Does Jesus really speak about the end of the world in the “Olivet Discourse” in Matthew 24 (see also Mk 13 and Lk 21)? If you take the Bible seriously, you have to come to a different conclusion.
The title “Signs of the end times”, that the NIV translation puts above the chapter is qutre a bit misleading. First of all, there is no division into chapters and verses in the original text. If you read the end of chapter 23 and the beginning of chapter 24, then you can see that it was one and the same incident.
“See! Your house is left to you desolate; … Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, … (Mt 23,38-24,3) ”
Shortly after Jesus had made all the announcements of judgment (read the entire chapter 23 of Matthew), they showed him the temple. He said that “not one stone shall be left here upon another”, and then he sat down with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is just outside of Jerusalem and you could see the whole city from up there. So, the disciples sat there with Jesus and looked straight down at the city and the temple. The words of Jesus were still ringing in their ears. Finally they couldn’t hold back their curiosity anymore and asked him their questions:
Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying,
“Tell us, when will these things be?” (Mt 24: 3)
But what did the disciples mean by “this”? If we see the context of their question, it is quite simple. They were asking: When will Jerusalem and the Temple be destroyed? There is nothing to suggest that the disciples are asking a question about the end of the world. Only in the third question they mention the “end of the age”! Probably this future event announced by Jesus was so incomprehensible in their imagination that they ascribed apocalyptic proportions to it and wondered whether it could possibly have something to do with the end of the age. But first they simply ask when the temple will be destroyed.
WITHIN A GENERATION
In Mt 24:34 Jesus says:
“Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” (Mt 24:34)
Here Jesus repeats what he had said just some moments before:
“Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Mt 23:36)
Of course, this statement of Jesus confronts us with a very crucial question: If the announced events have come true within a generation, as Jesus predicted, it is impossible that he speaks of apocalyptic catastrophes at the end of the world. Can we take Jesus at his word?
Some interpreters avoid this and say that the word GENEA can also be translated as “race”. So, they assume, Jesus was talking about the Jewish race would not perish until all of this had happened. First of all, the word GENEA never means “race”, but always “generation”. Second, such a statement would make absolutely no sense in the context of Jesus’ threats of judgment.
As a further possibility it is said that the generation that will see all these events (which are described by Jesus in Mt 24) will not pass. – First of all, this does not fit with the statement in Mt 23 and the statement in Mt 24 would be meaningless: “All of this will happen, and the generation that sees all of this will not pass away until all of this has happened.” It would be a completely unnecessary remark because the generation that saw all of this would of course not pass until they saw all of this.
NO! We have to take Jesus literally here. ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA (one of the church fathers) says:
I challenge everyone to expose my testimony as a lie when I say that the whole Jewish nation was destroyed less than a generation later after Jesus suffered. Because I believe it was 42 years from the crucifixion to the destruction of Jerusalem.
All the things that Jesus predicts as a sign of the impending judgment – namely the destruction of Jerusalem – have meticulously come true within these 40 years. So Jesus does not speak of apocalyptic events at the end of the world, but of the things that occurred in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
If Jesus was speaking of things that would happen 2,000 years later, then what he said would have had no relevance to the disciples at the time. Especially since Jesus himself makes the statement that this generation (which was alive in his time) will not pass before everything has happened that he had foretold.
Through many speculations and the shifting of these events into a distant future, the church has often exposed itself to ridicule. A very memorable example is the well-known atheist Bertrand Russel. He used Jesus’ (allegedly) unfulfilled prediction about his coming in his generation as a justification for his atheistic conviction:
“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, He certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time.” (Bertrand Russell in “Why I Am Not A Christian” – http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html)
Could it be that Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 have been fulfilled just as he said they would? Could it be that Bertrand Russel found justification for his atheistic beliefs, because his contemporaries misinterpreted the Bible?