Different Schools of Interpreting Revelation

There are four major schools of interpretation for the book of Revelation. Let’s consider each:

1. Futurist (Occurs in the future)

The futurist school holds that everything after chapter 4 is yet to happen in the future. Under this view, the book of Revelation is mostly a book of future prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled. While John no doubt uses first century imagery to explain his future predictions, this does not indicate that the entire book should be seen as fulfilled in the first century. For instance, John writes, “Just as you heard that Antichrist is coming, even now many Antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 Jn. 2:18). While many of the images of the Antichrist can be seen throughout history, there is still a future Antichrist that will come at the end of human history.

The futurist school was held by the early church fathers until the allegorical method of interpretation was brought in. However, John writes, “After nearly a ten-century eclipse, during which time the allegorical method prevailed, the futurist view was revived in the late sixteenth century by Franciscus Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit.”[1] In other words, once a grammatical-historical hermeneutic was restored, this futurist school was revived also. This author holds to this school of thought, finding the other schools lacking.

2. Historicist (Progressively fulfilled throughout church history)

The historicist school holds that the book of Revelation predicts the future, but it has been progressively fulfilled through church history—not some future tribulation. This view began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century AD. This was the view of Martin Luther and the Reformers,[2] who believed that the Antichrist was the Roman papacy and Babylon was the Roman church. This view generally has a minimal following today, because it is difficult to align Revelation with any significant portion of church history. It has also led to wild speculation.

3. Preterist (The events have passed already)

The preterist school holds that the events of Revelation were fulfilled in the first century. In English, the preterite is the past tense. Therefore, under the preterist view, Revelation is not about a futuristic fulfillment, but about historical, past events (with the exception of Jesus’ final return in Revelation 21-22). Johnson writes, “This is the view held by a majority of contemporary scholars, not a few of whom are identified with the liberal interpretation of Christianity.”[3] He adds, “As a system, it did not appear till 1614, when a Spanish Jesuit named Alcasar developed its main lines.”[4]

4. Idealist (Symbolic fight between good/evil)

The idealist school holds that the book of Revelation should be taken as a purely symbolic explanation of our battle between good and evil. Osborne explains, “The seals, trumpets, and bowls depict God’s judgments on sinners at all times, and the beast refers to all the anti-Christian empires and rulers in history. Thus the book describes the victory of Christ and his people down through history.”[5] Under this view, we are simply supposed to understand that God will win over the powers of evil, and as believers, we are on the winning side. We may be tortured or killed in the name of Christ, but in the end, Christ will get the last word.

 


[1] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (408). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] D.A. Carson states that John Calvin never wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. Some Reformers believe that he refrained from this, because he didn’t want to disagree with his fellow Reformers who saw the Whore of Babylon and the Beast as the Roman Catholic Church. See D.A. Carson’s seminary class on Revelation found here. Lecture One.

[3] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (409). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[5] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 20.