A preterist reading of the gospels argues that everything Jesus said about coming judgment had nothing to do with heaven or hell but everything to do with an imminent historical catastrophe about to take place if Israel did not repent and believe Jesus' good news, that the kingdom of God did not have to be taken violently but was, rather, already in the midst of them, hidden, yes, but growing like a mustard seed.
There is no clearer way to illustrate this point than to trace how Jesus' proclamation of judgment, along with the coming of the Son of Man, was to happen within the generation of those who listened to Jesus' message.
Again, recall how Jesus' kingdom proclamation was that the kingdom was "at hand." And how the advent of the kingdom, with its call for repentance, was bringing a moment of decision to Israel, a choice that John the Baptist described as a "winnowing," a separation between the wheat and the chaff.
For example, in Matthew 10 Jesus commissions his disciples to take the message about the arrival of the kingdom to the towns of Israel (10.7): "And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"
Accompanying this message was the correlated warning about judgment (10.14-15): "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town."
That day of judgment isn't at the end of time, but an impending historical calamity. Jesus goes on to describe the persecution his preachers will face, and he time-stamps the entire experience (10.23): "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."
The Son of Man coming and corresponding day of judgment was expected to happen within the lifespan of disciples being commissioned. In fact, the proclamation in Israel won't have been completed before the coming of the Son of Man. So they better hurry--"Flee to the next town!"--because the clock was ticking.
If there is any ambiguity about this, the Son of Man coming within the generation, it is cleared up a few chapters later in Matthew (and see also the parallel texts Mark 8.38-9.1 and Luke 9.26-27):
Matthew 16.27-28The coming kingdom, the judgment associated with the Day of the Lord, and the Son of Man coming with his angels would all happen within that generation. People alive to hear Jesus' preaching would be around to see it all happen.
"For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
And just so there is no mistake about this, Jesus returns to the point in Matthew 23 (see also Luke 11 and 13) as he pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders of Israel.
Matthew 23.34-36All these things would come upon that generation. The time of crisis was at hand, the message of repentance had been proclaimed but was being rejected. So Jesus weeps (Matthew 23.36-39):
"Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."
"Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.That generation would see the Son of Man returning, but by that point it would be too late.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.
"For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"