4 Different Views on RevelationJanuary 24, 2011
There have been many different interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation. All of them offer valuable insights. In this section I will briefly summarize the different approaches as well as commenting briefly on my own approach to the book.
The idealist approach mines the book of Revelation for timeless theological truths that apply to all generations. Revelation is viewed as symbolically expressing the cosmic conflict between the kingdom of God and satanic powers. However, commentators who take this approach often deny that the book has any specific historical meaning. The problem with this position is not what it affirms. All interpreters of Revelation believe that there are timeless theological truths contained in this book. The incompleteness of this exegetical approach to Revelation is in what it denies; its historical rootedness in the 1st century believing community.
The book of Revelation, among other things, is a letter written to 7 specific churches, which indicates that it had historical relevance for its first hearers, as well as its future hearers.
This approach understands the book of Revelation to be a detailed map of history from the first coming of Christ to the second coming of Christ. In this view the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are seen to represent 7 stages of church history. This position has had adherents throughout church history but was quite popular during the 17th and 18 century.3
Usually, these interpreters have focused exclusively on Western European History. Their historical analysis and Biblical exegesis has often proven to be strained and implausible. Also, proponents of this position have seldom agreed in matching historical events with symbols and descriptions in Revelation. Curiously enough, people who support these theories always believe themselves to be in the last phase of history, whether the year is 1000 AD or 2000 AD or anywhere in between.4 As a result few commentators take this position any longer.
Theologians who take this approach to Revelation read the book in the same way they believe that John’s first hearers would have read the book. They seek to read the book of Revelation in its historical context. The book needs to be understand under the shadow of Roman Imperial might, Emperor worship and the persecution of Christians that resulted from their treasonous refusal to bow the knee to Caesar as lord and Savior.
Some extreme proponents of this view claim that the book was completely fulfilled in the first century. However, it is extremely unlikely that the original audience of this book would have believed that the events described in Revelation 19-22 had already taken place.
In its radical form this view implies that the book of Revelation is entirely preoccupied with future events and had no direct relevance to the 1st century recipients of the Apostle John’s letter. As in the historicist view, the 7 churches are sometimes represented as expressing 7 stages in church history. John’s ‘rapture’ into heaven (chapter 4) is often claimed to represent the rapture of the church. Often in this interpretive Framework everything after Revelation 5 refers strictly to future events involving the nation of Israel and the Anti–Christ.
Much of this interpretation strains exegetical integrity to a breaking point. There is no good reason to understand the 7 churches as referring to seven church ages and there are many good reasons not to. For example, in Jesus’ addresses to the churches he makes comments that express an awareness of the cultural situation and geography of those specific cities where the churches were located in the 1st century. Also, there is no good reason whatsoever to understand John’s rapture as symbolically referring to the churches rapture.
Popular writers in this school of thought also have a tendency to interpret the images of Revelation in a way that would make no sense to the 1st century hearers. Instead of letting scripture interpret scripture, and looking to the Old Testament for the source of some of John’s images, a swarm of deadly locusts in chapter 9 is treated as a squadron of Army Helicopters (the Old Testament reference for this image would be Joel 1:2-18, 2)5. Another example can be found in chapter 12 of Revelation where one popular author in this school interprets the Eagle (12:14) to be American fighter jets rescuing Jews from the Anti-Christ. In reality the imagery comes from Exodus 19:56.
So this view suffers the fatal flaw of making John’s Revelation virtually inapplicable to the historical context of the first recipients of this letter.
Also, those who use this book to predict the future never get it right. In the words of theologian Paul Spilsbury,
“all their major predictions have failed to materialize. Also, these books are strangely silent about the major events that have indeed occurred in recent times. In the end, this approach to Revelation is simply not reliable”7.
A great example of this exegetical error can be found in Hal Lindsey’s, “The Late Great Planet Earth”. It was written in the 70s, has sold over 15 million copies and I read most of it in my preparation for this series. I found that many of his prediction had already proven to be erroneous.
However, one benefit of this position is, “this view agrees that the primary purpose of the book is to describe the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose and the end of the age”.8 I agree. Revelation is about God’s redemptive purposes and ends with ‘the end of the age’.
In reading the above section you may have sensed that I am sharply critical of this view. That is only because I am sharply critical of this view. I find it distasteful to criticize brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I want to be forthright and honest about my skepticism directed towards this school of interpretation.
Incidentally, the above interpretation of Revelation (or something quite similar to it) is taken by the authors of the Left Behind series. We have these books in our church library as fiction not theology. Regrettably, (in my mind at least) through the influence of these books the school of interpretation mentioned above is the most popular approach to the book Revelation today.
Despite my criticisms of the above view I believe it is important to approach Revelation humbly and not to be overly dogmatic about how we understand the book. I am open to being convinced that criticisms of this view are unwarranted.
(See, ‘When time shall be no more”, by Paul Boyer for a detailed historical analysis of how this reading of Revelation gained prominence in North American Christian culture).
To me the best approach to the book of Revelation seems to be an eclectic approach. Elements of the differing views can be incorporated beneficially into our understanding of the book. For example, the Futurists are correct in pointing out that some events described in Revelation have yet to be fulfilled (2nd coming of Christ, Final judgement in chapter 20, renewal of all things in chapter 21,22). The Idealists are right in stressing the timeless theological truths that explode off the pages of John’s revelation.
The Preterist approach to the book reminds us of the importance of historical context and safe guards the relevance of this book for the first century Christian recipients. In fact, most erroneous interpretations of this book have gone off base at exactly this point. They have interpreted this book in ways that would have had no relevance to the 1st century recipients of the letter. An approach that combines the beneficial insights from all these different views while avoiding the extremes seems best to me.
Darrell Johnson, “Discipleship on the Edge”
Robert W. Wall “Revelation: New International Biblical Commentary”
Paul Spilsbury, “The Throne, The Lamb & The Dragon”
Richard Bauckham, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation”
Leon Morris, “Revelation: The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries”
Eugene Peterson, “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of St. John & the Praying Imagination”
George Eldon Ladd, “A commentary on the Revelation of John”