Preterism is not an easy doctrine to accept. It challenges our fundamental understanding of the future and makes us question everything we’ve been taught. The question of hopelessness quickly arises. How can we be content living in this world if Jesus already came back? How are we to understand evil’s continuing existence?
While we do have hopeful answers for these objections (The Growing Kingdom), behind these problems is an even greater one, our denial of Jesus’s words. It’s easy to hear someone say, “Well Jesus didn’t return because no one saw it. Dead bodies never came out of the ground. There’s still evil in the world.” These ideas can basically be summarized as, “I know it seems like Jesus said he would return soon, but he simply didn’t, we are still expecting him in our future.” As the famous C. S. Lewis says:
the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else” (The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, p. 97)
We pretend this answer is valid because it keeps us from having to deal with the hard realities it presents. But this answer creates a much bigger problem than “why is there still evil.” It attacks the very credibility of Christianity itself.
Deuteronomy 18:22 When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the message does not come to pass or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
Are we to fear Jesus? Are we to regard him with any reliability? Then he could not speak in the name of the Lord a false prophecy. It would be dishonest to say Jesus gave no timeframe of when his return should happen.
Matthew 24:34 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
“You shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.” (Matt. 10:23)
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?” (Matt. 3:7)
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2)
“The axe is already laid at the root of the trees. ” (Lk. 3:9)
“These are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” (Lk. 21:22)
When reading the Bible, we must have a desire for truth and Godly curiosity. We cannot simply toss these statements under the rug and imagine they don’t need to be addressed. We cannot say that “no one can know the answer so we have no responsibility to address it.” We also cannot make disingenuious attempts to explain these statements away. These statements question our loyality to the truth and whether or not they make us uncomfortable, they are essential to the credibility of our faith.
A prophecy is judged by time
A prophecy is judged by time. If the prophecy was given a timeframe it had to happen in that timeframe to be valid. If the time passed and nothing happened, that meant that prophecy was void.
When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the message does not come to pass or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.
If a prophecy could always happen and will forever be valid then there would be no way to test if it was reliable or not. When God prophesied the destruction Nineveh, they repented of their sins and God did not bring the destruction he said he would have on them during the time.
Jonah 3:4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”
Now imagine if the 40 days had passed and nothing had happened and yet the people were still saying, “It could happen anytime in our future!” No, they no longer feared their destruction because the 40 days had passed and they were not destroyed.
When God gives a prophecy and a timeframe, that prophecy must come to pass within that timeframe to be inspired.
So then how are we to understand Jesus’s statements? I can see only 5 ways we can explain them:
- Jesus made a false prophecy or lied
- He made an incorrect guess
- God’s plans were thwarted
- We misunderstood him
- He is telling the truth.
Let’s look at why the first four scenarios are untenable.
Did Jesus lie?
To lie is to intentionally give a false statement. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus could not lie:
Isaiah 53:9 “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
1 Peter 2:22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
Jesus received his words from God (John 12:49-50) who also cannot lie.
Numbers 23:19 “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Therefore, if Jesus was divinely inspired, if he was without sin, if he in fact was God, then he could not have lied about the timing.
But, what if he was just guessing when the end would come? At least then he wouldn’t be lying.
Did Jesus guess?
Could Jesus have been making a guess? He does say only God would know when it would happen.
Matthew 24:36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
If Jesus says he didn’t know for sure, then why would we trust his “guess?” However we must ask, why would someone who said they had no idea when the end would come use such force in their guess?
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
This does not sound like the language of someone who is making a guess. Jesus swears he is telling the truth, “Truly,” he says. “I tell you,” he follows, telling us that what he is saying is reliable, not his mere guess or suggestion. He does not say, “may not pass away” but says it “certainly will not pass away.” On top of that, in the following verse he adds,
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
By no stretch of the imagination can we say Jesus is making a guess. He is saying his words and timing are more reliable than heaven and earth itself passing away.
Only an insane person or a liar would swear to be telling the truth and promise in powerful terms that his information was reliable when he knew it may not be. We’ve already proven that Jesus could not have lied and been God. By the same token, he could not have been insane and been God. And he was a Rabbi, which meant he excelled in his studies, the equivalent of earning a PHD degree today. His actions and achievements throughout his life do not have the markings of an insane person.
In addition, everything Jesus spoke he says was given to him by God himself:
John 12:49-50 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
By Jesus’s own words, he would not have been making a guess unless the Father had told him to make a guess. If God, knowing the time of the end, told Jesus to communicate it would happen in that generation, then that means one of three things:
- God told Jesus to lie to us.
- God initially planned for it to happen soon but his plans were thwarted.
- God was telling Jesus to say the correct timeframe. He was not merely making a guess, he knew confidently the generation in which it would happen. It could happen any day in that generation, but it would have happened before that generation passed away.
Clearly, Jesus was not insane and was not making a guess. While he didn’t know the day or hour, he did know the season and timeframe it would arrive.
Were God’s plans thwarted?
God’s prophesies can never be undone unless he specifically gives a condition or way to escape it. If so, this would make all of prophecy useless. For if God initially made an unescapable plan and swore it would happen long in advance then he was showing the certaintly that it would happen. However, if something happened that God did not expect and that something thwarted his plans, then it means God can’t really tell the future. It means God failed to see that his own plans would be thwarted and would render all prophecy unreliable. How can you trust a God to tell you the future who can’t foresee the future?
Did God add conditions to his second coming that weren’t fulfilled and thus delayed it? No, he said his plans would not be delayed and he had “set a day.” It was not in limbo and it was going to happen soon.
“For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay.” (Heb. 10:37)
Acts 17:31 because He set a day in which He is about to judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He appointed, having provided a guarantee to all, having raised Him out from the dead.”
Since God’s plans cannot be thwarted unless he gave a condition and since he gave no conditions that could delay his coming, his plans to come quickly could not have been thwarted.
Did we misunderstand him?
But what if we are misunderstanding Jesus. What if he didn’t intend to mean it would happen soon?
We will consider other possibilities of what Jesus meant, but the definitive way to know what Jesus meant to communicate was by how he was understood by his disciples. Even when Jesus spoke parables, he would explain the meaning to them, showing that he cared that they understood him even if not right away. If the disciples understood Jesus to mean soon, then Jesus communicated soon. We can look at the disciples’ beliefs and actions to see how they understood Jesus’s statement.
But first let’s consider the two prominent interpretations scholars have derived from Jesus’s words and some of their interpretative problems.
1. This generation means the generation that sees these signs
Let’s suppose Jesus meant that some future generation that sees these signs would not pass until they all happened as many scholars argue.
Truly I tell you, this generation [that sees these signs] will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Essentially they boil Jesus down to saying, “These events could happen anytime, but when they do they will occur within a 40 year timespan.” However, remember the question Jesus is answering:
Matthew 24:1-3 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus was not asked to answer how long such a series of events would take to complete whenever they do happen, he is answering the question of when would he come and destroy the temple. If this is the case, the “hidden” meaning of this generation becomes quite obvious. In what generation did the temple fall? Was it some future generation that saw those signs? No it was that present living generation that saw the temple’s fall. Demonstratably, Jesus was answering both his disciples’s questions in the same breath. This present living generation would witness the fall of the temple and his second coming, “all of these things,” not “some of these things” would occur in that timespan.
However, we also have strong reasons to believe that generation did see all the signs Jesus prophesied. Throughout Acts and the New Testament Letters we see evidence of the Christians witnessing the signs Jesus said would immediately proceed the end. Furthermore, Josephus and others record every sign Jesus prophesied being fulfilled in that generation. You can take a detailed look at historical studies to verify all these events happened just as Jesus prophesied. John under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said he was experiencing the last hour signs (Matthew 24:22-29) and attributes this to Jesus’s near return.
1 John 2:18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
The Christians were experiencing the false prophets Jesus said would be a sign just before his arrival. Did the disciples under the inspiration of the Spirit misread these most obvious and undeniable signs? If Jesus was saying that the generation that sees these signs would not pass away until he returned, and if the disciples under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said they were seeing the signs that Jesus prophesied, then that can only mean that their generation did not pass before Jesus’s return.
To hold this interpretation we must believe that the disciples who were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit misread the most obvious and undeniable signs. We must also argue that “all these things” means “some of these things.” Do we reduce the credibility of our faith to such verbal gymnastics?
2. This generation means this Hebrew or evil race
The Greek word for generation can, in some contexts, mean race. So could Jesus have been saying “this race” will not pass away until he returns? Such a translation is so insignificant to be entirely unworthy of saying. How can Jesus sensibly be answering his disciples about when it would happen by saying this race wouldn’t expire beforehand? Did the disciples expect the Hebrew race to expire? Did they expect that “evil generation” to expire before Jesus returned? On the contrary, they would have understood that the Hebrew race would never expire:
Jeremiah 31:36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.”
And they would have known from Jesus’s own words that evil would not disappear before he returned, it would worsen (Matthew 10:21-23, 2 Timothy 3:1-5). So the disciples neither expected the Hebrew race nor that hypothetical evil generation to disappear before he returned.
Jesus timing his arrival by using such language would be utterly senseless, they would have no better of an idea of when it would happen as when before Jesus spoke. And Jesus was not a senseless person. Also, if Jesus meant this Hebrew race will not pass away until all these things happened, this means the Hebrew race will pass away after Jesus returns.
Now some will say that this statement is not a timing statement at all, it’s referring to the fact that Jesus wanted them to know that evil would continue to exist before he arrived. But no one uses such strong language to convince a sensible person of something that is already blatantly obvious. He had just made it abundantly clear that evil would play a role in the signs leading up to his coming (Mark 13:12-13,22). Could the disciples have had any reasonable doubt that evil would continue exist before Jesus arrived so that he would need to convince them in powerful terms?
Mark 13 “12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
30 Truly I tell you, this [evil race] will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
It would be one thing if Jesus said, “Unfortunately evil will continue to exist until I return.” But he swears by his own authority, “Truly I tell you.” Jesus is swearing by his authority and using such strong language because he wants to convince his disciples of something they would have had some temptation to doubt. And if the disciples had any sense and had just heard Jesus say brother would betray brother to death just before the end they would never have considered evil not existing. Thus, Jesus using such language would be utterly senseless. In addition, Jesus uses this word generation in its most natural sense everywhere else.
So how did the disciples understand him?
We must understand that how the disciples understood Jesus should be our authoritative method of determining what Jesus meant. Jesus was keen and would have realized if the disciples misunderstood him and he certainly did not have intentions for them to misunderstand.
Therefore, whatever the disciples understood is what Jesus meant. We analyze these points later.
What did the disciples understand:
“Now these things …were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (I Cor. 10:11)
“…not only in this age, but also in the one about to come.” (Eph. 1:21)
“The Lord is near.” (Phil. 4:5)
“It is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire.” (II Thess. 1:6-7)
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is about to judge the living and the dead…” (II Tim. 4:1)
“For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay.” (Heb. 10:37)
“For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the one that is about to come.” (Heb. 13:14)
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.” (I Peter 4:7)
“It is the last hour.” (I Jn. 2:18)
“You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (Jms. 5:8)
The disciples all said the event would happen soon. This means, whatever we think Jesus communicated, he communicated with the intent of the disciples thinking it would truly happen in their generation.
But, what if we misunderstood the disciples the same way we misunderstood Jesus? What if the disciples also meant something different than “soon?”
The disciples actions should portray the meaning of their words. For instance, if the disciples knew it would happen far off in the future would they have lived such a unique life to prepare for it? No, they lived differently because they meant it would happen soon.
They were careful not to get drunk because they didn’t want to be caught unaware (1 Thessalonians 5:1-8), they would meet together more and more frequently as they saw the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25), they were told to be prepared for action that they were expecting swiftly (1 Peter 1:13), they were warned about what to expect in the last days because they were living in them, they did not make long term investments in the world (1 Corinthians 7:29-31) because they expected it’s current form to end soon.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Does this sound like Paul would encourage a young man to go to college? Paul did not believe in investing long-term into their current system because it was about to end.
Some would avoid marriage because they could not live comfortably with end coming (1 Corinthians 7:26), they would avoid taking the rich to court for their crimes since they would soon receive justice from God (James 5:9). They did all these things because they expected the end to happen soon because Jesus had plainly told them it would happen in their generation before all of them had died. We cannot simply say that when they said it would happen soon they meant something else. Their actions proved that when they said it would happen soon, they believed just that and lived as though it was about to happen.
So then the disciples were not misunderstood, they clearly spoke and acted in the belief that they were about to experience the second coming. But we know it’s not out of the question for a prophet to be misunderstood. Afterall, Isaiah was misunderstood by his generation but his word held applications for future generations. Was Jesus saying something that was misunderstood by his disciples but was meant to be understood by us living today?
Did Jesus mean for only for us living today to understand him?
Let’s consider that Jesus was saying those words only for us living today and not for his disciples to understand. Let’s say he meant something else by “this generation” and did not intend to mean the current generation first hearing those words. If so, did he not realize his disciples would misunderstand him? Would any sensible person saying what Jesus said not realize most people would think he meant that present generation? This leaves us two possibilities:
- He was very unaware and ignorant so that he didn’t realize he had miscommunicated
- He did not want to be understood
But Jesus does not seem the type to be ignorant:
Matthew 9:4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?
He was very aware of what the people around him were thinking and he was a very sensible person. When he didn’t want to be understood he spoke in parables so people wouldn’t understand him. When he wanted to be understood he explained the parables. This means Jesus had a very good grasp of when people understood or misunderstood him.
That means, if he meant something other than that present generation, then he intended to be misunderstood. But, if Jesus intended to be misunderstood so that his disciples could not grasp the timing of his coming, why did he thwart his own plans?
John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
If Jesus intended to be misunderstood about the timing of his coming, why did he send the Holy Spirit to tell them the truth? Wouldn’t sending them the Spirit be counter productive to his intentions? Because at the very least, the Holy Spirit would tell them that the second coming could come after that generation had passed, something Jesus had misinformed them about. This also means, that whatever the disciples believed about the end times and it’s timing, they did under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
And if the Holy Spirit was sent to them with the purpose of guiding them into “all” truth concerning the things of the end, did the Holy Spirit not complete his purpose? Why would he not correct their massive misunderstanding of the timing? Did the Holy Spirit intentionally lie to them? Did the Spirit of truth protect the lie? And if our faith is built upon the disciple’s teachings wouldn’t such a misunderstanding undermine their credibility and the very Christian faith?
We must also remember that Jesus plainly told his disciples he intended them to understand him.
Obviously, Jesus with great strain wished to be understood by the disciples, he sent the Holy Spirit to help with just that very purpose, and he would have been aware of how the disciples understood him. Since the disciples understood him to mean that present generation and Jesus or the Holy Spirit did not correct them, that’s exactly what Jesus meant.
Are we denying Christ’s divinity?
So then, whether God’s plans were thwarted, Jesus lied, or he was insane, all challenge the divinity of Christ. We have exhausted all reasonable meanings of Jesus’s words. We have clearly shown that he prophesied that he would return in that present generation.
- Jesus could not have lied or told a false prophecy and been the Messiah.
- Only an insane person would use the language Jesus used to make a guess and Jesus could not have been insane if he was God. Insanity doesn’t line up with God’s character or even description of himself.
- God’s plans cannot be thwarted unless he gives a condition and he made no such condition when he promised to return without delay.
- The disciples, by their own words and actions showed that they understood Jesus to mean that present generation would not pass before he returned. Jesus would have been aware if they had misunderstood him and had no intentions for them to misunderstand. Since Jesus did not correct them then that proves he meant to communicate that present generation would not pass before the end.
This leaves us only one plausible solution: Jesus promised us he would return before that generation passed. Therefore, if we living today say that Jesus did not return in that generation, then by implication we are saying he could not have been God and thus make Christianity a false religion.
We have been able to avoid these implications simply because we are not logically thinking through our beliefs. We have taught ourselves to deny our intellect as if faith and intellect were opposed to each other. We don’t even try to make sense of what we believe. However, if a person is honest with themselves, they will realize the futurist beliefs are detrimental to the Christian faith. The Pharisees denied Jesus’s first coming because he didn’t come the way they expected. Are we denying his second coming because Jesus didn’t come the way we expected?
It is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire. (II Thess. 1:6-7)
Did the apostles and Christians ever get their promised relief? Were they promised Jesus would come soon and deliver them but he never showed up? Would Paul have given this word of hope if he knew Jesus may or may not show up in their generation? Were these Christians given false words of comfort? If so what do you make of your faith? Does God give us false comfort and promises?
Obviously, I cannot go along with the futurist charade. It is ignorant and hurts the very integrity of Christianity itself. Jesus did return in 66AD before that generation had passed away visibly as recorded in history. The saints were resurrected from Sheol to Heaven, the heavens and earth were shaken and God introduced his kingdom which has been growing in the world ever since.
Jesus is not a failure. He is victorious! The reason the world is getting better today and not worse is because Jesus is now King and is changing this world through his growing kingdom.
Isaiah 9:7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Poverty is at record lows, people are living longer and healthier lives than ever, crime is decreasing all over the world, Christianity is growing rapidly in almost every country. Statistics prove the world is not getting better, not worse.
I know preterism makes us uncomfortable and the general Evangelical church has not accepted this message, but our loyalty must be to the truth and not man’s opinion. We are called to follow God, not man’s tradition especially when man’s doctrines deny the very divinity of Christ to the honest mind.
Some estimate that over a third of the New Testament speaks of the end times. This was the core of their Christian hope and everything they hoped, prayed, and endured for was in expecting it to happen soon. If not for the integrity of the Bible, then at least for the quantity of verses affected by our interpretation, we should be open to the possibility that Jesus actually returned when he said he would. Check out this article by David A. Green that shows just how clear the Bible makes it that Jesus was meant to return soon. Please take time to read it.
In our next article, we will show that Jesus promised the Resurrection of the Dead at his return and we will demonstrate how that was fulfilled when he came in 66AD.