Matthew 24:34 is one of the most perplexing verses of the Bible. It states: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (NRSV).
Since “these things” arguably includes the coming of the Son of Man (see v 30), Christians have a problem here: Jesus appears to say that he’ll return to earth during the generation of his disciples, but he didn’t do so. So was Jesus a false prophet?
Christians have advanced all sorts of explanations, some of them okay, and some just plain bad. But I’ve not yet encountered an answer that fully satisfies me.
Here are some Christian explanations of Matthew 24:34:
1. The book Hard Sayings of the Bible contends that Jesus is addressing two separate questions: When shall the destruction of the temple occur, and what shall be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3)? According to this view, Jesus is saying that the Romans will destroy the temple before that generation passes, not that he’ll return prior to that time, since his return is a separate issue altogether. But, as far as I can see, the two are heavily intertwined in Matthew 24. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Okay, the answer to your first question is this, and, regarding your second question, the answer is this” (and he could have said that if he so desired–see Matthew 22:29-32). Rather, Jesus gives one answer to both questions. He appears to connect the destruction of the temple with his return.
2. Desmond Ford and E.W. Bullinger treat Matthew 24:34 as conditional: Jesus would have come in that generation, if Israel’s spiritual ducks had been in a row. After all, in the Old Testament, God wanted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land as quickly as possible, but there was a delay because of their disobedience. And so, according to this approach, Christ has delayed his return because of Israel’s continuous rebellion. But that doesn’t work for Matthew 24:34, since Matthew 24 presumes that Christ will come in that generation if Israel’s spiritual ducks are not in a row. That’s why Jerusalem gets sacked: her spiritual condition is not too good (in Matthew’s eyes).
3. In The Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness, Samuele Bacchiocchi interprets “this generation” as this present sinful world, not just Jesus’ contemporaries. This ties v 34 with v 35, which says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Such an interpretation speaks to me on some level, for it has Jesus saying: “Look, when the Romans are destroying Jerusalem, it will seem as if the world around you is coming to an end. But take heart! I will return at some point in the future. And that’s a promise! You can trust me on it.” It maintains that Jesus was emphasizing the fact of his coming instead of the time of his coming. My problem with this view is that, elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus applies the phrase “this generation” explicitly to his contemporaries, specifically the people who rejected him (see Matthew 11:16-19; 12:41-42; 23:34-36).
4. Some argue that “generation” in Matthew 24:34 means the nation of Israel. In Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, v. 4, Michael Brown points out that genea “can sometimes mean race” (although he admits in a footnote that “the nuance of ‘race’ would have been much clearer had the Greek word genos, as opposed to genea, been used here;” 154, 321). Seventh-Day Adventist radio personality Doug Batchelor also went the “nation” route when I called his program and asked him about Matthew 24:34: He referred to v 32, which mentions a fig tree, often a symbol for Israel (see Jeremiah 8:13; Matthew 21:19; Luke 13:6-8). And so, in this interpretation, Jesus discusses the fig tree/Israel right before he says, “This nation will not pass away, before I return.”
As with number 3, I have a certain affinity with this interpretation. “When the Romans come, it will look as if your very own nation is being destroyed. But take heart! It won’t completely pass away in your lifetime. I will return before that happens!” This seems to presume that the disciples were overly concerned about their nation. Maybe that was the case, maybe not. But, if they were, Jesus could’ve been giving them some hope to grasp once the crisis hit.
At the same time, Jesus’ appeal to the fig tree in v 32 doesn’t seem to equate it with Israel. Rather, he mentions it to make a point: “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (v 33). And that brings us to number 5.
5. Maybe the “generation” of Matthew 24:34 is not Jesus’ contemporaries but the generation that will witness the signs of the end. V 32 mentions seeing specific signs, after all. “When you see these things, you’re in the generation that will witness my coming,” Jesus may be saying. Some counter with the argument that, had Jesus wanted to say that, he would have said “that generation” rather than “this generation.” Personally, I don’t know the difference between “that” and “this,” but I have no problem applying “this” to something mentioned in the previous verse. After all, isn’t that what v 33 does when it refers to “all these things”–it refers to the things of the preceding verses? So why can’t “this generation” of v 34 refer to the situation described in v 33: the witnessing of the signs?
My problem with this view is that Matthew 24 seems to discuss the temple of Jesus’ day, namely, the one Herod built. As a matter of fact, vv 1-2 tell us what started this whole discussion: “As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.'” Matthew 24 appears to concern the destruction of Herod’s temple, not a third temple that would exist a few thousand years in the future.
6. Matthew 24:30 says, “[T]hey will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.” For many preterists, this does not refer to most Christians’ understanding of the second coming of Christ: Jesus coming back and setting up a literal kingdom of peace. Rather, Jesus’ “coming” is God’s judgment of Jerusalem. The Old Testament sometimes refers to God’s judgment as God “coming” to a place. Two examples are the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:7) and the Exodus (Exodus 3:8). And so, for preterists, Jesus’ contemporaries witnessed his “coming” in the sense that they experienced his judgment of Jerusalem.
My problem with this interpretation is that the very next chapter, Matthew 25, associates Jesus’ coming with the reward of the righteous, eternal life, and the damnation of the wicked, not just the destruction of Jerusalem.
7. Some Christians assume that Jesus predicted an imminent coming and turned out to be wrong, but they try to redeem him in some way. C.S. Lewis said that Jesus was not completely omniscient because he was a human being at the time (which makes some sense, in light of Matthew 24:36). Consequently, Jesus got some things wrong. Hans Kung argued that Jesus had such a passionate connection with God that he believed the kingdom was right at the door. I admire their attempt to interpret Matthew 24:34 in an honest manner while seeking to maintain Jesus’ spiritual value in Christianity. But I have a problem with their approaches. My impression is that Jesus was trying to assure the disciples that, once they saw the unraveling of Jerusalem, his coming was near. And he did so with a temporal referent: “this generation.” If they couldn’t trust that promise, what hope does any of us have?
Maybe all of these approaches contain some grain of truth that I am missing. Just because no explanation satisfies me does not mean that Jesus was mistaken.
I also have issues with blithely saying “Jesus was wrong.” In the Michael Brown book that I cited earlier, Brown points out two anomalies:
First of all, Brown refers to the inconsistency of liberal scholars: “From [Matthew 24:34], some scholars and critics have claimed that Jesus was predicting that those very disciples–‘this generation’–would be alive when he returned. Yet these same critics will tell us that these words of Jesus were written down and preserved by the next generation. What a strange contradiction!” (153).
I’ve thought the same thing, only Brown clearly expressed thoughts that were vaguely percolating in my mind. Many scholars look at Matthew 24 and conclude that Matthew had to be post-70, since it describes the destruction of Jerusalem. But, if that were true, then wouldn’t its writers have already experienced the failure of Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:34? A bigger question is, “Why didn’t the early Christians lose faith altogether after Matthew 24:34 failed to come to pass?” Shouldn’t we expect something like William Miller’s 1844 catastrophe?
Second, Brown cites passages in Matthew 24-25 that assume Jesus may take a long time to return. “But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,'” (24:48). “[T]he bridegroom was delayed” (25:5). These are relevant to discussions about whether Jesus viewed his coming as imminent.
And so there is much more to this issue than meets the eye.