In my last post, I made reference to CS Lewis’s comment that Matthew 24:34 — “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” — “the most embarrassing verse in the entire Bible”. In the comment section, Bruce from New Hampshire asks where Lewis made this statement.

The answer is in an essay called, “The World’s Last Night,” and here is the quote in full:

“‘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. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance.”

Unfortunately – well actually fortunately – Lewis not Jesus was in the wrong. Jesus wasn’t talking about the Second Coming. The whole of Matthew 24 is about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in AD70, 40 years after Jesus’s words. And so that generation did not pass till all those things were done.

All those things? Really? But what about this:

“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.”

Surely that cannot be about AD 70? Actually, yes it can be. Jesus is using the same kind of prophetic language that the Old Testament prophets uses repeatedly, not to describe the end of the world, but the end of an empire or kingdom. For instance, Isaiah 13 has this:

“Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”

What was he talking about? The end of the world? No, he was talking about the end of Babylon, but he uses “collapsing solar system” language to get the message across: Babylon, your lights are going out.

Or there is this in Isaiah 34:

“All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.

What was he talking about there? Again, nothing to do with the end of the world, just the end of Edom.

So when Jesus uses the same sort of “collapsing solar system” language when speaking to his disciples, what would they have thought of? Unlike us, they would not have automatically thought that he meant that the literal sun would be darkened, or the literal moon would fail to shine, or the literal stars would start falling. Because they were steeped in the Scriptures, they would have understood this as being prophetic language signifying the end of a nation/kingdom – in this case Israel/Judea, since he had just told them that this was to happen in Jerusalem and Judea.

But what about this?

“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.”

Surely that must be talking about Jesus coming down to earth? Again no. The first thing to note is that the verse itself is a slight mistranslation. In the original, it is not “then will appear in Heaven the sign of the Son of Man”, but rather “then will appear the sign of the Son of Man, in Heaven.” What’s the difference? In the first version, it sounds like we are to expect to see the sign of Jesus, and then Jesus himself, descending from the sky. In the second, the sign is not seen by us in the sky, but rather we see a sign — the sign — that he is in Heaven and is ruling.

And so when he talks about seeing the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory, Jesus was not telling his first century hearers to expect to see him descending on a cloud within their generation. Rather he was telling them that the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy would come to pass:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).

In other words, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds described in Matthew 24, is not the Second Coming of Jesus to earth. Rather, it is the coming of Jesus to the Throne Room of God, where he receives from his Father the Kingdom, and the authority to rule the world. It is therefore describing an ascension into the clouds (cloud being a symbol used in the Bible many times to describe God’s dwelling place), not a descending from the clouds to earth.

And so the sign he predicts is not a sign for us to look at in the sky. Rather, the sign is the fulfilment of his prophecy of doom on Jerusalem, which basically shows that he was who he said he was – the Messiah receiving the kingdom in Daniel 7 – and that those who doubted him were wrong.

This basically explains Caiphas’s accusation of blasphemy and his tearing of his clothes when he questions Jesus:

“And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:60-65).

Caiphas was mad at Jesus because the implication of Jesus’s reply was that Caiphas was speaking to the one prophesied by Daniel centuries before, the Messiah who would ascend to the Throne Room, be given the Kingdom, and sit down as the Right Hand of God’s power.

And to back up his claim, Jesus is saying that the sign that he is that Messiah, is that he will fulfil his won prophecy and put out the lights of Jerusalem, and the Old Covenant with it. Which he did, using the armies of Rome as his axe in AD 70.

And so back to Lewis. Far from the statement that “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done” being the most embarrassing verse in the Bible, read correctly – in the light of Old Testament prophetical language – it is actually one of the clearest evidences that Jesus really was who he said he was.

8 thoughts on “Why CS Lewis Was Wrong When he Said Jesus’s Prophesy of His Second Coming Was “The Most Embarrassing Verse in the Bible”

  1. Thanks Rob, for taking the time to answer.
    You wrote that your next article would tackle a “lighter subject”. Please do so 🙂

  2. Hi Rob,
    So if I understand you correctly, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds described in Matthew 24 occurred about 36 years after Jesus ascended from the earth in Luke 24. Where was he in the interim?
    Phil

    1. Hi Phil,

      Almost. It occurred 40 years after. Jesus’s death and resurrection are generally reckoned to have been in AD30. In other words, he wasn’t born in what we call 0 AD, but a few years before. Something to do with one of the Popes messing with the calendar I think 🙂

      But the answer to the question is that he was in the Throne Room of God. That’s where he ascended. But that doesn’t mean that he was handed the kingdom by his father on that exact day (of course in a sense it’s futile to talk like that anyway, since there presumably isn’t days, weeks, months, and years in Heaven in the same way that we understand time).

      My understanding is that this is what Revelation 5 is talking about:

      “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

      This is highly ceremonial. Jesus, The Lamb, is already there in Heaven. This is after his ascension. He is already King, because of his obedience to God, even unto death. But as yet, he hadn’t been officially crowned. And there in Revelation 5 the ceremony takes place where he alone is deemed worthy to open the covenantal document, and so he alone is then able to ascend to the right hand of the Father as rightful ruler.

      It’s a bit like the time between someone becoming king and their being crowned. When Edward IV died, everyone proclaimed “Long Live the King” about his successor, Edward V. And Edward V was indeed the King. However, he was never actually crowned, and so never officially became King. Similarly, I think there was a gap of over a year between George VI dying, and Elizabeth II’s coronation. But she was still seen as the Queen during that time.

      But as I say, it’s a bit futile talking about time in Heaven. It’s not that Jesus was “hanging around” there for 40 years waiting to be crowned. It doesn’t work like that. But yes he ascended to Heaven, and at some point after that there was a ceremony (as seen in Revelation 5), where he was crowned. Most of the rest of the Book of Revelation is him then acting in judgement against apostate Israel, as the covenant curses promised in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 25 came upon them.

      Best wishes,

      Rob

      1. Hi Rob,

        Last night I re-read Matthew 24 in the light of your interpretation to see how it would fit. Some things make much better sense, but 2 or 3 things jar awkwardly.

        Firstly, Jesus said, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Even if one avoids interpreting those words pedantically literally and understands Jesus only to have meant the world as it was known at that time by people dwelling in the Middle East, it seems a bit of a stretch to believe the gospel really had been proclaimed so widely by AD 70.

        But my other difficulties seem even harder to reconcile. Jesus said that when the sign of the Son of Man appears, he “will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” How did that happen in AD 70 when Jerusalem was being ransacked?

        And at the end of the chapter Jesus warns his disciples to be ready for his coming by describing the master of a household who departs for a time and then returns back to the house at an unexpected hour. If his deputies have faithfully done their duty in the meantime, the master will reward them; otherwise he will punish them. This parable implies that the return (or the ‘coming’) will be a reversal of the departure (the ascension), a return to earth rather than the arrival in the throne room of heaven.

        Rob, I am very grateful that you typically answer readers’ questions on this blog so thoroughly. A short question usually yields a PhD dissertation in reply! I appreciate it – thank you. But in case you don’t have time to address my latest questions, perhaps you could refer me to a book or website where I could find out more please. Or perhaps this topic could become the subject of your next book! 😉 Is your view the standard Reformed position? Which prominent theologians in church history share this view?

        Best wishes,
        Phil

        1. Hi Phil,

          Thanks for your questions. You say you are grateful for my answers. Let it be known that I am grateful for the questions. Iron sharpeneth iron and all that. By necessity (I’m at work), this will have to be a short answer, rather than a PhD Dissertation 😊

          In answer to your first point, I would say that the Gospel of the Kingdom was preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” How can I say that? Because that’s exactly what the Bible tells us. Here’s Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians:

          “…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which *has been* proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (1 Colossians 1:23)

          And here he is in Romans:

          “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in *all the world*.”

          Secondly, how did this happen in AD70: “He will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other”?

          The word translated angels means messenger. However, it doesn’t always refer to the angelic host. For instance, each of the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation is addressed to “the angel of the church.” There, it’s clearly not talking about the angelic host, but rather to the ministers of those churches. Or more accurately, to the *messengers* of those churches.

          The same is, I think, true in this verse. The angels in view aren’t the heavenly host. They are God’s earthly messengers, and the trumpet call is basically symbolic of the Gospel call. In other words, he will empower his messengers – ministers and evangelists – to proclaim the Gospel, and by doing so, the elect will be called, throughout the rest of time. It is said in contrast to the error of the unbelieving Jews, who at that time basically believed that the Gentiles were dirt, deserving of judgement. Jesus is basically saying, actually I’m their saviour too and my Gospel is for all nations.

          As for the third question, I think it just depends on your translation of the word “come”. As I mentioned in my previous piece, the word is “Parousia”, which just means presence. And so Jesus’s comes (is present in judgement) in AD 70 to inspect the house (Temple) and city (Jerusalem) of God.

          In fact, when he talks about the Temple having not one stone upon another, I think he is referring back to Leviticus 13, where it talks about the law for dealing with leprosy in a house. A priest was to inspect it, and if he found there was leprosy in it, he would carry the leprous bits away and cast them outside the city.

          If leprosy breaking out in the same house were reported at a later time, the priest would once again inspect it, but this time – if the report were true – he had to “break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place” (Leviticus 13:45).

          Basically, this is what Jesus did. During his time on earth, he came as the high priest to inspect the House of God (literally when he went and overturned the tables). He found that it was leprous, but it was he himself – the cornerstone – who was carried outside the city on behalf of the people. This should have been the atonement for the people, and they should have been cleansed. However, the opposite happened. They rejected the High Priest and his cleansing, and so the leprosy continued to break out and get worse and worse. And so Jesus came in judgement in AD70, not bodily, but spiritually, as priest to judge the “House of God” once and for all. And just as the priest in Leviticus was to break down and destroy the terminally leprous house, so too did Jesus, using the Roman armies to burn the Temple with fire, and to leave not one stone upon another.

          And so I think the question Jesus poses to his disciples in the parable is basically this: I will come and judge this wicked generation that has rejected me. But there will be a delay in my coming in judgement. Are you going to remain faithful during that time, or are you – like the dog returning to its vomit – going to apostatize and end up suffering the judgement which will surely come upon this generation?

          As for whether prominent theologians shared this view, this is an interesting question. I’m not particularly well read on such matters, but my understanding is that many, if not most, of the reformers were postmillennial – that is they thought the reign of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel would be successful over time. However, the problem with the postmillennial view is that unless you understand many of the prophetical passages we have been discussing to have been already fulfilled, it’s very difficult to actually reconcile the optimism that you find in many places in the Bible, with the seeming pessimism of imminent destruction that you find in many New Testament passages.

          The only way of reconciling the two, so far as I know, is if you come to understand that most of the judgement passages in the NT are really talking about the judgement that was indeed imminent – the destruction of the Old Covenant age, to make way for the reign of Messiah. This is called the Preterist view (i.e. that these passages are pre us (in our past)) as opposed to futurist (i.e. still to come).

          Calvin was definitely postmillennial, and I think some of his interpretations are basically Preterist. However, because of the times the reformers were living in, it was perhaps inevitable that they tended to see everything through the lens of Roman Catholicism, and so the Pope was read into the Man of Sin and the Antichrist, rather than those passages being interpreted according to the rest of Scripture.

          John Owen was very much Postmillennial and Preterist, so far as I know. By contrast dispensationalism is a much more modern thing, only dating back to the 19th century, I think.

          I would recommend two books in particular for anyone who is interested in knowing more. The first is a book called Last Day’s Madness by Gary de Mar. He basically takes you through most of the main passages that pre-millennialism uses as evidence that we are living in the End Times, and comprehensively debunks them.

          The other is a commentary on Revelation called Days of Vengeance by David Chilton. This book not only changes people’s views of Revelation, it actually changes the whole way they read Scripture (for the better). I can’t recommend it enough.

          One word of warning, though. There are two types of Preterism. The first is known as partial Preterism and it is called that because whilst it says that many, if not most, of the prophetical passages in the NT were fulfilled in the first century, it doesn’t say all of them were. It is therefore well within the summary of doctrine in the Creeds, and is therefore totally orthodox.

          Full Preterism, however, puts all those passages as having their fulfilment in the 1st century, and so essentially denies the bodily return of Jesus. It therefore falls outside orthodox Christian doctrine, and is basically heresy.

          There. I said I wouldn’t go for the thesis, but you know it’s sometimes difficult to keep these answers to one or two lines 😊

          Rob

  3. Rob, I’ll put some thoughts on the table anyway.
    I fully agree with all you’ve written and there will be no second coming and no big showdown. I don’t need the verses of Mattheus to realize that, it just isn’t the nature of our Lord. If there would be a second coming he’ll rather come on a borrowed mule again.
    But why do you stop at verse 34? From there on it only begins and shows that there will be a final judgement.
    I’ll just indicate why there’s a shift from verse 36 on. In verse 24:3 his followers ask him a question that holds two questions: what is the sign of your coming and what is the sign of the end of the age. Uptill verse 35 we find the answer on the first part and from verse 36 on the answer on the second part of the question.
    I admit it’s rather confusing when Jesus says “but about that day or hour no one knows” as “that” seems to connect with the previous verses. We also notice that the nature of the following verses is completely different. They indicate that the final judgement will happen in the wink of an eye and that we’ll have to wait a long time (verse 25:19).
    I’ve many more arguments on this, but I’ll leave it here.

    1. Hi GV,

      Thanks for your comment. Just to be clear, I am not saying there is no second coming of Jesus. That would be heresy. Although I think the word “second” can be a bit of a misnomer. Jesus “came” (parousia) in AD 70. That is, spiritually he judged the unbelieving Jewish nation and using his tool, the Roman armies, destroyed all that was associated with the Old Covenant – Temple, priesthood, sacrifices etc.

      However, there will be a “final coming”. That is when he will bodily return to earth. This is taught in 1 Corinthians 15. However, this time he won’t be on a mule. In his first coming, he came as a lowly servant. But having conquered sin, Satan and death on the cross and by his resurrection, he was given all rule and authority in heaven and earth. When he comes again, he comes as the crowned King of Kings.

      However, I don’t think Matthew 24 is talking about that, either before or after verse 35. The question his disciples ask is often translated “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?” However, as you rightly have it, it is not the end of the world (kosmos) that they ask about. What they actually ask is, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age (aeon)?” In other words, having heard his (to their ears) shocking prediction of the destruction of the Temple, they are basically asking him “When will the end of this (Old Covenant) era end, and when will the reign of Messiah be established.”

      So I see no reason to suppose that having been asked these specific questions, about when the Temple would be destroyed, and when the era of Messiah would begins, he is telling them answers to any other questions (i.e. the end of the world). And at no point does he ever indicate that he is suddenly switching to talking about the end of the physical world itself. It is only because we moderns read the stuff about the sun, moon and stars as being about the physical world, rather than seeing it as normal prophetic language for the end of a kingdom or nation, that we assume he’s talking about the end of the world.

      But I see no reason to suppose that as he goes on to the bit about Noah that he has somehow jumped to the end of the world. He says “concerning *that* day” and some have taken to mean that this is the bit about the end of the world. But again, that’s not what they asked him. They asked him when the reign of Messiah would begin.

      And here’s the thing, throughout he uses the second person pronoun. “Therefore *you* also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour *you* do not expect.” Who is he talking to? Well, disciples in the first century. What is he warning them against? Basically, he’s warning them against falling away when it would appear to them that Jesus was being, shall we say, somewhat slow to establish his rule.

      Why does he use the example of Noah (and Lot in the parallel passage in Luke 17)? Because in Noah’s day, there was a period of waiting (120 years) before the flood came. And although he warned people about what was going to happen, people scoffed at him and carried on their lives as normal. And in Lot’s case, when he told his sons-in-law, they mocked him.

      Jesus is therefore warning his hearers – those standing in front of him – that there was going to be a time period between his ascension and the inauguration of his reign as Messiah. During that time, his hearers will be tempted to doubt. They will be laughed at. They will be mocked. Life will go on for the unbelievers in Jerusalem and Judea pretty much as before. But he assures them it will come. And indeed it did, and when it came, it was destruction and devastation upon all those who had mocked the faithful.

      But yes, there is still a “final” coming. It is when Jesus comes to raise the dead, pronounce the final judgement, and hand the completed kingdom to his Father.

      Best wishes,

      Rob

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