One of the most profoundly misunderstood passages in all the Bible is the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24. Those of us who grew up in a doom-and-gloom version of Christianity probably know parts of this passage well– it’s the one that talks about “earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars”, as a sign that the “end of the world” (but first rapture and tribulation) is on the way.
The end times movement obviously relies financially on a futuristic view of calamity– it’s what keeps people buying their stuff. End time peddlers work on a basic grid: bad stuff is coming, the Bible tells us all about it, I know how to interpret this apocalyptic imagery best, and you need to buy my stuff so you don’t end up on the wrong side of disaster.
It’s actually brilliant marketing, but I digress.
On the blog we’ve already debunked the crazy idea of a “secret rapture of the church” as being something that’s not found in scripture. But what about this “great tribulation” Jesus talks about in Matthew 24? Doesn’t Jesus teach there will be a 7 year global tribulation against Christians in the future?
The short answer is yes and no. No, Jesus never teaches a global tribulation nor does he (or scripture) say anything about a tribulation that is 7 years. However, Jesus does teach a future tribulation– but not in our future.
The passage of Matthew 24 is the go-to passage people use when talking about the end times and “signs” of the end of the word. Ask any end time believer what the signs of the end will be, and they’ll start quoting Matthew 24. However, these folks make a few critical errors: ignoring the context given at the end of chapter 23/beginning of chapter 24, and ignoring the use of apocalyptic imagery that is so common with prophets in scripture.
There are a few key ways one can untangle Matthew 24 to show that it is not a prophesy of a future tribulation and it is not talking about the end of the world:
First, you ask the basic question as with any scripture: who is talking, what are they talking about, and who are they talking to?
This passage is complex because of the use of apocalyptic imagery which throughout scripture is highly symbolic and challenging to interpret. However, the easy part is the context: Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple which would constitute the end of the age as people knew it. We know this is the context because it is plain right in the text starting at the end of chapter 23. Jesus is in the temple teaching that it will be destroyed. After leaving the temple, his disciples point out the massive structure as Jesus continues his conversation:
“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (v2)
Jesus’ statement that the temple would be completely demolished prompted a new question from his disciples: “when will this happen? what will be the signs?”, they ask. This is what gives us the context of the passage: Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple, he is talking to his disciples, and he is answering their question about how to know that the destruction of the temple is close.
Unfortunately, this passage is commonly claimed to be speaking about the end of the world because of poor translation. Many English translations mistranslate the phrase from verse 3, “What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?” Based on reading only a poorly translated English version, it’s certainly confusing and seems to point people in a futuristic direction. However, the Greek word here isn’t “world” (kosmos) at all, but the word αἰών, which means “a unit of time as a particular stage or period of history—‘age, era.” This poor translation makes it easier to ignore the context, and read into it our own relatively new ideas about the future end of the world. However, that’s not what the text is talking about.
So, here’s where the “Great Tribulation” comes into play: the foundation is from this passage where Jesus is describing the events that will lead up to the destruction of the temple in verses 15-21. Yes, Jesus does describe a horrible period of tribulation, but not in the way end-timers teach. Instead of a global tribulation in our future, Jesus warns of a localized tribulation in their future. He warns them of the signs that it’s coming, and then tells them to flee town and hide in the hills outside Judea– really bad advice if it were a global tribulation. Furthermore, Jesus goes out of his way to make sure they understand he is talking about their time, and not thousands of years later, by using the time marker of “this generation”. The original audience would have known that he was speaking of events that were to come to pass in their lifetime, not ours.
The irony of this passage is that when viewed in context, it’s not doom or gloom for us at all– but actually is really good news. In verse 21 Jesus says:
“For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again.”
If Jesus is right, and I believe he is, he’s promised that things will never be as bad as they were in the “Great Tribulation”, which was an event that occurred in the lifetime of his listeners– AD70. A passage used to cause people to fear the future and be pessimistic of the future should actually cause people to be hopeful for the future, and excited about it.
That’s what happens when we misinterpret scripture to fit our own worldviews, as the end-timers have done: it takes something beautiful and distorts it into something ugly.
Now, there’s a lot going on in Matthew 24 that I haven’t covered– this piece was just to point out that the entire context of this passage is Jesus answering the question, “how will we know the destruction of the temple is about to happen?” Everything that Jesus talks about in the Olivet Discourse must be interpreted in light of the question he is answering. Since we know Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple, since we know this occurred in AD 70, and since Jesus himself says in verse 34 that “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened“, we know that Jesus was speaking of events that to us, are in the past.
That is the basic context of Matthew 24. If you’d like to go deeper into the rest of the stuff Jesus talks about in Matthew 24, I highly recommend this article.
So, the next time your parents start talking about the “signs of the times”, just point out the beginning of chapter 24 and show them the context of that passage.