The Preterist Approach to Revelation — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
An issue that must be addressed before proceeding to an examination of the text of Revelation is our basic hermeneutical approach to the book. Over the course of the church’s history there have been four main approaches: the futurist, historicist, preterist, and idealist approaches.i The futurist approach understands everything from Revelation 4:1 forward to be a prophecy of things that are to occur just before the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, all of these prophesied events are still in the future from the perspective of the twenty-first century. According to proponents, this conclusion grows out of a belief that there is no correspondence between these prophesied events and anything that has yet occurred in history.ii
The historicist approach understands Revelation to be a prophecy of church history from the first advent until the Second Coming of Christ. This approach appears to have had its roots in the writings of Joachim of Fiore.iii It was later adopted by most of the Protestant Reformers, but it is held by very few today.iv The preterist approach to Revelation is most clearly contrasted with the futurist approach. According to the preterist approach, most of the prophecies in the book of Revelation were fulfilled not long after John wrote.v In other words, their fulfillment is past from the perspective of the twenty-first century.vi The fourth major approach to the book is the idealist or symbolic approach. According to this view, Revelation does not contain prophecies of specific historical events. Instead, it uses symbols to express timeless principles concerning the conflict between good and evil.
Until recently these various approaches have been considered by most to be mutually exclusive. A number of scholars, however, have begun to propose a fifth approach, which may be termed the eclectic approach. As one proponent of this view explains, “The solution is to allow the preterist, idealist, and futurist methods to interact in such a way that the strengths are maximized and the weaknesses minimized.”vii One of the first to espouse such an approach was George Ladd. He concluded that the correct method of interpreting the book of Revelation was to blend the futurist and preterist methods.viii He has been followed in this basic eclectic approach, although with different emphases, by a number of scholars including Gregory Beale, Grant Osborne, and Vern Poythress.ix
Because the approach one takes to the book of Revelation dramatically affects one’s exegetical conclusions, it is necessary that I explain the reasons I take the approach I do. I believe that the book itself demands a basically preterist approach. This does not mean that all of the prophecies in the book have already been fulfilled. Some of the prophecies in Revelation (e.g., 20:7–22:21) have yet to be fulfilled, but many, if not most, of the prophecies in the book have been fulfilled. My approach then may be considered as essentially preterist.x
Before explaining why I believe this approach to be correct, I must explain why I do not believe the other approaches to be fully adequate. Proponents of the futurist view say that their approach is necessary because there is no correspondence between the events prophesied in the book and anything that has happened in history. This conclusion is reached because of an overly literalistic approach to the symbolism of the book and a lack of appreciation for how such language was used in the Old Testament prophetic books. This, however, is not the most serious problem with the futurist approach.
The most fundamental problem with the futurist approach is that it requires a very artificial reading of the many texts within the book itself that point to the imminent fulfillment of its prophecies. The book opens and closes with declarations indicating that the things revealed in the book “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6). It opens and closes with declarations indicating that “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). The book of Revelation does not begin in the way the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch begins, with a statement to the effect that the content is not for the present generation, but for a remote generation that is still to come. The book of Revelation has direct relevance to the real historical first century churches to whom it was addressed, and the text of the book itself points to the imminent fulfillment of most of its prophecies.
The historicist approach faces more serious difficulties than the futurist approach. As Poythress observes, “Of the four schools of interpretation, historicism is undoubtedly the weakest, though it was popular centuries ago.”xi The most serious problem with the historicist approach is its subjectivity and arbitrariness.xii Historicist interpreters through the ages invariably identify their own age as the final age.xiii They then fit the prophecies of the book with whatever important events have transpired between the first century and their own day. The result is that the basic historicist interpretation of the book changes from one generation to the next.
The idealist approach is held by many in the present day, but it is fundamentally flawed as a method of interpreting the book of Revelation. It’s most serious problem is that it brushes over the specificity found within the text. Bauckham explains,
Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today.xiv
Not only does the idealist approach tend to ignore the historic specificity demanded by its character as a letter, it also tends to ignore the hermeneutical implications of its character as a prophecy. The Old Testament prophets used highly figurative and symbolic language, but they used this language to speak of real historical nations and specific impending historical judgments. Writing his own prophetic book, John does the same.xv
Proponents of the futurist, historicist, and idealist approaches offer several criticisms of the preterist approach to the book. Probably the most serious criticism is that this approach robs the book of any contemporary significance. John Walvoord, for example, writes, “The preterist view, in general, tends to destroy any future significance of the book, which becomes a literary curiosity with little prophetic meaning.”xvi Leon Morris echoes this sentiment, claiming that the preterist approach “has the demerit of making it [the book of Revelation] meaningless for all subsequent readers (except for the information it gives about that early generation).”xvii
It is actually rather surprising that this criticism is repeated so often by conservative evangelical scholars. It implies that any biblical prophecies that have already been fulfilled are meaningless for readers in later generations. But are the Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meaningless for later generations? Are the multitudes of Old Testament prophecies concerning the destruction of Israel and Judah and the subsequent exile meaningless for later generations? Obviously not, and neither would the prophecies in Revelation be any less meaningful or significant if it were shown that many or most of them have already been fulfilled. All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), even those parts of Scripture containing already fulfilled prophecies.
When misguided criticisms, such as the one above, are set aside and the case for a basically preterist approach is objectively considered on its own merits, it is seen to be quite strong. In the first place, our basic hermeneutical approach to the book should be determined by the nature and content of the book itself. As we have already seen, the book itself indicates when at least most of its prophecies are to be fulfilled. In both the first and last chapters, John tells his first century readers that the things revealed in the book “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6) and that “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). These statements are generalizations, so they do not require that every event prophesied in the book must be fulfilled in the first century, but the generalizations do provide us with a “general” idea of how we should understand the book.xviii The bulk of John’s prophecy concerns something that was impending in his own day.
Secondly, when the genre of the book is taken into consideration, it provides strong evidence for a basically preterist approach to the book. The book is a prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). It is an apocalyptic prophecy set within the form of an epistle, but it is a prophecy nonetheless. Why is this important? It is important because it means that our approach to the other prophetic books of the Bible should provide us with some guidance in how we approach this last prophetic book of the Bible. We should approach it and read it in the same basic way. We do not read any of the Old Testament prophetic books as a whole in an idealist manner, and there is precious little in any of them that could be approached in a historicist manner. We recognize that these prophecies were given to specific people in specific historical contexts. Many of the Old Testament prophecies deal with impending judgments upon either Israel or Judah or the nations that oppressed Israel. They also contain glimpses of ultimate future restoration. In short, we take a basically preterist approach to the Old Testament prophetic books, recognizing that they speak largely of impending events, yet also deal at times with the distant future.xix Given that this is the way in which the Old Testament prophetic books are approached, it seems that our presumption should be in favor of the same basic approach to the prophetic book of Revelation.
It is also easy to forget when reading the book of Revelation that it is the capstone of the entire narrative of Scripture. The bulk of the biblical narrative has concerned the story of Israel, leading up to the coming of the promised Messiah. We recall that most of the content of the Old Testament prophetic books concerned the coming exile of Israel and Judah on account of her rejection of God. The prophecies continued right up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.(cf. Jeremiah; Ezekiel). In the first century, Jesus foretold another coming judgment of Israel on account of her rejection of himself, and he connected this coming judgment with his accession to the throne of the kingdom of God. In light of the history of prophecy in Israel, and in light of the redemptive-historical significance Jesus himself places on this first century judgment of Israel, would it be terribly surprising if at the conclusion of the biblical narrative God once again sent a prophet to declare the impending judgment of Israel as well as the ultimate future restoration? When the genre, the statements of the book itself, and the larger biblical context are taken into consideration, a basically preterist approach to the book emerges as the most appropriate approach to take.xx
i For a good summary overview of the history of interpretation, see Arthur W. Wainwright, Mysterious Apocalypse: Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 21–103.
ii John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 101.
iii Wainwright, Mysterious Apocalypse, 49.
iv The most able contemporary proponent of the historicist interpretation of Revelation is Francis Nigel Lee (cf. Lee, John’s Revelation Unveiled [Brisbane: Queensland Presbyterian Theological College, 2000]).
v The most well known contemporary proponent of the preterist interpretation of Revelation is Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. Gentry is currently completing a full length commentary on Revelation.
vi Of course, their fulfillment was future from the perspective of John at the time he wrote the book.
vii Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 21.
viii George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 14.
ix See Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Grant Osborne, Revelation; Vern S. Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Phillupsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000). Beale takes an eclectic approach with an emphasis on the idealist approach. Osborne, on the other hand, emphasizes futurism in his eclecticism.
x Since I believe that some prophecies in the book have not yet been fulfilled (i.e. I take a futurist approach to some specific prophecies), and since I believe some of the individual observations made by idealist interpreters are valuable, there may be those who would refer to my view as eclectic with an emphasis on the preterist aspect. The particular label is of little concern to me.
xi Poythress, The Returning King, 36.
xii Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 27.
xiii This includes many of the classic Reformation, post-Reformation, and Puritan commentaries on Revelation. Contemporary Reformed historicists cannot follow those classic Reformed historicists completely because those classic Reformed historicists were wrong about their own age being the final age.
xiv Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 19.
xv The idealist approach to the text of Revelation often appears to be more akin to an application of the text than an interpretation of the author’s original intended meaning.
xvi Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 18.
xvii Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation, TNTC 20 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 18–19.
xviii John himself included a prophecy of a “thousand year” period that would be followed by the final judgment (Rev. 20:1–10). At the very least, it seems reasonable to suppose that John did not believe the events that would follow the thousand year period would also be fulfilled in the very near future.
xix Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah WBC (Nashville: Nelson, 1987), xxxii.
xx One of the most well-known recent commentaries on Revelation written from a preterist perspective is David Chilton’s The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion Press, 1987). The reader will observe that I have not cited this commentary in this chapter. It is not that there are not helpful observations here and there in the book. The problem with Chilton’s commentary is that he uses a hermeneutical method, sometimes described as “interpretive maximalism.” This method of hermeneutics does more to obscure the meaning of Scripture than it does to explain it. One is able to learn a lot about the imagination of a commentator who uses this method, but very little about the intention of the author of the book being interpreted. For a very helpful critique of Chilton’s commentary and his use of “interpretive maximalism,” see Greg L. Bahnsen, “Another Look at Chilton’s Days of Vengeance,” Journey 3, no. 2, 1988, pp. 11-14 (also available online).