The Book of Revelation in the Bible has been viewed by many as a figurative book providing a visionary description of the future, the conflicts between good and evil, and the eventual end of the world, the Apocalypse. Four main interpretations put forth in the attempt to unravel the mysteries in the Book of Revelation are preterist, idealist, classical dispensationalist futurist, and progressive dispensationalist (Pate & Gundry 1998: 17).
The purpose of this article is to evaluate and summarize three of the four views based on the book, Four Views on the Book of Revelation, edited by C. Marvin Pate and Stanley N. Gundry (Zondervan, 1998). The three views are: preterist, idealist, and classical dispensationalist. For a quick reference guide of the three views, please refer to Three Views on the Book of Revelation.
Preterist takes a historical interpretation of Revelation by relating it to its original author and audience, sustained in the attempt to root the fulfillment of the prophecies in the first century A.D. The word ‘preterist’ is derived from the Latin word ‘praeteritus’, which means ‘gone by’ or the past (Pate & Gundry 1998:37). Preterist “holds that the bulk of John’s prophecies occur in the first century, soon after his writing of them. Though the prophecies were in the future when John wrote and when his original audience read them, they are now in our past”. The theological stand of the preterist is based on the postmillennialism doctrine, which sees the return of Christ as after the Millennium (Pate & Gundry 1998:19-23).
Preterist views the first vision in Revelation 1:12-20 as “Christ in history, walking among the churches as their ever-present protector and head” (Pate & Gundry 1998:49). Revelation 4-5 depicts God preparing John for the impending fearsome judgment, by spiritually transporting him above history to His throne room in heaven (Revelation 4:1-2), where the focal judgments begin in chapter 6. The seven seals, presented in parallel with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, see the contexts of both prophecies as relating to first-century events (Revelation 1:1, 3; Matthew 24:2-3, 34; Pate & Gundry 1998:53), with the seven trumpets and the seven bowls referring to the spiraling forward, from different angles, the intensity of the crises. The 144,000 saints refer to racial Jews who accept the Lamb of God for salvation, the number of which is symbolic rather than literal. The beast of the sea is seen as possibly Roman Emperor Nero, along with other emperors represented by the seven heads. The beast of the earth is the false prophet, and Babylon is referred to as Jerusalem. The New Creation is viewed by the preterist as ‘anyone [who] is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; 4:24; Galatians 6:15; Pate & Gundry 1998:52-90).
Idealist, sometimes called the ‘spiritualist’, interprets Revelation from a spiritual point of view, symbolically, as “representing the ongoing conflict of good and evil with no immediate historical connection to any social or political events”, wherein in understanding the reason why the book is written, the text can be interpreted “for its time, our time, and all time” (Pate & Gundry 1998:23). Chiastically structured, the key to the Book of Revelation “is to be found in 10:1-15:4, with its description of the struggle and liberation of the oppressed communities of the world” (Pate & Gundry 1998:27). Idealist “acknowledges the apocalyptic nature of Revelation”, but stands on a strong hermeneutical foundation that sees what is more important is what the text teaches at that point of time, and through good hermeneutical principles, identify the genre before interpreting literature. This is to say idealist, although acknowledges Revelation as containing some predictions of particular events, does not treat the book as a book of prophecy, but as a text presenting spiritual precepts through symbols for interpretation as apocalyptic literature (Pate & Gundry 1998:127-131).
Idealist sees the Millennium as a non-literal ‘thousand years’, referring to the entire period of history between Christ’s first and second comings, which include the present time, where Christ is now reigning at the right hand of the Father (Pate & Gundry 1998:27). To the idealist, the seven seals do not belong to a particular time, nor follow chronological succession. This deals with the whole history of the church and of the world throughout the Christian age, representing the calamities that fall upon the children of God. The idealist sees it “unnecessary to dwell on particulars of the plagues” and calamities from the seven trumpets and the seven bowls, for the significance is simply that “God uses every department of creation to punish the unrepentant”. The beast of the sea is seen as agents used by the dragon to attach the church, representing the spirit of the world that opposes and persecutes the church. The beast of the earth is seen as false religion and false philosophy in whatever forms it may appear. Babylon is referred to as the worldly city or center of wickedness that allures, tempts, and draws people away from God, or the world in the church, the unspiritual or earthly element that has infiltrated the body of Christ (Pate & Gundry 1998:104-125).
Classical dispensationalist, which is the most popular interpretation among the masses during the twentieth century, divides “salvation history into historical eras or epochs in order to distinguish the different administrations of God’s involvement in the world” for “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to the will of God” (Pate & Gundry 1998:28). The theological viewpoint of the classical dispensationalists is centered on pre-millennialism and pre-tribulation rapture, that is, Christ will come in two stages, the first for the church before the Great Tribulation, and the second in power and glory, to conquer His enemies and establish a temporary one thousand year reign on earth from Jerusalem (Pate & Gundry 1998:28-31). Classical dispensationalist “holds that the book [of Revelation] is primarily prophetic rather than apocalyptic and that biblical prophecy deserves literal interpretation, just as do other literary genres of Scripture” (Pate & Gundry 1998:224). “If a writer intended his words to be understood non-literally, that is the way to interpret them; if, however, he furnishes no such indication, then he meant them literally.” (Pate & Gundry 1998:225).
Classical dispensationalist sees the seven seals as following the pattern of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, revealed in symbolic mode to John concerning the beginning of birth pangs and the soon-to-come Great Tribulation. Following the telescopic relationship theory, the seven trumpets and the seven bowls are seen as the mounting intensity of God’s wrath, with the last bowl containing the last seven plagues poured out in a future period just before Christ returns. Literal interpretation sees the 144,000 servants of God “as ethnic Israel, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Pate & Gundry 1998:196). The 144,000 “are not the entirety of the faithful remnant of Israel, but are a group of them charged with the special task of witnessing for Christ during the world’s darkest hour”, with eventual “martyrdom for faithfulness to their task” (Pate & Gundry 1998:197). The beast of the sea is seen as a future false-Christ type of figure, who will rise to world rulership just before Christ returns, possibly an aggregate of world empires. The beast of the earth is a man who is a travesty of the slain Lamb, “a malevolent person who will embody satanic forces in controlling the final world empire” (Pate & Gundry 1998:200). Babylon is seen as the city on the Euphrates River. The imposing influence of this city and its dominance in world affairs are major considerations during the period just before Christ returns to judge her. After the future temporal kingdom of a thousand years on earth and the consignment of Satan and the beasts to the lake of fire, the next scene is the new creation of Christ's eternal kingdom on the present earth. Proper hermeneutics allow the material existence of a new Jerusalem, new heaven and new earth with ethical perfection that exceed human comprehension because no human has yet experienced it (Pate & Gundry 1998:191-210).
From the discussion and summary of the three views mentioned in this article, it can be seen that there are many diverse views and interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Despite this diversity, all the views are in unison on one fact, that Christ will return to judge the world, and good will eventually triumph over evil. As Christians, therefore, we must all affirm in oneness our confidence in Christ and hold fast our faith to the end in the midst of hermeneutical variety.