Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Matthew 24: Let’s Hear All the Theories

In the comment section of my last post, several points were made about Matthew 24. It’s not the easiest passage to come to terms with. When I was a believer, I had trouble nailing down exactly what was being talked about in this chapter, because much of the language is figurative, and… well… a straight reading of the chapter can be a bit problematic for Christians. To illustrate, let’s jump in and take the entire chapter piece by piece:

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

So Jesus tells the disciples that the temple will be torn down, so they ask him 2 or 3 questions, depending on how you read this: 1) When will the temple be destroyed? 2) What will be the sign of your coming? 3) What will be the sign of the end of the age?

“Your coming” and “end of the age” could be tricky. They’re vague enough that people could get into some heavy speculation about what they might mean. Most of us, if we’re just allowing the passage to speak for itself, probably assume these terms are talking about the “Day of Judgment,” the “end of the world,” the “final reckoning.” And there’s good reason for thinking that. The book of Matthew talks about the Day of Judgment a fair amount (Matt 10:15, 11:22, 24, 12:36, 42). In fact, there are two passages that are worth looking at in more detail. We’ll look at one now, but we’ll save the other for the end of the post.

The first is the “Parable of the Weeds,” which can be found in Matt 13:24-30. The explanation of that parable is given in verses 36-43:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Verses 47-50 say the same basic thing. This is what I think the disciples are asking about here in Matt 24. I’m sure some of you feel differently, and I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comment section. But for now, I’m going to assume they’re asking about the Day of Judgment.

Let’s continue:

4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

So the disciples seem to be asking about the destruction of the temple, as well as the Day of Judgment. It could be that they were wrong to assume that these 2 or 3 questions they asked had anything to do with one another, but Jesus doesn’t correct them — he simply starts answering. He says there will be false Christs and political unrest, as well as natural disasters. But the end won’t happen yet.

9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

So after the false Christs, political upheaval, and natural disasters, Christians will become persecuted by everyone. Many Christians will fall away because of it, but the gospel will still be preached and it will go throughout the entire world. Then the end will come.

Of course, much of this is still pretty vague. When are there not wars and rumors of wars? When are there not natural disasters? And what degree of religious persecution is Jesus referring to here?

15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.

This seems to be speaking more about the destruction of Jerusalem, since it focuses on Judea. Referencing the “abomination of desolation” could refer to almost anything. In the Book of Daniel, it seems to reference Antiochus Epiphanes, but he had died long before Jesus’ time. It’s hard to say what Jesus may have interpreted it to mean.

Since this section seems to deal with the fall of Jerusalem, it would have been a great time for Jesus to tell the disciples that Judgment Day would come many centuries later. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he seems to roll right into a description of the end times:

23 “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

He warns them to not be led away by false Christs. And I think verse 27 is saying that when the “Son of Man” comes, everyone will know it. There will be no need to “spread the word” — it will be evident.

29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

This passage says that after the preceding events, the Son of Man will come with great power and glory. His angels will gather the elect from the entire earth. What could this be, but the Judgment? It matches up very well with Jesus’ explanation of the “Parable of the Weeds” that we read earlier. Matthew 24 then follows up with this section:

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

So when you see these things happen, you’ll know that the time is near. Verse 34 then says that these events would occur within their lifetime. Which events? All of them. Of course, that didn’t happen. And that’s why so many Christians wrangle with this passage and try to find another meaning for it. It’s also important to notice an earlier passage in Matthew that says the same thing (Matt 16:26-28):

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Jesus apparently expected the end of the world to occur within a few decades at the most. 2000 years and a lot of other failed “end of the world” prophecies later, and we’re still here.

But what about the rest of the chapter? Does it say anything to make us rethink the notion that Jesus’ prediction of the end of the world was so wrong?

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So Jesus goes on to say that no one, only God, knows the day and hour that the end will come. Jesus himself didn’t even know. Does that change things? Does that mean that his earlier decree can be ignored? I don’t think so. Jesus (more than once) said that the end would come within a generation. The passage we just read simply says that the exact day and time was unknown. Jesus gave them a time range of decades, but could be no more specific than that.

This chapter, both in the way the disciples asked their questions and in the way Jesus answered them, gives the impression that Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem would herald the coming end of the world. If you think about it, that’s not all that surprising. Jerusalem fell in 70 AD, and most scholars believe the gospel of Matthew was written 10-20 years after that event. We don’t know who the author of Matthew was, but he was obviously very focused on the Mosaic Law — it’s likely that he was Jewish, or at least a proselyte. Imagine the shock he would have felt when Jerusalem fell! How could God allow that to happen, especially so soon after the “Messiah” had come? I don’t find it surprising that such a Christian would assume that signs like these must mean the end of the world was coming. And if Jesus was a real person, it’s possible he preached that the end was near as well. Every generation, a handful of people make doomsday prophecies. Some of the Old Testament prophets did too. But regardless of the author’s motivation, the end result still seems rather evident: Jesus (or at least the gospel writer) believed the end of the world was a few short years away, and he was dead wrong.

Like I said, when I was a Christian, I struggled to “make sense” of Matthew 24, because I just knew it couldn’t mean what it “seemed” to say. Now that I no longer have to make passages fit the end result I’m looking for, passages like this seem much clearer to me. But what do you think? Am I totally off in my analysis?

186 thoughts on “Matthew 24: Let’s Hear All the Theories”

  1. Well, it really is a bit too much spin in my opinion and it seems most scholars agree, but apparently it is gaining some traction with some evangelicals.

    He doesn’t put the 2000+ year pause in like others do. He instead says that everything that was written about actually occurred when the temple was destroyed. So “end time” really just means end of Israel’s period of mourning and the beginning of her freedom when the temple was destroyed (in some metaphorical way). And then the whole “coming of the Son of Man” is interpreted as just a metaphor for him being proven to be a true prophet because the temple destruction showed his prediction to be correct.

    I’m sure I am bastardizing his interpretation because it’s been a while since I’ve read about it and also because I had a hard time seeing how it really worked out given the wording of the passage. Perhaps a Christian on here might be able to describe it better.

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  2. Yeah, if anyone can expound on it, that would be great.

    Initially, my objection would be that the disciples started this line of inquiry — it wasn’t like Jesus approached them with these terms. So where did they come up with phrases like “your coming” and “end of the age”? Just looking at gMatthew, I can only see references to Judgment Day, as I referenced above. But if anyone can give some scriptural reasons for thinking Wright’s explanation has merit, I’d like to hear them.

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  3. Ah, I forgot, only the WordPress blog author themselves can put an IMG in comments.
    Silly me. I just learned about it myself. That is WordPress. But some other blog templates allow non-authors to post img HTML too. It is probably better to NOT allow it because you could imagine how cluttery a thread could get. Anyway, my image is at the link I supplied.
    Good day!

    EDIT: Here it is:

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  4. Actually, Sabio, it’s frustrating NOT to be able to illustrate a point with a picture. Only the most anal of us can’t live with a little clutter, in exchange for the freedom of expression.

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  5. I liked your post Nate. Brought back memories of Gary Demar’s “Last Days Madness”, in which he delves into cosmological metaphor for political events, contrasts end of the “age” with end of the world, etc. I recall very clearly the struggle I had maybe 10 years ago with eschatology. I picked up one of those “four views” books on the millennium, which led me to decide that the Bible was – oddly – very ambiguous on a seemingly important question.

    At some point, its just not possible to blame the reader for confusion in the communication lines. At some point, its the speaker/writer who is at fault, when banks of ardent and scrupulous readers cannot come to a consensus as to what was meant.

    At this point, I find the explanation of the liberal wing makes much more sense. As you said, Jesus thought the end was coming, and he was dead wrong. A failed apocalyptic prophet.

    And I find the analogue holds 100% on Genesis. Christianity offers a balanced chiastic despair: both the eschatology of the end and the protology of the beginning prevent the believer from ever being sure what they were or were not saying. Side effect of explaining away disconfirmed revelations…

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  6. @ Nate
    Ooops, the image was just the key:
    Here is the post with the diagram.
    http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/eschatology/

    I hope that helps explains NT Wrights position that you asked about.

    Concerning: “If God’s supposed to be perfect. …”
    I think the rhetoric goes:
    “God is obscure so as to test our faith. Faith is important to God.” or a Calvinist would thing that he is not obscure to the elected. Both are hogwash, of course.

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  7. @Sabio

    Fixed the images — thanks for pointing that out! And thanks for providing the extra info. When I was a Christian, I believed that the bulk of Revelation talked about the rule and eventual fall of the Roman Empire. I forget which view that fit with — a-millennial, perhaps…

    And couldn’t agree more on your hogwash comment. 🙂

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  8. @ Nate
    I floated between various Christianities when I was a Christian. I was never into the doctrines much — and their contradictions soon made me see through the nonsense. Instead, I was more about the inner, mystical prayer life. Lots of folks gave up Christianity when they woke up to science or realized the Bible contradicted itself, but for me, it was more of watching what I was doing with my own mind. Then, as they say, “the rest came tumbling down.”

    It is funny to watch how the ways ex-believers left, or the flavor of their former Christianity, colors their approaches to theists now. Ex-smokers can show similar variance.

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  9. Yeah, I think you’re right. My outlook is still very much colored by my upbringing. Several believers have assumed that because of that, I’ve rejected the entirety of Christianity unfairly. If I had only been introduced to the “right” version, I wouldn’t feel the way I do now.

    I understand that point, and it’s possible that if I had been raised in a more moderate version of Christianity that I never would have worked my way out of it. But I don’t think that means there’s a problem with my current outlook.

    If a kid had a math class where homework was never checked and tests were never graded, he could go the entire semester thinking 2+2=5. That wouldn’t make him right.

    The version of Christianity I grew up with was strict enough that it forced me to consider the gravity of what it claimed, and eventually, I could no longer believe it. A more moderate version might have allowed me to never look that deeply at the doctrines; therefore, I may have stayed in. But I still would have been wrong.

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  10. If God’s supposed to be perfect, why is his message so confusing?

    Exactly…just what I’ve been trying to express to some who want to dance around it. He is God right?

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  11. Yep. 🙂 Whenever I’m told “God wants to have a relationship with you!” I think, well, he knows where to find me… Not to be flippant, but it shouldn’t be so hard if he’s really there and he’s really interested.

    Thanks for the comment!

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  12. “Yep. Whenever I’m told “God wants to have a relationship with you!” I think, well, he knows where to find me… Not to be flippant, but it shouldn’t be so hard if he’s really there and he’s really interested.”

    I think that a lot, myself, Nate. In fact, I often scream (quietly) it out to God :). My journey continues to be filled with many more instances of desperately searching out God than feeling like I have Him solidly by my side. I empathize with your point, and wish I had some brilliant answers for you! Sometimes I think it would be “better” to give it all up. The hope promised and the convincing description of our world and humanity are at the top of the list of things that keep me “hoping beyond hope” in Jesus. Keep the discussion going, brother.

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  13. Thanks for the comment, Josh. And it’s good to hear from you!

    A lot of believers wouldn’t admit to such doubts on a blog like mine — I really appreciate your honesty. Regardless of our current positions, we’re all on the same path of trying to find answers. I guess it’s a byproduct of our innate curiosity. I hope that whatever conclusions you ultimately come to give you peace of mind.

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