How should we understand Revelation?

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The four major views of the end times – postmillennialism, amillennialism, historic premillennialism, and dispensational premillennialism – are based on biblical interpretation and may be found on a scale that ranges from a strict, literal interpretation of scripture to a figurative understanding of biblical passages concerning the Day of the Lord. So how do proponents of these views understand the Book of Revelation?

There are five major interpretations of the so-called Apocalypse of John, but one cannot say, for example, that all postmillennialists hold to a certain interpretation and all premillennialists to another. Nevertheless, in general terms, premillennialists tend to view Revelation through a literal lens, while post- and amillennialists see the text more figuratively.

The five major views of Revelation are: preterist, historicist, futurist, idealist, and eclectic:

  • Preterists see the events of Revelation, for the most part, to have been fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age, either at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. or at both the fall of Jerusalem and later at the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The book was written, preterists say, to comfort Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans and the Jews. Many biblical scholars favor the preterist view.
  • Historicists view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history. This view meshed with the thinking of the Protestant Reformers, who equated the papal system of their day with the Apostle John’s vision of the Antichrist. This view largely has fallen out of favor due to the difficulties of matching historical events to biblical prophecy, requiring constant revision.
  • Futurists argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22. Premillennialists tend to embrace a futurist interpretation of the Apocalypse. And while many scholars favor the preterist view, it may be said that the masses prefer the futurist interpretation.
  • Idealists see Revelation as setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – a battle that continues throughout the church age. Instead of predicting future events, Revelation inspires and encourages believers of all times as they endure persecution at the hands of God’s enemies.
  • Eclectics glean the strengths of the other four views while avoiding their pitfalls. Many leading evangelical scholars today have embraced the eclectic approach, arguing that it provides a balanced approach to scripture.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these interpretations.

The preterist view

Those who hold a preterist (past) perspective of Revelation relate the book to the Apostle John and his immediate audience. In other words, they emphasize that John addresses his writings to  real churches that face real challenges in the first century A.D. John uses symbolic language to tell his readers how God will intervene on their behalf to deliver them from persecution by the Jews and the Romans.

There are two main schools of thought in the preterist camp. The first prefers an earlier date for Revelation and sees the book as a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The beast is Rome and Babylon is unbelieving Israel, which cooperates with Rome in persecuting the church. Armageddon is the siege of Jerusalem. This view, however, is at odds with a multitude of scholars who date John’s apocalyptic writing to the last decade of the first century during the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.) rather than the reign of Nero (54-68 A.D.).

The second school of thought holds that Revelation predicts the fall of the Roman Empire (Babylon the Great) in 476 A.D. and allows for late-first-century authorship. The Roman system comes under judgment for oppressing Christians, who worship God alone, not the emperor. John urges his readers to stay faithful to the Lord and assures them that He will deal harshly with their enemies.

Two historical challenges provided the impetus for Revelation, according to Ken Gentry Jr.:

In the first place, it was designed to steel the first century Church against the gathering storm of persecution, which was reaching an unnerving crescendo of theretofore unknown proportions and intensity. A new and major feature of that persecution was the entrance of imperial Rome onto the scene. The first historical persecution of the Church by imperial Rome was by Nero Caesar from A.D. 64 to A.D. 68. In the second place, it was to brace the Church for a major and fundamental re-orientation in the course of redemptive history, a re-orientation necessitating the destruction of Jerusalem (the center not only of Old Covenant Israel, but of Apostolic Christianity [cp. Ac. 1:8; 2:1ff; 15:2] and the Temple [cp. Mt. 24:1-34 with Rev. 11])” (Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation, pp. 15-16).

The preterist view may be traced to the rise of postmillennialism, which teaches that Jesus Christ will return after the Millennium, a period of peace and blessing brought about by the conversion of the nations as they respond positively to the gospel message. Daniel Whitby (1638-1726), a Unitarian minister in England, generally is credited with developing the postmillennial view.

The historicist view

The historicist approach argues that Revelation provides a prophetic overview of church history from the first century until the return of Christ. This view was especially popular during the Protestant Reformation and was embraced by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other prominent Christian leaders of their day. Reformers identified the Antichrist and Babylon with the pope and Catholicism. More recently, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and Charles Spurgeon advocated a historicist approach to Revelation. Over the years, the so-called “newspaper approach” to apocalyptic literature has led historicist interpreters to identify the Antichrist with figures like Charlemagne, Napolean and Hitler.

Classical or historic dispensationalists generally interpret the letters of Revelation 2-3 using a modified historicist approach. In addition to the immediate and local applications of the letters, many expositors believe the messages to the seven churches picture the chronological development of church history. The letter to Ephesus, for example, seems to describe conditions in the church during apostolic times, while the progression of evil climaxing in Laodicea seems to foreshadow the final state of apostasy that signals the return of Christ.

While the historicist approach helps the interpreter make sense of Revelation, its weaknesses outweigh its singular strength. For example, the historicist approach sees fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies mostly in light of the Western church. In addition, because characters like the beast of Revelation 13 are usually seen as fulfilled in people contemporary to the interpreter, the historicist approach is constantly being modified as new world leaders emerge and new political, economic, social and religious realities come to pass. One final weakness of this view is that it would have held little relevance to the first readers of Revelation. For these reasons, the historicist view has largely fallen out of favor with biblical scholars today.

The futurist view

The futurist approach to Revelation argues that Revelation 4-22 relates primarily to a future time before and after the return of Christ. Rev. 1:19 is seen as a key to the rest of the book: “Therefore write what you have seen [Rev. 1], what is [Rev. 2-3], and what will take place after this [Rev. 4-22].”

Many early church leaders held to some form of the futurist view, but it gave way to the allegorical method of interpreting scripture and the amillennialism of Augustine. But by the Protestant Reformation, and especially by the 19th century, the futurist view made a comeback, and today many evangelical leaders hold to some version of it. Two forms are prominent:

  • Dispensational futurism holds to a very literal interpretation of Revelation and argues that God’s plan of salvation unfolds in stages or dispensations. God elected Israel as His covenant people and has not abandoned them; in fact, there will be national revival in the last days as multitudes of Jews receive Jesus as Messiah. Meanwhile, the church holds a parenthetic place in the plan of God as Gentiles pour into God’s kingdom. At the end of the church age, Christians will be raptured, or removed from the earth, and a seven-year tribulation will follow, during which the Antichrist will rise to power and wage war against believing Jews. Christ will then return, defeat the Antichrist and his armies, and bind Satan for 1,000 years, during which time Jesus will sit on the throne of David and preside over a period of unprecedented – but not perfect – peace. Satan will be loosed for a short time after the Millennium, but Christ will defeat him, cast him into hell, resurrect all unbelievers and summon them before the great white throne. After they are given final judgment and cast into hell, Jesus will create new heavens and a new earth.
  • Historic futurism reads Revelation as prophetic-apocalyptic literature, where the images often represent other realities. Revelation does not unfold in a chronological sequence. This view does not see the church as a parenthesis in God’s work through Israel; rather, the church is the true Israel and the fulfillment of God’s plan. The church will enter the

tribulation before Christ returns to rescue His people and establish His millennial kingdom. Following the defeat of Satan and the final judgment, believers will enjoy eternal life in the new heavens and earth.

Those who challenge the futurist view say it removes Revelation from its original setting so that the book has little meaning for its initial audience. Futurists respond that the second coming of Christ has always been imminent and is therefore relevant at all times throughout the church age.

The idealist view

The idealist view sees Revelation as a symbolic description of the ongoing battle between God and the forces of evil. Instead of predicting future events, Revelation inspires and encourages believers of all times as they endure persecution at the hands of God’s enemies.

This view gained a foothold through the allegorical method of interpretation promoted by church fathers such as Origen and Clement. Along with Augustine’s amellennial view, the idealist view became the dominant interpretation of Revelation for a period stretching from several hundred years after the ascension of Christ until the Reformation. The view is popular today as well among scholars who see Revelation’s meaning neither in church history nor future events, but in the ongoing struggle between God’s people and God’s enemies.

The idealist view points to the symbolic language of Revelation, arguing that the seals, trumpets and bowls are judgments that fall on unbelievers of every age, and anti-Christian leaders of all times are depicted in the beast, false prophet, and Babylon. Meanwhile, the millennium describes the present church age and the prophecies underscore the biblical truth that ultimately God will conquer evil.

This approach to Revelation appreciates the prophetic teachings of John, embraces the theological importance of the book, and highlights the spiritual importance of its message for all Christians throughout the present age. However, it has been criticized for failing to pin any of Revelation’s symbols with historical events. “If there is no particular historical fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation, in what sense are its ideals really relevant?” (Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, C. Marvin Pate, p. 206).

The Eclectic View

This approach tries to combine the strengths of the other views while dodging their weaknesses. It agrees, for example, with preterists that Revelation must have meant something to its first readers; therefore, we should study the historical context carefully. It agrees with futurists that some portions of Revelation await fulfillment; therefore we may wait expectantly for the Lord to defeat evil at a future time. It agrees with idealists that Revelation has a relevant spiritual message for the church of every age; therefore we should seek to mine its depths for insights that have practical application today.

Many leading evangelical scholars today have embraced the eclectic approach, arguing that it provides a balanced approach to scripture and avoids the dangerous tendency to carry any view to extremes.

Much of the information for this article came from the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times by J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, C. Marvin.