Thanks to Alex Hall for much of the research in this article.
One of the main reasons that other viewpoints don't like the idea of a futurist interpretation of prophecy is that certain sections of Scripture appear to have Jesus say that the end would come before that generation passed away. There has been much speculation about whether Jesus was mistaken or misunderstood, since the Kingdom apparently did not come to pass in the lifetime of his disciples. C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay, "The World's Last Night" (in 1960),
The three schools of eschatology have different ways of avoiding the skeptics' conclusion that Jesus was wrong or mistaken. The Historicist and Preterist views both consider that certain things which Jesus referred to as taking place "before this generation passes" were realized in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. But we saw that those events did not match the prophecies of either the Hebrew Prophets or Jesus himself because, among other things, the dead were not raised, Jesus did not return visibly, and the Kingdom was not established. All these things are said to happen immediately after the Tribulation of those days. The only other explanation is that the Tribulation and subsequent events are yet to happen in the future.
Then what about the statement that "this generation shall not pass till all be fulfilled" in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32? It is in the context of Jesus' parable of the fig tree. That context shows that the point of the parable is not to tell when the end would come, relative to the time at which he spoke. Rather, the point of the parable is to illustrate how the things he referred to would be signs that the end was near. This is not to suggest, however, that Jesus was referring to the generation that would be alive when the signs began to be seen, as some suggest. If that were what he meant, he would have said "that generation" rather than "this generation."
The key is to understand how the word "generation" is used by the Gospel writers. The Greek word is genea (Strong's #1074), and has more than one possible meaning. Strong's defines it as, "A generation; by implication, an age (the period or the persons):- age, generation, nation, time." Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary gives the following definitions:
Most people today, when they read a phrase like "this generation shall not pass," assume it to mean number 3 or 4 above. In fact many reference books will identify Matthew 24:34 and/or its parallel verses as number 3. But a simple word study shows that the figurative meaning 2b is used most frequently in the New Testament, especially the Gospels. More importantly, we shall see that this understanding fits better with the other related Scriptures.
Genea is equivalent to the Hebrew word dowr (Strong's #1755), which is used in much the same way. Brown, Driver, Briggs and Gesenius gives the following definitions:
Let's examine a few verses where dowr is used as definition 1c. The first few verses of Deuteronomy 32 extol God's greatness, and in contrast verse 5 says, "They have corrupted themselves, their spot is not the spot of his children: they are a perverse and crooked generation." Later in verse 20, God says, "I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith." A distinction is made between God’s greatness and the corrupt nature of the crooked and perverse generation to which He refers. Does this refer merely to contemporaries living at the same time, or does it refer to people identified by their nature and character? What characterizes the generation in this sense is not the time in which they lived but their moral standing.
It is because of their nature that the generation is identified as wicked. But the fact that it says "forever" shows that it is not only talking about those living at a given time. In contrast, there is also a generation of people that seek Him.
Here again, "generation" is identified as those people with a certain characteristic, regardless of the time they live. Most often, it is used to describe negative qualities, though.
Is this saying there is a period of time when the people then living would have these qualities? No, it is speaking of the type of people who have such characteristics. Since it is referring to a group of people identified by certain characteristics, the NASB actually translates it as "kind" in these verses. The same is true with genea. In Luke 16:8, Jesus says that the children of this world (age) are "in their generation wiser than the children of light." The NASB renders it, "more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light."
With this understanding, let's examine how the word is used in Matthew's Gospel. In Matthew 11:16-24, Jesus describes "this generation" as refusing to accept the prophets of God. He is not speaking of simply his chronological contemporaries (since some of his contemporaries believed him!) but those who exhibit the same wicked character, by their failure to repent and to accept Jesus or any of God’s prophets. That’s what characterizes this evil generation.
In Matthew 12, Jesus casts out demons, and the Pharisees said he was doing it by Beelzebub the prince of demons. He responds by stating that it is by the Spirit of God that he casts them out, and that it is an indication that the Kingdom's power has come upon them. Anyone failing to recognize the working of the holy spirit is compared with a bad tree with bad fruit (verse 33). In light of that he calls them a generation of vipers (in this instance it is another, though related, Greek word, gennema which is translated both "generation" and "fruit.") "The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil" (verse 35).
Some of the Pharisees then ask him for a sign (even though they had seen many already and refused to believe).
(Jesus makes the same statement again later, in chapter 16.) The sign of the prophet Jonah was that Jesus was raised from the dead after being buried three days and nights. While the contemporaries of Jesus physically saw the empty grave and the risen Christ, their testimony is still the basis for believing in the resurrection, which is the ultimate proof that Jesus is the Messiah. The significance of the sign given to "this generation" is still applicable even today. It was not limited to those living at the time.
The men of Nineveh stood out from their contemporaries, because they repented. Likewise the Queen of the South stood out from her contemporaries by travelling far to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus said they shall rise in judgment and condemn "this generation." If that was referring only to his contemporaries, it wouldn't make sense. Not everyone that lived at the time rejected him. The evil and adulterous generation are those who have those qualities and that nature.
The evil attributes and actions described in this passage are not unique to those who lived at the time of Christ. There has always been a “wicked generation” because it’s a type of humanity which persists. It goes back to Adam, and Cain, and has continued through all history, and will continue until Jesus returns and puts an end to it.
Matthew 17:17 is the next occurrence, in which Jesus refers to the "faithless and perverse generation." Again, does this refer only to those living at the time, or is it speaking of those people who are characterized by unbelief?
The next occurrence is one of the clearest examples, in Matthew 23. Jesus condemns the Scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and whited sepulchers (verses 13ff). Then he continues:
He calls them children of them which killed the prophets, and then in verse 33 he again calls them a generation of vipers. He's talking about the character they have, as part of their nature. In verse 35 he says, "upon you may come all the righteous blood..." and "...whom you slew between the temple and the altar." Obviously he was not accusing the specific men to whom he was speaking of having killed the prophets, but rather he spoke corporately of those who were like them. He then says, "All these things shall come upon this generation." People with like characteristics throughout history are what he is talking about when he speaks of "this generation."
This is how the word for generation is used most often in the Gospels. So when Jesus says in Matthew 24:34, "this generation will not pass till all these things be fulfilled," is he identifying the generation chronologically or morally? Is he talking about all his contemporaries who lived at that time, or is he speaking of "this wicked generation"? Scholars have given various interpretations of this passage, and frequently miss the figurative use of "generation" as it is more common in Hebraic thought than in Western. Nevertheless, that passage must be considered in light of its context and other related Scriptures.
The Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. A detailed examination of it from a Futurist viewpoint can be seen in the Three Schools article. But briefly, Jesus had told his disciples that the very Temple they were looking at would be destroyed. They asked when these things would happen and what would be the sign of his coming and the end of the age. In response, the first thing Jesus says is not to be deceived, for many would come in his name and say that the end times had come.
Following that warning he described things that would happen from that time forward, and exhorted the disciples not to be shaken because those things would happen but the end would not be yet. Then in the second part of the Olivet Discourse, he tells them what would indicate that the end was approaching. The Abomination of Desolation is the specific signal they would see that would tell them that the final stage had begun. It would trigger the Great Tribulation, which would be a time of tribulation such as the world had never seen, nor ever would after that. This Great Tribulation would be so bad that unless the Lord shortened those days, there would be no flesh left on earth. In this context Jesus again says there would be false Christs and false prophets who would, if possible, deceive even the very elect. If they said Christ is here or there, the disciples were not to believe them or follow them, as the real return will be like lightning, lighting the whole sky from east to west.
Jesus specifically says that "immediately after" the Tribulation, there would be signs in the heavens affecting the sun, moon, and stars, the powers of heaven would be shaken, and then the world would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. It will be seen by all ("every eye shall see him," Revelation 1:7) and there will be no question about it. But it will be sudden and unexpected, like a thief in the night to those who are not prepared (I Thessalonians 5:2; II Peter 3:10; Revelation 16:15). But they that are watching are told what to look for. In contrast to false reports of his return, the approach of the real one would be identifiable by its close connection with the final events he had described. After speaking of all these things, he brings up the parable of the fig tree.
The point of comparing it to a fig tree was to illustrate that the things he spoke of would lead up to the end, and would be the indication that it was near. It had nothing to do with how soon it would be, relative to their lifetimes. It is in this context that he says:
To interpret this as meaning the generation alive in Jesus' day would not pass until the signs are fulfilled would, first of all, contradict his statement that no man knows the day and hour of his return. Some have claimed that he meant only that no one knows the exact time (day and hour), but that the general time-frame was at hand. But in Mark he follows the statement, "of that day and that hour knoweth no man," with an even more specific declaration: "Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is" (Mark 13:33). The word for "time" here is kairos, a word used for a season or appointed time. His answer to the disciples' question of when the end would come was that nobody knows the time, but the signs, when they come, will indicate that it is approaching.
Secondly, assuming that he meant the generation of people living at that time would not pass away till these things were done would make it a false prophecy. In hindsight, we know that while the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the other signs to which Jesus referred did not happen. There was no Abomination of Desolation followed by the Great Tribulation, followed immediately by signs in the heavens and the return of the Son of Man in the clouds.
To avoid it being a false prophecy, we'd have to either change the meaning of "these things" or change the meaning of "this generation." Since a simple reading of the events described in the Olivet Discourse fit with Daniel and other Old Testament prophecies, changing "these things" would require completely changing the meaning of those prophesies, ultimately changing the nature of the coming Kingdom of God. On the other hand, some scholars have theorized that "this generation" refers to the nation of Israel, but we are told that God will never completely forsake Israel (Romans 11:1-2) so it wouldn't make sense to refer to the nation passing away. A much simpler solution is to understand that the Gospel writers were using "this generation" to mean this wicked generation, as it is so often used in the Gospels.
The whole Olivet Discourse was in answer to the disciples' questions of when things would happen and when the end of the age and Jesus' coming would be. Jesus was saying that nobody knows the exact day and hour, but the general time frame would be indicated when those signs are seen. In the meantime there would be many things happening that would be like the beginning of birth pangs, but the end would not be yet. However, this evil generation will not pass away until all the signs are fulfilled.
Why did he need to tell them that this evil generation wouldn't pass until the signs were fulfilled? He had said twice that false prophets would try to deceive them and say that Christ had returned. Yet they were to take heed not to be deceived, and not to be shaken when they saw some things happening. Such false prophets did in fact do so in Paul's time, which was why he had to write in II Thessalonians 2 that they should not be shaken if they heard from anyone that the day of Christ was at hand. He assured them that that day would not come unless there was first a falling away, and then the Man of Sin revealed. Like Jesus, he assured them that certain prophesied events must happen before the end would come. Both Paul's and Jesus' words tied together the prophecies in Daniel and the other prophets and reassured those who might be deceived, saying that the end will not come (this wicked generation will not pass) until these prophesied events take place.
Part of the reason so many tend to interpret "this generation" as a literal generation living at the time may be because of a couple of other statements, which appear even more specifically to indicate that Jesus thought the end would be in their lifetime. One of them is the statement that "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1). However, there were no chapter breaks in the original manuscripts. Continuing to read in context, we see that this was actually fulfilled a few verses later, when Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus and saw the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9). This was a vision, according to Matthew 17:9. It was a vision of Christ's glory which will come to pass when he returns to reign in his Kingdom. Relative to that vision, Peter specifically states, in II Peter 1:16-18, that they were eyewitnesses of his majesty, related to his power and coming (parousia).
One other verse that has puzzled many theologians is when Jesus said in Matthew 10:23, "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come." Does this mean that Jesus thought his coming in power and glory would be in such a short time? That couldn't be the case, because he told his disciples he didn't know when his return would be (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). Also, it would imply that the disciples were to continue preaching to Israel up to the coming of the Lord, which does not account for the command (after Christ's resurrection) to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. In addition, verses 14 and 15 say that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for the cities who do not receive the words of the disciples. If the disciples would not complete the preaching of the Kingdom in Israel before the coming of the Son of Man, then not all of the cities would have had the opportunity to receive the Word. So on what would the Son of Man base his judgment?
Because of these difficulties, some have proposed theories which interpret this phrase "till the Son of Man be come" as something other than the return of Christ. Some suggest that it refers to the outpouring of the holy spirit on Pentecost, but nowhere else is that called the coming of the Son of Man. Still others suggest that it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, but unlike the Preterist view, they see it as being part of the Lord's judgment (referred to as his "coming") but not to the complete fulfillment of it. Some have even suggested that Jesus was referring, not to his coming in glory, but to his catching up with them during their missionary journey.
Dispensationalists often interpret this entire passage as dealing with believers in a future time, but then why would Jesus have said "you will not have gone over the cities of Israel..."? His reference to "when you see these things" in the Olivet Discourse could be understood generally to mean either the disciples to whom he was speaking or any subsequent disciples (since he said he didn't know when he would return). But such a specific statement as "you will not have gone over the cities of Israel..." would not be so flexible.
All these interpretations neglect to consider the context in which this verse appears. Chapter 10 of Matthew begins with Jesus selecting his twelve apostles. He then sends them out with the instructions recorded in the rest of the chapter.
This passage has several elements in common with Luke 21:12-19 and Mark 13:9-13. Those passages are in the context of the period during which there would be the "beginnings of sorrows" but the end would not be yet. He is giving general instructions for an undetermined length of time, which will continue until the Abomination of Desolation marks the beginning of the end.
This scope, along with the statement, "he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22) shows that many of his instructions were not limited to just that first mission of the twelve. Evangelism was to be the overall purpose of all of his followers, including those who came later. "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world...and then shall the end come." (Matthew 24:14). Jesus was warning his disciples of the difficulties that would be encountered when preaching the Gospel. There would be some places where the people would not hear their words, and even some where they would be persecuted and mistreated. In the cities where they met with resistance and hostility, they were not to make any special efforts to reach the people, but shake the dust off their feet and flee to the next city.
When read in this context, we can begin to see that the purpose of Jesus' statement in Matthew 10:23 was not to tell the disciples when he would return (he said he didn't know). The word for "gone over" in that verse is teleo which means to finish or accomplish a task. He was not saying that they wouldn't have time to visit every city before his return, but rather, that they would not be able to complete the task of preaching in all the cities of Israel due to resistance, hostility, and the need to sometimes flee. This has proven to be true even to this day. Those who have tried to preach the Gospel in the cities of Israel (or among the people of Israel) are still met with such opposition, as they are elsewhere at times. This is the point of the passage, not the timing of the Lord's return.
The passages examined in this article have frequently been taken to mean that Jesus promised the Kingdom within the lifetimes of his disciples, but they can also be interpreted in other ways with equal validity. The ESV (English Standard Version) Study Bible has the following notes on Matthew 24:34:
So one can see that equally qualified scholars have put forward equally valid theories. Chances are there will never be a consensus until the Lord returns. Which understanding one chooses will usually be determined by which overall system of theology one has to begin with. I don't believe these passages can be used to prove Futurism, Preterism, or Historicism by themselves. That choice is best made from examination of other Scriptures, as presented in the Three Schools article.
But the purpose of this study is to show that there is more than one way to understand these passages. I happen to prefer option 3b in the ESV notes, because I think it best fits with a Futurist viewpoint, rather than requiring the abandonment of a straight-forward reading of prophecy. But we shouldn't become divided over such matters, or we will miss the very essence of what Our Lord taught us.