The Book of Revelation has yielded different interpretive possibilities for just about as long as there have been theologians around to read and explain it. This is a book that is filled with mysteries, whether it is the identity of the four apocalyptic horsemen who are supposed to usher in the judgment of God, the timing of the rising of people from the dead for that judgment, and whether Jesus Christ returns before the tribulation of the believers or after -- or whether the 1,000-year reign that the book discusses is literal or figurative in nature.
After all, given that the Bible begins with a period of seven days that are said to cover Creation -- but the method of measuring the day (the earth’s rotation on its axis as it spins around the sun) was not possible until the fourth “day” when the sun was created -- there is plenty of reason to doubt a literal interpretation of the writings. Over time, many different ways to interpret Revelation have emerged, but four schools have become the most popular: the preterist, the historicist, the futurist and the idealist.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the background and the implication of each of these different views of this vision of the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ to take up his reign on the earth.
1. The Preterist View
The preterist view considers some or all (depending on whether one is a partial or a full preterist) of the biblical prophecies as events that have already taken place. There are other prophecies beside those found in Revelation; for example, preterists believe that those prophetic events that make the end of the Book of Daniel a source of interpretive controversy took place during the second century BC, and the events that are described in the Revelation as having happened before 100 AD. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, then, serves as the point of fulfillment for the Old Testament community of Israelites who were God’s chosen people.
One reason for the development of the preterist point of view was to counter claims by the early Reformation activists that the current Pope was actually the Anti-Christ. The Jesuit thinker Luis de Alcasar, as part of the Counter Reformation, proposed the idea that all of the events in Revelation did not refer to the distant future but instead referred to things that had already happened. After all, the author of Revelation (St. John) was said to have written the book after seeing visions during his period of exile on the island of Patmos.
Preterists consider the Great Tribulation, one of the major events in the Book of Revelation, to have taken place when legions from the Roman Empire marched into Jerusalem and destroyed the city -- and the Temple -- as the first war between the Jewish rebels and the Roman Empire came to an end. This view saw the tribulation as influencing just the Jewish people rather than all of humanity.
Christians who hold preterist views see the Tribulation as God’s judgment upon the Jews for such sins as having rejected Jesus as the Messiah whom God had promised to send. By the time that John wrote this book, according to this view, the temple and city had already been destroyed. Preterists base this view on prophecy that appears in Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13, rather than taking it from Revelation itself.
In Matthew 24:34, Jesus sends a warning that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (NKJV). This follows a similar warning that he made to the Pharisees that the judgment to come up on them would arrive “upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36 NKJV).
Because the temple was destroyed within 40 years (a generation) of that conversations, preterists hold to that view of those verses. The “abomination of the desolation” (Matt. 24:15 NKJV) was the destruction that Rome’s legions brought to the Temple.
2. The Historicist View
There are a couple of similarities between the preterist and the historicist views of Revelation, beginning with the fact that both views connect the events in the book with readily identifiable events from human history. While the preterists connected the events with things that had already happened, though, historicists were more likely to find their analogues in contemporary events.
One of the most common early historicist views involved the claim that the Pope was a possible candidate for the Antichrist. Martin Luther was just one theologian during the Reformation era who made this connection, but he was far from the only one; throughout the sixteenth century, this was a common claim made from pulpits and in books and pamphlets.
Historicists saw more possibilities for analogues in history than the identity of the Antichrist, though. For example, the Puritan Thomas Brightman devised a historicist way to explain the true identities of the seven churches to whom John communicates in the first few chapters of the book. He tied those identities to different times within the history of the church: Ephesus refers to the apostolic age; Smyrna to the church’s persecution until 313; Pergamus to the church as it persisted until 500; Thyatira from the real growth of the papacy as an institution until the Reformation; Sardis to the time of the Reformation itself; Philadelphia to the evangelistic age; Laodicea to the contemporary period and to less stringent congregations.
It was typical for historicists to identify the Laodicean age as the time period in which he or she was writing. The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the vision in the tenth chapter of Revelation, the two witnesses, the Beast, and the Number of the Beast (666) all are given various connections to specific points in history by historicist theologians in their consideration of the way that the maddeningly specific (but not connected) events and references in Revelation connect to the world outside the confines of the Bible.
3. The Futurist View
Futurism takes portions of Revelation and other prophetic parts of the Bible and interprets them as referring to events that have not yet happened but will have considerable significance as the end times get closer. This view assumes that the vast majority (if not all) of the events in Revelation have not happened yet.
Some common examples of futurist interpretations of events in the Bible include the dead rising from the grave and living people still on the earth going through a rapture, at which point all true members of the Christian faith are called back to Christ before God’s kingdom comes to pass on the earth. Most futurists believe that there will be a tribulation of some sort, or a seven-year time frame when believers all over the world will go through persecution and even execution for their faith.
There are different views as to when believers will be drawn up in rapture from the tribulation, but the three most common see this as happening before the tribulation, around the middle of the tribulation, or when the tribulation comes to an end. Those who are pre-tribulationists believe that the Christians alive on the earth will go up to see Christ before the start of the tribulation.
This mirrors the way that God removed Enoch before the Flood so that he would not be part of the judgment, leaving Noah as the only man righteous enough to deserve rescue from a global deluge. Those who think that the rapture will happen about midway through the tribulation believe that believers will have to go through some of the trials but not the worst parts.
Many people who subscribe to this view believe that the worst parts of God’s wrath will come in the second half of the seven-year tribulation, once the believers have been gathered up to Christ. Those who think that the rapture will come near the end of the tribulation believe that, just before Christ arrives back on the earth, Christians will be drawn up into the sky, coming down in the clouds with Christ has he returns triumphantly.
In all three views, futurists believe that the Christians return to the earth with Christ when the tribulation comes to an end.
Futurists tend to start the seven years as a time when Israel unconsciously inks a peace treaty with the Antichrist to last seven years. The identity of this Antichrist is not clear, and a number of different possibilities have been suggested, such as a renewed Roman Empire or an empire with a capital in a renewed Babylon. Some look at an empire with its capital in Istanbul (which at one point was the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, when it was called Constantinople.
The tribulation features a considerable number of hardships that affect the whole planet, including such possibilities as famine, natural disasters, war and other forms of suffering that will eliminate about three-fourths of the life on the planet before Christ returns to the earth. Some futurists think that the tribulation happens before Jesus returns, while another asserts that the entire tribulation will take seven years to come and go in its fulness.
4. The Idealist View
The idealist view of Revelation is much less specific than the other three. Rather than connecting the events and the characters in Revelation with specific events and people, whether from the distant past, the contemporary time or the future, the idealist connects the events of Revelation with certain principles that God has used in his interventions throughout the time line of history.
The governing principle behind this interpretation of Revelation is that the allegorical principles of interpretation that were the predominant methods used during the Middle Ages are the proper ones to use when looking at Revelation. So the symbols that appear in the book are not references to certain events but instead to principles that have been true for time immemorial. Idealists also believe that the book of Revelation primarily deals with the church as it operated between the first and second comings of Christ, and so it deals with the conflict between evil and God and between the principles of the Church and the context of the world throughout the history of the church. And so the millennium, according to this view, is not something to come in the future but a description of the age in which the church functions. Since the idealists use allegorical methods of interpretation, Revelation changes from being a road map to predict the coming of Christ to more of a symbolic analysis of the conflict between good and evil.
This view gives the idealist something in common with the preterist, in that neither school of thought attempts to connect what they see in Revelation with present or future events. In the idealist view, scholars are emphasizing the importance of the audience of people who would have read this in the first century AD and drawn considerable devotional worth from having read it. According to those who subscribe to this view, there are five reasons to support this belief: it is a call to live life heroically; it asks the believer to persist in ways that the other views simply do not; it indicates that while evil may be pervasive and powerful in our own time, it will come to an end, and a decisive one, at the hand of God; it provides the reader with a wondrous portrait of the risen Savior; and it indicates that the events of history are a conception of the mind of God and that Christ plays a key role in poring through the moral outcomes of each of us.
So there is a great deal of the devotional in this idealistic view. This might be disappointing to those who expect the book of Revelation to be a sort of lodestone that leads the reader to a series of numbers that, when twisted and tweaked in the right way, will yield a date on which one can adequately prepare for the second coming. However, both Jesus and St. Paul are clear in their writings that no one is to know the precise time of the return of Christ except God the Father. This is why there are so many parables in the New Testament about the importance of remaining vigilant and prepared throughout one’s life as a believer. The trash can of history is full of different calendars that different proponents of the futurist and historicist interpreters of Revelation have used to try and nail Jesus down to a specific return date. The fact that Jesus has not honored any of those analyses with a return on the day that they suggested should indicate to the sensible reader that Revelation simply does not provide a magic code that the right exegete can unlock for the rest of us. Instead, the idealist view of remaining prepared for the return of Christ by living according to the teachings of Scripture is the most rewarding (and ultimately the least stressful) because it leaves the believer prepared for that glorious day -- but also living a life that brings the challenges of faith along with the joys that contentment can bring, knowing that God is in control of history rather than scratching out calendars on a wall and using some bizarre calculus to suggest that, at long last, one has finally figured out God’s timetable.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version. New York: Bible Gateway, 1972.