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How Long's A Generation?
By J. Michael Hile
“We know from the Scriptures
that the first generation began with Adam and Eve. Noah was the
tenth generation. Which generation do we represent? And, which
generation of people was Christ talking about that would see His
return when He said: "…This generation shall not pass, till all
these things be fulfilled" (Mt 24:34)? The answer to this
elusive, 2000-year-old question may be closer than we think, if
the many prophecies we see converging on the horizon continue
their march towards fulfillment in the 21st century.
The Generation of His Coming
Perhaps the most intriguing and controversial prophetic Scripture passage found in the Bible is contained in the Olivet Discourse. This dynamic "end times" message by Jesus, contained in Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21, describes major events that will impact the Jewish people just before the Lord returns to set up His Kingdom.
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory…Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. -Matthew 24:30-36
This remarkable prophecy of future events, given by Jesus on Mount Olivet after leaving the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, was in response to three questions from His disciples: "When shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world" (Mt 24:3)? The generation that will be living on the earth when Christ returns is alluded to in this discourse. The belief that the generation Jesus was talking about was the generation that passed away in 70 A.D. does not fit within the context of a literal return of Christ back to earth, as described in the Scriptures preceding and following the parable of the fig tree. Two questions one might raise about this unique generation and other generations described in the Bible are: 1) How long is a generation? and 2) Which generation was Christ talking about?
The Generation Question
One of the most perplexing and sought-after answers among students of Bible prophecy is the length of a generation. There is much disagreement among both secular and religious writers concerning the length of a generation. Is the length of a generation 40 years? When Israel became a nation in 1948, some believed that Israel's birth date marked the beginning of the generation that would see all the events leading up to the Second Coming of Christ. This theory was based upon the generation alluded to in the parable of the fig tree, in which the fig tree was symbolic of the nation Israel. (For a more detailed study of the fig tree in Biblical history, see Judg 9:8-15; Jer 24:1-10; Lk 13:6-9; Mt 21:17-21; Mk 11:11-14, 20-21; Lk 19:41-44; Rom 11:1,2,25-27; Isa 66:8; Mt 24:32-51; Mk 13:28-37; Lk 21:29-36; and Rev 6:13.)
When 40 years passed in 1988 without fulfillment of any of the events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ, the 40-year generation theory fell into disrepute. Either 1948 was not the starting date for the generation described in the fig tree parable, or a generation must be longer than 40 years, according to the theory. Additional arguments put forth claimed that 1967, the year Jerusalem was captured, or some other future date could be the birth of the generation that would see the return of Christ.
Some proponents of the "end times" generation theory questioned whether 40 years was actually the length of a generation today. Is there any evidence to suggest that the length of a generation is longer than 40 years? A few sources hold that a generation is now 20 to 30 years in length (but this better represents a generation "gap"). Other opinions range from 40 to 100 years. Just how long is a generation today? Is there an answer to the generation question?
The Longevity of Mankind
A generation, as described in the Bible, begins at conception and ends at death (Gen 17:6-9; Ps 22:30; Jer 1:4,5; Act 13:36; Josh 24:29-31). The length of a generation is not an arbitrary period of time that occurs within the life span of an individual or group of people. Joshua's age at the time of death, 110 years (including 9 months gestation), was the length of the generation he represented. Some of his generation died before him and some after him. Consequently, the average life span of a group of people living at about the same time constitutes the length of that generation.
The length of a generation has not always been constant since the days of Adam and Eve. Before the Biblical flood, the average life span of man was over 900 years. Today, if a person lives to be a hundred years old, it is a special occasion in which the person is accorded celebrity status. In order to understand how long a generation is today, it will be helpful to know what the length of a generation was before the Flood and what happened to the life span of man immediately following the Flood. Has man's life span increased, decreased or stayed the same down through the centuries?
[This chart]1 shows that the average length of a generation was about 930 years for those living before the Flood but decreased to around 120 years by the time Moses crossed the Red Sea and ended his 40-year sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai. Since there are not very many 120-year-old individuals walking around today, it is apparent that the average life span is no longer 120 years. Eli, a High Priest and Judge of Israel whose life bridged the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., died at the age of 98 years (1 Sam 4:15). According to the Scriptures, he was considered to be a "very old" person at the time of his death (1 Sam 2:22).
The Wilderness Generation
Perhaps the most widely held belief for the length of a generation is forty years. A 40-year period was required for the disobedient generation of Moses' day to die off in the wilderness. Those who hold to the forty-year generation concept do not take into account the total age of those who had sinned against the Lord. The curse was to be against the men who had reached twenty years of age (Num 32:11-13, Ps 95:8-11, Heb 3:7-11). After the 40-year judgment period was completed, there were no men left older than 60 years of age except Joshua and Caleb. Although Joshua was not a descendant of Moses or Aaron, he represented the succeeding generation that was to enter the "Promised Land." Joshua and Caleb were the only two males permitted to live after the Lord cursed the rebellious generation that would not return and retake their land in Canaan. So forty years could not have been the length of that generation, but it was the time God allotted for that generation to die off. Most of the recorded life spans during this time were well over 40 years. Aaron was 123, Moses 120, Joshua 110, and Caleb was over 85 when their generations died off.
A View from the Psalmist
Disregarding untimely or unnatural deaths due to epidemics, famine, and war, there is evidence in the Scriptures and in recent history to support a 70 to 80 year life span for the past 3000 years. The evidence for a 70 to 80 year life span was present during the 10th century B.C., during the reign of King David (c.1010-970). As David approached the end of his life, he was considered to be an old man by those living at that time. The Scriptures reveal that David served his generation and was seventy years old when he died (1 Chr 23:1; 2 Sam 5:4; 1 Kgs 2:10; Act 13:36). Perhaps the most significant declaration in the Bible for the life span of man is given in Psalm 90. The Psalmist states that the life span of man is seventy years, with eighty years being the upper range of normal life expectancy.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: We spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. -Psalm 90:9,10
If 70 to 80 years still represents the length of a generation, as described in Psalm 90:9,10, one would expect the life span of those living today to be close to that figure. The life expectancy of those living in the United States in 1850 was less than 40 years but increased to 47 years by 1900 and then mushroomed to 77 years (1999) by the end of the 20th century. 2 According to the 2002 World Almanac and Book of Facts, the average life expectancy in the United States is 77 years (74 years for males and 80 years for females). For Israel it is 79 years (77 years for males and 81 years for females). The average life expectancy at birth for Israel is projected to be 82 in the year 2025.3
Which Generation was Christ Talking About?
With Israel back in their land after almost 2000 years of dispersion (the Diaspora) and other end time prophecies coming into focus, the Jewish people now living in Israel could very well be the generation Christ was talking about. Luke's version of the fig tree parable, which mentions the fig tree (Israel) and all the trees (nations of the world-see Judg 9:8-20; Dan 4:26; Ps 2:1-12; Mt 25:31,32), states:
And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you. This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. -Luke 21:29-33
If the length of David's generation, Christ's generation, and the average life span of those living today in Israel is between 70 and 80 years (a 3000-year span), it would be reasonable to conclude that the generation Christ was talking about in the parable of the fig tree will also be 70 to 80 years in length. If the fig tree in this parable represents the nation of Israel, as many prophetic scholars believe, and the generation that is described has a life span of 70 to 80 years, then recent events such as the rebirth of Israel as a nation (Isa 66:8), the Jerusalem controversy in the "end times" (Zech 12:1-3), preparations for rebuilding the Jewish Temple (Rev 11:1,2), and the ongoing negotiations for a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians (Dan 9:27) are strong indicators that the generation Christ was talking about has already been born, and the return of Jesus Christ to establish His reign for a thousand years is close at hand.
The Most Significant End Time Prophecy
The "end time" events described in the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation could not take place without Israel back in their land. Israel's return to the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the 20th century is the most important event that signals the soon return of Jesus Christ.
...I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime...And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. -II Samuel 7:10-16
Israel's rebirth as a nation has also served as a catalyst for other "end time" prophecies that are beginning to converge on the world scene (Dan 2:42-22; Ezek 38-39). The Apostle Paul told us "...that in the last days perilous times shall come" (2 Tim 3:1-7). Jesus said there would be a time of worldwide conflict and wars that would be "the beginning of sorrows" (Mt 24:8). Christ said, "except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved…" (Mk 13:20).
The ability of man to destroy all flesh on the earth became a real possibility for the first time in the history of the world during the second half of the 20th century with the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The 21st century will witness an unprecedented increase in surveillance and eavesdropping as the global government "big brother" system wraps its tentacles around every aspect of human life, while promising "peace and security" to those who relinquish their freedoms (Rev 13:16-18; 1Thess 5: 3).
Christians who take the Bible seriously should be actively watching the prophetic shadows that are appearing in today's headlines. And as we entertain the possibility that we may be the generation Jesus was talking about in the fig tree parable nearly 2000 years ago, we are admonished by the Scriptures to watch and be prepared (Mt 24: 37-51).
As stated clearly by Jesus in Matthew and Mark, no man knows the day or the hour of his coming, but the Father only. The same Jesus, however, was very angry with the Pharisees and Scribes for not discerning "the signs of the times" (Mt 16:3) and not knowing the "time of their visitation" (Lk 19:44).
One day there will be a generation of Christians that will escape the grip of death and be ushered into Heaven, the "final frontier" for believers (1 Thess 4:13-5:11). The generation that is "left behind" will face the ruthless tyranny of a global dictatorship (Rev 13:11-18). The world stage is now being set for the closing act of this dispensation, and the climax of world history (Christ's return) is drawing near. As God's children, we may very well be the generation that is chosen to "escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man" (Lk 21:34-36). That possibility is certainly worth pondering!
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