Bible prophecy: Past or Future?
There seems to be a lot of confusion and disagreement these days over Bible prophecy. But much of this stems from an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of the actual texts of the prophecies and historical context. One detail in particular, called The Abomination of Desolation, is being discussed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Many claim to know the identity of the Antichrist, others that we are already suffering through the Tribulation, and still others that all of this was completely fulfilled in the past. So I’d like to try and provide some perspective and analysis.
An abomination in prophecy is understood to mean that an idol is set up in a holy place that belonged to another god (see Ezekiel 8 for example). Its purpose is to defile the other god’s temple. Its first use in the Bible is in Daniel 9:27, immediately after “he will put an end to sacrifice and offering”. The next two references are in Dan. 11:31 and 12:11 and include the phrase “profane the sanctuary”. Apocryphal books (between the Testaments) also use it in the context of desecrating the Temple. Antiochus Epiphanes, who died in 164 BC, is the only historical figure to deliberately fill the Temple with unclean things, especially a statue of Zeus with his own face on it in the Holy Place.
So Daniel’s prophecy (conservative date is around the fifth century BC, and very liberal date is during the second) was indeed fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes. But Jesus, long after all of this, still spoke of the Abomination as referring to a yet-future event. Paul also spoke of the “man of sin” entering the Temple and delcaring himself God at some future time, and this certainly qualifies as desecration. Also, in Rev. 13:14 we are told that an image/idol will be made that all people on earth will be forced to worship, though it doesn’t say it will be put into the Temple.
This is just one of many prophecies that seem to have a “now but not yet” fulfillment; that is, they are fulfilled in part at one time but fulfilled more completely at another time. So then the question is whether the complete fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy was met in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. And it should be understood that a complete fulfillment must meet every criterion and detail without exception.
Please take a moment to read these scripture quotes for Jesus’ statements about events surrounding the future fulfillment of this prophecy. They are presented as lists for easier comparison.
- Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
- When you see ’the abomination of desolation’ (as declared through the prophet Daniel) standing in the Holy Place
- Then those in Judea must run away into the mountains…
- After that will be great oppression, the likes of which has never happened from the beginning of the world until now, nor will ever happen again. In fact, if those days had not been cut short, all flesh would have been wiped out, but they will be shortened for the sake of the chosen people.
- When you see ’the abomination of desolation’ standing where it isn’t supposed to
- Then those in Judea must run away into the mountains…
- The suffering of those days will be unlike anything that has happened since God first created the world until now, and will never be again. In fact, if the Master didn’t cut those days short, no living thing would survive. But those days will be cut short for the sake of his chosen ones.
- When you see Jerusalem surrounded by military encampments, you will know that its ruin is near.
- Then those in Judea must run away into the mountains…
- For there will be terrible stress on the world, and great rage against this people. They will be killed in battle and taken captive to all the other nations. Then Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations until their time is up.
- Then there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And on the earth, the nations will be filled with anguish and perplexity due to the roaring and turbulence of the sea. People will be deathly afraid and apprehensive of what is coming upon the whole world, for the forces of the heavens will be shaken.
- And then they will see the Human coming in a cloud with great power and majesty. But when you see this all coming to pass, stand up and raise your heads, for you are about to be rescued.
History shows that the people of Judea were indeed scattered among the Gentile nations, and that Jerusalem has been trampled by them throughout. Even today there is much Gentile control over Jerusalem and the Israelis are not allowed to build their Temple in its ancient location. And there have of course been many wars and many natural disasters in the last two thousand years.
But did anyone desecrate the temple in 70AD? Though it was burned and dismantled by the armies of Titus, he did not set up any idol in it. Neither did he take his place in the Temple and proclaim himself God, per 2 Thess. 2:3-4 and Rev. 13:1-8, 14-15.
Did the people of Judea flee to the mountains when they saw Jerusalem surrounded? There is no indisputable record of any mass exodus at that time to the mountains (the city of Pella, where many Christians are thought to have fled before the siege, is at a fairly low altitude [source]). In fact, the Roman armies allowed people into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover but refused to let them leave, in order to put great strain on their resources and supplies during the siege (source).
Was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple “sudden” (1 Thes. 5:3, Luke 21:34)? Clearly not; the events leading up to the final siege did not happen in a day (source).
Did Nero, whom some identify as the final fulfillment of the prophecies of both Daniel and Revelation, die as specified in 2 Thess. 2:8 and Rev. 19:19-21? No, he committed suicide (source). Neither did he or any of his associates cause the whole world (even if limted to the Roman Empire) to take a mark on their forehead or right hand and forbid commerce without it.
Did Jesus return in the clouds, accompanied by all the signs in the sky, and set up his visible earthly kingdom for a thousand years? This should have happened at or very shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD if that event marks the final fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy and Revelation. Yet the only way to claim it happened is to completely spiritualize it, and this is inconsistent with the claim that everything else, such as the destruction and the abomination, was literal and physical.
So while some aspects of the prophecy were fulfilled in 70 AD and others in the ensuing centuries, other important details have yet to occur. And we cannot presume that only the unfulfilled parts remain, since we have already seen that Jesus put events such as the Abomination in the future in spite of it having been fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes in the past. So how much of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation remain is anyone’s guess. But we should note that the Abomination and fleeing Jerusalem is also seen in Rev. 12 and 13.
However, there are parts of the book of Daniel that have had many details fulfilled in the past. In fact, Dan. 2-7 and 11 have been the most perplexing aspects of the book to critics of Bible prophecy due to their detailed predictions of successive kingdoms. And it’s important for us to be aware of this, since some mistakenly hold all of it to be yet future and confuse it with modern events. We will now look at those, and then go back to look at another that has yet to be fulfilled.
Chapter 2 is Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue whose head was made of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, lower legs of iron, and feet of a mixture of iron and clay. Daniel identified the head as Nebuchadnezzar himself, king of the Babylonian Empire. After him would follow a lesser kingdom (Medo-Persia, ruled by Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian), then another (the Grecian Empire, ruled by Alexander the Great), and finally one that would smash all others (Rome).
Chapter 8 is a vision about a goat and a ram, and the angel tells Daniel that the ram’s two horns represent the kings of Media and Persia. It describes the conquests of Alexander the Great (the first king of Greece), after whose death four of his generals would rule: Lysimachus, Cassander, Seleucus, and Ptolemy. The “little horn” coming later was none other than the vile Antiochus Epiphanes, who did not die in battle but from an infestation of worms.
It is the four generals who are described in detail in chap. 11. Ptolemy I was “the king of the south”. The “daughter” was Berenice (actually granddaughter, as her father was Ptolemy II), who was given in marriage to Antiochus II in a doomed plan to achieve political gains by intrigue and deception. After various raids and generations, this “king of the south” was Ptolemy IV and then Ptolemy V.
The “king of the north” was Antiochus III, who as prophecied was utterly defeated in 217 BC. The details fit historical record as with the Ptolemies, right up to the “contemptible person” Antiochus Epiphanes. It is he who is believed to have engineered the murder of “a prince of the covenant”, Onias III, the high priest. The first chapter of the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees details his plundering of the temple and other acts of savagery.
Again, though these things were indeed fulfilled in the past, we cannot dogmatically state that no future fulfillments remain. But neither can we presume that these alliances and military campaigns will be repeated in the future. In all the details of the remaining prophecies given in Revelation, there is no mention of the kings of the north and south and details that would connect them to future events. So though a future fulfillment is possible, it seems most unlikely.
But starting in verse 36 we read of “the king who exalts himself” who has “no regard for the gods of his fathers or the desire of women” and will instead “honor a god of fortresses”. We might still tie him in with the preceding discussion of Antiochus Epiphanes and the kings of the north and south, but these new details have no historical precedent. And they are tied in with chapter 12 which begins, “At that time…” and includes the resurrection of the dead.
So it seems that Antiochus Epiphanes is a very clear type or foreshadow of the ultimate future fulfillment in the Antichrist (popular name for the Beast in Revelation). Early in chapter 12 is where we see the phrase Jesus used, “a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then”. And there has been much terrible suffering in the world since 70 AD, such that the fall of Jerusalem at that time cannot have been the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy.
But because of this overlap and duality, teachers of Bible prophecy must exercise restraint and caution in looking for modern fulfillments. All we can be sure of is that those things without any historical match will certainly take place.
Finally, let’s take a look at chapter 7. The first half is a dream about four beasts, and the second half is the interpretation, focusing primarily on the fourth beast. Though the first three are described as a winged lion, a bear, and a winged leopard, the fourth is not compared to any known animal. It has ten horns, three of which are replaced by another horn. And the angel states that this beast will overcome the righteous for 3-1/2 years. The description of the fourth beast exactly matches that of Revelation (e.g. 13:1, 5-8, 17:12-13). And since none of this describes the situation of 70 AD, it must be yet future.
- On Dainel 8: http://www.neverthirsty.org/pp/series/DAN/D013/D0136.html
- On Daniel 11: http://www.ukapologetics.net/2danieltrue.html