This Generation - Matthew 24:34

In the Olivet Discourse, after listing 35 signs to look out for (see my commentary on Matthew 24), Jesus says in verses 34-35, "I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away". In saying this, Jesus gives us what I call the generation timeline. He is telling us that all these signs will occur within the space of a single generation. That raises several questions:

Which generation is he referring to?
There are three popular answers to the first question:

1) Preterists assume that Jesus was referring to the generation he lived amongst in AD 33. 'Preterists' believe that the Great Tribulation was completed in the past, between AD66 and AD 70. This was the time when the Jews rebelled against Rome, and Jerusalem was placed under siege by Vespasian and Titus. The city eventually fell to the tenth Roman legion under the command of General Titus in AD 70. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and about a million Jews died in the process. You can read about 'The Siege of Jerusalem' on Wikipedia. Certainly some of the signs described by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled during this period. The city was surrounded by armies (as in Luke 21:20), and there was a time of great suffering (as in Matthew 24:21). But not all the Olivet signs were fulfilled. Most crucially, Jesus did not come back in 70 AD, at least in my opinion. Full-preterists assume that he did so in a mystical sense, but this view contradicts Matthew 24:27 in which Jesus says, "For just like the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so the coming of the Son of Man will be". Jesus' point is that his second coming will be unmissable. If Jesus did come back in 70 AD, as full-preterists suppose, then despite what Jesus said, the whole Church missed it!

If by 'this generation' Jesus was pointing to his own, then unless Jesus really did come back in 70 AD as full-preterists claim, history has shown Jesus to be a false prophet, and it is pointless studying the New Testament at all!

2) Another popular interpretation of 'this generation' is to interpret the Greek word 'genea' not as generation (its normal meaning), but as 'race'. According to this theory, Jesus was prophesying the survival of the Jewish race up until the time of his return. But as the NET bible notes point out, it is very questionable that the word 'genea' can have this meaning.

3) My preferred understanding of 'this generation' is that Jesus was prophesying about a future end-time generation that would see all the Olivet signs in a single generation. In my commentary on Matthew 24, I divide the Olivet signs into Pre-Tribulation signs, Tribulation signs, and Post-Tribulation signs. The Pre-Tribulation signs include:

Pre-Tribulation signs
1) False Messiahs deceiving people (Matt 24:4-5)
2) Wars and rumours of war (Matt 24:6-7)
3) Famines (Matt 24:8)
4) Earthquakes (Matt 24:8)
5) Fig tree sprouts leaves, a metaphor for Israel being restored as a nation (Matt 24:32)
6) Hatred, persecution and martyrdom of Christians (Matt 24:9)
7) Many Christians falling away from faith, and people betraying and hating each other (Matt 24:10)
8) False prophets deceiving people (Matt 24:11)
9) Increased lawlessness and the love of many growing cold (Matt 24:12)
10) Plagues (Luke 21:11)
11) Terrifying sights (Luke 21:11)
12) Great signs in the sky (Luke 21:11)
13) Tsunamis (Luke 21:25)
14) Man gains the ability to destroy all life on earth (implied by Matt 24:22)
15) Temple rebuilt and sacrificial system restored (implied by Matt 24:15)
16) World-wide proclamation of the Gospel to every ethnic group (Matt 24:14)

When we see all of these being fulfilled, we should expect the rest to follow, including the second coming itself, within a generation of them starting. Jesus described the first four of the above signs as 'the beginning of birth pains', so it seems that these are the chronological markers of when the final generation begins. However, because of the generic nature of many of these Pre-Tribulation signs, I do not believe that we can be absolutely sure that we are in the end time generation, although we might reasonably suspect so. Confirmation will come when the abomination of desolation takes place (Matt 24:15), marking the start of the Great Tribulation. From that point, we should know that there are only three and a half years left until the second coming. The length of the Great Tribulation is described as 'time, times and half a time' (Daniel 7:25, 12:7, Revelation 12:14), as '42 months' (Revelation 11:2, 13:5), and as '1260 days' (Revelation 11:3, 12:6), all of which are equivalent if a Jewish year is taken as 360 days. Daniel 12:11-12 gives two significant points in time beyond the 1,260 days, but does not tell us exactly what happens at these points, "From the time that the daily sacrifice is removed and the abomination that causes desolation is set in place,11 there are 1,290 days. Blessed is the one who waits and attains to the 1,335 days".

Until it is clear that the abomination of desolation has happened, I assume it is pointless to try to accurately predict the time of the second coming. Jesus told us clearly that no-one except the Father knows the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36), or the times or periods (Acts 1:7). But when the abomination of desolation happens, then Daniel's countdown surely starts (Daniel 9:7; 12:7-12). Jesus himself pointed us to this timeline (Matthew 24:15).

2) How long is a generation?
It is important to read what Jesus says exactly, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34). This suggests that a generation that sees all the pre-tribulation signs will not completely die before his coming. In that case, the length of a generation is how long it takes for a whole generation to die out. It is not referring to the typical age difference between parents and their children. According to Wikipedia, the oldest women alive today are about 115 years old, and the oldest living men are about 113 years old. In that case, a generation could be as much as 115 years.

Similarly, in Genesis 12:12-16, God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign country for 400 years, but in the fourth generation he would restore them to Canaan. So a generation was seen to be about 100 years, the longest time a person could normally live in those days. In actual fact, the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40), so each of those four generations averaged 107.5 years.

3) Are we in the end-time generation, and if so, when did it begin?
To answer this question, we need to examine each of the pre-tribulation signs:

1) False Messiahs deceiving people (vs 4-5)
2) Wars and rumours of war (vs 6-7)
3) Famines (v8)
4) Earthquakes (v8)
5) Fig tree sprouts leaves, a metaphor for Israel being restored as a nation (v32)
6) Hatred, persecution and martyrdom of Christians (v9)
7) Many Christians falling away from faith, and people betraying and hating each other (v10)
8) False prophets deceiving people (11)
9) Increased lawlessness and the love of many growing cold (v12)
10) Plagues (Luke 21:11)
11) Terrifying sights (Luke 21:11)
12) Great signs in the sky (Luke 21:11)
13) Tsunamis (Luke 21:25)
14) Man gains the ability to destroy all life on earth (implied by v22)
15) Temple rebuilt and sacrificial system restored (implied by v15)
16) World-wide proclamation of the Gospel to every ethnic group (v14)

I analyse each of these in some detail on my main End Time Timeline. Have these 16 signs all happened to at least some degree in the last 115 years or so? I believe the answer is 'yes' for signs 1-14. Sign 15 may be closer to fulfilment than most people think. Plans by the Temple Institute to rebuild the temple and reinstitute sacrificial worship are at an advanced stage. Furthermore, recent archeological discoveries suggest the possibility that the first and second temples were actually located in the City of David, close to the Gihon Spring, and that the so-called Temple Mount may actually be the site of the Roman fort of Antonia. If that is true, the Dome of the Rock is not necessarily the obstacle people think it is to the building of the third temple. Sign 16 looks like it is just a few years away from fulfilment. Christian mission organisations estimate that every ethnic group will have been reached with the Gospel to at least some degree by about 2025. According to Jesus in Matthew 24:14, this seems to be the final pre-tribulation sign, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come". So I suspect that we are not only in the end-time generation, but are close to the end of it!

I freely admit that I might be wrong. But if we are in the end time generation, when did it begin? Although these signs are not necessarily in strict chronological order, Jesus describes signs 1-4 as 'the beginning of birth pains' (Matthew 24:8), suggesting these occur first. If a generation could be as long as 115 years, we are still within a generation of both world wars. These were wars of unprecedented magnitude, and brought about changes of great end-time significance. During World War I, Britain made the Balfour Declaration that ultimately laid the foundations for the restoration of Israel as a nation. World War I also resulted in the fall of the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate. Revelation 13:3 depicts an end time empire as a beast that suffers a fatal head wound, but is later resurrected and persecutes the Church under the leadership of the Antichrist. It is possible that the head wound depicts the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, an empire that massacred 1.5 million Christians in the Armenian Genocide. If a new Caliphate were to arise in the end times, it is very likely that it would again persecute the Church. World War I also left Britain in control of the Holy Land, which they called British-Mandate Palestine. As World War I was ending, Spanish Flu struck, killing 75 million people worldwide, many times more than those killed in the war. This was the largest 'plague' since the Black Death. During World War I, famine killed about half a million Germans, and about 2 million Persians. About 5 million Russians died of famine in 1921 (see Wikipedia's List of Famines). During World War I, large earthquakes hit Eritrea, Samoa and the Philippines. Many great earthquakes have happened since then (see Wikipedia's Lists of Earthquakes). All of the signs that Jesus called 'the beginning of birth pains', and more, happened during World War I.

During World War II, the Holocaust took place, and further paved the way for the restoration of the State of Israel. World War II was then followed by cold wars, which I equate with 'rumours of war'. The America-Russia cold war is now past its peak, but it still has a significant bearing on Middle East politics. The Saudi Arabia-Iran cold war arose after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and tensions are still increasing. It also greatly influences Middle East politics.

The horrors of the two world wars happened after the emergence of a new deception, the Theory of Evolution. Although there are elements of truth to this theory in that it explains how species adapt and change, and why there are so many variations within species, when it is extrapolated to explain the origins of life and how we got here, it is a great deception. It teaches people that they no longer need to believe in a God who created us. The first pre-tribulation sign that Jesus describes is false messiahs deceiving people. Charles Darwin qualifies as a false messiah in that he gave us a new ideology with great religious implications. Psalm 14:1 says, "Fools say to themselves, "There is no God"". Darwin's theory turned atheism from a foolish idea into an apparently proven scientific fact. At least, it is often taught that way. Because of it, many people now think it is the fool who says, "There is a God". Although Darwin died in 1882, more than a generation ago, his theory lives on and has massively affected attitudes to religion in educated western societies. With the backdrop of his theory, and the horrors of two world wars, Christians in western countries have fallen away from faith in massive numbers, fulfilling sign 6 above.

So personally, I suspect that the end-time generation began with World War I. If that is correct, and if a generation could last as long as 115 years from 1918, it implies the second coming should happen no later than 2033. According to Daniel 9:27, the Antichrist will confirm an international peace treaty seven years before the end, and the Great Tribulation will start three and half years later when he breaks his treaty and sets up the abomination of desolation. In that case, we should expect him to sign his treaty by about 2026, and the Great Tribulation to begin by 2029. That is assuming the end-time generation will last as long as 115 years. In reality, I imagine 115 years is stretching things a bit. If so, we should expect the Antichrist to sign his treaty imminently.

Of course, I might be wrong. It could be that the fig tree sprouting leaves, symbolic of Israel's restoration as a nation, marks the beginning of the end-time generation. In that case, we should expect the second coming within a lifetime of 1948, or possibly of 1967 when Israel retook Jerusalem. But the fig tree is not one of the signs that Jesus calls the beginning of birth pains, and it seems to me that these are the ones he singles out as marking the beginning of the end-time generation. Time will tell which is the correct interpretation.