Just getting back into the saddle here from a spring break trip. A number of folks have been asking me about the Gary DeMar Debacle, and I finally had a chance to listen through the five podcasts Gary has done responding to the letter of concern signed by a number of his (and my) good friends. In response to that, I have written Gary privately with some questions, and we are corresponding currently, as he recovers from a surgery.
A Brief Overview
For those of you just joining us, the letter can be found here. And the central request of the letter is an affirmation from Gary regarding three questions 1. Do you believe in a future, bodily glorious return of Christ? 2. Do you believe in a future physical, general resurrection of the dead? And 3. Do you believe history will end with the Final Judgment of all men? Gary has thus far declined to give any straightforward answer to these questions (that I’m aware of), but reading between the lines, I would hazard a guess that his answers at the moment are something like 1. Possibly, 2. Probably not, and 3. Probably. But he isn’t sure which Biblical texts teach these doctrines, as many of them have been understood by various Bible teachers to be referring to events that happened in 70 A.D. His overarching concern is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and wanting to avoid a bare creedalism or confessionalism that essentially leaves creeds and confessions as “paper popes” (my words, not his). I admire Gary’s desire to be faithful to the supremacy of Scripture, and I think he raises very reasonable questions about a number of specific texts. Gary is a friend of mine. He’s been on CrossPolitic a number of times, and he’s been incredibly generous to us with his time and knowledge.
At the same time, it seems to me that Gary is identifying one set of challenges/dangers without acknowledging and guarding (at least sufficiently in my mind) against other sets of challenges/dangers. One example of this would be agreeing with the point that he raises in one of his podcasts that a simplistic confessionalism/creedalism – by which he/I mean just a thoughtless mantra-like affirmation of the creeds and confessions without a sufficient Scriptural foundation — can leave many Protestants vulnerable to cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I would hasten to add that a bare biblicism does the same thing. I’m not accusing Gary of a “bare biblicism,” but I’m simply pointing out another danger. Many of the evangelicals that find themselves vulnerable to Jehovah’s Witnesses were not confessional or creedal in the slightest. Many of them were Me-and-My-Bible-Alone “bare biblicists,” what some of us have called solo scriptura as opposed to Sola Scriptura. And the point is simply that while the Creeds and Confessions remain fallible, and Scripture is the only supreme, infallible authority, the Creeds and Confessions are nevertheless true authorities. They are the considered exhortations of our fathers in the faith and as such are to be honored highly and only discarded if/when Scripture requires us to do so.
What I want to do in the rest of this post is lay out several arguments for holding the traditional eschatological views summarized in the three questions posed above, and then close with a plea for a bit more wisdom and care in how we approach those who raise questions or even answer these questions differently.
The Broad Case for the End of All Things
So first the broad case. As Gary notes several times in his podcasts, we serve the God of judgments. This is implied in the fact that God is the Creator of the whole world. The whole world answers to Him because He gave it existence. In this sense we might say that the first judgment of the “whole world” occurred in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve first sinned. Adam represented the whole world in that moment. That worldwide judgment was accomplished again in the worldwide flood. And when Jesus died on the cross, that was again the judgment of this world (Jn. 12:31). All of the other judgments that come in history point to this cosmic sovereignty, including the judgment of the old covenant world in 70 A.D. But all of this establishes a pattern and a typology: the pattern and types point to and promise a final judgment at the end of history, a final fulfillment.
Closely related is the resurrection motif. Because God created this material world and declared it good, sin has infected this material world and brought death and decay into this world. God’s promise that the seed of the Woman would crush the seed of the serpent is a promise to reverse that curse. Again, many “types” promise this resurrection and give true tokens of it. For example, Adam and Eve are clothed in the skins of animals and do not die physically after they sinned and ate the forbidden fruit, Abraham received Isaac back on the mountain as a type of the resurrection (Heb. 11:19), and the angel of death passed over the houses of Israel marked in the blood of the lamb and Israel passed through the “death” of the Red Sea when God brought them over on dry ground. And of course there are many more, leading up to the glorious resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of salvation itself.
But even after the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of salvation, creation still groans for the redemption of the sons of man (Rom. 8). While the New Creation, the New Heavens and New Earth have been inaugurated in the resurrection and pouring out of the Spirit, the fullness is still “not yet.” And while God has begun wiping away our tears, we still await all things being made new, every tear being wiped away, and Job’s great hope: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27). Job confessed the historic Christian conviction that after our flesh has been destroyed, ‘yet in our flesh, we shall see God,’ with our own eyes, even after our bodies have long since decayed.
All of this is an eschatological hope in the reunion of heaven and earth. The original union was tasted briefly in the Garden of Eden where God walked and talked with our first parents before their rebellion. And that reunion has begun in this world both in this life and in Heaven where the spirits of just men await the resurrection (Heb. 12:23). But John saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2). That is already happening, and yet it is still “not yet,” since Jesus must reign in Heaven until all of His enemies are put beneath His feet, the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself (1 Cor. 15:25-26). To entirely spiritualize these hopes is to leave this material world and human history itself to the defeat of sin and death. Another way to get at this would be to ask: does it matter theologically whether Jesus rose from the dead physically, bodily or not? Could Jesus have just died and gone to heaven and gotten a new spiritual body and salvation have been just a securely accomplished? Paul says, absolutely not. If Christ is not risen, we are still in our sins. So the complete reversal of the Fall, and death itself in human history, is necessitated by the promise of God from the Garden of Eden.
One particular exegetical question I’ve raised with Gary is why all the texts he walks through must be judged as either past or future. Why not consider the possibility that some of them are both past and future? There is precedent for this in biblical prophecy. For example, in Isaiah 7:14 the prophet says that a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and this will be a sign that the immediate looming threats of Syria and Samaria will soon fade away. That prophecy had a very immediate fulfillment time stamp and yet Matthew cites that prophecy and says it was also talking about Mary conceiving as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s possible that the first “virgin birth” Isaiah foretold wasn’t a Holy Spirit conception, but it was a typological sign of that which was to come. In like manner, the apocalyptic era-ending judgment language of collapsing solar systems and blowing trumpets and Christ’s coming are typological language that may often have near or immediate fulfillments but also always point to the Final Judgment, the final coming, and the true end of human history. Thus, it would seem that a consistent partial preterist might also be a futurist on some (or all) of those same texts.
I want to close with a brief summary of some of the Bible’s teaching on how we are to handle questions and controversies like this. I want to be clear that I am not drawing any specific conclusions here about exactly what I think about Gary DeMar’s position. I will continue having private conversations and make whatever decisions I need to when that time comes. But these are at least some of the principles I will be working with and would encourage you to consider.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. 2:15-20).
Here Paul specifically addresses the “profane and vain babbling” of some in the first century who said that the resurrection was already past, presumably arguing that the resurrection was purely spiritual, perhaps something that had happened at the ascension or perhaps happened as people died and went to heaven. Notice that Paul says this is error, and that it is a serious error as it had overthrown the faith of some. But notice that Paul doesn’t damn these “babblings” to Hell, but sternly warns against them, urges everyone who names the name of Christ to depart from iniquity, and finally points out to Timothy that in a great house (like the Church) there are all sorts of vessels. Of course if this is the same Hymenaeus that Paul referenced back in his first letter to Timothy, he had apparently excommunicated him for blasphemy and for making his faith shipwreck (1 Tim. 1:19-20). But it’s striking that here (if it is the same fellow) a slightly different word is given.
Now I know that some folks have been stubbornly divisive over issues like this. I can imagine churches where someone gets a bee in their bonnet about making all the women wear head coverings or exclusive psalm singing or hyper-preterism. And being divisive, stirring up dissension and strife over such matters or teaching false doctrine is not according to the gospel. In such cases, the leaders of the church must protect the flock up to and including excommunication if necessary. But it’s striking that even Paul had different tacks for different Judaizers. He straight up implied that anyone who taught their doctrine should be damned to Hell (Gal. 1:8-9) and wished that some of them would get sloppy with their scalpels (Gal. 5:12), and then in another place references his good working relationship with someone of the “circumcision party” (Col. 4:11). It’s noteworthy that he says that, all while still generally considering those folks “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” (Tit. 1:10). Paul thought well of at least one guy (“a fellow worker unto the Kingdom”) who apparently was associated with a teaching that had often functioned as “another gospel.” Go figure that one out.
All this to say, denying the physical return of Christ, the general resurrection of the body, and the final judgment and consummation of all things are serious errors. Yet we ought to imitate the wisdom of Paul in these matters. While dogmatically denying these doctrines is heretical, not all who explore them, question them, dabble in them, or talk about them are capital “H” Heretics. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is actually quite significant here.
In one place Jesus said that anyone who was not with Him was against Him (Lk. 11:23). And then in another place the disciples report that they rebuked someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name because they weren’t card-carrying disciples and Jesus tells the disciples not to stop them since whoever is not against us is on our side (Lk. 9:50). Both principles are true, and we need to hold both of them together. Some are not with us, and they are clearly fighting against us and against the gospel and they need to be silenced and condemned. Others are misguided, confused, and sloppy, but they are not against us, and they are therefore on our side, despite everything. When the Samaritan village didn’t receive Jesus, the apostles asked Him if they should call fire down on them. And they had Bible verses to defend the idea – Elijah had done that one time. And on top of that, the Samaritans were basically first century Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – they really did have some pretty wonky theology mixed with idolatrous syncretism. And yet, Jesus said that the disciples didn’t know what spirit they were of; He didn’t come to destroy men’s lives but to restore them.
It really is possible to have significant concerns for the questions and ambiguities Gary seems to be raising and still be patient and gracious. It’s possible to condemn hyper-preterism, as we should, and do so without condemning every last person who dabbles in or embraces elements of it as red horned heretics. As Jim Wilson always liked to say, there is a deeper right than being right. We should not only want to win the argument, but also win the man.