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C. S. Lewis and “this generation”

January 23, 2011

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus listed some things that would come to pass, before the end of the age. This was followed by two statements that to some, appear to contradict each other. In one, Jesus said that all the events he mentioned would occur in “this generation,” which seems to put a limit on the time span in which they could occur. This limit would become especially obvious, as that generation began to die out. The second statement seemed to contradict the first, as it said no man knew the time frame, not even angels.

Mark 13:30-33
Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.
Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.
Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.

To C.S. Lewis, these statements of Jesus seemed to show he was ignorant. Lewis wrote: [1]

But there is worse to come. “Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”

It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side. That they stood thus in the mouth of Jesus himself, and were not merely placed thus by the reporter, we surely need not doubt. Unless the reporter were perfectly honest he would never have recorded the confession of ignorance at all; he could have had no motive for doing so except a desire to tell the whole truth. And unless later copyists were equally honest they would never have preserved the (apparently) mistaken prediction about “this generation” after the passage of time had shown the (apparent) mistake. This passage (Mark 13:30-32) and the cry “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) together make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable. The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.

The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so. To believe in the Incarnation, to believe that he is God, makes it hard to understand how he could be ignorant; but also makes it certain that, if he said he could be ignorant, then ignorant he could really be. For a God who can be ignorant is less baffling than a God who falsely professes ignorance.

The answer of the theologians is that the God-Man was omniscient as God, and ignorant as Man. This, no doubt, is true, though it cannot be imagined. Nor indeed can the unconsciousness of Christ in sleep be imagined, not the twilight of reason in his infancy; still less his merely organic life in his mother’s womb. But the physical sciences, no less than theology, propose for our belief much that cannot be imagined.

What if Jesus included himself, knowing he would rise from the grave, when he mentioned this generation? And why would he not? He was part of that generation, and he remains alive, so his generation has not passed away.

And in Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse, there are two events included in the question that the disciples asked Jesus:

Matthew 24:3
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

The two events that the disciples asked about, the destruction of the temple and the end of the world, set the boundaries for the time period to which all the events mentioned in the Olivet Discourse apply. It is the whole age of the church, following the destruction of the temple, that occurred in 70 AD.


1. C. S. Lewis. The World’s Last Night. Mariner Books, 2002. pp. 97-99