Signs of the Times – Thoughts on the End Times, Part 7

Part 7: More On Why I Believe the Preterist View Is Wrong

This post is a continuation of Part 6 and will not make sense without reading Part 6 first.  To read Part 6, click here:

To read Parts 1-6, click here:

Jerusalem_Siege_by_Romans_70_AD_1Against the preterist view I would also contend that the events of the first century don’t match the intensity of the events described in Matthew 24: 4-25.  These verses sound like they’re describing world events, not just events in first-century Palestine.  Consider:

6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.

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. – Matthew 24:6-9

There will be wars between various nations and kingdoms. It sounds like widespread warfare, not just something localized in one region. Natural disasters will occur “in various places” not just in one locality. Believers will be “hated by all nations.”  That sounds like something on a global scale, not just in the middle east. Likewise, the “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

Now, it is true that the Greek word translated “world” there is “oikoumene” which was understood as the known world or the Roman empire.  Yet it could also be translated “globe.”  At any rate, what was in view was the entire known world, which is supported by the fact that this was going to bring a “testimony to all nations” or ethnicities (the Greek word there is actually “ethne” from which we get our English word “ethnic”),  Once again, this was not a local or regional thing, but meant that the gospel was going to be preached throughout the world to every ethnicity.  The fact that they didn’t know as much of the world back then as we do now in no way prevents this prophecy from being applied to the entire world as we know it today, for that seems to be the idea Jesus was conveying.

Now, the references to the temple and to Judea in verses 15-20 do clearly refer to Palestine.  Yet even here we have language that seems bigger than can adequately be explained by the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Consider these words:

21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again. 22 If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened (Matt 24:21-22).

This puts the events being described on the level of intensity of the most traumatic events the world has ever experienced–a time of “great tribulation” as the older translations express it–so bad that if it isn’t shortened, even God’s own chosen people would be deceived (see verse 24) and would not survive.

Now, I have no doubt the events of 67-70 AD in Palestine were incredibly traumatic. But to say they are the worst the world has ever experienced, as verse 21 seems to imply about the times being described in the passage–well that would be hyperbole.  A brief examination of the world wars of the 20th century alone would show that.  In fact, my preterist friend explained the language in just that way–as hyperbole.  But as with verses 29-31, I think it makes more sense to take them at face value (see Part 6).  And if we do so, then the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem simply aren’t adequate to match the intensity described in verses 21-22.

We should also consider that Matthew 24 is a response to an initial dialogue between Jesus and the disciples recorded in verses 1-3:

1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Notice the disciples’ question in verse 3 has several parts:

  1. “When will this happen”…?–referring of course to Jesus’ statement that “not one stone [of the temple] will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (verse 1).
  2. “…and what will be the sign of your coming…”
  3. “…and of the end of the age?” (emphasis added).

Now preterists presume that all three parts of this question necessarily assume the same event–i.e., the destruction of the temple Jesus referred to in verse 1.  They assume that because the question is all in one sentence, the destruction of the temple, Jesus’ “coming,” and the “end of the age” must all occur at the same time.  Indeed, it may be that in the disciples’ mind as they asked the question, they understood them all to refer to the same event.  But even if the disciples assumed it would all be the same event that doesn’t require that Jesus’ answer is based on the same assumptions. Consider a similar question the disciples asked Jesus just prior to his ascension:

6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).

Here’s an example in which the disciples clearly had one thing in mind with their question, but Jesus’ answer went in a different direction.  The disciples were asking about a temporal kingdom.  “Now that you’ve conquered death and proven you are unstoppable, are you now going to expel the Romans, take back the throne of Israel, and restore the Davidic kingdom?”  Jesus’ answer was indirect.  It was a “no” by implication, but he really didn’t answer the question of when.

Even after his ascension Jesus’ disciples expected him to return bodily in their lifetime and set up His earthly kingdom, a kingdom in which Israel would rule over the rest of the world.  Jesus’ answer went beyond their ability to understand based on their mindset at the time.

It was the same with the disciples’ question in Matthew 24.  “Tell us when you’re going to come in power, destroy the current order (including the temple), and set up a new order?”  In the disciples’ mind these events surely signified the “end of the age” (verse 3).  Preterists see this reference to the end of the age as referring to the end of the Old Testament era of law and animal sacrifice.  The temple was the premier symbol and institution of that age, and its destruction represented the final, irrevocable end of that age.

The problem with interpreting the phrase “the end of the age” in this way, however, is that in every other instance in which the phrase is used in the New Testament (all of which are in Matthew), it clearly refers not to the end of the Old Covenant era, but to the end of the world as we know it.  Consider these other Scripture references as examples:

Matt 13:36-43 ~

His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Matt 13:47-50 ~

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matt 28:18-20 ~

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (emphasis added)

So it seems pretty clear that when the phrase “end of the age” appears in Matthew (and the New Testament) it refers to the end of this present world.  And this is surely how the disciples meant the phrase when they asked Jesus about it in Matthew 24:3.  Moreover, the events Jesus describes in verses 29-31 most readily coincide with an understanding of “the end of the age” in eschatological terms; that is, in terms of the end times and the end of the present world.

Now, the obvious problem futurists like myself have to deal with is the verse the preterists see as the lynch pin, quoted above: Matthew 24:34 “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  If the events of Matthew 24 were not fulfilled in the first century, then how do we explain verse 34?  Was Jesus mistaken, as some liberal scholars suggest?

Futurists have offered various explanations over the years. One such explanation calls attention to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This explanation says ‘well, Jesus himself said he didn’t know when his return would be.’  But that isn’t really a helpful answer because Jesus’ words in verse 34 are very emphatic.  The statement begins with “I tell you the truth, ” which implies that Jesus is saying something he knows/firmly believes to be true.  If Jesus truly is the divine Son of God then he doesn’t get a pass for being “wrong” about one of his prophecies.  If Jesus said he knew something to be true, then for the believer it is as true as any of his other statements.  A better interpretation is that Jesus was saying these events would happen before “this generation” passes away; but then in verse 36 he admits he doesn’t know the exact time it will happen (“the day or the hour”).  So we are still left with our conundrum.

One way scholars have explained this problem is by asking what is meant by “this generation” in verse 34.  The phrase in the Greek is “haute genea.”  Some very reputable scholars interpret this phrase as referring not merely to the generation of people who lived in Jesus’ time, but instead to the Jewish nation–meaning not Israel but “all the generations of Judaism that reject” Jesus (Eduard Schweizer, as quoted by Dr. Leon Morris in The Gospel According to Matthew, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1992, p. 612).

The Greek word “genea” can also be understood to mean an “age” or period of time.  So Jesus could be referring to an unspecified period of time rather than to a single generation, perhaps similar to the present “age” which his disciples referred to at the beginning of the passage in verse 3.  And indeed, in light of Jesus’ reference to heaven and earth passing away in the very next verse (verse 35), this interpretation would make a lot of sense.

Dr. Leon Morris also points out that in other instances the term “generation” is used more broadly to refer not to a group of people in a certain time frame, but instead to a particular category of people, such as “the generation of the upright” in Psalms 14:5 and 112:2, or “the generation of those who seek” the Lord in Psalm 24:6.  There is also the “generation of his wrath” as in Jeremiah 7:29 and Psalm 12:7.  So Jesus could be saying more generally that “the generation” of people who reject him (i.e., throughout history) will not pass away “until all these things have happened.”

Finally, the word “genea” can also be translated simply “race,” so that Jesus might be saying “this race” (possibly the human race? but more likely the Jewish race, or maybe even the “race” of people who reject him, where “race” is used figuratively) will not pass away till all these things have taken place.

To conclude, the points I’ve made here and in Part 6 are all the reasons why I believe Matthew 24 and Revelation talks about future events, and not events in the first century.

What do you think about the preterist view?  What do you think about the various futurist views of these passages?

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