Sunday, June 27, 2021

5. The Four Main Interpretive Approaches to The Revelation

Revelation’s picturesque images, mysterious symbols, and apocalyptic language make it one of the most challenging books in Scripture to interpret. There are four main interpretative approaches to the book.

The preterist approach views Revelation not as future, predictive prophecy, but as a historical record of events in the first-century Roman Empire. The preterist view thus ignores the book’s own claims to be a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; Rev. 22:7; Rev. 22:10; Rev. 22:18–19). Nor were all the events predicted and depicted in Revelation fulfilled in the first century. The second coming of Christ described in chapter 19 obviously is yet to occur. But the preterist view requires that one see the words about Christ’s second coming as fulfilled in the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, even though He did not appear on that occasion. Nor is there any persecution in the first century that fits the description of the horrific events depicted in chapters 6–19.

The historicist approach finds in Revelation a record of the sweep of church history from apostolic times until the present. Historicist interpreters often resort to allegorizing the text in order to find in it the various historical events they believe it depicts (e.g., the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the advent of Islam, even the French Revolution). Not surprisingly, such a subjective, arbitrary, and whimsical approach has given rise to a myriad of conflicting interpretations of the actual historical events in Revelation. Like the preterist approach, the historicist view ignores Revelation’s own claims to be a prophecy. It also robs the book of any meaning for those first-century believers to whom it was addressed. And it removes the interpretation of Revelation from the realm of literal, historical hermeneutics, leaving it at the mercy of the allegorical and spiritualized meanings invented by each would-be interpreter.

The idealist approach sees depicted in Revelation the timeless struggle between good and evil that is played out in every age. According to this view Revelation is neither a historical record nor a predictive prophecy. Like the first two views, the idealist view ignores Revelation’s claims to be a prophecy. It also, if carried to its logical conclusion, severs Revelation from any connection with actual historical events. The book is thus reduced to a collection of myths designed to convey spiritual truth.

The futurist approach sees in chapters 4–22 predictions of people and events yet to come in the future. Only this approach allows Revelation to be interpreted following the same literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutical method by which non-prophetic portions of Scripture are interpreted. As previously noted, proponents of the other three approaches are frequently forced to resort to allegorizing or spiritualizing the text to sustain their interpretations. The futurist approach, in contrast to the other three, does full justice to Revelation’s claim to be a prophecy. The futurist approach is often criticized as robbing Revelation of any meaning for those to whom it was written, since it views much of the book as describing events in the distant future. In reply John F. Walvoord notes:

Much of the prophecy of the Bible deals with the distant future, including the Old Testament promises of the coming Messiah, the prophecies of Daniel concerning the future world empires, the body of truth relating to the coming kingdom on earth as well as countless other prophecies. If the events of chapters 4 through 19 are future, even from our viewpoint today, they teach the blessed truth of the ultimate supremacy of God and the triumph of righteousness. The immediate application of distant events is familiar in Scripture, as for instance 2 Peter 3:10–12, which speaks of the ultimate dissolution of the earth; nevertheless the succeeding passage makes an immediate application: “Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent …” (2 Peter 3:14). (The Revelation of Jesus Christ [Chicago: Moody, 1966], 22)

Anything other than the futurist approach leaves the meaning of the book to human ingenuity and opinion. The futurist approach takes the book’s meaning as God gave it. In studying Revelation, I will take this straightforward view and accept what the text says. It is nearly impossible to consider all the interpretive options offered by people holding the other three views, so we will not try to work through that maze of options. Rather, we will take the book as it comes in the normal fashion of language.