When it comes to the book of Revelation, many of us feel confused. It is a difficult book to understand, and we have heard a variety of interpretations. Theologians have general agreement on chapters 1-3 (the introduction and letters to the 7 churches) and on chapters 21-22 (the physical return of Christ and the new heavens and new earth). However, the interpretations of chapters 4-20 are diverse. I will summarize the 4 main views here, and share what view we will be teaching from in our study. While you may view the book from a different viewpoint, the unifying factor for all the views is the desire to value the Word of God and give it the authority in our lives to show us who God is, what He has done for us in Jesus, who we are in Him, and how we are to live in obedience to Him as we await his final return to usher in our great hope of the new heavens and the new earth where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
The word “preterist” refers to the past. This view believes that prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled in specific events for 1st Century readers, and thus for modern readers have already happened in the past. They focus on prophecies that would “soon take place” and attribute most of their fulfillment in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70, and in the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century. Preterism fails to account for the global scope of judgment that Revelation clearly communicates, and it has been deemed a heretical view because it does not believe in a physical return of Jesus at the end of time. Partial-preterism, however, is an acceptable Christian view because while it interprets the prophecies as having been fulfilled in specific events of the past, it holds to the belief that there are still yet to be some prophecies fulfilled, namely a physical return of Christ, final judgment, and new heavens and new earth. The weakness with this view is that it depends on an early date for its writing. The majority of scholars agree Revelation was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, which would render this interpretation useless. The other struggle with this view is that it turns Revelation into more of a history book committed to debatable specific events, minimizing its emphasis as a guide for Christians throughout the centuries. Preterism/Partial-Preterism dates back only to the 1500s and its modern teachers include RC Sproul and Hank Hanegraaff,
This view interprets the visions of seals, trumpets, and bowls as describing successive ages of the development of the western church as seen in specific events that have happened since the ascension of Jesus as we move toward His return. This would include things like the fall of the Roman Empire, the corruption of the Catholic church, the Protestant Reformation, and other major events. The weakness of this view is that it is trying to use events in church history to look back and interpret Scripture. This leads to people asking, “where are we now in the timeline of Revelation?” This view also focuses too much on the western church and makes most of the book quite irrelevant for the 1st Century recipients, as it wouldn’t be able to be understood and applied until much later in church history. The Historicist view dates back to the 12th Century when Joachim of Fiore claimed to have a vision regarding how Revelation revealed the events of western history from the apostles' time until the present. Later in the 16th Century, the church reformers favored this method of interpretation, especially eyeing the Pope as the Antichrist.
This view believes that everything from chapter 4 on is prophesying a chronological order of future events about the return of Christ at the end of history. This view interprets the symbols and numbers as literal as possible and is closely tied to what is known as Dispensationalism, a theological framework that believes God has 2 distinct people (Israel and the church) with 2 distinct plans throughout the course of history. They believe God is working on the church now and will finish His work with Israel later. Beginning in chapter 4 the Futurist view has the church secretly raptured up to heaven, followed by a 7-year tribulation and reign of an antichrist on earth, the nations go to war against Jerusalem, Christ returns to defeat the nations in the battle of Armageddon, then Satan is bound for a literal 1,000 years as Christ reigns on the earth, followed by the release of Satan and his final destruction as all the dead are raised for the final judgment and the ushering in of the eternal state of the new heavens and new earth. The weakness with this view is that there is no mention of a secret rapture in Revelation (or the rest of the Bible), and it again leads people to interpret the book based on current events. It also renders much of the book irrelevant for the 1st Century Christians, and really for all Christians who supposedly wouldn’t be on the earth while the events of chapters 4-20 take place.
The Futurist view is not found in church history prior to the 1800s. It was spread by John Nelson Darby in the Plymouth Brethren movement. In the early 1900s Cyrus Schofield promoted this view and dispensational theology with his Schofield Study Bible. Pastors were trained in schools like Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. And it was also popularized in cultural America with Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind book series. Modern-day teachers of this view include John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, and Francis Chan
This view believes Revelation is symbolically describing the cosmic battle of good vs evil that the church is to faithfully endure through the centuries as we await the final return of Jesus Christ to judge the earth. This view agrees with historicism that many events in history can be seen as fulfilled prophecies, but it does not limit the fulfillment of the prophecy to just that one specific historic event. This view also agrees with the futurist view that there are some events that are still to take place; Christ’s final defeat of the enemy and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth. Where this view stands apart is that it interprets the visions of the seals, bowls, and trumpets not as specific events to unfold in a chronological timeline, but rather as types of events that happen over and over again throughout human history as the church endures evil and tribulation until Christ returns in judgment. This is also known as recapitulation, the retelling of events from different angles with different perspectives. The focus of the book is less on trying to figure out where in a timeline we are at, or what current events serve as puzzle pieces to fit together. Rather, this view focuses on encouraging a suffering church to see that the Lamb who was slain but who rose now reigns as King and will one day return to judge the earth, vindicate his people, and bring an end to all the suffering that the enemy caused His glorious bride dating back to Genesis 3.
We believe the idealist view is the best way to interpret and study the book of Revelation. It maintains direct relevance for the church in every century, best connects us all with symbolism rooted in the Old Testament, and displays the ongoing spiritual warfare being played out in the human history of things like politics, economics, military wars, false religious teachings, and our own fleshly desires. This is the oldest of the views, tracing back to the 3rd century and ancient church father Origen, and was made more prominent by Augustine in the 4th century. Modern-day teachers of this view include John Piper, DA Carson, Sam Storms, and David Platt
For further study on Revelation we recommend the following resources:
The Triumph of the Lamb by Dennis E. Johnson
Revelation A Shorter Commentary by G.K. Beale
Revelation Four Views by Steve Gregg
Let’s Study Revelation by Derek Thomas