“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these
things be fulfilled.” - Matthew 24:34
This controversial verse is in all three of the Olivet Discourse accounts. (These accounts are to be found in Matthew 24:1-51, Mark 13:1-37, and Luke 21:5-33). For some time, critics of the Christian faith have argued that Jesus explicitly said here that all of the events prophesied in the Olivet Discourse, including His return, would happen before the last person living at that time died.
When I spent some time dialoging with the atheists and agnostics at https://www.infidels.org, this was one of their favorite criticisms of the Christian faith. Jesus promised, they claim, that He would return within that generation, but He did not. Since He was wrong, they assert, He could not have been God, so the Christian faith, they claim, is based on error. To bolster their argument, they claim that in all of the other places in the Gospels where Jesus used the term “this generation,” he was referring to people living at that time.
Some Christian Responses to That Challenge
CS Lewis: Matthew 24:34 was an "exhibition of error"
There have been various responses by Christians to this criticism of the Christian faith. Among these, one is particularly striking. All people, no matter how much we admire them, sometimes say or write things we wish they had not. It is usually best to ignore such lapses and allow time to bury them, but the author is going to make an exception in this case, because it illustrates just what a challenge the problem we have been considering has seemed to the integrity of the Christian faith. This argument has, on the surface, seemed so convincing that even the great Christian thinker and apologist C.S. Lewis despaired at finding a solution to it. Lewis, who usually provided able defenses of the Christian faith, in this one instance reluctantly conceded to the assertion of the skeptics that Jesus was in error. He attributed this to the limited knowledge Jesus had in His incarnate human form. He wrote,
“Say what you like," we shall be told [by some critics], "the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, 'This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.' And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else." [Here the imaginary critics end speaking. CS Lewis begins next.]
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.1
To this, the skeptic may reply, “If Jesus incorrectly predicted His return within the contemporaneous generation, but actually did not know that He was going to return within that time frame, then why did He so confidently assert that all of the words He had just spoken would come to pass in Matthew 24:35? He said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ ”
The skeptic has a good point here, one that causes us to desire a better answer. Surely, Lewis himself hoped for one.
Full Preterists: The Second Coming did happen, in 70 AD
Some Christians accept the idea that Jesus was speaking of the generation of the apostles, but admirably refuse to believe that Jesus could have been wrong about it. Full Preterists are such a group, but unfortunately, they resort to redefining orthodox Christian doctrines to accommodate their view that Christ returned before the generation of the apostles died out.
They claim that Jesus did return spiritually before that generation passed away, in judgment on the nation of Israel, when Titus besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD. This leads them to the conclusion that events associated with the Second Coming such as the resurrection, and even the inauguration of the New Heavens and New Earth, have already occurred. None of these things, they claim, was visible to the naked human eye. Although the bodies of Christians still remain in their graves, Full Preterists assert that they nevertheless still have been resurrected (in a sort of second re-embodiment that was not witnessed by any living person). In doing so, they deny the foundational Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, taught in the Old and New Testaments, as well as ancient creeds.
I have spoken with some Full Preterists who firmly believe that Jesus predicted a first century return in Matthew 24:34. “If Jesus was wrong about this,” one of them said, “I would be forced to reject Christianity.” This, he claimed, led him to embrace Full Preterism. “I do not want to hold to a doctrine that violates the creeds,” he said, “but I see no other solution.” If this man was sincere, then like him, no one should want to hold to an unorthodox theological view. C.S. Lewis, for instance, did not want to believe that Jesus was wrong. The acid test of this man's sincerity will be this: when a reasonable orthodox solution presents itself, will he abandon Full Preterism, or stubbornly dig his feet in and defend it? Some Full Preterists seem to ardently defend Full Preterism because it is a cherished view. Shouldn’t an answer that does not deny orthodox doctrines be sought, hoped for and preferred, rather than strongly resisted?
Some men have become so attached to unorthodox doctrines, that they are like the captive British officer in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai. He devoted so much time, pride and effort to building a bridge his captors forced him to make, that when the Allies came to destroy the bridge, he died defending it! In fact, I wonder if some Full Preterists have fully recognized that by strongly defending the idea that Jesus promised a first century return, they are agreeing with the contentions of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics!
No one should be so unswervingly devoted to a highly problematic view, that when a better one presents itself, he stubbornly defends his old view. Even if one has devoted much valuable time to developing his view, he must lay it all on the altar of truth for Christ. We must remember who we are fighting for! We should not be fighting for a cherished opinion, but for Christ!
There is a better way than to embrace unorthodox doctrines in the first place. When we cannot see a solution, it is better for us to humbly admit our lack of understanding to God, rather than rush into an heretical view that compromises scriptural truths. Instead, we should diligently seek God for a solution, and humbly wait in faith for Him to shed light on the scriptures.
So while we agree with the resolution of Full Preterists that Jesus could not have been wrong, there are simply too many missteps, difficulties and compromises inherent to their solution to the problem. Instead, we should hope and look for a better answer, one that does not deny doctrines foundational to the faith.
Partial Preterists: Jesus returned in 70 AD,
but this was not the final coming of Christ
Partial Preterists find the idea of a resurrection that leaves the body in the grave hardly credible. While also accepting the skeptic’s claim that Jesus predicted a first century return, they do not resort to redefining orthodox doctrines. Like Full Preterists, they believe that Jesus did return, in 70 AD, in judgment on the nation of Israel, but unlike them, they believe that this was not the end-time, visible coming of Christ predicted in other places of scripture. Partial Preterism has been championed by men such as Kenneth Gentry, Gary DeMar, Hank Hanegraaff, and RC Sproul.
Difficulties with the Preterist views
Full Preterists do not accept Partial Preterism, because they believe that scripture does not teach multiple Comings of Christ. But doesn’t scripture have examples of our Lord coming in judgment on nations and individuals (Isaiah 19:1, Rev. 2:5, 16)? I ask Full Preterists, would it not be preferable to adopt the orthodox Partial Preterist view, rather than one that contradicts doctrines that the church has held to be true for nearly two millennia? While Partial Preterism has its difficulties, they are fewer in number and less severe than those of Full Preterism.
However, although Partial Preterism is an admirable and orthodox attempt to reconcile the rest of scripture with Matthew 24:34, I do see one particular difficulty with this view when it is applied to the Olivet Discourse. This difficulty applies to both the Partial Preterist and Full Preterist views. The Preterist view of the Olivet Discourse forces one to spiritualize or allegorize important portions of it, especially verses 30 and 31:
30 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.
31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and
they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end
of heaven to the other.
These statements seem very plain. I think that the average skeptic would take them as intended to mean just what they seem to say. Let's be realistic: because of the allegorizing or spiritualizing required to make these words fit within a first century time frame, would the average skeptic find the Preterist interpretation of these verses very convincing? I doubt it. However, Partial Preterism has it's strengths, most notably the fact that the destruction of the temple foretold in Luke is an exact match of historical events. In light of that, it seems that a good solution would incorporate this and other strong elements of Partial Preterism.
Both Partial Preterists and Full Preterists feel that Matthew 24:34 compels them to believe that all of the Olivet Discourse must have been fulfilled within the generation of the apostles. But no doubt, the orthodox Partial Preterists find themselves uncomfortable partners with the unorthodox Full Preterists when they argue for a first generation fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse. And both of these groups surely would prefer not to be strange bedfellows with Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, and liberal theologians in arguing that Jesus must have been referring to the contemporaneous generation in Matthew 24:34. Who would want to agree with one of the major contentions that the enemies of the Christian faith use to undermine the Christian view? Would the critics so ardently promote this criticism if they felt that the Preterist view adequately explained the Olivet Discourse?
Full Futurists: All aspects of the Olivet Discourse are yet to be fulfilled
Full Futurists believe that all of the Olivet Discourse, most notably the portions describing the return of Christ and the events soon preceding it, refer to as-yet unfulfilled events. However, since Luke's account of the destruction of the city and temple were exactly fulfilled in 70 AD, a more satisfying answer would take this into account.
Are there better answers?
Out of love and concern for some Full Preterists I know and those that they influence, I have spent many hours in scripture meditation, research, and agonizing prayer looking for better answers to this challenge to our faith. That has been my primary motivation, but my concern is not just for them. This objection to the Christian faith that we have been discussing is perhaps the most powerful challenge to our faith that has ever been presented. It is therefore no wonder that the atheists and agnostics at www.infidels.org were so quick to use it against me when I engaged in forum dialogue with them. During this dialogue, to see how they would react, I informed them of the Full Preterist view. They flatly rejected it as a desperate attempt to rescue the Christian faith! Most atheists and agnostics, upon hearing any of the first three explanations above, would, I think, reject them due to their inherent difficulties.
In light of that, I have looked for answers to this objection to the Christian faith that do not force us to allegorize or spiritualize any portions of the Olivet Discourse.
I have concluded that there is much grammatical and contextual evidence that is compatible with four alternative interpretations of Matthew 24:34, and ask those who read this not to dismiss these views offhand, without first considering the evidence for these views that I am about to present. All four of these views permit us to regard the portions of the Olivet Discourse which refer to the return of Christ and the events shortly preceding it as futuristic, but those that refer to the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem as having already been fulfilled or having double-fulfillment. (To investigate the evidence for double-fulfillment more thoroughly, be sure to read the footnotes and the link provided.) Thus, all four of these interpretations of Matthew 24:34 allow us to accept the entire Olivet Discourse at face value, without allegorizing or spiritualizing any of it.
I present this evidence not only to skeptics of the Christian faith, but also to Christians who have embraced Preterism or the view of CS Lewis, as a solution that allows us to accept the full import of all of Christ’s words in the Olivet Discourse. Most specifically, I present it to the Full Preterists I have met and those influenced by them, in hope and prayer that since they reject certain elements of Partial Preterism, they will find in one of these views an acceptable alternative to embracing unorthodox doctrines. I beg of them to read it with a heart that is open to being convinced by the scriptures and sound reason.
Each of these four orthodox interpretations of Matthew 24:34 falls under the category of Partial Futurism. We will examine each of these four views in detail, but first, let's consider the contextual evidence for Partial Futurism.
Partial Futurists: The Olivet Discourse contains fulfilled and unfulfilled elements
The Partial Futurist, rejecting the Partial Preterist idea of two comings of Christ, holds that the Olivet Discourse contains both fulfilled and unfulfilled aspects. Some Partial Futurists hold that Jesus had in mind two destructions of the city of Jerusalem, so that His words would have double fulfillment.3, 5 Please refer to the footnotes below for more information concerning double fulfillment. It is my belief that Partial Futurism is the correct view, and that it is able to take on the skeptics very well. We will examine the evidence for this view next.
Why the scope of the Olivet Discourse was not limited to a single generation
Preterists, in arguing that the scope of the Olivet Discourse was limited to the first century, object to the Partial Futurist view of the Olivet Discourse by claiming,
“The Olivet Discourse was spoken in reply to questions about the temple. The temple was destroyed before the generation of the apostles died out. So Jesus must have had the contemporaneous generation in mind.”
Of course, there is no doubt that the first century and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD were in view in the Olivet Discourse (this is especially evident in Luke). However, there is ample contextual evidence that the scope of the Olivet Discourse was not limited to that event, or to the first century.
Below are just a few of these evidences:
1. Jesus was asked not one, but three questions. When we compare all three of the Olivet accounts, we see that the disciples asked Jesus three questions.3
All three accounts record the first question, "When shall these things be?"
Mark and Luke both record the second question, "What will be the sign that they are about to take place?" Note that these first two questions concern the destruction of the temple.
The third question, recorded only in Matthew, concerns the return of
Christ: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the
It therefore seems reasonable that Jesus would have answered all three questions in his reply. We would also expect Matthew to devote particular attention to the sign preceding the Second Coming of Christ, since only his gospel records this question.
These three questions indicate that the time span covered by the Olivet Discourse may be very long.
2. Jesus indicated that the Jews will recognize Him as the Messiah when He returns. The third question concerning Christ's coming was likely provoked by the last statement Jesus had made concerning it in Matthew 23:39, "For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’" Surely, the Jews did not cry that while Titus and His armies were destroying their temple and city, and carrying their wives and children into slavery!
Like Jesus, the apostle Paul also foretold a day in which all of the nation of Israel will repent:
Romans 11:26, “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.”
So did the prophet Zechariah:
Zec 12:10 And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.
Jesus, Paul and Zechariah therefore must not have had 70 AD in mind, but rather a day in which Jesus will finally be recognized as the Messiah by the Jews.
3. The “times of the gentiles” goes beyond the first century. In the account of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21, the "times of the Gentiles" in verse 24 clearly goes beyond the scope of the first century. It is the long period that lies between the destruction of Jerusalem and the day when Jerusalem is no longer controlled by Gentile powers (it could possibly be argued that the Jewish people do not even yet have full control).
Luke 21:24, “They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
After the Times of the Gentiles comes to a close, there will be signs in the heavens prior to our Lord's return:
25.. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;
26.. Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
27.. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
4. Jesus will return visibly. Verse 27 above is in all three of the Olivet accounts. It indicates that men will SEE the Son of Man coming. This clear statement must be awkwardly allegorized or spiritualized to fit it within a first century time frame. These words were echoed again by John in Revelation 1:7:
"Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen."
The words “every eye” indicate that John understood Jesus literally, not figuratively.
"They which pierced him" probably refers to the nation of the Jews (but it may indicate that even the spirits of the dead will be supernaturally enabled to see the Parousia).
Acts 1: 9-11 provides further evidence that the return of Christ will be visible. In it reference is made to seeing with the eyes five times:
11.. When he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.
10.. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
11.. Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
Since His ascension was visible to the naked eye, and He will return in “like manner,” we can reasonably expect that his return will also be visible. Just like the Olivet Discourse, this passage uses “cloud” language. Since the disciples saw Jesus departing in a cloud in Acts 1:9-11, what reason, other than theological preconception, do we have to believe that the meaning in Luke 21:27, which uses the same language, and was written by the very same author, Luke the Physician, is any different?
5. Jesus instructed ALL believers, not just those in Judea, to be ready for His coming. The illustrations and parables which conclude the Olivet Discourse (the days of Noah, the two men in the field, the thief in the night, the unprofitable servant, the ten virgins, etc.) beginning in Matthew 24:36, stress the importance of ALL believers being ready for His coming, not just those living in Judea, where the siege of Jerusalem took place in 70 AD. This is powerful evidence that in verse 31, Jesus is speaking of a Coming other than a coming in judgment on Israel in 70 AD.
Why would Jesus close the Olivet Discourse with multiple illustrations of the importance of ALL believers being ready for His Return, if He had not even mentioned such a coming in the preceding verses? It is true that in Luke, some of these parables do not appear in the Olivet Discourse. But where they appear elsewhere in Luke, they obviously illustrate the Second Coming. This is further evidence that the Coming in the Olivet Discourse is the Second Coming of Christ.
Therefore, the context of the Olivet Discourse leads us to the conclusion that the scope of it is not limited at all to the generation of the Apostles. Some of the things it describes, such as the “times of the Gentiles,” and the heavenly signs preceding Christ’s Coming, extend far beyond the time of the Apostles. The time frame covered by the Olivet Discourse begins with the persecutions of the Apostles, stretches through the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the lengthy "times of the Gentiles," the abomination of desolation and possibly a final attack on Jerusalem, and ends with the Second Coming of Christ. That is far beyond the lifetime of even the longest-lived person alive at the time the Olivet discourse was spoken.
Although as we have just seen there is very strong contextual and scriptural evidence for the Partial Futurist view, many people, because they believe that Matthew 24:34 refers to the contemporaneous generation, feel compelled to reject this evidence. It seems that for these people, the tail wags the dog! But they need not resort to such a stretch. As promised, we will now present three alternative views of Matthew 24:34. Each of them, the reader will be relieved to know, permits the dog to wag the tail!
The Generation of Jesus Christ Interpretation
This view has been recently expressed by Dr.Gerardus D. Bouw.2 In this view, Jesus was speaking of the generation of God's children. God does not have grandchildren - he only has sons and daughters. They are made His sons and daughters by virtue of the new birth. Therefore, there is only one generation of the spiritual children of God. There are in fact many Bible verses which refer, both directly and indirectly, to this generation of Jesus Christ. One of the most notable of these may be Matthew 1:1.
Mat 1:1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Since the genealogy of Christ does not constitute the entire book of Matthew, Dr. Bouw suggests that this term refers to the complete book of Matthew, and perhaps even prophetically to the entire New Testament, as the record of the sons of the new Adam, Jesus Christ. Dr. Bouw has traced this view of Matthew 1:1 to translators as far back as the time of Jerome.
Although some might dispute this interpretation of Matthew 1:1, there are many other verses that refer to this generation of Jesus Christ.
Ps 14:5 There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.
Ps 24:6 This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
Ps 73:15 If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.
1Pe 2:9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light:
Ps 22:30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
Isa 8:18 Behold, I and the children whom the LORD hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth in mount Zion.
Isa 53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Ga 4:6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
Php 2:15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;
Heb 2:13 And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me.
Jo 3:1 Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.
According to this view, the disciples whom Jesus was talking to were a part the very generation of God's children He was speaking of. By "this generation," Jesus had in mind his own spiritual offspring, some of whom were immediately before him. The sense of Jesus in Matthew 24:34, therefore, was that despite the intense persecution described earlier in the Olivet Discourse, the generation of His children will not pass away from the earth until all of the things spoken of in the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled. This would fit in with the words of Jesus in verses 21 and 22:
Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
The “Offspring” Interpretation
The church father Jerome believed that Jesus was referring to the offspring of man, and in particular to the offspring of Jacob in Matthew 24:34. He wrote,
"By ‘generation’ here He means the whole human race, and the Jews in particular. And He adds, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,’ to confirm their faith in what has gone before; as though He had said, it is easier to destroy things solid and immovable, than that aught should fail of my words."
The Greek word genea, translated “generation” here, does also mean the offspring of a common human ancestor. It can also mean the offspring of a spiritual parent (God, the World, or Satan). Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament provides the following definitions of this word:
1) a begetting, birth, nativity
2) that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family
2a) the several ranks of natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy
2b) metaph. a race of men very like each other in endowments, pursuits, character
2b1) esp. in a bad sense, a perverse nation (Mt 17:17, Mk 9:19, Lk 9:41, 16:8, Ac 2:40)
3) the whole multitude of men living at the same time; used especially of the Jewish race living at one and the same period (Mt 11:16, 12:39, 41, sq. 45; 16:4, 23:36; Mk 8:12, 38; Lk 11:29 sq. 32, 50 sq.; 17:25; acts 13:36; He 3:10; Lk 7:31; Lk 11:31; Acts 8:33)
4) an age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied by each successive generation), a space of 30-33 years
And so we see that one of the primary definitions of genea is that of a group of men of common descent.
Answers to Criticisms of the "Offspring" View.......
Most critics of the Christian faith and Preterists quickly dismiss Jerome’s interpretation. They point out that the KJV usually translates genea as “generation.” They are correct. In the King James Version, genea is translated "generation" thirty-seven times, "time" twice, "age" twice, and "nation" only once. But this argument is not as powerful as it appears at first glance.
This is because when the KJV was translated, a people of common descent was one of the possible meanings of the English word "generation." My modern Merriam-Webster's Dictionary does not list this as a possible meaning, but my old 1908 Webster provides the following definition:
"6. Race; kind; family; breed; stock."
Shakespeare provides evidence of this old English use of the word:
"Thy mother's of my generation: what's she, if I be a dog?"
Since many of our modern versions have followed the precedent of the KJV, this possible meaning of genea has been lost to many readers of English translations, because of the limited modern definition of this word. That is unfortunate, as a quick look at Thayer's definitions above illustrates that this Greek word had a much broader meaning than our English word "generation" does in modern times.
Therefore, when we read the New Testament we must be careful not to limit the meaning of genea to our modern definition of "generation." In many instances, “offspring” would be a better translation of genea for modern readers than “generation,” because unlike our modern word "generation," it leaves open the idea of a group of people of common descent.
One notable example in which "race" or "kind" seems to be the most fitting way to translate genea is Luke 16:8. 6 The KJV translates it like this:
Luke 16:8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
However, the preposition eis is used here, which is directive and in many other places is translated "into," or "toward" in the KJV. Preserving this sense of directiveness while translating into modern English, we get the following:
"...for the sons of this world are more shrewd toward their own kind than are the sons of light."
In his commentary on Luke, Alfred Plummer noted, "Men of the world in their dealings with men like themselves are more prudent than the children of light in their intercourse with one another." 7
Outside of the Olivet Discourse, there are only two other places in the entire New Testament in which the exact phrase genea hautey, translated "this generation," is used. In one of them, genea may be understood as referring to Israel as a family, nation, or kind of men without any damage at all to the sensibility of the passage:
Mark 8:12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation.
[Commentators (Barnes, Gill, TFG) tell us that the meaning of this is that no sign would be given such as they demanded. Indeed, scripture does not indicate that any sign was given from heaven by Jesus at the request of the Jewish people to "prove" that He was the Messiah. The sign of Jonas the prophet was given, but this was not just for them, but for all men. They had not asked for this sign, however, nor would a sign be given that they had asked for. The prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, the miracles that He performed, and the truth and depth of His teachings were evidence enough for them, and these were all given when He willed it, not upon their demand.]
Beyond that, in many of the other instances in which genea is translated generation in the KJV, it can likewise be translated offspring, race, or kind.
Surely, if the learned and scholarly Church Father Jerome, who lived much closer to the time of the writing of the New Testament than we, took “offspring” as the meaning of genea in Matthew 24:34, we should also seriously consider this interpretation!
And so we see that it is quite possible that Jesus meant that the family of the Jews would not pass away before all of these things happen. These words would thereby be a source of comfort to all who wonder if the Jewish people will survive, especially those destined to endure horrible tribulations such as the Holocaust that threatened to wipe out the race.
And so the brute force of the skeptic’s argument is hereby taken way. He cannot accurately claim that Jesus made a false prediction based on the meaning of the word genea.
“But,” some Full Preterists contend, “Jesus said ‘This generation shall not pass, TILL all these things be fulfilled.’ The word ‘till’ implies that generation will eventually pass away.”
This reflects a misunderstanding of the NT usage of the word translated “till” in this verse. Jesus used the very same Greek word (Strong’s 2193) in Matthew 22:44: "The LORD said unto my Lord, 'Sit thou on my right hand, till <2193> I make thine enemies thy footstool.'"
Does this mean that Jesus will no longer sit at the Fathers’ right hand after the Father makes His enemies His footstool? Of course not!
Or consider Matthew 27:8: “Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto <2193> this day.”
Does this mean that field was no longer called “The field of blood” after Matthew penned those words? Obviously, the answer is no.
This objection to the “offspring” view, therefore, is without any solid foundation.
I ask Full Preterists, would it not be better to embrace the “offspring” view, a time-honored interpretation, or the reasonable and scriptural "generation of God's children" view, than to adopt an unorthodox theology that presents so many difficulties?
The "Generation I Just Spoke Of" Interpretation
“I reject the ‘race’ interpretation,” many Preterists and skeptics would answer, “because in every other place in the New Testament where Jesus used the words ‘this generation,’ He has contemporaries in view.”
As we have demonstrated, Jesus seems to have had the offspring of the Jews in mind in at least one of those instances (Mark 8:12). Also, as mentioned above, in Matthew 16:8, he seems to have had a kind of men in mind (the children of this world). So Jesus probably did not have all of the men living at that time in mind in all of these instances.
Still, even if “this generation” did refer to the contemporary generation in all of the other contexts, would this mean that Jesus must have been speaking of the contemporary generation in Matthew 24:34?
Absolutely not. This is a very fallacious argument and it should be exposed as such. The Greek word hautey (a form of outos), translated “this” in Matthew 24:34, is a demonstrative pronoun (according to the Greek grammars. We would call the word a demonstrative adjective in English.) A demonstrative pronoun answers the question, “Which?” In this case, it answers the question, “Which generation?” The very purpose behind using the word “this” was to single out the generation Jesus was talking about from all other possible generations. And how do we conclusively determine “which” generation Jesus was speaking of? From the context, of course!
Since there were many possible generations Jesus could have been speaking of, it is the context of the surrounding verses, not other contexts, that should be the determining factor as to Jesus’ meaning! His use of genea in other contexts certainly very strongly demonstrates the possibility that He could have been referring to the contemporaneous generation, but it in no way indicates that He must have been speaking of the contemporaneous generation.
To illustrate, if I say "this car" 5 times, referring to the Volvo I currently own, does that mean that the next time I say it, I must be speaking of the same car? Of course not! The next time I say “this car,” I might be talking instead about the Oldsmobile Cutlass Diesel I used to own, which had a converted gasoline engine, and was prone to blowing head gaskets! Regarding this car, although I owned it long ago, notice that it was not improper for me at the beginning of this sentence to say "this car" rather than "that car". This is because I only just mentioned the car. It was near in context. Did you, even for a moment, think I referring to my Volvo when I said "this car?" No! It was the context which enabled you to determine exactly which car I was talking about.
The Greek word hautey (translated “this”), is also sometimes used to refer to something near in context in the NT, as a computer survey of the usage of this word in the New Testament easily confirms. Some examples of this will be provided in the next section, as well as some quotes from NT Greek authorities regarding this.
And so given the fact that Jesus could have used "this" to refer to something near in context, we must must not hastily jump to the conclusion that He meant a generation near in time or space. If he had just mentioned or addressed another generation in the near context, he could have been referring to it instead.
And so we see that Jesus may have meant "this generation I just mentioned", rather than "this generation of people living right now”!
In support of this idea, all through the Olivet Discourse, Jesus is speaking of future events. Some of them occurred during the lifetime of the apostles, but arguably not all. Therefore Jesus was prophetically addressing those among us who will witness His return when He said,
33.. So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
The next verse seems intended to reinforce the nearness of His return to those who will see all these things:
34.. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
If this is the case, then Jesus either meant "this generation [I just mentioned, which will see all of these things] shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,"
"this generation [I am prophetically addressing] shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."
In either case, the message is essentially the same: the generation among us which will witness all of these things will not pass away until Jesus returns.
Further Evidence That "this" May Refer to Something Near in the Written or Spoken Context
I received a letter from a Partial Preterist, who claimed that by saying Jesus could have been referring to a generation in the distant future that was near in consideration (context), I was "reinventing the rules of grammar." There is an easy way to see who is right. If my idea is correct, then we should expect to find other places in the NT where the Greek word hautey (Strongs # 3778), translated "this," is used to refer to something or someone near in context, though that person or thing existed far away in time.
When we look to see if there are such instances in the NT, we find that there are indeed.
When discussing Melchizedec, who lived thousands of years in the past, the writer of the book of Hebrews used the word "this" to refer to him:
Hebrews 7:1, “For this Melchizedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him.”
Here are other instances in the NT in which "this" (Strong’s number 3778) is used to refer to persons or things which have just been mentioned in the context, yet exist far way in time.
Acts 7:37, “This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear.”
This could not be a clearer example. "This Moses I am talking about," the writer is intends, "is that Moses who said the following..."
Acts 17:3, “Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”
Romans 9:9, "For this is the word of promise, 'At this time will I come, and Sara shall have a son.'”
Hebrews 8:10, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.”
Revelation 20:14, “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT is Titus 1:13, in which the phrase marturia hautey has the same grammatical construction and word order sequence as the phrase genea hautey in Matthew 24:34.
Titus 1:13, “This witness (marturia hautey) is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.”
Here, the “witness” that Paul had just quoted was originally written centuries earlier. It was written by the sixth century BC poet Epimenides, in his poem Cretica, around 659 BC. Yet, Paul uses the word "this" to refer to it, because it is near in context, having just been quoted.
In his book Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, on page 325, Daniel B. Wallace also notes that outos can refer to something near in context or near in the writer's mind. He writes,
" The near-far distinctions of outos and ekeinos can refer either to that which is near/far in the (1) context, (2) in the writer's mind, or (3) in space or time of the writer or audience. 26 " [Bold emphasis mine.]
Wallace references the following grammatical works in support of this observation:
" 26 So Winer-Moulton, 195-96; Dana-Mantey, 127-28 (§ 136); Young, Intermediate Greek, 78. Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 68 (§214), summarizes the issue nicely: "the proximity or remoteness may not be grammatical...but psychological." [Bold emphasis mine.]
Upon reading the observations of these Greek authorities, the same partial preterist I mentioned above asserted that they apply only to literary discourse (such as a letter of Paul), and not to verbal speech. Since Matthew records the verbal speech of Jesus, he argued, Jesus could not have been referring to a future generation. However, one little word found in both this verse (Matthew 24:34) and the preceding verse clearly demonstrates that he is wrong. It is the word tauta, translated "these things." This is a plural form of the very same word, autos. (Whereas hautey, translated "this" in verse 34, is a singular form of autos.) In both Matthew 24:33 and 24:34, Jesus said "these things" rather than "those things" because they were near in his spoken context! And obviously, these were future events which had not yet taken place! Further refuting this partial preterist's argument, Acts 7:37 is clearly part of the verbal speech of Stephen.
Therefore, it is erroneous to claim that Jesus' choice of words here means that he MUST have been referring to the multitude of people living at that time. As the examples above demonstrate, He may have been referring to a future generation that was near in his spoken context: the one just mentioned, which will see all of these things happen.
This has important implications for us when it comes to interpreting the Olivet Discourse. It means that the words and grammar of Matthew 24:34 do not force us to conclude that Jesus must have been speaking of the contemporaries of the apostles.
And so we must allow the context of this verse, rather than a mistakenly narrow definition of one little word, to inform us of what genea Jesus is speaking of. To do otherwise is to wag the dog with the tail!
While I personally dislike disagreeing with my orthodox Partial Preterist brethren (I am not a man who relishes argumentation), I feel compelled to disagree with both them and the unorthodox Full Preterists over the next three points. Preterists have two arrows left in their quiver which seem, at first glance, to be reasonably straight. Some Skeptics use these arguments, too. Let's examine them now.
The Second Person Pronoun Argument
A Preterist might object, “What is the point of arguing that Jesus could have meant the generation he had just mentioned, when there is an indication in the context of the Olivet Discourse that very plainly demonstrates He was referring to the generation of the Apostles? Jesus often used the word “ye” in this discourse. For instance, Mark 13:13:
Mark 13:13 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
"The word ‘ye,’ ” the Preterist continues, “referred to the Apostles. 'This generation’ therefore must be the contemporaries of the Apostles.”
To this we reply that the Olivet Discourse was probably spoken privately to only four disciples:
Mark 13:3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately…
However, if the discourse was intended only for these four, then what do we make of Matthew 24:9?
Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.
If the Preterist is right, these four men, or at least some of them, would bear the great misfortune of being hated by all nations! Even if Jesus answered this private question so that all twelve of his disciples could hear it, the idea is still extremely difficult to imagine. By 70 AD, the gospel had not yet spread to all of the nations of the earth, including the indian nations of the Americas and the far eastern oriental nations; how then could all of the nations have hated the disciples? This hardly credible conclusion, which flows from the Preterist's contention, makes it clear that by the word “you” Jesus had all of His followers throughout history in mind, not just the twelve disciples.4
The Tautology Argument
Some Preterists, and some Skeptics as well, may raise yet another objection:
“Your interpretation is tautological (circular). If it were true, it would be as though Jesus had said, ‘This generation living when all of these things take place will not pass away until all of these things take place.’ Such a statement is meaningless.”
This objection makes use of a common logical fallacy – the straw man argument. A straw man argument misrepresents an opponent’s viewpoint, in order to make it look ridiculous. If the misrepresentation is subtle and difficult to detect, as is the case here, then the strategy will be all the more effective. This straw man argument cleverly takes advantage of the fact that Matthew uses the phrase “all these things” in both verses 24:33 and 24:34:
Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30.. 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.
31.. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32.. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33.. So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
34.. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Look carefully at verse 33. What does “it is near” refer to?
Answer: The Second Coming of Christ and the gathering of the elect, just mentioned in verses 30-31.
This means that “all these things” in verse 33 does not include the Second Coming. “All these things” in verse 34, however, does include the Second Coming.
And so we see that Jesus probably meant, “When you see all of these signs and events I have just mentioned come to pass, My Coming will be so near, that this generation will not pass away until all of these things I have foretold, including my Parousia, are fulfilled.”
There is no tautology in this.
How could all of the Olivet Discourse possibly be literal?
At this point, although the skeptic may grow silent, some Preterists may have a further objection:
“Jesus said in Matthew 24:29, ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.’ How could these events be literal?”
Even if the language in this verse is symbolic, there is nothing in it that ties it to the generation of the Apostles. One can hold to a future Coming and take this verse as symbolic.
It may not be symbolic, however. The burning cities, fields, and forests that accompany war have been observed to darken the sun and block out the light of the moon.
The Inceptive Aorist View
This view is explained by Royce Gordon Gruenler in a contribution to William D. Mounce's Basic's of Biblical Greek, on page 193 of the Second Edition. In Matthew 24:34, the Greek words "tauta genetai" are translated "these things be fulfilled" in the KJV:
“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
However, this is not the only possible translation of these two Greek words. The word genetai is in the aorist tense. The aorist tense simply gives us a "snapshot" of an action taking place. Just as with a photo, this "snapshot" may occur at the beginning of an action (the inceptive sense), during the action (durative ), or at the end of it (culminative).
Gruenler very persuasively points out that the very same words, "genetai tauta" are used by the angel Gabriel in an inceptive sense in Luke 1:20. The angel Gabriel, you may recall, had just foretold to Zechariah the things his son John would do. Since Zechariah did not believe the words the angel spoke, he was made mute until "the day that these things shall be performed" (as the King James translates genetai tauta). And yet, Zechariah was able to speak again immediately after he named his newborn son John, rather than many years later, after John had fulfilled his ministry! The most accurate translation, which Gruenler provides, is therefore
"And now you will be silent and not able to speak until these things begin to happen."
Since Jesus used the very same word forms in Matthew 24:34, He may have also been using them in the inceptive sense! In other words, Jesus may have meant, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things begin to happen.”
Fitting The Pieces Together
Which of these four respectable views do I personally hold to? One difficulty I find with Gruenler's view is that unlike Luke 1:20, in Matthew 24:34, Jesus preceded tauta genetai with the word pante, meaning "all". It is difficult for me to imagine all of the events Jesus foretold in the Olivet Discourse individually beginning to happen before the contemporaneous generation of the disciples passed away. However, if Jesus meant "till all these things [taken together as a group] begin to happen [one at a time]," that would help resolve the difficulty, but this seems unlikely to me. Also, we are faced with the difficulty of why Jesus would have added the word "all" when speaking in this sense, but the angel Gabriel did not (I'm open to ideas here).
In light of that, it seems more likely to me that Jesus was using the aorist word genetai in a culminative sense, as most English speaking translators have traditionally rendered it. Turning therefore to the other three views, I think they all help to inform us. First of all, we ought to recognize that our modern word "generation" has become narrower in meaning than the Greek word genea. The modern English word "offspring" is much closer to it, and that is the very sense in which the venerable church father Jerome interpreted it. Secondly, there are many instances, as Dr. Bouw points out, where the spiritual offspring of God, His elect, are referred to in the scriptures. When Jesus said "this generation," he often meant the generation he was addressing, and his spiritual offspring were seated directly in front of Him when he spoke the Olivet discourse. Furthermore, when Jesus said, "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors," it appears that He was addressing not just the twelve, but all of His disciples, being fully aware that His words would be recorded for us all. Though he was addressing us all, His words were specifically intended to encourage those among us who will witness these events.
Was our Lord referring to all of His spiritual offspring when He said "this generation shall not pass away," or only to the future generation among us that he had just encouraged, who will see all of these things? I am not sure, but whichever was His intent, His promise is still the same:
When all of these things are coming to fulfillment, we should be encouraged, because His return will be very close. So close, that no matter how tough things get, we may rely on his promise that His spiritual offspring will not be wiped from the earth before His return.
Mt 24:22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect‘s sake those days shall be shortened.
As Luke records the words of our Lord upon the Mount of Olives,
28.. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
29.. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees;
30.. When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand.
31.. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.
32.. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.
Genea hautey can mean “this offspring," “this generation I just mentioned,” "this generation I am talking to," or “this contemporaneous generation,” depending on the context. It is not other contexts, but the context of Matthew 24:34 that should be the determining factor as to what Jesus meant by the word genea. The context of the Olivet Discourse leads us to believe that Jesus was speaking either of the offspring of Jacob (the Jews), the generation of God's children, or of a future generation among us he had just addressed. Alternatively, genetai may be translated "begin to happen" in Matthew 24 34.
Therefore, we are not forced into difficult aspects of the Partial Preterist view, which allegorize and spiritualize important portions of the Olivet Discourse. Nor must we resort, as Full Preterists do, to asserting that the Second Coming and the Resurrection must have happened invisibly in 70 AD, when it is plain to everyone that church history records none of these events, and the bodies of all men who have died, except that of our Lord Jesus (and possibly those mentioned in Mt 27:53), remain within the earth. Nor need we despair at finding a solution, as CS Lewis did. Despite his remarkable intellect and his usual able defenses of the Christian faith, he was quite wrong in thinking that the facts force us to admit Jesus made an embarrassing error.
Instead, we find not just one, but four reasonable, scriptural, and orthodox alternatives to the assertion of critics of the Christian faith that Jesus was referring to the contemporaneous generation in Matthew 24:34. All four permit us to confidently accept the full import of the other words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse!
“TRULY, I say to you,” Jesus assured us, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” He promised that all of the events He had just foretold would happen before the genea He was speaking of passed away. The enemies of our faith, emboldened by unclear translations and incorrect assumptions, have directed a flood of criticism at this promise. They have rained torrents of words and brashly thundered hasty accusations. Like CS Lewis, some of us had our view blocked by these dark clouds. But these low hanging storm clouds, like an intense but brief summer thunder storm, merely obscured the words of our Lord. Now that the mists have cleared, what do we see?
A strong and secure foundation of solid rock that cannot be washed away.
As Jesus said, "Whoever comes to Me and hears My words, and does them, I will show you to whom he is like. He is like a man who built a house and dug deep and laid the foundation on a rock; and a flood occurring, the stream burst against that house and could not shake it; for it was founded on a rock. But he who hears and does not perform, is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, on which the stream burst, and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great."
Have you built your home on this rock? Do you trust in the words of Christ, and live your life based upon that trust?
And so the words of our Lord again prove true, solid, faithful and trustworthy. Why has the faith of many in our contemporary generation been so small concerning this particular matter? Why have they so quickly caved in to the brash assertions of the enemies of God, without even taking the time to cross-examine those claims?
Has Jesus not always demonstrated himself to be true and faithful? Have not the arguments of past critics of Jesus all eventually been discredited, time and time again?
One lesson we can learn from this is, when someone asserts a challenge to God's word, we should not unquestionably accept it without waiting to hear the other side of the story. In a trial, the first to present his case usually sounds right, until the cross examination begins.
The words of Jesus have indeed stood the test of time, earning our trust countless times over. And did He not confidently assure us with the following words, which ring just as true now as they ever did?
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."
1 Essay "The World's Last Night" (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385. This statement seems to me to be out of character for the late C.S. Lewis, who is one of my heroes of the faith. Ray St-Pierre noted in private correspondence to me that Lewis wrote the following concerning his statements regarding the Second Coming in the same essay (at about paragraph 23):
Coming of the Saviour.
I have no claim to speak as an expert in any of the studies involved, and merely put forward the reflections which have arisen in my own mind and have seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) to be helpful. They are all submitted to the correction of wiser heads.
2 Gerardus D. Bouw, 1997. "The Book of Bible Problems," (Assoc. for Biblical Astronomy, 4527 Wetzel Ave., Cleveland, OH 44109), pp. 213-215.
3 It is very helpful to view all three of the Olivet Discourse accounts side by side, and to compare them phrase by phrase. Doing so, one can easily see how the words of Jesus may have double-fulfillment. Andy Doerksen and I have prepared all three of the accounts in parallel at https://www.thingstocome.org/olivet.htm.
4 “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” In Mark and Luke, and the majority of the Greek manuscripts of Matthew, these words of Jesus appear exactly the same in all three of the Olivet accounts.
5 Why are there differences in the Olivet Discourse accounts?
A) Details are included in some accounts that are missing in others. It is natural that one eyewitness will mention details of an event that the other eyewitnesses will omit.
B) It is believed that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so what we read in the Greek manuscripts are inspired (and therefore correct and truthful) interpretations of what He said, each of which brings out different aspects of his original meaning. In instances where a prophecy by Jesus was to have double-fulfillment, the Gospel accounts may bring out the different fulfillments. For additional evidence of double-fulfillment, see Jesus Foretold Two Desolations of Jerusalem.
C) The gospel accounts may have drawn a good deal from an Aramaic or Hebrew source mentioned by Papias. It was compiled by Matthew, and known as the Logia, a collection of the sayings of Jesus. This may have been the Gospel of Matthew, written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic. Some of what we read may be an inspired interpretation in Greek of some of this Hebrew or Aramaic source material. Papias, who testified that he heard the apostle John, wrote, “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Fragments of Papias: from the Exposition of the Oracles of our Lord.) There is some evidence in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbath, Folio 116a, paragraph 3) that the gospels in the Hebrew language were destroyed in persecutions of the Jewish Christians (called Nazarenes), by unconverted Jews:
Come and hear: The blank spaces [gospels] and the Books of the Minim [sectarians, including Judeo-Christians] may not be saved from a fire, but they must be burnt in their place, they and the Divine Names occurring in them.
6 I extend thanks to a correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous for pointing out this verse (Luke 16:8) to me.
7 Alfred Plummer, 1896. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, pp 384.