Why do interpreters disagree over the meaning of Revelation? One answer is that they have adopted schools of thought that have influenced their understanding of the text. To recognize and minimize our own biases, it’s important to be aware of these schools of thought. In the main, there are four major schools of interpretation for the book of Revelation: (1) Preterism, (2) Historicism, (3) Idealism, and (4) Futurism.
1. Preterism (The events have passed already)
The preterist school holds that most—if not all—of 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 future fulfillment, but about historical, past events. This view is “held by a majority of contemporary scholars, not a few of whom are identified with the liberal interpretation of Christianity.”
Criticism of the preterist school. For a full critique of Preterism, see our book Endless Hope of Hopeless End (specifically chs. 7-8). For a shorter critique, see our article, “A Critique of Preterism.”
2. Historicism (Progressively fulfilled throughout church history)
The historicist school holds that the book of Revelation predicts the future, but it has been progressively fulfilled throughout church history. Those in this school hold that Revelation offers a “broad outline [of] the history of western Europe… stretching right on until the second coming of Christ.” The book is a “forecast of the course of history leading up to his own time.”
Proponents. This view originated with Joachim of Fiore (12th c. AD). Later, Martin Luther and the Reformers adopted this view, believing that the Antichrist was the Roman papacy and Babylon was the Roman church. Other modern scholars have held this view as well, though only very few.
Classical dispensationalists are strange bedfellows with the historicist approach. Though they are ardent futurists, they hold that the letters to the Seven Churches predict the events of the Church Age (see John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, A.C. Gaebelein, etc.). This makes them partial adherents of this view. Progressive dispensationalists reject this view, however (see Robert Thomas, Darrell Bock, Robert Saucy, etc.).
Criticism of the historicist school. For one, it is often an ethnocentric view that interprets Revelation as referring to Anglo-American Christianity, rather than Global Christianity. Second, it is a largely egocentric view, because each proponent often “works things out so that the end falls in his own time.” Third, it is quite difficult to align Revelation with any clear aspects of church history. Fourth, consequently, this has led to wild speculations and “no real agreement” among proponents of this view.
3. Idealism (Symbolic fight between good/evil)
The idealist school (or “timeless symbolic” view) holds that the book of Revelation should be taken as pure symbol that explains the battle between good and evil. Under this view, “the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths… it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history.” Accordingly, Revelation is a “theological poem setting forth the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.”
Under this view, events like the “seals, trumpets, and bowls” simply refer to God’s judgment throughout history, and the “beast” refers to godless empires and rulers throughout history. Thus, one advocate writes, “We are not to look in the Apocalypse for special events, but for an exhibition of the principles which govern the history both of the world and the Church.” To the idealist, Revelation simply teaches that God will win over the powers of evil. We may be tortured or killed in the name of Christ, but in the end, Christ will get the last word.
Criticism of the idealist school. For one, we agree that the book of Revelation teaches about the triumph of Jesus and his Church over evil. But is this really the only teaching of this book? Why does it take 22 chapters to make this one point? Indeed, we can’t imagine sitting through an expositional teaching of Revelation from this viewpoint. After one or two teachings, there wouldn’t be very much at all to say. Second, this book calls itself “prophecy” of the future (Rev. 1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18-19). But if the idealist school is right, then this view “denies to the book any specific historical fulfillment.” Third, this hermeneutic results in turning the book into a bowl of silly putty in the hands of the interpreter. Truly, it gives no guidelines or restraint to the interpreter.
4. Futurism (Occurs in the future)
The futurist school holds that everything after Revelation 4:1 has yet to happen at this point in human history. 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 remains a future Antichrist that will come at the end of human history.
Proponents. The futurist school was held by the early church fathers until the allegorical method of interpretation entered the church (e.g. Origen, Augustine, etc.). The “allegorical method prevailed” for nearly a millennium until the 16th century when a focus on a more literal reading returned. Once a grammatical-historical hermeneutic returned, the futurist school was restored. Many scholars hold this view today, including Alan Johnson, Leon Morris, Grant Osborne, Robert Mounce, John Walvoord, Robert Thomas, and George Ladd. This author holds to this school of thought: After Revelation 1-3, the visions predict the future of humanity at the end of history.
Criticism of the futurist school. Those who reject futurism argue that this view doesn’t allow any meaning or application for the early church. Indeed, they argue that the book is practically meaningless to the subsequent centuries of Christians before the final generation. For our response, see our earlier article, “Doesn’t a futurist interpretation deny first-century readers any understanding or application?”
Are these mutually exclusive?
Many modern commentators hold to an eclectic view that borrows from the preterist, idealist, and futurist views (see Morris, Johnson, Mounce, Beale). This is what makes the study of commentaries often so difficult. The commentator might move from seeing a first-century Roman parallel to saying that the predicted events haven’t happened yet. So, which is it? Is the commentator a preterist or futurist? Both! They would argue that John uses imagery of Emperor Domitian’s downfall to describe the final destruction of the Antichrist.
We disagree with this widely utilized approach. Of course, we see no necessary conflict between an idealist and futurist view, we do see insuperable problems between futurism and preterism. An event cannot refer to both the first century and the end of history at the same time, in the same place, and in the same respect. Both could be false, but at most, only one could be true.
In the view of this author, the preterist school should be adopted for Revelation 1-3. Moreover, the futurist school should be adopted throughout Revelation 4-22, while acknowledging that the idealist school can offer insights into symbolic elements of these future events.
 Of course, preterists hold that Revelation 21-22 still remains in the future, but the rest of the book was fulfilled by AD. Hyper preterists hold the entire book to be fulfilled—even the New Heavens and Earth.
 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 409.
 G.B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).
 See his forthcoming exegetical commentary.
 N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).
 R.H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John. 2 vols. (International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: Clark, 1920).
 J.P.M. Sweet, Revelation (Westminster Pelican Commentaries. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979).
 J.N. Kraybill, “Apocalypse Now.” Christianity Today 43:30-40.
 J. Roloff, Revelation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 19.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 27.
 D.A. Carson states that John Calvin never wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. He may have refrained 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.
 Beatrice S. Neall, The Concept of Character in the Apocalypse with Implications for Character Education (Univ. of America, 1983).
 See footnote. Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 20.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 20.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 20.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 28.
 William Milligan, The Revelation of St. John (Macmillan, 1886), 153-154.
 William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1967), 51.
 Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 29.
 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 408.
 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981).
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987).
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002).
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Galaxie Software, 2008).
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary (Two Volumes, Chicago: Moody, 1992, 1995).
 George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972).
 One exception would be when to date the judgments of Revelation 6. We argue that these align with the “birth pangs” of Matthew 24 that occur in the Church Age.