Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. (Matt. 24:34)
THE GREAT CHRISTIAN WRITER AND THINKER C.S. LEWIS called it the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. If most Christians adequately understood the word generation in Matthew 24:34, he reasoned, then Christ was wrong about when the end of the age and the second coming would occur. And first-century Christians were misled to expect Him so soon. Christ was not wrong. Lewis simply didn’t understand what He meant.
The two dominant eschatologies of our day, which are diametrically opposed to each other, nonetheless approach that word generation in much the same way; that is, they both insist that it is straightforward and plain, and means generation, which they define as a period of about 40 years.
I want to address here the use of the word generation in Jesus’s prophecy known as the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Both Preterists and Futurists point to Matthew 24:34 and parallel verses in two other gospels as their proof texts. Bring this one passage up, and it supposedly will end all arguments. Depending on how they interpret it, most Christians believe that generation means a relatively short time frame, somewhere between 30 or 40 years and one lifetime (70 years). A few insist that it is a hundred years based on Genesis 15:13 & 16.
The end-times teaching of Dispensational Premillennialism suffered a blow when 1988 did not prove to be the year of the rapture (the catching away of the Church before the Great Tribulation). Many, then, switched and reasoned that the generation began ticking from 1967, when Israel regained part of Jerusalem in the Six Days War; but they were again disappointed when 2007 passed without incident. This caused some to revise the length of a generation to 70 or 100 years. But they are still locked into a relatively short and rigid time frame.
What if it isn’t necessary or even wise to add 40 years? Or 70 or whatever?
I want to show here that their definition of the word generation locks them into one of two prevailing views, either preterism or dispensational futurism. And I want to show that there is at least some possibility they have not understood what Jesus said correctly, that there are other reasonable meanings. I also want to show that, if one alters the meaning of what Jesus said, it is possible to arrive at another eschatology that is neither Preterism nor Dispensational Futurism. Finally, I want to show the conditional nature of the statements Jesus actually made about the timing of the end.
I arrived at my understanding of the word generation in Matthew 24:34 by digging. Starting with the assumption that Jesus taught in Hebrew, with which most scholars agree, I dug for a Hebrew word that was translated into Greek as GENEA, from which we derive generation. I then looked for Hebrew words in the Old Testament that were translated into English as generation. I found that the Hebrew word DOR was the most common. And the Septuagint routinely translates it as GENEA, the same word found in Matthew 24:34.
Now let’s look at the meaning of the Hebrew word DOR, which is most likely the word Jesus used, because it will show us what He may have meant. The first, most common definition, is an age, generation, or period of time. DOR is translated generation 133 times in the KJV Old Testament.
Well, that should settle it, right? Not so fast.
Before we assume that DOR means generation, and generation is what Jesus meant, let’s look a little closer. The NASB only translates it as generation 53 times. Other translations include generations (plural, 52), all generations (20), many generations (3), age-old (1), forever (1), and time (2). Of interest here are three categories: definitions indicating a multitude of generations, those indicating an age or very long time, and those indicating an indeterminate length of time. Age-old and forever indicate an age or very long time. A time is a period of indeterminate length. But, of course, one might object that these are the least common definitions. Not so, however, with plural uses of the word DOR—generations, all generations, and many generations.
So let’s try plugging some of these meanings into Matthew 24:34. “These generations will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” Or: “Many generations will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” It starts to sound like a very long time. Try this: “This time will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” Now we don’t know how long it will be. Could be 40 years, could be 40,000, because it is an indeterminate length of time.
How about this? “This age will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” All of these are within the permissible range of meanings for DOR.
Many generations has substantially the same meaning as age. It speaks of a very large number of years, of many lifetimes. An example of this kind of use is found in Joel 2:2: “So there is a great and mighty people; there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to the years of many generations.” (DOR)
Now, where did we read about the age in Matthew 24? That’s right, in v. 3. Jesus was answering a question: “What will be the sign… of the end of the age?” It is reasonable to think that v. 34 is in answer to v. 3. All these prophecies must come to pass before the age passes away.
I believe the word GENEA, based on its history of usage in the Septuagint, was the choice for translating the Hebrew DOR. However, as is often the case in translation, the word chosen in the target language does not reflect the full range of meaning. Given this, it may be a mistake to base our theology too rigidly on one word.
Those who insist on the meaning of generation are locked into only a couple of options in eschatology. Most people define a biblical generation as 40 years. A few, based on Genesis 15:13 & 16, define it as 100 years.
Preterists believe that about 40 years after Christ spoke in the Olivet Discourse, His words were fulfilled when the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. A full preterist viewpoint would see this as the point in time when Christ came (invisibly) and judged the Jewish nation and when there was a (spiritual) resurrection of the saints. All the prophecies were fulfilled in that moment. If a generation is 100 years long, then the second coming happened during the second Jewish revolt around 133 A.D. As long as Preterists insist on this meaning of what Jesus said, they are locked into an eschatological timetable of 40 or 100 years from the early third decade of the first century.
Dispensational futurists, on the other hand, are locked into a timetable of either 40 or 100 years beginning in 1948 or 1967. We know that 1988 and 2007 came and went uneventfully, but they will still be busy with predictions of the second coming prior to 2048 and 2067. And these, too, will be wrong.
What if the time really did begin when Jesus spoke His sermon in Matthew 24? And what if the time frame was one of many generations, or an age? In that case, one is neither forced to be a preterist nor a dispensational futurist. We don’t need to count down a certain number of years from some starting date. The age might pass away hundreds of years after 1948.
How should we then live? That is the question, which I need not answer in this article, except to say we ought to live constructive and full lives, if we can.
Now let me briefly touch on another little secret contained in the Greek of Matthew 24:34—that is, there is something in the Greek that is not easily translated into English. The Greek word AN is not translated into English. AN is “sometimes properly rendered by ‘perhaps’; more commonly not expressed in English by any corresponding particle, but only giving to a proposition or sentence a stamp of uncertainty or mere possibility, and indicating a dependence on circumstances.” (Spiros Zodhiates Th.D., The Complete Word Study Dictionary) AN conveys that idea that something is possible depending on circumstances.
Adding to the uncertainty and mere possibility of this statement is the use of the substantive mood in the Greek verb. Substantive verbs are often preceded by the word may rather than the word shall. It is also sometimes not translated into English.
You won’t find AN translated into English in this verse in most versions of the English Bible; but you will find it in the ungainly Young’s Literal Translation. Young’s says: “Verily I say to you, this generation MAY not pass away till all these MAY come to pass.” [Emphasis mine] Taking the Young’s Literal Translation literally, one might surmise that Jesus was alerting them to the possibility that they might still be alive when all these things would be fulfilled. That’s only might. He wasn’t saying it was a for sure thing.
Preterists often cross-reference this to a couple of other verses in Matthew that they say also support the idea of Christ coming in one 40-year time frame. But, again, in both verses, one finds the Greek particle AN with the substantive verb.
Young renders Matthew 10:23 as follows: “And whenever they MAY persecute you in this city, flee to the other, for verily I say to you, ye MAY not have completed the cities of Israel till the Son of Man MAY come.” [Emphasis mine]
Likewise, he renders Matthew 16:28: “Verily I say to you, there are certain of those standing here who shall not taste of death till they MAY see the Son of Man coming in his reign.” [Emphasis mine]
Clearly Jesus was conveying a sense of uncertainty about the time of the end. In fact, He claimed not to know when the end would be. “Of that day and hour,” He said, “No one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” It makes sense that He spoke in such iffy terms when predicting the end. He was not making promises or telling His disciples to expect it at a certain time.
One last point—in Matthew 24:35, Jesus says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Here He repeats the words pass away that were also found in v. 34. This is a context clue. Verse 35 functions very much in parallel with v. 34. Jesus speaks in v. 35 of an end-of-age event, which corresponds nicely with the age not passing away in the first part of v. 34. In the second half of v. 35, He speaks of His words not passing away, which corresponds nicely with the idea of fulfilled prophecy in the second half of v. 34. Therefore, taken as a parallelism, v. 35 defines GENEA in this context as meaning an age, as the word means in rare cases.
What should we do with this information? The logical thing is to throw out our attachment to any certain time frame, stop worrying about the future, and get to work. Preterists do not need to insist that everything was fulfilled within 40 years. Futurists do not need to rivet their attention on 40 or 70 or 100 years from the perceived fulfillment of some prophecy. We can all just relax and live. We can live our lives expecting Christ, and yet be prepared for it by living normal productive lives, knowing that it may occur a long time after we die.