Nearly one third of the verses in the book of Revelation contain a prediction. Between them, some fifty-six separate events are foretold. Exactly half of these are in plain language and the other half are in symbolic picture form. Most of them occur after Chapter 4, which opens with a marked change in perspective – from earth to heaven and from present to future (‘come up here and I will show you what must take place after this’; 4:1). Clearly, this refers to happenings that are future to the original writer and readers in the first century AD.
Are the predicted events past, present or future to us who live nineteen centuries later? Do we look behind, around or ahead for their fulfilment? This is where the differences begin. Over the intervening years between then and now, four major opinions have arisen, leading to four ‘schools of interpretation’. Most bible prophecy pundits will use only one point of view. It is important to look at them all before assuming that one is right. It is too easy and risky to follow the first that has been heard or read about.
The four are now so well-established, they have been given familiar labels: preterist, historicist, futurist and idealist. It is important to be able to identify the very different approaches you may encounter.
This school regards the predictions as fulfilled during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, when the church was under the pressures of imperial persecutions.
According to Preterism, all prophecy in the Bible is really history. The preterist interpretation of Scripture regards the book of Revelation as a symbolic picture of first-century conflicts, not a description of what will occur in the end times. The term Preterism comes from the Latin praeter, meaning “past.” Thus, Preterism is the view that the biblical prophecies concerning the “end times” have already been fulfilled—in the past. Preterism is directly opposed to futurism, which sees the end-times prophecies as having a still-future fulfillment.
Preterism is divided into two types: full (or consistent) Preterism and partial Preterism.
In historicism biblical prophecies are interpreted as representative of literal historical events. Historicism looks at the whole of Bible prophecy as a sweeping overview of church history, from Pentecost to the end times. This approach involves interpreting symbols or figures in the Bible as metaphors for actual events, nations, or persons of history. Historicism was especially popular during the Reformation, when it was used to suggest that the Catholic Church was part of the end-times apostasy, with the pope as the Antichrist.
Here are some examples of how historicism usually interprets events in Revelation: the seven churches in Rev. 2–3 are symbolic of seven ages of church history, starting with the apostolic church (the church of Ephesus) and ending with the modern-day, lukewarm church (the church of Laodicea). The seals in chapters 4—7 represent the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The “little scroll” given to John Rev. 10 is a picture of the Protestant Reformation.
The beasts of Rev. 12 and 13 represent Catholicism and the papacy. Other passages in Revelation are linked to the invasion of the Huns, the spread of Islam, and the rise of the modern missionary movement.
The basic premise of the futurist viewpoint is that the majority of the prophecies in Revelation still await a future, literal fulfillment. This view of interpreting Revelation is very popular today, particularly among dispensationalists. It is the method used by the authors of the bestselling Left Behind series. Those who hold this view generally believe that everything after Rev. 3 will be fulfilled in the future.
The futurist viewpoint often divides Revelation into three sections, which are defined in Rev. 1:19. There, the apostle John is instructed to “write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Following this three-part outline, Rev. 1 contains John’s vision of the risen Christ and represents the past (“what you have seen”). Chapters 2 and 3, which contain the letters to the seven churches, describe the present (“what is now”). Finally, chapters 4–22 describe events in the future (“what will take place later”).
This school believes that the central block of predictions applies to the last few years leading up to the second coming. It is therefore still future to us today, hence the label. It concerns the climax of evil control in the world, which will be the ‘Great Tribulation’ for the people of God (Rev 7:14; also referred to by Jesus in Matt 24:12–22).
All the events will be compressed into quite a short time – three and a half years, to be exact (explicitly referred to as ‘a time, times and half a time’ or ‘forty-two months’ or ‘one thousand, two hundred and sixty days’; 11:2–3; 12:6 and 12:14, quoting Dan 12:7).
There are differing viewpoints concerning the end times among faithful, Bible-believing Christians. We believe that the futurist viewpoint of Revelation is the one that is most consistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible overall and the one that best acknowledges the book’s own claim to be prophecy (Rev. 22:7, 10). Whichever view one takes, all Christians should be preparing themselves to meet Jesus Christ and be waiting for His return (John 14:3).
This approach removes all specific time references and discourages correlation with particular events. Revelation pictures the ‘eternal’ struggle between good and evil and the ‘truths’ contained in its narratives can be applied to any century. The battle between God and Satan is ongoing, but the divine victory can be experienced by an ‘overcoming’ church at any time. The ‘essential message’ can be universally applied throughout time and space. The main and perhaps only merit of this view is that the message of the book becomes directly relevant to all who read it.
This, however, is to treat Revelation as ‘myth’. It is spiritually true, but not historically true. These are fictional events, but the stories contain truths – as in Aesop’s fables or Pilgrim’s Progress. The truths must be dug out of the narrative before being applied. The cost of this ‘demythologising’ process is to jettison a great deal of material, dismissing it as poetic licence which belongs to the package rather than the content.
Behind all this is the Greek philosophy which separated spiritual and physical, sacred and secular, eternity and time. God, they said, is timeless. So truth is timeless, though it is also therefore timely. But it is not in ‘the times’. Their notion of history as cyclical cut out the concept of the ‘end-time’, the idea that time would reach a climax or conclusion.
This has serious consequences for ‘eschatology’ (the study of ‘the last things’, from the Greek word eschatos = ‘end’ or ‘last’). Events like the second coming and the day of judgement are transferred from the future to the present, from then to now. Eschatology becomes ‘existential’ (i.e. concerned with the present moment of existence, or it is said to be ‘realised’ (as in ‘realising’ investments – having the money to spend now). Of course, radical changes have to be made to the ‘predictions’ to make them fit the present – usually by ‘spiritualising’ them (a ‘Platonic’ way of thinking).
There are four different answers to the question: what period of time does Revelation cover?
The preterist replies: the first few centuries AD.
The historicist replies: all the centuries AD from the first to the second advent.
The futurist replies: the last years of the last century AD.
The idealist replies: any century AD, none in particular.