My first introduction to the topic of Bible prophecy came by way of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. That was in 1973 when I was in my final year at Western Michigan University. Having very little knowledge of the Bible, I was intrigued with the argument and the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that we were living in the last days. The signs, I was told, were all around us. It all seemed to make sense . . . until I read the Bible.
As I began reading the New Testament, I came across numerous passages that did not fit Lindsey’s Late Great Earth paradigm. Here are three from the Gospel of Matthew:
- “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Matt 10:23).
- “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt. 16:28).
- “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; see 12:39, 41, 42; 23:36).
I was perplexed, so I put the study of eschatology on hold for a time until I got on better scriptural footing. But about a year later, the issue again became a topic of discussion. By then I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary where I had access to a library. I picked up William Hendriksen’s commentary on Matthew in his multi-volume New Testament Commentary series. Hendriksen was reliable and Dutch, a good place for me to start since I was being taught by professors with names like DeYoung, Van Groningen, and Kistemaker, who took over the commentary series after Hendriksen’s death. Hendriksen’s comments on these passages were not much help.
In his more than two pages of explanation as to why “this generation” does mean the generation of Jesus’ day, he did not reference a single verse in the synoptic gospels where the same phrase is used (12:39, 41, 42, 23:36):
By no means has it been established that the term “this generation” must be limited to contemporaries. It can also refer to “this kind of people”; for example, the Jews, at any time or in any age. Worthy of the consideration in this connection are such passages as Deut. 32:5, 20; Ps. 12:7; 78:8; etc., where the LXX uses the same word as is here rendered “generation,” but evidently with a meaning that goes beyond “group of contemporaries.”(1) Thus even in the New Testament (see Acts 2:40; Phil. 2:15; Heb. 3:10), thought he starting point may well be a reference to the people of that particular day, this many not be the entire meaning. So also probably here in Matt. 24:34.(2)
In his attempt to back up his weak exegetical argument, Hendriksen writes: “Jesus does not necessarily mean that his disciples shall see all that has been predicted and is going to take place” even though in Matthew 24:33 Jesus says, “you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.”(3) It seemed to me at the time that if Jesus had had a future generation in view, He would have used the far demonstrative “that” instead of the near demonstrative “this.”(4)
His comments on Matthew 24:14 were equally weak, never mentioning that Jesus uses the word oikoumene, the only time the word is found in Matthew’s gospel, or its connection to limited geography in Luke 2:1, Acts 11:28, and other places in the New Testament (Luke 4:5; Acts 17:6, 31; 19:27; Rom. 10:18; Heb. 1:6; 2:5; Rev. 3:10; 16:14).(5)
Marcellus Kik’s Matthew 24
Then one day, the RTS librarian put out some books from his personal library to sell. My eyes focused on a faded red hardback with “Matthew XXIV” stamped on the spine. It was J. Marcellus Kik’s brief commentary on Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse. (Kik was also Dutch.) In the Preface to the second edition Kik wrote:
The first edition of this work was published in 1948 and it is indeed gratifying that the demand for it has necessitated a second edition. The particular interpretation represented in this book found slow acceptance but in recent years approval has multiplied, especially with the decline of the dispensational position.(6)
In time I learned that Kik’s interpretive model was not new or unique to him. In addition, I found that the preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse has a long and distinguished history among Bible commentators from diverse orthodox theological traditions. Kik’s little book forever changed the way I studied the Bible because it used the Bible to interpret the Bible, the very methodology I was learning in my hermeneutics classes.
Jesus and His Mistaken Prophecy
There is a history of skeptics turning to Bible prophecy and claiming Jesus was wrong about the timing of His coming at “the end of the age” (Matt. 24:3) and the signs associated with it. Noted atheist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote the following in Why I Am Not a Christian, a lecture he delivered on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society:
I am concerned with Christ as he appears in the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, He certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching.(7)
There have been others. Even C. S. Lewis understood the dilemma present in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:34 that He would return before that first-century generation passed away. After dealing with critics who maintain that Jesus was just another Palestinian seer, Lewis confronts the more serious objection:
“But there is worse to come. ‘Say what you like,’ we shall be told, ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of 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.’
“It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”(8)
Two recent examples of apocalyptic questioning come to mind. In his best-selling book Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman describes how he struggled to reconcile what he had been taught about the inerrancy of the Bible with what he believed to be predictive errors made by Jesus. His trek down the road toward skepticism and unbelief includes what he describes as “one of the most popular books on campus” that was being read while he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s, Hal “Lindsay’s [sic] apocalyptic blueprint for our future, The Late Great Planet Earth.”(9) Ehrman writes that he “was particularly struck by the ‘when’” of Lindsey’s prophetic outline of Matthew 24.
Lindsey followed a futuristic paradigm that assured his readers that Jesus would return within forty-years of 1948 (1948 + 40 = 1988), because, according to Lindsey, the reestablishment of the nation of Israel was the prophetic key to Bible prophecy. As anyone who reads the New Testament can see, there is not a single word said about Israel becoming a nation again. Ehrman writes that “this message proved completely compelling to us. It may seem odd now—given the circumstances that 1988 has come and gone, with no Armageddon— but, on the other hand, there are millions of Christians who still believe that the Bible can be read literally as completely inspired in its predictions of what is soon to happen to bring history as we know it to a close.”(10)
Instead of questioning the exegetical work of Lindsey and other prophecy writers, Ehrman rejected the authority of the Bible. As the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and someone who is described as “an authority on the history of the New Testament, the early church, and the life of Jesus,” Ehrman should know that the interpretation made popular by Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and other prophecy writers has a recent history when compared to the great Bible expositors of the past.
In his debate with Douglas Wilson in, the late Christopher Hitchens charged that Jesus was in error because He predicted His coming within a generation, and it did not come to pass. You can see the exchange in the DVD version of their four-day debate exchange. This, of course, would make Jesus a false prophet and the New Testament unreliable. In just a few sentences Wilson showed that that Jesus was referring to a judgment coming that in fact did take place before that first-century generation passed away. It’s the only way to read the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Hitchens, always ready with a quick response, had none.
The skeptics are reading it the right way. Jesus predicted that He would return within the time period of that generation. Unfortunately, too many Christians are giving the wrong answer when skeptics claim Jesus was mistaken. All of what Jesus said would happen before that generation passed away did happen.
On a personal note, I received the following email from a man whose faith was hanging by a thread because of certain passages that he could not reconcile with the claim that Scripture is inerrant:
I am writing to you as sort of a last hurrah to save my faith. As a former American fundamentalist, I had my faith sorely bruised and wrecked in seminary. Fighting both professors and the arguments of the new atheists, I found myself, in the end, questioning my own faith. When I found that quite a few of our apologetic claims are at worst deceitful and at best misleading, I found myself in a hole that I can’t seem to dig myself out of. I am hanging on to my personal experience of Him, which my atheist friends are trying to explain away with all sorts of biochemistry, evolution, etc.
The Bible seems to be, from an honest objective view, errant and Jesus seems to be quite wrong about several factual matters. While I am ashamed to admit it, I feel myself backing away from him when I read that he was wrong about . . . imprecise details of . . . the destruction of Jerusalem, etc. . . . I’ve read scores of apologetics books, but they seem full of special pleadings and weird exegetical gymnastics to scurry away what seems . . . clear and real to any reader of the Book.
- I believe Hendriksen is wrong. The Bible is referencing to a specific generation, in the case of Deuteronomy 32:5, 20, the generation that was in the wilderness. The same is true of Psalm 78:8: “And not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to God.”(↩)
- William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), 868.(↩)
- Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, 868.(↩)
- “Greek grammars and lexicons recognize two demonstratives: near and distant. The near demonstrative, as the name denotes, points to someone or something ‘near,’ in close proximity. They appear as the singular word ‘this’ and its plural ‘these.’ The distant demonstratives, as their name suggests, appear as ‘that’ (singular), or ‘those’ (plural).” (Cullen I K Story and J. Lyle Story, Greek To Me: Learning New Testament Greek Through Memory Visualization (New York: Harper, 1979), 74. “Sometimes it is desired to call attention with special emphasis to a designated object, whether in the physical vicinity or the speaker or the literary context of the writer. For this purpose the demonstrative construction is used. . . . For that which is relatively near in actuality or thought the immediate demonstrative [houtos] is used. . . . For that which is relatively distant in actuality or thought the remote demonstrative [ekeinos] is used.” (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York; Macmillan, 1957], 127–128, sec. 136). Similarly, “[T]his, referring to something comparatively near at hand, just as ekeinos [that] refers to something comparatively farther away.” (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. [Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1952], 600).(↩)
- Hendriksen is not the only commentator who fails to make the connection. See James H. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: IL: Crossway, 2010), 377: “Jesus explains that there will be birth pains until the gospel has gone through the whole world (24:4–14).”(↩)
- J. Marcellus Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four: An Exposition (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), vii.(↩)
- Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 16.(↩)
- C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company,  1960), 97–98. Also see Gerald A. Larue, “The Bible and the Prophets of Doom,” Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 1999), 29; Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000), 1–7; Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 1997), 204–229.(↩)
- Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 12.(↩)
- Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 13.(↩)