“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” —Matt 24:34
This is the go-to proof text for preterists. It is the holy grail of preterism. It is the first and last thing that comes out of their mouths when you talk to them about the Olivet Discourse. But is their interpertation on this verse correct?
The operative expression in this verse is “this generation.” It is taken by preterists to mean literally the actual generation of the disciples who were living at that time, having all the events, including the parousia, to be fulfilled during that generation. In other words, they argue, the events that Jesus predicted such as the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and the parousia of Christ happened during their generation. Therefore, we should not be looking into the future for these events to occur. They already happened. And Matthew 24:34 with “this generation” solidifies it for them.
Incidentally, preterist interpretation grew out of 19th century higher-critical, non-predictive, anti-supernatural scholarship, who denied that Jesus was a true prophet, let alone divine. They believed Jesus was a misguided—and mistaken—Jewish messianic claimant. And some of these critical scholars believed it was his followers who put these words on Jesus’ lips. Indeed, 20th century evangelical preterists tweaked this interpretation in keeping with inspired predictive prophesy. This fact of the history of preterist interpretation does not make evangelical preterism right or wrong. But I do find it interesting that in much evangelical preterist literature, there is a minimization of predictive prophecy of the second coming of Christ. For example, Gary DeMar has been hard pressed to find instances in the New Testament which speak of the second coming of Christ.
Now back to Matthew 24:34. How do futurists interpret this verse? A common interpretation is that Jesus intends “this generation” to refer to a future generation that will experience all these events, which does not then require it to be the generation of his first disciples. Jesus, it is argued, leaves open the particular generation. It is further argued in this interpretation that Jesus coming on the clouds is a reference to his second coming (which I believe is correct), therefore, this event and those surrounding it such as the great tribulation must be in the future. I think there is some merit to this interpretation. But I do not believe it is the best one for the futurist. I believe Jesus intends something else with “this generation.”
I want to direct you to an excellent article by Neil D. Nelson, Jr, entitled, “‘This Generation’ in Matt 24:34: A Literary Critical Perspective.” Nelson argues that Jesus uses the expression, “this generation,” not in some neutral or temporal sense, but as a derogatory characterization referring to an evil and unbelieving people headed toward eschatological judgment. This expression, “represents an evil class of people who will oppose Jesus’ disciples until the day he returns….but upon that return they will be judged (“passed away”) and the true disciples and the real Christ will be vindicated.”
Nelson makes a cogent case for his interpretation. You can access it here.