From *The Skeptical Review*, 1999/May-June:
by Farrell Till
In the past two issues of TSR, I have discussed various claims of prophecy fulfillment that Bruce Weston expressed concern about in his article "Doubts But Questions about Prophecy" in the January/February issue (pp. 6-7). In one case, he thought it possible that what skeptics consider an example of prophecy failure wasn't necessarily a failure. This was the occasion of an apparent promise that Jesus made that he would come again before "this generation" had passed away. In Matthew 24, the disciples of Jesus asked him to tell them what would be the sign of his coming and of the end of the world (v:3). Over the space of several verses (4-31), Jesus answered their question and told of several "events" that would happen prior to his return and the signs that would accompany his coming, after which he made the statement that Weston inquired about.
Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place (vs:32-34, emphasis added).
Weston wanted me to address "the Christian defense that by saying this generation, Jesus was talking about the same generation that sees the fig tree put forth its leaves (and not to the current generation of His time)" [TSR, January/February 1999, p. 6]. Weston then went on to suggest that the fig tree was "symbolic of Israel, which was reborn as a nation in 1948," and so this interpretation would mean that Jesus was saying that he would return before the generation that witnessed the "rebirth" of Israel had passed away and not before the passing away of the generation of his own time.
This is indeed an interpretation that modern apologists have resorted to in order to "explain" what must otherwise be considered a flagrant prophecy failure. I hesitate to use the word "interpretation" in reference to this view of the passage, because such a far-fetched "spin" as this on a text that doesn't even mention the nation of Israel hardly qualifies to be called an interpretation, but since Weston has obviously fallen under the influence of this "explanation," I will, in compliance with his request, "address" it to show that it is too far-fetched and unlikely to take seriously.
First, we should notice that this passage is not the only one where Jesus promised that he would return before his own generation had passed away. One of the clearest statements of this promise was made in Matthew 16:27-28.
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
Biblical inerrantists have tried to explain away the problem in this text by arguing that it was a reference to the glorification of Jesus in the transfiguration, which followed immediately in chapter 17. The best way to see the weakness of this explanation is to note that in the text quoted above, Jesus was describing the final judgment when he would come with his angels and reward every person according to his works, but the transfiguration scene (quoted below) mentions nothing at all about angels or judgment.
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid." When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only" (Matt. 17:1-8).
That a final judgment in which all people will be rewarded according to their works will occur when Jesus comes again is a well defined New Testament doctrine. The apostle Paul said, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). The book of Revelation closed with a warning of this final judgment: "Behold, I come quickly and my reward is with me, to render to each man according to his works" (22:12). In his interpretation of the parable of the tares, Jesus was very clear in saying to his disciples that the final judgment would take place at the end of the world.
He that sows the good seed is the Son of Man; and the field is the world, and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy that sowed them is the devil: and the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are angels. As therefore the tares are gathered up and burned with fire; so shall it be in the end of the world. The Son of Man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that has ears, let him hear (Matt. 13:37-43).
Other scriptures could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that the New Testament teaches that the second coming of Jesus will signal the end of the world, at which time there will be a final, personal judgment on the basis of what each individual did in his/her lifetime. The fanciful little yarn about the transfiguration of Jesus says nothing at all about angels coming with Jesus or the rewarding of every person according to his works; therefore, it could hardly be the fulfillment of his promise that some who were listening to him speak would not die until they had seen him return with his angels to reward every person according to his works. No judgment took place on the "mount of transfiguration" and certainly this event didn't usher in the end of the world, so how could it be a fulfillment of a promise that some living then would be alive to see Jesus return to render judgment to all according to their works? Just common sense should tell readers of this passage that when Jesus said that some standing by (hearing him speak) would not die until they had seen him coming in his kingdom, he was not talking about something that was going to happen the very next week (after six days, Matt. 17:1), because that would mean that he was saying, in effect, that some who were hearing him speak would not die until they had seen something that was going to happen right away. The language of the text is such that it communicates the idea that some hearing him speak would live to see an event that wasn't going to happen immediately but would at least happen within their lifetimes.
Another interpretation of the promise in Matthew 16 is that Jesus was only saying that some would not taste of death until they saw "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" and that the kingdom was the church, which was established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Hence, there were probably many listening to Jesus in Matthew 16 who also witnessed the coming of the church (kingdom) in Acts 2, and so this promise was fulfilled. A major problem with this interpretation is that it does not address the obvious fact that Jesus was speaking in Matthew 16 about a judgment that would be rendered to all people according to their works, and this did not happen on the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, Jesus clearly said in this text that he would "come in the glory of His father with His angels" to "reward every man according to his works," and neither Jesus nor his angels were seen coming on the day of Pentecost. Such interpretations as these, like the one that is troubling Weston, are far-fetched attempts to try to explain away the obvious fact that Jesus taught that he would return soon, within the lifetime of the people of his generation. That didn't happen, and so biblicists who are determined to believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God have resorted to all sorts of fanciful speculations to try to explain away New Testament passages in which Jesus clearly promised that his return would happen before his generation had passed away.
New Testament writers in general also taught that the end of the world was imminent. The writer of 1 Peter said that "the end of all things is at hand" (4:7). James 5:8 admonished Christians to "establish [their] hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." The writer of 1 John said that the coming of "many Anti-Christs" enabled Christians to know that "it is the last hour" (2:18). The writer of Hebrews said that Christ had appeared "once at the end of the ages" to "put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (9:26). This was an obvious reference to the crucifixion of Jesus, doctrinally considered to be a vicarious "atonement" for sin, and the Hebrew writer said that it had happened at the "end of the ages," but if almost two thousand years have since passed, how could this event be correctly described as something that had happened at the end of the ages? The reasonable conclusion is that this writer sincerely thought, like the writers of 1 Peter, James, and 1 John, that the end of the world was at hand, but he was mistaken. After all, we see people today declaring their sincere beliefs that the end of the world is at hand, as others have done throughout the Christian era, so it would not have been unusual at all for religious alarmists in the early church to think that the end of the world was "at hand." The remarkable thing is that so many people today are so determined to believe that Jesus is coming again that they will ignore all of the false warnings of his return that have been sounded in the past and resort to all sorts of unlikely interpretations to show that the New Testament warnings of an early return didn't really mean what they appear to mean.
A popular quibble used to "explain" why Jesus hasn't returned yet, as some New Testament passages seemed to promise, is based on 2 Peter 3:8, which says that "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as once day," so die-hard inerrantists will argue that when New Testament writers said that it was the "last hour" or that the end was "at hand," they were speaking in terms of how God perceives time. Yeah, right! We are supposed to believe that God inspired certain writers to tell people that Jesus would come again someday, but he chose to do so in language that had meaning only to an omniscient, omnipotent deity. "Soon" didn't mean "soon," and "at hand" didn't mean "at hand," as humans understand these terms, but as God understands them. Such an explanation makes God a devious entity who chose to reveal important information in sort of a secret code that would have meaning only to an omniscient, omnipotent deity. Biblicists may think that this quibble is a reasonable explanation for the texts that said it was "the last hour" or that the end was "at hand," but they know that it doesn't give a satisfactory explanation to the passages where Jesus said that he would return before his generation had passed away, and so they resort to all sorts of speculative interpretations to make these passages not mean what they clearly say.
That brings us back to the fanciful interpretation of Matthew 24:34, which apparently has Bruce Weston troubled. "This generation" didn't mean the generation that Jesus was talking to but the generation that would be alive when the nation of Israel was restored. In other words, by arguing that Jesus didn't really mean what he seemed to be saying, biblicists have tried to escape from the false prophecy that results when this passage is understood to mean exactly what the language in it says: "(T)his generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place."
Weston has apparently bought the idea that Jesus was referring to the generation that would be living when the nation of Israel would be restored, but there is nothing in the text that even remotely suggests that Jesus was referring to a restoration of the nation of Israel." Indeed, Israel isn't even mentioned in the entire context of this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Furthermore, there are two other accounts of this conversation (Mark 13; Luke 21), and, like Matthew, neither one of them mentioned the nation of Israel. That fact alone should be sufficient for Weston and anyone else who has been taken in by this "interpretation" to reject it.
An analysis of Matthew 24 shows that Jesus remarked to his disciples that the time would come when the buildings of the temple would be destroyed and "not one stone would be left upon another" (vs:1-2). His disciples responded with two questions: (1) When will these things be? (2) What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world? (The second question indicates that the disciples thought that the coming of Jesus would also be the end of the world, and that view is consistent with scriptures I have already cited.) The rest of the chapter consists of the answers that Jesus gave to these questions. When will these things be or, in other words, when would the temple buildings be destroyed? Jesus's answer to this question ran through verses 4-22, where he told the disciples that there would be wars and rumors of war, that nation would rise against nation, that there would be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, which would be only "the beginnings of sorrow" (v:8). He told them that they would be persecuted and delivered up to tribulations and that the gospel would be preached "in all the world as a witness to all nations" and that only then would the end come (v:14).
In verses 15-22, he told the disciples to expect to see an "abomination of desolation" standing in the holy place, which was to be a warning to those in Judea to flee to the mountains. He then spoke of a "great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world" and would never be thereafter (v:21). Most New Testament scholars understand this section to be referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 by the Romans, which was when the holy place was desecrated by Gentiles who entered into it before the temple was destroyed. This view receives strong support from Luke's parallel account in which he said, "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" (21:20). Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman army prior to the destruction of the city and temple.
At this point, Jesus had answered the first question of his disciples, who had asked when the temple buildings would be destroyed, and so he turned to answering the second question: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?" To show that Jesus meant for his disciples to understand that his "coming" would happen soon, within their lifetime, we need to read exactly what he said in answering their second question.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (vs:29-31, emphasis added).
I have emphasized two words, immediately and then, in this text to show how unlikely it is that Jesus was referring to events that still haven't happened after almost two thousand years. He said that immediately after the "tribulation of those days," certain phenomenal signs would be seen, i. e., the darkening of the sun, the moon not giving its light, and the stars falling from heaven (as if such were even possible). I have noted that there is general agreement among New Testament scholars that in the verses prior to this one, Jesus was telling his disciples of a great tribulation that would happen when Jerusalem was destroyed, so in saying immediately after the "tribulation of those days," certain celestial signs would be seen, he surely was saying that these signs would come immediately after "those days" of the tribulation that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem. Inerrantists, of course, will argue that immediately didn't really mean immediately in the sense that humans use the word but in the sense of immediacy in God's mind, so it would be possible for all of this to happen even thousands of years from now and that still be "immediately" as far as God is concerned. In other words, the inerrantists must again resort to arguing that even though God revealed the Bible for human benefit, he nevertheless inspired it in some sort of secret code that would be understood only by him. It's just another attempt to explain away biblical discrepancies by arguing that the Bible doesn't really mean what it says. It presents inerrantists as arguing that God couldn't inspire clear writing, and so modern inerrantists are needed to explain to people what God really meant when he inspired his chosen writers to say whatever. It's an argument that makes sense only to those who are determined to go to any extreme to make the Bible inerrant, but to those who read the text with no inerrancy axe to grind, verbal gymnastics aren't needed to understand what it means. Jesus told his disciples that a "great tribulation" would accompany the destruction of the temple, which happened when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and that immediately after "the tribulation of those days" certain celestial signs would be seen: the sun would be darkened, the moon would not give its light, the stars would fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven would be shaken.
The next key word in the text is then. Jesus said that after the appearance of the celestial signs, which would follow immediately after the tribulation of those days, "the sign of the Son of Man" would appear in heaven. All tribes of the earth would mourn, and they would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. He would send his angels forth with a great sound of a trumpet, and they would gather together his elect from the four corners of the earth. The language in this passage is too similar to other New Testament descriptions of the second coming to deny that Jesus was here too speaking of his return. Revelation 1:7 says, "Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him." The apostle Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first" (4:16). In referring to the end of time when Christ would "deliver the kingdom to God the Father" (1 Cor. 15:24), Paul also spoke of a trumpet that would sound at the final resurrection, "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed--in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (vs:51-52). This passage not only uses the same terminology that is found in Jesus's description of his coming in Matthew 24:31 but it also presents the view that this sounding of the trumpet was an event that would happen soon. Paul did not speak of this as something that would happen to those who would be living at some time in the remote future but as something that was going to happen to him and the Corinthian Christians he was writing to. "We shall not all sleep," he said, "but we shall be changed." He said that the trumpet would sound and we--not people in the distant future--will be changed. Clearly, Paul thought that the return of Jesus and the final resurrection were events that would happen within his own life time, but since all of these expectations have proven to be wrong, biblicists have been required to put far-fetched, unlikely spins on the language of all New Testament passages that spoke about an early return of Jesus.
Among the more popular resorts to absurd interpretations is the one that Bruce Weston inquired about. He wondered if perhaps Jesus meant another generation besides his own when he described his second coming and then said that "this generation" would not pass away until all these things happen. Weston wondered if it is possible that Jesus was referring to the generation that would be living when the nation of Israel was restored. I have already noted that the context in which this statement was made never once referred to the nation of Israel, so that fact alone should be enough to discredit this interpretation. How likely is it that Jesus meant a generation of people that would be living when the nation of Israel was restored if the nation of Israel was nowhere mentioned in the entire discourse that Jesus had with his disciples? To make Jesus's analogy of the fig tree refer to something that wasn't even part of the conversation on this occasion is literarily unsound. As I have pointed out, Jesus was simply answering two questions his disciples had asked: (1) When will the temple be destroyed? (2) What will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the world? After he had answered these questions, he used the analogy of the fig tree to help the disciples understand how they could know when the end would come. "When you see a fig tree putting forth its leaves, you know that summer is near, and so in the same way when you see all these things, you should know that it [the end] is at the door," would be an accurate paraphrase of what Jesus was saying, so the key to understanding what he meant lies in understanding what "these things" meant. The biblicists who have influenced Mr. Weston want us to believe that "these things" were the events that would surround the restoration of Israel, but as I have already noticed, the restoration of Israel was not even a topic of conversation on this occasion. A far more sensible view--and one that doesn't strain principles of literary interpretation-- would be to understand that "these things" referred to all of the events that Jesus had said would accompany the destruction of the temple. Thus, he was saying to his disciples that when they had seen all of "these things," they should know that the end (his second coming) was "at the door" just as surely as they would know that summer was near when they saw a fig tree putting forth its leaves. Since he went on immediately to say that "this generation" would not pass away until all these things had happened, the only realistic interpretation of the text is that he was telling his disciples that he would return soon, within the lifetime of their generation. Since realistic interpretations sometimes cause serious problems for those who want to believe that the Bible is "inerrant," biblicists constantly find it necessary to reject realistic interpretations and search for far-fetched, unlikely ones in order to bring about a phony "harmony" in their "inspired word of God."
We should also notice that in his analogy of the fig tree, Jesus was speaking in the second person to his disciples. An examination of the chapter will show that he had done this consistently all the way through his discourse. He said to them that you will hear of wars and rumors of wars and went on to say that you should not be troubled (v:6). He told them that persecutors would deliver you up to tribulation and to kill you (v: 9). He told them that youwill see the "abomination of desolation standing in the holy place" (v:15). He warned them that if anyone should say to you that Christ is here or there, they should not believe it. In other words, all through this chapter Jesus was speaking directly to his disciples and properly addressing them in the second person as you, and no reasonable person can read this text and deny that he was telling his disciples what they could personally expect to see and experience. In the analogy of the fig tree, he continued to address his listeners in the second person: "When its [the fig tree's] branch has already become tender, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, [you] know that it is near--at the doors." He wasn't addressing this statement to a remotely distant generation of people, but he was speaking to you, the disciples standing in his presence at the time. He was telling them that they would see all of "these things" and thereby know that the end was near.
Part of Weston's inquiry cited certain Old Testament passages that have also been distorted to give them a forced reference to the restoration of Israel in 1948, so in the next issue, I will analyze some of these passages to show that they were never intended to mean what die-hard prophecy-fulfillment buffs have tried to make them mean.