Richard Beck: Dry Bones, You Shall Live: Preterism and the Resurrection of the Dead (2015)

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Pentecost is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, when the Spirit of God breathed life back into the deadness of Creation. Just as God did at the very beginning. New Creation. Re-creation and resurrection.

Dry Bones, You Shall Live: Preterism and the Resurrection of the Dead

By Richard Beck
June 18, 2015

Many months ago a wrote a post about preterism. Partial preterism has been a dominant view in my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ. And there are even a few within my faith tradition who subscribe to full preterism.

As I described in that earlier post full preterism contends that all the language in the New Testament concerning final judgment and the second coming refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD). The main exegetical and hermeneutic move informing this position is to read all the eschatological material in the NT through Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21), which clearly speak to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

For example, from Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse:

Luke 21.20-22
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.

The destruction of Jerusalem is described as being “the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Which is a big, sweeping statement. Full preterism takes that offer, reading all descriptions of judgment and hell in the NT as being about the destruction of Jerusalem. Simply put, hell just is the destruction of Jerusalem. Full stop.

In a similar way, full preterism believes that the second coming of Jesus also refers to the destruction of Jerusalem. From the Olivet Discourse in Matthew:

Matthew 24.1-3, 30-31

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”

Notice how the second coming (Matthew 24.30-31) is described as occurring at the time of the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24.1-3). According to full preterism, then, the second coming has already occurred when the Son of Man came back in judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70.

In summary, full preterism sees both final judgment and the second coming has having already occurred, per Jesus’ prophecy, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. All biblical prophecy has been fulfilled. It’s all in the past, with no prophecy left outstanding awaiting some future fulfillment.

Now, one objection to full preterism has to do with the resurrection of the dead. The impulse in full preterism is to see all OT and NT prophecy as already fulfilled. No prophecy remains to be fulfilled in the future. Everything, so to speak, has been prophetically “wrapped up” by AD 70.

To be sure, you can, as we’ve seen, use the Olivet Discourse to make a case that the “second coming” occurred in the past (AD 70). But what about the resurrection of the dead? Clearly that hasn’t occurred yet. The general resurrection of the dead is something we are still waiting for. So it seems that some things are still to come in the future. Issues like this are why many in my tradition subscribe to partial preterism, the belief that while most things were fulfilled in AD 70 there remain a few things still left for the future, like the second coming (as traditionally understood) and the general resurrection of the dead.

Pondering all this, I’ve been wondering about if you can you have a full preterist understanding of the resurrection of the dead.

That would be hard to do, especially in light of various Pauline texts (e.g., 1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4). But if you were going to try here’s how I’d go about it.

As we know, the resurrection of the dead isn’t a big theme in the Old Testament. And when resurrection themes do occur they often have to do with restoration. Consider, for example, the theme of being rescued from “the pit” in the book of Psalms. In this imagery we are “brought back” from the realm of the dead.

Related to this idea of restoration is how resurrection imagery is used to speak about the end of exile and the restoration of Israel. In this sense, the forgiveness of sins–the end of exile and the proclamation of God’s Jubilee–is the resurrection of the dead.

The classic example of this is the dry bones vision in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 37.1-6
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.

And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

You shall live. This is resurrection imagery used to speak about the reconstitution and restoration of the people of God, the end of their judgment and exile.

Again, while certain Pauline texts remain a sticking point, I do believe a preterist case could be made concerning the resurrection of the dead. Specifically, if we take a cue from the OT the resurrection refers to the end of exile in the declaration of God’s Kingdom Come, in the proclamation of God’s Jubilee and the forgiveness of sins in the restoration of Israel.

The resurrection of the dead is God breathing life back into the dead body of God’s People.

Pentecost is the resurrection of the dead.

Pentecost is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, when the Spirit of God breathed life back into the deadness of Creation. Just as God did at the very beginning. New Creation. Re-creation and resurrection.

Dry bones made to live again.

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