Did Jesus Get The Timing Of The Apocalypse Off?
In Matthew 24, Jesus is describing signs of the end times. He’s says that there will be wars and rumors of wars (verse 6), famine and earthquakes (verse 7), and several other things. These will be the signs that the end is coming, though he warns that it is not yet. However, there is a verse in here which critics of Christianity love to point out because they think that Jesus made an error in predicting when the end of the world will come. In Matthew 24:34, after describing the end times in great detail, Jesus says “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” What? This generation will not pass away before all these things take place? Did Jesus get the timing of the apocalypse off? If He did, He could not be God because God is perfect and infallible. If Jesus is not imperfect and infallible, He could not be God. Did Jesus get the timing of the apocalypse off? Did He really think the end of the world would happen in the disciples’ lifetimes?
No, I don’t think so. There are two different views one can take on the Olivet Discourse (the fancy theological name given to Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 24-25) both of which avoid the conclusion that Jesus erroneously thought the end of the world would happen by the end of the first century.
The Preterist View
The Preterist View of eschatology says that most prophesy in scripture was fulfilled by the end of the first century. This view is that Matthew 24 and 90% of Revelation are referring not to the end of the world but the terrible siege of Jerusalem, the slaughter of many Jews, and the destruction of the temple which took place from 66-70 A.D. Now, I myself do have preterist leanings at times given the following factors (1) Jesus’ Olivet Discourse takes place immediately after Jesus predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1-2) and his disciples asking when it would happen (verse 3). The disciples also ask when the sign of his coming will be. So the disciples appear to be asking two different questions; when will the temple be destroyed, and when will the sign of your second coming be? In this case verses 4-35 could be predicting the temple’s destruction while verses 36-50 are about the actual last days. (2) The fact that in verses 15-20, Jesus says that those in Judea should flee to the mountains. But if this is the end of the world, why should anyone in any place flee anywhere? It doesn’t matter where you go! And of course (3) Verse 34 where Jesus says “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
All 3 of these points seem to favor a preterist view of the Olivet Discourse. If Jesus is telling His disciples the signs of when the the temple is about to be destroyed, this would certainly make verse 34 correct since the temple was in fact destroyed before the generation of the disciples ended (this is recorded in the writings of Josephus).
Now, I myself don’t consider myself a preterist. I’m currently on the fence between a preterist view and a (post-tribulation rapture) futurist view. I’m heavily leaning towards post-trib futrist view right now, but the 3 aforementioned points give me pause and make me things the preterists may be onto something.
The Futurist View
But, the futurist view may be able to make sense of point number 3 mentioned above, which is the verse where skeptics think Jesus was wrong. It could very well be that when Jesus says “This generation…” He does not mean the generation of the disciples, but the generation of the people who are viewing these end times events. “This generation…” which could be people in the 21st century, the 22nd century, the 23rd, 24th, 25th, or even the 30th century, “will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This certainly seems like a plausible interpretation of the verse to me. If Jesus is really describing things that will take place near the end of the world, then when He says “This generation…will not pass away” The generation he’s referring to is the generation living in the end times.
No matter which interpretive framework you fall into when interpreting the end times passages, I see no reason to think that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:34 was incorrect. If the preterist view is correct, then Jesus was right! The Jewish temple was destroyed before the generation of the disciples passed away. If the futurist view is correct, then the “this generation” Jesus is referring to is the generation that will be witnessing all of these signs of the end times (they could be us, or they could be our great, great, great, great grandchildren).