What is the right way to interpret Revelation?
Few biblical topics have captured the imagination of contemporary evangelicals like the book of Revelation. The recent unprecedented success of the Left Behind series is evidence of this popular fascination. Many evangelicals don’t realize that the futuristic interpretation of Revelation advocated in this popular series is only one of several interpretations evangelicals espouse. Here’s the major views scholars take of the book of Revelation.
The Preterist View
The term preterist comes from the Latin word praeteritus, which means, “gone by.” The preterist interpretation of Revelation holds that the events spoken of in this book were all specifically fulfilled in the first century. This view has precedent in the early church, but it did not become widespread until the nineteenth century. With the advent of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, it became the dominant interpretation among New Testament scholars, though it has been less popular among evangelical scholars.
According to preterism, Revelation is a heavily symbolic, apocalyptic and prophetic book that was written primarily to warn readers of impending persecution, to encourage them to persevere in the face of suffering, and to reassure them that God is in control and will overcome evil in the end. Preterists argue that most of the symbolic events in this book can be correlated with first-century figures and events. For example, “the beast” likely refers to Nero, whose “number” is 666 (the numerical value of “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew [NRWN QSR]). Similarly, the forty-two months of his horrifying reign (13:5) happen to be the exact duration of the Roman siege on Jerusalem beginning in A.D. 66.
In defense of their position, preterists contend that we must not abandon sound hermeneutical principles when we consider Revelation. As with every book in the Bible, we must attempt to read Revelation from the perspective of the first-century Christians to whom it was originally written. Revelation was written to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) about matters that “must soon take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3, cf. 22:6, 10). Throughout the book, there is an urgency for the readers to respond quickly (e.g., 2:16; 3:10–11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20). According to preterists, these statements require that we look for fulfillments in the lifetime of the original audience. (They argue the same for Jesus’ pronouncement of impending doom in Matthew 24 [and parallels], for Jesus explicitly states “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened,” vs. 34). The spiritual themes of Revelation are timeless, these scholars argue, but the specific events of which this book speaks were all fulfilled in the first century.
The Idealist View
Many Christians throughout history held to the idealist (sometimes called the spiritualist) interpretation of the book of Revelation, and many evangelicals today continue to support this view. What is most distinctive about the idealist interpretation is that it denies that the events and figures recorded in this book have a direct correlation either with events and figures in the past (as the preterist believes) or the future (as the futurist believes). To search for such specific fulfillments, they argue, is to fundamentally misunderstand the apocalyptic genre of this book. Revelation should be read as a heavily symbolic dramatization of the ongoing battle between God and evil.
According to the idealist view, Revelation is a spiritual paradigmatic work that summons Christians to faithful living in the face of persecution and reassures believers that, however dire their circumstances, God will win in the end and their perseverance will be rewarded. Hence, the multitude of symbols employed in this book, most of which are drawn directly from the Old Testament, are in various ways “fulfilled” whenever Christians find themselves in spiritual conflict.
Idealists defend their interpretation on a number of fronts. Most emphasize that the nature of the apocalyptic genre does not require and may actually rule out locating specific correlations with the symbols it employs. They frequently point out that attempts to find such fulfillments in the past, and even more so in the future, are guesses at best. They often argue that absurdity results from attempts to interpret Revelation literally (e.g., Rev. 6:13; 8:12; 12:4). Perhaps most importantly, they emphasize that the spiritual application of this book’s message does not hinge on and may even be compromised by trying to locate specific fulfillments for the dramatizations it presents.
One weakness of this view, in my opinion, is that it can’t easily account for the specific historical churches to which this book was addressed — “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) — and the repeated emphasis that the events about which it speaks “must soon take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3, cf. 22:6, 10). Nor can it easily account for the repeated warning for readers to respond quickly (e.g., 2:16; 3:10–11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20).
The Futurist View
By far, the view that is most popular among the evangelical masses today is the futurist view (sometimes called the dispensational view). According to this view, almost all of Revelation (chapters 4–22) records events that will take place at the end of time. While many early church fathers believed segments of Revelation concerned the end of history, the understanding that the bulk of this book concerns the end of history is almost without precedent until the nineteenth century.
A key verse for the futurist interpretation is 1:19, in which the Lord tells John, “Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.” According to most futurists, “what you have seen” refers to the vision recorded in chapter 1. “What is” refers to the seven letters written to the seven churches in Asia minor in his day, recorded in chapters 2 and 3. “What is to take place after this” refers to all the end-times events recorded throughout the rest of the book (chapters 4–22). While there is disagreement about this matter, the fact that the church is not mentioned in these chapters leads many futurists to conclude that these events will occur after the “rapture,” when, according to futurists, the church is literally taken out of the world (1 Thess. 4:16–17).
Futurists usually grant that there are apocalyptic elements in Revelation that cannot be interpreted literally, but they insist that Revelation is first and foremost a prophecy (1:3). The things that will take place are literal events that have yet to be fulfilled. Indeed, futurists argue that many of the events prophetically recorded in this book are such that they could not have taken place before modern times (e.g., the reference to an army numbering two hundred million in 9:16).
These three options do not exhaust the possible interpretations of Revelation. In the late Middle Ages, for example, a number of leaders entertained what is sometimes called a historicist interpretation of Revelation. According to this view, Revelation records the gradual unfolding of God’s plan for history up to the present. A majority of Protestant Reformers held to a version of this view. They viewed Revelation as a prophetic survey of church history and used this interpretation to argue that the pope of their day was the Antichrist. While one finds occasional popular commentaries yet espousing some version of this approach, it has fallen far out of favor with evangelicals.
Some scholars combine the preterist and idealist interpretations. In this view, the symbolic dramatizations of Revelation have first-century correlations, but they are written with paradigmatic significance. For example, Nero may in fact have been the specific Antichrist referred to in Revelation 13:8, but the reference to him is cosmic in significance, covering all Antichrist movements that resist God’s purposes in the world.
Other scholars have sought to combine elements of all three views. They say that the dramatic events of Revelation have been fulfilled, are continuing to be fulfilled, and will at the end of time be climatically fulfilled as the Lord concludes history and ushers in his reign as king.
For my part, I find the arguments for the preterist reading of Revelation quite compelling, though I also believe there are paradigmatic spiritual truths found throughout the book, as the idealist camp argues. The futurist interpretation not only does not impress me; it frankly concerns me, since it easily leads to sincere Christians wasting time trying to read this book like it is a cryptic horoscope of the future. This is tantamount to divination, which the Bible strictly forbids. I also worry that the bizarre apocalyptic pronouncements of some national Christian leaders, combined with the even more bizarre attempts of some to affect world politics on this basis (as some Zionist Christians have recently tried to do) justify non-believers dismissing Christianity as foolishness.
Two good books defending the preterist view are: D. Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation ( Dominion, 1987); K. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: The Dating of the Book of Revelation (Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).
For several good defenses of the idealist (or spiritualist) interpretation, see L. Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Eerdmans, 1969) and M. Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (InterVarsity Press, 1975).
For an overview of the four main views espoused by evangelicals, see M. Pate, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 1998). For an interesting commentary on Revelation that fairly presents the interpretation of various views, see S. Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nelson, 1997).