Four Views of Revelation

Due to the highly symbolic language used in the book of Revelation, there are many interpretations. This can and has often led to confusion in understanding the prophecy. But the fact remains that any text must be interpreted based on its context and original meaning while taking into account the time it was written, the audience, and the literary genre. There are four main views for how Revelation should be interpreted – the Idealist View, Historicist View, Preterist View, and Futurist View.
1) Idealist View – the idealist view is sometimes referred to as the spiritual view and describes an allegorical interpretation of Revelation. The view was first posited by the church father Origen (185-254 AD) and later gained more influence with Augustine (354-420 AD). The basic idea is that the imagery set forth in the book of Revelation is about the timeless struggle of good against evil (God vs. Satan), and that none of the vision can be tied to specific historical events. The allegory shows us that while God’s people do suffer, in the end God is victorious. The wars in Revelation can be seen as spiritual warfare or Christian wars in a general sense. Idealists deny any type of predictive prophecy except for the ultimate triumph of God. The advantage of this view is that it frees us from any historical events being applied to the text which make the revelation relevant to any time in church history. In this way it teaches timeless spiritual truths. Of course, understand that this type of view is incredibly problematic. The text of Revelation itself leaves the impression that what is seen is about to take place, “things that must soon takes place.” (1:1). We can see the problems with this view and at the same understand why it is attractive. It releases us from any concrete interpretation and largely leaves the interpretation to the individual to apply however they want. While in principle we should apply the Bible to our lives, we must first understand what it says and what the author intended. When we escape concrete interpretation with allegory that is not intended, we may be surrounded by some good principles, but will be infected with a host of falsehood.
2) Historicist View – the historicist view teaches that Revelation is a symbolic book about the course of history, starting with time of St. John and going all the way to the end of the age. So the historicist sees Revelation as depicting major events in Christian history, but is particular to western European history. This view was very popular during the Reformation when Martin Luther and others claimed the Pope and Roman Church were the beast of Revelation. Another example is how the trumpets of Revelation are interpreted. One idea from this frame of reference is that the first trumpet is the attack of the Goths against the Western Roman empire when Rome was sacked, and the third trumpet was the raid of the Huns under Attila. Other identifications are monks and friars as “locusts”, Elizabeth I as the first bowl, Martin Luther as the angel of Sardis, and on it goes. There are several problems with this view. For one, it tends to cluster events in history in a short period of time, and there is endless speculation on the events of history that have no biblical support whatsoever. So what happens is the interpreter molds the text around history. The critics agree that the weaknesses of the view are many, but can be boiled down to 3 main problems. One, interpretations are only concerned with western church history. Two, the wide and varied interpretations are nothing more than unsupported speculation. And lastly, the “facts” of the view must be reworked with each new period of history.
3) Preterist View – Preter means “past” (from the Latin). The primary belief of this view is that the prophecy of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century. However, there are two different schools of thought within preterism. The two schools are partial preterism and full preterism. Partial preterism views most of the prophecies of Revelation as fulfilled with the destruction of Jersulaem in 70 AD, but see chapters 20-22 as future events. They view the resurrection of believers, the final judgement, and the literal return of Christ to earth as future. The full preterist believes that all of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century and believes that Jesus returned at that time. Some view full preterism as heretical because of its view of the return of Jesus. Pretertist see Matthew 24 as being fulfilled because Jesus said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34). Roughly 40 years later in 70 AD, what Christ said came true with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in a most devastating way by the Romans. Partial preterism has gained much ground in recent times with proponents such as R. C. Sproul. However, one of the chief problems with this view is that it requires the writing of Revelation to be before 70 AD. There has been much debate about this, and I find that the traditional theory placing the time of John’s writing around 95-96 AD to be suspect. The traditional view needs to be revised because it is based on the writing of one church father that has been repeatedly passed down, and it is ambiguous at best. I find it interesting that Will Durant, the author of the classic masterpiece of history, The Story of Civilization, in his volume Caesar and Christ, suggests Revelation was written in 69-70 AD. This is highly problematic for the traditional dating (95-96) and shows how flimsy the late dating of Revelation really is. However, for preterism to work, the date of the writing would need to be around the mid 60s. There is evidence that dating the book in the mid 60s could be correct, but I still think this is a major hurtle that needs more attention. If we can assert with some certainty that this marvelous vision was written prior to the Roman persecution of the Christians under Nero, then I believe the partial preterists have a good case for completely turning our traditional beliefs about Revelation on its head. The reality is the book makes much more sense from this point of view. However, I think the dating issue must be resolved before the majority of people will endorse this view.
4) Futurist View – Futurism is exactly what you would expect, it holds to a future fulfillment of most of Revelation. Typically, futurists believe chapter 1-3 are “in the present”, but starting with chapter 4 to the end of the book, it reveals a future fulfillment of events that have not taken place. As with preterism, there really are two forms of futurism, dispensationalism and classic premillennialism. Dispensationalism is very popular today and is the modern form of futurism – as we have seen in the books and movies, Left Behind. Dispensationalism teaches that God works though dispensations of time that focus on God’s covenant people, Israel. This view makes a clear distinction between the Jews and Christians in eschatological theology, and considers the church age as a “parenthesis” in God’s plan. Dispensational futurism demonstrates that there will be a 7-year tribulation in the future when the Antichrist will reveal himself and usher in the great tribulation. The Church will be raptured up to heaven at the beginning of this time, escaping the catastrophic events. After the tribulation is over Christ will return and set up a literal millennial reign (1000 years). The hallmark of this view is the literal interpretation of Scripture, including symbolic books like Revelation. Although classic premillennialism has fallen out of favor, it shouldn’t have. It is a futurist approach, but actually carries much more Biblical weight. In this classical approach, dispensations are not used, but Christ does return after the tribulation to set up the millennial kingdom, however the entire Church and the nation of Israel go through the tribulation period. And in this view Christ only returns once. While both dispensationalism and classic premillennialism are futurist approaches, they have major differences. Modern dispensational theology is not classic at all, it actually started in the 1800s. While I am only giving a summary here, dispensationalism is quite complicated and confusing. It requires Jesus to return (second coming) more than once, something unheard of in historic Christianity (and the Bible!). The truth is there are many problems with dispensational theology, but it is very popular because of its escapism approach.

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