How to interpret the Book of Revelation?

The Book of Revelation can be a sticky book to interpret. George Weeber states, “No book in the New Testament—for that matter, in the whole Bible—has so many confusing and radically different interpretations as Revelation.”[1] The prophecies, visions, and unique illusions can lead to many different interpretations.

Scholars and theologians have differed on how to approach Revelation. There are four main views taken to the interpretation of Revelation: preterist approach, historicist approach, idealist approach, and the futurist approach.[2]

The preterist approach

The preterist approach interprets Revelation not as future prophecy, but as a historical collection of events from the 1st Century Roman Empire. Since, Revelation is treated as history,  John is describing people, countries and events of his day. For example, the first beast in Revelation 13 is often interpreted as the Emperor Nero and the second beast as the Emperor Domitian.[3] This view openly ignores Revelation’s own claim to be a prophecy (cf. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18-19), nor can it account for the Return of Christ (cf. 19:1ff).[4] This preterist approach is common today and is also known as the contemporary approach.[5]

The historicist approach

The view historicist approach interprets Revelation as catalog of church history (or human history) from the days of the Apostles to the present time. This view finds its roots in the Middle Ages and with the Reformers who often characterized the beast in Revelation to the Papacy.[6] The historicist approach  often uses the book of Revelation to describe various historical seasons of persecution or trials in the early church and human history. This approach is subjective and has an allegorical bent on Revelation in order to place the events of prophecy fit into the events of church history. It is a view that no longer holds much ground in the biblical community.

The idealist approach

The idealist approach interprets Revelation not as history or prophecy, but as a symbolic battle between God and Satan and the forces of good and evil.[7] This idealist approaches Revelation as disconnected from reality, prophecy and/or historical events. It views Revelation simply as a book written to encourage suffering saints in the knowledge that God will someday conquer all evil and make things right. Revelation is reduced to a book of myths that teach spiritual truth and “great principles”.[8]

The futurist approach

The futurist approach interprets Revelation chapters 4-22 as a prophetic account of actual future events that are yet to happen (i.e. last days).[9] This interpretation has been the dominant and preferred view among biblical scholars and average readers.[10] This view is a natural result of a straightforward reading of Revelation. In other words, a literary historical grammatical contextual interpretation of Revelation breeds a futurist approach to interpretation.

Each approach may have a bit of truth in them or may raise more questions and doubts related to interpretation, but overall the first three approaches leave a lot of the interpretation of Revelation up to human subjectivity and often lead to allegorization or spiritualization. The safest approach that will really get to the root meaning of John’s prophecy is the futurist approach. The futurist approach is the approach that comes close to treating the interpretation of the Book of Revelation like other books of Scripture. The book of Revelation is an integral part of the Word of God, and we will not be able to explain it’s meaning unless we have the other books of the Bible.[11] Above all, the book of Revelation is to be shared (22:10), for there is a sense of urgency to John’s writing because “the end is near” and Christ is soon returning (22:7, 12, 20).

[1] George G. Weeber. The Consummation of History: A Study of the Book of Revelation. Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, IN. 21.

[2] Merrill Tenney. Interpreting Revelation. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids MI. 1957. 135-146.

[3] Weeber, 21.

[4] C. Marvin Pate. Four Views on the Book of Revelation. Zondervan Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI. 1998. 17.

[5] D.A. Carson. An Introduction to the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI. 2005. 719.

[6] Carson, 720.

[7] Pate, 18.

[8] Willaim Milligan. The Revelation of St. John, 2nd Edition. Macmillian, London, UK. 1887. 153.

[9] John MacArthur. Because the Time is Near. Moody Publishers, Chicago. 2007. 14.

[10] Pate, 18.

[11] Weeber, 26.

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