviously cannot refer to a far distant time. Peter’s statement indicates that the last days/last times included the time in which Christ was in the flesh; yet Peter was still in the last days as he spoke. Now consider these statements, which you may well have completely glossed over previously:

"But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers."  (1 Peter 4:7, NKJV)

"For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17, NKJV)  

One can simply ignore such passages if he wishes, but one cannot ignore them and be faithful to God’s Word. The imminence in Peter’s mind is unmistakable. But Peter is not alone. The New Testament writers proclaimed with one voice that the “end” had drawn near.

 

In order for the Bible to be consistent, we must harmonize Peter’s imminence statements with his “astronomical” or “cosmic” language statements. The end of the physical universe was not at hand when Peter penned these words. Either Peter does not mean “at hand” in the normal sense of something close in time, or the “end of all things” language is not to be understood in the literal sense to describe the end of the physical universe. I think that the latter understanding is the only one consistent with Peter’s words, as well as with the rest of the Bible.


The cosmic language does not describe the end of the physical universe, but is used metaphorically of some  other cataclysm that was close in time to Peter and the other writers of the New Testament. What Peter was expressing was that the end of all old covenant things was at hand. He did not have to add the words “old covenant” as this reference would have been understood by his readers at the time.

Remember that one of the precepts of biblical interpretation is that we interpret the less clear in light of the clear. "At hand" is clear; it means close in time—a meaning which is confirmed by over 100 other imminence passages (Appendix A in my book). The astronomical language (which is less clear or at least less obvious to us moderns) must be interpreted in light of the clear imminence passages. So the cosmic language cannot be understood literally.

Our understanding of Peter’s words should be interpreted in light of Hebraic apocalyptic language. Let’s look in particular at 2 Peter 3:10 where Peter says in some translations that the “elements” (Greek stoicheion) will be “burned up” (Greek katakaio). This passage is one that futurists rely on heavily. They say, “Look here! Obviously that has not happened yet.” They think that “elements” refers to physics or chemistry—the elements of the periodic table (hydrogen, lithium, etc.).

The frame of reference for us today is what we learned in science class. But that was not the frame of reference for the first-century Hebrews. They were steeped in theology and Old Testament imagery. The Bible is not a science book, but a religious book. The Scriptures throughout are about God’s covenants with his people.

Let’s consider how various versions of the Bible translate this verse, with particular attention to the Greek words stoicheion and katakaio:

"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements [stoicheion] will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up [katakaio]."  (2 Peter 3:10, New King James Version)

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies [stoicheion] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [katakaio]."  (2 Peter 3:10, English Standard Version)

"But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements [stoicheion] themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment [katakaio]."  (2 Peter 3:10, New Living Translation)

We first note some distinct differences in how key words are translated. Let’s consider first, the word that is translated as “elements” in the first and third examples, and as “heavenly bodies” in the second example. This word in Greek is stoicheion. The online Blue Letter Bible lexicon gives various possible definitions of this word, including heavenly bodies. But the first definition given is “any first thing, from which the others belonging to some series or composite whole take their rise, an element, first principal.”

Using the hermeneutical principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, let’s consider every other use of stoicheion in the New Testament. We find that the apostle Paul also used this word (and never in reference to atomic elements)—first in Galatians 4:3 and Galatians 4:9. In Galatians, the word stoicheion is translated in the same above three versions of the Bible respectively as “elements,” “elementary principles,” and “spiritual principles.”

If you read Galatians 3-5 you will find that the context is about how we are freed from the Law—the Old Covenant mandates! We are free from the Old Covenant, not from the material creation!

We find the word stoicheion used again by Paul in Colossians 2:8 and Colossians 2:20 in the same context—in reference to Christ freeing us from the Old Covenant mandates.

The writer of Hebrews also used the word stoicheion. The context is similar to the usage in Galatians and Colossians—Jesus is the new order of things that brings salvation. Hebrews 5:12-14 is titled “Spiritual Immaturity” in the New King James Version.

These passages are the only ones outside of 2 Peter containing the word “elements” (stoicheion). The interpretation of 2 Peter 3, therefore, becomes consistent and clear. The “elements” are not physical world concepts, but spiritual things! Here is how Don K. Preston, a convert to preterism and writer of numerous prophecy books and articles, sums up the Bible’s use of the word stoicheion:

"We thus have the passing of one world and the anticipation of another. The Old World is the Old Covenant World of Israel that anticipated and predicted the coming of the Messiah—these predictions were part of the elements, the first principles of Christ. The New World, the World to come, was initiated by the passion of Jesus and his work of atonement . . . . Hebrews then, agrees with Galatians and Colossians in its usage of the word “elements.” It referred to the basic doctrines of Old Covenant Israel. In Galatians, Colossians and Hebrews the elements of that Old World (kosmos) were in the process of, and were ready to vanish away. Having observed all occurrences of the word stoicheion (elements), outside 2 Peter 3 we have seen that these references have nothing to do with physical creation. They refer exclusively to the basic doctrines and commands of the Old Covenant World of Israel. In each of the texts above the inspired writers predicted the passing of that Old World."  [1]

But what about the words “burned up” (Greek katakaio)? If we have correctly identified the time frame as AD 70 and the “elements” as being about spiritual/covenantal issues, “burned up” also applies to AD 70 in a covenant context. Interestingly, “burned up” is literally correct about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. But other translations that say “exposed” or “found to deserve judgment” (or “laid bare” in the New International Version)—instead of “burned up”—would also be consistent with an AD 70 understanding!

Some readers will stop and insist that the language of the heavens-earth-burning-melting just sounds too much like the end of the physical universe. I cover the concept of the new heaven(s) and new earth in more detail in Chapter 8 of my book, but let’s preview one of the appropriate passages for that study, found in Matthew 5. Jesus is speaking:

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."  (Matthew 5:18, NKJV)

If this is not clear, you might want to read it in other translations in addition to the New King James Version cited above. Jesus ties the passing of heaven and earth with the passing of the law. Reading this passage carefully reveals that unless “heaven and earth” have already passed away, every detail of the Law of Moses is still in effect today. Since the law has been replaced by the gospel, “heaven and earth” must have already passed away. This is perfectly consistent with Peter’s statements of the heavens’ and earth’s imminent dissolution. It is confirmation from the lips of Jesus that “heaven and earth” are not references to the physical universe.

One verse that is always quoted in Peter’s epistles to prove that the events are a long way off is 1 Peter 3:8, in which Peter compares a thousand years to a day. This passage cannot have a literal meaning, otherwise it would be nonsense. Thus, it cannot mean that a short time really means a long time. If such an inference were possible, it would be equally possible to infer the opposite, leaving only a logical nullity.

Peter may have been quoting directly from the non-canonical Jewish book Jubilees, written about 200 years earlier. Jubilees, a book that was well-known to the early Christians, has this statement: “for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge . . . .” This statement has a covenantal context. The thousand year period in Revelation, as I discuss in detail in my book, also has a message concerning the completion of the Old Covenant order. These references are further evidences that Peter is describing the soon end of the Old Covenant Age.  

A “thousand” in the Bible is often used as a symbolic term for completeness. Peter is saying that covenantal completeness was coming soon. It also seems that scoffers/mockers (2 Peter 3:3) were deriding Christians, claiming that Jesus had not come soon as He had promised. Peter retorted,“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises.” (2 Peter 3:9)

Peter was telling the scoffers ("mockers") that they should not make the mistake of believing Jesus had forgotten or overlooked his promise to return in their generation (Matthew 24:34; etc). He was warning the scoffers in no uncertain terms that “the Day of the Lord” would come and that it would come upon those very scoffers “as a thief in the night.” (Note that a thief in the night comes without notice.) The perceived delay or “slackness” was simply God’s patience toward all who would come to repentance and be saved in the last days (2 Peter 3:3) of the Old Covenant Age (2 Peter 3:9).

Question to challenge your thinking: If we are to take Peter’s “one thousand years as a day” as literal, should we also take John’s thousand years of Revelation 20 (the so-called “millennium”) as a literal 24-hour day?

Peter told his readers in verses 11-13 that they were to be looking for the coming Day of the Lord. If we are to receive a message as to the timing of the events in the statement about a thousand years being as a day, we submit that it means the opposite of what futurists think. Peter means that the expected events were a short time into the future, especially given the other imminence passages in his epistles.

In Peter’s writings, we have both a clear time-reference and a confirming exegesis from other parts of the New Testament that what is in view by Peter is the imminent end of the Old Covenant Age, not the end of the universe. This understanding is consistent with what we have considered so far about the end of the age and the last days. Remember, the Bible must be consistent if it is indeed God’s Word. Go back and read 2 Peter 3 again and see if it doesn’t make perfect sense now from a preterist perspective.

The biblical last days are not the end of the universe, but rather the days of the cataclysmic events that surrounded the national judgment of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the Old Covenant world.

Check out the summary and review of the book at Amazon.com:

 Christian Hope through Fulfilled Prophecy

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For further study:

Prophecy Questions

Evangelical Preterism

Rob Pike Video Series on the Last Days

Introduction to Preterism

Olivet Discourse in Movie Format (To enlarge, click the rectangle in the lower right corner.)

Video You've Got to Be Kidding

Video The Last Days According to Jesus by RC Sproul

Even Jesus Wouldn't Buy the Rapture

Don't Worry, The Great Tribulation Was in the Past

The reader is invited to "like" our Facebook site Evangelical Preterism.


  [1] Don K. Preston, from an article “The Passing of the Elements