Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Conclusion

It is now time to bring this extensive (and rather lengthy) series to a close. In drawing together the strands of our study, we may begin with the three components of the early Christian eschatological chronology—the major events/divisions which mark the end-time:

    • The period of distress (qli/yi$) for humankind, a time of intense suffering and increasing wickedness, which includes the targeted persecution of believers in Christ. At the climax of this period, an especially wicked foreign ruler will arise (this detail is attested in the New Testament only in a limited way).
    • The appearance of the Messiah (Jesus) who will deliver God’s people (i.e. the righteous, believers) and bring about the great Judgment; this relates to the royal (Davidic) Messiah, as well as the heavenly-deliverer figure-type (“Son of Man”, in the sayings of Jesus).
    • The onset of the great, final Judgment, which marks the end of the current Age.

Early Christians inherited this basic chronology from the Jewish eschatology of the period, clearly expressed in a number of apocalyptic writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. Part 2 of the study “The Antichrist Tradition”). Among the early Christian writings and traditions, the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, as presented in the Synoptic Gospels, is perhaps the earliest attempt at a systematic framework for this eschatology—a point that is all the more likely if the Synoptic Discourse represents an editorial and literary assemblage of eschatological statements by Jesus, originally uttered on different occasions. Cf. my four-part study on the Discourse, earlier in this series, for a detailed analysis. Using the Markan version, here is the basic outline as it relates to the chronology noted above:

    • The end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19), which is described according to three specific aspects or points of emphasis:
      • Its affect on humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      • Its affect on Jesus’ disciples (believers, vv. 9-13)
      • Its affect on the people of Judea and Jerusalem, including believers (vv. 14-23)
    • The coming of the Son of Man (i.e. the Messiah, the return of Jesus, vv. 24-27)
    • [The final Judgment is alluded to in vv. 24-25, and also the warnings in vv. 32-37; cp. the parable additions in Matthew 25, esp. vv. 31-46]

Several important points should be reiterated regarding the early Christian eschatology:

    • It is tied specifically to a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, which encompasses several distinct Messianic figure-types; both his first coming and his second (return) were understood as eschatological—i.e. end-time events. For more on eschatology and Messianism, cf. the earlier article in this series.
    • The New Age began, for believers, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit; thus believers are experiencing the Age to Come, at least in part (through the Spirit), in the present, prior to the actual end of the current Age. This is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology, and represents an important aspect of the overall eschatology.
    • The early Christian understanding of salvation was also primarily eschatological—that is, in terms of being saved/rescued from the coming end-time Judgment.
    • The coming of the end was imminent—believers were already living in the “last days / last hour”, and experiencing the period of distress, and that the return of Jesus (and the great Judgment) would come very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers (Mark 13:30 par, etc). For more on this, cf. below.
    • In spite of this sense of imminence, it was understood that there was at least a brief period during which Jesus’ disciples (believers) would engage in missionary work throughout the Roman Empire (the known world), bringing the Gospel and message of salvation to the nations.

Of all the Old Testament prophetic passages, it was the visions in the book of Daniel which exerted the most influence on early Christian eschatology, as indeed it did on much of Jewish eschatology in this period. The idea of the period of distress, phrased as it was often by the Greek word qli/yi$, seems to have been inspired directly by Daniel 12:1 LXX; indeed, chapter 12 was quite influential on the shaping of the eschatological worldview. We also have the important development of the “wicked tyrant” motif (cf. Part 1 of “The Antichrist Tradition”), realized in the figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who would serve as a type-pattern for the wicked ruler of the end-time. This pattern would be fulfilled, in the first-century B.C./A.D., by a number of Roman rulers—Pompey, Gaius (Caligula), Nero—which further shaped the early Christian expectation. It was especially the historical tradition of the desecration of the Temple sanctuary, etc, in 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11) which influenced the Christian portrait of the end-time wicked ruler, and played an enormous role in the subsequent development of the Antichrist Tradition (cf. Part 3 of the aforementioned study). Dan 9:27 is alluded to clearly in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14 par), and Paul seems to be drawing upon the same line of tradition in 2 Thess 2:3-12 (cf. the study on that passage). The book of Revelation regularly draws upon the visions of Daniel—especially on the chapter 7 vision, of the ‘beast’ that comes up out of the Sea, in Rev 13ff. The opposition to God and His people, and the attack on true religion, by the wicked ruler, was interpreted almost entirely in terms of the persecution of believers in Christ; during the end-time period of distress, and its climax under the wicked (‘antichrist’) ruler, this persecution would be at its most intense and widespread.

Final Note on the Imminent Eschatology of early Christians

I have repeatedly noted—and documented extensively—in this series the imminent eschatology of early Christians which is expressed throughout the New Testament. On this, cf. especially the two-part study devoted to the subject, with the accompanying note on some of the key (and most controversial) Gospel passages. While this aspect of New Testament eschatology is clear enough, it creates considerable difficulty for believers today, especially those with a strong belief in the unique and divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Could the inspired authors have been mistaken about how soon the end would come? So acute is this problem, that many commentators are unwilling or reluctant to admit the rather obvious language of imminence in the eschatological passages, or attempt to soften and generalize its significance in various ways (cf. below).

To be sure, this is one of the most difficult aspects of interpretation today, at least for those who are willing to admit and face it head on. There is no easy solution to the problem. I have touched on the matter, both in the introduction to this series, and in Part 2 on the aforementioned study, presenting a number of possible avenues for approaching the problem. Here are four approaches which I have outlined previously:

    • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us. [Approach #1]
    • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined. [Approach #2]
    • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur. [Approach #3]
    • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. [Approach #4]

Approach #3 is probably the most popular approach to the problem adopted by Christians today. It basically holds that the language of imminence means, not that the end will come soon, but that it may come soon. It is certainly a convenient solution, in that it very handily allows for an intervening 1,900+ years of history. Indeed, some commentators and theologians simply define imminence (in eschatology) this way, thereby effectively circumventing the entire chronological problem. You can read my critique of this approach (along with comments on all four), in Part 2 of the study on Imminent Eschatology.

I am much more inclined toward Approaches #1 and 2 above, and especially toward the first of these (#1). As previously noted, this approach essentially involves the principle of accommodation. In terms of the doctrine of inspiration (of Scripture), accommodation theory posits that the inspired authors/speakers may have accepted or adopted views commonly held by people of the time, but which, technically speaking, from our vantage point today, could be deemed erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete. Put another way, believers at the time may have been mistaken with regard to how soon the end would come, but that this does not fundamentally affect the inspired message communicated through them. In my view, a correct interpretation of early Christian eschatology virtually requires some measure of accommodation. Even if we accept this, the solution to the problem is by no means as simple as it may seem. It is not merely a question of understanding (and accepting) the imminence of early Christian eschatology, but also of how the matter relates to the specific end-time events that make up the eschatology—how and when they will occur.

Concluding Note

I outlined above the basic eschatological framework of early Christians. According to the imminence of their eschatology (cf. above), it was believed (and expected) that these end-time events would occur soon, within the very lifetime of those believers. Fair enough; but how, indeed, does this relate to the 1900+ years that have passed? and how should we understand them from our vantage point as Christians today? As I have discussed, much of what Jesus predicts in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse was fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D.—centered around the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.)—quite within the time-frame indicated in Mk 13:30 par. The glaring exception is, of course, that the event(s) described in vv. 24-27 par did not occur—and, it would seem, have not yet occurred, even after nearly 2000 years. Much the same may be said, for example, of the visions in the book of Revelation. The end-time period of distress, especially for believers, could be understood as having been fulfilled, in varying degrees, during the first and early-second centuries—i.e., the persecutions of believers, the influence of the Roman imperial cult, etc. However, again, the return of Jesus and the great end-time Judgment, depicted so graphically in the vision-cycles, have not yet taken place.

For Christians today, the difficulty involves the best and most correct way to bridge this divide, establishing a way of interpreting the inspired text that both duly recognizes the meaning it had for believers in the first-century, and allows for a true and complete fulfillment, according to God’s purpose. Here are several ways the divide may be bridged—I will discuss each of them briefly before offering my own (tentative) conclusion:

    • The “last days / last hour” as a period of indeterminate length
    • Dispensational “gap” theory—an intervening period of 1900+ years
    • Dual-fulfillment approach—present (first-century) and future (today?)
    • “Realized” eschatology, and a deeper meaning that is centered around the Spirit

1. The first option was expressed at least as early as Augustine, commenting on 1 John 2:18 in his homilies on the letter (Homily 3.3), when he states of the “last hour” that “this same last hour is long, yet it is the last (hour)”. Many commentators have followed this basic approach; it is virtually required, if one is to maintain that Christians in the late-first century A.D. were living in the “last hour”, and that we also are today, some 1900+ years later. A theological basis for this approach may be found in the famous dictum stated in 2 Peter 3:8, clearly indicating that God, in His eternity, measures time quite differently than human beings do, and that a period of long duration could still be referred to as a single “day” or “hour”.

2. The second option is similar to the first, but emphasizes a concentration and punctuation of end-time events—once in the 1st century A.D., and then again at some point in the more distant future (i.e. our time today, or thereafter). The basis for this “gap” lies in the central idea of the mission to the surrounding nations, whereby the Gospel is proclaimed to people around the world prior to the events finally coming to pass (cf. Mark 13:10 par). The extent and duration of this missionary activity depends on one’s understanding of the geographical extent of the inhabited world. For nearly all first-century Christians, their geographical understanding of the known world would have been more or less limited to the extent of the Roman Empire; by contrast, for later generations of believers, the extent of the world is far more vast, including many more peoples and nations. The New Testament clearly envisions at least a brief period of time when this missionary activity would occur; however, occasionally, we find the idea of a more extensive mission, which might take longer to complete. The developed forms of the Eschatological Discourse, for example, in Matthew and Luke seem to allow for a somewhat more extensive mission (cf. Matt 24:14; Luke 21:24-26). Even so, I am quite certain that the idea of a period of hundreds of years—even two thousand or more—would not even have remotely occurred to the New Testament authors. For dispensationalist commentators, this “gap” in time, this period of missionary activity, might be referred to specifically as the “Church Age”.

3. A somewhat different solution reflects a common interpretive approach adopted (or applied) by Christians with regard to Old Testament prophecy. This is based upon a recognition that the common early Christian (and New Testament) understanding of many prophecies, viewing them as relating specifically to the person of Jesus (his birth, life, and death, etc), represents a secondary application of those prophecies (and not their original or primary meaning), it is possible to speak of them as being fulfilled on two different levels:

    • The original historical context, in the history of Israel, and
    • The inspired (but secondary) application to Jesus and his followers (believers)

On this basis, the prophecies can still be fulfilled for later believers (centered around Jesus as the Messiah, etc), without losing their original meaning and significance for people (Israelites/Jews) at the time. The same sort of phenomenon would then occur for the prophecy and eschatology in the New Testament—there is an original fulfillment (with meaning and significance) for first-century Christians, as well as a secondary (future/final) application that would relate to believers today. I discuss this approach a bit further in my conclusion to the notes on the book of Revelation.

4. The final approach outlined above recognizes more clearly the cultural (and scientific, etc) limitations of people in the first-century A.D. Their worldview, along with various inherited religious and cultural traditions—including eschatological and Messianic traditions—greatly shaped the manner in which the New Testament message is expressed. These traditions include the use of apocalyptic symbolism and a related mode of expression, which, if taken in an overly literal or concrete manner, could give a misleading impression of the underlying message. For example, even among early Christians, there was a profound “realized” eschatology—fulfilled in the present, through the Spirit—alongside the more traditional imminent/future eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic. An argument can be made that this “realized” aspect becomes more dominant in the later writings of the New Testament (c. 70-100 A.D.), including those with a more developed theology (and Christology)—the later (and/or deutero-) Pauline writings, the letter to the Hebrews, and, especially, the Gospel and letters of John. This may reflect a measure of “progressive revelation”—a gradual, but deeper understanding of the true nature and character of the inspired message, centered primarily on the presence and work of the Spirit. While this does not eliminate the imminent future eschatology of early Christians—far from it!—it may change how we look at the way it is expressed in many passages, in light of the overall Gospel message. The end-time events—distress for believers, Judgment on the world, the coming of Jesus to us—are realized spiritually, in the present, as much they will be manifest, in more traditional terms, in the future.

There is merit in each of the four approaches discussed above; indeed, I am inclined to adopt and include elements or aspects of each. I would do this here, in closing, by way of a theological summation, making the following points:

    • Ultimately the “end time” is not as much a matter of a specific moment (kairo/$) or durative period (xro/no$) of time, as it is of the character of what we, as believers, experience in time.
    • Primarily, this is to be understood by the character of Jesus as the Messiah—that is to say, his very person, presence, and work is eschatological, and marks the end of the current Age.
    • As believers, united with him through the Spirit, we experience this New Age now, in the present. This extends to all of the traditional end-time and afterlife events—resurrection, passing through the Judgment, eternal life, the vision of God, etc. There is no better guide to this “realized” aspect of eschatology, for believers, than the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
    • A central point of eschatology is the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth—the essential New Testament message in this regard is that God’s Kingdom is realized in a two-fold manner: (1) through the presence of the Spirit (cf. the previous point), and (2) by the proclamation of the Gospel.
    • This centrality of the proclamation of the Gospel means that it may properly be understood as the central end-time event. While early Christians had a much more limited and smaller-scale knowledge of the extent of the inhabited world, the reality of this (known to us today) may rightly require a longer period of time (unknown to believers then).
    • The visible return of Jesus (from heaven) to earth was (and remains) a fundamental tenet of Christian belief. While it is possible to interpret (or re-interpret) this in various ways, it must remain central to any proper eschatological understanding. There is a metaphysical aspect to our union with Christ—hence the importance of resurrection, in addition to our union through the Spirit, in the New Testament. The return of Jesus to us is part of this same idea (see esp. 1 Thess 4:13-18 and Col 3:1-4).
    • The final Judgment, however it may best be understood—and there are many different ways of depicting/describing it—is at the heart of the Gospel message of salvation, and cannot be avoided. Here, it is helpful to consult the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (and its references to the Judgment), to avoid relying too heavily on traditional (and colorful) apocalyptic depictions of the Judgment.

With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament—while early Christians (and the New Testament authors) may have been mistaken (in some sense) in their expectation of how soon the end would come, the message of imminence was quite correct in at least several respects:

    • Believers were (and are), indeed, living at the moment of the end of the current Age (of sin and wickedness), and in the beginning of the New Age (in Christ)
    • Believers then (and now) do experience many of the events and characteristics of the end-time, as described in the eschatological passages—most notably, the conflict with the surrounding world of darkness and evil, that is characteristic of the period of distress.
    • The sense that the end—certainly of a person’s life, but also in a wider sense—can and will come soon, and suddenly, in a moment, is important to keep in mind. The brevity and transitory nature of human life, while part of more general wisdom tradition, is often expressed in the New Testament in eschatological terms. This transitory mortal existence is in direct contrast to the eternal life we experience—in the New Testament, the very idiom is eschatological: “life of the Age(s), life of the Age (to Come)”.
    • Finally, the language of imminence serves to enhance the promise to us—that Jesus will come to us, that we will be united with him (body and soul), that we will experience a transforming vision of God, that the forces of evil will be defeated and eradicated, etc. This promise is surely more significant that the language (of imminence) used to express it.

 

Supplemental Note 3 on Revelation: Interpretive Approaches

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:

    • Church-historical
    • Present-futurist
    • Dual-fulfillment
    • General-spiritual

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.

Dual-Fulfillment Approach

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.

Supplemental Note 2 on Revelation: Symbols in the Book

Symbols in the Book of Revelation

More than anything it is the vivid and striking imagery in the book of Revelation which has given it a lasting place in the Christian consciousness. It is at the heart of the expressive power of the book. And yet, so rich and varied is the symbolism that it has been possible for readers and commentators to find just about anything one wishes in it, subjecting the images and symbols to a wide range of interpretation. However, the correctness and accuracy of any interpretive approach depends on properly understanding the nature and character of the symbols themselves. As symbols, one may isolate specific objects, personages, details, and the like; at the same time, these are built up within larger symbolic matrices. Each visionary scene or episode in the book represents a matrix of connected symbols; the larger vision-cycles are even more complex, each with its own symbolic marker—seal, trumpet, offering-dish.

When approaching the visionary symbols and images of the book, I would maintain that there are three important principles that must be observed, if one hopes to obtain a sound understanding of what is being communicated through this symbolism:

    1. The symbolic, figurative character of the imagery must be recognized throughout and consistently applied.
    2. Most of the symbols carry multiple layers of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition
    3. There is a fundamental dual-aspect to a number of the major symbols (and lines of symbolism) in the book

1. The Symbolic character of the imagery

In referring to the images in the book of Revelation as symbols, and symbolic, we mean that the image is a specific sign which represents another idea or thing—that is, something other that what is typically understood by the image itself (i.e. the sign vs. what it signifies). As a rather obvious example, the image of a lamb (a)rni/on), used repeatedly in a number of visions, does not simply refer to the animal (i.e. an ordinary lamb), but symbolizes the person of Jesus Christ, in his exalted position and state in heaven following his death and resurrection. Even a casual reading by someone unfamiliar with early Christian symbolism would likely lead to this conclusion, based on how the lamb-image is used in context. It becomes all the more clear when one is aware of the various strands of tradition that go into this association of Jesus with a lamb. Indeed, for early Christians, there was no real need to explain the symbolism; for most believers, it would have been readily apparent.

A basic problem with much interpretation, especially among more traditional-conservative commentators, is the inconsistent way these symbols are treated, with a tendency to understand them in a ‘literal’, concrete way whenever possible. As an example, the Temple in 11:1-2 is actually the Jerusalem Temple complex, but the Prostitute in chapter 17 is not an actual prostitute; similarly, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel are actually 144,000 Israelites, but the seven-headed Sea-creature is not an actual seven-headed hybrid animal coming out of the sea. In my view, this distorts and misreads the symbolism of the book—if the seven-headed creature from the sea is symbolic and figurative, then almost certainly the image of the 144,000 from the twelve tribes is symbolic as well.

That these images are all substantially symbolic seems to me to be without question; however, there may be some difference in the degree or extent of the symbolism. For example, a seven-headed monster is more clearly figurative than other images; and, while the specific detail of 3½ or 1000 years is symbolic, it still relates to a period of time. Moreover, the symbolism may be rooted in a particular aspect of the imagery, or may relate specifically to how different images are connected. In this regard, the visions of Revelation are comparable to the Gospel parables of Jesus—the basis of the (figurative) illustration lies more in the overall scenario and portrait than in the meaning that is attached to each individual detail.

In the notes, I have made every attempt to analyze the symbolism for each vision carefully, with the guiding premise that, in every case, the imagery is symbolic, and not to be understood in a concrete, literalist manner.

2. Multiple Layers of Meaning

In many instances, the symbols in the visions carry multiple layers of meaning, based on their manifold derivation, drawing upon different strands of tradition. It is often possible to demonstrate this (and I have done so at many places in the notes), isolating the distinct strands, which tend to come from three broad lines of tradition:

    • The Old Testament Scriptures, along with subsequent Jewish (eschatological and Messianic) tradition
    • The surrounding Greco-Roman world—its literature, culture, manner of expression, et al.
    • The life experience of believers, both in community and in relation to the wider (Greco-Roman [pagan] and Jewish) world; obviously, it is the experience of believers in Asia Minor, in the late-first century A.D., that informs the imagery.

The first line of tradition is perhaps the most notable. The visions in the book are packed full of references and allusions to Old Testament and Jewish tradition; it may be possible to distinguish these further:

    • Historical references, especially to passages and episodes which relate to the idea of God’s Judgment upon the wicked—Moses and the Exodus (i.e. the plagues on Egypt), Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophetic oracles (in Joel, Ezekiel, Zechariah) depicting the collective Judgment on the Nations, etc.
    • Eschatological and Messianic references—these are replete throughout, but may be seen as including the many references to the book of Daniel
    • Images specifically related to the idea (and identity) of Israel as the people of God—regularly applied to believers as the people of God in the New Covenant (and New Age)
    • Cosmological mythic/archetypal images, including motifs from the Creation narrative (Paradise, river, tree of life, etc); a prominent line of Near Eastern mythic tradition is associated with the Dragon/Sea-creature imagery in the second half of the book (chapters 12-13ff), and other examples could be cited as well.

With regard to the second area, it is the traditional imagery of the imperial cult that is most to be noted, with many details and motifs in the visions alluding in various ways to Roman imperial iconography. It is hard to know how readily the Greek-speaking readers/hearers at the time would have picked up on these allusions, but I suspect that the visions communicated this aspect to them clearly enough, so immersed as they were within the surrounding Roman culture.

The same Roman (imperial) environment relates to the third area—the life-experience of believers in Asia Minor. It was their sense of common identity, in the face of the surrounding pagan (and Roman imperial) culture, which establishes the fundamental conflict that runs through the visionary narrative. The experience of actual persecution at the time, to varying degrees, informs the depiction of the more intense and widespread persecution to come, during the period of distress. The community life and identity of believers informs the symbolism in many other ways as well; I have attempted to bring out this aspect at a number of points in the notes.

3. A Dual-Aspect to the Symbolism

In addition to the multiple layers of meaning to the symbols, it is possible to recognized a wider dual-aspect to the major strands of symbolism. Generally speaking, this may be defined as a dualism consisting of an earthly and heavenly aspect. It does not apply so much to individual symbols as it does to the larger symbolic matrices. I would note three areas where it is most prevalent, and where it is important to recognize its application to the meaning of the symbolism:

    • Believers as the People of God—in their heavenly aspect, they are shown existing in an exalted state, in heaven, along with multitudes of heavenly beings; at the same time, in their earthly aspect, they face oppression and persecution from the forces of evil at work in the world. Only in the closing chapters, during the New Age, when the heavenly “Jerusalem” descends to earth, are both aspects united.
    • The Forces of Evil—involving the various symbols of the Dragon, Sea-creature, the “Great City”, Prostitute, etc.; there is similarly a ‘heavenly’ and earthly aspect. Most of the visions focus on the manifestation of evil on earth, but throughout there is a transcendent, cosmic aspect, evident most clearly in the symbol of the Dragon, who, in chapter 12, is depicted in conflict with the People of God both on earth and in heaven.
    • The Judgment—again, there is both an earthly and heavenly aspect to the end-time Judgment; for the most part, the visions (esp. the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles) focus on the earthly aspect, but, during the later chapters especially, the heavenly aspect is more clearly in view.

 

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.

“Critical”

For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.

“Traditional-Conservative”

As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).