The Debate between Hanegraaff and Hitchcock

Was this debate a definitive defeat for the early date? Some thoughts.

I recently had cause to listen once again–the first time in years–to the debate between Hanegraaff and Hitchcock on the dating of Revelation. First off, it is clear that Hanegraaff was out of his depth. Hitchcock produced a doctoral degree in the subject area, whereas Hanegraaff has no formal academic training. It is unfortunate that Hitchcock didn’t debate Kenneth Gentry instead, who could have presented a strong case for both the external and internal evidence for the early date (though I don’t accept his preterist interpretations).

Hanegraaff’s Presentation

One has to commend Mark Hitchcock for maintaining his composure and professionalism while Hanegraaff became animated, accusatory, evasive, and equivocal, acting in what was an unscholarly and unprofessional manner that repeatedly veered far off from the topic under discussion.

Even when he was asked how he could explain that so many early Christian witnesses are supportive of the late date (caveat: I don’t accept they are), instead of answering the question, he accused his dispensational interlocutors of hypocrisy on account of the relatively recent origin of the pre-trib rapture (many dispensationalists would argue that the pre-trib is ancient, though I don’t accept their arguments). This is irrelevant. He also squandered the cross examination time by repeatedly asking irrelevant questions, such as whether Hitchcock believed animal sacrifices would be offered during the millennium.

Hanegraaff also seemed to contradict himself. At one point, he is undermining the value of using the fathers on the basis of their (in his then opinion) incorrect beliefs such as baptismal regeneration and the perpetual virginity of Mary (he also launched a tirade against their view that angels begat children in Gen. 6, a point he returns to again and again), and then when Hitchcock responds by affirming their usefulness as historical sources that confirm the internal evidence, Hanegraaff accuses Hitchcock of putting words in his mouth, claiming that he never said we shouldn’t use them, only that they need to be interpreted (then why bring up their theology at all?).

He angrily insinuates that he has been mischaracterized as a “partial preterist,” claiming he is an “exegetical eschatologist” (which , again, was totally irrelevant to the discussion), and then goes on to attempt to interpret many of the prophecies of the book, such as the measuring of the temple and the persecution of the beast, as looking to events leading up to AD 70. What is that if not partial preterism? He then chides Tim LaHaye (who is sitting right in front of him) for falsely calling him a full preterist, which, he claims, resulted in his being barred from church invitations. He makes other references throughout the debate to Tim LaHaye’s dispensational beliefs. Later he refers to the audience as “ferocious wolves” on account of a reference to Hanegraaff’s eschatological position as his “scheme.”

What we don’t hear is the one thing we came to hear: a defense of the early date. Instead, we hear a torrent of angry denials, irrelevant points and mistaken claims (e.g. Nero was worshipped as “almighty God” according to Hanegraaff, who insists he has a good grasp of Roman history as a result of helping his fourteen year old daughter with school projects).

Problems with Hitchcock’s Presentation

It’s unfortunate that the opportunity for debate on this question was squandered. Indeed, this debate is often seen by late daters as a watershed moment that demolished the early date. I expect that the outcome would have been a lot different had someone like Gentry represented the case for the early date.

Hitchcock tries to steer the debate in the direction it was meant to go, as a discussion of the evidence for the dating of Revelation rather than of dispensationalism. Nevertheless, he relies heavily upon his interpretation of Irenaeus and upon the state of the church at Laodicea (which Gentry more than adequately addresses in his dissertation).

There were, moreover, many problematic and outright erroneous claims, most of which were left unchallenged:

  • He claims that tradition places the martyrdom of Antipas in Domitian’s reign. See why this is a problematic and potentially misleading claim here.
  • He claims that according to Polycarp, the church in Smyrna didn’t exist during Paul’s ministry. Hanegraaff did address this point, noting that Polycarp does not claim this (see here). Hitchcock does later concede that it only states that the church didn’t exist prior to 62 (which he bases on dating Philippians at this time, which is not certain: many place it seven or eight years earlier).
  • He claims that tradition placed John’s arrival in Ephesus in the late 60s. It doesn’t. This was posited as a likely scenario by modern scholars like F. F. Bruce.
  • He claims that no-one in the early church disputed the meaning of Irenaeus’s words (as meaning “the apocalyptic vision was seen in Domitian’s reign”). However, the early Latin translator of Irenaeus, likely before Eusebius, did not understand them the way Eusebius did. I’m not aware of any other early church source that even discusses the passage.
  • He claims Hegesippus for the late date, but there is nothing surviving from Hegesippus to that effect. Hitchcock relies (without informing his audience) on a theory of Lawlor who argued that Eusebius was alluding to Hegesippus when he spoke of an ancient Christian tradition that placed John’s exile late in Domitian’s reign, but this has been disputed, and others believe the reference is to Irenaeus, whom Eusebius goes on to quote.
  • He claims Origen for the late date on the basis that he cited a “tradition” for his view that John was exiled by “the king of the Romans” which, Hitchcock argues, must have referred to Domitian, since that was the only tradition known to the early church (though he admits in his dissertation that the Muratorian Canon placed Revelation in the reign of either Nero or Claudius).
  • The propensity for Hitchcock to cook up evidence is seen also in his summary of the evidence, which includes other sources that likewise categorically do not place Revelation in Domitian’s reign. This time he includes Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Dio Cassius. None of these taught the Domitianic exile.
Hitchcock’s summary of the evidence

There is obviously a lot more that was covered in the debate than can be covered here. See the resources below for further information on these matters.

Further reading:

Hitchcock’s dissertation defending the late date here.

Gentry’s dissertation defending the early date, here.

For discussion of all the external evidence on John’s exile (including many sources not discussed in the above two works), see the relevant chapters in my own dissertation here.

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