Norman L. Geisler and “This Generation”
by Gary DeMar
One of the foundation stones of dispensationalism in particular and futurism in general is the claim that “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 either refers to a future generation (“the generation that sees these signs”) or the Jewish race. Norman Geisler, in his critique of Hank Hanegraaff’s The Apocalypse Code, argues that the Greek word genea should be translated “race.” He writes: “as virtually all acknowledge, it can mean ‘this [Jewish] race’ will not pass away—which it has not. Greek experts Arndt and Gingrich acknowledge that the term genea can have an ethnic use of ‘family, descent, . . . clan, then race’ (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 249, emphasis added).” Notice that Geisler says “can have.” The problem is, there is no place in the NT where genea is translated as “race,” and the lexicon cited by Geisler does not point to a verse where “race” would be the appropriate translation.1 Moreover, Geisler does not tell his readers that the Greek-English Lexicon also states that genea (generation) means “the sum total of those born at the same time, expanded to include all those living at a given time. Generation, contemporaries.”2 The passages referenced as examples of this definition are Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32 where the text reads “this generation.”
I’m surprised that Geisler would even consider the genea–as–race argument. While the Scofield Reference Bible takes this position, almost no one today, including dispensational authors, argue that “this generation” should be translated “this race.”
There are two problems with the “race” translation. First, as we’ve seen, the Greek word used in Matthew 24:34 is genea, a word that in other contexts means “generation.” Try using “race” where “generation” appears in these verses: Matthew 1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; Mark 8:12, 38; 9:19; 13:30; Luke 1:48, 50; 7:31; 9:41; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32. Geisler even admits this, but claims that it can have a different meaning in a “prophetic context.” What is the basis for this line of argument? He never tells us.
Second, if Jesus wanted to say that “this race will not pass away until all of these things take place,” He would have used the Greek word genos to clear up any possible confusion. He uses genea (“generation”) not genos (“race”).
Third, there is a logical problem if genea is translated “race.” Since “race” is a reference to the Jewish race, Matthew 24:34 would read this way: “This Jewish race will not pass away until all these things take place. When all these things take place, then Jewish race will pass away.” This doesn’t make any sense, especially for a premillennialist like Geisler who believes the Jews will reign with Jesus for a thousand years after the period described by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse. Fellow dispensationalist Stanley Toussaint dismisses Geisler’s line of argument:
It is difficult for dispensational premillennialists to take this view because this would imply that Israel would cease to exist as a nation after the Lord’s return: “This race of Israel will not pass away until the Second Advent.” But Israel must continue after the Second Advent into the millennium in order to fulfill the promises God made to that nation.
Fourth, each and every time “this generation” is used in the gospels, it refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. The use of the near demonstrative “this” locks the time of “this generation” that was near to Jesus. If Jesus had a future generation in mind, He would have said “that generation,” as in, “that generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Consider what these Bible commentators say about the meaning of “this generation”:
- D.A. Carson: “[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.”4
- William Sanford LaSor: “If ‘this generation’ is taken literally, all of the predictions were to take place within the life-span of those living at that time.”5
- John Lightfoot: “Hence it appears plain enough, that the foregoing verses are not to be understood of the last judgment, but, as we said, of the destruction of Jerusalem. There were some among the disciples (particularly John), who lived to see these things come to pass. With Matt. xvi. 28, compare John xxi. 22. And there were some Rabbins alive at the time when Christ spoke these things, that lived until the city was destroyed.”6
- Thomas Newton: “It is to me a wonder how any man can refer part of the foregoing discourse to the destruction of Jerusalem, and part to the end of the world, or any other distant event, when it is said so positively here in the conclusion, All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation.”7
- “[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning.”8
- John Gill: “This is a full and clear proof, that not any thing that is said before [v. 34], relates to the second coming of Christ, the day of judgment, and the end of the world; but that all belongs to the coming of the son of man in the destruction of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Jewish state.”9
- William Lane: “The significance of the temporal reference has been debated, but in Mark ‘this generation’ clearly designates the contemporaries of Jesus (see on Chs. 8:12, 38; 9:19) and there is no consideration from the context which lends support to any other proposal. Jesus solemnly affirms that the generation contemporary with his disciples will witness the fulfillment of his prophetic word, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the Temple.”10
- “Matthew uses genea here for the tenth time. Though his use of the term has a range of emphases, it consistently refers to (the time span of) a single human generation. All the alternative senses proposed here (the Jewish people; humanity; the generation of the end-time signs; wicked people) are artificial and based on the need to protect Jesus from error. ‘This generation’ is the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries.”
Norman Geisler needs to take a second look at his claim that “this generation” can be translated as “this race.” All the evidence points to the generation Jesus was addressing and not the “Jewish race” or a future generation.
1 The King James Version translates genos as “generation” in 1 Peter 2:9.
2I’m using the fourth revised edition of Arndt and Gingrich (1952). The page number in this edition on genea is 153.
3Stanley D. Toussaint, “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October December 2004), 483–484.
4D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor=s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 8:507
5William Sanford LaSor, The Truth About Armageddon: What the Bible Says About the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 122.
6John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1658–1674] 1859), 2:320.
7Thomas Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies Which Have Remarkably Been Fulfilled (1754).
8Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook of the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961), 419.
9John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, 3:296.
10William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 480.
11John Nolland The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 988–989.