Question: It is becoming quite fashionable to understand the earthquakes mentioned in biblical prophecy to be references to earthquakes that already occurred in the past. What are we to think of this claim?
Answer: The word “earthquake” is used seven times in the Book of Revelation to describe five different earthquakes. Preterists (those who believe that prophecy was fulfilled in the past) argue that these earthquakes already occurred in the first century around the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans. In evaluating this claim we need to examine the historical records for earthquakes in the first century.
Ancient histories written by Roman historians indicate that there were three earthquakes in the first century Roman world. Writing in A.D. 77, Pliny the Elder described a massive earthquake that destroyed a large section of Asia Minor (Turkey) in the year A.D. 17. It was so devastating that the Roman emperor suspended taxes for five years to enable the citizens to recover from the damage. Pliny says that this was “the greatest earthquake in human memory.” If the earthquake in A.D. 17 was described by a historian writing in A.D. 77 in this way, obviously there was no massive earthquake at the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70.
Two other earthquakes occurred in the first century, one in A.D. 33 and one in A.D. 48, both of which only did slight damage to the Temple in Jerusalem. This makes it clear that there were no earthquakes that occurred around the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans. This poses a serious problem for anyone who claims that the earthquakes of Revelation occurred in the first century. There just weren’t any earthquakes that fit into the preterist understanding of Revelation.
Preterists do the same thing with the hailstones mentioned in Revelation 16. They claim that these are not literal hailstones that will come from heaven in the future but that they were the ballista stones used by the Romans against the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem. However, the differences between hailstones and ballista stones makes this interpretation farfetched. Hailstones are made of ice, ballista stones are made of stone. Moreover, the ballista stones are man-made projectiles that could be described as surface-to-surface missiles while hailstones are heaven-to-surface missiles.
How do preterists get around these problems created by their artificial method of scriptural interpretation? Some argue that the earthquakes and hailstones of Revelation are really not literal, but merely symbolic. They are symbolic presentations of the passing away of the Old Covenant that occurred at the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple. Sadly, this is an example of how people go astray in their interpretations of prophecy. They have their own agenda that they want to advance. In order to do that they must spiritualize Scripture to make it fit that agenda. This is intellectually dishonest. Their methodology betrays their true intent.