Summary of the Approaches to the Book of Revelation

Summary of the Approaches to the Book of Revelation

Section 9: The End Times

Digging Deeper: Summary of the Approaches to the Book of Revelation

When we talk about the end times, the book of Revelation is the first thing that comes to mind for many of us. There are a number of other biblical books and passages that address the end times, yet Revelation is the one that captures our imagination the most. It is a notoriously difficult book to understand though. The imagery is highly symbolic. As a result, the book has been interpreted in many different ways throughout the history of the Church. Despite the wide variety of specific interpretations, there are four basic interpretive approaches.  

The Preterist Approach

Most people think of Revelation as painting a picture of future events. But not everyone looks at the book that way. Some theologians believe Revelation depicts events that happened in the past. Most often those events are thought to be associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Roman Empire. This view is typically referred to as the preterist approach (the prefix “preter-” means past).

Although most scholars believe Revelation was written in the late 90s AD, preterists argue the book was written much earlier in the late 60s AD. The destruction of Jerusalem, therefore, is thought to have occurred shortly after the book was written. Preterists believe this explains why John was frequently told the events he was witnessing would happen soon. 

To support their position, preterists point to the fact that Revelation 1:7 says,

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.”

Preterists note coming with the clouds, “is common prophetic parlance for historical divine judgments on nations.”[i] In this case, the judgment is aimed at those who pierced Christ. Preterists argue this is an obvious reference to “first-century Jews who demanded his crucifixion”[ii] Preterists, therefore, see Revelation as a dramatic picture of God’s judgment on the city of Jerusalem and its people for “crucifying his Son, their Messiah.”[iii]

Preterists also argue that a first-century time frame makes sense of the fact that John is writing to “specific, historical churches (1:4, 11; 2:1-3:22) about their present dire circumstances.”[iv] These churches were undergoing intense persecution at the time. In light of those difficulties, when John says they only have to wait “a little while longer” (6:10-11), “He would be taunting them mercilessly if he were discussing events two thousand or more years distant.”[v]

Preterists also point to similarities between the book of Revelation and the Olivet Discourse where Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions about his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). Since we know the Temple was destroyed in AD. 70, preterist believe we should interpret the events in the Olivet Discourse and Revelation as taking place during that time period.[vi]

Additionally, we know a lot about the destruction of Jerusalem from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Many see similarities between his account and the descriptions in both the Olivet Discourse and Revelation. The circumstances of women and children during the siege of Jerusalem, for example, were horrible and we know famine was widespread. It was so bad, Josephus records an account of a woman killing her own baby and roasting it for food.[vii]

When all was said and done and the Roman army had demolished and ransacked the city, Josephus estimated more than one million Jews had been killed.  Though scholars agree that number must have been exaggerated for effect, Josephus’ final assessment was that the destruction of Jerusalem and its people was so horrible that every other misfortune from the beginning of the world paled in comparison.[viii] That echoes Jesus’ prediction:

“For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again (Matt 24:21).”

According to the preterist, there is no need to look for some future time of great distress because it already happened.

The Futurist Approach

It should come as no surprise, the futurist approach looks at the book of Revelation in a completely different light. It assumes the book of Revelation has a basic chronological structure with most of the book describing events that will happen in the future. Much of the book, for example, focuses on a future period of when God’s judgment will be poured out on the world (Rev. 6-19). At the end of this period Christ will return and reign on earth for 1000 years (Rev. 20) prior to ushering in the new creation (Rev. 21-22).[ix]

Futurists see Rev. 1:19 as an interpretive guide.

“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later.”

Many futurists believe “what you have seen” corresponds to the vision John was given in Rev 1:1-18. “What is now” refers to the circumstances of the historical churches in Rev. 2-3. And “What will take place later” refers to future end times events depicted in Rev. 4 – 22.[x]

One of the distinctives of the futurist approach is that many of its adherents interpret the book much more literally than those who hold to the other views. Although futurists acknowledge the book of Revelation contains a lot of symbolism, they typically argue that when John intends us to take something symbolically, he explains the meaning of the symbolism for us. In light of that fact, we shouldn’t take an image to be symbolic unless the symbolism is explained by John somewhere else.[xi]

Rev. 7:1-8 for example says:

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,

From the tribe of Reuben 12,000,

From the tribe of Gad 12,000,

From the tribe of Asher 12,000,

From the tribe of Naphtali 12,000,

From the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,

From the tribe of Simeon 12,000,

From the tribe of Levi 12,000,

From the tribe of Issachar 12,000,

From the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,

From the tribe of Joseph 12,000,

From the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.

Some scholars see this as a symbolic representation of all believers. Many futurists, however, interpret it as a literal reference to the tribes Israel. Therefore, the passage is taken to be a picture of a faithful remnant within ethnic Israel who will come to faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation.[xii] 

The Historicist Approach

Rather than depicting events of specific time in the past or future, the historicist approach sees Revelation as painting a picture of the whole sweep of Church history in broad strokes.[xiii] Thus historicists have seen Revelation as depicting events such as the barbarian invasion of Rome, the rise and corruption of the Catholic Church, the expansion of Islam, the French Revolution, etc.[xiv] Although this view doesn’t have many adherents today, it was popular among the Protestant Reformers, who saw the pope in the description of the Beast/Antichrist in Rev. 13.[xv] A major difficulty with this approach was that it led to many different, even conflicting interpretations. The tendency was for interpreters to see Revelation as culminating in their own time. The problem with that was, as events within Church history continued to move on, constant revisions were required to accommodate new events. Eventually, it became more and more difficult to tie historical events to specific images within Revelation. As a result, this approach fell out of favor.[xvi] 

The Idealist Approach

The preterist, futurist, and historicist approaches all tie the book of Revelation to history in some way. Idealists approach the book of Revelation differently. They see the book as “a symbolic portrayal of the conflict between good and evil, between the forces of God and of Satan.”[xvii]

The idealist argues this makes sense of the symbolic nature of the book. They also point to the difficulty most interpreters have had trying to tie the various images to specific events – whether in the past or future.

[i] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “A Preterist View of Revelation” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and C. Marvin Pate ed.,  Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1998), 47

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 46.

[iv] Ibid., 42.

[v] Ibid., 42-43.

[vi] Ibid., 48.

[vii] C. Marvin Pate, “A Progressive Dispensationalist View of Revelation” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and C. Marvin Pate ed.,  Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1998), 153.

[viii] Ibid., 152.

[ix] Steve Gregg , Revelation: Four Views – A Parallel Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville (1997), 40.

[x] Robert L. Thomas, “A Classical Dispensationalist View of Revelation” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and C. Marvin Pate ed.,  Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1998), 186. 

[xi] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: Commentary on the Greek, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, (1999), 54.

[xii] Thomas, 196.

[xiii] Beale, 46.

[xiv] Gregg, 34-37.

[xv] Ibid., 34. 

[xvi] Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and C. Marvin Pate ed.,  Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1998), 18.

[xvii] Beale, 48.


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