Four Ways to Interpret the Book of Revelation

Four Ways to Interpret the Book of Revelation

In the Message/Study/Sermon given at Calvary Chapel Oxnard on Sunday November 20, 2014, I mentioned the, “four main camps about how to understand it” and that I would put up a blog post briefly summarizing them. Here it is . . .

Those four main methods of interpreting the Book of Revelation are the Preterist, Historicist, Idealist, and Futurist interpretive methodologies.

Futurist

The Futurist view understands the Book of Revelation as being a prophecy of events regarding the End Times, and that most of the book has yet to be fulfilled. The Futurist view understands that in the Bible, prophecy speaks of patterns and that there may be several iterations of a prophecy’s fulfillment in history. But these intervening iterations point to a grand climax in which the prophecy finds its culmination. Think of the earlier iterations as foreshocks that harbinger the main quake. The Futurist view understand the majority of Revelation taking place in the Last Days, just prior to the Return of Christ; thus the label ‘futurist.’

Futurists understand the Millennial reign of Christ described in ch. 20 as literal, and that the Second Coming is before the thousand years commences. This is called the “Premillennial” position.

Futurists also believe before Jesus comes again, there will be a seven-year period of Tribulation in which terrible calamities befall Earth in a literal fulfillment of the judgments described in Revelation. [Futurists differ on the meaning and timing of the Rapture.]

Calvary Chapel holds to a Futurist understanding of Revelation, as do a good number of Modern Evangelical churches and groups.

Idealist

The Idealist view is amillennial, meaning they believe there is no literal 1000 years in which Christ rules on Earth. Idealists understand the Millennium as referring to a very long time, and that the visions and symbols of Revelation only refer to the timeless struggle between the forces of good and evil which will go on indefinitely till the end of time.

Since the visions of Revelation aren’t to be understood as being fulfilled in real historical events, either past or future, they’re fulfilled however different Idealist interpreters choose to understand them. This makes the idealist position a grab bag and this has been the great problem of idealist commentators; each has come up with his or her own meaning for the symbols and visions. If these things are meant to be understood in a purely spiritual sense, what’s the code for unlocking them. No idealist has come up with the answer to that, so their attempts to understand the book have been short lived.

Idealism is the position taken by Roman Catholicism and some liberal main-line Protestant denominations.

Historicist

This was the favored position of many of the Reformers and has almost passed from the scene. It holds that the Book of Revelation covered the entire scope of history from the Resurrection of Christ to His Second Coming. As history unfolds, historicist interpreters assign various events of history to the visions and symbols of Revelation.  But as time progresses, they keep [or I should say kept, because it’s not much used today] re-interpreting and re-applying. The historicist view died the death of a thousand interpretations.

Historicism was the interpretive methodology used many Protestant denominations from the 17th through early 20th centuries. When liberalism took hold of some of them, they moved over to the Idealist position.

Preterist

The Preterist position is akin to the Historicist but differs in one crucial point; it sees most of Revelation as being fulfilled in a rather short period of history, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 68-70 AD by the armies of the Roman Generals Vespasian and his son, Titus.

The Preterist view had almost passed from the scene until recently when it received new impetus from several Christian Reconstructionists.

Preterism comes from the Latin word meaning “what is past” and, as I just said, understands most of Revelation as being fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Preterism is postmillennial, meaning they don’t believe in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ. For preterists, the Millennium is just the Bible’s way of saying a long period in which the Church becomes increasingly more influential, and will eventually win, not only the people of earth to faith in Christ, but will redeem the institutions of the Earth, install the Law of God in the Laws of Man, and once the world has been Christianized, then, Jesus will come again to congratulate a victorious Church.

The important thing to remember about Preterists is that they believe all but the last couple chapters of Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD.

Analysis

Because Preterism has experienced a resurgence due to the work of a few well-known Bible teachers, a brief analysis of the position is advised. I say that because inherent in the Preterist position is a dangerous doctrine called Replacement Theology. This doctrine advocates the idea God is finished with the geo-political entity known as Israel and that all His promises given to the Jews and Israel have been transferred over to the Church, which is the New Israel. In other words, the Church has replaced Israel. Calvary Chapel categorically rejects Replacement Theology and sees it as a dangerous position.

The foundational premise for Preterism is found in passages of the New Testament that seem to indicate a “near” fulfillment of End Times prophecy. A good example is Revelation 1:1.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place.

Preterists are vociferous in their demand this phrase is to be understood as a definitive time marker. Preterists maintain when John writes, “things which must shortly take place” he meant those things had to take place within a short time from his writing.

That is certainly one way to understand the text, but it isn’t the necessary or only way to interpret what John is saying. In truth, as we read on into the content of the Revelation, we come to the conclusion it’s NOT the way he meant to be understood. The word ‘shortly’ in Greek is en tachei, which means “quickly or suddenly coming to pass,” indicating rapidity of execution after the beginning takes place.  The idea is not that the event may occur soon, but that when it does, it will be sudden.”[1]

John Walvoord, one of the premier interpreters of the Book of Revelation notes that the similar word tachys is used 7 times in Revelation and is translated as “quickly.” We get our word tachycardia (racing heart) and tachometer from this Greek word. The idea is something that is rapid.

When John writes, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place,” he is saying the things he will go on to describe will unfold in rapid succession. They won’t be spread over hundreds of years; they aren’t to be understood by the idealist or historicist interpretations. On the contrary, they refer to real events that will take place in the future; and when they start, they will follow one on the other in rapid succession. So, this means either the Preterist or Futurist interpretations are correct.

What clinches it for the Futurist view is the date for the Book of Revelation. If the Preterist is right, and the book of Revelation was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, John must have written it before 70AD. Yet we know John received his visions on the island of Patmos, where early church history tells us he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian.[2] That wasn’t till long after 70 AD. When Domitian died in 96 AD, John was allowed to return from exile and lived the rest of his days in Ephesus. So the preterist view of Revelation is refuted by the historical evidence of the timing of John’s imprisonment on Patmos.

One further comment . . .

A concern the modern futurist position stands in danger of is when certain of its leaders say this new technology or that new peace treaty is THE fulfillment of this or that prophecy. When they do that, they make the same error as the Historicists who read endless events as THE fulfillment of prophecy, and ended up dying the death of a thousand interpretive cuts. The Futurist position has already come under fire for assigning the title “Antichrist” to several people, from Popes to diplomats, and form giving dates for Jesus’ return.

While we ought to expect a literal fulfillment of prophecy in world events, we must be careful about making dogmatic “this is that” statements.

[1] Walvoord, Pg. 35 (Luke 18:8 Acts 12:7 22:18 25:4 Rom. 16:20)

[2] Walvoord, pg. 41; Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius all indicate this.