Christians disagree on many doctrines and practices within the broader Christian faith. Not least of these is the nature of the events surrounding the return of Christ. Will there be seven years of tribulation? Is the Beast a specific individual, an institution, or merely symbolic? Does the fall of Babylon in the book of Revelation refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, Rome, or some other city? Will there be a millennial reign of Christ in the future. Has that reign started already?
Interpreting the Book of Revelation
Our understanding of the book of Revelation heavily influences the answers to these questions. However, different interpretations of Revelation are regularly a source of disagreement and, in some cases, division between believers. Unfortunately, many aggressively argue for their own position. Sadly, other views are rarely considered. Worst, some demonise those with different positions.
Ultimately, I hope for greater understanding and acceptance between brothers and sisters with differing views
Historically, there have been four primary approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation. Below I will present a brief introduction to each. My aim is to encourage dialogue between Christians who disagree. Ultimately, I hope for greater understanding and acceptance between brothers and sisters with differing views.
The Preterist approach to Revelation understands that most of the book was fulfilled in the decades immediately following the establishment of the church. Though the book of Revelation does briefly address the distant future, most notably the return of Christ and final judgment, the majority of the book is concerned with the original readers’ present reality. Therefore, from where we are sitting, Revelation describes much of what has already taken place.
According to the Preterist view, John used his apocalyptic style to encourage his Christian readers. They were facing trials and persecution, not unlike John himself (Revelation 1:9). According to Preterism, the book of Revelation is not as concerned with signs of the end times, as it is with the struggle and endurance of the 1st century church.
When the Historicist interprets the book of Revelation, they look at the past, and draw parallels between John’s vision and significant historical events. In recent centuries, Historicists have drawn parallels between Revelation and events such as the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the rise of the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation, and the expansion of the European Colonial Empires. Historicism is concerned primarily with tracking the church’s development over the centuries. To put it another way, the Historicist aligns historical events with what is described in Revelation.
The very fact that so many strong cases differ has worked against the overall Historicist position
Though several notable Reformers affirmed Historicism, its popularity has waned in recent decades. This decline is the result of a lack of consensus among Historicists. Several Historicists have made strong cases for their alignment of history and Revelation. But the very fact that so many strong cases differ has worked against the overall position.
The Idealist sees an allegorical representation of the types of things or events believers may expect in the time between the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom and its consummation. The Idealist considers the book of Revelation to be made up of several parallel narratives. Each one tells the same story, but shifts the perspective. This story is of the struggle of the Christian church in the world, and God’s continued preservation of his people through it. It is also a story that expresses God’s judgment on sin, both in disasters with a limited scope, and through eternal death.
Idealism’s major concern is how Revelation addresses the relationships between the world, church and God. Idealism largely passes over the specific details in the book of Revelation. Instead, it focuses on the broad patterns and how they are repeated in history. These patterns also indicate what can be expected.
The Futurist interprets the book of Revelation as literally as possible. This view leaves little room for symbolism. In fact, symbolism is only considered when something cannot be understood in a strictly literal fashion. Therefore, for the Futurist, the vast majority of Revelation has yet to take place. Events matching those described in the book have not occurred. After Revelation 3:22, the entire book is understood to refer exclusively to the events surrounding Christ’s return. Futurism is most concerned with the time and the signs immediately preceding the return of Christ, and the state of God’s people at that future point.
Christ will Return
As I conclude, I have one exhortation for my readers. Each of these positions has its strengths and weaknesses. Each position will lead its adherents to a different view on the events surrounding the Second Coming. We must not, however, allow our disagreement on interpretation to overshadow the central issue.
Let us not be so committed to arguing our position that we disrupt the unity of Christ’s church
Whether we read Revelation as a Preterist, Historicist, Idealist, or Futurist, let us not be so committed to arguing our position that we disrupt the unity of Christ’s church. When we read the book of Revelation, let us all agree that Jesus Christ will return victoriously. It will be glorious. In the words of Shai Linne, “even if we disagree, true Believers hum with me: Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.”