Interpretive Approaches to the Book of Revelation
The difficulties surrounding the symbolism of the book of Revelation (cf. Supplemental Note 2), along with other aspects of its eschatology, have led commentators to adopt very distinctive approaches to interpretation, sometimes to the point of constructing elaborate interpretive (and chronological) schema to explain the visions in the book (and how they might be fulfilled). In my notes, I have held tightly to an objective critical approach—which might be referred to also as the historical-grammatical method—focusing almost entirely on the Greek text of the book, its historical and cultural-religious background, and how the symbolism of the visions would likely have been understood by believers at the time (i.e. author and original audience in the late-first century A.D.).
However, the problem with this—and the reason why many Christians cannot accept a strict historical-grammatical approach, in the case of Revelation—lies in the early Christian eschatology reflected in the book. It is an imminent eschatology—i.e., author and audience in the late-first century expected the events described in the book to occur very soon, presumably within their own lifetime. This applies equally to many of the eschatological passages in the New Testament, and leads to the same interpretive problem for us today. I have discussed the point at length throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” (cf. especially the study on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”), and in the notes on Revelation. I admit to making no attempt to solve this problem in the notes and articles, though I have addressed the matter at several points, and do so again more directly in the conclusion to the series.
Some might characterize my approach to the book of Revelation as preterist, but this is not particularly accurate, and would apply better to a critical study of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (cf. my four-part study), since most of the events and details predicted in the Discourse could be seen as being fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D. The situation with the book of Revelation is rather different, but some of the same issues arise, in terms of a critical, historical-grammatical approach to the book; I would make the following points (which are also points of tension for believers today):
- The historical life-setting of believers (in Asia Minor) in the late-first century A.D. (c. 80-100) informs the symbolism of the book, and the primary meaning of the symbols—and, with it, what the visions are describing and communicating—must be intelligible to those believers (author and original audience).
- The eschatology of the book is imminent (cf. above)—author and audience expected the prophecies to be fulfilled very soon, within their lifetime.
- The most immediate portion of the prophecies—depiction/description of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, 7:14 etc)—is an extension (and intensification) of what believers at the time were already experiencing.
Admittedly, all three of the above points are problematic, especially the second. While some of the things described in the visions (i.e. those related to the period of distress and persecution of believers) could be seen as having been fulfilled in the first (or early second) century, many others clearly were not—most notably, the return of Jesus and onset of the great Judgment, has not yet occurred. The various specialized interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation (and other eschatological passages in the New Testament) are essentially attempts to solve this difficult problem and bridge the divide. I would outline four basic approaches which might be, and have been, adopted:
I will discuss each of these briefly.
The Church-Historical Approach
This approach interprets the visions in the book of Revelation in terms of a survey of Church history, with the various visions (and vision-cycles) representing different periods and events in history, each of which was fulfilled at the proper time. The basic approach appears to have developed in the Middle Ages, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries among members of the Franciscan order. It developed as part of their conflict with the Papacy, the clear allusions to the Roman Empire in the book finding a natural fulfillment in the Roman Catholic Church. The Franciscans saw themselves as a persecuted remnant of the faithful, with Rome (i.e. the Papacy) as the wicked persecutor. This line of interpretation was continued during the Protestant Reformation, involving a similar polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, to be followed by many Protestants thereafter. There are two main advantages to this approach:
- It allows for both an immediate fulfillment (and relevance) among early believers, as well as a future fulfillment centuries later, covering as it does the span of Christian history
- It recognizes and retains the (original) context of Roman imperial rule, transferring it to the Roman Catholic Church, and thus making it applicable for believers in subsequent generations.
The main problem with this approach is that it renders the visions—most of them, at any rate—largely irrelevant to the believers for whom the book was specifically (and originally) written. If the visions refer to things that will only be fulfilled centuries later, what real meaning to they have anymore for Christians in the first-century?
While once quite popular among Protestants, the Church-historical approach has been largely abandoned today; traditional-conservative (or ‘Evangelical’) Protestants tend to follow other interpretative approaches, many now assuming some form of Present-futurist interpretation.
The Present-Futurist Approach
This approach simply assumes that, if the prophecies in Revelation have not yet been clearly fulfilled, then they must (and will) be in the future. And, since most individuals and groups who evince an eschatological interest or orientation tend to believe that they are the generation who will witness the end-time events (period of distress, return of Jesus, etc), this future becomes the present—i.e. the prophecies will be fulfilled, for us today, very soon. There are two principal (and rather obvious) advantages to this approach:
- It retains the strong sense of imminence expressed in the book, transferring it from the first-century to the present-day.
- It allows for an accurate fulfillment of all the prophecies in the book—presumably at some time in the (very near) future.
Unfortunately, even more than with the Church-historical approach (cf. above), the main problem (and fatal flaw) of any Present-futurist interpretation is that it effectively negates (or at least minimizes greatly) the significance of the visions for believers in the first-century—that is, those for whom the book was specifically written. If the visions speak of things only to be fulfilled centuries (or thousands) of years later, what relevance do they have for believers at the time? Moreover, this approach seems to ignore passages which clearly place the visions (and their interpretation) in the immediate context of first-century believers—as, for example, the explanation of the Sea-creature’s heads in 17:9-11, or the instruction regarding the number/mark of the Sea-creature (13:18), to say nothing of the many clear declarations, exhortations, and warnings to believers at the time.
Obviously, in any Present-futurist approach, details deriving from a first-century context have to be translated (i.e. transferred) into a modern setting. In the case of the historical/cultural setting of the Roman Empire, this has been understood in terms of a ‘revived’ Roman Empire, sometimes identified with the modern European Union (EU), or something similar. In any case, it would be a real, modern-day kingdom or ’empire’ of some sort, patterned in a sense after the ancient Roman Empire. Similarly, the “Antichrist” will be the ruler of this wicked modern empire.
For those who have long since accepted (and simply take for granted) the fundamental validity of a Present-futurist approach, the debate now revolves around specific chronological and interpretive schema—i.e., how the 7 (and/or 3½) year period of distress (Tribulation) fits in relation to the “rapture” of the Church, the return of Jesus, the Millennial reign (chap. 20), and so forth. Especially popular are forms of this approach which seek to find modern-day fulfillment of specific symbols and details, attempting to establish correlations which often border on the absurd. The diversity of the symbolism, of course, makes possible a very wide range of interpretation, and, for many commentators, no opportunity is lost to make a modern-day connection. In many instances, such interpretation is very far removed from how the symbolism would have been understood by first-century Christians.
This approach is basic to all early Christian eschatology, as expressed in the New Testament; it attempts to retain the original imminent eschatology (and its relevance for early Christians) while also maintaining an accurate fulfillment of every prophecy. It perhaps is a better fit for the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, i.e.—(1) partial fulfillment in the first-century A.D. (persecution of the disciple, false Messiahs, Jewish War, Roman siege, destruction of the Temple, etc), and (2) secondary/final fulfillment in the future. The Discourse itself supports the idea of dual-fulfillment, in the case of the prophecy in Dan 9:27, being fulfilled in the actions of Antiochus IV in the 2nd century B.C., and again, by a wicked ruler (Roman emperor?) in the 1st century A.D. In this instance, a modern dual-fulfillment approach would mean a three-fold fufillment—(1) 2nd century B.C. (Antiochus), (2) 1st century A.D. (Roman), and (3) future/end-time (Antichrist?). Of course, certain events, such as the end-time return of Jesus, could really only be fulfilled in the future.
In applying this approach to the book of Revelation, one might deem it a plausible mode of interpretation, at least in terms of the end-time period of distress, as long as individual details were not interpreted in an overly concrete, literalist manner:
- The forces of evil manifest in the Roman Empire (locally in Asia Minor), with its commercial, military, and political power; the corrupting false religion of the imperial cult would lead to increasing persecution of Christians, even to the point of tests involving the veneration of an image of the emperor (13:14-15, cp. Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2).
- In the future, the forces of evil will be manifest in another wicked/corrupt world-power, which will behave (and act toward Christians) in a manner similar to the Roman Empire in the 1st/2nd century.
As mentioned above, this approach has the advantage of preserving the imminent eschatology of the New Testament, while allowing for the accurate fulfillment of prophecy in the future. This makes the approach quite attractive, but also, for this very reason, is perhaps a bit too convenient. What basis is there, in the New Testament writings themselves, for such a dual-fulfillment idea, apart from our own desire (and need) to preserve the inspired integrity of Scripture? I can find very little substantive evidence to support this approach, however appealing it may be. It may, however, turn out to be best starting-point in the development of a genuine solution to the problem. Much work remains to be done by commentators and theologians in this regard.
The General-Spiritual Approach
In this approach to New Testament eschatology (and the book of Revelation in particular), the visions and prophecies are interpreted more generally, in a way that would apply them to believers in all times. This can be done a number of ways. With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the aspect of imminence is often understood in terms of what may happen, or could happen (at any time), rather than what will happen (very soon). In my view, this misreads and distorts the fundamental emphasis in such passages, but the approach is quite understandable as a way of making the eschatological outlook more applicable to us today.
With regard to the main eschatological events—the period of distress and persecution, the return of Jesus, and the great Judgment—central as they are to the book of Revelation, it is similarly possible to interpret them in a generalized or “spiritual” sense, rather than as events for which there will be a concrete (metaphysical) manifestation in space and time. This might seem difficult to accept in the case of Jesus’ return, but a passage such as Luke 17:20-21 could be seen as pointing in that direction. Much more basic, at least in terms of the period of distress (qli/yi$), is the fact that Christians have faced, and continue to experience today, considerable opposition and persecution by the wicked (and by the forces of evil in the world). It need not be limited to any one moment or period in time, but could be seen as a general condition in the current Age. Similarly, the graphic imagery of Judgment—disruptions of the natural order, catastrophic phenomena, plagues and suffering—could be viewed more generally (even realistically) as things experienced by humankind throughout history. Ultimately, the Judgment—the final realization of it—would take place in the afterlife and the heavenly/eternal realm of God.
This would probably be the preferred approach for many Christians today, avoiding as it does all the thorny critical (and doctrinal) questions involving the compatibility of the imminent eschatology of early Christians with the 1900+ years that have since passed. But it is this very point that represents the fatal weakness of the approach—it ignores the clear force of the New Testament eschatology, with its imminence, urgency, and expectation of a terrible coming Judgment.
Ultimately, there is (as yet) no clear solution to the fundamental problem regarding the imminent eschatology of the New Testament. The most honest and forthright approach I can see, and which I have tried to maintain throughout, is to begin with an objective critical study of the text, looking first (and principally) at its original historical, religious-cultural, and literary context. What would these visions and their symbolism have meant to first-century believers in Asia Minor? How did they understand the visionary narrative and its realization? What does the narrative communicate to Christians at that time? Only then can we properly, and reliably, understand what the book of Revelation means for us today.