7.3. IDEALISM, PRETERISM AND ESCHATOLOGICAL REEVALUATION
The development of biology, physics or chemistry threw a natural light upon many events considered supernatural, while archeological and historical discoveries contradicted the biblical accounts. The religious paradigm became insufficient in explaining the natural order. Millenary beliefs about the Creation and the position of man in nature succumbed before the evolution of the species and the infinity of the Universe. Science heavily challenged the spiritual world and religion began to tremble before atheism. Arthur Schopenhauer and Karl Marx, alongside dozens of other thinkers, contested Christianity and even the existence of God. At this time the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche enunciated the famous expression “God is dead!”920 not because God as a being died, but to emphasize the fact that the idea of divinity was fading. Morality apparently divorced religion and mankind ceased to wait for divine help and took its fate into its own hands.
The scientific assault generated various theological reactions. Catholicism was the greatest religious loser of the century, a situation that made Pope Leo XIII redefine the position of the Catholic Church in relation to modern thinking. Prophecies and epiphanies such as that of La Salette921 announced the fall of the institution of the church and divine punishments for this apostasy, while entire doctrines were erased or restructured to ensure the survival of different religious groups. Initial doctrinal lines were no longer preserved and ideological parts were selectively taken and adapted to form coherent interpretations in relation to the progress of knowledge.
From an eschatological point of view, an adequate explanation had to be found for the fact that the apocalyptic prophecies, which were enunciated more than 1,800 years in the past, were still unfulfilled. The need for answers drove the scholars to reread the original texts and to reanalyze the early doctrines. In this way it was quickly concluded that the ecumenical councils, which have dictated how the Bible should be interpreted, were formed of fallible people. The apocalyptic fallacies committed by the early Christian personalities led to the natural conclusion that the foundations of Christianity were established according to some long “expired” conceptions. The religious position in relation to the Universe had to be rethought. Accordingly, new systems of ideas, such as dispensationalism, were conceived or marginal religious structures such as preterism and idealism were rediscussed.
Eschatological idealism originates in the amillenarism developed by Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria and Augustine against the heresy of Montanism. Idealism and amillenarism go hand in hand because they both deny prodigiousness. Idealism might have been among the alternative views developed by Catholics against Protestant historicism at the time of the Counter-Reformation; the Renaissance quenched the medieval premillenarist fervor and created the circumstances for a denial of the existence of a future material Millennium. In any case, from Augustine’s allegorical approach of Revelation until the 19th century idealism suffered a long transformation.
The development of eschatological idealism in the Industrial Era was due to the development of German philosophical idealism. Johann Fichte, Georg W. Hegel or Ernst Schulze – heavy names of European intellectuality – basically claimed that reality is only a mental, immaterial construct. Eschatological idealism was not far from this position,922 stating that the imagery of the Book of Revelation is not physical; it is placed neither in the past nor in the present and nor in the future, because it is a symbolic exposition of certain principles through which God acts in the world. The apocalyptic descriptions are relevant to all people, regardless of time and place. They depict the continuous spiritual battle between good and evil, which is further reflected at a material level in the scientific acquisitions and their impact – positive or negative – in the transformation of mankind. The beast from the sea may represent the idea of imperialism, the inevitable globalization as a result of progress, the primary desire of man to subdue other people, the exploitation of many by the elites or the political system in general in contrast to the institution of the church. The beast from the earth may represent pagan religions, atheism, materialism, corruption and moral decadence, all in contrast to Christianity. The Whore of Babylon may be a symbol for the compromised church or the corruption of the world in general. Each seal, trumpet or vial represents natural disasters, wars and catastrophes that reveal God’s discontent regarding the sinful humanity. The battles from Revelation can be seen as symbols for the continuous battle between the forces of light and darkness, of the moral against the immoral, of knowledge against ignorance, of evolution against stagnation, of the old against the new and of faith against faithlessness. Parousia marks the achievement of a human evolutionary stage in which good and morality triumph over evil and immorality and become inherent to human nature.
Idealism had the merit of achieving something that seemed impossible from a religious point of view: the separation between the destiny of the world and the destiny of the individual. More exactly, it created a theological framework within which the global determinism cohabits with the individual free will. Regardless of the actions of the human individual being, humanity as a group is destined to evolve through experimentation, mistakes, sacrifices and stages which cannot be eluded. From fire to electricity, from feudalism to monarchy and then to republic, from tribes to nations and ultimately to one nation, from geocentrism to heliocentrism or from man to machine – the pattern of evolution manifests itself in all fields of knowledge. So, idealism avoids the problem of harmonization between the biblical texts and history by depicting the Book of Revelation as a symbolic map of the spiritual and intellectual path of mankind. The Kingdom of God is not a political, physical and global phenomenon instantly established, but a symbol for a certain level of historical progress.923
Idealism attempted to reconcile science and religion by abstracting eschatology and integrating scientific progress in a universal religious scheme. This had to relieve, at least theoretically, Christian eschatology from the threat of future discoveries. The idea of spiritual and material progress achieved through human forces fueled American postmillenarism and the social activism during the Third Great Awakening. However, idealism was little accepted because it undermines the importance of the institution of the church and it denies, or at least it restrains, the presence of God in the world. Idealism was also contested because history became the subject of the secular-analytical research; the miraculous religious approach had already been totally abandoned. Industrial society was demanding proved facts, not unverifiable fictions, historical certitudes and not religious interpretations.
Preterism came to satisfy scientific rigors through its practical nature. Preterism (Latin: praeter, praeteritus – “gone,” “past”), also known as the “realized eschatology,” is basically the opposite of futurism. While futurism places the prophecies of the New Testament in the future of mankind, preterism places them in the past.
A large part of the prophecies of Christ and of the apostles are formulated as if they refer to the near future. Jesus says in Matthew 16:28 that the end must come before the death of the last apostle, John: “there are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” In Matthew 10:23 he says: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.” The same idea is expressed in Matthew 24:34: “This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be accomplished.” Paul’s epistles seem to say that Jesus had to return in the middle of the 1st century: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven … and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). This idea can also be found in Luke 9:27; 21:32; Mark 9:1 and even Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him.”
These texts apparently indicate that the first generation of Christians expected the end of the world to take place during their lifetime. But this thing obviously did not happen, which means that Jesus and the apostles were wrong or they lied. This conclusion, however, is unacceptable from a Christian point of view because it undermines the foundations of Christianity: the inerrancy of the Bible (without error) and the belief that Jesus Christ is God. In the 20th century skeptics such as James Randi used the literal interpretation of these excerpts to prove that Jesus was a false prophet.924
Preterism solves the problem of these prophetic texts by depicting Revelation not as a prophetic book, but rather as a historical one. Eusebius, in the 4th century, is one of the first and few theologians who said that Revelation symbolically describes political and religious events which took place in the 1st century. Later, at the time of the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic scholars sought theories capable of refuting Protestant historicism, preterism was …
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