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THE ABOMINATION DESOLATION

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

For those who study prophesy for fun and profit, the Lord’s Olivet Discourse becomes a favorite toy. They pick it up of its context then run over to the newspapers to see which prophecy is occurring this day. One of their favorite elements in their view of the future is the “abomination of desolation.” Multi-jillion-selling books have been written on this topic. What does the preterist-postmillennialist make of it?

A big question that arises when considering the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24 is: when was the “abomination of desolation?” Matthew 24:15 states: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place.” This prophecy is often associated with a world-ruling Antichrist in the future.

This must also occur in the first century, however, for the following reasons: (1) This “abomination” stands in the “holy place,” i.e., the temple standing immediately before them (cp. Matt 23:38—24:2). (2) His audience could imagine no other locality, for Jerusalem is the “holy city” (Neh 11:1, 18; Isa 48:2; 52:1; Dan 9:24; Matt 4:5; 27:53) (3) Christ is responding to questions pertaining to that very temple (cf. Matt 24:1, 2). He even points to the temple as he answers. That holy place will be dismantled by the Roman soldiers within forty years, a generation.

The “abomination of desolation” is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by pagan Roman armies. Luke’s parallel account makes this clear. He takes Matthew’s Hebraic language and interprets it for his Gentile audience:  “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand” (Luke 21:20). He tells us what the abomination is: Jerusalem being surrounded by Roman armies for the purpose of decimating her temple.

The Romans encircle Jerusalem on at least two occasions: under Vespasian in the initial siege and later under Titus not long before the Temple’s final destruction. Of Vespasian’s siege Josephus comments:

And now the war having gone through all the mountainous country, and all the plain country also, those that were at Jerusalem were deprived of the liberty of going out of the city; for as to such as had a mind to desert, they were watched by the zealots; and as to such as were not yet on the side of the Romans, their army kept them in, by encompassing the city round about on all sides. (J.W.,  4:9:1)

Josephus writes that later Titus builds “a wall round about the whole city” (J.W. 5:12:1). After the first surrounding, the Christians are to flee from Judea. In God’s providence, Vespasian withdraws from the siege when Nero dies; the Christians now have the opportunity to escape.  Eusebius notes that

The people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Eccl. Hist. 3:5:3; cp. Matt 24:16; Epiphanius, De pond. 15)

When the Roman soldiers finally obtain the upper hand in the temple, Josephus records how they raise their ensigns in the temple, bow to their to pagan deity, and offer incense to Caesar:

The Romans upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings lying round about it, brought their ensigns to the Temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy. (J.W. 6:6:1)

Third, was A.D. 70 the worst catastrophe ever? Matthew 24:21 reads: “Then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” But what about WW I or WW II? Surely they are much worse than the first-century Jewish War in Israel. When we consider this in its biblical context, however, ample information supports my conclusion that A. D. 70 is in view. Note the following points.

(1) Matthew 24:34 states that “all these things” shall occur in “this generation” — and verse 21 is one of “these things.” (2) Furthermore, is not Noah’s Flood even worse than the supposed future great tribulation — which Jesus even mentions in the context (Matt 24:37–39)? In Noah’s Flood the entire human population perishes, except for one family (1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5).

(3) To understand Jesus properly we must grasp the use of hyperbole in Old Testament apocalyptic language. Very often we find that judgment language in prophetic discourse is formulaic, stock-in-trade, highly stylized, poetic language. For instance, in Exodus 11:6 we read these words regarding the tenth plague on Egypt: “Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again?” Which is it? Is the great tribulation the worst judgment, or is the tenth plague upon Egypt the worst?

In Ezekiel 5:9 we read of the Old Testament destruction of the temple by the Babylonians: “I will do among you what I have never done, and the like of which I will never do again, because of all your abominations?” But in Matthew 24 it happens again. This is apocalyptic, poetic, dramatic imagery. This is even used outside of such dramatically-framed circumstances, as in the praise of kings (cp. 2 Kgs 18:5 with 2 Kgs 23:25). Jesus’ declaration in verse 21 is dramatic speech emphasizing the remarkable nature of this event; it is not meant literally.

By the way, I am sorry for the photo of Ahmadinejad. But it was the only way I could get a dispenationalist to lay down his Left Behind novel and give this a read.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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