Four Views on the Book of Revelation

This is a paper written for my seminary class BE107 Hebrews-Revelation. The assignment was to write a paper that explains the four major interpretive views of the book of Revelation and explains their strengths and weaknesses. It was only supposed to be 10 pages, and when I finished the first view, I was 6 pages in, so I cut it back a little bit and seriously scaled down the remaining three views. Got it down to 12 pages! Haha. Anyway, that’s why the quality of argumentation degrades after the preterist view.


Introduction

Few books in the Bible have generated a greater variety of interpretations, even among like-minded scholars, than the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. This paper will undertake to define and evaluate the four major interpretive views of the Revelation of Jesus Christ to the Apostle John. Each view will be introduced and briefly defined, followed by an analysis of the view’s interpretive strengths and weaknesses. In explaining the Futurist view, the opinion of this writer, internal refutations of the weaknesses will serve as sufficient explanation for the validity of its acceptance as the strongest view.

Preterist View

The preterist view, put simply, states that all of the visions and signs described in Revelation were fulfilled in the now ancient past. While there is some variety among preterists, the most prominent or common view is that the events of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and persecution by Nero or the persecution by Domitian are the fulfillment of this book of prophecy. Another point of variety worth noting is that “some preterists believe that the final chapters of Revelation look forward to the second coming of Christ. Others think that everything in the book reached its culmination in the past.”[1] The word “preterist” comes from the Latin praeteritus meaning “gone by.”[2]

 

Strengths

The main arguments in favor of a preterist view are (1) the apparent temporal nature of the book[3] (2) the historical setting of the authorship of the book[4] (3) the Jewish focus of the judgment, (4) strong support among conservative scholars throughout Christendom.

Temporal Nature

It is hard to avoid this, the strongest argument in favor of the preterist approach to Revelation. It is clear from a book-end phrase in the text that the events prophesied in Revelation are described as occurring soon. The very first verse “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place” and in the last chapter of the book, introducing the conclusion, “These words are faithful and true; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place” (22:6). Similar terms are repeated throughout the book. “We find tachos (“soon”) in 1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 22:6, 7, 12, 20 and engys (“near”) in 1:3; 3:10; 22:10.”[5] The fact that John begins and ends his book with the statement that these things must happen ἐν τάχει “in a short time” or “soon,” and repeats similar phrases throughout is undoubtedly the strongest argument in favor of preterism. By the most liberal estimates, Revelation was written, at the latest, in the early 100’s during the reign of Trajan.[6] The idea, then, that the persecutions being spoken of in Revelation which were to happen “soon” were actually going to happen as many as 200+ years (if you take a historicist view) or 1,900+ years (if you take a futurist view) seems far-fetched from the preterist point of view.

The Historical Setting of the Authorship

While there is some issue with the argument depending on the dating of Revelation, the fact remains that, regardless of the date, it is widely accepted that the book was written during a time of intense church persecution.[7] If he were writing to the church during a time of persecution for the purpose of encouragement that God is on their side and God will win, it seems to preterists to makes little sense that his encouragement would be about a victory or promises of hope too far in the future for his readers to experience it. Combine this thought with the first argument, the temporal nature of the letter, and the argument strengthens.

Jewish Focus of Judgments

The Jewish focus of the Judgments is recognized mainly by preterists and some futurists. References to the Holy city of Jerusalem, the temple, the 12 tribes, the word Israel, and the nation of Judah are peppered all throughout the book (most densely in chapters 7, 11, and 14-16) but references to the church are completely absent from chapter four onward. However, the Jewish nature of these judgments seems to better support preterists than futurists, since the people of Israel largely ceased to exist as a national force for nearly 1800 years between AD 135 and 1948.[8] Given the temporal nature of the book, it makes much more sense to say that the coming Jewish persecution described in Revelation was that of the Jewish wars in the first and second century and not some future persecution at least 1800 years later.

Conservative Scholar Support Throughout Christendom

It should be asked, what is meant by “conservative scholar”? The term is used here to refer to those who hold firmly to the ultimate authority and sufficiency of Scripture, as well as its inerrancy and infallibility, who affirm the classical doctrine of the trinity, and who believe that Christ will return literally to earth in the end times. Among scholars who would define themselves this way, the many of them throughout church history are some form of preterist (particularly if historicism is viewed as a subcategory of preterism). It is only in very early church history (approx. 100-200) and very modern church history (1800-Present) that a strong support for the futurist interpretation can be seen.[9]

Weaknesses

The biggest weaknesses of the preterist view are as follows: (1) the likely dating of Revelation (2) The imprecise fulfillment of prophecies.

Dating of Revelation

The most likely date of the book of revelation is approximately AD 90 during the reign of Domitian. Irenaeus, who was a direct disciple of Polycarp who was a direct disciple of John, the author of the book, specifically dated the book during the reign of Domitian.[10] This, coupled with many other arguments, supports the late date of AD 90, in opposition to the earlier date of AD 69-70. Many of the interpretive conclusions to which the preterist comes rely on an early date for their veracity. The calculation of the number of the beast first Nero much more easily than Domitian (though both names propose problems) and the expectation of a great, future, near, judgment on Jews makes much more sense if John is writing during Nero’s persecution, prior to the fall of Jerusalem by Titus, and looking forward to the Jewish Wars, ending in the Bar Kokhba revolt. Without these persecutions, many more hermeneutical hoops must be jumped through in order to read a preterist interpretation of the events described in Revelation.

The Imprecise Fulfillment of Prophecy

Some of the hermeneutical hoops through which the preterist must jump are explanations of extremely specific numbers and descriptions of events and destruction, such as one quarter of the earth being killed (6:8) one third of the vegetation on earth burning (7:7) one third of the sea “becoming blood” (7:8) one third of fresh water on earth becoming “bitter” (7:10-11) one third of the sun, moon, and stars being darkened (7:12), 144,000 Israelites being marked and spared, 12,000 from each tribe (ch 6) two prophets being killed and displayed in the streets of Jerusalem then coming back to life (11:8-12), a gathering of armies at Mount Meggido for war (16:13-16), and many others.

The fluidity with which preterists are routinely willing to proclaim a prophecy as fulfilled, regardless of the specificity mentioned in the prophecy ultimately works as a weakness to this view interpretation for the book of Revelation.

Historicist View

The Historicist view, though much more popular during the early age of theologians (AD 300-600) and during the protestant reformation among some reformers (e.g. Luther and Knox) is less popular in the current age. In general, it interprets the events and visions in the book of Revelation as being fulfilled by the progression of Church History. Each of the judgments described are seen as fulfilled during different periods of strife throughout church history. Identifications of which events fulfill which prophecy are varied from interpreter to interpretation, to almost a one-to-one ratio. For this reason, it is hard to make broad generalities about the historicist interpretations. Clarke summarizes the rationale behind the historicist view well, however, in saying, “it has struck me that the book of the apocalypse may be considered as a prophet continued in the Church of God, uttering predictions relative to all times, which have their successive fulfillment as ages roll on.”[11]

 

Strengths

The major strength of the Historicist view can be seen in the continuation of the quote from Clarke. “… and thus it stands in the Christian Church in the place of the succession of prophets in the Jewish church; and by this especial economy prophecy is still continued, is always speaking; and yet a succession of prophets is rendered unnecessary.”[12] By interpreting Revelation according to this view, it allows the reader to have an enduring source of revelation that is much more directly applicable to the reader’s life. Indeed, it seems that the some of the reformers and many of the founders of the American colonies considered themselves to be fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation with their actions. Martin Luther believed that the Pope was the Antichrist and he was leading the charge against that papal tyranny. “For who is the man of sin and the son of perdition, but he who by his teaching and his ordinances increases the sin and perdition of souls in the church; while he yet sits in the church as if he were God? All these conditions have now for many ages been fulfilled by the papal tyranny.”[13]

Weaknesses

In the modern age, the weaknesses of this particular view are plainer to see than in previous ages when the general consensus and agreement of scholars obscured view. They are as follows: (1) Loose hermeneutics and a self-centered reading of Scripture, (2) imprecise fulfillment of prophecies and lack of agreement among historicists.

Loose Hermeneutics and Self-Centered Reading of Scripture

In order to hold to a historicist view, one must operate by the maxim expressed by a historicist in The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, “History is the great interpreter of prophecy.”[14] Unfortunately, while poetic, this simply isn’t true. History isn’t the interpreter of prophecy, people are. People always are the interpreters of prophecy, and they are also the interpreters of history. The fact is, mist historicists, don’t actually interpret the history as much as they interpret their own present. It is an expression of sinful pride to desire to see one’s self as bringing about a greater degree of fulfillment in the biblical text than is accurate. Historicists routinely read themselves into a passage of Revelation without allowing the passage to speak for itself.

Imprecise Fulfillment of Prophecy

With the above noted, it makes sense that historicists would have to “fit” certain prophecies into historical events where they don’t fit naturally. For example, when revelation 16:4-7 describes the third bowl judgment affecting the rivers and the springs, historicists claimed that Atilla the Hun was the cause of the trumpet judgment on the fresh water, and so the fulfillment of the bowl judgment would have to be in the same geographic region. Many come up with the Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. The reason? he fought some on the Rhine and Po rivers in Italy. The reasoning stops there.[15] In order to make this leap, one must first assume a geographic barrier to the region of Europe, assume that the events are in a chronological progression, but a flexible frequency (there is no precise method of dating that “counted up” from Atilla the Hun to Napoleon), and assume that this vision of the waters turning to blood is metaphorical, when no clear marker in the text indicates it as such. Are we also to take the Nile turning to blood during the ten plagues of Egypt as a metaphor for battle? What do we do if prophecy in revelation “runs out” but history continues moving? These weaknesses are obvious in an age that values a literal grammatical historical approach to the text, but we in our age must not be too quick to assume that our hermeneutic is the right one. We must have evidence.

Idealist view

The idealist interpretation, sometimes called the spiritual interpretation, is the most loosely defined and flexible of the major interpretive systems. Its main defining characteristic is to say that all of the events and visions described in revelation are symbolic or metaphorical pictures of a battle going on in heaven. Gregg summarizes well:

“[The spiritual approach] to Revelation does not attempt to find individual fulfillments of the visions but takes Revelation to be a great drama depicting transcendent spiritual realities, such as the spiritual conflict between Christ and Satan, between the saints and the antichristian world powers, and depicting the heavenly vindication and final victory of Christ and his saints. Fulfillment is seen either as entirely spiritual or as recurrent, finding representative expression in historical events throughout the age, rather than in one time, specific fulfillments. The prophecy is thus rendered applicable to Christians in any age.”[16]

Strengths

It is in this final statement that the strength of the idealist views can be seen. The prophecy is imminently applicable to Christians in any age. By operating under the assumption that Revelation is one large narrative not directly relating to any literal events in history or on earth, any vision can be taken and used for the encouragement of the believer at any time. The other strength is that such a view does not get “bogged down” in minutia and miss the point of the book, as some other systems are prone to do. By keeping the focus on the overall narrative of Revelation, you keep squarely in view the fact that life is a fight between good and evil, and good wins.

Weaknesses

The weaknesses of this view are the things that come along with its strengths. By refusing to dip into the minutia of the text, and by keeping the emphasis off the individual visions and what they represent, the Christian is done a disservice in recognizing the fulfillment of prophecy, or even the simply stated purpose of the book and the instructions within it. The simplest way to demonstrate that the individual visions in Revelation merit individual interpretation is to look at the very first one, just after the outline of the book is given in 1:19. After Jesus tells John to write down the things he’s seen, the things that are, and the things that will take place after these things, Jesus then interprets a specific vision for John! He says, “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

If we were not intended to have specific interpretations of the individual visions John sees, it is hard to explain why Jesus himself encourages the understanding of the individual vision.

Futurist View

The futurist view, simply put, states that the events and visions described in Revelation should be interpreted as literally as possible and that their literal fulfillment is a yet future state.  By reading the strengths and weaknesses listed in the other views, one can easily see this writer’s opinion of how the book of Revelation should be interpreted: literally. Its strength, therefore, is the confident expectation that the text will be fulfilled in as literal a way as possible, with the similar support of that being the mode of fulfillment for all of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ.

Weaknesses and Defense of Weaknesses

The weaknesses of this view are three: (1) the temporal nature of the book, and lack of direct applicability for Christians in any age, (2) the lack of agreement among futurists.

The temporal nature of the book, as noted in the preterist section, is undeniable. John clearly was writing to a specific people to give them hope in the current tribulation. This can be answered with two points. First, it can be shown in many other places throughout the Bible that when God says the word “soon” it means something different than what we mean by soon. When Christ said that he would “soon” return, and all Christians would agree that it has not occurred yet, 2,000 years later, then we Christians must reconsider what Christ means by the word “soon.” Second, these words should be incredibly hopeful for a Christian in the first century if they understand the gospel, which in their context can boil down to: It doesn’t matter if Rome kills you, you’ll be resurrected with Christ in the end. The gospel is all about the future resurrection of believers, so for first century Christians it should be quite encouraging to remember just how bad it can get and you will be able to endure, when you know the outcome at the end. This is true of all Christians in any age, not just first-century Christians. Knowing that God wins is wonderful!

The lack of agreement among futurists is a problem inherent in all of these systems, thus it is true in the futurist camp as well. Since there is no system in which all its adherents agree on every point (all systems must apologize for their “crazy uncle” adherents) it is not valid to reject any of these views on that basis alone.

Conclusion

It has been demonstrated that all four major interpretive views of the Book of Revelation have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. While all have merit in certain areas, it seems best to this writer to adhere to a futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation, as it stays true to the literal hermeneutic better than any other system and its biggest weaknesses have simple and acceptable refutations available.

 

Bibliography

Carson, D.A. and Moo, Douglas. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Gentry Jr., Kenneth. “A Preterist View of Revelation.” In Four Views on the Book of Revelation, edited by Stanley Gundry and C Marvin Pate. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Gregg, Steve. Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction: Revised Edition. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1990.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies.

Luther, Martin. First Principles. 1883.

The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell.

Walvoord, John. The revelation of Jesus Christ. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.

 

 

Notes

[1] Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 2.

[2] Kenneth Gentry Jr., “A Preterist View of Revelation” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, eds., Stanley Gundry and C Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 37.

[3] Gundry, 40

[4] Gundry, 91

[5] Gundry, 41

[6] The strongest arguments for the dating of Revelation support two main views, either during or just after the reign of Nero (AD 69) or during the reign of Domitian (approx. AD 90). Revelation seems to be written during a time of persecution and look forward to another persecution. Those who wish to date the book very late could argue for the persecution under Trajan in the eraly 100’s, but arguments for this date are not compelling. For good discussions on the dating of Revelation see: D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 707-712. and Donald Guthrie New Testament Introduction: Revised Edition (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1990), 948-962.

[7] While some scholars like A. Y. Collins in Crisis and Catharsis reject this notion, the two strongest pieces of evidence for it are Irenaeus’s testimony about it in Against Heresies Book V Chapter 30, and the fact that John states he was on the Island of Patmos when he wrote, which was historically a prison island. He would not have been there if he weren’t under persecution. Some mode

[8] Many would ascribe the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132-135) as the last time Israel acted as a nation, and others would say that the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70 represents the nation’s end.

[9] This point can be overstated at times, as all four major interpretive views have had some support in nearly all ages, but general trends toward and away certain views can be seen.

[10] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.

[11] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible: One-Volume Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967),  1331.

[12] Clarke, 1331.

[13] Martin Luther, First Principles (1883), 197.

[14] The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell) 458.

[15] Gregg, 364.

[16] Gregg, 3.

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