Question: Some evangelicals hold that Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13 refer to the end of world and the second coming of Christ. I actually think that they refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and nothing else. The events of the sun, moon, and stars in those passages are symbols for governments, rulers, and authorities. The same language is used in Isa. 13:9–13, 19, referring to the fall of Babylon; in Isa. 34:4 to describe God's wrath against the nations; in Ezek. 32:7 with respect to the fall of Egypt. They are not referring to some cosmic destruction. The reference to one coming on the clouds, in my opinion, is a figurative expression that refers to the intervention of God to judge and punish. You can find similar language in Isa. 19:1 and Ps. 104:3. These Old Testament passages were fulfilled in theory and referred to punishments of nations and not cosmic events. On the other hand, what about Jesus' recommendations regarding those who were pregnant, that their flight not take place in winter or on the Sabbath? It seems like that would only make sense in that generation. And then we have what Paul of Tarsus mentions about the end of the world in 2 Thess. 1:6–10: "For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power, when he comes to be glorified in his saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed."
AP: What you write is well established as prophetic history. But you forget one very important thing: the evolution of Jewish thought after the Babylonian Exile and especially the rise of Apocalyptic in the era of Hellenism. That changes the prophetic perspective and heavily focuses it on the end of world. You also forget that both Jesus and Paul expressly say the end is near. The first Christians saw the destruction of Jerusalem as the beginning of the end and shaped these discourses of Jesus accordingly, no doubt. But they left intact the message about the end, which was original to Jesus' teaching.
TWH: Since Antonio has a short answer, I'm going to keep mine short too. Obviously I am one of those evangelicals that believes the Olivet Discourse refers to the events immediately preceding the end of the world. Jesus warns of false Christs, wars, earthquakes, and other signs that will mark the time. He warns his disciples to not be deceived by the false Christs, and describes what will happen immediately following a period of time where their activity will be heightened and unprecedented. I suppose one major question might be, "Why does Jesus tell this to his disciples, if it's going to be at least two millennia before these events transpire?" That's a great question. First, Jesus indicates that he is not privy to the exact time when these events will take place (at least he wasn't prior to his death and resurrection) (cf. Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7). In Matt. 24:36 he indicates that he doesn't even know the exact time; in Acts 1:7 he indicates that such information is not granted to the disciples (he leaves himself out in this verse, which at least opens up the possibility that he is granted that information after he is raised from the dead). So the Olivet Discourse needs to be approached from that standpoint. Jesus is teaching them because (1) he knows his return could be at any time, whenever the Father has so determined, and (2) he knows that they will be responsible for transmitting his teachings to subsequent disciples (Matt. 28:19–20).
Regarding whether these are cosmic events, I would just say that hermeneutical principles that allow for large amounts of symbolization generally frighten me. There is definitely symbolism in the Old and New Testament. There's no question about that. But how far are we going to take it? In my opinion, take the literal interpretation unless absolutely unable to do so. For example, Jesus promised that there would be false Christs during that time, many in fact. He also said that he was going to come from heaven to earth, which is known as the Second Coming. Both of those elements are going to take place. The reference to the "stars" as heavenly beings, not earthly institutions, I think can be established from looking at other apocalyptic literature and the Revelation by John. The events outlined in Daniel 7 will take place. The Ancient of Days will present to the Son of Man a kingdom and the Son of Man will come and reign. Jesus has yet to inherit the kingdom that was promised to David (2 Samuel 7). That kingdom was a kingdom on earth, not a spiritual kingdom. And he must sit on David's throne as the descendent of David and rightful heir. One final comment regarding fulfillment of some passages in the prophets. Sometimes there seems to be a "near" and a "far" fulfillment.