“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


NateNate: 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[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] To clarify, I hold to the partial preterist position on the end times.

[2] Compare the abomination of desolation in Matthew 24:15 to Jerusalem being surrounded by armies in Luke 21:20.

10 COMMENTS

  1. As a futurist, I think the passage is best interpreted as “this generation” refering to the generation that sees the signs, not the generation he was speaking too.

    For example, if we are having a conversation in a car and I say “this car”, you may assume I am speaking of the car we are in. But if my statement was immediately preceded by a description of a car that did not match the car we are sitting in, it would be logically sound to conclude that “this car” is refering to the car I just described, not the one we are sitting in.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alex! As a former futurist, I’m sympathetic to your view and your analogy. I think all of what you offered works, as far as it goes. As I mentioned in the post, eschatology has a much further reach than Matthew 24:34. We have to square your view with the overall picture and everything previous that Jesus told His disciples. Remember, the immediate context is that Jesus had told His disciples that the temple would be destroyed. Then His disciples asked Jesus when it would happen. Notice, it’s not just that He talked about “this generation”, He actually repeated over and over that these things were going to happen to “you” (vv. 4, 6, 9, 15, 23, 25, 26, etc.) If you want to say that Jesus is talking about a future generation, it seems incredibly odd that Jesus would be looking directly at His disciples and using the word “you” but meaning some other generation thousands of years in the future.

      Also, as I mentioned in the post, Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 10:23 that some of them wouldn’t finish traveling through all the cities of Israel before “the Son of Man comes.” This is where futurism falls apart in my opinion.

      Thanks again for the opportunity to interact!

      • I don’t think it’s necessary to have every statement made by Jesus in the entire book of Matthew to be talking about the same event. It is a collection of events throughout Jesus lifetime, so we can’t treat it as though stuff in Matthew 4 defines stuff going on in Matthew 24, unless there is some phrase connecting them. The scenario is played out from Matthew 23 and ends at 24.

        It is interesting to speak of the “you” in chapter 23, however, you could take that as a corporate reference to the religious leaders/government of Jerusalem as a whole rather than them as individuals. Alternatively, you could view it as a prophecy against them distinct from the question asked by the disciples in the begging of chapter 24.

        Essentially, different instances where Jesus is said to speak of his coming in the lifetime of the disciples may have different explanations.

        Lastly, you bring up Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, I don’t see this as a problem. All prophecies I have read are very indicative of an end-times gathering of armies at Jerusalem. It isn’t necessary that “armies” implies 70 AD.

        • Hello again, Alex! You said a few things so, if you don’t mind, I’ll take them one at a time.

          You said we shouldn’t treat stuff in Matthew 4 as if it defined stuff going on in Matthew 24 “unless there is some phrase connecting them.” I do see a connecting phrase. It’s the coming of the Son of Man. Plus all the same, eschatological persecution-style language connects Jesus’ comments to the disciples with His other comments in the Olivet Discourse (compare Matt 10:21-22 with Matt 24:10, 13).

          You also said that we could view Matthew 23 as a separate prophecy against the pharisees. I suppose you could but then you’d be utilizing an inconsistent hermeneutic with the phrase “this generation”, which I think is a big mistake. Because on the one hand, as a futurist, you’d want to claim that the “this generation” Jesus uses in the eight woes refers to his first century hearers, i.e. the pharisees, while on the other hand you’d want to claim that the “this generation” Jesus uses in the Olivet Discourse refers to some generation thousands of years into the future. There is no good justification to do such a thing, in my opinion; especially if His generation did experience a cataclysmic judgment in 70 A.D. (which they did).

          Also, I mentioned that Jesus uses the word “you” many times when He was talking to the disciples in the Olivet Discourse. It seems very odd for Jesus to do such a thing when He’s not actually speaking to them.

          Finally, you said that the word “armies” does not necessarily imply 70 A.D. That’s true. You’re right about that. But I think “this generation” does imply 70 A.D., especially considering that Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem at that time.

          What do you think?

  2. Thanks for the great article Nate, I’m especially enjoying the comments discussion. A Preterist view certainly seems like the easiest way to tackle Matthew 24 but as a skeptical futurist I have issues with both views and remain uncommitted. The direction I like to take the Mathew 24 challenge is to ask when they think Mathew was written. If the questioner believes in a late authorship the skeptic finds themselves in a tricky position. Either the writer(s) was writing something that was already fulfilled or composing a knowingly false and misleading narrative. If the challenger admits to an early authorship it, at least partially, validates the authority of the gospels and weakens most anti-Christian arguments. Either way the discussion can ensue from a stronger defensive position.

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