There is perhaps no other book in the Bible that casts more intrigue than the book of Revelation. In like manner, there is perhaps no other book that is more controversial than the book of Revelation either. Individuals have held differing views concerning the book of Revelation since the earliest days of the church. Since the book of Revelation is considered in the apocalyptic genre, the text can be extremely difficult to understand. But just how is one to understand the book of Revelation. Bible scholars have taken one of four interpretations concerning the book of Revelation. One will interpret Revelation according to one’s method of interpretation.
For those who hold the futurist approach to the book of Revelation, such a one will see the book of Revelation as “road maps for the future.” In other words, futurists believe that Revelation describes things yet to come. Thus, Revelation describes events that will take place as God brings present-day history to a close. The majority of evangelical Bible interpreters would consider themselves futurists.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of futurism is found in the content of Revelation itself. It is difficult to grasp John’s prediction that there would be a “new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1) as anything else other than a futuristic prediction. Thus, the nature of Revelation tends to reflect on future events, as does most apocalyptic literature.
However, it must also be noted that Revelation uses a lot of symbols. Some symbolism could grant an allegorical interpretation. In addition, most scholars would concede that teachings such as the story of the woman, child, and the dragon in Revelation 12 refer to past events. In the case of Revelation 12, the birth of Jesus and the war against Satan is most likely referenced. Thus, an ultra-futurist interpretation can take Revelation too literally when a more figurative lesson is being delivered, while also failing to take into account lessons that bring forth truths from the past.
Historicists view Revelation as a retelling of the church’s history as a whole. In other words, historicists consider “apocalyptic writings as symbolic retellings of certain epochs of history.” Thus, for the historicist, Revelation addresses the church’s past, present, and future.
Revelation does paint a picture of the church as a whole. The writer of Revelation, John of Patmos, addresses seven churches in Asia Minor towards the beginning of the book, addresses events from the church’s past (as Revelation 12 mentioned previously), as well as addressing events that are yet to occur (bowls of wrath judgment and the eternal states). Thus, the pattern of Revelation lends itself to a historicist’s perspective in some respects.
The symbolism used in Revelation at times makes it difficult to pinpoint whether the writer is addressing a past event or a future event. If one takes seriously the futuristic claims made in the greater portion of the text, one will note that the majority of the book lends itself moreso with the church’s future than its present and past thus causing problems for the historicist in this regard.
Idealists view Revelation as an “allegory for all times and places.” Thus, Revelation for the idealist does not present historical data as much as it provides a classic demonstration that good will eventually prevail over evil. The idealist will not concentrate on literal events as much as one will concentrate on the overall metaphorical, or spiritual, meaning of the text.
The idealist will excel in finding the spiritual application of Revelation. While not concerning oneself to the literal meanings of the text, the idealist will not be restrained by the complexities of the symbolism, but will use the symbolism to find the overall meaning for the Christian. The idealist would be able to find modern-day applications with the apocalyptic text.
The idealist fails when considering some of the more literal claims of Revelation. While it is true that many of the symbols in Revelation are difficult to decipher, it must be said that there are many sections in Revelation that necessitate a literal rendering. For instance, John denotes that at some point during the wrath of God, “Enormous hailstones, each weighing about 100 pounds, fell from the sky on people, and they blasphemed God for the plague of hail because that plague was extremely severe” (Revelation 16:21). This particular text seems to describe a literal event at some point in history which would pose problems for a strict idealist perspective.
A view that has gained much ground in recent days is the interpretation known as preterism. Preterists “from the Latin praeterius (‘past’ or ‘bygone’)…suggests that most or all the events described in apocalyptic text have already passed.” Thus, the preterist would find little reference to the future in Revelation as the preterist interprets the text as addressing the historical conditions of the early church.
Preterists will be less inclined to accept the sensationalism that often surrounds Revelation. Instead of focusing on what Revelation could claim in the future, preterists focus on the issues in the day in which Revelation was written. Preterists will be able to understand much of the background and the issues of the time that the book was written moreso than those of other persuasions.
Preterists often do not take into account that apocalyptic literature is intended to address issues occurring in the future. Some preterists claim that Revelation addresses the end of the world of the biblical writer. Elaine Pagels, a biblical scholar who does not believe that John of Patmos is the same as John the apostle is documented as saying that the writer of Revelation “was actually describing the way his own world ended.” Furthermore, Pagels is noted in denoting the bizarre notion that “The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned group—a group of people we would call Christians today.” This is a most bizarre concept to accept. For Revelation is riddled with references that uphold the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the book begins with the words, “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place” (Revelation 1:1). In the first chapter, Jesus comforts John by saying, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, and the Living One” (Revelation 1:17).
In addition, as it was noted earlier, Revelation addresses a global judgment which ushers in a new creation. The book ends with the resurrection of all people and the eternal establishment of a physical-spiritual unified existence of heaven and hell. This is not something that could be passed off as merely a reference to the destruction of the Temple if one wants to be true to the text.
This article has evaluated four various interpretations as it relates to one’s interpretation of the book of Revelation. Each of the interpretations holds various strengths and weaknesses. However, it is in this writer’s view that the futurist and historicist interpretations remain most faithful to the content and style of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature like Revelation normally predicts events that will come to pass. Thus, the core thrust behind the genre is that the powers of good will ultimately triumph over the powers of evil. It would seem that idealist and preterist interpretations do not consider this aspect as much as futurist and historicist interpretations. Therefore, futurist and/or historicist interpretations are preferable in order to understand the main focus and content of Revelation.
© Pastor Brian Chilton. 2014.
Jones, Timothy Paul, David Gundersen, and Benjamin Galen. Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy. Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2011.
Pagels, Elaine. In John Blake, “4 big myths of Book of Revelation.” In CNN.com (March 31, 2012). Accessed November 10, 2014. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/31/four-big-myths-about-the-book-of-revelation/.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.
 Timothy Paul Jones, David Gundersen, and Benjamin Galen, Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2011), 65.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the Holman Christian Standard Bible (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009).
 Ibid., 66.
 This writer believes that John of Patmos is the same as the apostle John who also wrote the Gospel that bears his name as well as the three letters attributed to him.
 This is a notion held by some in academia. It is believed that two Johns lived in Ephesus, a notion that holds substantial grounds. However, some believe that the John of Patmos was another early leader known as John and not John of Zebedee, the apostle. This John perhaps knew the apostle and was in a leadership role. While this author believes that John the apostle and John of Patmos are the same individual, holding that John of Patmos was a different John does not demerit the authority of Revelation in and of itself.
 Elaine Pagels, in John Blake, “4 big myths of Book of Revelation,” in CNN.com (March 31, 2012), accessed November 10, 2014. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/31/four-big-myths-about-the-book-of-revelation/