“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” Revelation 1:3 (NASV)
Interpreting the book of Revelation generally follows one of four principle views. This article profiles these four views. Let me begin by sharing that I enjoy astronomy. I have a quality scope and an assortment of eyepieces and colored filters/lenses. Though the scope does not change, the eyepiece and colored filter/lens I choose to look through determines whether I see Jupiter as a small white ball (like a small moon), or as a large, majestic yellowish banded planet with a famous storm spot and multiple moons. In the same way, the approach (lens) one takes to read the book of Revelation will determine what they see in the book (and how that applies to their life). This article will profile the four primary ways to interpret the book of Revelation and will include a recommendation and links to follow-up study resources.
1. The Idealist view
The first view or approach to interpreting the book of Revelation is the idealist view. This approach prioritizes using an allegorical method for interpretation. The second-century church father, Origen (185-254 AD) introduced this method. It was later made more prominent by the notable Bishop, Augustine (AD 354-420). According to this method of interpretation, the events in the book of Revelation are NOT referring to (or linked to) particular historical happenings. The writing is viewed as poetic—symbolically representing the epic struggle of good versus evil (God versus Satan). In this battle, the followers of God are oppressed and persecuted, but will one day receive their reward. In this struggle good will triumph. Robert Mounce summarizes the idealist view stating, “Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.” The concerns with interpreting the book of Revelation via the idealist view include:
1) It puts the book of Revelation in a unique category as the canon of Scripture includes no other books written in that format.
2) It minimizes a call to action, and the need to prepare for future tribulation events as the references in Revelation that pertain to such things are thought to be symbolic or allegorical.
3) Though at times endorsed by prominent church leaders, this view has never been widely accepted by the Christian Church.
2. Two Preterist views
The second approach to interpreting the book of Revelation is the Preterist view. Preter is a Latin term meaning, “past.” There are two primary views within the Preterist approach to interpretation (full Preterism and partial Preterism). In general, both Preterist views hold that the book of Revelation profiles past events, and that the predictions presented by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) are prophecies fulfilled primarily by the fall of Jerusalem (which took place in 70 AD). According to this view, Revelation 1-3 profiles the conditions in seven first century churches in Asia Minor before the Jewish war (AD 66-70), and chapters 4-22 (and Matthew 24-25) profiles the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. Detailed below are the two Preterist views:
- Full Preterists believe that the fulfillment of all prophecies recorded in the book of Revelation took place by 70 AD (this includes prophecies in the Olivet Discourse [Matthew 24-25] and all prophecies in the book of Revelation). Further, full Preterists hold that humans are now living in a redeemed state, referenced in Revelation as the new heavens and the new earth.
- Partial Preterists believe that the fulfillment of most of the prophecies recorded in the book of Revelation took place between 66—70 AD (during the Jewish-Roman war and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem). However, partial Preterists hold that the final three chapters in the book of Revelation allude to future events. Partial Preterists await the return of Jesus Christ (a view rejected by full Preterists). The partial Preterist method of interpretation is the more widely accepted of the two Preterist views. This method of interpretation has been endorsed by notable scholars as R. C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, Kenneth Gentry, and the late David Chilton (Note: Hank Hanegraaff and David Chilton rejected this position later in life). Concerns with the Preterist positions include:
1) Biblical references record that future tribulations would be markedly different than any other time in history (which was not the case with 66-70 AD happenings).
2) The full Preterist position does not anticipate the glorious return/appearing of Jesus Christ.
3. The Historicist view
The third approach to interpreting the book of Revelation is the Historicist view. This approach holds that the material in the book of Revelation is symbolic—representing historical events that will take place in the future. These events include the rise of various popes, future empires, and rulers, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, etc. This position holds that references to the Beast and Antichrist are not to be understood literally.
Many who hold this view believe chapters 1-3 represent seven periods in church history (beginning with the first-century church and ending with the tribulation period). Further, this position holds that:
- The Seals in chapters 4-7 symbolize the fall of the Roman Empire.
- The Trumpet judgments in chapters 8-10 represent various invasions of the Roman Empire.
- The Antichrist represents the Pope, chapters 11-13 point to the struggle between the Protestant church and Roman Catholicism.
- Chapters 14-16 depict divine judgment on the Catholic Church.
- Chapters 17-19 represent the future demise of Catholicism.
Prominent scholars who have used this approach to interpret the book of Revelation include Martin Luther, George Whitefield, John Wycliffe, John Calvin, John Knox, William Tyndale, Charles Finney, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Ulrich Zwingli, C. H. Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry. This view rose to popularity during the time of the Protestant Reformation because of its identification of the Pope as being evil, and the great persecution of Protestants by the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, since the beginning of the twentieth century, this view has declined in prominence and is no longer the primary approach to interpreting the book of Revelation.
4. The Futurist view
The fourth approach to interpreting the book of Revelation is the Futurist view. This position holds that the prophetic events profiled in the Olivet Discourse and book of Revelation (particularly chapters 4-22) will occur in the future. In general Futurists use Revelation 1:19 as a guide to divide the book of Revelation into three sections: 1) “what you have seen” 2) “what is now (present) and 3) “what will take place later.” According to this school of thought, chapter 1 is a presentation of the past (“what you have seen”), chapters 2-3 are a presentation of the present (“what is now”), and the remaining chapters profile future events (“what will take place later”).
Futurists apply a literal approach to interpreting the book of Revelation. The tribulation period (as profiled in chapters 4-19) is 2520 days or 7 (Hebrew) years. The seven-year tribulation period is viewed as Daniel’s 70th week (Dan. 9:27). During the tribulation, the earth will experience 21 particular judgments of God (divided into sets of seven and depicted as seals, trumpets, and bowls). The Antichrist and future global system that he leads (see chapter 13) are to be understood literally, as are the battles of Armageddon, the return of Christ, and the millennial kingdom. This position (and perhaps incorporation of some aspects of the Historists view—such as thinking that the seven churches in the book of Revelation could reference actual first-century churches and seven future periods of church history) is the primary approach to interpreting the book of Revelation today.
One of the key arguments in support of the Futurist view is the date of the writing of the book of Revelation. Preterists argue for a pre-AD 70 date while futurists hold to a date of approximately 95 AD. There are good reasons to argue for a later date. For example, Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, states that John wrote Revelation at the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, which ended in 96 AD. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He thus had a connection with a contemporary of the Apostle John.
Another argument for the Futurist view is that the conditions of the seven churches in Revelation appear to describe a second-generation church, rather than a first-generation church. For example, John charged the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) with abandoning their first love and warned against embracing the Nicolaitan heresy. If John had written the book of Revelation in 65 AD (as Preterists allege), the book would have overlapped the timeline of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Timothy. However, in the Apostle Paul’s writing, there is no mention of either the loss of a first love or the threat of the Nicolaitans. Ephesus was Paul’s base of ministry for three years—surely such grave issues would have been mentioned by him. Also, the church of Smyrna did not exist during Paul’s ministry (60-64 AD). Polycarp, the first bishop of that city, documents this. It is also important to note that Jesus rebuked the Laodicean church in Revelation chapter 3 for being “lukewarm.” However, when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians (near Laodicea), he commends the church three times (2:2, 4:13, 16). It is true that Paul wrote the book of Colossians a few years earlier than the early date Preterists suggest for the book of Revelation. However, it would likely take more than three years for the Laodicean church to decline such that there were no commendable attributes in the church in Revelation 3. Also, an earthquake in 61 AD left the region in ruins for some years. Thus, it is unlikely that in a ruined condition John would describe them as rich.
Preterists who argue for the 70 AD date for the writing of the book of Revelation pose the questions, “Why doesn’t John mention the fall of the Temple in the book of Revelation?” and, “Why does John reference the temple in Revelation 11 if the temple was destroyed 25 years earlier?” Futurists respond to these questions by noting that John’s focus is future, not past events. Also, John was writing to a Gentile audience in Asia Minor, which probably was not overly distressed about a happening concerning Hebrews in Jerusalem, 25 years in the past. Concerning the temple reference in chapter 11—Futurists argue that a reference to the temple does not imply that it existed at the time of his writing, but rather, it is a reference to a prophesied third temple (see Daniel 9:26-27; Ezekiel 40-48).
As the structure of the Bible is much more transformational rather than informational, most scholars today encourage a futurist approach to interpreting the book of Revelation. The Bible is not simply a record of what was—it is living Word that calls believers to action today, and provides insight into how God will work in the future. The futurist approach, more than the other approaches to interpretation, compliments the structure and spirit of the whole of Scripture by facilitating an interpretation of the text that exhorts, engages, and encourages those who study the book.
Even if one does not hold to the futurist approach to interpreting the book of Revelation, there is no doubt the world is not at rest, and that there will be turmoil and troubles in the days to come. Those who do not believe in a rapture or a second coming must still believe that a time of judgment and accounting is coming. The call is to be ready. Have you committed to being ALL IN for Him? (which means you are committed to making serving Him, growing in Him and witnessing for Him the priority of your life). God expects believers to be active in “well doing” (Galatians 6:9). The “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) calling applies to all believers. Pray today that God will grant you great wisdom as you study His Word and that you will be all that God has called and equipped you to be.
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