“What answer would you guys give to those who question Matt 24:34 and say, ‘See? They’re dead, it’s not real!’ I know that even C.S. Lewis struggled with it and while I’ve been studying this, the best rebuttals I’ve seen would be ‘translation’ because some say ‘…this age’ or ‘…this people’. Or, to interpret it as Jesus speaking to ‘the last generation’ before his return. However, I think most skeptics would shrug off those explanations. I mean, I would if I were a skeptic. I’d be like, ‘Really? That’s all you got?’ So, I was curious, what do you guys think about Matt 24:34 and what’s the best way to defend it?” – Misty Callahan
Nate: Hi Misty! Thanks very much for the question and the opportunity to respond. The passage you’re referring to is in the Olivet Discourse where Jesus is talking about the signs of His coming and the end of the age. In v. 34 he concludes His prophetic descriptions with:
“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
So then the obvious question arises: Who is the generation? As you pointed out, C.S. Lewis struggled with this passage. As a matter of fact, he called it the most embarrassing verse in the Bible because, taken in a straightforward sense, it appears that Jesus is making a prophecy that is applicable only to the generation alive in His day. But the generation Jesus was speaking to is long dead now and He has not physically returned yet. So what’s the deal with that??
I’m not sure if C.S. Lewis was aware of this but there are different schools of thought when it comes to the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation. Laying all of them out would be a task in and of itself. I’m just going to give a brief explanation and sketch of how I understand Jesus in this passage. I take the preterist position that Jesus was speaking to His original hearers about the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, the answer to the skeptic here is that there is no problem with an unfulfilled prophecy. It’s already been fulfilled.
I think it is of the utmost importance when it comes to understanding issues like eschatology that we not only look at the immediate context but we bear in mind the far-reaching, interconnected threads running throughout Scripture on this particular issue. In other words, eschatology is not necessarily individualized verses here and there. Eschatology is one of many layers of doctrine that hold together other layers of doctrine, such that everything develops and dovetails together into one fundamental framework. That’s all a long way of saying that, in order to understand “this generation” in Matthew 24:34, we need to remember the eight woes in Matthew 23 and Jesus’ promise to the disciples in Matthew 10:23 and 16:28. We should also bear in mind the disciples own comments in Romans 16:19 and 1 John 2:18. All of these verses (and more) provide a picture that is both completely coherent and actually makes sense, properly understood.
Remember, in Matthew 10 Jesus forms His awesome disciple network and sends them out to the cities of Israel to spread the gospel. But He says to them: You won’t finish going through all these cities before the Son of Man comes (v. 23). Later he tells the disciples that some of them won’t die before He comes (16:28). In Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees to their faces (vv. 13-33) and then curses them with some devastating punishments (v. 34). Then He says in vv. 35-36: All of these curses will happen to you (i.e. this generation). Then He walks out of the temple and turns around and makes a promise to the disciples that the temple will be totally destroyed in Matthew 24:2. His disciples are shocked and so they ask him (in 24:3): When will this happen, what will be the signs for all these things? Jesus describes all the signs and says: This will all happen in your lifetime (v. 34). After He dies and resurrects, He even appears to suggest to the disciples that the apostle John will still be alive when He returns (John 21:22).
So, again, there is a large framework here that doesn’t just come out of Mathew 24:34. The idea that Jesus was coming in the lifetime of His friends and fellow countrymen is repeated everywhere in the New Testament.
Once we recognize Jesus’ words for what they are, a tectonic shift must take place in our understanding of books like Daniel and Revelation (let alone a good chunk of the gospels and epistles). He was warning them about the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. As a matter of fact, if you look at Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse in 24:6-36, it’s clear that Jesus is describing the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophecy came to pass just as Jesus described it would. So, for these reasons, I believe the preterist interpretation on this issue is the strongest answer that one can provide to the skeptic attempting to challenge Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24.
Now, there’s a lot to say about this and a lot of new questions that the preterist position raises. As a matter of fact, someone might say: Wait, Jesus hasn’t come back yet! If he was simply referring to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, what’s with all the language about his “coming”? And what’s with all the end of the world language? Given what I think is a pretty clear case for the preterist understanding of Scripture, phrases describing the coming of the Son of Man and sun and moon going dark and stars falling out of the sky need to be understood in a way that the Scriptures dictate. I would argue that this language is not literal but figurative and is apocalyptic language referring to God’s judgment upon a particular nation. In the Old Testament we read all the time that God came in judgment against certain peoples and nations: Exodus 3:8; Psalm 18:9, 14; Isaiah 19:1; Micah 1:3, etc. I don’t think many Christians are going to say that God literally came down to the earth in those examples and so, for the same reason, we shouldn’t expect Jesus’ language to refer to a literal event either. I think the same can be said for the end of the world language as well: Judges 5:4; 2 Samuel 22; Psalm 68:8; Isaiah 64:1-2. The world didn’t literally come to an end during these moments in the Old Testament and for the same reason I don’t think Jesus’ description of the destruction of the temple should be taken literally either.
As I previously mentioned, there is a ton more to say about this but I think the preterist position holds the strongest response to the challenger of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34.
 To clarify, I hold to the partial preterist position on the end times.
 Compare the abomination of desolation in Matthew 24:15 to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies in Luke 21:20.