New Testament

Preterism and “This Generation” in Matt 24:34

Preterism views the label “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 as one of the most important factors in determining one’s eschatological viewpoint. Does “this generation” refer to the disciples to whom Jesus is talking, or a future generation?

photo of this generation verse, a favorite of preterism

Matthew 24:34 and the mention of “this generation” occurs in the midst of the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25). The Olivet Discourse was prompted by the disciples’ question about when the destruction of Jerusalem would be, and what sign would signify Christ’s return (Matt 24:3).

In answer to the disciples, Jesus gives the following signs of the impending destruction:

  • There will be many false Christs, wars, and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines (vv. 4-8)
  • There will be persecution and a mass apostasy, but the gospel will be preached to the whole world (vv. 9-14)
  • The abomination of desolation in fulfillment of Daniel 9:27 will take place and mark the need to flee from Jerusalem  (vv. 15-22)
  • False Christs and prophets will arise and use false signs to mislead many, but the true sign of Christ’s coming will be as unmistakable as lightning (vv. 23-28).
  • There will be cosmic events, such as the darkening of the sun and moon, and the falling of stars from the sky (v. 29)
  • The Son of Man will come, the earth will mourn, and he will gather His elect (vv. 30-31).

Christ then gives a parable about a fig tree (Matt 24:32-33), the main point of which is clear: just as one recognizes the seasons by the fig tree branches, so one will recognize the end.

At this point in the discourse, Jesus states, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v. 34). There are three main views for understanding the phrase, “this generation.”

  1. This generation refers to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking.
  2. This generation refers to the Jewish people as a whole.
  3. This generation refers to the last eschatological generation of Matthew 24:33 that sees the signs.

Interpreters that hold to view #1 say that all of the signs and events prophesied by Jesus in verses 4-31 happened in 70 A.D. when the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The major contention with this viewpoint is that interpreters are hard-pressed to explain the fulfillment of many of the signs (e.g., abomination of desolation, cosmic darkening of the sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, etc.). If those signs have not taken place, then either Jesus was wrong, or we have misunderstood what “this generation” refers to.

“This Generation” as an Ethnic Term Referring to the Jewish People

Because of the difficulties of view #1, many interpreters have interpreted “this generation” as a reference to the Jewish people. This view has been held by many interpreters through the years. In fact, while researching something else I came across a quote from Nathaniel Homes (1653) who held to this view. Although it seems to be a valid use of the word in some contexts, the major problem is that it doesn’t seem Matthew uses the term this way throughout his gospel.

“This Generation” as the Eschatological Generation

This is the best view in my mind. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, the word “this” (in “this generation”) is called a demonstrative pronoun, and in Greek (like English) it can refer to a physical referent or a logical referent. In other words, it can refer to something that physically exists near the speaker, or something that the speaker is talking about.

John 4:15 is a good example of a logical referent. The woman at the well tells Jesus, “Sir, give me this water.” The irony of the situation is that Jesus and the woman are standing by a well of real water (a potential physical referent). Yet, Jesus had told the woman that He had living water which was not in the well (v. 10). The woman uses the near demonstrative “this water” to refer to the topic of conversation. Thus, “this water” is a logical referent to the living water rather than the real water which right in front of them.

In a similar way, it is possible that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus uses “this generation” to describe the generation that will recognize the end when they see the signs. This is the future generation of Matt 24:32-33 (the immediate context).

In support for this view, Mike Vlach helpfully gives four contextual considerations for understanding Matthew 24:34. (Vlach is the best on these kinds of issues).

  • The actual fulfillment of these events (Matt 24:4-31) in history.
  • Jesus’ statement that He does not know the timing of these events (Matt 24:36).
  • Jesus’ use of the “trans-generational you” for Israel in the immediate context (see Vlach’s post on this important concept).
  • Matthew 23:37-39 strongly suggests that a future believing generation of Israel will follow the current unbelieving generation. This implies some gap of time for this scenario to play out.

A Final Word about the Cosmic and Final Nature of the Signs

A major issue in interpreting “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is how one expects prophecy to be fulfilled. In order to say that the signs given in versus 4-31 were fulfilled in 70 A.D., the cosmic nature of the signs must downplayed. Furthermore, the coming of the Son of Man must be made symbolic rather than an actual event.

Jesus states that there will be earthquakes and famines (among other things) before He returns. There have been bad earthquakes throughout history. In 760 B.C. there was a horrible earthquake during the time of Uzziah. Thus, Jesus is saying these future earthquakes won’t be the average earthquake (which we have experienced throughout history). These earthquakes will be of such magnitude that it will be clear that the end is at the doorstep (cf. Rev 6:12-14).

Additionally, the cosmic disturbances of the sun and moon being darkened and stars falling are events to which there is no mention or record in 70 A.D. Such cosmic events would surely have been noticed. Rather, these await a future time (cf. Rev 6:12-14).

Lastly, by saying all of these things were fulfilled in 70 A.D., that takes away from the finality of Christ’s return. The disciples ask about Christ’s coming and the end of the age (Matt 24:3). If the response of Jesus is limited to 70 A.D., then the finality of his coming and the gathering His elect becomes a symbolic interpretation rather than literal.

Hence, it seems best to see Matthew 24:34 and the reference to “this generation” as looking ahead to a future time when Jerusalem will be destroyed and Jesus will come back.


Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

6 Comments

  • Andrew

    Any thoughts on Matthew 24:14? When it says gospel preached to all Nations? I think Preterism says that was the known Roman Empire and the end was the Jewish Age or the Temple. love the post!

    • Peter Goeman

      Hi Andrew, thanks for reading. I am sure there may be some variation within the preterist camp, but I do think that is probably the typical way of interpreting it. I think usually they see the book of Acts as fulfilling this (gospel goes to Rome which is the capstone of all of it). But, I see no problem with 24:14 as referring to the time of tribulation (like the other parts of Matthew 24). In fact, seeing the digression of places like the Near East or even the Americas with regard to Christianity it is easy to imagine a world where Christianity becomes little known so that the gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed in a fresh way during the midst of the greatest trial in humanity’s history.

  • Rei

    I appreciate your explanation of this verse with a future eschaton in sight.
    However, I’m going to have to disagree with how you represented the Preterist view, and your reasoning behind why you say it is not correct. I say all this in love, knowing we are both in Christ, and only differ in interpretation.

    You said:

    “The major contention with this viewpoint is that interpreters are hard-pressed to explain the fulfillment of many of the signs (e.g., abomination of desolation, cosmic darkening of the sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, etc.).”

    I have not found any Preterist I’ve read, or listened to, to be “hard-pressed” to explain any of these things listed.

    “The abomination of desolation” is explained in Luke’s Olivet Discourse as “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” (Luke 21:20). How can you get any clearer than that?

    And the “cosmic signs” are hyperbolic language, written about by even OT prophets. God “came down” in judgement on many nations in the OT. And Jesus said his coming in judgment would be “in the glory of the father” (Mt 16:27-28).

    *****
    “When Assyria, under Sennecherib, invaded Israel, threatening Jerusalem with destruction, Isaiah promised deliverance at the coming of Jehovah. Jehovah would “come down” out of heaven (Isaiah 30:30; 31:4) with a shout, and fire. Assyria would be defeated (Isaiah 30:27-33; 31:4-8) There is no doubt whatsoever of the time and content of Jehovah’s presence in judgement. This was a historical event.”
    (“Like Father, Like Son, on Clouds of Glory” by Don K Preston).

    “The Purpose of Jehovah’s “coming” would be to reveal Him as the only true God.” (ibid)
    *****

    Jesus made this exact claim when he was questioned at his trial, and the High Priest tore his clothes (Mt 26:64ff) because Jesus was claiming to come in judgement against them like God had in the past on other nations.

    You can find this kind of language all over the OT. Mountains quake in God’s presence, the earth is burned, seas dry up (Nah 1), for example. That is just how the Hebrews spoke about major events. Even Joseph’s dream about the sun, moon and stars, was immediately understood by his family as representing them bowing before him.

    When God judged a nation, cosmic signs would be foretold. So if you say the “cosmic nature of the signs must be downplayed” by Preterist’s interpreting them as being fulfilled in the judgement of Jerusalem in 70, then you must also say the same thing about the OT writers when they wrote about the fulfillment of cosmic signs being the judgement of nations in their day.

    ————-

    You also said:

    “by saying all of these things were fulfilled in 70 A.D., that takes away from the finality of Christ’s return. The disciples ask about Christ’s coming and the end of the age (Matt 24:3)”

    End of which age, would be a good question to ask.
    End of the Christian age? No, that age is everlasting.

    “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.” (Is 9:7).

    “he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk 1:33)

    “you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pt 1:11)

    “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” (Rv 1:6)

    End of the physical world?
    No, the earth remains forever.

    “He established the earth upon its foundations, So that it will not totter forever and ever.” (Ps 104:5)

    “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Ecc 1:4)

    Which age was ending?
    The Old Covenant, Mosaic age.
    The age of the Law, sin, and death.
    And yes, it was final!

    The NT is about the inter-covenantal period of time in which the 1st Century christians were living.

    “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” (Heb 8:6-7)

    “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Heb 8:13)

    ALL eschatology is Old Covenant Israel’s eschatology.
    The church has no eschatology, no end.

    I know it’s difficult for us to change this perspective when we’ve been taught all our lives that Jesus is “coming soon”. What does soon even mean anymore to us Christians?

    I do wonder, though, why people are so afraid to consider that Jesus has already fulfilled ALL prophesy?

    What are we losing when we acknowledge this reality?

    A physical kingdom?
    Jesus said the kingdom does not come with observation (Lk 17:20).

    A physical resurrection?
    It’s sown physical, but raised spiritual (1 Cor 15:42-44)

    A physical temple?
    Paul made it clear we are the temple now (1 Cor 3:16), with Christ being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20)!

    The OT prophets foretold things they didn’t understand. Daniel was told to seal up the prophesy, because the time was not at hand (Dan 12:8-9).

    The NT writers, “on whom the culmination of the ages [had] come” (1 Cor 10:11), explained them! And John was told “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.” (Rev 22:10).

    “The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Rev 22:6) There’s that soon word again.

    There’s much more I’d like to say, but this is already way longer than I ever meant for it to be, so I will leave it at that.

    I hope this helps you to, at the very least, see that those who take the Preterist view, are not in fact, “hard-pressed to explain the fulfillment of many of the signs”. And to say so would be a little disingenuous.

    • Peter Goeman

      Hello, Rei. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I’ve tried to respond to a few of the issues you raise in what follows. But before I do, I really appreciate you being kind and loving in how you made your comment. Very appreciated, and I wish to communicate in the same tone.

      (1) When I said “hard pressed to explain” the cosmic nature of signs, I did not mean there were not answers, but I meant to imply that when I read preterists their viewpoint (usually viewing it symbolically) their interpretation is strained, or not natural.

      (2) My interpretation of Luke 21:20-24 is that it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I follow Mike Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 387-390 with regard to this, but he is far from alone—my understanding is most people would say this. Yet, I think it is important that Luke 21:20 does not refer to Daniel or the abomination of desolation. It does say Jerusalem will be desolate, but that term is generic enough by itself to be used without reference to Daniel (see the LXX for its use). Additionally, the abomination of desolation is specific enough in Daniel that it is clear that did NOT happen in 70 AD.

      (3) When I noted, “by saying all of these things were fulfilled in 70 A.D., that takes away from the finality of Christ’s return. The disciples ask about Christ’s coming and the end of the age (Matt 24:3),” you replied—“End of which age, would be a good question to ask.
      End of the Christian age? No, that age is everlasting.”

      This is a presupposition, which I think is easily refuted. It is the disciples question, and so it is from their worldview that we must ask what age they are taking about. It is clear both from biblical as well as extra biblical sources that the Jews viewed the coming of the kingdom as the next major event. Acts 1:6 is instructive with regard to this point—the disciples continued to expect the institution of the kingdom which was promised in the OT, even after 40 days of instruction from the resurrected Messiah. This is what they were looking for in Matthew 24 as well.

      (4) On the nature of cosmic signs and the relationship to prophetic literature, I can only be brief. Perhaps I will have a future post on this issue since it deserves more in depth treatment. First, there is definitely a degree of symbolism involved in Jesus’ words to be sure! But the nature of the symbolism must be identified in a cosmic context. The description in vv. 29-31 especially cannot be limited to simply impacting Israel. It is clear from phrases such as “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” and “they will see the Son of Man” that this was intended to be understood by Jesus’ followers as a world-wide realization. Something that does not fit with 70 AD.

      (4a) It is also worth while to note that those closest to this 70 AD fulfillment interpreted Matthew 24 as futuristic. Didache 16:3-8 and Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, ch 110) give at least two contemporary witnesses to the events of 70 AD and it is their view that Matt 24 is futuristic.

      Appreciate you reading and hope to hear from you again! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  • Jason

    “The cosmic nature of the signs must be downplayed.” Excellent point. I remember this verse giving me “trouble” for a few years.

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