In an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the Revelation, four major interpretations have been put forth. The names encapsulate the essence of the respective approaches. They are:-
• Preterist Interpretation
• Idealist Interpretation
• Futurist Interpretation / Classical Dispensationalist
• Historicist Interpretation / Progressive Dispensationalist
1. The Preterist Interpretation
The Preterist (past) interpretation understands Revelation’s event largely to have been fulfilled in the first centuries of the Christian era – either at the fall of Jerusalem in A.D.70 or at both the falls of Jerusalem in the first century and of Rome in the fifth century. In effect, the book was written to comfort Christians, who suffered persecution from both the imperial cult and Judaism. This viewpoint wants to take the historical interpretation of Revelation seriously by relating it to its original author and audience. John addressed this book to real churches that faced dire problems in the first century A.D. Hence according to the Preterist view, Revelation relates only to the events of the day in which it was written. The book’s symbols nearly all refer to the things that happened in the Roman Empire’s days. The events had taken place by the end of the first century.
Kenneth L. Gentry writes of this as:-
“Revelation had two fundamental purposes relative to its original hearers. In the first place, it was designed to steel the first century church against the gathering storm of persecution, which was reaching an unnerving crescendo of theretofore unknown proportions and intensity. A new and major feature of that persecution was the entrance of imperial Rome onto the scene. The first historical persecution of the church by imperial Rome was by Nero Caesar from A.D. 64 to A.D. 68. In the second place, it was to brace the church for a major and fundamental re-orientation in the course of redemptive history, a re-orientation necessitating the destruction of Jerusalem (the center not only of old covenant Israel , but of Apostolic Christianity [cp. Acts1:8; 2:1ff; 15:2] and the Temple [cp. Mt.24:1-34 with Rev.11]).”
Now despite the opinion of many that Revelation was written in the 90’s during the reign of Domitian (81-96), much of the preterism holds the date of the book to be Neronian (54-68). With regard to the philosophy of history presumed by most preterists, as noted before, it is a positive one. The world will get better and better because of the triumph of the gospel.
Thus, the sustained attempt to root the fulfillment of the divine prophecies of Revelation in the first century A.D. constitutes the Preterist distinctive approach.
2. The Idealist Interpretation
Idealist Interpretation understands that Revelation is the account of the conflict between the forces of good and evil. The view spiritualizes the teachings of the book, and says that it does not set forth actual events at all, but gives symbols that depict spiritual truths.
The idealist approach to Revelation has sometimes been called the “spiritualist” view in that it interprets the book spiritually, or symbolically. Accordingly, Revelation is seen from this perspective as representing the ongoing conflict of good and evil, with no immediate historical connection to any social or political events.
Raymond Calkins well describes this interpretation as:-
“If we understand the emergency which caused the book to be written, the interpretation of it for its time, for our time, and for all time, it becomes as clear as daylight. In the light of this explanation, how far from the truth becomes that use of it which finds the chief meaning of the book in the hints it gives us about the wind-up of creation, the end of the world, and-the nature of the Last Judgment To use Revelation in this way is to abuse it, or the book itself makes no claim to be a key to the future.”
Consequently, Calkins captures the chief message of Revelation in terms of five propositions:
1. It is an irresistible summons to heroic living.
2. It contains matchless appeals to endurance.
3. It tells us that evil is marked for overthrow in the end.
4. It gives us a new and wonderful picture of Christ.
5. It reveals to us the fact that history is in the mind of God and in the hand of Christ
as the author and reviewer of the moral destinies of men.”
While all four of the schools of interpretation surveyed here resonate with these affirmations, the idealist view distinguishes itself by refusing to assign the preceding statements to any historical correspondence and thereby denies that the prophecies in Revelation are predictive except in the most general sense of the promise of the ultimate triumph of good at the return of Christ.
The origin of the idealist school of thought can be traced back to the allegorical or symbolic hermeneutic espoused by the Alexandrian church fathers, especially Clement and Origen. R. H. Charles writes of these Alexandrians that:
under the influence of Hellenism and the traditional allegorical school of interpretation which came to a head in Philo, [they] rejected the literal sense of the Apocalypse, and attached to it a spiritual significance only. This theory dominates many schools of exegetes down to the present day. Thus Clement saw in the four and twenty elders a symbol of the equality of Jew and Gentile within the Church, and in the tails of the locusts the destructive influences of immoral teachers. Origen as well as his opponent Methodius rejects as Jewish the literal interpretation of chap. XX and in the hands of his followers the entire historical contents of the Apocalypse were lost sight of?
3. Classical Dispensationalism
Classical Dispensationalism understands that Revelation corresponds to the events of history from Pentecost to the end time. The book is a symbolic forecast of the history of the church from its beginning until the second coming of Christ. Historicists find symbols to represent Constantine, the rise of the papacy, the Reformation, the French Revolution. This is the most popular interpretation of Revelation among the masses during the twentieth century has been. The name of the movement is derived from the biblical word “dispensation,” a term referring to the administration of God’s earthly household (Kjv, 1 Cor. 9:17 ; Eph. 1:10 ; 3:2; Col. 1:25). Dispensationalists divide salvation history into historical eras or epochs in order to distinguish the different administrations of God’s involvement in the world. C. I. Scofield, after whom the enormously popular Scofield Bible was named, defined a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.”33 During each dispensation, humankind fails to live in obedience to the divine test, consequently bringing that period under God’s judgment and thus creating the need for a new dispensation. Read this way, the Bible can be divided into the following eight dispensations (though the number of names varies in this School of (thought): innocence, conscience, civil government, promise, Mosaic Law, church and age of grace, tribulation, and millennium. The hallmark of dispensationalism has been its commitment to a literal interpretation of prophetic Scripture. This has resulted in three well-known tenets cherished by adherents of the movement.
(1) A distinction between the prophecies made about Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament must be maintained. In other words, the church has not replaced Israel in the plan of God. The promises he made to the nation about its future restoration will occur. The church is, therefore, a parenthesis in the outworking of that plan. The dispensational distinction between Israel and the church was solidified in the minds of many as a result of two major events in this century: the holocaust (which has rightly elicited from many deep compassion for the Jewish people) and the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948.
(2) Dispensationalists are premillennialists; that is, Christ ill come again and establish a temporary, one-thousand-year reign on earth from Jerusalem .
(3) Dispensationalists believe in the pretribulation rapture; that is, Christ’s return will occur in two stages: the first one for his church, which will be spared the Great Tribulation; the second one in power and glory to conquer his enemies.
4. Progressive Dispensationalism
Progressive Dispensationalism understands t he book of Revelation tells about events on into the future, looking ahead for fulfillment. The key verse is Revelation 1:19 , and while part of the book is about the history of the church, the greater part of the book reveals things that will take place at the end of the age.
The umbrella concept informing this interpretation is its adherence to the “already/not yet” hermeneutic. First popularized by Oscar Cullmann, a Swiss theologian of a generation ago, this system views the first and second comings of Christ through the lens of eschatological tension. The former witnessed the inauguration of the kingdom of God , while the latter will result in its full realization. Until then, the Christian lives in the tension between the age to come (which dawned at the first coming of Christ) and this present evil age (which will only be transformed at the Parousia, or the second coming of Christ). Gordon D. Fee captures the essence of this approach:
The absolutely essential framework of the self understanding of primitive Christianity… is an eschatological one. Christians had come to believe that, in the event of Christ, the new (coming) age had dawned, and that, especially through Christ’s death and resurrection and the subsequent gift of the Spirit, God had set the future in motion, to be consummated by yet another coming (Parousia) of Christ. Theirs was therefore an essentially eschatological existence. They lived “between the times” of the beginning and the consummation of the end. Already God had secured their … salvation; already they were the people of the future, living the life of the future in the present age–and enjoying its benefits. But they still awaited the glorious consummation of this salvation. Thus they lived in an essential tension between the “already” and the “not-yet.
Like classical dispensationalism, progressives also focus on Revelation 1:19 as the key to the book’s structure, except, rather than view the verse as delineating three time frames (past, present, future), this viewpoint perceives only two periods at work. John is to write what he has seen (the visions of Revelation as a, whole), which divide into two realities: the things that are—the present age; and the things that will be–the age to come. For John the church of his day lives in the present age (chaps. 1-3), but in heaven, by virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the age to come has already dawned (chaps. 4-5). In the future the age to come will descend to earth, effecting the defeat of the Antichrist (chaps. 6-19), the establishment of the temporary messianic kingdom on earth (chap. 20), and subsequently the eternal state (chaps. 21-22). Thus the overlapping of the two ages accounts for the continual shifting of scenes between earth (this age) and heaven (the age to come) in Revelation.