What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 2

Continuing from part 1,

Idealist. This popular approach argues that the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths (so Hendriksen, Hoekema, P. Hughes). As such it relates primarily to the church between the advents, that is, between Christ’s first and second comings. Thus it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history. The seals, trumpets, and bowls depict God’s judgments on sinners at all times, and the beast refers to all the anti-Christian empires and rulers in history. Thus the book describes the victory of Christ and his people down through history. The millennium in this approach is not a future event but the final cycle of the book (so Hendriksen) describing the church age. There are certain strengths in this view: the centrality of theology for the book, the relevance for the church at all times, the symbolic nature of the book. But it has certain weaknesses as well: the absence of historical connections, the failure to see the future nature of many of the prophecies or to connect them in any way with history (as it seems the text does in several instances).

Futurist. This was the method employed by some of the earliest fathers (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus), but with the triumph of the allegorical method (taking a spiritual approach to the book) after Origen and of the amillennial view after Augustine and Ticonius, the futurist method (and chiliasm) was not seen again for over a thousand years. The first to develop once more a literal view of the book was Franciscus Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit who wrote in the late sixteenth century to counter the Reformation antipapal interpretation. While he was not truly a futurist, he turned the attention back to the early fathers, and after him that view returned to prominence and stands alongside the others as equally viable.

Futurism believes that chapters 4–22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history and usher in the eschaton. There are two forms of this approach, dispensationalism and what has been called ‘classical premillennialism.’ Dispensationalists believe that God has brought about his plan of salvation in a series of dispensations or stages centering on his election of Israel to be his covenant people. Therefore, the church age is a parenthesis in this plan, as God turned to the Gentiles until the Jewish people find national revival (Rom. 11:25–32). At the end of that period, the church will be raptured, inaugurating a seven-year tribulation period in the middle of which the Antichrist will make himself known (Rev. 13) and instigate the ‘great tribulation’ or great persecution of the 144,000 and others among Israel who have become Christians. At the end of that period will come the parousia as Christ returns in judgment, followed by a literal millennium (20:1–10), great white throne judgment (20:11–15), and the beginning of eternity in heavenly bliss (21:1–22:5). Classical premillennialism is similar but does not hold to dispensations. Thus there is only one return of Christ, after the tribulation period (Matt. 24:29–31; cf. Rev. 19:11–21), and it is the whole church, not just the nation of Israel, that passes through the tribulation period. Also, dispensationalists view themselves as literalists on the symbols, while the second school would take many of them to be symbolic (see above). There are some weaknesses of this school as well: it can develop a perspective that would remove its applicability to first-century Christians (see above on the ‘prophecy’ movement), and it can often deteriorate to mere speculation cut off from first-century backgrounds. If all we have are events without symbolic/theological significance, much of the power of the book can be lost.

How does Osborne synthesize these views in his commentary on Revelation?

The solution is to allow the preterist, idealist, and futurist methods to interact in such a way that the strengths are maximized and the weaknesses minimized. Beale, for instance, calls his method ‘a redemptive-historical form of modified idealism’ (1999: 48). He takes the symbols in an inaugurated sense as describing the church age from the present to the future. For instance, the beast of 13:1–8 refers both to the ‘many antichrists’ throughout church history and to the final Antichrist at the end of history (1999: 680–81). The approach of this commentary is similar, but the futurist rather than the idealist position is primary. My study of ancient apocalyptic and of the Book of Revelation has led me to believe that John’s visions (esp. chaps. 4–22) were primarily intended to describe the events that will end world history.

The saints in these chapters are believers alive in that final period, and the beast is the Antichrist who will lead the ‘earth-dwellers’/unbelievers in a final pogrom against all the people of God. The seals, trumpets, and bowls symbolize a final series of judgments by which God will turn the evil deeds of the nations back upon their heads (the Roman legal principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution) to prove his sovereignty once and for all and to give them a final chance to repent (9:20–21; 11:13; 14:6–7; 16:9, 11).

But the preterist school is also correct, because the visions use the events of the future to address John and his readers in the present. Most of the imagery used to describe the beast and Babylon the Great comes from actual first-century parallels. The beast is a final Nerolike figure, and Babylon is the final unholy Roman Empire. One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’ John’s readers were being asked to identify with the people at the end of history and gain perspective for their present suffering through the future trials of God’s people. This leads us to the idealist position, also intended in the text, for these final events are also timeless symbols meant to challenge the church in every era. The three-and-a-half-year great tribulation provides models for the similar tribulations of the saints down through history. Therefore, this commentary is quite similar to Beale’s except for the centrality of the futurist approach (also similar to Ladd, Beasley-Murray, Michaels, and Mounce).