For those who believe in the rapture and also believe that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and a sign that the end of the church age is at hand and the great tribulation draws nigh, I must ask you: how long is a generation? This is relevant because premillennial dispensationalists have seized upon the “this generation shall not pass until all these things are fulfilled” statements of the Olivet discourse endtimes prophecy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32) to assert that the the great tribulation will start within a generation of 1948 when Israel became a nation again.
Now first, this poses a problem. Finding a Bible prophecy that would support the idea that Israel would re-established as a nation in the year 1948 is difficult to support. I will say categorically that no such prophecy exists in the New Testament, and it takes very creative interpretations to support the existence of such prophecies in the Old Testament. Further, the fact of Israel’s being established as a nation in 1948 is not something that was declared or revealed by God through a Christian prophet or by an angel delivering a message to a Christian. So, the basis of Israel’s existence as a nation does not come from any divine authority, not the Bible or any prophetic utterance!
Now this has nothing to do with the debate on whether Israel has the right to exist. Instead, it has everything to do with the beginning of the prophetic calendar with respect to this nation. If the great tribulation must happen within a generation of Israel’s being established as a nation, on whose authority did this event happen in 1948? Why, not God’s authority, BUT BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE UNITED NATIONS! Indeed, by man’s authority. Where it was AN ACT OF GOD that declared Israel’s status as a nation at the time of the Exodus, it was AN ACT OF MAN THAT AS FAR AS WE KNOW HAS NEVER BEEN CONFIRMED BY GOD TO THE CHURCH that declared Israel to be a nation in 1948. And it is the height of irony that many of the very same people who consider the United Nations to be a tool of the coming anti-Christ (but not America, even though America is a charter member, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. headquarters is in America, and America is the #1 source of funds for this body, no America is “a Christian nation” with Christian – actually most freemason, deist, unitarian, and enlightenment rationalist – founding fathers!) accept the UN’s testimony that Israel is again a nation rather than God’s, and start their prophetic clock based on Israel’s the date of recognition by the same anti-Christ UN!
But alas, that is another issue altogether. But let us take for granted that the U.N. was acting on God’s behalf and doing God’s will, and that their recognition of Israel in 1948 happened according to God’s providence. (I readily admit that there is much precedent for such a thing happening all over the Bible. The key difference: those things were declared as such by prophets and were able to be verified as fulfilled prophecies. For instance, the prophets gave the exact time that the Jews would remain in Babylon AND the name of the king who would free them. It is because of the precise and literal nature of these fulfillments that God-hating atheists claim that said prophecies were written after the fact.) If that is so, when does the generation time clock expire? How long is a generation?
Now this issue has gotten some premillennial dispenationals into trouble. First premillennial dispensationals went by the modern western idea of a generation – 20 years – and stated that the great tribulation would begin by 1968. After it did not, it was revised to the older and better – but still worldly and western – idea of a generation, which was 40 years. So, it was stated that the great tribulation would start in 1988. An example of this trouble:
“Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong, and I say that unequivocally. There is no way Biblically that I can be wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town. ( Edgar Whisenant, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is in 1988).”
But even calling a generation 40 years is wrong, because it is not the Biblical definition. So the question must be asked: what is the Biblical definition of a generation? The answer: there isn’t one. At least, not one that can be described in a hard fast set number of years. Example: consider the time that Israel spent in Egypt, a period of about 400-440 years. According to Genesis 15:15-17, that was four generations! Genesis 15:16 in particular: “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” So in this instance, a generation would have had to have been at least 100 years, possibly longer.
So does that settle it? Well, no. The Bible also speaks of the time spent by Israel wandering in the desert as a generation See Numbers 32:13 and more specifically see Psalm 95:8-11 “Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.”
So obviously a Biblical generation does not refer to any fixed period of time. Some Bible scholars have tried to resolve this by claiming that a generation refers to everyone living during a period of time. When the last person who was alive during that period dies, then the generation ends! Well, Bible examples make that problematic. For one, when the Israeli exodus generation passed, Joshua and Caleb were still alive. Further, to use the preterist/amillennialist view, there were most certainly still Christians alive after the generation or age of which Jesus Christ was addressing in the Olivet Discourse ended in 70 A.D., as they included none other than the apostle John! In addition to John, it is well known that the many Jewish Christians did not die during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, but remembered the warnings of Matthew 24-25 and similar, obeyed Jesus Christ and fled, many of them taking the gospel with them. We know this because the refusal of Jewish Christians to die defending Jerusalem (and yes, the fact that the Jewish Christians were told to leave Jerusalem and obeyed doing so should give modern dispensationals who put so much modern emphasis on that city some pause!) was one of the primary reasons why Jewish Christians were made the scapegoat for the destruction of the nation, expelled from the synagogues, and ostracized by the Jewish people a few decades later.
Now there are some who refer to a generation as an age, specifically an age in salvation-redemptive history. That is consistent with the idea that the sojourn in the desert constituted a spiritual age, as did the end of the Jewish age with the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D. Regarding the latter, the church age had not yet started when Jesus Christ spoke for He had not yet gone to the cross, resurrected, ascended, and sent the Holy Spirit. However, that still leaves the problem of the four generations in Egypt! Had it been referred to by scripture as a single generation, it would have been easy to harmonize that reference with the generation in the desert and the generation of the time of Jesus Christ’s first advent as major periods in salvation history. However, it does not, so we cannot.
Thus, the conclusion must be reached is that there is no way to know how long a true generation is, that is one that fits Biblical and prophetic purposes. For that reason, we should respect Matthew 24:36, Matthew 25:13, Mark 13:32, and perhaps best Acts 1:7, which reads “And he [Jesus Christ] said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.” Thus, even if the creation of Israel in 1948 was the beginning of the generation that will include the great tribulation, none of us has any idea how long that generation shall be. Instead, only the Ancient of Days, God the Father Himself, knows! So, it is best for Christians to be content with the duty of comfort ourselves with and sharing with others the gospel of Jesus Christ! Repent sinners for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!