The Terminal Generation

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

“I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt 24:34-35).

As you probably know, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote a non-fiction book called “Are We Living In The End Times?” in response to the many questions they received from folks who read their “Left Behind” series. Their goal was to provide insights into Biblical prophecy that will help readers conclude that the correct answer to the question raised in their book’s title is a resounding Yes! We are living in the End times.

When I read the book I came across a point that I think bears a closer look. This point addresses the length of a Biblical generation and is significant due to the popular (mis)interpretation of Matt 24:34 referenced above. Many folks take this verse to mean that the generation the Lord is referring to is the one being born about the time the signs He’s been describing start to appear. Nothing wrong with that, but then they assume that all the signs will appear and the Lord will return within the time span of one generation.

This “one generation” idea has Biblical precedence since all the major prophecies pointing to the first coming were fulfilled within the generation in which the Lord was born. So right away everyone starts speculating on the length of a Biblical generation and that’s where the trouble starts.  First of all the terms generation and life span are not equivalent, and Jesus never said the signs would all be fulfilled within the span of one generation, but with in the lifetimes of the generation being born when they begin.

What’s A Generation?

In Genesis 15  the Lord told Abraham that his descendants would spend 400 years in Egypt as slaves before coming out with great wealth. And then “in the 4th generation your descendants will come back here (Canaan) for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16).

This passage appears to equate 400 years with 4 generations, making a generation 100 years long, but careful study reveals this is not the case. The numbers 400 and 4 refer to two different things. True, the Israelites were in Egypt for about 400 years, but after they left, the generation that finally crossed the Jordan with Joshua was the 4th one that had been born since the birth of Moses.

Here’s what happened.  As I said, the Israelites did spend 400 years in Egypt. Near the end of that time the Lord sent Moses to be their deliverer. His birth marked the beginning of the first generation of the deliverance.  But when he was 40 years old he killed an Egyptian soldier who was mistreating an Israelite slave (Acts 7:23).  As this happened the second generation was being born. He fled into the desert of Midian and hid for 40 years (Acts 7:30) until everyone who had known about the murder was dead (Exodus 4:19).  When the Lord sent him back to Egypt he was 80 years old (Exodus 7:6) and the third generation of people was being born.

Moses led the Israelites toward the Promised land. But they rebelled against God and were required to spend 40 years in the wilderness, a year for each day the spies had spent in the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33-34).  God said everyone over 20 years of age would die there (Numbers 14:29).  During their time in the wilderness the fourth generation was born.  And just as the Lord had said, in the fourth generation the Israelites entered the promised land under the command of Joshua, who had succeeded Moses as their leader.

This mystery further unravels with a simple trip to the dictionary, where the length of a generation is defined as “the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.” These days no one would wait till age 40 to begin having children, but in Biblical times that was often the case.  It took that long for men to learn a trade, build a home, and get themselves financially secure enough to start a family.  And of course the key to the definition lies in the word average, so we know we’re dealing with generalities here.

So What’s The Point?

But all this, while interesting, is irrelevant because Matt 24:34 simply says that the generation being born when the  fulfillment of end times signs begins would still be alive at the Lord’s return. We’ve just assumed that meant all the signs would be fulfilled within 40 years or so. The dictionary also defines a generation as a group of individuals born and living at about the same time and this may be the most appropriate definition to use in interpreting Matt 24:34.

The verse doesn’t say that no subsequent generations would be born, nor does it say that all the signs would be fulfilled before the birth of the next generation, but rather within the lifetimes of those who are born about the time the fulfillment begins. So we need to look at Biblical revelation to get an idea of the time involved.  As it happens, there is a reference to the length of a person’s life.  Psalm 90:10 says the length of our days is 70 years, or 80 if we have the strength.  So there you go.

When’s He Coming?

In any countdown to the 2nd coming the year 1948 is viewed as the obvious starting point.  (You can read our study on why that’s the case here.)  But don’t make the mistake so many have made adding only 40 years to 1948 when in fact a better number, based on Biblical evidence, is 70 to 80. That would put the 2nd coming somewhere between 2018 and 2028 and the rapture no less than 7 years earlier, within most of our lifetimes. Keep in mind that the rapture and 2nd coming are only related to the extent that one must precede the other. The Rapture of the church is a secret event that could literally happen any moment now, while there are still several other major events that must occur before the 2nd coming.

It’s provocative to note that whether it’s a secular or Bible based viewpoint, the most popular estimate for the end of the age is somewhere within the first quarter of this new century. But the real kicker in the Matthew passage we began with is verse 35. “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt 24:35). This is as strong a commitment as you’ll find anywhere in Scripture. The Lord will return as promised, and soon. Even Heaven and Earth, two things we think of as absolutely permanent, are not as permanent as His promise. You can almost hear the footsteps of the Messiah.