Eldon Ladd's answer is summarised in two basic points:
- It will be when the nations have had the gospel preached to them (been evangelised)
- Nobody except God knows when that has been done - all we know is that we have not preached it enough yet
This answer is reached by Ladd by:
- interpreting Matthew 24:14 ("And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.") to refer to the end of the space-time cosmos, and
- using it as an interpretive guide to the Great Commission
It stands out to me that when Eldon Ladd quotes the Great Commission (towards the end of the quote), he omits the crucial words: make disciples and teaching them to obey all things that I commanded you. Ladd's commission is "make sure the world hears the gospel"; but Jesus' actual commission was "make sure the world believes and obeys the gospel" - a rather striking difference.
To be sure, it would be hard to know if the nations have been evangelised enough, or not. But it's rather less hard to look at the nations and then answer the question: "So, has the church discipled these nations such that they submit to the will of the almighty Lord Jesus? Do they now obey the things which Jesus gave the original twelve to pass on to them?" Obviously, the answer to that question is not hard at all: it is "no, no, they don't, not yet". Again, there is some validity in Ladd's point - who can say precisely at what point such obedience has reached the mark Jesus had in mind? There is no tension here, in the same way that a man commissioned to "build a really high sky scraper" may not know just how many floors the owner had in mind, whilst also being sure that since so far he's only paved the parking lot and dug the foundations, he's certainly not got there yet.
Ladd's error is in conflating the end of the Jewish age with the end of the world. Yet, Matthew 24 does not make it difficult to discern which age Matthew 24:14 was referring to (the one that the disciples were then living in!):
- Here is Matthew 24:1-3, which sets the context for Jesus' speech: "1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”" The disciples asked Jesus about the destruction of the temple - an event that history records happened in AD70 - and the end of the age. There is no evidence in the Bible (or outside, that I know of) that contemporary Jews thought that the destruction of the temple necessarily meant the end of the space-time cosmos. To imagine this concept in the disciples' minds is anachronistic. Rather, the destruction of the temple would signify the end of the then-existing dispensation of Judaism as then configured, ruled by corrupt Sadducees and Pharisees, and presided over by the semi-pagan Herod. That "coming" that the disciples, as all the gospel evidence shows as they puzzled and questioned, looked for was Jesus' ascension to kingship over Israel and over the nations. They were not thinking of the end of the cosmos, but of the Messiah taking his rule.
- In Matthew 24:34, Jesus said "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." In Matthew, "generation" always refers to those Jews then living (Matthew 11:16, 12:39-45, 16:4, 17:17, 23:36). And as a matter of historical fact, the temple was destroyed during that generation's life time, approximately 40 years later. Ladd's point of view was that "generation" meant "the Jewish race", which would make for an absurd statement. Are we supposed to imagine that Jesus answered the question "please, just when will the temple be destroyed?" with the utterly redundant and vacuous non-answer, "it will be whilst there are still Jews in existence" ? Not much of an answer, is it?
In context, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus was explaining the "mini-apocalypse": the destruction of the theocracy and the end of the then-existing world order. To be sure, it is an anticipation of the mega-pocalypse - the end of all things - and its shape foreshadows it. And it would not happen until the gospel had been declared throughout the nations (those that were accessible from Judea in those times). And indeed, it did not, as Paul later declared (Colossians 1:6). But to simply bear a testimony was not the Great Commission. Our task as Christians is not just to shout out the words so that the world has opportunity to hear them. Our duty is to disciple them, so that they learn to obey. Our duty is to see the world brought under the fruitful dominion of the Last Adam, through his cross and resurrection.