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. Hi Nate. Just checking out your blog after our brief encounter on Sabio’s blog. There are a few observations that came to me when I tried to sort out all the different understandings on Matthew 24. The disciples asked two questions and the answers given are specific. The Roman legions did arrive at the walls of Jerusalem as the tail end of the persecutions of Christians in Rome under Nero. The holy site is not the Temple, but the site of the Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection located in an old quarry located outside the walls of Jerusalem. When the Roman’s who manifested the “abomination of desolation” arrived at the wall of Jerusalem, the Christians in the city remembered the Lord’s warning. When the Legions withdrew after the death of Nero, most of the Christians headed for safer ground East of the Jordan. When Titus returned to finish the job, most of the Christians had left Jerusalem. That this period of time is called the beginning of a Great Tribulation is supported by history. The term “great tribulation” is only used once in Matthew and twice in Revelation, yet the term tribulation is used over twenty time to reflect the condition of the Christians in the Church. The fact the more Christians have been martyred for their Faith in the last 100 years confirms that the Great Tribulation continues until the Day of the Lord begins. Regarding the use of the term “this generation,” clearly the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s Temple took place during the lifetimes of those who heard the prophecy. Concerning the Lord’s Second Coming and the end of this age, we still mark time as the year of our Lord. The Christian generation continues.

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  2. @Marc

    The Roman legions did arrive at the walls of Jerusalem as the tail end of the persecutions of Christians in Rome under Nero.

    Interesting. I would also be interested in reading your reference for these supposed ”Christian Persecutions” by Emperor Nero?

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  3. Tacitus (AD 55-117), and most history written about Nero. Also Christian tradition is that the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred by order of Nero in Rome between AD 64-67.

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  4. From the Unforgiven: The Kid says, “I am not a killer like you Will.” Will says, “well you sure shot the hell out of that guy in the outhouse.” The Kid says, “well he had it coming.” Will says, “we all have it coming Kid.”

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  5. @Ark Marc says, “Tacitus (AD 55-117), and most history written about Nero. Also Christian tradition is that the Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred by order of Nero in Rome between AD 64-67.”

    There goes that “Christian Tradition” again ! I think I posted on your blog this morning Ark my concerns about that phrase.

    The Tradition of Santa Claus says he used flying reindeer to pull his sleigh. Are we to believe “Traditions” or evidence ? 🙂

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  6. Thanks, Nate. As an Orthodox Christian, I am probably starting out in a point deficit on your blog so I appreciate the 2 points.

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  7. Haha! Not at all. 🙂 In all seriousness, I don’t begrudge people their beliefs. I was a devout Christian for 20 years and worked hard to convert my friends. It was quite a shock for me to discover that the Bible wasn’t all I had built it up to be… Anyway, I still identify with believers — I remember what it was like.

    In fact, if anything, you get additional props for your willingness to put yourself “behind enemy lines.” It’s not easy to be the voice of dissent. I hope you’ll feel free to peruse my posts and comment wherever you like. We may not agree with one another, but those usually make for the best and most interesting discussions. 🙂

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  8. @kcChief – notice the similarity between the behavior control implied in the two thinly-veiled threats:

    “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

    “Better watch out, better not pout, better not cry, I’m tellin’ you why – Santa Claus is coming to town!”

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  9. Thanks, Nate. I am attracted to your blog because I have experienced many of the challenges that you and your readers have. I must also commend you on your civil tone and well articulated points of view. I would much rather exchange ideas and perspectives with someone with whom I can disagree without personal attacks, than someone that claims to be a Christian and is a complete asshole.

    William, Thanks for you points about a very good film. “I have killed everything that walks or crawls little Billy, and now I am here to kill you.”

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  10. William, Please know that I was not equating you to “Little Bill.” I am Marc William, and my Grandson is Andrew William. Regarding the Bible, it did not fall out of heaven like the Koran no matter what the evangelical nut jobs believe.

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  11. KCChief1, Tradition only means that which has been handed down. Tradition effects us on a family level, an educational level, and a cultural level. Although I am a Colts fan, the Chiefs are off to a good start.

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  12. @KC – just thought you might like to know that I don’t watch football anymore. Did you ever see a perfect rose? If you have, you may look at other roses, but they will all be a comparative let-down.

    I once watched Montana, down by 13 points in the last two minutes of the game, turn it around and led the Chiefs to two touchdowns in those last two minutes, winning the game by a single point. What other game since could possibly compare with that?

    Now people say, “Did you watch the game last night?” To which I say, “No, why should I? I watched Montana.” I get funny looks, but that’s nothing unusual.

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  13. Josh, not to worry. We all die and either no longer exist, or find ourselves in a completely different reality. If we are still alive in the spiritual realm then we need to regroup and consider our alternatives. I believe that it is at this point where most folks encounter Jesus Christ and are so moved by His love that they become His disciples.

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  14. Why not Odin, or Mithra, or Ra? Jesus just happens to be the religion d’jour.

    “No one has ever disproved, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor – but they have few followers now.”
    — Sir Arthur C. Clarke —

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  15. @arch, yes thank you. I did notice the similarities .

    @marc & arch , I lived in Kansas City for 24 yrs and was a season ticket holder for 18. I enjoyed a lot of great games in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. I suffered through the 2000’s and moved back to Springfield, IL to be near my family and back to being a Bears fan. Needless to say, I never stopped being a Chiefs Fan too and this year it has payed off …..so far. 🙂

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  16. Oh yes, I think I do. Weren’t they playing the Broncos at Denver where they never win on Monday night football and he scored twice to win it in the final seconds of the game ?

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  17. That’d be it. And I was in Denver at the time, but greatness is greatness, no matter whose team he’s playing for. The most incredible two minutes I can recall, except for a girl I used to know.

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