jesus-christ-the-king-blogsigncomThis year, Ascension Thursday falls on May 9. The faithful recall Christ’s rising to heaven in order to send the disciples — and us — the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. From that point, we were — and continue to be — in the ‘last days’, awaiting His coming again in judgment.

However, there are Christians who believe that Jesus’s second coming took place with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. These Christians are called preterists. They believe that His second coming was a spiritual one — a judgment against the nation of Israel.

This is plausible until one begins to look at the New Testament passages about His Ascension, the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the world and Christ’s return. Consider John 16:5-11 (emphases mine):

5But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

What follows is Luke’s account of the Ascension — addressed to Theophilus, as is his Gospel — in Acts 1:1-11:

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

 1In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

 4And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The Ascension

 6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them,  “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In Mark 13:24-27, Jesus described His return — note the mention of clouds:

24“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

St Matthew records similar words (Matthew 24:29-31):

The Coming of the Son of Man

 29Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

St John used the same imagery in Revelation 1:7-8. John wrote this book around 95 AD. The Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Therefore, it is doubtful whether a spiritual judgment on the Temple and Israel of the day was Christ’s second coming.

In 2004, Keith Mathison wrote a 54-page paper on Acts 1:9-11 and presented prominent preterist views therein (H/T: Beggars All, ‘Acts 1:9-11 and Hyper-Preterism’). Mathison is not a preterist but presents their views and refutes them by studying the meaning of the Greek verbs used in the relevant New Testament verses, principally the two verses in the first chapter of Acts. Seminarians might find the paper useful.

I suspect that many more people today are preterists, even if they have never heard of the term. I was one for many years, but I had not connected all the related New Testament verses — Christ’s own words and the Ascension account. A number of Modernist and Postmodern Christians are probably preterists, in which case, why bother being Christian? As I have said before, if it is all about social justice, one can join a left-wing political party. If Christianity is about charity, well, most world faiths advocate and practice material kindness to strangers.

What, then, is left? The Cross and Resurrection carry little meaning if Christ already returned ‘spiritually’ to destroy the Temple. Therefore, we can disregard Revelation. It’s done, history.

Or is it? Wouldn’t John have written Revelation somewhat differently if it had been about the destruction of the Temple? Why would he have included these verses in Revelation 22?

18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

 20He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

But, back to Acts 1:9-11. Keith Mathison writes in his paper (p. 50-51):

As we have proceeded through this study of Acts 1:9–11, we have noted in passing some common hyper-preterist objections to the traditional interpretation of this passage. It may prove helpful at this point to respond briefly to an objection that is raised, not by hyper-preterists, but by skeptics. Liberals and skeptics repeatedly claim that the traditional interpretation of Acts 1:9–11 necessitates the adoption of a false three-tiered understanding of the universe as well as the idea that heaven is located at some physical point somewhere in space. This objection is frequently raised in the writings of men such as Rudolf Bultmann and John Shelby Spong. But does a traditional interpretation of Acts 1:9–11 require us to believe that heaven is located somewhere in the sky above the clouds? The answer is no.

He goes on to say that Christ ascended in a way His disciples would clearly understand. He was returning to a place where they could not yet go.

Mathison concludes:

A careful examination of the text of Acts 1:9–11 reveals that the traditional interpretation of this text is the correct interpretation. According to Luke, the lifting up of Jesus was an objectively visible event witnessed by the apostles. They saw Jesus taken up with their own eyes. According to the two men in white, Jesus would come back to earth in the same manner that the apostles saw him go. Whether he was lifted up with the cloud or was lifted up to a cloud, the manner of his going was visible and bodily. The manner of his second coming to earth, therefore,will likewise be visible and bodily. At his second coming all of those who have died in Christ will be resurrected. God will give life to their mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). The bodies of the redeemed who are still alive at that time will be changed (1 Cor. 15:51). The present heavens and earth will be transformed and freed from the curse of sin (Rom. 8:19–22), and the dwelling place of God will be with man (Rev. 21:3; 22:3). All of his people will be with him forever in a restored creation.  143

I hope that this helps to give greater resonance to the Ascension.