Few books of the Bible have been as controversial in their interpretation as Revelation. This article is a transcript of various sermons and lectures I’ve given over the years about how I approach the book. I’ve included it here essentially so I can link to it whenever Coffee with the King deals with a text from Revelation – to avoid having to justify the way I’m interpreting it each time. Enjoy!
Fifty years ago, one of the hot topics among evangelicals was the End Times. This was at least in part due to the times: a world still reeling from the horrors of WWII and living under the shadow of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. But for some, a person’s end times views were a kind of litmus test for the rest of their theology. How someone read Revelation supposedly reflected whether they read Scripture ‘literally’ or not.
In the present generation there seems to have been a reaction – even an overreaction – in the other direction. Many younger Christians are keen to ignore the debate altogether. Some describe themselves as being ‘pan-millenialists’ (it’ll all pan out in the end). This has meant that Revelation is often neglected in our churches, because no-one wants to go back to the often unhelpful focus it received in the past. Part of my motivation in posting this is to remind ourselves of its importance, and to rehabilitate some of the different ways in which people have read it as being consistent with a high view of Scripture.
There are, by most counts, four main ways of reading Revelation. It’s important to be informed, because one of the four has the weight of American Christian marketing behind it (and a large proportion of Southern American Christianity in general). It finds its way into popular Christian novels and movies like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. If we don’t look into it ourselves, we can drift into thinking that is the only truly Scriptural viewpoint.
Before we start, two ground rules so you’ll know what to expect:
- This is not a systematic theology paper on end times. It’s on one book of the New Testament: Revelation. The focus will be on understanding Revelation on its own terms, not verse-hopping throughout bible.
- I’d ask you to put aside preconceived ideas of the labels pre- a- or post-millennial, as I don’t think they’re particularly helpful at categorising ways of reading Revelation. For a start, the millennium is only mentioned in a few verses in Rev 20. And more importantly, what you believe about the millennium doesn’t necessarily correlate with how you read Revelation.
Overview of the major views on Revelation
At the risk of gross over-simplification, here’s a snapshot of the four main ways of understanding Revelation.
(a) The bulk of the events depicted in Revelation are yet to be fulfilled. That is, they lie in our future. This is normally referred to as a futurist position. The events described are specific, symbolic prophecies of what is yet to happen in the years leading up to the second coming.
There is a variant of the futurist position, often called dispensationalism. While this gets most of the popular North American press, it’s still a minority viewpoint. It includes the idea of a secret rapture of believers before a time of tribulation, and then Christ will return to reign for 1000 years on the earth. It’s the worldview which gave rise to things like the Left Behind novels, the bumper stickers that warn us that the driver may disappear at any moment, and much American foreign policy.
(However, dispensationalism goes beyond being an end-times view – it’s really a methodology of reading the entire bible. See the chapter on dispensationalism in Witherington, The Problem with Evangelical Theology, or a summary here.)
But just to be clear: you can see the events of Revelation as primarily in our future without holding to dispensational theology.
Futurism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic prophecies of what is yet to happen in the years leading up to the second coming.
(b) A similar view is one that was very popular throughout the middle years of church history: the historical reading. That is, Revelation was an outlining of the history of the church up until the second coming. Virtually no scholars accept this today, of any persuasion, other than a handful of popular writings. Problems with it include:
- The difficulty of lining up the events in Revelation with specific events in church history. Everyone has a different schema – similar to the problem with futurism.
- The relevance of this to the original audience in Asia Minor.
- The Euro-centrism of such interpretations, which in the 20th century became obvious. Where is the African church? The Asian church? etc.
Historicism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic prophecies of what would happen throughout the history of the church.
(c) A third view sees the events not as being in our future, or even in the distant future of the original readers, like the historical view. Instead, it refers to the immediate situation of the original readers. It’s usually called preterism. Much of Revelation, according to this view, refers to events around the fall of Jerusalem, persecution by Rome, and the eventual fall of Rome. Some extreme preterists see no reference to future events, a second coming of Christ, and final judgement. However, the majority see the final two chapters as still awaiting fulfilment.
Preterism: Revelation contains specific, symbolic depictions of society & events in the first century AD.
(d) The final major viewpoint doesn’t see the descriptions in Revelation as referring to any specific people or events. It’s often called the spiritual or idealist reading. It depicts a spiritual reality that lies behind our visible world. It proclaims God’s ultimate victory against the invisible forces of darkness.
Idealism: Revelation contains general, symbolic depictions about what has happened & will continue to happen until Jesus returns.
These are not the only positions. Some try to combine these views in various ways. And within each position, there are different ways of understanding what the various specifics refer to. But these four labels hopefully will help us to understand the debate.
So we get to the question: how should we interpret Revelation?
A ‘literal’ interpretation?
Some would argue that we should aim for a “literal” interpretation. This flows from an earnest desire to take the inspired nature of Scripture seriously. To have a high view of Scripture is equated with taking it literally. It sounds OK at first, but is that really the case? When you think about it for a minute, there are some problems with this literal approach.
It’s impossible to take Revelation completely literally. I mean, in chapter 12—a woman clothed with the sun—that would burn; in chapter 5—Jesus is a lion that’s somehow a lamb at the same time; in chapter 8—how does a third of the sun get struck?; and in chapter 17—are we actually waiting for a time in the future when a literal drunk prostitute rides a literal seven-headed beast and somehow persecutes God’s people?
Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard (who write from a cautious futurist view) point this out:
…we must recognize that Revelation employs highly symbolic and figurative imagery that we dare not interpret too literally. Virtually every reader recognizes this in the most obvious instances: as when John specifically explains that the seven stars are angels (or messengers); that the seven lampstands are churches (1:20); that the dragon is the devil (12:9); that the bowls of incense are the prayers of the saints (5:8); that ten horns are ten kings (17:12); and that the great prostitute is a city that rules over the kings of the earth (17:18).
But it is amazing how often those same readers do not recognize that they should interpret the other images in the book as equally symbolic. Instead, many insist that references to a temple (e.g., 11:1) must refer to a literal, rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, that the battle of Armageddon (Hebrew for Mt. Megiddo, 16:16) must occur at that specific geographical site in northern Israel, or that the mark of the beast (13:16-17) has to be some actual visible sign that distinguishes unbelievers from believers (Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 37).
It’s impossible to take Revelation completely literally. Even those who claim they do actually don’t. The issue is the degree to which Revelation can be taken literally. Now a symbol may refer to a literal person/event, or represent a pattern; a timeframe may be literally chronological, or symbolically grouped in sequence. But whatever our view, there’s a point at which we’re exercising interpretive judgement as to where the symbolism ends and the literal referent begins.
For example, let’s turn to chapter 6—the famed four horsemen of the apocalypse. (Read Rev 6:1-8 now). Unless we’re expecting four of the weirdest-looking literal horses to show up, this text symbolises conquest, war, famine, and plague.
Was it a specific time of war, famine, and plague?
- Some say: yes! But they are divided as to whether it occurred back in the first century, or is yet to occur in our future.
- Others say: no! It refers to the general concept of war, famine, and plague throughout history.
To some extent, the discussion centres not on how literally it should be interpreted, but how specifically it should be understood.
And how literally should we take each aspect of the symbol? Is that really the literal price of food in this particular famine, or does it symbolise extortionate prices? Does a literal quarter of the earth get killed in the seal judgements, or is this number symbolic of: a lot, but smaller than a third of the earth (which the trumpet judgements affect in chapter 8), which in turn is smaller than the whole earth (which the bowl judgments affect in chapter 16)?
What I’m trying to illustrate is that there’s no “moral high ground” of a purely “literal” reading of Revelation. The discussion is really about the degree of literality in the details, and the specificity of the symbols. That’s the first problem.
But even if we could take it purely literally, should we? Why is it sometimes taken as given that a literal interpretation of a text is better than a non-literal one? What if the text was not intended to be taken literally? To take it literally would then be an inferior or wrong approach!
And there are plenty of texts that aren’t intended to be taken literally. Jokes, for example. Or satire. Jesus’ parables. Fictional novels. Poetry.
And there’s plenty of poetic imagery in the Bible. Take, for instance, an image from Psalm 19: ‘Psalms 19:4 In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.’
Now I, personally, haven’t been up there. But if we could interview someone who has—Neil Armstrong, Ham the Chimpanzee, or even Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster—they’d all be able to tell us: We didn’t see any tents. In fact, we didn’t see camping gear of any kind. Apart from some stars that kind of look like the shape of a saucepan—that count? And we’d say: What are you talking about? It’s poetry. It’s not meant to be taken literally! Come on, guys—chimps, cars—it’s not rocket science!
My point is, if we read parables or poetry or apocalypses literally, we’re clearly going against the intent of the writer. A literal interpretation of God’s inerrant, inspired word is not always the right one!
All genres can communicate truth, or a point, but not always at a literal level.
The bible is made up of many different genres, which have to be interpreted in different ways. You don’t have the same expectations of poetry as you do for reported history—we understand that the Psalms are often quite figurative in their language; the gospels, however, are quite clearly intended by their authors to be an accurate reporting of what happened. Jesus told parables—stories he made up to illustrate a truth he was trying to teach. But we all understand the genre of a parable, so we don’t waste our time arguing if there was a literal good Samaritan.
So how do we tell if something should be understood literally? The answer is: genre. The kind of writing it is.
The Genre of Revelation
How genre affects our understanding of a text
And most of the time, the genre itself gives us “cues” that we learn. So over time we’ve learned that when someone says “a man walks into a bar,” we know to expect a joke. And we don’t waste time asking the man’s name or which bar it was—we know it’s a joke. To the point that if I wanted to tell you a literal story about a literal man who walked into a literal bar—I’d have to say, up front, this sounds like a joke but it’s not. I’d have to explicitly “undo” the genre cues.
Or if we read “once upon a time…” we expect to hear a fairy tale. It won’t be a description of literal events, but it will teach a moral truth.
If we read “Roses are red, violets are blue…” we’re not think it’s a scientific description in a biology textbook. We expect it to be bad love poetry. Or worse, if, gentlemen, if we read it on the back of a toilet door. Context matters. What I’m saying is, we all learn how to pick up genre cues.
But sometimes we don’t. Because we don’t know the genre. Haven’t learned the cues. For example, look at this text:
SELECT COUNT(ID) FROM PRODUCTS
WHERE CATEGORY IN (‘HOME’, ‘OFFICE’)
GROUP BY CATEGORY ORDER CATEGORY ASC;
Most of you won’t know what it means. You might be able to take a guess and be in the ballpark. But if you’re a database programmer, you know the cues and can interpret it accurately.
Or try this text. In over a decade of doing this, I’ve never found anyone who knows what it is or how to interpret it:
Occasionally a student will look at some of the three-letter groupings and realise that they may be codes for cities. NYC is New York City, for example. No one has yet gone to the next level and realised the other one is Bremen (BRE) and both are cities with seaports . Or that some of the other groupings of letters you see on shipping containers as you pass them on the road. I used to work in the shipping industry, so I know what it is and how to interpret it. It’s a bayplan. It’s a load plan for a ship, showing where each container is to be stowed, and where it’s travelling from and to. But unless you’d been initiated into this genre, you’d have no clue how to read it or what to do with it.
The big problem with interpreting Revelation is that its genre is weird and unfamiliar to us. (But not to the original audience.) Because we don’t read and write apocalypses today. We don’t know the genre cues; the expectations. So we need to investigate the genre.
What is the genre of Revelation?
The fundamental difficulty in forming an interpretive strategy for Revelation is that it contains cues for three different genres:
(a) A letter. This is the simplest to understand, as we have letters today. We don’t write letters the same way as they did in the first century, but thankfully there are plenty of other such letters in the New Testament (and Graeco-Roman sources). Revelation has an introduction and greeting, and is addressed to the seven churches in Asia.
Rev 1:4-5a John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Revelation is an Apocalypse. Which if you know Greek is stunningly obvious, because ‘apocalypsis’ means ‘revelation.’ It’s there in the title.
But unlike the letter, the apocalyptic genre is the one that’s the most foreign to us. We don’t have them today. But they were big among Jews in the first two centuries BC, and into the first century or so AD. In Graeco-Roman culture they had a similar genre, of revelation through dreams, etc. And Revelation calls itself an apocalypse right at the beginning:
Rev 1:1 The apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
There are plenty of other Jewish apocalypses to get an idea of the genre. Things like 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Testament of Abraham, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, as well as parts of Old Testament writings like Ezekiel and Daniel.
These writings used symbolism and vision—usually mediated by an angel—full of bizarre images drawn from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the world of Graeco-Roman mythology. They spoke of divine judgement, and the coming new heavens and new earth.
A number of decades ago, the Society of Biblical Literature agreed upon this definition:
Apocalyptic is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework [it’s told in story form], in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing transcendent reality [that is, reality as seen from God’s perspective] which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, [that is, it’s grounded in time, and is focused on the coming “end” of history] and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (cited in Collins, 5).
Or more simply, apocalypses are ‘revelations.’ Their aim was to reveal the spiritual forces and battles that lie behind what goes on in our physical world. They emphasise the inevitability of the outcome of history, because God is supremely in control.
Apocalyptic writings were prevalent among minority groups. They were often written as subversive literature against the oppressors. The message was usually along the lines of: oppressors bad; us good; one day they’re gonna get their butts kicked.
Ben Witherington III: ‘It cannot be stressed enough that one of the rhetorical functions of a work like Revelation is to give early Christians perspective, especially in regard to matters of good and evil, redemption, and judgment. Revelation seeks to reveal to the audience the supernatural forces at work behind the scenes that are affecting what is going on at the human level… The message is often, “though it appears that evil is triumphing, God is still in his heaven and all in due course will be right with the world”’ (Revelation, p.38).
Sometimes apocalypses used the imagery as a kind of ‘code,’ so that outsiders wouldn’t understand it. Otherwise they might destroy it, and persecute those who possessed it. But insiders who knew what the symbols meant could understand. Other times, as was likely the case with Revelation, the ‘code’ was quite transparent. The images were used not to hide the meaning, but to provoke thought—o portray figures and events in a particular way.
Here’s one example of twentieth century apocalyptic. Note how the various characters are portrayed by the imagery: the Australian justice system is depicted as a dingo, eating the poor Chamberlains. It’s clearly making a political statement just in the way it’s drawn:
So what would a 21st century Australian apocalypse look like? It’s quite co-incidental that I came across one recently. (Just when you thought the genre had died out.) See if you can make sense of it:
I looked, and I saw a beast that, by its own admission, was a bit of a bulldozer. It wore a baseball cap on its head, it held a lump of coal, and forced the inhabitants of the land to awkwardly shake his hand. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though crash-tackled.
During his reign, an angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. And the smoke of their torment went up for at least a couple of months, because the beast doesn’t hold a hose.
And then from his mouth a serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the people and sweep them away with the torrent. And they did suffer for ten days, before the beast finally turned up with the word “resilience” tattooed on his thigh, muttering something about once in a millennium.
And I heard the first living creature cough! I looked, and there before me was a pale horse with a fever and a scratchy throat. With a vaccine following a long way behind. For it was not a race. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the 7-Eleven franchisees, saying, “one RAT test for a day’s wages, but do not damage the budget deficit.”
The beast forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, Western Sydney and… South-Western Sydney to receive the mark of the beast, on their foreheads and wrists so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mask, although if they wore it loosely under their chin they would probably get away with it for some reason.
A great sign appeared in the Inner West: a woman, clothed in a red garment, with a rosary around her neck. She was pregnant and cried out in pain because the hospital was underfunded. And she gave birth to a son, a male child who will fight the beast with a hammer and sickle.
Then war broke out in the electorate. The male offspring fought against the beast, with the armies of heaven following, dressed in fine linen, mostly red, but with the odd spot of green and teal. The Beast and his angels fought back, but they were not strong enough, and they lost their place in Canberra. The Beast was hurled down to the Shire, and many of his angels with him, that he might no longer lead the whole nation astray.
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting. But they were told to behave, because the male child intends to run an orderly government and it starts now.
So do you see how this fits the idea of apocalyptic prophecy? It’s not detailed prediction of events—mostly it rehearses past and current events, to present them in a certain light. I do this firstly because it’s fun; but also to show you how political events in the recent past can be depicted in apocalyptic fashion. Because that’s what apocalypse writers back in the ancient world were doing. They were painting the world from a different perspective.
(By the way, if you’re not from Australia, you probably have no idea what that was referring to. And that illustrates how ‘in house’ apocalyptic is—outsiders tend not to get the references. Which, by and large, is how we approach Revelation 2000 years later, as outsiders who can only make educated guesses at what all the symbols mean. And for the record, I’ve been writing Auspocalypses most years since 2007, and whoever happens to be in power is the beast. I’m not partisan.)
Before we make any firm conclusions about genre, we need to look at the third set of genre cues we see.
As well as introducing itself as an apocalypse, Revelation claims to be “prophecy.”
Rev 1:3a ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy’
But what is prophecy? The first thing that comes to mind is predicting the future. But if you look at the OT prophets, they didn’t spend the majority of their time doing that—particularly not specifically. Their main ‘prophetic’ job was to point out to Israel where she was being disobedient to God’s law—and to remind them of what the consequences would be.
It’s not a great prediction for a mother to say to her kids: “if you don’t stop drawing on the walls & clean it up now, you’re going to be in big trouble when your father gets home.” She’s not psychic. It’s merely a reminder of the consequences of their actions. Most of biblical prophecy is calling God’s people & surrounding nations to account over their behaviour, & reminding them of what God has said would happen if they disobeyed. Prophets were first & foremost social commentators on their generation, as well as predictors of the future.
Different conclusions about genre
So as we’ve seen, Revelation is a complex genre. And the different ways people read and interpret Revelation arise from making different conclusions about genre. Each of the three main ways of reading Rev tends to emphasise one genre over the others. Let me remind you of them very quickly.
Firstly, there’s the futurist approach. It sees Revelation as describing specific people and events which are, for the most part, yet to occur. It tends to focus on Revelation’s prophetic characteristics – and in particular, predictive prophecy.
Secondly, there’s the idealist approach. Revelation depicts an ongoing spiritual struggle—patterns, rather than specific events. And it tends to focus on the apocalyptic aspect of its genre.
And thirdly, there’s the preterist approach. Like the futurist view, it sees the symbols in Revelation as mostly specific rather than general. But rather than understanding them as future predictions, it sees Revelation as portraying the world of the first century—society and people and events—the way God sees them. It at least begins with the fact that Revelation is a letter, written to a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time. But I think it also takes the apocalyptic and prophetic elements into account.
Here I’ll start being explicit about my own view. And it’s not just my view. In broad terms, it’s the view of the majority of scholars outside of North America.
Note that this view would represent the majority of scholars outside North America. Those adopting this broad approach include figures from church history like Augustine and Calvin; North American scholars such as Ben Witherington and Craig Keener; and Australians Paul Barnett and John Dickson. (See especially Barnett, Apocalypse Now and Then, and Dickson & Clarke, 666 and all that.)
Again, broadly speaking, it best falls into that third category although some might quibble with the label. It’s a view that sees Revelation as theological commentary on the world of its first readers. First, I’ll give you the reasons I hold to that view. And then I’ll tell you why I’m being explicit about it. So if you come from a different perspective – that’s fine; go with me for a little, and then we’ll come back to it later.
But the reason I hold to this view is that I believe it takes seriously the implications of all three genres we saw cues for in Revelation. Epistle. Apocalypse. And Prophecy.
As a letter, it must have relevance to the people who first received it, as with any other epistle in the New Testament. In fact, all scripture was written at a particular time, in a particular place, to a particular group of people, and must first and foremost be a message to them before it is by extension a message to us.
Scholars are generally agreed that Revelation was first written to a group of Christians who were a minority in a hostile world, with the looming threat of suffering and persecution if they didn’t go along with the majority. But what point would there be in sending them a letter that says, ‘I know you’re going through tough times at the moment, but hang in there—in 2000 yrs or so there’s going to be an even worse time, for which I’ll give you an incredible amount of detail even though you’ll be long dead, and then I’ll make things better.’ That’s not how Scripture normally works!
Revelation as a letter makes the most sense if bulk of events depicted in it are in its first readers’ immediate future. Isn’t that the simplest reading of the opening verse?
Rev 1:1a The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place;
Now if you squint at the Greek, that could be translated as “must take place quickly.” As in, when it eventually happens, it’ll be sudden. But two verses later we read:
Rev 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
How can the first readers be blessed for keeping ‘what is written in it’ if it refers to the distant future? And the book is not to be sealed up:
Rev 22:10 And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’
This is a deliberate contrast with Daniel’s vision, which was prophecy for a future time. The angel tells Daniel in chapter 12:
Dan 12:9 He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.’
And what about the claim that these events would be seen by those who killed Jesus:
Rev 1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;
At face value, this makes sense as referring to those still alive in the first century. But it’s clouded, if you like, by what we think of when we read “coming with the clouds.” We’ve been conditioned to think of Jesus’ ascension on the cloud elevator in Acts chapter 1. With the angels’ promise that Jesus would return the same way. But that’s not the first connection the first readers of Revelation would have made. Nor Jesus’ disciples when he used the phrase “coming with the clouds” well before they’d seen the cloud elevator.
No, there’s an important Old Testament background to this image of “coming with” or “coming on the clouds.” It’s not about a personal appearance, but of God’s acting in history to bring judgement on disobedient nations. Usually at the hand of foreign armies.
For example, when speaking of judgement on Egypt, Isaiah says this:
Isa 19:1 See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them.
Or Jeremiah, talking about judgement on Jerusalem:
Jer 4:11-13 ‘At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people…Now I pronounce my judgments against them.” Look! He advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! We are ruined!’
This prophecy was fulfilled in 587BC not by a physical appearance of Jesus, by the army of the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem and carrying of the people into exile. ‘He is coming with the clouds’ is connected in the OT with divine judgement, particularly on Jerusalem.
We also see this image in Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man; a divine figure who comes before the throne of the Ancient of Days as a victorious warrior:
Dan 7:13-14 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
In Revelation, Jesus is depicted as “coming with the clouds” to judge unfaithful Jerusalem, at the hands of Rome in AD70—playing the role the Babylonian army did back in 587BC. And then, Jesus promises to come to judge Rome, the new Babylon, for her idolatry and persecution of his people. Something that still lies in its first readers’ future, though now in our past.
And this imagery—this apocalyptic image—provides a bridge to the second genre we see.
The opening verse also reminds us that Rev is a revelation—an apocalypse. It reveals in symbolic language the spiritual battle behind the events of life. Not just historical events, but social institutions & customs.
Once again, what’s the point of addressing such an apocalypse to a first century audience if they have no hope of understanding the events or culture to which it refers? More than that; if it doesn’t refer to events in the first century, but to a later time, then we as the church have done a pretty lousy job in working out what it refers to. We can’t agree!
Those of you my age or older may remember Hal Lindsey. Back in 1970 he wrote The Late Great Planet Earth—a book that specifically identified all the symbols in Revelation and other prophetic books. The evil nation that attacks Israel he saw as the Soviet Union. A small flaw in his plan—like the fall of the Berlin Wall—led him to revise his position during the 90s; now to the forces of Islam, in nations like Iran. Many other predictions were revised in light of changing world events—even his timetable for Jesus to return by 1988. You’ve got to admire his persistence. If at first you don’t succeed… (And who knows, he may yet circle back to Russia…)
Now he’s at the extreme end; most futurists aren’t loopy like that. But there’s still no agreement among futurists on what these future events will be—making a futurist reading of Rev not particularly helpful. Sure, the world may end after a whole lot of bad stuff, but which set of bad stuff we won’t know until it has already happened.
Michael Reddish: ‘Written to Christian communities in Asia Minor at the end of the first century, Revelation was intended to address the needs and concerns of those believers. To interpret Revelation as primarily concerned with end-time events is to divorce it from its first-century context. The work then becomes incomprehensible and meaningless to the very people to whom it was originally addressed (Revelation, p. 28).
As we said before, it’s clear that to understand Rev you need some inside knowledge. Knowledge that I believe the first readers had, because the symbolism was political and social satire of their time. We can piece some of the detail together from historical records; other details are probably forever lost, as we are so far removed in time and culture, and we no longer write or read apocalyptic literature.
So Revelation is a letter, addressed directly to a literal, first century audience. And it’s an apocalypse, revealing the bigger picture behind life as a follower of Jesus in the first century. But it’s also prophecy, which we need to take into account as well.
(1) When are these prophecies fulfilled?
Now futurists claim it’s prophecy still to be fulfilled in our future. And they do this for good reason, because the images of destruction in Revelation are so total it is hard to see them having been fulfilled in the past. For example, in chapter 6:
Rev 6:12-14 ‘There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.’
Sounds pretty much like the end of the world, doesn’t it? Last time I checked, the moon was still that greyish colour, not red, and still had plenty of stars hanging out with it. If we take it literally we can’t see it as already being fulfilled.
However this kind of exaggerated symbolism was the bread-and-butter of apocalyptic writings.
Witherington: ‘The question of course is how literally one should take this language since it is in most respects the traditional language used of a theophany… One must bear in mind that this same sort of language is used when describing the fall of Babylon, and we may be sure all the stars did not fall from the sky on that occasion…!’ (Matthew, pp.451-52).
He’s referring to:
Isaiah 13:1,9-10 A prophecy against Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw: … See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
So if that prophecy wasn’t fulfilled in a literal, world-ending way—should we expect similar prophecies in Revelation to be any different? And as we said before, what is a ‘literal’ fulfilment of an apocalyptic image anyway? Most of the images in Revelation are impossible to take completely literally. It’s only the degree that’s in dispute.
So the decision as to whether to read Revelation as referring to the past or to the future is to some extent based on (a) the degree to which Revelation is apocalyptic prophecy and (b) the degree to which apocalyptic literature can use exaggerated images for effect.
(2) Are the prophecies primarily predictive?
This is particularly the case when we remember that prophecy in the OT wasn’t primarily about predicting things. It was about presenting reality from God’s point of view: foreign nations are powerless; idols are worthless false gods. And OT prophets called people to respond to that reality by being faithful to the one true God.
It’s the same with the prophecy of Revelation. It presents a God’s-eye view of the world. It shows the bad guys—the empire, the emperor, those opposed to God—for how bad they really are. And it also shows ultimately how powerless they are in comparison with an almighty God. They are idols; they are false gods; they are nothing.
Therefore, the prophetic message is this: be faithful to God. He is the one who is in control. He is the one who will win in the end. Don’t follow after the pale imitations of this world.
Why tell you all that?
So that’s a summary of my reasons for holding to a non-futurist approach. But why did I spend all those words telling you that?
Well I’ve got two reasons. And the first needs a bit of history. Because one particular view has dominated evangelical churches in the US and here in Australia for a large part of the 20th century. It’s a particular variant of the futurist reading known as ‘Dispensationalism,’ which includes things like the secret rapture of the church, where everyone else is “left behind” for seven years of tribulation on earth. A very futurist, literalist reading. For many churches, it became a litmus test of whether you believed the bible or not—do you take Scripture literally, or are you one of those no-good liberals? Which as I said before, are not the only two positions.
But in many churches, it was presented as the only view a good, Bible-believing Christian could hold. And it’s got weight of American Christian publishing behind it, so it’s been hard to ignore. We haven’t got time for that story here, but it goes back to the Plymouth Brethren coming to America, and having control of the printing presses there. And in more recent years, it’s connected to Tim LaHaye’s hugely popular Left Behind series of novels, which again gave the impression that a Dispensational interpretation was the only valid one. Let me illustrate how blatant this was.
Back in the 1990s, when CD-ROMs were a thing, I was in my local Christian bookstore. I saw the Illumina series of CD-ROMs. Volume 1. Shrink-wrapped packaging. Containing text, videos, pictures, maps—all you could ever need to study the Old Testament. Next to it was Volume 2. Everything to equip you to study the New Testament. And then, next to that was Volume 3. Same brand. Same packaging. Same concept. Everything you needed to study the Left Behind novel series. Like it was the divinely inspired third testament!
And that is why I’m doing this now. If you’re a futurist, I’m not trying to convince you my view is right. Although if I’ve managed to do that, fine. But I am wanting, at the very least, to undo the impression that if you don’t hold to a futurist view, you don’t take Scripture seriously. That was damaging to Christian unity in previous generations; and the fights that ensued are part of the reason today, in many churches, we don’t do much with Revelation. We’re scared of the controversies it causes. So I simply want to rehabilitate a non-futurist reading as a perfectly orthodox position that can be held by a Bible-affirming evangelical.
The second reason I gave my rationale is quite practical. When we go through the content of Revelation on Coffee with the King it’s almost impossible to discuss the details in it from every perspective. So I wanted to outline the reason for the perspective from which I teach it.
The key question we’ll be asking is: what did it mean to the original recipients? This will involve identifying first century events, which is unique to the preterist position. But it will also involve explaining the background and meaning of the symbolism and imagery, which is also integral to the idealist view, and many schools of futurism.
When it comes to application, I’ll be treating it like any other New Testament document. It has a meaning for the original recipients, and then by extension, to us. The end result is that the message for us is quite similar if we pursue a preterist or idealist reading. And if we take detailed future predictions out of the equation, a futurist reading could still yield similar application. No matter when the events occur, the message is all about the sovereignty of God, and an encouragement to endure until the end.
So here’s a summary of how I understand Revelation:
- Using apocalyptic language, it depicts events that occurred in our past, in the first century AD.
- Using apocalyptic imagery, it portrays first society the way God sees it.
- Using the rhetoric of apocalyptic, it comforts persecuted first century Christians by depicting the world in a particular way: God is in complete control; those being persecuted are virtuous, and will soon be vindicated; those who persecute are evil, and will soon be destroyed.