Jeremy D. Lantz
18th Century Theology
A Confused Christ, or a Completed Tribulation?
"There will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short… Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory… Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."
Matthew 24:21, 30, 34 (NAS)
Could Jesus Christ contradict himself? In this passage He seems to say that the great tribulation would occur before the end of the apostles’ generation. Did he really mean that, or was he speaking figuratively? Has it passed, or is it yet to come? It seems that no one has yet seen Christ return in the clouds, so these things could not have occurred. Indeed, the great tribulation is usually thought of as a future event in relation to Revelation 7. So, what did Christ really mean when he stated explicitly that "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place"?
Many Christians either look over this apparent contradiction or simply presume that Christ was speaking figuratively, without looking for evidence. Jonathan Edwards, however, undertook to explain what Christ really meant. Edwards had a particular interest in the end times. His notes and commentary on the Apocalypse were extensive, and he kept them separate from the rest of his commentaries. With this interest, he was driven to know whether this passage was referring to events of the end times, or simply events of that century. His explanation may be a surprise to many American Christians in the 21st Century.
Edwards begins his explanation with what Christ means by His coming in glory. Many Christians might envision that Christ would float down majestically among the soft clouds and speak in a thunderous voice, judging the nations. Christ’s first coming, however, has proven that man can easily have a skewed idea of Christ’s coming. In interpreting the passage, Edwards believes that Christ prophesies two different comings. One is for the Last Judgment, but the other was indeed within the apostles’ lifetime.
Edwards knew that Christ often spoke of His coming as being far off. This is clearly the case in Matthew 25:31-46, where He describes His physical return: "When the Son of Man comes in glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him." Here, Christ makes it explicit that He is referring to the Last Judgment. He will come to judge the nations, then the wicked will be taken away to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life. Certainly this must be far off, as it is at the end of man’s time on earth, and man does not seem to be near that end. Christ, then, clearly stated when He would return and why.
Unless Christ directs otherwise, Matthew 24 should be read in a way similar to Matthew 25, simply looking to see when and why Christ says He will return. Therefore, we should read literally that Christ will come before the apostles’ generation will pass away, and His coming will be accompanied by a great tribulation. This is Christ’s explicit description of His coming in Matthew 24. It has nothing to do with the Last Judgement and should not be equated with it. Edwards believed that the great tribulation Christ described as a part of His coming is the destruction of Jerusalem. As he wrote in Miscellany #1199:
'Tis evident that when Christ speaks of his coming; his being revealed; his coming in his Kingdom; or his Kingdom’s coming; He has respect to his appearing in those great works of his Power Justice and Grace, which should be in the Destruction of Jerusalem and other extraordinary Providences which should attend it.
Indeed, many of the apostles did live to see Jerusalem destroyed. Edwards, however, sought more proof for his view than simply a more literal reading of the text, and so needed to show that the tribulation Christ described really was the destruction of Jerusalem.
To substantiate this belief, Edwards carefully examined each of Christ’s prophecies in Matthew 24 to see whether they were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. In doing so, he relied heavily on the histories of Josephus, which he trusted greatly saying, "These things [were] are all related by one of the most prudent historians who lived at that very time and that very place[,] and he says that many were alive when he wrote and could attest to all this." (Misc. 972, brackets mine) Edwards took Christ’s prophecies in one hand and Josephus’ histories in the other to see if they could be aligned.
First, Christ prophesied the siege and destruction of the city. Luke 19:28-44 describes His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His response when he arrives is intriguing:
For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.
(Luke 19:43, 44 NAS)
According to the histories, Titus raised a wall around Jerusalem, laying siege to the city and causing the Jews to starve. After the Romans had taken it, Caesar ordered that the entire city be destroyed, except one wall and a few towers, which would stand as monuments to Roman power. Thus, it came about as Christ described, with the Jews being first surrounded, then having their city leveled. This would occur because of their rejection of Christ, because they "did not recognize the time of [their] visitation."
Second, Christ prophesied multiple signs from which the Jews could foresee the coming tribulation. If even one of these things were not fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem, then, since He could not have been wrong, Christ could not have been talking about that destruction. Edwards, then, numbered and described the historical fulfillment of eight of these signs:
(1) Christ prophesied the coming of counterfeit Messiahs (Mt. 24:4, 5). Although there were not many claiming to be Christ himself, there were many claiming to do the things the Messiah was expected to do, such as rescue the Jews from Roman bondage. Claiming the latter is virtually the same as claiming the former. Josephus provides examples of such men, such as Theudas, a sorcerer who led Jews out to the Jordan River with valuable goods until the procurator, Cuspius Fadus, had him killed.
(2) Christ prophesied wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes (Mt. 24:6, 7). During this time many Jews were sent to war in Alexandria and Babylon. There then came a rumor that the emperor, Cauis Caligula, was going to march on Jerusalem, and "upon this rumor the whole nation was in a great astonishment, insomuch that the Jews left their business, and neglected to till their grounds, expecting the Romans would have fallen upon them." This war never occurred, because of the sudden death of the emperor. A famine, however, did come, under the reign of Claudius Caesar. In addition, earthquakes are recorded to have occurred in Crete, Smyrna, Chios, Samos, and Asia shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem.
(3) Christ prophesied fearful sights and signs from heaven (Lk. 21:11). Edwards here records several strange occurrences of interesting note: a comet shone so brightly that the temple was said to be lit at night as if it were day; an heifer bore a lamb in the middle of the temple; people claimed to have seen chariots and armies in the air, hovering over the city; and one night the eastern gate (which requires the strength of twenty men to open or close and is locked at night with brass locks) flew open suddenly. Each of these things is without explanation, and Edwards considers them to be the "fearful sights and signs from heaven."
(4) Christ prophesied the persecution of Christians (Mk. 13:9). This was clearly fulfilled in the persecution of the disciples. Stephen was stoned to death; Peter and John were whipped and imprisoned; James and Peter were given over to Herod—each disciple faced his own persecution.
(5) Christ prophesied that many would fall away from Christianity on account of persecution (Mt. 24:10). There are several references in the epistles to these men falling away, thereby giving even Scriptural proof of this. Many probably joined groups such as the Gnostics, and so themselves become hostile toward Christianity.
(6) Christ prophesied that false prophets would deceive many (Mt. 24:11, 12). Edwards believes that this refers especially to the Gnostics, who taught false religion and gained many converts, particularly from those who may have been ready to abandon Christianity because of the persecution they faced.
(7) Christ prophesied the universal proclamation of the gospel before the desolation (Mt. 24:14). This proclamation was achieved through the work of the apostles, especially Paul, who traveled throughout the Gentiles.
(8) Christ prophesied the standing of the "abomination of desolation" in the holy place (Mt. 24:15). When the Jews saw the abomination coming (Lk. 21:20, 21) they were to leave the city. Edwards takes the abomination to be the Romans, or more specifically, the ensigns of the Romans, which were actually idols of Roman war. When the Jews saw the Romans coming with these ensigns they began to flee, knowing that destruction was ahead. After the destruction, these ensigns, or idols, were set up and sacrificed to in the remains of the temple (the holy place), thus fulfilling the prophecy.
Edwards was confident, by looking at Biblical and historical evidence, that each of these prophecies had been fulfilled in the lifetime of the apostles as a part of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Third, Christ prophesied about the circumstances of the destruction itself. It was clearly expected to be a great desolation, such that no stone would be left on another and there would be distress in all the land. We have already discussed the physical destruction of the city; in addition, the people themselves suffered greatly. Not only were the Romans attacking the Jews, but the Jews even began turning on themselves. By the end of the siege approximately 1.5 million Jews had died, and many of those who survived were taken captive and dispersed into other nations. Thus, Luke 21:24 was fulfilled: "They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations." (Edwards viewed the continuance of the dispersion of Jews today as the continuing fulfillment of this prophecy.) Many Jews remaining in the land were then deceived by false Messiahs even after the destruction in fulfillment of Matthew 24:23, 24. Josephus describes one such imposter, named Jonathan, who took many into the wilderness of Cryene promising to give them signs and wonders. Eusebius described another who, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, led the people in war against the Romans in order to free them from Roman bondage. Finally, "Jerusalem would be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." (Lk. 20:24) According to Edwards, we are currently in the time of the Gentiles, as the Gentiles have remained dominant over Jerusalem from its destruction until present day. It seems, then, that Christ’s prophecies of destruction itself were indeed fulfilled.
By aligning Scripture with historical records as described above, Jonathan Edwards has shown that Christ’s prophecies are indeed congruent with the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ really meant it when He said, "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." His coming at that time, then, is not the same as His physical coming described in conjunction with the Last Judgement. Instead it was his coming in wrath at the destruction of Jerusalem in punishment for the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah (Lk. 21:22). These are two separate times of Christ’s coming, each having a different purpose. Man has consistently misunderstood what Christ means by His coming.
Christ did not contradict Himself in Matthew 24, nor was he speaking figuratively about fulfillment within a generation. The great tribulation passed with the destruction of Jerusalem. It is not an event that is yet to be fulfilled in the last days, as many Christians describe it. There will undoubtedly be future persecutions or even tribulations of various types, but they are not the same as the great tribulation of Matthew 24. Many questions are still unanswered, but Christ seems to have made this point clear.
A Brief View of Jonathan Edwards' Eschatology
The Great Tribulation within Revelation
Jonathan Edwards was a post-millennialist. He believed that Christianity would grow on earth until the church would usher in the millennium, a thousand years of peace under the reign of Christianity. Satan would be bound during this time, but released afterward to wreak havoc for a short while. Christ would then return at the Last Judgement and our life in the new heavens and new earth would begin.
Edwards’ view of history was determined by his eschatology. Indeed, it is because of this that he was able to believe that the great tribulation has already been fulfilled. While a complete description Edwards’ eschatology is outside the realm of this paper, a brief description in this appendix may be helpful in order to understand how these things fit together.
With his pre-millennial view, Edwards was eager to find evidence that the church was indeed ushering in the millennium. He found this evidence in his belief that most of the prophecies described in Revelation have already been fulfilled. As he did with Christ’s prophecies in Matthew 24, he looked for historical evidence of fulfillment for each of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials. He then placed these historical events on a timeline to show how the prophecies of Revelation have been fulfilled over time and give a description of man’s remaining life on earth. It took Edwards most of his life to develop a complete picture of this history, as is demonstrated by the gaps in early view, depicted in Fig. A-1. By the time of his death, however, he had filled in these gaps and built a coherent view of the relationship between these prophecies and history. His beliefs became almost identical to those of Moses Lowman, who was influential in forming Edwards’ eschatology and whose view is depicted in Fig. A-2.
In his eschatology, Edwards viewed the papacy as an anti-Christ. He believed that weakest time for the Christian church was just before the Reformation, when Catholicism was strongest. At the reformation, the pope, or anti-Christ, began a downward fall that would result in the dethroning of the papacy. After this, the church would continue to grow and Protestant Christianity would flourish. The final blow would be given to the anti-Christ in the year 2000 and the millennium would begin.
The rise and fall of Catholicism are key events Edwards has used to match history with Revelation. In his later view (similar to Loman’s in Fig. A-2) he viewed the Reformation as the fifth vial, having matched historical time periods with each previous seal, trumpet, and vial. He believed then, that he himself was living in the sixth vial, a time in which the Papal States would be invaded and Catholicism greatly overthrown. Today we can see that Edwards’ eschatology may have some problems. It does not seem that that we are in the seventh vial, that Catholicism is being completely obliterated, or that the millennium is near. Nevertheless, we do not have a good understanding of what the millennium will really be like, so we could simply be misinterpreting our times. If that is the case and Edwards is right, the coming years should bring much excitement.
Clearly, Edwards did not leave room for the great tribulation to occur either just before or just after the millennium. Christians would certainly face hardship as they overcome the anti-Christ and even as they face Satan when he is loosed after the millenium. Instead of placing the great tribulation at the end of time on earth, however, he placed it at the beginning of the end times, which are the times after Christ’s death and resurrection. The great tribulation, as before described, occurred in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem. If Revelation was written before the destruction, the tribulation could even be the beginning of the fulfillment of the seven seals. More likely according to Lowman, however, is that Revelation was written after the destruction, so that the tribulation was really a forerunner of the seven seals, and the fulfillment of the seals did not begin until 95.
It is evident that Edwards’ eschatology did not leave room for a great tribulation yet to come. Unlike many Christians, he did not think that Revelation described a tribulation in this way. Because of interpreting revelation according to the event of past history, he was ready, and even eager, to interpret Matthew 24 as meaning that the great tribulation has already passed. Nevertheless, it seems that in doing so he has created an eschatology that is coherent with both Scripture and history. This is a task that few others have undertaken. We will now look forward to the next several years in which we will discover whether we must rewrite his timetable in attempt for an even better understanding of the millennium.
(Apocalyptic Writings, p. 14)
(Apocalyptic Writings, p. 58)
Edwards, Jonathan. Stephen J. Stein, ed. Apocalyptic Writings. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977.
This volume includes an extensive editors introduction, Edwards’ exposition and notes on the Apocalypse, "An Humble Attempt", and several appendices. Each of these things provides excellent information regarding Edwards’ view of Revelation and eschatology.