Chapter 3

The Olivet Discourse Problem

The second Pretrib Problem is related to the Olivet Discourse which is the name for the teaching about the end times that Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.

Christians throughout the ages have believed this passage to be speaking of the signs leading up to the rapture. In other words, they believed that the signs that Jesus tells His disciples about in the Olivet Discourse are signs that will happen before the rapture and that the rapture itself is pictured in Matthew 24:30-31 which says:

“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

There are lots of reasons to believe that the rapture is being described in Matthew 24 starting with the clear parallels between the events described in Matthew 24 and the events described in other rapture passages such as 1st Thessalonians 4:16-17 which says:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Ryan Habbena: “Jesus’ description of His coming in Matthew 24:29-31 parallels, ideally, Paul's description of the rapture in 1st Thessalonians 4:13-17. And Paul confirms this through many linguistic connections in his first epistle to the Thessalonians.”

Alan Hultberg: “There are tons of parallels. Everything from, you know, the angels and the trumpet, and the gathering of God's elect. But also, you know, the thief in the night imagery, the drunkenness versus sobriety imagery…”

The problem with this for the Pretribber is that if the rapture is in view in verses 30 and 31, it leads to the conclusion that there must be precursors, or signs before the rapture because in context there are lots of signs that happen before the events in verses 30 and 31.

For example, a straightforward reading of this passage means that before the rapture can take place, the following events will happen first:

  • A number of smaller signs Jesus calls birth pains
  • The Abomination of Desolation when the Antichrist declares himself to be God in the temple at the midpoint
  • A great persecution like none that has ever been seen in history
  • A “falling away” or an apostasy from the faith
  • And an ominous sign in the sun, moon, and stars followed immediately by the rapture

As we have seen, the idea of precursors before the rapture is unacceptable with Pretribbers because it would mean that the rapture is not imminent. In other words, if the rapture is what is being referred to in verses 30 and 31 of Matthew 24, it would mean that there are things that will happen first, that the rapture can’t occur at any moment, and most significantly, it would mean that the Church will face the Antichrist’s persecution before the rapture.

After the Pretrib view was proposed in the mid-1800s, all these problems in the Olivet Discourse were immediately recognized, and a new sort of “anti-Matthew 24 movement” began. At first, they essentially taught people not to pay attention to this section of Scripture at all. They said that it was only meant for those left behind such as Jews or the so-called “Tribulation Saints.”

Arguments for this would begin by saying things like Matthew is a particularly Jewish gospel, and because of the Jewish focus of the book of Matthew, this section was not meant for the Church.

Thankfully, this particular line of argumentation has been mostly rejected in recent years. Even Pretribulational scholars have come to realize its flaws.

For example, they point out that Matthew might be the most church-focused gospel of them all. It’s the only one that mentions the Great Commission and the section on church discipline in chapter 18. In fact, Matthew is the only gospel that uses the word “church” at all.

David Rosenthal: “If you're going to make the argument that Matthew chapter 24 is not for believers, are you going to make the same argument two chapters later when Jesus institutes the ordinance of the communion? It's a real problem for Pretribulationists in that regard.”

Pretribulationists did come up with one interpretation of this Matthew 24 that seemed to stick. In the mid-1800s, they began to teach that verse 31 was not the rapture at all, but some other event that occurred at the end of the 7-year period. Most often, they said it referred to the battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19 where Jesus descends to battle with the armies of the Antichrist.

Charles Cooper: “Historically, classical Pretribbers did not/would not allow the rapture to be put in the proximity of Matthew 24 and 25. They argued that the rapture is nowhere to be seen there, that any mention of a coming of Christ in that passage refers to Armageddon.”

There are lots problems with this view. For instance, many of the parallels that we see with the Thessalonian letters and Matthew 24 just don’t apply to Armageddon. The events in Matthew 24: 29-31 and the events at Armageddon are fundamentally different. In Matthew, there is a rescue of God’s people from the earth to heaven, but in Armageddon Jesus returns from heaven to destroy the wicked people on the earth.

But the biggest problem with the Armageddon view, and the one Pretrib scholars in the last few years have been scrambling to solve, comes from the obvious contradictions this view creates with the second half of the Olivet Discourse.

Ryan Habbena: “So, in the latter part of Matthew 24 and Matthew 25 we are introduced to many parables of Jesus concerning the day and hour and readiness for His coming. And from a Pretribulational perspective, this proves to be a problem in many different ways. Regardless of the way it's interpreted—which are various.”

To set the stage it’s important to remember a basic outline of the Olivet Discourse.

The disciples ask Jesus what the signs of His coming will be. Then Jesus gives them a fairly large list of signs, ending with the coming itself (i.e. the rapture in verses 30 and 31).

From that point on, after verse 31 and going all the way through chapter 25, Jesus tells His disciples various parables about how important it is for them to watch for the signs of His return; signs He’d just got done telling them about.

It is in this last section where Pretribbers have so many problems to solve, because when they changed the meaning of verses 30 and 31 from the rapture to Armageddon, they changed the meaning of these parables as well, and these parables just don’t make sense if verses 30 and 31 are anything but the rapture.

For example, in one of these parables it says that "no one knows the day or the hour" of Jesus’ coming. And while many layman Pretribbers will quote this verse in reference to the rapture, they do this ignorantly. The Pretrib scholars know that if they have changed verse 31 to be about Armageddon then they must make this not knowing the day or the hour to be about Armageddon. After all, according to them Jesus wasn’t talking about the rapture at any point in this chapter. And in context, whatever verses 30-31 are referring to, is what the parables that follow them have to be about. So, they’re stuck having to defend the idea that no one will know the day or the hour of Armageddon.

The problem here is that we know from several other verses in Scripture that the day Armageddon occurs will be exactly seven years and 30 days after the covenant is made by the Antichrist and exactly 1,290 days after the Abomination of Desolation at the midpoint. In other words, since it seems very likely people will at least know when the Abomination of Desolation at the midpoint occurs since Jesus says people should flee when they see it, all anyone would have to do is calculate the days from that event to arrive at the day Armageddon will occur.

Commentaries from Pretribbers either don’t mention this problem at all, or admit it’s a problem but offer no solutions. John Macarthur is a good example of the latter. In his commentary he says:

“Nevertheless, even with all those indisputable signs and precisely designated periods, the exact day and hour will not be known by any human beings, not even Tribulation believers, in advance. Although the Lord gives no reason for their not knowing.

David Guzik says something similar in his commentary,

In this, there is a dilemma. How can the day of Jesus’ coming be both completely unknown, and at the same time be known to the day according to Daniel 12:11?”

Another problem caused by interpreting verse 31 as anything other than the rapture is that, twice in these parables, Jesus says that "one will be taken and one will be left.” If this is talking about the rapture, then it flows quite naturally from the gathering in the clouds, in verse 31 and it makes perfect sense in context.

But because of the Pretribulational teaching that verses 30 and 31 are about Armageddon, Pretribbers must interpret this one being taken here as either Armageddon, or the Sheep and Goat judgment. Basically they must see this being taken as a bad thing for un-saved people. They must interpret it as a wicked person being taken to be judged, instead of a righteous person being taken to their eternal reward. It’s a full reversal from historical Christianity on this point.

In defense of this, they will point to the parable in the previous verses about Noah in which Jesus talked about how the flood came and took people away. They say that since the word sometimes translated took in that passage was about being taken for judgment (the flood came and took the unbelievers away), that is how the word taken in verses 40 and 41 should be understood—that the one was taken for judgment, not rescue.

Ryan Habbena: “The truth is the Greek actually precludes this from being a possibility. Two different words are actually being used. And it…the one taken is to receive to oneself, to receive warmly. In fact, it's the same word Jesus uses in the departing discourse in John which [says], “I will not leave you, but I will, as orphans, but I will come again, and I will receive you unto Myself.”

Alan Kurschner: “‘And if I go to make a place ready for you, I will come again and take you (paralambano). Take you to be with me so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.’ So here, Jesus uses the term paralambano. Guess what? Every Pretrib interpreter believes that John 14, this John 14 passage when Jesus says, ‘I will take you to be with Me’ is referring to the rapture.”

Another argument for this one being taken being a reference to them being taken in the rapture and not being taken to judgment, is that in the Ten Virgins parable a few verses later, which is on the exact same subject, which we know because it ends with the exact same warning: “Watch because you do know the day or the hour,” it is only the wise virgins that are taken not the foolish ones. In other words, the purpose of Jesus’ warning to watch because you don’t know the day or the hour, is so that you can be a part of those that are taken not left.

Interpreting verse 31 as Armageddon is also logically incompatible with next parable in which Jesus says the wicked people of the world will be carefree and unaware before His coming. He says, “they will be marrying and being given in marriage, and eating and drinking up until the very day of His coming.”

This creates a huge problem since, according to the Pretrib interpretation this would mean that wicked are relatively carefree right up until the day of the battle of Armageddon, even though Armageddon takes place at the very end of the 7-year period after the trumpet and bowl judgment have been poured out.

To put this in context, at this time every living thing in the sea will be dead. All the fresh water in the world will be undrinkable. The sun will be so hot that no one can bear it. Everyone will have been plagued with terrible sores, and there have been five solid months of torment from demonic, scorpion-like beings directly from the pit of hell. I could go on, but I think it’s safe to say people will have noticed that the Wrath of God has started, and that they would NOT be living carefree lives right up until the day the battle of Armageddon begins. There are precious few Pretrib commentaries that even attempt to justify this idea. Again, the most common tactic is to not mention the problem at all.

But Pretribulational scholars have recognized the various problems that interpreting verses 30 and 31 as Armageddon has caused. And in the last decade or so, there have been two competing theories from them to answer their critics on these issues—one from Dr. Craig Blaising of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and one from Dr John Hart of Moody Bible Institute.

While Blaising’s theory gained popularity from being featured in Zondervan’s Three Views on the Rapture book, it’s a somewhat convoluted argument, and in many ways it represents an entirely new way to teach Pretribulationism. As a result, it seems to have had less acceptance among Pretribulationists than Hart’s theory. Though, it should be noted that in both cases these theories rely on the same underlying prooftext—but…more on that later.

John Hart wrote a paper in 2007 that simply agreed with the historical church and the Prewrath rapture proponents that all of the parables after verse 36 are, in fact, talking about the rapture and not Armageddon—thus, avoiding the various contradictions we have been talking about.

The unique thing about Hart’s view is that he maintains that the first part of the Olivet Discourse, including verse 30 and 31, is still a reference to Armageddon as Pretribbers have taught since the 1800s. So, he is essentially saying the first half of the Olivet Discourse has nothing to do with the second half—that Jesus was teaching his followers about the signs leading up to Armageddon until verse 35 and then, for some reason, He reversed the order of events and began to teach parables about the rapture in verse 36.

Both Hart and Blaising’s theories rely on the argument that in verse 36, the Greek phrase peri de (which is often translated “now concerning”) represents a transition to an entirely new topic. In other words, they argue that this Greek term gives them an excuse to decouple the first half of the Olivet discourse from the second.

Alan Hultberg: “Hart argues, and Blazing does the same, that the transitional phrase in Greek in verse 36, peri de, which means ‘now concerning’ or something along those lines, is intended to distinguish or to mark the change from answering one question to the other.”

However, since “peri de” basically means the same thing that the English phrase “now concerning” does it can mean “now concerning something entirely different,” but it can also mean “now concerning another aspect of the thing that was just discussed.” It’s used both ways multiple times in the New Testament.

Charles Cooper: “In Matthew, it doesn't necessarily mean that the author is going to a new entirely different subject. Rather, it means that he may be discussing another aspect of this central focus at hand, which is exactly what's happening in Matthew 24.”

The peri de line in verse 36 starts off, “Now concerning the day or the hour.” So, this is about the specific timing of something. Hart wants us to believe this is the first line on a totally new subject, but the problem is that this line is obviously a continuation of the question about the timing of the events begun in the parable of the Fig Tree just before this.

The parable of the Fig Tree teaches that the followers of Christ should be able to determine the general time of His coming by the signs Jesus just described in Matthew 24:4-31, and that His disciples could know His coming was near—by looking for the signs in the same way that they could know summer is near—by observing the leaves on a fig tree.

So with the Fig Tree parable, Jesus says that we will be able know the general time, but in the next line He says concerning (or peri de) “the day or the hour” i.e., the specific time of My coming—"no one will know."

Ryan Habbena: “It is a qualification then because we do not know the exact day or hour. So, we know the season, but we do not know the day or hour. So, these two things complement one another, and they must be taken together.”

Another criticism of Hart’s view revolves around the term parousia which is translated as “coming.” Since these new views of Hart and Blaising separate Matthew 24 beginning at verse 36 from the previous section, it would mean the question the disciples asked about the parousia in verse 3 is different from the answers about the parousia given by Jesus in verses 37 and 39.

Alan Hultberg: “They have to say that what Jesus refers to as the coming of the son of man is different from the coming of the son of the man in Matthew 36-41. That's very difficult to maintain exegetically. There's no evidence within the text, not even the transitional phrase peri de that suggests he is shifting from one coming to some other coming. This is clear because when the disciples asked the question, they say, ‘What is the sign of your coming?’ And Jesus just uses that same language, His parousia in both parts of the text. He doesn't give any indication that He's switching topics.”

The bottom line is that the old Pretrib view which has the parables at the end of the Olivet Discourse talking about Armageddon instead of the rapture is a brand new argument with multiple contradictions—and Pretribbers who know, know it. But the supposed fixes for this major problem, proposed in the last decade or so, which revolve around the idea that the first and second halves of the Olivet Discourse have nothing to do with one another is an even worse argument, and now hopefully some of you know it.