How does one approach reading and interpreting the strange, other-worldly Book of Revelation? Here’s a short introduction and overview of the four main approaches often used.
Interpreting Revelation and other apocalyptic literature, like any specific genre, demands its own set of prescribed rules. Yet, when we approach the task of shedding light on the mysterious nature of the somewhat short-lived (c. 200 B. C. – A. D.100) genre of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, we find ourselves facing the ugly historical reality that the so-called rules seem to have changed with the tides of time.
The question then becomes: Which set of rules do I follow? In retrospect, we can rather easily trace the emergence of various schools of apocalyptic interpretation throughout the church ages and broadly categorize them into four main camps. The aim of this essay is to broadly define these four main interpretive approaches, recognize their pitfalls, and to suggest a more integrative approach to apocalyptic interpretation.
The four distinct methods are: 1) the preterist view, 2) the historicist view, 3) the idealist view, and 4) the futurist view.
HISTORY OF APOCALYPTIC INTERPRETATION
First, the preterist view places its focus on the historical context of the writer and the circumstances facing the intended audience. In the case of the Revelation of John, we would interpret the wild symbolism and prophetic visions in reference to the events about to occur in the lives of the early Christians to whom the writing addressed—namely the seven churches scattered across Asia Minor.
The first adherents to this approach, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, interpreted the text quite literally. They were awaiting the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of his millennial kingdom and the literal overthrow of the enemy of the persecuted Asian churches—Rome.
For the strict preterist, the fact that these anticipated events did not ultimately occur as expected does not warrant a reinterpretation of the text looking instead to a more distant prophetic fulfillment. Rather, the preterist would insist, according to Ladd, that “the book fulfilled its purpose in strengthening and encouraging the first-century church.” For many preterists, the genre of apocalyptic was primarily a “tract for hard times,” to bring hope in the midst of persecution. For them, prophecy is not an aspect of apocalyptic literature.
Second, while the preterist dismisses the predictive-prophetic aspect of apocalyptic, the historicist view places much emphasis on it. As Mounce defines it, “the historicist interpreted it as a forecast of the course of history leading up to his own time.” This view radically divorces the actual events when they are to occur in the distant future from the current situation of the writer and the initial hearers. While in the preterist view the apocalypse serves primarily to comfort and bring hope to the early Christians, the historicist view almost disregards the initial hearers completely. Beckwith gives the common rebuttal of such a view:
The book, as shown by its opening, especially the letters to the seven local churches…is addressed to the needs of a definite historic community…Its contents then cannot be understood to consist principally of pictures of medieval and modern history, or of predictions of an eschatological era removed from the readers’ present by indefinite ages.
Third, the idealist view skirts around the question raised by the two previous approaches—the question of when the events are to take place in history—by arguing that “Revelation is not to be taken in reference to any specific events at all but as an expression of those basic principles on which God acts throughout history.” This highly symbolic understanding of the apocalypse was propelled significantly by the spiritualizing and allegorizing exegesis of Origen.
Finally, we come to the futurist view which must be divided into two views: the extreme futurist, or Dispensationalism and the moderate futurist view. Both view Revelation as primarily a prophetic description of the eschaton, or End Times. The Dispensationalist holds a strictly literal reading of the text and makes detailed speculations such as interpreting the seven churches as representing seven successive church ages and a rigid distinction between Israel and the Church. More moderate futurists want to keep the eschatological focus of the apocalypse, while avoiding the excessive literalism of Dispensationalism.
TOWARD AN INTEGRATIVE APPROACH
Taken in isolation, each of these approaches fail to do justice to a proper reading of the text. All four treat the genre of apocalyptic too rigidly and demand a more integrative definition. In the special case of Revelation, the issue is further complicated by the fact that three different genres seem to be present.
Osborne suggests we distinguish between “genre” (the book as a whole) and “form” (smaller units within the book). Revelation is commonly categorized as a letter, as a prophetic book, and as an apocalypse. Any interpretive approach, such as the four described above, must make sense of the interrelationship between these three literary forms.
The epistolary character of John’s apocalypse strongly emphasizes the situational function of the text. John was addressing the needs and circumstances of the seven first century churches. The historicist and futurist views must wrestle with this situational function of the letter.
Much discussion has occurred over the relationship between traditional Jewish prophecy and the rise of the apocalyptic movement. I concur with Rowley’s position that “apocalyptic is the child of prophecy.” There is very strong evidence that the apocalypticists were heavily influenced by the writings of the prophets and their visions and apocalypses were partially the product of the application of OT prophecies to their own intertestamental situations.
Since prophecy is a crucial aspect of apocalyptic, one needs to rightly understand the function of biblical prophecy. The many detrimental interpretations of Revelation over the years have stemmed from severe misunderstandings of the nature of biblical prophecy. We must immediately squelch the false notion of prophecy as strictly foretelling the distant future (the futurist and historicist tendency); while also avoiding the other extreme of caricaturizing the prophet as merely a preacher without any divinely inspired foresight (the preterist tendency). Ladd helps reconcile this apparent tension:
The prophets had two foci in their prophetic perspective: the events of the present and the immediate future, and the ultimate eschatological event. These two are held in a dynamic tension often without chronological distinction, for the main purpose of prophecy is not to give a program or chart of the future, but to let the light of the eschatological consummation fall on the present (II Peter 1:19).
Finally, what is the primary role of apocalyptic imagery and symbolism in Revelation? We should stray away from reading apocalyptic as some magical form of literature, wherein the author is believed to have been sprinkled with fairy dust and mysteriously transported into another time-space reality with the purpose of bringing back to his first century readers a glimpse into the, say, political and economical environment of 21st century Europe.
Rather, apocalyptic should be viewed primarily as a linguistic strategy employed by an inspired seer by which “metaphorical language of apocalyptic invests history with theological meaning.” Thus, we find that the apocalyptic genre serves primarily as the linguistic instrument through which the prophetic communication of worldly events are described using otherworldly language in order to both comfort and warn God’s people — first, the original audience, and secondly, readers of subsequent generations.
In conclusion, we have briefly surveyed the four major interpretive approaches to Revelation noting their inadequacy for doing justice to the authorial purpose of apocalyptic communication. We have suggested a more integrative approach which considers the essential interrelationship between the epistolary aspects, the prophetic aspects, and the apocalyptic form of Revelation. When these three are equally considered, John’s Revelation maintains both its intended purpose of bringing hope and encouragement to his original readers; while also retaining its transcendent purpose of unveiling for all generations the eschatological hope of God’s final consummation and victory over the powers of evil.
Aune, David E. Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary 52A; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997).
Beckwith, Isbon T. The Apocalypse of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967).
Ladd, G. E. Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1972).
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977).
Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1991).
Rowley, H. H. The Relevance of Apocalyptic (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947).
Russell, D. S. The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1976).
Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992).