House Divided Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to
When Shall These Things Be?
The Eschatological Madness of Mathison or How Can These Things Be?
The Imminent Liberation of Creation Romans 8:18-23
Michael J. Sullivan
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The Creation Groaning
On pages 196–197, Mathison makes the following argument: The epistles of the New Testament speak of the restoration of creation both as something that has already begun and as something that will be completed only in the future. Paul, for example, explains that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31; cf. 1 Jn. 2:17). Yet, according to Paul, the creation awaits its full deliverance from the effects of sin. . . (Rom. 8:19–25). The full restoration of creation is still future (see Heb. 2:8; 2 Pet. 3:7–13). . . . [R]edemption has to do with more than the spiritual side of creation. God will fully redeem the physical creation as well. Response:
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Rom. 8:19–22)
John Lightfoot associated the “earnest expectation of the creature”
and the “whole creation groaning” with the mind and heart of man, and interpreted this passage as having nothing to do with the planet Earth— not even poetically.
. . . [T]his vanity [or futility] is improperly applied to this vanishing, changeable, dying state of the [physical] 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.
The Gentile world shall in time be delivered from the bondage of their sinful corruption, that is, the bondage of their lusts and vile affections, (under which it hath lain for so long a time,) into a noble liberty, such as the sons of God enjoy. If it be inquired how the Gentile world groaned and travailed in pain, let them who expound this of the fabric of the material world tell us how that groaneth and travaileth. They must needs own it to be a borrowed and allusive phrase. But in the sense which we have pitched upon, the very literal construction may be admitted.
Lightfoot is on solid ground here citing 2 Peter 1:4; 2 Corinthians 11:3; and 1 Corinthians 15:33. 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.
“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), Paul’s mention of the “sufferings” and “the redemption of the body” have nothing to do with those kinds of issues. The context of the “groaning” of the 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 AD 70 (Matt. 24:8; Rom. 8:22). They had to do with the last days persecutions and with the saints of the universal church groaning under the tyranny of Sin and Condemnation under the Law.
For Paul, Sin had produced “death,” but not physical death. Contrary to Mathison’s assertions, “the body,” “death,” and “the flesh” in Romans 5–8 have nothing to do with the idea of men biologically dying as a result of Adam’s sin. Paul’s concern is with corporate-covenantal Death, as even some Reformed theologians teach. “Bondage,” according to the immediate context, had to do with groaning under the condemnation of the Law (cf. Rom. 7:2, 7, 15).
The “redemption” associated with the coming of the Son of Man in AD 70 entailed much more than a physical flight to the wilderness of Pella, as some commentators have proposed. Appealing to the principle of the analogy of Scripture, John Murray and other Reformed theologians understand Paul in Romans 8 to be speaking of the same “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. Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:14; 4:30). Hence analogy would again point to the eschatological complex of events.
The following chart confirms that the “redemption” of Christ’s disciples in the first century in Luke 21:28 was the redemption of “the body” in Romans 8:18–23:
Olivet Discourse & Luke 17
|Present sufferings (Rom. 8:17–18)||Suffering to come (Matt. 24:9)|
|Receive and share in Christ’s glory (Rom. 8:17–18)||Christ comes in glory (Matt. 24:30)|
|Glory will be “in” them (Rom. 8:18)||Kingdom will be realized “within”at Christ’s return (Lk.17:21–37; 21:27–32)|
|Redemption and salvation – resurrection (Rom. 8:23–24; cf. 11:15–27; 13:11–12)||Redemption and salvation – resurrection(Lk. 21:27–28; Matt. 24:13, 30–31/Matt. 13:39-43)|
|Birth pains together (Rom. 8:22)||Birth pains of the tribulation (Matt. 24:8)|
|This was “about to” take place (Rom. 8:18)||This would all happen in “this generation”(Matt. 24:34)|
On page 200 of WSTTB, Mathison expresses willingness to concede that the imminence in Romans 13:11–12 was fulfilled in AD 70. The passage reads:
. . . it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. . . .
But The Reformation Study Bible, of which Mathison is an editor, harmonizes Romans 13:11 with Romans 8:23, correctly teaching that “salvation” in that verse is not merely deliverance from persecution (as Mathison theorizes in WSTTB): “salvation. Here in the sense of future, final redemption (8:23).” The connection between these two passages is made even stronger when we allow the Greek word mello in Romans 8 to be translated the way it is predominately used in the New Testament:
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. (Rom. 8:18, YLT)
It is more than arbitrary for partial preterists such as Gentry to honor Young’s literal translation of mello in Revelation 1:19 when debating Dispensationalists and Amimmennialists, but then not honor it in Romans 8:18 when debating full preterists. Mello is used in the aorist infinitive in both verses. Gentry writes of mello in Revelation 1:19:
…this term means “be on the point of, be about to.” …According to Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, Revelation 1:19 reads: “Write the things that thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to come [mello] after these things.” The leading interlinear versions of the New Testament concur. This is surely the proper translation of the verse. …when used with the aorist infinitive — as in Revelation 1:19 — the word’s preponderate 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 the Rev. 3:10. Unfortunately, none of the major translators cited above translates Revelation 1:19 in a literal fashion.
Where is Gentry’s disappointment when it comes to translators not translating Romans 8:18 by the same grammatical standard? It is nowhere to be found, even though there are two other Greek words of imminence (apokaradokia and apekdekomai — “eagerly waiting”) within the immediate context.
At least partial preterist Gary DeMar has tried to be more consistent with a proper translation of mello in Romans 8:18. Citing Robert Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible he writes:
“Whatever the glory is it was ‘about to be revealed’…”
We appreciate the honesty on properly translating mello here as “about to be revealed,” but contextually there is no ambiguity as to what the imminent manifestation of this “glory” was — the liberation of creation from its groaning and bondage, the full adoption of the sons of God, and the “redemption of the body” (vss. 18-23).
Interestingly enough though, according to Gentry and Mathison one of the things that was “about to come after” John wrote Revelation 1:19 was the arrival of the New Jerusalem and New Creation of Revelation 21:1ff. Mathison and Gentry tell us in their other works that the time texts in Revelation point to a near fulfillment of the passing of “the first heaven and earth.” They point out that Revelation 21:1 is referring to the passing of the old covenant “creation” in AD 70 and is a fulfillment of Isaiah 65–66. Gentry even says:
The absence of the sea (Rev. 21:1) speaks of harmony and peace within. In Scripture the sea often symbolizes discord and sin (13:1–2; cf. Isa. 8:7–8; 23:10; 57:20; Jer. 6:23; 46:7; Ezek. 9:10). Christianity offers the opposite: peace with God and among humankind (Luke 2:14; Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:12–18; Phil. 4:7, 9).
But then Mathison and Gentry assign an “expanded” meaning to 2 Peter 3, which discusses the same promises in Isaiah 65–66. They suggest that Peter is addressing the geological “elements” of the planet while the Apostle John, referencing the same Old Testament passage, is not.
This is not only arbitrary, it is amazing. If Gentry and Mathison can give prophetic New Testament passages “expanded” meanings to fit their eschatology, then they have surrendered their debate with Dispensationalists, who constantly employ this strategy to force their eschatology upon New Testament passages.
In Mathison’s section on the “Restoration of Creation” (195–197), he appeals to the literal and global beginnings of Genesis 1–3 to point out that preterists have interpreted “the end” in Romans 8 and in the rest of the New Testament in an inaccurate way. But Mathison should be open to considering the interpretations of Genesis 1–3 that are presented by some within the Reformed tradition and by other futurists.
Combined, authors such as Augustine, Milton Terry, David Snoke, Meredith Kline, and dispensationalist John Sailhamer teach the following:
- Man was created a physical dying creature like all the plant and animal life around him.
- The physics of the creation did not change after Adam.
- Genesis 1–2 uses the Hebrew word eretz, which should be translated as “land” or “ground” and not [planet] “earth.”
- God’s emphases in the early chapters of Genesis are not scientific but theological, emphasizing the origins of sin in the heart and man’s need for the Seed of the woman to redeem him from Sin.
As the theological emphasis in Genesis 1–2 is on the local land of Eden, which is both theologically and geographically tied to Israel’s Promised Land, so too is the emphasis of the New Testament on a Great Commission preached to the nations of Israel and to the Roman Empire with a judgment that would affect the nations of that world.
Both the localized and covenantal judgment in Eden and the one in AD 70 affected and continue to affect all humankind. The introduction of spiritual death (condemnation and alienation from God within the heart and conscience of man through Adam) was overcome by Christ’s death, resurrection, and indwelling presence in AD 70. All men and nations of the world are either inside the new Israel and New Jerusalem or outside her gates — as the gospel continues to bring healing and judgment to the nations today and forever (cf. Rev. 21–22:17).
When we take a combined look at some of the best theologians within the Reformed and Evangelical communities, we find a preterist interpretation of every eschatological de-creation prophecy in the Bible. Combined, John Owen, John Locke, John Lightfoot, John Brown, R.C. Sproul, Gary DeMar, Kenneth Gentry, James Jordan, Peter Leithart, Keith Mathison, Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, Hank Hanegraaff, and N.T. Wright teach that the passing away of heaven and earth (Matt. 5:17–18; 24:3, 29, 35; 1 Cor. 7:31; II Peter 3; I Jn. 2:17–18; Rev. 21:1) refers to the destruction of the temple or to the civil and religious worlds of men—either Jews or Gentiles; and that the 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 AD 70.63
These interpretations are, individually considered, “orthodox.” Yet when preterists consolidate the most defensible elements of Reformed eschatology, anti-preterists such as the authors of WSTTB unite in opposition to even some of their own stated views.
*** It has now been 4 years since I have responded to Keith A. Mathison’s chapter “The Eschatological Time Texts in the NT” in our book House Divided Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to When Shall These Things Be? For me Mathison’s excuse for not responding (“I have been too busy”) has expired.
Partial Preterist Mr. Gary North, has said that if one side of the debate ceases to respond to the others arguments then the one who has responded last (thus silencing the other) in essence has won the debate (my paraphrase). He has also written of dispensational scholars and their inability to keep up with postmillennial works and critiques, “Like a former athlete who dies of a heart attack at age 52 from obesity and lack of exercise, so did dispensational theology depart from this earthly veil of tears. Dispensational theologians got out of shape, and were totally unprepared for the killer marathon of 1988.” (Greg L. Bahnsen, Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., HOUSE DIVIDED THE BREAK-UPOF DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), Publishers Foreword, xx.). In the same book DeMar claims that “Any theological position divided against itself is laid waste” and “shall not stand” and is guilty of “Theological Schizophrenia” (Ibid. 349-350). Apparently Mr. Mathison was not prepared for the killer marathon of 2009 and since that time has been too busy engorging himself from the profits P&R provided him and is simply too scared and out of shape to open our book let alone read and respond to my critique and response to him? And we document the “House Divided” “Theological Schizophrenia” and contradictory approach Reformed eschatology has sought to use against us let alone the contradictions (and yet at the same time progressive views moving towards Full Preterism) that are within Mathison’s writings alone.
Therefore, I have decided to post my chapter response to his online (in small parts) in hopes that both the Futurist and the Full Preterist communities will contact him for an official response. If no response continues to come, then I will allow him to be judged by the same standard that his own postmillennial partial preterist colleagues have set up, and accept that he is unable to respond and has lost our debate.