Discourse 45 – The Great Tribulation as seen by the Preterists.




The Great Tribulation. / Book David Chilton 00, pp. 10 ff

Sun, moon and stars

The sign of the Son of Man

The clouds of the sky

All the tribes of the earth will mourn

The angels

The gathering of the elect

The great apostasy

The Antichrist

The preterist approach: have the Last Days already taken place? / Discourse 35


(Texts enclosed in a black frame are quoted from visitors to the site or other authors.)

(The Great Tribulation. / Book DC00, pp. 10 ff *))

In Matthew 24 (as in Mark 13 and Luke 21), Jesus spoke to his disciples of a “Great Tribulation” that will befall Jerusalem. In the last hundred years it has become the accepted teaching that Jesus was here speaking of the “end of the world” and of the time of his Second Coming. But can this view really be justified? We should take careful note of the fact that Jesus specifies (approximately) the time of the tribulation that is to come, thus leaving, if we examine the biblical text carefully, no room for speculation. (...) So we can definitely conclude (...) that the events prophesied by Matthew took place in the lifetime of the generation then living.

*) This extract is taken from the book “Die große Trübsal” [“The Great Tribulation”] by David Chilton, Reformatorischer Verlag Beese [Beese Reformed Church Publications], Hamburg. The book was kindly made available to me free of charge by a Swiss visitor to Immanuel.at with whom I have discussed this topic, but who wishes to remain anonymous.

(David Chilton, Die Große Trübsal, RVB, ISBN 3-928936-12-3)




(See also Chapter 03: “The Great Tribulation.”)

The author of the above-mentioned book, David Chilton, is a pastor and preterist in Placerville, California. He advocates the view that the Last Days have already taken place, in the first century AD. His interpretation of the eschatological discourse of the Lord given in Mt 24 is based on this point of view.

According to this interpretation, then, all the events of the Last Days, including

-  The Second Coming of the Lord

-  The Millennium

-  The resurrection of the dead, etc.


have already occurred in the first century AD, and the Lord Jesus has already been – invisibly to us – ruling over this world from heaven for almost the last two thousand years.

In what follows, the essential arguments of the book will be rehearsed, along with the scriptural passages to which the author refers. Our analysis will examine whether these arguments are compatible with Scripture, and point to the problems involved in this interpretation.

Sun, moon and stars

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky.

Mt 24,29 But immediately 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 the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Mt 24,29;


This darkening of the heavenly bodies which the Lord here prophesies, as a sign that will precede his Second Coming, is set against similar Old Testament passages in Isa 13,9-10, Isa 34,4, Amos 8,9 and Eze 32,7-8. The conclusion is drawn from this that since these prophecies did not come to pass as real events, this prophecy of the Lord is not to be understood in a literal sense either.

It is rather to be understood “in a poetic sense”, and the meaning of this symbolic language is as follows (p. 24):

“The light of Israel will be extinguished; the nation of the Covenant will cease to exist. When the tribulation is over, the old Israel will not exist any more.”


Problem. The fact that these Old Testament prophecies, which are almost identical with Mt 24,29, have not yet been fulfilled is purely and simply to be put down to their all referring to one and the same event, in the future – so they will not be fulfilled until this future is reached. It would furthermore be out of all proportion – and such a lack of proportion is nowhere instanced in Scripture – if these definite statements about the sun, moon and stars and the powers of the heavens were to be rated as merely symbolic, and referred to a relatively insignificant nation, albeit the nation of Israel.

(See also Chapter 04: “The Great Darkness.”)

The sign of the Son of Man

And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky.

Mt 24,30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. Mt 24,30;


In view of the fact that the Lord did not visibly appear “on” the sky in the first century, the argument is advanced here that this “on” should actually be an “in”, and so that the text should read:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky”

from which the conclusion is drawn (p. 24) that

“... the location referred to here is the spiritual heaven, not heaven in the sense of the sky or earth’s atmosphere.”


Now the Greek preposition “en” which here stands for “on the” can in German mean either “on the, on” or “in the, in”. We can find plenty of examples of this in the New Testament. The following passages may be offered, as a brief selection:

-  on the, on: Rom 13,13; 1Cor 5,5; 9,18; 12,18; 2Cor 1,14; 6,2; Gal 3,13 etc. etc,

-  in the, in: Rom 7,22; 15,17; Eph 3,17; 6,10;  2Cor 1,8; etc. etc.


So the best known German translations (Luther, Elberfelder, Herder, Jubiläumsbibel [Jubilee Bible]) have an “am” (= ‘on the’) in this passage. But the New American Standard Version of 1995 too, for instance, here gives the translation “in the sky” which must mean the literal sky, and not the spiritual heavens – otherwise the English would  have to be “in heaven”.

The prime examples which demonstrate that this “en” can be understood in either sense are Rev 12, 3 and 12,7. Here the Greek “en” is used in both passages. In the first this means “on the” (respectively “in the sky”), in the second “in the” (respectively “in heaven”):

Then another sign appeared in the sky.

Rev 12,3 Then another sign appeared in the sky: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. Rev 12, 3:

And there was war in heaven.

Rev 12,7 And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war. Rev 12, 7;


But this reinterpretation of the text of Mt 24,30 then leads the author to the following conclusion (p. 24 f.):

“This great judgment of condemnation that will fall upon Israel – the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple – will be a sign that Jesus Christ will assume his throne in heaven at the right hand of the Father, will enter upon his dominion over the nations and will give his enemies their just deserts. The catastrophe that took place in the year 70 AD, having been ordained by God, reveals that Christ has taken the kingdom away from Israel and given it to the congregation instead.”


We are to suppose, then, that the “sign” mentioned in Mt 24,30 amounts to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 AD.

Problem. Quite apart from the fact that no one who takes a realistic view of the situation would try to claim that the world today is subject to the rule of Jesus Christ, and so stands under the dominion of God, a dominion of absolute justice (as Scripture foretells for this period of world history), we are told in the Greek text of this passage, in Mt 24,30, that this sign will “appear” in the sky. The destruction of Jerusalem was not the appearance of a heavenly sign, but a cruel earthly reality. If we consider the Greek text in a spirit of objectivity, at best we can understand it only as signifying that “the sign of the Son of Man who is in heaven will appear” – which represents only a marginal difference from the Luther translation.

The clouds of the sky

They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky.

Mt 24,30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. Mt 24,30;


In his interpretation of this passage, the author refers, amongst other passages, to Acts 1,9:

He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him.

Acts 1,9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. Acts 1, 9;


And seeing that the statement made by this passage is the exact opposite of that made in Mt 24,30 – namely that the Lord ascended into heaven, and not that he will descend from the sky (as in Mt 24,30), the point of view of the beholder is simply transposed. The author asserts that the statement made in Mt 24,30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky”, describes not his coming from heaven to earth, but Jesus’ Ascension (just as in Acts 1,9), and so that he has ascended into heaven, coming on the clouds of the sky (p. 28):

“The destruction of Jerusalem was a sign that the Son of Man had taken his place in heaven and entered upon his dominion of the world, and that from this time on he would steer the world towards the goals which he had established. In his Ascension he came on the clouds of the sky, to receive the kingdom from his Father; the destruction of Jerusalem constituted the public promulgation of this fact. So Jesus was not foretelling, in Matthew 24, that he would literally come on the clouds of the sky (even if this is true in a metaphorical sense). His literal 'coming on the clouds' occurred, in fulfillment of the prophecy given in Daniel 7 – in the year 30 AD (sc. on his Ascension), at the start of the 'last generation'”.


Problem. Leaving aside here the fact that in the same chapter, in Mt 24,26-27, we have an authentic statement made by the Lord to the effect that he truly will come from the sky to the earth:

Just as the lightning, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.

Mt 24,26 So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. 24,27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Mt 24,26-27;


– and lightning, as a physical phenomenon, is difficult to imagine in the “spiritual heaven” (as the author put it in the above-quoted passage), and would, more importantly, be invisible to us human beings on earth. Likewise the east and the west are categories which can hardly be supposed to apply to a heavenly perspective.

But then as well the further statement in Mt 24,30 – “they will see [him] coming ... with power and great glory” – would be untrue. For the Lord only obtained this power and glory when he seated himself at the right hand of the Father, after his Ascension, as the Lord also prophesies in the following passage, Mt 26,64 – so he cannot have had this power and glory when he ascended into heaven.

The Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.

Mt 26,64 Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven. Mt 26,64;


And this constitutes, too, a plain refutation of the view taken by our author, that the Lord “in his Ascension ... came on the clouds of the sky, to receive the kingdom from his Father.” It is the other way around: first of all he seats himself at the right hand of the Father, and then he will come (to earth) on the clouds of the sky.

All the tribes of the earth will mourn

And then all the tribes of the earth will mourn.

Mt 24,30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. Mt 24,30;


Here too the author quotes another possible translation (p.26), as

“all the tribes of the country”


and deduces from this that the passage refers not to all the nations of the earth, but only to the twelve tribes of Israel and the land of Israel. The “mourning” is explained (p. 26) as follows:

“... and the mourning is probably to be understood in two ways. First of all, they will mourn for their suffering and for the loss of their country; and secondly, they will at some time in the future mourn in remorse for their sins, when they are converted from their apostasy (see Romans 11).”


Problem. If the coming of the Son of Man is not his coming from heaven to earth, but rather his Ascension from earth to heaven – as the author proposes in the passage quoted above – then these “tribes of the country” must also have been located in heaven, to be able to “see him coming” and to be able to “mourn” at this event. After all, men on earth only saw him ascend into heaven.

Which prompts a further question – when is the Ascension into heaven of the twelve tribes of Israel supposed to have taken place?

The angels

And the Son of Man will send forth His angels.

Mt 24,31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.  Mt 24,31;


In view of the fact that the Greek word for angels can also mean “messengers”, the author takes these angels to be the missionaries of the churches, who as preachers of the gospel will promulgate the Word of God to the whole world.

Problem. If this principle is consistently applied, we would have to understand, at the very least, all those passages in which the Lord Jesus speaks of “his angels” as a reference to earthly missionaries. This would cause difficulty in the interpretation of several passages, not least  Mt 13,41:

The Son of Man will send forth His angels.

Mt 13,41 The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness. Mt 13.41;


Beyond all doubt, such a task would be too much for merely human missionaries.

The gathering of the elect

They will gather together His elect from the four winds.

Mt 24,31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. Mt 24,31;


The Greek word for “gather” is a loan-word from the Hebrew (synagogein), and means effectively “to form a synagogue”.  This fact, and with it the view that the angels are to be taken as missionaries, now enables our author to construct the theory that this “gathering” refers to the conversion and incorporation of the Gentiles in the church, and that these elect, then, must be understood as being these self-same converts of the Gentile nations.

Here the author also refers to Mt 23,37-38:

How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.

Mt 23,37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 23,38 “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! Mt 23,37-38;


And he thinks this to amount to a proof that “synagogein” (to form a synagogue) is a special term, having reference to the incorporation of the converted Gentiles in the congregation, and concludes from this that the Lord’s statement in Mt 24,31 should really be understood as follows (p. 29 ff):

“The destruction of the Temple in the year 70 will reveal to all men that he has come on the clouds (sc. arrived in heaven), to receive his kingdom; and they will represent the universal congregation, as the true and extended synagogue in the full sense of that world.”


Problem. We can see at once, from the same verse of the passage quoted (Mt 23,27), that “synagogein” (to form a synagogue) does not refer exclusively to the “synagogue”, the “congregation” and the conversion of the Gentiles. There we find it written, as well, “the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”. And here we find the same term, “synagogein”, as the equivalent for “gathering” – although the hen, surely, has nothing to do with the conversion of the Gentiles. “Synagogein”, then, is quite simply the Greek word used here for “gathering” – in any kind of connection or context.

The great apostasy

For false Christs and false prophets will arise

Mt 24,24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Mt 24,24;


In the view of the Preterists, this prophecy made by the Lord was also fulfilled in the first century AD (p. 33):

“The Christian church of that first generation featured not only miracles and Christians strong in faith: it was also characterized by lawlessness, willful opposition and false doctrine, found in the very ranks of the church – just as Jesus foretells in Matthew 24.”


Problem. It may well be the case that teachers of false doctrine were to be found in the congregations of that time, and caused many to fall away from the true teaching of the church. But what is that, compared with the apostasy, the lack of faith and the godlessness of our own times? Here, as at other points, the preterist approach, with its interpretation in terms of contemporary history, falls far short. And it remains a lamentable fact that the Christian world has to look forward to the really big temptations of the evil one at some time in the future – there will then really be incredible signs and wonders which will lead the faithful astray, far in excess of those experienced by the first generation of Christians.

The Antichrist

Just as the great apostasy, of which the Lord tells us in the above passage from Mt 24,  is taken as referring to teachers of false doctrine in the first Christian congregations, the author would like to see the Antichrist as well not as a specific person, but (against this background) as a “system of apostasy” (p. 35):

“If we sum this all up, we can conclude that Antichrist is a term that refers both to the system of apostasy and to individual apostates. In other words, Antichrist is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that there will be a time of apostasy in which many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. And many prophets will arise, and lead many of the faithful astray.”


Problem. If we examine the scriptural passage quoted, we can see that the prophecy of the Lord Jesus does not refer to teachers of false doctrine from the time of the first Christian congregations – we  have to do here with a quite different dimension of apostasy and seduction:

Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.

Mt 24,10 At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. 24,11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. 24,12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. 24,13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. 24,14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. Mt 24,10-14;


And here, in this passage, there are also two quite definite statements made by the Lord, which the Preterists do not cite or comment upon:

1. In Mt 24,13 we are told, “the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” This, then, is a promise made to those persecuted Christians who endure to the end.

2. And we can see, beyond all doubt,  that this end did not occur at the end of the first century AD – as the Preterists claim – when we look at what is said in the following verse, Mt 24,14: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”


The gospel, then, as the Lord tells us, is to be preached to all nations in the whole world – and only then will the end come. In the first century the gospel was only tentatively known, in a few countries, from Israel by way of Greece and into Italy. To speak of “the whole world” would be a gross overstatement. Even today, after almost two thousand years, there are countries where it has not yet been possible for the gospel to be preached.

This proves conclusively that the Lord is here speaking, in Mt 24, not of the situation in the early Christian congregations, but of the temptations to which the faithful will be subjected in the Last Days – a time which, from our present point of view, must still be seen as lying in the future.

And the explanation for this great apostasy of the Last Days can be found, then, in Revelation. It is not just any false prophet, or a “system of apostasy”, that is in question here – it is the false prophet, who performs signs and wonders such as the early Christian congregations were unacquainted with, even from hearsay.

In the power given him by his lord, the Antichrist, he will perform signs and wonders such as have never been seen before on earth. He will even make fire come down from the sky, and will seduce people into paying idolatrous worship to the image of his lord.

He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth.

Rev 13,11 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb and he spoke as a dragon. 13,12 He exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence. And he makes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed.

13,13 He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men. 13,14 And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life. 13,15 And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast would even speak and cause as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Rev 13,11-15;

The false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived them.

Rev 19,20 And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. Rev 19,20;


And although our author here, correctly, points to the parallelism of Mt 24 and Rev 6 and 7, and would like to “transpose” the prophecies of Revelation to the first century AD as well, he omits to mention the passages in Revelation that contradict his views. So he offers no explanation for the battle referred to in Rev 19,11-20, where the Lord Jesus fights with the Antichrist and his hosts, the outcome of which is described in the above passage from Rev 19,20. When, in the first century AD, can we suppose this to have occurred?

He offers no explanation either of the fact that in Rev 20,2 Satan is said to be bound for a thousand years. If this happened in the first century AD, then the following millennium should have been an epoch that was free of satanic influence. And was it? Moreover, seeing that we are told in Rev 20,3 that Satan after a thousand years of bondage is to be released for a short time, he must have appeared again on earth around about the year 1100.

Satan is bound for a thousand years and after these things he must be released for a short time.

Rev 20,1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 20,2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; 20,3 and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. Rev 20, 1- 3;


In Rev 20,4 we find, then, the First Resurrection of the martyrs. This too must have taken place towards the end of the first century AD. They must have come back to life at that time, and must then have reigned with Christ for the next thousand years – that is, until about 1100 AD.

And they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

Rev 20,4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

20,5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.

20,6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. Rev 20, 4-6;


And after that – in other words, around 1100 AD – the “rest of the dead” must have come back to life.

As then the following passage (Rev 20,7-10) tells us,  at this time, when Satan too returns to earth at the end of these thousand years, he will deceive the nations and gather them together for war against God and against Israel. Is there any historical record of such a war having taken place in the year 1100 AD? We are also told that in this war all the enemies of God – including Satan – will be annihilated. Which is as much as to say that if, according to the preterist view, Satan was already annihilated towards the end of the 11th century AD, we should be living again today in an epoch free of satanic influences. Does this agree with the reality of the present world situation?

And the devil was thrown into the lake of fire and will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Rev 20,7 When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, 20,8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore.20,9 And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 20,10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Rev 20, 7-10;


And if we extrapolate the preterist interpretation to its logical conclusion, then – another millennium having in the meantime gone by – all human beings should already have been raised from the dead, the Last Judgment should already have taken place and we should already, for a thousand years past, have been living in eternity.

We can see that the preterist point of view creates more problems than it is able to solve. We must stress, in this connection, that the analysis we have given relies exclusively on statements made in the Bible, and so must also be in keeping with the fundamental principles of the Preterists themselves, as expressed by our author in the introduction to his book (p. 9):

“A fundamental rule for the correct interpretation of the Bible is that Scripture is its own interpretation. The Bible is the infallible Word of God and free of error, and so constitutes our ultimate authority. This means that we cannot look for an authoritative interpretation of Holy Scripture anywhere outside the Bible.”


The brothers and sisters who take the preterist stand are therefore in error in their view of the events of the Last Days. This, though, is not to say that they are in error on the basic questions of faith. On the contrary, as our author writes, they proclaim the gospel of Our Lord as Scripture enjoins us to do (p. 54 ff):

“He (sc. Christ) is the Lamb that was slain, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1,29). The central point of world history is the sacrificial act performed by Christ. (...) As a result of his sacrifice, he has been raised to a position of absolute dominion and full authority. Through his redemptive suffering, and his dying for our sake, Christ has achieved the victory.”      


That is the crucial point! That is what counts! If there are many other points on which we might take issue, this remains beyond doubt.



The preterist approach: have the Last Days already taken place?