Saturday, July 13, 2013


            In this and the next article, I shall consider the viewpoints of various authors as they consider II Thessalonians (and, to some extent, I Thessalonians). 




            J. S. Russell is the originator of the Preterist approach to Scripture.  I have written a great deal in previous articles on his views of Matthew 24.  The material in I and II Thessalonians presents a challenge to Russell.  Russell’s view is that the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus and others regarding the Parousia of Jesus.  Although there is material regarding the resurrection in the gospels, in Matthew 24 and parallels the material regarding the resurrection is vague. However, in I Thessalonians the description of Resurrection/Rapture is explicit and is tied to the return of Christ.  Russell reviews the material of I Thessalonians 4:13-17 (165-166), and he explicitly lists the major events that are described in the passage (166). 

            At this point, it would seem Russell has a problem.  If he believes the Parousia took place in AD 70, then he has to believe that the Resurrection/Rapture also took place then.  Although he DOES believe that, he avoids immediately facing that issue.  First, he goes back to the argument that he pushes throughout his book:  there is an expectation and understanding that the Parousia will take place within a generation of the events of the gospel—i.e. about 40 years after the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ:  “The legitimate inference from the words of St. Paul in ver. 15, ‘we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord,’ is that he anticipated that it is possible, and even probable, that his readers and himself would be alive at the coming of the Lord.” (Russell, 166)  He then disputes with interpreters of his day that try to, in his view, worm out of this expectation, when he believes that the apostles were “fully justified in believing as they did.”  (Russell, 167) 

            Perhaps I am somewhat cynical and am ascribing motives that I cannot prove, but I believe the Russell is creating a red herring by hammering on this theme for several pages before he gets down to the real issue.  Finally, after he seems confident that he has made his point, he admits to the facts of the passage before him:  “It may be said that we have no evidence of such facts having occurred as are here described,--the Lord descending with a shout, the sounding of the trumpet, the raising of the sleeping dead, the rapture of the living saints.” (Russell, 168)  One might say, in response, “Yes, you are very correct.  You have one event that you ascribe to the Parousia—the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Roman legions.  This is your sole historical proof of your thesis that the Parousia took place in AD 70.” 

Russell answers us immediately:  “True, but is it certain that these are facts cognizable by the senses?  Is their place in the region of the material and the visible?”  He goes on to say that “a very large portion of the events predicted by our Lord…did actually come to pass…” (Russell, 168) He then refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He maintains that the Parousia includes the events in Jerusalem and the resurrection of the dead.  They both are “different scenes in one great drama.”  Then, he differentiates the two major portions of the Parousia:  “We accept the facts verified by the historian on the word of man [that is, the events in Jerusalem]; is it for the Christian to hesitate to accept the facts which are vouched by the word of the Lord? [italics in original]” (Russell, 169)

With this bit of rhetoric Russell completes his comments on I Thessalonians 4:13-17.  In my opinion he fails completely to defend his position as he considers this passage.  Notice that he creates a dichotomy between two sets of events that he ascribes to the Parousia—the events in Jerusalem and the events of the Resurrection/Rapture.  The first set of events are verifiable in history, and the second is utterly absent from history.  Russell is content with this absence of data on the Resurrection/Rapture.  He believes it could have happened without any human evidence of its happening.  So, he concludes that one set of events is verified “on the word of man” and one set is verified “by the word of God” (as quoted above).  In this latter statement, he probably obliquely is referring to Paul’s statement that his description in I Thessalonians 4:13-17 is “by the word of the Lord” (4:15, King James Version).  However, if he is making that reference, he is doing so incorrectly.  For Paul is not saying that he has had a revelation that  the Resurrection/Rapture has occurred, rather, he is saying it has had a revelation as to how the Resurrection/Rapture will occur.

Moreover, there is not one statement in Scripture that the Resurrection/Rapture has occurred.  This passage, as well as the one in I Corinthians 15 (which Russell interprets and comments upon in a way very similar to the present passage), describes the events of the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the rapture of living Christians as events that will take place in the future.  It is true that Paul acted as though he would experience the Rapture:  “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds…”  (I Thessalonians 4:17a, ESV)  Russell maintains that Paul and other apostles expected this as a reasonable expectation from the Lord’s predictions (for example, Matthew 24:34).  Russell, 167-168) However, Paul did not experience the Rapture, even if it did occur in AD 70, for he was executed before that year.  One could argue that Paul could still have a reasonable expectation of the Parousia occurring in his lifetime, even if he missed it because of his untimely execution.  Or one could argue that Paul was giving a “word of the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:15) in describing the Rapture and yet appeared to include himself among those experiencing the Rapture.  Would it not be reasonable to understand Paul’s “we” in 4:17 as “we Christians” no matter what generation? 

Do we not consider the admonitions in the Pauline epistles to have authority in our own lives?  In I Thessalonians 5 there are a series of admonitions to the people of that church, in the first century.  They are to respect their leaders (5:12), live together in peace (5:13), not take vengeance (5:15), rejoice (5:16), etc.  These are admonitions that are important for all Christians to follow.  Obviously, Paul’s epistles mix current affairs and circumstances with general principles.  They were written to respond to the needs of particular churches.  Paul’s responses to those needs were general principles that applied to those needs.  So, the Thessalonians were grieving about their dead loved ones.  Paul’s response to that need was to give to them a vivid description of the Resurrection/Rapture.  That event was relevant to the needs of that church, but it was also an event that is relevant to every Christian.  So, Paul counts himself among all Christians in using “we” in verse 4:17.

In Matthew 24, Jesus addressed the issue that some would try to invent a secret return of Himself:

So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  (Matthew 24:26-27, ESV)

It appears to me that Jesus predicted a very public, visible return of Himself.  He would not use the Roman legions as mediators of His Parousia.  He would not create a secret Rapture or Resurrection.  When He comes, it is going to be big deal that all will know about from Antarctica to Sweden to China to Nebraska. 

            Russell hangs his entire book on one event, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Any other events that must be accounted for—for example the visible return of Jesus—he avoids or hides.  He is faced with the most spectacular event—short of the resurrection of Jesus—in all of history in the Resurrection/Rapture that is described in I Thessalonians 4:13-17.  He cannot account for it and must resort to making this event invisible.  That, in my view, is a failure of his thesis and pretty much a death blow to Preterism.


            Russell hammers at the idea that end-times prophecy was fulfilled in the first century in his comments on chapter 5, as follows:

It is manifest that there would be no meaning in these urgent calls to watchfulness unless the apostle believed in the nearness of the coming crisis…Why urge men in A.D. 52 to watch, and be on the alert, for a catastrophe which was not to take place for hundreds and thousands of years?


            Russell begins his commentary by focusing, in a few sentences, on verse 1 (Russell, 174).  He notes that the coming of Christ (Parousia) and “our gathering together unto him” are “regarded by the apostle as simultaneous, or, at all events, closely connected.”  Then, he considers the phrase “gathering together unto him.”  He connects it with Matthew 24:31, in which Jesus prophesies that angels will gather together the elect.  He also connects this event to I Thessalonians 4:16-17—the description of the Resurrection/Rapture.  I believe that he has made an accurate connection among these various Scriptures.  So, how does he explain or describe this event?  In one sentence he sums up the meaning of the mysterious phrase:  “This can be nothing else, then, than the summoning of the living and the dead to the tribunal of Christ.”  This sentence borders on the meaningless.  First, the phrase “living and the dead” does not distinguish Christian from non-Christian, and we are left scratching our head about what that implies.  Second, does he refer, by “the tribunal,” to the last judgment?  How could the last judgment be in the first century?  Or does he refer to the judgment poured out on the Jews by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem?  All Christians were not gathered in Judea to witness that event.  Or does he refer to a judgment of Christ on the works and faithfulness of the Christians?  I have already dealt with his concept of the Rapture as something that occurred in AD 70 without anyone witnessing it.  So, is he saying that the “gathering unto him” of the living for the “tribunal” was a judgment of the living Christians that took place without anyone knowing it?  Did that tribunal have any effect on those living Christians?  In fact, the idea—that something happened to the “living and the dead” in AD 70 which satisfies the descriptions of the Resurrection/Rapture found in I Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4—is a preposterous.  So, his brief commentary on II Thessalonians 2:1 is totally nonsensical.

            Russell continues his commentary by devoting several pages to the correct translation of verse 2 (Russell, 175-177).  He notes that the King James Version is incorrect in rendering the latter part as “the day of Christ is at hand.”  In fact, Russell maintains (as do all modern translations) that it should be “has come.”  Incidentally, textual evidence also supports “the day of the Lord” rather than “the day of Christ,” but that information was not available to Russell.

            He continues his commentary by noting that there are two precursors to the Day:  the apostasy and the “Man of Sin” (so King James Version).  He connects the apostasy to Jesus’ prediction of problems in the church in Matthew 24:10, 12 (Russell, 179).  I tend to agree that the two mentions of church problems may refer to the same development.  I discussed this in the last article and noted that “apostasy” may refer to a general rebellion in the world led by the Man of Lawlessness.  The apostasy in the church may be related to this general rebellion.  Russell (179) also connects the apostasy to the descriptions in I Timothy 4:1-8 and II Timothy 3:1-9.

            Russell then devotes pages 180-190 to a consideration of the “Man of Sin.”  He is consistent with his Preterist thesis by finding a person to fit Paul’s description.  That person is Nero.  His interpretation is that Claudius was the one who hindered or restrained Nero’s entry onto the world stage.  He was taken out of the way by being poisoned, possibly by Nero’s mother Agrippina.  He was the first Roman emperor to persecute the Christians.  He also gave orders for Vespasian to invade Jewish territory.  He died in AD 68.  This was interpreted to be the “dawning” of the Parousia. 

This latter expression is Russell’s interpretation of II Thessalonians 2:8b:  “…whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” (ESV)  The word translated “appearance” is epiphaneia, and which Russell interprets as “dawning.”  There is no other instance in which this word has the meaning “dawning.”  In this verse it is translated by various translations as follows (thanks to ((see that website for copyright information for versions))):

·         King James and New King James Version:  brightness

·         English Standard and New American Standard Version:  appearance

·         New International Version:  splendor

·         New Revised Standard Version:  manifestation

The problem of translation is that epiphaneia and Parousia are in the same sentence, and they have similar meanings.  For this reason, I think “manifestation” might be a good translation.  However, notice that in no case is “dawning” implied by these translations.  The truth is that Russell was faced with the fact that Nero died two years before the destruction of Jerusalem.  If he equates the events of AD 70 with the Parousia, then he cannot make Nero “fit” as the Man of Lawlessness without claiming that Christ’s Parousia had a “dawning” two years before it actually occurred.  There is no basis for “dawning.”

            Moreover, Nero was dead before the Temple was destroyed and cannot be said to have sat in the Temple of God and declared himself God.  Suetonius describes Nero as one of the vilest men who has ever lived.  He was a sadistic, bisexual, incestuous pervert.  He was a thief, a liar, a murderer, and a cheat.  He also was a lazy and profligate leader who almost bankrupted the Empire.  In a sense his incompetence probably disqualified him from being the Man of Lawlessness or Antichrist/Beast, if we consider the usual image of that person.

            Again, Russell tries to force events of the first century into the mold of prophecies of the last days.  It is generally true that when we attempt to apply prophetic Scripture to events, we find it difficult to make things “fit.”  An example is the Antichrist/Beast.  Over the centuries, this person has been identified with Nero, the Pope, Mussolini, Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and, I suppose, Barack Obama.  Notice that a precondition of the Day of the Lord is the REVELATION of the Man of Lawlessness.  It is useless to play a guessing game about someone who is going to be revealed at the proper time.  Russell claimed that Nero was the one, yet there is not a sense in which Nero was revealed, either to the church or the world as this particular person of Scripture. 

            Russell never fails to pay attention to Scripture or to be diligent in his exegesis.  Yet, he has caught himself in the “Matthew 24:34 trap,” of which I have written in a previous article.  That trap forces him to interpret all prophetic Scripture as being fulfilled in the events of AD 70.  In the case of his interpretation of II Thessalonians 2, he comes up two years short in trying to equate Nero with the Man of Lawlessness. 

NEXT:  Debate between Pre-Tribulation and Post-Tribulation Rapture theorists


Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Graves, Robert, trans. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.  The Twelve Caesars.  Harmondsworth,    
          Eng.:  Penguin Books Ltd., 1980.
Russell, J. S.  The Parousia, A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our

            Lord’s Second Coming.  (Google Internet Book)  London:  Daldy, Isbister

            & Co., 1878.



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