Revelation series, post #5

Main interpretative schools

At the end of last post we noted that there are different views on how Revelation should be interpreted. Each school has different views on what is and isn’t literal in the book of Revelation. They also have different beliefs as to when and how the symbols, images and prophesies in Revelation are or were fulfilled.

How people interpret the symbols and images depends on their general Bible hermeneutics and approach to eschatology. Biblical hermeneutics is simply the style and principles behind how someone interprets the books of the Bible. It is part of the broader field of hermeneutics which involves the study of principles of interpretation for all forms of communication, non-verbal and verbal.

What is eschatology?

Eschatos = things of the end

Ology = study of

Question for you to consider: In light of all the theology out there about the end times, does it really matter what you think about it?

As Christians, the truth is that we all have an opinion about the end times. Studying what Scripture says about the end is important because it determines whether our opinion has a firm or sandy foundation! It can give us a security in Christ, or apprehension and fear. It can bring reverent fear of the Lord, or a distorted view of God.

The views we are going to look at today: all hold Jesus Christ to be Lord and Saviour; they all hold that He has conquered over death through His work on the cross and resurrection; and they all believe firmly in the Second Coming of Christ (also called the Second Advent or the Parousia).

Can you think of anything that poor eschatology might produce?

Here are a few thoughts, but by no means an exhaustive list: Poor eschatology can lead to a wrong evangelistic style, a focus on condemnation rather than grace; twisted view of Scripture; poor stewardship of what God has given us in this world, e.g. long term planning; superstitions, such as not wanting to have things with the number 666 on it; etc. We see a few of the above addressed by Paul to the early church, such as in his epistles to the Thessalonians who feared Christ has already returned, but only in the spiritual realm and thus they had missed His coming.

On the other hand, good eschatology leads to hope, fear of the Lord, worship of God Almighty, and joyous evangelism rather than fear-based evangelism.

Scripture makes it clear that we do not know the time of Christ’s return. We need to believe He could come back at any time. This will lead to faithful stewardship of our time, possessions and the world around us. Even whilst remembering that countless generations before us have walked in the same belief. Each generation since Christ has believed, or at least hoped, He will come back in their life time. Don’t let it come about us, but how God calls us to live faithfully and with eager expectation of His return.

Back to the main views

This all said, let us look at the main ways people interpret Revelation. I am going to look at the four main views, plus a fifth emerging view that combines a few of the traditional ones. Keep in mind that there is diversity of belief even within these schools. There is also likely to be a large range of beliefs amidst your Christian network. We need to walk in love and humility. Remember the teachings of John’s first epistle – love one another!

You also do not need to fit into a view. Personally, I don’t fit nicely into one of these four views. In fact, good inductive Bible study says that we should throw off any previously held beliefs and study Scripture to see what it says, not what others before us have come to believe. You might also find that your view changes and shifts the more you dig into Scripture; again, I’ve found this to be the case for myself. The main priority is that we are regularly searching the Scripture with the Holy Spirit in order to apply its truths to our life, and allowing it to transform us into the image of God.

Grow through the Word and Spirit***

Four main ways people have used to interpret the book:

1. Spiritual/ Idealist

The idealist holds that God intended no historical reference in the giving of His revelation; all the truths in the book are held to be spiritual. The following two quotes summarise the idealist view: 

“While the Apocalypse thus embraces the whole period of the Christian dispensation, it sets before us within this period the action of great principles and not special incidents; we are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, both for the exhibition of the principles which govern the history of both the world and the Church.” (William Milligan; 1889*).

“Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.” (Robert Mounce; 1977**).

Some pros of this view:

  • It avoids the problem of harmonizing passages with events in history.
  • It also makes the book of Revelation applicable and relevant for all periods of church history.

Some cons of this view:

  • This view denies the book of Revelation any specific historical fulfilment, whereas 1:1 states that the events will come to pass shortly, giving the impression that John is prophesying future historical events.

2. Preterist/Past

The word “preterist”is from the Latin “praeteritus” meaning “before” or “already fulfilled”. Preterists believe the book has already been fulfilled with the exception the last few chapters. Some scholars of this view even hold the final chapters to already have been fulfilled. They place the events in the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the Roman empire at that time. Preterism is the school that holds Revelation to have been written before 70AD.

Preterists come to their stand point by by the repeated admonitions that the: “time is at hand/ near/ short”. They also lean heavily on Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:34: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”. As the time frame of “generation” usually refers to forty years, the fall of Jerusalem would fit the time Jesus predicted.

Some pros of this view:

  • Very relevant for John’s original readers, the seven churches of Asia Minor mentioned.

Some cons of this view:

  • Only works if early dating of the book is  prior to 70AD, where most scholars through history place it in the 90sAD.
  • There would then be a huge gap in time between the majority of the book’s events and those of the last few chapters.

3. Historical

The historicist’s view, as the name suggestions, looks at periods of history for the book’s fulfilment. This view teaches that Revelation presents the course of history from the apostle’s life through the end of the age.

Some pros of this view:

  • It can be applied throughout all history.
  • It is the historical protestant view – While this interpretation is not widely in use today, most of the classic commentaries from a century or more ago are written from a historicist viewpoint.

Some cons of this view:

  • No consensus on specific details, with people tending to interpret events based on their period of history.
  • This view focuses mostly on the events of the church in Western Europe and says very little about the church in the East. Thus, it fails to account for God’s activity throughout the rest of the world.
  • Finally, this view would have little significance for the church of the first century, to whom John addressed the revelation.

4. Futurist/Dispensationalist

Futurists see the book as chronological, not cyclical, and nearly all still coming. They divide the book of Revelation into three sections as indicated in 1:19: “what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Thus, chapter 1 describes the past (“what you have seen”), chapters 2-3 describe the present (“what is now”), and the rest of the book describes future events (“what will take place later”).

Futurists also believe in the rapture of believers at Rev 4:1 (resurrection into heaven, before the millennial reign of Christ), and they interpret Daniel 7 and the 70th week to be a seven year tribulation of the church. They believe in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ (more on this when we get to chapter 20).

This view takes many passages literally. They make it clear that literal interpretation does not discount figurative or symbolic language. Futurists teach that prophecies using symbolic language are also to be normally interpreted according to the laws of language. They also hold a distinction between Israel and the Church, and God’s purposes for them.

(It must be noted that a secondary interpretative view has come out of the Traditional Dispenationalist view, called the Progressive Dispensationalist view. Progressive Dispensationalists believe in partial fulfilment of events in John’s times, with complete fulfilment at the Second Coming of Christ. They hold to the “now, but not yet”principle of hermeneutics – that the Kingdom of God was brought partially by Christ’s First Coming, but will come in its full glory at the time of His return.)

Some pros of this view:

  • Futurists contend that the literal interpretation of Revelation finds its roots in the ancient church fathers.
  • They know their Bibles really well because they examine it so thoroughly to make connections and webs, particularly of prophesies in the Old and New Testaments.

Some cons of this view:

  • Makes the book irrelevant to the original readers of the first century.
  • Also makes 90% of it irrelevant for Christians as it applies to those left after Christians taken out of the world.
  • So many people get excited about the wrath that will come on the unbelievers (because they are out of it), which does not lead us to follow in Christ’s love and compassion, or practise evangelism.
  • Some of Revelation isn’t chronological


Some good books if interested in seeing more about these views:

  • Revelation: Four views; a parallel commentary. Edited by Steve Gregg. This book goes through Revelation verse by verse according to each of the above four views. The editor gives no preference to any of the views.

  • Four views on the Book of Revelation. Edited by Stanley N. Gundrey, and C. Marvin Pate. This book gives a big picture overview of the beliefs of Idealisms, Preterism, Progressive Dispensationalism and Classical Dispensationalism. It leaves out the Historical view.

Moving Ahead


As we move ahead, we must lay down our preconceived ideas. This is one of books where we most-need to do this, but also one of the hardest books to lay our ideas down. Be open! Not uncritical, but open. The focus  of our interpretation must be on what it meant to John and the original readers, for this is good inductive study.

We also must not forget context! There are 404 verses in Revelations and it has been suggested that there are over 500 references to other parts of Scripture. This book can’t be read in isolation! Many of the images are defined in other parts of the Bible, such as Daniel. Revelation is not new information; it’s the same story as the rest of the Bible, just in 3D.


Next post, we will enter into the text at last!


* William Milligan, The Book of Revelation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889), 153-4.

** Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1977), 43.

*** Image by Lucky Gumbo, curtsey of The Inductive Bible Study Companion; Unlock the Word ©2015

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