C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a Cambridge professor of English Medieval literature and a very successful novelist. His books The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia won him many awards and honors. And with his book Mere Christianity (1943), the venerable Lewis became the bestselling author of Christian theology during his lifetime.
Lewis wrote another theological book near the end of his brilliant, literary career entitled The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (1960). In it, he quotes liberals scholars who typically said, “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” (p. 97). Lewis believed they were correct, though he didn’t say it in such stark language.
C.S. Lewis was referring to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24.1-51; Mark 13.1-37; Luke 21.5-36). Therein, Jesus predicted there would be wars, earthquakes, famines, and the rise of false prophets and false christs. He said his gospel would be preached in all the world, and then the end would come. He also affirmed Daniel’s pivotal prophecy, that an “abomination of desolation” would be set up in the temple at Jerusalem. Then Jesus added catastrophic portents, alluding to some Old Testament texts (Isaiah 13.10; 34.4; Joel 2.30-31), by saying the sun would be darkened and stars would fall from the heavens just prior to his return on the clouds of heaven. Then he uttered the words upon which Lewis and many others have stumbled–“this generation shall not pass till all these things have taken place” (Matt. 24.34/Mark 13.30 NRSV). Lewis added concerning this verse, “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”
Ever since the German Lutheran theologian H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768) first made this viewpoint well known, a multitude of distinguished New Testament scholars have adopted it. That list is a Whose Who of biblical scholars in the 20th century. To start that century off, Albert Schweitzer put it forth in powerful arguments in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). This book has been acclaimed critically as the most important book about Jesus published in the 20th century. Lewis accepted this skeptical assessment, and he added the following in his book:
“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 grow side by side … the facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance” (World’s Last Night, p. 97).
But have these scholars been correct in alleging that Jesus wrongly believed his generation would live to see his return? Not at all. The very fact that two verses after he spoke of “this generation” (the Greek text has genea aute), he said he didn’t know “the day or hour” of his return, indicates that those scholars wrongly interpret “this generation” of Jesus’ generation. On the contrary, Jesus meant he didn’t have a clue when he would return, whether in about a forty-year generation or thousands of years later. Thus, he must have meant “this generation” as the generation that sees “all these things” (Gr. panta tauta) he predicted in Matt. 24.4-25 (with vv. 26-27 being explanatory). Every generation has seen wars, earthquakes, and famines, but not the abomination of desolation. That is an idol of the Antichrist (Rev. 13.14-18) which he will set up in the temple at Jerusalem and there declare himself a god (1 Thessalonians 2.4). Daniel and Revelation make it very clear that that event will happen 3.5 years before “the end” (Dan 7.25; 9.27; 12.7, 11; Rev 11.2; 12.14; 13.5), which is when Jesus will return. So, what Jesus meant was that the generation which sees “all these things,” which includes the abomination of desolation, will see his return.
Not many Evangelicals know about this skeptical viewpoint held by C.S. Lewis and so many distinguished biblical scholars. Why not? It shows the deep chasm that often separates the academy from the Evangelical pew, if not the Evangelical pulpit.