One of the most intriguing books of the Bible is the book of Revelation. The imagery of the cosmic battle in heaven and on earth makes it a fascinating book to study. However, much debate surrounds the proper interpretation of this apocalyptic work. Is this book a prophecy of future events yet to take place, or have the prophecies of this book been fulfilled?
Two popular authors highlight the debate that continues in our present time. In his hit series Left Behind Tim LaHaye writes a fictional account based on his theological position that the events of Revelation will occur in the future. Popular radio talk show host Hank Hannegraaff responded by attacking the theology of LaHaye. In his book The Apocalypse Code, Hanagraaff asserts that the events of Revelation were largely fulfilled in 70 A. D. with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. He criticizes theologians like LaHaye for taking a hyper-literal approach to Revelation.1 The debate has raised some confusion among Christians as to why there is such a debate and how we should interpret the book of Revelation.
The issues at the core of the debate between Hanagraaff and LaHaye are not new. Throughout church history, there have been four different views regarding the book of Revelation: the idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist view. The idealist view teaches that Revelation describes in symbolic language the battle throughout the ages between God and Satan and good against evil. The preterist view teaches that the events recorded in the book of Revelation were largely fulfilled in seventy A. D. with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. The historicist view teaches that the book of Revelation is a symbolic presentation of church history beginning in the first century A. D. through the end of age. The prophecies of Revelation are fulfilled in various historic events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. The futurist view teaches that Revelation prophecies of events that will take place in the future. These events include the rapture of the church, seven years of tribulation, and a millennial rule of Christ upon the earth.
Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. Each view attempts to interpret Revelation according to the laws of hermeneutics. This is central to the debate about how we should approach and interpret Revelation. The idealist approach believes that apocalyptic literature like Revelation should be interpreted allegorically. The preterist and historicist views are similar in some ways to the allegorical method, but it is more accurate to say preterists and historicists view Revelation as symbolic history. The preterist views Revelation as a symbolic presentation of events that occurred in 70 A. D. while the historicist school views the events as symbolic of all western church history.
The futurist school believes Revelation should be interpreted literally. In other words, the events of Revelation are to occur at a future time. The goal of this work is to present a brief overview of the four views of Revelation and present the strengths of each view as well as their weaknesses. It is my hope that the reader will gain a basic understanding and be able to understand the debate among theologians today.
The Idealist View
The first view of Revelation is the idealist view or the spiritual view. This view uses the allegorical method to interpret the Book of Revelation. The allegorical approach to Revelation was introduced by ancient church father Origen (185-254 A. D.) and made prominent by Augustine (354-420 A. D.) According to this view, the events of Revelation are not tied to specific historical events. The imagery of the book symbolically presents the ongoing struggle throughout the ages of God against Satan and good against evil. In this struggle, the saints are persecuted and martyred by the forces of evil but will one day receive their vindication. In the end, God is victorious, and His sovereignty is displayed throughout ages. Robert Mounce summarizes the idealist view stating, “Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.”2
In his commentary on Revelation late 19th century scholar William Milligan stated, “While the Apocalypse thus embraces the whole period of the Christian dispensation, it sets before us within this period the action of great principles and not special incidents; we are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, both for the exhibition of the principles which govern the history of both the world and the Church.”3
The symbols in Revelation are not tied to specific events but point to themes throughout church history. The battles in Revelation are viewed as spiritual warfare manifested in the persecution of Christians or wars in general that have occurred in history. The beast from the sea may be identified as the satanically-inspired political opposition to the church in any age. The beast from the land represents pagan, or corrupt, religion to Christianity. The harlot represents the compromised church, or the seduction of the world in general. Each seal, trumpet, or bowl represents natural disasters, wars, famines, and the like which occur as God works out His plan in history. Catastrophes represent God’s displeasure with sinful man; however, sinful mankind goes through these catastrophes while still refusing to turn and repent. God ultimately triumphs in the end.
The strength of this view is that it avoids the problem of harmonizing passages with events in history. It also makes the book of Revelation applicable and relevant for all periods of church history.4
However, there are several weaknesses of this view. First, this view denies the book of Revelation any specific historical fulfillment. The symbols portray the ever-present conflict but no necessary consummation of the historical process.5 Rev.1:1 states that the events will come to pass shortly, giving the impression that John is prophesying of future historical events. Second, reading spiritual meanings into the text could lead to arbitrary interpretations. Followers of this approach have often allowed the cultural and sociopolitical factors of their time to influence their interpretation rather than seeking the author’s intended meaning.6
Merril Tenney states,
“The idealist view… assumes a ‘spiritual’ interpretation, and allows no concrete significance whatever to figures that it employs. According to this viewpoint they are not merely symbolic of events and persons, as the historicist view contends; they are only abstract symbols of good and evil. They may be attached to any time or place, but like the characters of Pilgrim’s Progress, represent qualities or trends. In interpretation, the Apocalypse may thus mean anything or nothing according to the whim of the interpreter.”7
Unless interpreters are grounded in the grammatical, historical, and contextual method of hermeneutics, they leave themselves open to alternate interpretations that may even contradict the author’s intended meaning.
The Preterist View
The second view is called the preterist view. Preter, which means ‘past,’ is derived from the Latin. There are two major views among preterists: full preterists and partial preterists. Both views believe that the prophecies of the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24 and Revelation were fulfilled in the first century with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. Chapters 1-3 describe the conditions in the seven churches of Asia Minor prior to the Jewish war (66-70 A. D.). The remaining chapters of Revelation and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse describe the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.
Full preterists believe that all the prophecies found in Revelation were fulfilled in 70 A. D. and that we are now living in the eternal state, or the new heavens and the new earth. Partial preterists believe that most of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem but that chapters 20-22 point to future events such as a future resurrection of believers and return of Christ to the earth. Partial preterists view full preterism as heretical since it denies the second coming of Christ and teaches an unorthodox view of the resurrection.
Church historians trace the roots of preterism to Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613).8 Alcazar’s interpretation is considered a response to the Protestant historicist interpretation of Revelation that identified the Pope as the Anti-Christ. However, some preterists contend that preterist teachings are found in the writings of the early church as early as the fourth century A. D.9
Crucial to the preterist view is the date of Revelation. Since it is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, preterists hold to a pre-70 A. D. date of writing. According to this view, John was writing specifically to the church of his day and had only its situation in mind. This letter was written to encourage the saints to persevere under the persecution of the Roman Empire.
Preterists point to several reasons to support their view. First, Jesus stated at the end of the Olivet Discourse, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Mt. 24:34). A generation usually refers to forty years. The fall of Jerusalem would then fit the time Jesus predicted. Second, Josephus’ detailed record of the fall of Jerusalem appears in several ways to match the symbolism of Revelation. Finally, this view would be directly relevant to John’s readers of his day.
There are several criticisms of this view. First, the events described in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and in Revelation 4-19 differ in several ways from the fall of Jerusalem. One example is that Christ described his return to Jerusalem in terms stating that “… as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:27). Preterists believe this refers to the Roman army’s advance on Jerusalem. However, the Roman army advanced on Jerusalem from west to east, and their assault was not as a quick lightning strike. The Jewish war lasted for several years before Jerusalem was besieged, and the city fell after a lengthy siege.10 Second, General Titus did not set up an “abomination of desolation” (Mt. 24:15) in the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he destroyed the Temple and burned it to the ground. Thus, it appears the preterist is required to allegorize or stretch the metaphors and symbols in order to find fulfillment of the prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem.
Another example of allegorical interpretation by preterists is their interpretation of Revelation 7:4. John identifies a special group of prophets: the 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel.” Preterist Hanegraaff states that this group represents the true bride of Christ and is referred to in Rev. 7:9 as the “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language…” In other words, the 144,000 in verse four, and the great multitude in verse nine are the same people.11 This appears to go against the context of the chapter for several reasons. First, throughout the Bible the phrase, “tribes of Israel” refers to literal Jews. Second, John identifies there are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a strange way to describe the multitude of believers from all nations. Finally, the context shows John is speaking of two different groups: one on the earth (the 144,000 referenced in 7:1-3) and the great multitude in heaven before the throne (7:9). Here Hanegraaff appears to be allegorizing the text. Robert Mounce states,
The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign on God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.12
Mounce and other New Testament scholars believe the preterists’ interpretations are not consistent and utilize allegorical interpretations to make passages fit their theological view.
Second, the preterist position rests on a pre-70 A. D. date of writing. However, most New Testament scholars date the writing of the book to be 95 A. D. If John had written Revelation after 70 A. D., the book could not have been a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. This presents a significant argument against the preterist position.
Preterists point to several lines of evidence for a pre-70 A. D. date of writing. First, John does not mention the fall of the Jerusalem Temple. If he had been writing two decades after the event, it seems strange that he never mentioned this catastrophic event. Second, John does not refer to either Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (Mt. 24, Mk. 13, Lk. 21) or the fulfillment of this prophecy. Third, in Revelation 11:1, John is told to “…measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.” Preterist argue that this indicates that the Temple is still standing during the writing of Revelation. Evidence for the 95 A. D. date of writing will be presented in the futurist section.
The preterist view, particularly the partial preterist view, is a prominent position held by such notable scholars as R. C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, Kenneth Gentry, and the late David Chilton (who later converted to full preterism after the publishing of his books).
The Historicist View
The third view is called the historicist approach. This view teaches that Revelation is a symbolic representation that presents the course of history from the Apostle’s life through the end of the age. The symbols in the apocalypse correspond to events in the history of western Europe, including various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and rulers such as Charlemagne. Most interpreters place the events of their day in the later chapters of Revelation.
Many adherents of this position view chapters 1-3 as seven periods in church history. The breaking of the seals in chapters 4-7 symbolizes the fall of the Roman Empire. The Trumpet judgments in chapters 8-10 represent the invasions of the Roman Empire by the Vandals, Huns, Saracens, and Turks. Among Protestant Historicists of the Reformation, the antichrist in Revelation was believed to be the papacy. Chapters 11-13 in Revelation represent the true church in its struggle against Roman Catholicism. The bowl judgments of Revelation 14-16 represent God’s judgment on the Catholic Church, culminating in the future overthrow of Catholicism depicted in chapters 17-19.13
There are several criticisms of this approach. First, this approach allows for a wide variety of interpretations. Adherents have a tendency to interpret the text through the context of their period. Thus, many saw the climax of the book happening in their generation. John Walvoord points out the lack of agreement among historicists. He states, “As many as fifty different interpretations of the book of Revelation therefore evolve, depending on the time and circumstances of the expositor.”14 Moses Stuart echoed the same concern in his writings over a century ago. He stated, “Hithertho, scarcely any two original and independent expositors have agreed, in respect to some points very important in their bearing upon the interpretation of the book.”15
Second, this view focuses mostly on the events of the church in western Europe and says very little about the church in the East. Thus its narrow scope fails to account for God’s activity throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Finally, this view would have little significance for the church of the first century whom John was addressing. It is unlikely they would have been able to interpret Revelation as the historical approach suggests.
Prominent scholars who held this view include John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry. This view rose to popularity during the Protestant Reformation because of its identification of the pope and the papacy with the beasts of Revelation 13. However, since the beginning of the twentieth century, it has declined in popularity and influence.
The Futurist View
The fourth view is the futurist view. This view teaches that the events of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation chapters 4-22 will occur in the future. Futurist divide the book of Revelation into three sections as indicated in 1:19: “what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Chapter 1 describes the past (“what you have seen,”) chapters 2-3 describe the present (“what is now,”) and the rest of the book describes future events (“what will take place later.”)
Futurists apply a literal approach to interpreting Revelation. Chapters 4-19 refer to a period known as the seven-year tribulation (Dan. 9:27). During this time, God’s judgments are actually poured out upon mankind as they are revealed in the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Chapter 13 describes a literal future world empire headed by a political and religious leader represented by the two beasts. Chapter 17 pictures a harlot who represents the church in apostasy. Chapter 19 refers to Christ’s second coming and the battle of Armageddon followed by a literal thousand-year rule of Christ upon the earth in chapter 20. Chapters 21-22 are events that follow the millennium: the creation of a new heaven and a new earth and the arrival of the heavenly city upon the earth.
Futurists argue that a consistently literal or plain interpretation is to be applied in understanding the book of Revelation. Literal interpretation of the Bible means to explain the original sense, or meaning, of the Bible according to the normal customary usage of its language. This means applying the rules of grammar, staying consistent with the historical framework, and the context of the writing. Literal interpretation does not discount figurative or symbolic language. Futurists teach that prophecies using symbolic language are also to be normally interpreted according to the laws of language. J. P. Lange stated,
The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted – that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.16
Charles Ryrie also states,
Symbols, figures of speech and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.17
Futurists acknowledge the use of figures and symbols. When figurative language is used, one must look at the context to find the meaning. However, figurative language does not justify allegorical interpretation.
Futurists contend that the literal interpretation of Revelation finds its roots in the ancient church fathers. Elements of this teaching, such as a future millennial kingdom, are found in the writings of Clement of Rome (96 A. D.), Justin Martyr (100-165 A. D.), Irenaeus (115-202 A. D.), Tertullian (150-225 A. D.) and others. Futurists hold that the church fathers taught a literal interpretation of Revelation until Origen (185-254 A. D.) introduced allegorical interpretation. This then became the popular form of interpretation when taught by Augustine (354-430 A. D.)18 Literal interpretation of Revelation remained throughout the history of the church and rose again to prominence in the modern era.
The futurist view is widely popular among evangelical Christians today. One of the most popular versions on futurist teaching is dispensational theology promoted by schools such as Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. Theologians such as Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Dwight Pentecost are noted scholars of this position. Tim LaHaye made this theology popular in the culture with his end times series of novels.
Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be popular preachers who mistakenly apply the futurist approach to connect current events to the symbols in Revelation. Some have even been involved in setting dates of Christ’s return. Although their writings have been popular, they do not represent a Biblical futurist view.
Critics of this view argue that the futurist view renders the book irrelevant to the original readers of the first century. Another criticism is that Revelation is apocalyptic literature and thus meant to be interpreted allegorically or symbolically rather than literally. Hank Hannegraaff states, “Thus, when a Biblical writer uses a symbol or an allegory, we do violence to his intentions if we interpret it in a strictly literal manner.”19
One of the key elements in the debate, particularly between preterists and futurists, is the date of writing for Revelation. Preterists argue for a pre-70 A. D. date while futurists hold to a date of 95 A. D. There are several reasons for the later date. First, Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, states that John wrote Revelation at the end of Emperor Domitian’s reign, which ended in 96 A. D. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He thus had a connection with a contemporary of the Apostle John.
Second, the conditions of the seven churches in Revelation appear to describe a second-generation church setting rather than that of a first-generation. For example, the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) is charged with abandoning their first love and warned of the Nicolatian heresy. If John had written Revelation in 65 A. D., it would have overlapped with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and Timothy. However, Paul makes no mention of either the loss of first love or the threat of the Nicolatians. Ephesus was Paul’s headquarters for three years, and Apollos served there along with Aquilla and Priscilla. The church of Smyrna did not exist during Paul’s ministry (60-64 A. D.) as recorded by Polycarp, the first bishop of the city. Laodecia (Rev. 3:14-22) is rebuked for being wealthy and lukewarm. However, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul commends the church three times (2:2, 4:13, 16). It would likely take more than three years for the church to decline to the point that chapter 3 would state there to be no commendable aspect about it. Also, an earthquake in 61 A. D. left the city in ruins for many years. Thus, it is unlikely that in a ruined condition John would describe them as rich.
Preterists who favor the 70 A. D. date pose the question, “Why doesn’t John mention the fall of the Temple which occurred in 70 A. D.?” Futurists respond that John wrote about future events, and the destruction of the temple was 25 years in the past. He also wrote to a Gentile audience in Asia Minor which was far removed from Jerusalem. Preterists also point to the fact that the Temple is mentioned in chapter eleven. Futurists respond that although John mentions a temple in Revelation 11:1-2, this does not mean it exists at the time of his writing. In Daniel 9:26-27 and Ezekiel 40-48, both prophets describe the temple, but it was not in existence when they described a future temple in their writings.
What did Jesus mean in Matthew 24:34 when He said, “…this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”? The common futurist response is that Jesus was stating that the future generation about which he was speaking would not pass away once ‘these things’ had begun. In other words, the generation living amid the time of the events He predicted will not pass away until all is fulfilled.
The book of Revelation is a fascinating book, and the debate regarding its interpretation will continue. Despite our various views, there are some common threads upon which Christians agree.20 All views believe that God is sovereign and in charge of all that occurs in history and its ultimate conclusion. Except for full preterism and some forms of idealism, all believe in the physical second coming of Christ. All views believe in the resurrection from the dead. All believe there will be a future judgment. All believe in an eternal state in which believers will be with God, and unbelievers will be separated from Him. All agree upon the importance of the study of prophecy and its edification for the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, the debate among Christians has often been harsh and hostile. It is my hope that the debate would continue in a cordial, respectful manner which will challenge every believer to accurately study and interpret the Word. We all await the return of our Lord and together with the saints of all ages say, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)
- Hank Hanagraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 20.
- Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1977), 43.
- William Milligan, The Book of Revelation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889), 153-4.
- Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 20.
- Robert Mounce, 43.
- Robert Thomas, Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 31-2.
- Merrill Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 146.
- Steven Gregg, 39.
- Ibid., 39.
- Tim LaHaye and Thomans Ice, ed., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 377.
- Hanegraaff, 125.
- Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1977), 42.
- Steven Gregg, Four Views of Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), 31, 217, 309, & 399).
- John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 19.
- Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse (Edinburgh: Maclachlan, Stewart & Co., 1847), 35.
- J. P. Lange, Commentary of the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (New York: Scribner’s, 1872), 98, quoted in Charles Rryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.
- Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 91.
- Ibid., 18-23.
- Hank Hanagraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 14.
- Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 333.
© Evidence and Answers 2008