An interpretation which takes Matthew 24:1-35 literally

(Investigator 60, 1998 May)


In the Bible "the last days" refer to thousands of years. After establishing that point I will show that Jesus' prophecy of Matthew chapter 24 makes sense when taken literally.

Jesus gave his prophecy to four disciples on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem.


The New Testament teaches that Christ's return and the end of this world would delay.

For example Jesus said to Peter the Apostle:

Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)

The subsequent verse explains:

This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.

Obviously Peter would grow old and die before Christ returned.

The apostle Paul also knew he would die before the end of this age. (Acts 20:17-38)

In the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins Jesus said:

As the bride groom was delayed they all slumbered and slept. (Matthew 25:5)

In the parable of the talents Jesus said:

Now after a long time the master of those servants came and sealed accounts with them. (Matthew 25:19)

How long would the Christian era be?

On the day of Pentecost Peter quoted the prophet Joel of the Old Testament:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy...
And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke; she sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. (Acts 2:16-21)

Later in life Peter explained:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:8)

The "last days", therefore, are "days" of a thousand years. The plural suggests at least two such "days".


In his prophecy on the Mount of Olives Jesus spoke of wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, persecutions, world-wide evangelism and a "great tribulation" and then said:

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place.  (Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32)

The problem is that the phrase "this generation" meant Jesus' own generation and "all these things" seemingly includes Jesus' second coming. Had a future generation been intended he should have said "that generation".

On other occasions when Jesus said "this generation" it also meant his generation. (Matthew 11:16; 12:41-45; 23:36)


Readers may find the following easier if they consult Matthew 24 in a Bible.

Jesus had just predicted that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and:

...there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down. (24:2)

The disciples then asked Jesus two questions:

1 "When will this be? (or When shall these things be?)"

2 "What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" (24:3)

Jesus foretold of false Christs, wars, famines and earthquakes but stressed:

Such events, therefore, are not signs of "the end".

The imminent "end" or "close of the age" would be indicated by worldwide preaching:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come. (24:14)

We have in verses 4-14 a broad summary of the centuries – fake Christs, wars, famines, earthquakes and persecutions – culminating in:

…this gospel…preached throughout the whole world.

At this stage Jesus has not answered either of the two questions but has merely summarized the future in a general sense.


The period 29 BC to 160 AD was relatively peaceful. The major conflicts were the Wars of the Jews and the Roman invasions of Britain and Mesopotamia. Mostly the Pax Romana or Roman Peace prevailed. However, Jesus' general survey of the centuries showed this would change.


43 - 61 Roman Conquest of Britain 200,000
70 Rome vs. Israel 1,500,000
265 - 280 Reunification of China 10,000,000?
291 - 306 Rebellion of the Eight Princes (China) 1,000,000?
5th century Barbarian invasions of Europe
6th century Wars of Justinian (East Roman Empire) 20,000,000
755 - 763  An Lu-Shan Rebellion (China) 5,000,000?
1096 - 1250 The Crusades 5,000,000?
1211 - 1219 Mongol Invasion of China 20,000,000?
1268 - early 14th century Mongol campaigns in China & SE Asia 20,000,000?
1369 - 1405 Wars of Tamerlane in Asia 5,000,000?
1618 - 1648 Thirty Years War 10,000,000
1643 - 1647 Manchu-Chinese War 30,000,000
1701 - 1714 War of the Spanish Succession 1,000,000
1756 - 1763 Seven Years War 1,000,000
1794 - 1815 Napoleonic Wars 5,000,000
1850 - 1864 Taiping Rebellion (China) 30,000,000
1864 - 1870 Lopez War
(South America)
1914 -1918 World War I 15,000,000
1937 - 1945 World War II 55,000,000

70 Jerusalem
250 - 265 Europe/Asia
395 - 410 Europe
525 - 610 Europe/Asia
1333 - 1337 China 4,000,000
1709 France 1,000,000
1769 - 1770 India 20,000,000
1846 - 1847 Ireland 1,000,000
1849 China 14,000,000
1854 - 1864 China 20,000,000
1865 - 1866 India 3,000,000
1871 - 1873 Persia 2,000,000
1876 - 1878 India 5,000,000
1878 - 1879 Morocco 3,000,000
1878 - 1879 China 10,000,000
1892 - 1894 China 1,000,000
1896 - 1898 India 5,000,000
1899 - 1900 India 3,000,000
1921 USSR 2,000,000
1928 - 1929 China 3,000,000
1932 - 1933 USSR 5,000,000
1943 Bengal 2,000,000
1958 - 1961 China 10 - 30 million
1980s East Africa 1,000,000
144 - 146;  171 - 174 Egypt Population of Egypt down by 1/3
166 - 185 Roman Empire & Asia 30,000,000?
250 - 265 Roman Empire & Asia 40,000,000?
310 - 312;  322 China
395 - 410 Europe
525 - 610 Europe to India 50% died = 100,000,000?
762 Shantung Province 50% died
808 Japan 50% died
1201 Egypt 30% died
1347 - 1350 Black Death 75,000,000
1556 - 1558 Influenza–worldwide
1906 - 1911 India 7,000,000
1918 - 1920 Influenza–worldwide 22,000,000
16th - 20th centuries Syphilis 100,000,000? per century

The accompanying charts list some major events. There were earthquakes and famines in the first century and some are mentioned in the Bible. Bubonic plague and pneumonia recurred in Europe about 60 times between 1346 and 1720!

There were also new pandemics which had a continuous, gradual attrition rate. Syphilis may have killed 100 million per century from the 16th century onwards. Smallpox destroyed the Aztecs and Incas. In the 18th century smallpox killed 60 million Europeans! Currently, worldwide, 3 million die annually from tuberculosis, 2 million from malaria and 3 million from sexually transmitted diseases.

Similarly with famine and war. The charts give only the biggest events. Walford (1878) listed 350 major famines from 6 AD to 1878 AD! According to De Castro (1973) 400 widespread famines occurred in Europe between the 10th to 16th centuries.

World wars are not just a 20th century phenomenon. Strayer et al (1974) wrote:  "The War of the League of Augsburg was waged in India and America as well as in Europe, so it may be called the first of the modern world wars."  That war lasted 1688 to 1697.

The following century saw a further three world wars and the start of a fourth:

1702 to 1713
1756 to 1763
1775 to 1783
1792 to 1815

Repeated population crashes in Europe, Asia and the Americas through many centuries make modern times seem tame. For example:

...the invasion of China in 1280 by the Mongols, and the Black Death about 30 years later...reduced the population from about 140 million to 80 million over a period of 50 years. (Llewellyn-Jones 1974) Jesus spoke of the "increase of lawlessness" or "wickedness is multiplied". (Matthew 24:12)  The stimuli for widespread decline of peace and order included famine, pestilence, climate change and impacts of asteroids/meteorites. Such impacts (of the size that occurred in 1908 in Siberia) may have occurred in Asia in the 5th century (Gribbin & Gribbin 1996) and set Barbarian nations in motion against established empires like Rome and China.

An example of climate change (one of many) is given in Lamb (1982):

…from about 150 BC until AD 300 or a few decades later, caravans of camels used the Great Silk Road across Asia to trade luxuries from China. But by the fourth century AD, as we know from changes of level of the Caspian Sea and studies of the intermittent rivers and lakes and abandoned settlements in Sinkiang and central Asia, drought developed on such a scale as to stop the traffic along this route. (p. 151) Information about earthquakes (Matthew 24:7) appeared in Investigator No.37 (with one correction in No.41 p. 50) and need not be repeated here.

Space constraints preclude summaries of events fulfilling Jesus' other words – regarding persecutions, false prophets, preaching, etc.

Next we'll discuss the disciples' first question:

The disciples' first question was, "When will this be?" Many translations have, "When shall these things be?"

By "these things" is meant the destruction of the Temple. (24:1-3)

In verse 15 Jesus answered:

…when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place… (24:15) The "desolating sacrilege" referred to the Roman armies besieging Jerusalem in 66 AD.

The Romans withdrew for several years. Believers in Jesus then obeyed the words:

…then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains… (24:16)
In 70 AD the Romans returned. Jerusalem was jammed with Jews visiting for a festival. Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote: ...the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions ever wrought upon the world.
(Wars of the Jews Book 6 Chapter 9)
He claimed 1,100,000 Jews perished which would have been about ¼ of the world's total!

Jesus describes this as:

…great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now… (Matthew 24:21) Almost all interpreters assume the tribulation was/is short – one, two, three or seven years. From this assumption "immediately after" would have to be in 70 AD, or in 73 AD when the last Jewish stronghold was captured.

Interpreters then have problems with verses 29-31 describing Christ's return:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days… Many get around the problem by having two fulfilments and therefore two great tribulations. However, Jesus didn't even hint at such an idea! A few interpreters place Christ's Second Coming in 70 AD or 73 AD! However Revelation, written about 90 AD, makes Christ's return still future.

An explanation that makes sense is to assume that the great tribulation is a long period – many centuries long. Luke's version of the prophecy gives the added detail:

Great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:23-24) The tribulation, then, lasts all the centuries that the Jews are dispersed and Jerusalem is ruled by Gentiles i.e. by non Jews. The tribulation and the 'times of the Gentiles" overlap for most of their duration.

The tribulation is the "great tribulation" upon "this people" (Luke 21:23), i.e. upon the Jews because it is their longest exile from Israel with the greatest persecution. Other tribulations such as Israelite slavery in Egypt and the exile in Babylon were shorter and less traumatic.

The tribulation would see many false Christs and false prophets:

For false Christs and false prophets will arise. (Matthew 24:24) Several false Christs had thousands of Jewish followers around 70 A D. After that the more-famous Christ-pretenders included:
  • Simon Bar Cochba (d. 135);
  • Abu Isa al-Isfahani (8th century);
  • David Alroy (12th century);
  • Sabbetai Zevi (17th century);
  • Baha-Ullah (1817-1892);
  • Hung Hsiu-chuan 1850s-1860s;
  • Father Divine 1930s and 1940s;
  • Sun Myung Moon (b. 1920);
  • Maitreya (represented by Benjamin Creme).

Until the 1930s Jehovah's Witnesses promoted an invisible false Christ who returned in 1874!

The tribulation would end as follows:

And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. (Matthew 24:22) The phrase "no human being" is an interpretation of the translators of the RSV Bible. Most Bibles say "no flesh would be saved". And since the tribulation is upon the Jews "no flesh" would refer to the Jews. In other words the tribulation ends after the Jews face extermination.

At present the only event matching such words is the Holocaust which ended with the Second World War. Hitler exterminated about 1/3 of the world's Jews. Had Adolf Hitler won his war probably "no [Jewish] flesh" would have survived.

Jerusalem is currently in Jewish control again except for the site of the Jewish Temple which is occupied by the Dome of the Rock.

Therefore the 'times of the Gentiles" seem fulfilled or almost so – as judged by current appearances – because the Jews have Jerusalem. (Luke 21:24)

We have now answered the first of the disciples' two questions.


To recapitulate: Christ's preliminary words (to verse 14) described the centuries until the "end" in a general sense. Christ's answer to the first question "when shall these things be?" described 66 to 70 AD and then on through centuries until the finish of the tribulation.

In Matthew 24:29-31 Christ answered the second question which was:

What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age? We've already been told "the end will come" after worldwide preaching. But there's more.

The answer is:

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; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, 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. (24:29-31) The version in Luke says: And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (21:25-27) The prophecy of Jesus so far makes good sense taken literally. Therefore let's take the words describing the time "after the tribulation" literally as well.

The darkening of the sun and moon could occur if clouds of dust/smoke/water fill the atmosphere.

"Nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves" would literally be the case if the ocean levels rose and threatened all the coastal cities around the world.

I made this connection in 1971 upon reading Wilderness and Plenty (1971) by Sir Frank Fraser Darling:

The warming oceans and atmosphere would mean a recession of the polar ice caps. The Greenland ice is 9000 feet thick, so if that were to melt, with an equivalent melting of the Antarctic ice, the level of the oceans would rise considerably. Our ports would go under quite literally, and with them vast tracts of fertile soil. (p. 63) What about the falling "stars" and "the powers of the heavens will be shaken"?

When the Bible discusses events in the "heavens" it discusses them from the view or observation of earthbound observers of ancient times. "Heavens", therefore, refers to the sky.  "Stars" in the Bible can refer to what we too call "stars" – the twinkling objects in fixed positions relative to each other. To an ancient Jew, however, the word "stars" would include the planets – these being "wandering stars" (Jude 13) – and also "shooting stars" or meteors.

An impact of an asteroid around five kilometres wide would "shake" the atmosphere causing massive winds and storms – in effect shaking the sky or "heavens". The debris thrown up around the Earth by such an impact would fill the sky with "shooting stars". Dust and debris and shooting stars filling the sky would blot out the sun and moon.

Such an impact would shake the entire planet and wreck cities worldwide. There would be:

...a great earthquake such as had never been since men were on the earth, so great was that earthquake... and the cities of the nations fell… (Revelation 16:18-21)


Consider now:

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. (Matthew 24:35) The phrase "these things" refers to the Temple and surrounding buildings and their destruction (24:2, 3) and also to fake Christs, wars, famines, etc. (24:8)

The generation of Jesus lived to see the Temple and Jerusalem destroyed as well as early examples of the other things – false Christs, famines, earthquakes, etc.

In the prophecy Jesus repeatedly used the pronoun "you". This suggests that the four disciples directly addressed would live to experience what he spoke about. (24:4, 6, 9, 15, 20, 23, 25, 26, 34)

However, when Jesus described the time "immediately after the tribulation" he said

they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. (24:30)
He did not say, "you will see..."  Therefore this part of the prophecy applies long after the generation of Jesus.

The statement "this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" therefore excludes the "immediately after" period.  It refers to "all these things" – fake Christs, wars, famines, etc – up to the early stages of the tribulation.


Numerous sectarian groups try to fit the prophecy of Jesus into the 20th century. They argue we've had greater famines and wars and pestilences than before.

The statistics prove this approach wrong. Such approach also ignores simple grammar by confusing "this generation" – of the person speaking with "that generation" meaning a generation other than the speaker's generation.

Until verse 28 of his prophecy Jesus described all the centuries until his return. We can't identify any particular war, or famine or precise other event after 70 AD to the end of the tribulation, from Jesus' words. This gives meaning and significance to his repeated command to "watch therefore".

However, the current existence of Israel and the preaching of the gospel in thousands of languages (24:14) suggest we're near the period Jesus called "immediately after the tribulation". We even have scientific explanations of how the "stars" could fall, the sun be darkened, the sea and waves cause "distress of nations" and the "powers of the heavens (=sky)" be shaken.

REFERENCES Bible Readings For The Home Circle 1896,  International Tract Society,  Britain, p. 36
De Castro, J. 1977 The Geopolitics of Hunger, USA, p. 50
Darling, Sir F. F. 1971 Wilderness and Plenty, Ballantine Books, USA/UK, p. 63
Gribbin, J. & Gribbin, M. 1996 Fire On Earth,  St. Martin's Press, USA
Jonsson, C. O. 1987 The Sign Of The Last Days, Commentary Press, USA
Lamb, H. H. 1982 Climate History And The Modern World, Methuen, Great Britain
Llewellyn-Jones, D. 1974 Human Reproduction and Society, Faber & Faber, Britain, p. 51
Peris, G. H. 1909 History of War And Peace, Williams & Norgate, Britain
Strayer, J. R. Gatzke, H W & Harbison, E H 1974 The Mainstream of Civilization Since 1500, Second Edition, Harcourt Brace Javanovich Inc., USA, p. 452
Walford, C. 1878/1879 The Famines of the World: Past and Present, Journal of the Statistical Society, Vol 41 pp. 433-434; Vol 42 pp. 79-275