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Interpreting the Book of Revelation

March 2008

The Left Behind series of books have sold over 60 million copies. The books are based on the premise that the book of Revelation deals with future events and that at one point, believers in Jesus Christ will be "raptured" off the planet to escape the "tribulation" of God's wrath upon the planet. However, this view of Revelation is rather new in church history, and is not shared by many scholars.

Richard Eckley addresses four ways of looking at the mysterious book in his new commentary of Revelation from Wesleyan Publishing House. (I'm currently editing it, so here's a very condensed sneak peek of one chapter.)


There have traditionally been four schools of thought when it comes to interpreting the book of Revelation as a whole.

Historicist

These interpretations tend to see the events described in Revelation as referring to actual events from the beginning of the church until the proximate time of the interpreter.

For rather selfish reasons, the 16th century Reformers introduced this model so that they might interject themselves into the work of God in history. Thus the Reformers, or any other historicist for that matter, could say that the Roman papacy was the Antichrist, propagating false doctrine and deceiving the faithful, just as the Beast of the Revelation. The Reformers, of course, thought of themselves as the faithful witnesses called for at the end of time. This model continued to be popular after the Enlightenment, and continues this arrogant placement of the interpreter into the text.

The view had little to do with the time in which the author John wrote, but according to Mounce, "the Apocalypse was held to sketch the history of Western Europe through the various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French revolution, and individual leaders such as Charlemagne and Mussolini."

The historicist model generally is found in most of the dispensational schemes popular today. Commentators appear to be quite skillful and ingenious when they are able to discover elaborate time schedules and symbols that match contemporary events. They often look like a religious CNN, watching events unfold in the Middle East and other world hot spots with their Bibles open to the Apocalypse on their desks. They love to point to "obvious" parallels between scripture and the unfolding political images. But when the events of history eventually prove the commentators wrong, they merely replace their fiction with new facts and move on.

Idealist

In this approach, the contents of the book are not seen to relate to any historical events at all, but only to symbolize the ongoing struggle between good and evil during the church age and until Christ returns. As a system of interpretation it is more recent than the three other (preterist, historicist and futuristic) schools.

In general, the idealist view is marked by a refusal to identify any of the symbolic images with specific future events, whether in the history of the church or with regard to the end of all things. The primary benefit of this view is that it renders the apocalypse quite understandable, as well as relevant, at its face value. It is simply a book that was written to encourage the persecuted Church with the knowledge that God will someday conquer all evil and make things right.

One of the most significant criticisms brought against this view is the fact that Revelation is of the apocalyptic genre and apocalyptic documents generally are written to describe actual events in history. This also appears to contradict the clear language of the text when the writer says that Jesus will show him what must take place next (v. 4:1). If there is no real chronology according to real historical events, then this statement seems to be superfluous. Too, the section describing actual, historical churches (23) seems not to be relevant to a real situation in history at all.

Preterist

The word "preterist" is Latin and means "Pre (before) in fulfillment." In this approach to the book the symbols and content relate only to events and happenings at the time of the author. The beasts of chapter 13, for example, are related to Imperial Rome and the Imperial priesthood. There is no future eschatology in the book whatsoever. This method is based primarily on relating the book to Jewish apocalyptic tracts written at that time to encourage faithfulness during times of persecution.

Therefore, the message of the book would seem to be that while the church is threatened by the state and the demand of emperor worship, those who endure will share in the final victory of God over the demonic powers which control and direct the totalitarian state.

But, one of the most significant problems with the preterist view however, is that none of what was supposed to happen, happened. Rome was not overthrown by God (though in some sense it was in 476 A.D.) and the saints certainly did not share in any such victory. In conjunction with this problem is the fact that much of what is in Revelation appears to be prophetic and speaking of a time quite distant from John's time (i.e. the return of Christ and the consummation of all things).

Futurist

In chapter 3:10 the Lord says to the church at Philadelphia that they "will be kept from" the hour of trial to come upon the earth. Therefore, the seals, trumpets and bowl judgments (Chapters 6-16) are all future and occur after the rapture (1 Thess. 4:16) of the church. They relate directly to Daniel's seventieth week (see Dan. 9:24-27; a seven year period) and therefore concern Israel and not the church. [These judgments] occur in the last three and a half years of the seven-year period of Daniel's seventieth week.

The end result of this Great Tribulation is the destruction of ecclesiastical (17) and political (18) Babylon. Then Christ will return with the church and set up his kingdom (19, 20).

This interpretation relies heavily upon the distinction between Israel and the church and the distinctive plan God has for both. [George Eldon] Ladd, as well as a host of other commentators, are extremely critical of this distinction between ethnic Israel and the church. Ladd understands the seal judgments to be going on throughout the church age and the trumpet and bowl judgments (really from chapter 7 onward) to be concerned with the time of the consummation. The primary reason he argues in this fashion is because the contents of the book cannot be opened until the last seal and 6:16, 17 explicitly says that the "great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand" (NIV).

Conclusion

It should be pointed out how each of these methods was historically conditioned and arose out of particular concerns by the Christian community. Even by the time the Church included the Revelation in its canon the problems of interpretation were understood. Still, the Church in her wisdom knew that the epistle to the seven churches was still applicable to them as well. John himself, when writing down the account of the prophecy, was writing from an historical context to a particular set of problems and situations, and was doing so from a set of principles and ideas that could apply to future events as well. Whatever our method, we should be sensitive to those earlier interpretive principles and be true to them today.

Recognizing that people come to this book of the Bible with differing points of view should not limit the Church's openness to God speaking through it. The role that Revelation has played in giving hope and strength to Christians along the Way was often independent of being placed in any of these categories of interpretation.

Note: After editing this well-written, well-balanced commentary, I think John Wesley best sums up my position:

    I said nothing less or more . . . concerning the end of the world. . . . I have no opinion at all on it: I can determine nothing at all about it. . . . I have only one thing to do, to save my soul, and those that hear me.

Related site: Interpreting the Bible as a whole


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