Jesus in the Apocalypse of John: Four Views on Revelation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining the Christology of the Apocalypse of John.

RevelationAny interpretation of Revelation must, as a matter of primary hermeneutic importance, address the topic of how to deal with the whole of the Apocalypse of John. As demonstrated Steven Gregg’s masterful work, Revelation: Four Views, throughout Christian history there have been four major ways to read the Apocalypse:[1] the historicist, futurist, idealist (or spiritualist), and preterist views.

The historicist view holds that, “God revealed the entire church age in advance through the symbolic visions of the Apocalypse.”[2] Building specifically upon the notion of “prophetic time,”[3] a historicist interpretation finds in the events of recorded history the events of Revelation, beginning in John’s day and culminating in the near future. For example, the seven seals (Rev. 6-7) are interpreted as the barbarian invasions of Western Roman Empire, the scorpions and locusts from the bottomless pit (Rev. 9) are viewed as the Arab hordes attacking the Eastern Roman Empire, and (after additional historical events) “the beast” (Rev. 13) is understood to represent the Roman papacy in the time of the Reformation, each of these sequential events in Revelation occurring chronologically in the world. This view was traditionally held by Protestants,[4] although its emphasis on the pope as antichrist, Euro-centric focus, and flexibility of interpretation has caused its popularity to wane.[5]

Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus of Lyons

Highly popular today, the futurist interpretation of Revelation argues that the Apocalypse (at least 4:1-22:21) foretells future eschatological events, often interpreting the visions in a highly literal manner. An especially influential futurist perspective has been that of “Premillennial Dispensationalism,” which understands the events of Revelation 4:1-19:21 to represent God’s judgment upon the earth during a seven-year tribulation period between the rapture of the saints and Christ’s victory over the forces of evil at Armageddon.[6] While futurist interpretations of a sort have existed since the days of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, criticisms of futurist viewpoints—especially those belonging to dispensational schools of thought—have blossomed in recent decades, citing everything from newspaper exegesis to a lack of consistent interpretation.[7]

Increasingly popular are spiritualist or idealist interpretations of Revelation, which seek to avoid interpretive problems created by attempting to find specific fulfillments and instead suggest that readers look for the “spiritual lessons and principles (which may find recurrent expressions in history) [that] are depicted symbolically in the visions.”[8] For spiritualist interpreters, Revelation focuses on the great themes of good triumph over evil, Christ’s defeat of Satan, and the vindication of God’s martyrs, all of which ultimately speaks of God’s continual victory over the dragon (Rev. 20:1-3) not simply as an eschatological event but as a continual reality.

Model of Ancient RomeThe final major interpretation of the Apocalypse of John has been labeled the “preterist” view, which argues that Revelation foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and judgment of Rome, much the same way that the Jewish prophets foretold the fall of Jerusalem and judgment of Babylon.[9] Especially important for this interpretation are Josephus’ descriptions of the First Jewish War and the destruction of Herod’s Temple, as well as John’s language at the opening and closing of Revelation where the contents are said to “shortly come to pass” and “are about to take place.”[10] Preterists argue that Revelation’s value for today consists in its status as fulfilled prophecy and its eschatological messages in Revelation 20-22. The general perspective of this series is the preterist view, and all other interpretations of the Christology of Revelation stem from this basic viewpoint.

[1] The following outlines of these perspectives should not be taken as the only ways in which Revelation has been interpreted, but rather as an outline for discerning basic approaches to the Apocalypse and its contents. Many interpretations combine portions of each view, and some views stand on the very edge of the definitions of each view as provided below. For example, a common contemporary Roman Catholic interpretation of Revelation views the book as a typological vision of the mass, an interpretation which is distinct from a traditional spiritualist/idealist viewpoint but nonetheless shares major hermeneutical features with that view.

[2] Gregg, 34.

[3] Principally derived from the year-for-a-day language of Ezekiel 4:4-6 and applied to Daniel and the Apocalypse.

[4] Including John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Phillip Melanchthon, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Matthew Henry, to name but a few.

[5] Gregg, 37, esp. n67.

[6] Notable futurist voices include John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Charles Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and Jerry B. Jenkins. See also Gregg, 40f.

[7] For example, the avocation of “literal” readings which are accompanied by distinctively non-literal readings which have changed dramatically over the past 150 years or the fact that contemporary futurist interpretations of Revelation leave over 90% of the book irrelevant to its original audiences. See Gregg, 41-2.

[8] Gregg, 44, esp. n94.

[9] Most preterists are “partial preterists,” those who argue that Revelation 1-19 took place in the first three or four centuries, that the intervening time (including now) is spoken of in Revelation 20, and that chapters 21-22 will take place in the future. Alternatively, some literary critical preterists argue that Revelation’s prophetic oracles were never fulfilled. See Gregg, 34, 39.

[10] Rev. 1:1, 1:19. Likewise, compare Rev. 22:10, where John is told not to seal up the book because “the time is at hand,” with Daniel 12:9, where Daniel is told to seal up his book because it would not be immediately fulfilled.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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