Four traditional ways of understanding Revelation 4-22 have emerged in the history of the church. In our day, additional mixed views have been developed by combining elements from these four traditions. Since each of the four views or approaches is held by evangelicals, they are not an issue of orthodoxy but of interpretation.
Approaches to Interpretation
PRETERIST VIEW, sometimes called the Kingdom Now View. Preterist comes from the Latin word praeter, which means “past.” This view holds that Revelation 4-22 is simply a sketch of the conditions of the Roman Empire in the first century.
Preterists believe Revelation was written by some Hebrew Christian who revolted against pagan tyranny. He saw the empire as a gigantic machine (the beasts of chapter 13) that opposed the Gospel in the social, political and religious realms, and was bent on stamping out the Christian movement. Hence, the book is seen as a Jewish apocalyptic to encourage faithfulness during intense persecution. This view holds that the chief prophecies were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the fall of the Roman Empire.
Hence, many hold the Millennium is the Kingdom now. Those who hold this postmillennial or amillennial view believe that Christ will not return to earth for thousands of years until the Church converts the world to Christianity and creates the Kingdom of God on earth. The Spanish Jesuit named Alcasar developed this system in A.D. 1614.
HISTORICIST VIEW is sometimes called the Continuous-historical View. It contends that Revelation is a symbolic presentation of the entire course of history of the Church from the close of the first century to the end of time. By this interpretation the various series of the churches, the seals, the trumpets and the bowls are made to represent particular events in the history of the world that are related to the history of the Church. Although many of the advocates of this view agree among themselves about the method, there is no general agreement about the fulfillment of the details. Many of the interpretations have to be strained in order to preserve the proper sequence of the events, which are supposed to be foreshadowed.
This view started with Joachim of Floris (A.D. 1202). Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers adopted this view and it prevailed until A.D. 1820. Many who held this view lost family and friends to the Inquisition, and they naturally saw their enemy in the prophecies of the book of Revelation. They interpreted the Papacy as both the Antichrist and Babylon. This view interprets the three-and-one half years of the rule of the Antichrist as 1,260 years instead of days. Thus, the 1,260-year period represents the Anti-Christian rule from the rise of Papal Rome until the defeat of Papal troops by Napoleon around A.D. 1800. However, when all possible termination periods for the 1,260 day-year period expired without fulfillment, most Christians abandoned this method of interpretation.
IDEALISTIC VIEW is sometimes called the Spiritualist or Allegorical View. It holds that the whole book is to be interpreted “spiritually.” Revelation represents the eternal conflict of good and evil, which persists in every age, although here it may have particular application to the period of the church. The symbols have no immediate historic connection with any definite social or political events. Hence, the entire book is poetic, symbolic and allegorical. This approach follows the earlier allegorizing methods of the Alexandrians (Clement and Origen).
Idealists (many postmillennialists and amillennialists) do not expect any of Revelation’s detailed prophecies of the Antichrist, False Prophet, the Battle of Armageddon, or Christ’s thousand-year reign on the earth to be fulfilled in the future.
The idealistic view holds that the Apocalypse’s main purpose is to impart comfort to the militant church in its struggle against the forces of evil. After the Beast seems to be victorious, Christ and His Church are victors over the Dragon (Satan) and his helpers. Those martyred are victorious because they reign in heaven with Christ for a thousand years (20:4), and in the new heaven and earth forever (22:5).
Idealists find comfort in consolations for afflicted believers, who are given the assurance that God:
1. Sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
2. Hears their prayers (8:3-4)
3. Gives them glory that far surpasses the intensity of earthly suffering (14:13; 20:4)
4. Ensures their final victory (15:2)
5. Avenges their blood (cf. 6:9-10; 8:3; 19:2)
6. Exalts them to reign forever with Christ in the rejuvenated universe (chapters 21-22)
FUTURIST VIEW sometimes called the Literalist View is a chronological approach which believes that all the visions from Revelation 4:1 to the end of the book are yet to be fulfilled in the period immediately preceding and following the second advent of Christ. Therefore, the seals, trumpets, and bowls refer to events still in the future. The beasts of chapters 13 and 17 are identified with the future Antichrist and False Prophet, who appear during the Tribulation Period and afterward are defeated by Christ in His second coming to judge the world and to establish His earthly millennial kingdom.
Variations of this view were held by the earliest expositors, such as Justin Martyr (A.D. 165), Hippolytus (A.D. 236), and Victorinus (A.D. 303). After a ten-century eclipse, during which time the allegorical method prevailed, the futurist view was revived in the late sixteenth century by Franciscus Riberia. After the 1830s, this view increased in popularity among Protestants. Today, dispensationalists hold this view. Historicist, Preterist and Idealist methods of interpretation for the most part ignore the interpretive key of Revelation 1:19, and fail to correlate the book with Bible prophecy as a whole. The early Church Fathers favored the futurist view in that they believed in the imminent return of Christ, His subsequent earthly kingdom (cf. Acts 1:6), and a period of great trouble preceding and inaugurating that kingdom.
Summary of When Prophecies are Fulfilled in the Four Methods
Historicist – Throughout Church Age
Preterists – Time of Roman Empire
Idealist – Recurrently in History
Futurists – Most Yet Future