One of the verses in the New Testament that skeptics of Christianity try to use against the Bible is Matthew 24:34. It says, “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (NKJV). This verse is part of Jesus’ predictions of the future, which take up most of Matthew 24. His predictions are obviously at least partially fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and subsequent destruction of the Jewish Temple. However, Jesus seemingly predicts he will return right after this takes place. Since he says that “this generation will by no means pass away,” presumably referring to the cohort of people alive at the same time as himself, how can this be accurate since Christ obviously has not returned to earth to establish his kingdom yet?
Critics of Christianity love to rub Christians’ noses in this apparent contradiction. Even the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis expressed dismay regarding this passage. When tackling this passage recently, however, something dawned on me that actually proves it is not possible for Jesus to have meant the existing cohort of people when he used the phrase “this generation.”
Jesus used the phrase “this generation” quite often, actually. A survey of such passages will show it could be interpreted in a few different ways, and many Christian apologists will offer these potential interpretations as a defense against the charge stated above. Perhaps they are right. However, I want to take the question to the next level by explaining what I believe is a historical paradox that prevents this verse from being a problem for Christianity.
We know from history that in 70 AD, the Romans marched on Jerusalem under General Titus, destroyed the temple, and laid waste to the city. This was in response to a Jewish revolt that began in 66 AD. The beginning of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 reads:
“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.’ ” (vv. 1-2) His disciples approach him later and ask how they would know when his prediction was about to occur. He gives them a list of signs, such as false prophets, wars, natural disasters, and persecution. Starting in verse 15, he describes the Roman army entering the temple, and how people should flee the city at that time. There is also another version of this discourse in Luke 21 that names Jerusalem by name, so there is no doubt as to the location of these events.
After this, the discourse gets more interesting. Starting in verse 29, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (vv. 29-31) Only a few verses later is the quote with “this generation.”
So, a cursory reading of the entire passage seems to put events in the following sequence:
- Natural disasters and false prophets
- Destruction of the temple
- Signs in the heavens
- The Second Coming
Events 1-3 were clearly fulfilled in the events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. But what about events 4 and 5? Perhaps there was an eclipse and/or a meteor shower. The way it’s described, to me, make it seem more extraordinary than that. But even if event 4 was fulfilled then as well, we are still left with the Second Coming. If Jesus had returned in 70 AD, the world would be a vastly different place.
Jesus accurately predicted that the temple would be destroyed. However, at first blush it seems he inaccurately predicted that he would also return at that time. If Jesus is God, as Christians believe, and is therefore all-knowing, how could he have been wrong? Some commentators point to Mark 13:32, another version of the discourse, which says that neither the angels of heaven nor the Son himself knows when the end will come—only the Father knows. These commentators thus say that Jesus made a mistake because he didn’t actually know when he would return. I can see how it could be interpreted this way, but it doesn’t convince me.
Enter the paradox. We have established that Jesus accurately predicted that the temple would be destroyed. We can assert that he actually made this prediction because those who wrote it down would not have added in the language about his return after the temple was destroyed since he obviously had not returned. It would be like me writing that I would become president after 9/11, when 9/11 has already happened and I’m obviously not president. So, this tells us that the gospel writers did not simply make it up after the destruction of the temple, because there would be no reason to claim that something as noticeable as Jesus’ return (accompanied by heavenly signs and described as visible like lightning in verse 27) had happened when it clearly hadn’t. Yet, we can also assert that the gospel writers didn’t make up the prediction of Christ’s return before the temple was destroyed, thus turning out to be right about the temple but wrong about the Second Coming, because no one except the Son of God could have known that the temple was going to be destroyed in the first place. The gospel writers also couldn’t have made it up while the events were unfolding, because a) Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three wrote about it, with variations in wording (proving they didn’t just copy each other), which would have required a lot of collaboration in a very turbulent time, b) word traveled much more slowly back then, and it’s very likely that by the time they had heard that the temple had been destroyed, it would be too late to convincingly write about the signs in the heavens and the Second Coming, and c) there is no discernible motive to even try. Christianity was already on its meteoric rise in Palestine by this time, so there would have been no need to put on a gimmick to gain more followers, especially a gimmick that would have only landed attention for a year or less before being totally discredited.
This leads us to the conclusion that Jesus predicted both that the temple would be destroyed and that he would return to gather his followers. How can both be true when they are right next to each other in the same passage and one has clearly taken place and the other hasn’t? My belief is that another version the events of 70 AD is going to occur in the future, and that Jesus will return when this happens. I don’t claim to be an expert or to know for sure, but this is the only conclusion that makes sense in light of the paradox I just described.
There are numerous events in the Bible that are an archetype for second, similar event, which shows that my idea has precedent. Some examples are:
- Adam and Eve – Jesus is called the “last Adam” because through his atoning sacrifice to remove our sins, he is undoing Adam and Eve’s sin.
- Noah’s Flood – Jesus himself quotes this event in Luke 17, as part of a discourse which some believe (myself included) is connected to the other temple discourse in Luke 21. “And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will also be in the days of the Son of Man. They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:26, 27)
- Noah’s Flood is also reckoned by Peter to be an “antitype” of baptism in that as Noah was delivered through water, “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism…” (1 Peter 3:18-21). Peter also compares the future destruction of this world by fire to the previous destruction of the world by water (2 Peter 3:5-7).
- Sodom and Gomorrah – also in Luke 17, Jesus likens his return to the sudden destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.” (13:28, 29).
- Hebrews 7 explains how Jesus is the fulfillment of passages in the Old Testament that speak of Melchizedek, an ancient priest/king.
And there are plenty of other examples. The point being, it is completely feasible based on other examples in the Bible that the same event can be fulfilled at two different times, which is my belief about the Matthew 24 discourse. Of course, there is no existing Jewish Temple today, just the ruins of the one destroyed in 70 AD, and so people who view this as I do believe that the temple must be rebuilt in order for it to be destroyed again and for Christ to return. That gets into more complicated eschatology, but that would derail us.
My focus here is showing that it’s impossible that Jesus meant the people who were living on the earth at the same time he was when he said “this generation” in Matthew 24:34, because he could not have been right about his prediction that the temple was destroyed while also wrongly predicting he would return immediately afterward (unless you believe the interpretation of Mark 13:32 mentioned earlier, which I will show is immaterial). To review:
- The gospel writers must not have fabricated the prediction of Christ’s return before the temple was destroyed, because no one (except Jesus) could have known that the temple was going to be destroyed in the first place.
- The gospel writers also couldn’t have made it up while the events were unfolding, because:
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke would all three have had to pull off an extremely difficult collaboration—not to mention destroying their reputations once proven false.
- It’s very likely that by the time the gospel writers heard that the temple had been destroyed, it would have been simply too late to convincingly write about an imminent Second Coming tied to the siege of Jerusalem.
- There is no discernible motive to even try—Christianity was so successful by then that there was no need for such gimmicks, especially one that would be so short-lived.
- Jesus himself must have actually made his temple prediction, and not the gospel writers, because they would not have written that he had returned after the events of 70 AD when he had obviously not returned.
Therefore Jesus’ predictions could not have been fabricated by the gospel writers. In my view he was simultaneously describing the events of 70 AD and an as-yet-unfulfilled similar event.
Here is the implication: Skeptics like to say that Jesus not returning after the temple was destroyed is proof that the Bible is fallible, and therefore not the Word of God to be followed. However, I just showed how it’s impossible for anyone other than Christ himself to have predicted the destruction of the temple because of the paradox caused by the prophecy of his return located right after it in the same passage. The skeptics aren’t saying that Jesus is God, but that in the vein of Mark 13:32 he simply made an error; they are saying that Jesus was not God and therefore we don’t need to follow him. But even if Mark 13:32 is correctly interpreted by saying Jesus was wrong about his Second Coming being in 70 AD, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is not God, it’s just one way of interpreting what that verse says. If Jesus can predict the future, he can’t be prescient while also wrong about his Second Coming except under the possible allowance of Mark 13:32, which is not a dynamic offered anywhere but in the Bible. Outside of that, it is illogical for someone to be able to predict some of the future but not all of it. You either know the future or you don’t. So, this paradox shifts the onus back onto the skeptics by proving that because Jesus accurately predicted the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, he “can’t not” be prescient enough to be the Son of God.
And as Son of God, he predicted that he will return, and we had better have put our full faith in him unto salvation when he does return.