For the past few days I have been focusing on some of the difficult elements in the Olivet Discourse that seem to counter the preterist interpretation. Today I would like to focus on the great tibulation as the worst-ever catastrophe. Since I am arguing that the great tribulation occurred in the first century, I must deal with the natural question that arises?
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).
(2) 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.