The Great Tribulation: Past or Future?

By Thomas Ice and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Grand Rapids : Kregel (1999). 224 Pages.

Reviewed by
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 254-256

Until recently, the eschatological position of preterism—the view that the Great Tribulation is a past event fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70—had largely been off the theological radar screen. R. C. Sproul, Kenneth Gentry, and others have revived the doctrine, even though it still remains a minority view. The Great Tribulation seeks to contrast preterism and futurism to help Christians understand prophetic fulfillment issues (7).

Gentry, a professor at Bahnsen Seminary in California, presents the preterist position. Thomas Ice, familiar to many readers of this journal, defends the futurist position. Each author devotes two chapters to presenting his view, and has a separate chapter rebutting the other’s position. Their arguments are supported by extensive footnotes that are a welcome source for further research.

Gentry asserts that the Tribulation prophecies in Matthew 24–25 were fulfilled in A.D. 70 based on his interpretation of certain “time reference” verses like Matthew 24:34 (“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”). That verse is “the key to locating the Great Tribulation in history” (26). Gentry ably defends his view in the first two chapters, restricting his main comments to Matthew 24:1-34 (14).

The next two chapters are Ice’s presentation of the pretribulational view. He capably takes the reader through the flow of the OT (Chapter 3) and the NT (Chapter 4) to establish his position. He focuses on Luke 21:20-28 to show how the destruction of Jerusalem and a future coming of Christ fit together in biblical revelation.

The space constraints of the book make it unreasonable to think that either side could deliver a knockout blow. However, broader research will convince the unbiased reader to reject preterism. The following points are noteworthy:

(1) Preterists employ faulty hermeneutics. They insist on a literal interpretation of the time references (26-34), but freely resort to symbolism when necessary to support their system (e.g., 55-65). Such inconsistency should be rejected as theologically self-serving. Further, their loose juxtaposition of unrelated texts should not be confused with actual exegesis.

Preterists also pit Scripture against itself. Gentry uses Matthew 24:34 to override the plain sense of verses that would otherwise contradict his system (e.g., 51, 54, 55, 195). It is better to recognize that all Scripture is equally inspired by God, and consequently each verse should be allowed the same weight in the interpretive process.

(2) Preterists selectively quote Scripture. Gentry repeatedly jumps over Matthew 23:39 (“You shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”) in his discussion of Matthew 23:37-38 and Matthew 24:1 (23-24, 172, 182). He relegates it to a footnote even though it obviously undermines his argument (208 n. 46). He also deals inadequately with Matthew 24:36 (“Of that day and hour no one knows”) and similar verses that indicate that Jesus did not intend to set time frames for His disciples as they looked for His return.

(3) Preterists are not credible when they dogmatically assert that the time reference in Matthew 24:34 is “indisputably clear” (26-27). If that were so, one would expect Gentry to name more than two theologians born in the last century who held his view (13). Further, this “clear” verse has been the subject of at least eight interpretations throughout church history, with most views having several adherents. Not only does that undermine preterist credibility in presenting the facts, it also shows that they have built their system around a debatable text—clearly a shaky proposition.

(4) Finally, the testimony of the early church contradicts preterism. Gentry argues that contemporary onlookers would interpret the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s judgment on Israel (60-61). However, early church writers, including the first-century Didache and Justin Martyr (c. 140-150), took a futuristic view of the Olivet Discourse. That is inconceivable if the destruction of Jerusalem was “obviously” God’s judgment to its witnesses.

The present reviewer recommends The Great Tribulation as a suitable introduction to the preterist position and some of the arguments that futurists employ against it. The careful interpreter will use it in conjunction with other eschatological resources for the most effective study.