Apocalypse Whenever: The Interpretive Challenge of the Olivet Discourse


For most of this year, I have been advancing a position that biblical scholars call the “post-millennial” understanding of the New Testament. This view holds that, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is not talking about something inherited in an afterlife by those who obey his commandments, but created in this life by those who follow his instructions. For postmillennialists (as the name implies) the Millennium is something that happens before the Second Coming—something that humans create through their actions to prepare the world for Christ’s rule.

I fundamentally believe that this is the best way to interpret the Sermon on the Mount, the Kingdom Parables, and nearly all of the moral teachings of the New Testament. I am also convinced that this is how Joseph Smith and much (but not all) of the first generation of Latter-day Saints understood their role in sacred history, which lead to the urgency they felt to create Zion. The Latter-day Saint movement contained elements of both pre- and postmillennial thought, but they understood the Kingdom of God primarily in experiential terms—not as something that will happen after Christ comes, but something that has to happen before Christ can comes.

Perhaps the greatest textual challenge to the postmillennialist position comes in the Olivet Discourse, a conversation that Jesus had on the Mount of Olives with several of his apostles on the Tuesday of Holy Week. The fullest record of the Olivet Discourse occurs in Matthew 24-25. It is also recorded in Mark 13 and Luke 21. And, for Latter-day Saints, it is the subject of one of the only two passages in Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible that has been formally canonized. It appears in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith—Matthew.

As the disciples looked down on Jerusalem and the Temple (according to Mark it was Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Andrew), Jesus remarks, “See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Naturally curious, the disciples ask him when this is going to happen and how they will know, which leads Jesus to deliver a series of prophecies that have shaped Christian beliefs in the Apocalypse for 2000 years. Among the most important things he says are:

  • False Messiahs will come and deceive many (Matt 24:5)
  • There will be wars and rumors of wars (Matt 24:6)
  • Famines and earthquakes in diverse places (Matt 24:7)
  • The faithful will be persecuted, and many will fall away (Matt 24:9-10)
  • The Son of Man will be seen “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30)
  • “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matthew 24:34)
  • Nobody, not even Jesus Christ himself, knows exactly when this will happen. (Matt 24:36)

The great interpretive challenge posed by the Olivet Discourse is that the Second Coming has not happened yet, despite Jesus saying clearly that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.” In his massively influential book The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), Albert Schweitzer suggested that this was a fatal flaw in any New Testament-based argument for Jesus’s divinity or a future Second Coming. If we take the Bible at its word, Jesus delivered a time-based prophecy that did not come true in the allotted time frame. To take the text seriously, we have to deal with this problem.

Joseph Smith—Matthew faces this interpretive problem head-on by changing verse 34 to read, “This generation in which these things shall be shown forth, shall not pass away until all I have told you shall be fulfilled.” Thus, the generation that Jesus refers to as “this generation” refers, not to the generation of people that he is talking to, but to the generation that first sees the signs described in the text.

I find this approach ingenious, but not particularly helpful, since the signs described in the text—wars, rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes in diverse places, persecution, and the love of many waxing cold—have pretty much always been present in human history. This is just how humans (and tectonic plates) act and have always acted. And I have never seen any evidence that convinces me that wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecutions are greater now than they have been in the past.

Many contemporary biblical scholars respond to this argument by pointing out that the Gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple. The time-based prophecy (they say) referred to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, during which the Jews experienced much of the persecution and calamity described in the Olivet Discourse. Since the 16th century, a school of Christian thought called preterism has argued that many (and, for some preterists, all) of the prophecies in both the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation have already been fulfilled.

This approach also fails to satisfy me, since there is no indication in the text that the destruction of the temple would occur on a different timeline than the Son of Man “coming on clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” We still have to deal with the fact that Jesus did not return to earth, trailing clouds of glory or anything else, before the generation that heard these words passed away.

Except, for people who accept the Book of Mormon, he did.

This is the argument that Heather Hardy makes in her brilliant article “‘Saving Christianity’: The Nephite Fulfillment of Jesus’s Eschatological Prophecies.” All of the things that Jesus prophecies in the Olivet Discourse—wars, earthquakes, persecution, and all the rest—happen sequentially in the first ten chapters of 3 Nephi, after which Jesus descends in a cloud with oodles of power and glory. It would be difficult to imagine a clearer fulfillment of Christ’s prophecies than this. And it all happens within the lifetime of the generation that first heard the words.

But here is the problem: in order for Christ’s coming in the Book of Mormon to count as “the end of the world,” the world would have to have ended. And it didn’t. The society had peace and love for 200 years, after which the wars and rumors of wars started again, society was destroyed. and everything started over again. The appearance of Christ in the Book of Mormon was not an eschatological event in the ways that Christians have always understood the eschaton to work. The world did not end.

But their world ended. The society described in the Book of Mormon ended and was replaced with something very like the Kingdom of God. The society that replaced it went on to end again 400 years later—but before it did, one of its last inhabitants recorded the destruction of yet another society—the Jaredite nation—thousands of years before.

I am convinced that this is the primary narrative difference between the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Bible plots spiritual history on a straight line. It begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation, after which it is replaced by something that humans cannot begin to imagine. The Book of Mormon plots the same spiritual history on a circle—or, in its own words, “one eternal round” (1 Nephi 10:19. Alma 7;20, Alma 37:12). Its record contains, or at least hints at, multiple creations, apocalypses, parousias, and millennial reigns.

In circular time, the distinction between pre-millennialism and post-millennnialism vanishes, as does the distinction between preterism and futurism. The Kingdom of God is always ours to create, and it is also ours to lose. After all, just because it is the end of the world doesn’t mean it is the end of the world.


  1. Queue the REM music…..

  2. I was wondering about that a couple of days ago. And I find your post very insightful. Thanks !

  3. Austin, probably my favorite work of yours.

    Glad you gave credit to Hardy. Serious scholar of The Book of Mormon.

    She’s the one who introduced me to the deteroisaiah issue and her faith notwithstanding.

  4. Wonderful post, Michael.

    Just one question. In a previous post you said that the great news of the restoration is that we can manage to create Zion like with Enoch or among the Nephites once again.

    The issue I have with these two instances of a millennial society is that these two were not really universal. Christ had to kill all the people who were telestial before the rest of the Nephites joined the church, and Enoch’s Zion was definitely a in-group out-group thing, with many opting to stay apart and eventually be swallowed in the flood.

    I am sure I grew up under an apocalypse-soon leading-to-the-global-millennium culture, but I find it hard to create Zion universally (at least in my immediate society) without some mayor intervention from Christ …

    But maybe that’s why we haven’t achieved it, because we don’t believe it’s possible, because we don’t believe Christ has the power to do it though us?

  5. One interpretation of the phrase “end of the world” may mean the end of wickedness. In all cases, there really is no end. It is a time to separate the wicked from those the Lord will work with to try again to get a people ready to build a Zion society. There are mini dispensations found in the Book of Mormon such as 3 Nephi.

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