Did We Miss the End?
An AIA review of The End of All Things: A Defense of the Future
Written by C. Jonathan Seraiah
Moscoq, ID: Canon Press, 1999, $12.00, 208 pages.
Reviewed by Bob Passantino
© Copyright 2003 by Bob Passantino.
As 50 million sales of Left Behind indicate, Christians are fascinated with what the Bible has to say about the future. One might think the end-times views of these and other popular authors are just restating the Bible, but within historic orthodox Christian theology there is a wide range of views on the end-times and how prophetic passages should be interpreted. Our American Evangelical culture has been so saturated with dispensational writings that many Christians don’t realize they have been taught an end-times view that historically holds a minority status. C. Jonathan Seraiah’s The End of All Things examines an increasingly popular alternative to the nearly ubiquitous premillennial dispensationalism represented in the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
There are two reasons why many Christians have been considering alternatives to LaHaye’s dispensational premillennial approach. First, some Christians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with an end-times approach that makes major portions of Scripture incomprehensible unless someone memorizes the complicated glossary of end-times talk promoted by LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and others. Second, even longsuffering people can become disillusioned when decade after decade the same end-times writer insists upon the impending arrival of the rapture, the Antichrist, and the Great Tribulation, and yet the appointed times keep passing without the fulfillment of these events. Since alternatives are little known, some background is necessary to appreciate the importance of Seraiah’s book.
Orthodox Eschatology. Among the orthodox millennial views are amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism (of which dispensationalism is a subcategory). The prefixes refer to the time of Christ’s Second Coming in relation to the earthly, godly reign (the millennium); that is, is God’s reign before (pre-) or after (post-) Christ’s Second Coming or is God’s reign not (a-) a literal millennium? Since all three views affirm the literal, physical Second Coming of Jesus Christ, all are within orthodoxy, although they dispute the timing of the events.
Conservative Christians seek to interpret Scripture as its writers intended it to be understood – the symbolic as symbolic, the literal as literal, and so on. Broad categories of interpretive methods, nevertheless, have been characterized by particular interpretive terms. These broad categories are sometimes named the futurist (or literal), the historicist, the preterist, and the idealist (or allegorical).
Dispensationalism has seemingly co-opted the term literal, although when a dispensationalist interprets “locusts” as “helicopters,” for example, it is hardly literal. Dispensationalists are also futurists, as are many non-dispensational premillennialists and amillennialists; that is, they see major portions of prophetic Scripture as describing events long after the times in which they were written – many as yet unfulfilled.
Amillennialists have been known as the prophetic allegorizers. Their approach, however, includes consideration of literal elements in prophecy as well.
The historicist method sees most prophetic passages as already fulfilled to us, although many were yet to be fulfilled to the original writers. One could interpret portions of Revelation, for example, as referring to church ages that were future to John as he wrote but are past to us a twenty-first century readers.
Preterism and Pantelism. In the past two decades, postmillennialists have become known as the most vocal proponents of a similar method called preterism. Some amillennialistis and non-dispensational premillennialists also hold this view. Preterism comes from the Latin word for “past” and signifies that most of the apocalyptic prophetic passages in the Old and New Testaments were fulfilled by the end of the time of the apostles, culminating with the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Most preterists take Mark 13, Luke 21, and most, if not all, of Matthew 24 as referring to God’s coming in judgment in A.D. 70 against the Jewish nation for its leaders’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.
Some preterists have recently concluded that all prophetic passages were fulfilled by A.D. 70 – including Christ’s Second Coming, the final judgment, the resurrection of the just and the unjust, and the reconciliation of all things. The call themselves “full” or “complete” or “consistent” preterists. It is this view that The End of All Things examines and rejects as unbiblical and theologically aberrant. Seraiah coins a new term to identify this subset of preterism. He prefers the title pantelism (from the Greek “all” and “fulfillment”) as a neutral term that does not presuppose that nonpantelist preterists are somehow “inconsistent.” Seraiah explains:
Christian communication can occur much more easily if we accept terms that appropriately define where we stand. In addition, the position presented in this book is that they [pantelists] are only consistent (in most cases) within their own system (which is not difficult – you merely relegate everything in Scripture to the past before you examine it). They are not consistent with Scripture itself. “Preterist” is obviously insufficient as a term for this group because they themselves find the need to add qualifiers like “consistent” to it (13).
Preterism is fairly recent as a definable interpretive method, although it has been present at least in principle in some interpretations throughout church history.
These terms for, and definitions of, end-times views and interpretive methods may seem confusing, but they help us understand God’s Word, which we are commanded to do (2 Tim. 3:16-17). To summarize, there are a variety of acceptable end-times view (pre-, post-, or a- millennial) and within the premillennial view is dispensationalism, popularized by Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and others.
There are also a variety of methods of interpreting prophetic Scripture (the futurist or literal, the historicist, the preterist, and the idealist or allegorical). Within the preterist view is full preterism, or pantelism. While dispensational premillennialism sees much of prophetic Scripture as still future (they are futurists), pantelism by stark contrast sees all prophetic Scripture as already past (they are preterist regarding all prophecies, not just most).
Evaluating Pantelism. If pantelism is true, then our understanding of the final state of existence has been wrong; our understanding of the events leading up to it has been wrong; our understanding of our bodily resurrection has been wrong; our understanding of our eternal state has been wrong; the great ecumenical creeds (historic summaries of essential Christian belief) were wrong, including the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds. Seraiah notes:
The pantelists have gone so far as to deny the Final Advent of Christ at the end of the world, an end accompanied by the final (physical) Resurrection and Judgment Day. In addition, most have gone on to deny there is a future eternal state. In other words, this is eternity now; we go on like this forever (14-15).
It may seem that dispensational premillennialism is the only sure safeguard against pantelism’s heretical betrayal of our creedal faith and abandonment of our hope for future perfection. Seraiah maintains instead that it is entirely possible to embrace the preterist position as a viable end-times interpretive view while at the same time illuminating and refuting the errors of pantelism.
Seraiah earned a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is a postmillennial preterist, making his criticisms of pantelism all the more weighty. As such, he is well within orthodox Christian belief, and his views find company with contemporary authors such as R. C. Sproul and Gary DeMar, as well as some prominent theologians throughout church history. A careful examination of his book leaves readers with a clear understanding of orthodox preterism and of why pantelism should be rejected as an aberrant approach to comprehending Scripture.
The weaknesses of The End of All Things are few, and for the most part outside the control of the author. Since pantelism is a developing view, there are inconsistent interpretations of certain passages, and pantelists may not have considered the implications of some of their unique interpretations. Seraiah deals with these ambiguities and inconsistencies systematically and doesn’t fall to the temptation of mocking adherents for their flaws. The Table of Contents promises a bibliography, which would be a gold mine for further study, but it is missing. One can, however, reconstruct a valuable book list from the chapter notes. There is a Scripture index, not listed in the Table of Contents, that is helpful for finding each discussion of a particular passage. Those who don’t know Greek might be put off by Seraiah’s references, but his explanations are clear.
This book is a rich source of solid, confessional, biblical theology on important issues such as Christ’s resurrection and the believers’ resurrection, the Second Coming, final judgment, and the renewal of heaven and earth. Readers will be enlightened by his chapters on end-time views in historic Christianity, the development of the creeds, and the importance of God’s final triumph over sin and its consequences.
Canon Press is a Reformed publishing company with a small but intellectually challenging group of books. It is certainly worthwhile to persuade your local Christian bookstore to stock this title alongside the massive display of the latest from Left Behind.
(An earlier version of this review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal 25:4:60-61.)
The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead,
he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not
resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently
instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change
of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26