What comes to mind when “The Book of Revelation” is mentioned? Here are some words and phrases that are often heard in association with it: the end . . . the rapture . . . 7 . . . four horsemen . . . the antichrist . . . 666 . . . judgment . . . vengeance . . . the second coming . . . heaven. Interestingly, two of the words in this list most associated with Revelation—rapture and antichrist—do not even appear in Revelation. Some of the most important words in Revelation, such as witness, throne, and lamb, do not come to mind as quickly, yet they are central to Revelation. This article will give a quick overview over the 4 ways that the book of Revelation has been understood throughout the centuries and will give some helpful principles for understanding this last book of the Bible.
Revelation consists of a mixture of three genres: apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistolary. Ignoring this fact can create great problems when it comes to the interpretation of the book. Out of 404 verses in Revelation, 278 contain allusions to the Old Testament.
The Four Major Interpretations
Four major interpretations have developed through the centuries to interpret the book of Revelation: preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist.
The preterist (past) interpretation understands the events of Revelation in large part to have been fulfilled in the first centuries of the Christian era—either at the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or at both the falls of Jerusalem in the first century and of Rome in the fifth century. In effect the book was written to comfort Christians, who suffered persecution from both the imperial cult and Judaism.
The historicist school views the events of Revelation as unfolding in the course of history. This perspective was especially compatible with the thinking of the Protestant Reformers, who equated the papal system of their day with the Antichrist.
The futurist scheme argues that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, holding that chapters 4-22 await the end times for their realization. If the preterist interpretation has dominated among biblical scholars, then it may be said that the futurist reading is the preference of choice among the masses.
The idealist viewpoint, by way of contrast to the previous three theological constructs, is reticent to pinpoint the symbolism of Revelation historically. For this school of thought, Revelation sets forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil that continues throughout the church age.
Which one of the four is the best way? Answering this question is difficult. Everyone needs to look at the facts and make his own decision. Taking the Bible seriously includes considering the literary genre of the text. Ignoring the fact that Revelation apocalyptic literature will birth great misunderstandings.
What is apocalyptic literature?
The basic function of apocalyptic literature seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance, and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil. The task of the apocalyptic literature is to provide images that show us what is going on in our lives.
Which one of the four is the best way?
The historicist and the futurist interpretation seem very unlikely to me. Hardly any serious scholar advocates the historicist view anymore. It simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. The futurist view is the common view today mainly because the great influence of the Left Behind book series. In his book, Gorman names 21 reasons why the Left Behind books are problematic and actually contain dangerous theology. Summarized it could be said that the futurist interpretation misses the main themes of the book of Revelation and produces theologies that are contradictory to some key themes of the Bible.
Therefore, I personally lean towards a preterist or idealist interpretation of the book of Revelation. These two interpretations fit well with the purpose of apocalyptic literature and make sense in the light of the big picture of the Bible.
What is the big message of the book of Revelation?
The intention of biblical eschatology is to give hope to people in difficult times so that they will remain faithful to their covenant commitment to God.
In my opinion, “the purpose of the book of Revelation is to persuade its hearers and readers, both ancient and contemporary, to remain faithful to God in spite of past, present, or possible future suffering—whatever form that suffering might take, and whatever source it may have” (Gorman). Hope exists because ultimately God will win and extinguish evil. The victory of God is certain and therefore hope is justified even in the middle of the greatest darkness. Revelation “communicates to the threatened earthly community the assurance of heavenly victory” (Udo Schnelle). Revelation is a beautiful symphony that proclaims: God will have his way, ultimately he will overthrow all evil and injustice and establish his perfect kingdom of beauty, justice and love. God will redeem everything. He will bring restoration and reconciliation. In the end, good will triumph over evil. This is the Christian hope that shines even in the midst of darkness!
Theological Themes in Revelation
1. The Throne: The Reign of God and the Lamb. God the creator reigns! Jesus the redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, is Lord! The reign of the eternal God, the beginning and the end, is not merely future or past but present, and it is manifested in—of all things—the slaughtered Lamb. God is inseparable from the Lamb, and vice versa. Each can be called the Alpha and Omega, and they rule together on one throne. This is a cruciform (cross-centered and cross-shaped) understanding of divine power.
2. The Reality of Evil and of Empire. Evil is real. Empire is now—not merely future or past but present. Empire, by nature, makes seductive blasphemous and immoral claims and engages in corollary practices that bring disorder to both vertical (people-God) and horizontal (people-people) human relations, promising life but delivering death—both physical and spiritual.
3. The Temptation to Idolatry and Immorality. The Christian church is easily seduced by empire’s idolatry and immorality because these claims and practices are often invested with religious meaning and authority; they become a civil religion. For that reason, immorality is ultimately idolatry: the idolatry of violence, oppression, greed, lust, and the like. Humanity’s ultimate inhumanity—treating fellow humans as disposable commodities—is therefore at root an attack on God as creator and redeemer.
4. The Call to Covenant Faithfulness and Resistance. In the midst of empire and civil religion, whatever its forms, the church is called to resistance as the inevitable corollary of covenant faithfulness to God, a call that requires prophetic spiritual discernment and may result in various kinds of suffering.
5. Worship and an Alternative Vision. The spiritual discernment required of the church, in turn, requires an alternative vision of God and of reality that unveils and challenges empire, a vision in need of the Spirit’s wisdom to see and apply. Revelation provides this vision of “uncivil” worship and vision, centered on the throne of the eternal holy God and the faithful slaughtered Lamb, and on the coming new creation.
6. Faithful Witness: The Pattern of Christ. Christian resistance to empire and idolatry conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles, saints, prophets (like John), and martyrs: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent. It is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empire’s culture of death. This is a Lamb-shaped or cross-shaped (cruciform) understanding of discipleship and mission.
7. The Imminent Judgment and Salvation/New Creation of God. God the creator and Christ the redeemer take evil and injustice seriously and are about to come both to judge humanity and to save the faithful and renew the cosmos. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the saving life of God-with-us forever.
(The first 7 themes are quoted from Gormans book.)
8. Judgment is not an end in itself but it is God’s means to accomplish his ultimate victory. God’s justice is restorative in nature. The purpose of God’s judgments is not retributive but restorative. The lake of fire must be understood in accordance with the theme of fire throughout the Bible. God is a consuming fire. He consumes evil, sin, injustice and darkness. But his fire is purifying. The great church fathers understood God’s judgments of fire as restorative and purifying judgments.
Revelation 21:25-22:2 gives us a picture of great hope. Outside of New Jerusalem are the ones that didn’t repent yet (Rev 22:15), those who were thrown in the lake of fire (according to Rev 21:1-8). But God never gives up on the people he loves. The gates of New Jerusalem will never be shut. God’s mercy will never come to an end. The leaves in the city are for the healing of the nations. Revelation ends with God’s invitation: “And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say: “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge” (Rev 22:17 NET). God’s loyal love endures forever. The father always waits with open arms, just as Jesus taught us (Luke 15:20).
Ultimately God will win and his will, the cosmic restoration of his creation, will not be thwarted. The book of Revelation testifies to this solid hope and thereby encourages Christians in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Gentry Jr., Kenneth L. 1998. Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan Counterpoints Series)
Gorman, Michael J. 2010. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.
This article contains many quotes from these two books.
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