So that I am crystal clear, I will use the hyper and moderate adjectives and drop the ambiguous unmodified “preterist”, unless referring to both.
Preterists believe that all (hyper) or most (moderate) New Testament prophecy has already been fulfilled, culminating in 70 A.D. when Roman Legions invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Hyper-preterists even believe that the Second Advent and the accompanying resurrection (of the saints) have already occurred and as such they have to interpreted much differently than orthodox Christianity has been teaching for 2000 years.
I myself have some preteristic leanings, although not enough that I would label myself even a moderate preterist. I have never been able to convince myself that any of the eschatological views is totally self-consistent with scripture—so in my own muddled (and also not totally self-consistent) picture of the end times, I accept some of the moderate preterist claims.
Preterists base many of their views on the difficulties found in Christ’s Olivet Discourse, especially as recorded in Matthew 24. I don’t have time for anything near a complete exposition of their position, but I can highlight a few points.
Here is an abridged version of the Olivet Discourse (from Matthew 24):
1Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. 2And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down." 3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" 4And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. … 6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are the beginning of sorrows. 9"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. … 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. 15 "Therefore when you see the "abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), 16"then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains… 21For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be… 28For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. 29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, 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 His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … 34Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
The Olivet Discourse contains timelines, apocalyptic prophesy, and descriptions of the fulfilling of prophesy. In some sense, Preterists and dispensationalists choose opposite hermeneutics: The preterists take the time references literally and the apocalyptic descriptions as imagery, while the dispensationalists do the reverse.
The preterist views the Olivet Discourse as a continuous exposition on a single time period: from the time Christ spoke the words to about one generation (40 years) later (when some of those present would still be alive). The terminus of the discourse’s prophesy is about 70 A.D., when the Temple was destroyed. To the preterist, this is no coincidence.
According to a preterist:
- In verses 1-2, Jesus is clearly referring to the destruction of the Temple.
- In verse 3, the disciples ask Him when will this happen, and the signs of his coming, and the end of the age. The question presupposes that these will happen at the same time. If this were a question based on a false premise (that these occurred at the same time) the Jesus would have corrected the misunderstanding.
- Then the discourse describes the tribulation. This is taken to be the Roman invasion and atrocities that accompanied the destruction of the Temple. For some of the specific prophecies one can find support in the writings of Jewish historians such as Josephus. The eagles of verse 28 refer to the Roman standards.
- Things start to get dicey in verse 29, given that it begins with the pesky work immediately. The astronomical phenomena are not supported in history, so verse 29 must be viewed as “eastern” style symbolism.
- To the hyper-preterist, the second advent and resurrection described in verses 30-31 is the real thing. To a moderate preterist, these are not the events but likened to them and signifying not the end of times but the end of an age. To all preterists, what happens in these verses is spiritual only.
- The preterist stride is regained in verse 34, which is taken in its plain reading: all these things will happen within a generation (~40 years). Some of the deciples present when Jesus is giving the Olivet Discourse will still be alive.
In summary, preterists believe that the Olivet Discourse was describing events that would occur not in the distant future but in the first century. The apocalyptic aspects of the Olivet Discourse did not refer to the end times, but the end of an age: the age of Judiasm. To the preterist (of any degree), the destruction of the temple was a major event in redemptive history that has been largely ignored by most Christians.