One of the primary passages for the study of eschatology (end times) is Matthew 24-25 and its parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21. There is a strain of end times theology that believes the fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecies in this portion of Scripture is still future to our time. Such a view includes a rapture in which all believers are taken out of the world (popularized in the “Left Behind” series of books and movies) and requires a rebuilt temple that will be destroyed in connection with the last days.
This is the view that I grew up with, one which was popularized by writers such as Hal Lindsey and others in the ‘70s. I graduated from a seminary that is the fount of pre-millennial, pre-tribulation rapture eschatology. Consider my thoughts below as a friendly contribution to our intramural discussion as brothers and sisters in Christ about end times events. (Bold type in verses below added for emphasis.)
There may be a better and simpler way to understand what is known as the Olivet Discourse (since it was delivered to the disciples on the Mount of Olives). Perhaps the best way to understand it is that every prophecy, except for his return, was fulfilled by 70 AD. The one prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled is his physical return, his second coming.
In Matthew 24, the disciples were looking at the magnificence of Herod’s Temple from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley. “[H]is disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple” (v. 1). That is, the temple of their own day, not a temple to be built at some point in the future.
Jesus, referring to the temple they were all looking at, said, “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” (v. 2). Jesus pointed to the building they could all see, and said not one of the stones that made up that temple would be left standing when his prophetic word was fulfilled.
This prophecy was fulfilled quite literally when the armies of Titus finally broke through the perimeter of Jerusalem’s defense in 70 AD. In their fury with the Jews for the lengthy siege – they’d been stuck on the outskirts of the city for two years – the Roman soldiers set fire to everything they could, then literally pried the temple stones apart to get at the gold that had melted into the cracks.
The disciples were naturally curious and asked Jesus in verse 3, “[W]hen will these things [i.e., the destruction of the temple] be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” The disciples asked two questions, not one. The first was “when” will the temple be destroyed, and the second was “what will be the sign” of your second coming. In other words, there were two separate questions here, one dealing with the timing of the destruction of the temple and the second dealing with what would signify his imminent return.
Jesus then proceeded to answer their questions by saying that his prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple would be fulfilled within 40 years. “[T]his generation will not pass away,” he said in verse 34, “until all these things [the demolition of the temple and its stones] take place.” Jesus spoke these words in 33 AD. A biblical generation is 40 years, and so the math speaks for itself.
The destruction of the temple, Jesus said, is the sign of his coming. Now he did not mean that his coming would happen right away. He indicated in verses 29-30 that there would be a gap of indeterminate time between the destruction of the temple and his return. His return would be “after the tribulation of those days,” which would result in Israel’s destruction. Israel was not going to be rescued from its fate.
The destruction of Israel, which happened “immediately” in 70 AD, is symbolized by the darkening of the sun and the stars falling from heaven (v. 29). This was a frequent metaphor used by the prophets to signify political upheaval. Israel was destroyed as a political power in 70 AD; its star fell from heaven as the Roman armies reduced its capital city to rubble. It did not rise from the ruins again until 48 AD.
And “then,” that is, at some indeterminate point of time after that political upheaval, the whole world “will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 30). Thus the destruction of the temple would be the last major prophecy to be fulfilled before his return could take place. Jesus’ point was that his return would be imminent from that day forward. He could have come back at any point since.
It could not have happened before 70 AD, Jesus said, but could happen at anytime after. It could have happened in 71 AD, or it might not happen until 2071 AD. As he said in verse 36, “[C]oncerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
His point was that his second coming could happen at any time after the Roman armies destroyed the temple. As he says in verse 33, “[W]hen you see all these things [i.e., the destruction of the temple], you know that he is near, at the very gates.”
If we picture a pair of French doors with Christ on one side and history on the other, he has had his hand on the door knobs since 70 AD, waiting for the right moment to fling them open and re-enter history.
We can also offer a correction to what is a common interpretation of Jesus’ commentary on the days of Noah. Drawing a parallel between the Flood and the Second Coming, he said, “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be take and the one left” (verses 40-41).
While these verses are interpreted by many as a reference to the rapture, this understanding turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. This is for the simple reason that in Noah’s day, the ones who were “taken” were taken away by the waters of the flood. In other words, they were taken in judgment, not in salvation. It was the ones who were “left” – those who entered the ark – who were saved. The simplest understanding of Christ’s words is that those who are taken are taken in judgment, not in the rapture. It is the ones who are left who are saved, not the ones who are taken away.
The first of Jesus’ prophecies – the destruction of the temple – was fulfilled exactly as he described. The second of his prophecies has yet to be fulfilled, but also will be fulfilled exactly as he described. On that day, he “will gather his elect from the four winds” (v. 31) but will send the rest “into eternal punishment” (25:46).
Bottom line: The real question for us is not how precise our eschatology is but whether we are ready for that day, the day of his appearing. For it will surely come.