What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 1

Because of the literary genre and dense symbolism in the Book of Revelation, there has been much disagreement in the church about how to interpret it. The events described in chapters 4-19 especially invite a diversity of opinions. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, describes the situation:

There are several major categories of interpretation of this book: (1) Revelation predicts in detail the course of human history till the Second Coming, (2) Revelation reflects the general principles of history, (3) Revelation addresses only what was happening in John’s day, (4) Revelation addresses only the end time, and (5) combinations of the above approaches (e.g., John addresses the principles of history in view of the ever-impending end time until it arrives, and originally articulated these principles to speak to the situation of his late-first-century readers).

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, gives a detailed accounting of the historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation which correspond to Keener’s categories above.

Historicist. This approach began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He claimed that a vision had told him the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events of Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. The Franciscans followed Joachim and like him interpreted the book as relating to pagan Rome and the papacy (due to corruption in the church). Later the Reformers (e.g., Luther and Calvin) also favored this method, with the pope as the Antichrist (see Beckwith 1919: 327–29; Johnson 1981: 409). Classical dispensational thinking took this approach with regard to the letters to the seven churches, believing that the letters prophesied the seven periods of the church age. Also, the so-called prophecy movement, those preachers who see every detail in OT as well as NT apocalyptic symbolism as fulfilled in current events (the ‘newspaper approach’ to prophecy), would be aligned with this school. Proponents of this method have tended to take Rev. 2–19, including the seals, trumpets, and bowls as well as the interludes, as prophetic of salvation history, that is, the development of church history within world history. Thus the beast/Antichrist has been variously identified with the pope, Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler. Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999: 46), few scholars today take this approach.

Preterist. This approach argues that the details of the book relate to the present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. Thus the symbols refer to events in the first-century world as experienced by the original readers, and John is telling them how God would deliver them from their oppressors. There are three basic approaches to the book from within this school of thought. The two most popular relate the book to the situation of the church in the Roman Empire. The first (taken by critical scholars like R. H. Charles, Sweet, and Roloff) views the book as written about Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman Empire. Due to the development of the imperial cult, pressure to conform and the resultant persecution have become serious threats to the church. The beast thus would be the Roman Empire or the Roman emperor, and the seals, trumpets, and bowls are contemporary judgments God is pouring (or soon will pour) upon Rome itself. Thus the book describes the conflict between church and state, between faithfulness to God and compromise with the pagan world.

The second is taken by many modern critics (Yarbro Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr) who argue that there was little persecution and a perceived crisis rather than a real one. The church is still called out from the ‘world’ to follow God, but it is an internal spiritual crisis rather than external persecution. Osiek (1996: 343–44) says the eschatology of the book is not a timetable for the future but a reinterpretation of the present. It provides a spatial interaction between the earthly and the heavenly so as to give new meaning to the present situation. In this case the symbols provide alternative worlds that the readers have to choose between, the transcendent realm of God and the church or the alternative secular world of Rome. The problem of the book then is compromise, as seen in the Nicolaitan cult, and the solution is true worship of Christ (see esp. Krodel).

A third option is to take the book as written before a.d. 70 and prophesying the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment upon apostate Israel for rejecting the Messiah and persecuting the church (so Gentry, Chilton). The beast is Rome, the kings from the east are the Roman generals who brought the Roman army from the eastern boundary of the empire to destroy Jerusalem, and Armageddon is the siege of Jerusalem itself. For Kraybill (1999: 32–35) the white horse of 6:1–2 is Rome and the red horse of 6:3–4 is the Jewish War of a.d. 66–70.

This third approach is least viable, not only because it necessitates an early date of writing but because it limits the universal language of the book (all ‘peoples, languages, tribes, and nations’) to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the first two are also problematic because they would involve an error of prophecy (which many critical scholars state openly) since final judgment and the end of the world did not come with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

To be continued in part 2.