For almost two thousand years now, certain sects of Christianity have been continuously preaching that Jesus, the rejected messiah, is about to return in all his glory, to rain judgment upon the unbelievers, and institute the millennial kingdom. A very popular "proof text" for this doctrine is the so-called "little apocalypse", found in Mark 13 and in the parallel passages Matthew 24 and Luke 21. This piece of text, also known as the Olivet Discourse, records the lengthy answer of Jesus to the question posed by his disciples: "When shall these things be, and what shall be the sign of your coming?"
Jesus puts forth a series of signs and predictions: wars, earthquakes, famine, false Messiahs, all culminating in the "sign of the Son of Man" in Heaven, followed by his long promised Return (Matthew 24:30).
There have been no shortage of amateur exegetes who have always sought (and, predictably, found) these very same signs in their own generation. Thus assured that the Return of Jesus was just around the corner, a whole slew of silliness has ensued, all the way from William Miller's wretched followers awaiting Jesus on their rooftops, to Miller's modern counterparts, Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, and a whole array of earnest soothsayers, breathlessly exhorting their wide-eyed followers to stand firm, for the hour is now upon us.
What makes this situation even more ironic is that it can be easily shown from this same proof-text that Jesus will not return. This is due to the simple fact that Jesus himself put a time-limit on his predictions. "Verily I say unto you", declares the would-be Messiah, "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34).
It hardly needs to be noted that Jesus' generation is very long gone, and with it the deadline for his return. He is now more than 1,900 years overdue, with no end in sight.
Not surprisingly, pre-millennial scholars have been aware of the problem, and have proposed a range of imaginative "solutions" to this minor inconvenience. All of these solutions involve charging that Jesus did not really mean what he plainly said.
There are generally two popular solutions expounded by present-day prophets: first, that Jesus meant to indicate that the Jewish race itself would not cease to exist until the end, or that the phrase "this generation" refers to a far future group of peoples, those who would be alive to see the first Signs of His Coming. As Gleason Archer claims, in a wonderful piece of circular logic:
"Obviously these apocalyptic scenes and earth-shaking events did not take place within the generation of those who heard Christ's Olivet discourse. Therefore Jesus could not have been referring to his immediate audience when He made this prediction..." (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pg 338).
Archer then goes on to propose two possible solutions, as already noted. He claims first that "...genea ('generation') was used as a synonym of genos ('race', 'stock', 'nation' , 'people'). This would then amount to a prediction that the Jewish race would not pass out of existence before the Second Advent." (ibid, pg 338-339) Archer appeals to Herodotus and Plutarch for support, but fails to take into account how the word is used in the New Testament itself. A quick glance through any Greek lexicon or concordance of the New Testament will quickly show that genea is always used in the sense of a generation in a specific point in time. Nowhere is this usage more obvious than in the Gospels themselves.
Matthew, for example, uses the word in 1:17, where he counts "fourteen generations from Abraham to David". The word is again used in Matthew 12;41, where we are told that "The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here." It should be fairly obvious that "this generation", in this context, is the one to which Jesus appeared.
The second solution that Archer proposes to the problem is to claim that "this generation" means (in the face of all common sense) a different, far future generation. "The other possibility is that genea does indeed mean 'generation', in the usual sense of the word, but refers to the generation of observers who witnessed the beginning of the signs and persecutions with which the Tribulation will begin." (ibid, pg 339) To be fair, Archer expresses some doubt about this solution, and with good reason: the context of Mark 13, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 will quickly show that such an interpretation cannot be correct.
We simply need to ask the question" "To whom was Jesus speaking?" in order to ascertain the meaning of "this generation". It will quickly be noted that this discourse was delivered to Jesus' own disciples, whom he directly addresses throughout the text. "And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately..." begins Matthew's version of the Discourse. (The other two parallel passages concur). Note how many times Jesus states that his own disciples would be witness to these very signs:
"Take heed that no man deceive you." (Matt
"...ye shall hear of wars, and rumours of wars..." (Matt 24:6)
"Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted..." (Matt 24:9)
"When ye therefore shall see the the abomination of desolation..." (Matt 24:15)
"But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter..." (Matt 24:20)
"Behold, I have told you before." (Matt 24:25)
The clincher, of course, is to note that Jesus' statement about "this generation" is actually the tail end of a longer quote. When read in context, there can be no doubt about the import of Jesus' prediction: "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." (Matt 24:33-24)
There is no need to twist the words of Jesus in order to get around this problem. We simply need to note that the New Testament itself indicates that there was a widespread belief among the early Church that the return of Jesus was very near.
I Thessalonians 4:15-17 "...For the Lord himself shall
descend from heaven with a shout...Then we which are alive and
remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds,
to meet the Lord in the air..."
I Corinthians 15:51,52 "...We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump..."
Romans 13:11-12 "And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand..."
James 5:8 "Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh."
I John 2:18 "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time."
I Peter 4:7 "But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer."
Revelation 22:20 "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly...."
Obviously, these people were wrong. Jesus did not return for his disciples, nor at anytime since. We can therefore only assume that Jesus made a false prophecy, and he will not be returning for his Church at any time.
By the time that the book called II Peter came to be written, the apostolic fathers had all died, and Jesus' return was nowhere in sight. Pseudo-Peter thus laments "...there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation."
To which we can only add that the "scoffers" have apparently always been correct.