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Methods of Interpreting Revelation

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Methods of Interpreting Revelation


The book of Revelation was written with many of the elements of apocalyptic literature. Such literature was developed and became popular after the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. Examples of such books in the Bible, other than Daniel and Revelation, are Isaiah (some well developed elements), with Joel and Zechariah showing some of the elements of such literature. Apocalyptic literature often displays the following elements:

  • There is usually an otherworldly being (usually an angel) who delivers a message to a human agent, information which cannot be known without the revelation the otherworldly being delivers.
  • The message it carries was usually delivered through a vision or dream.
  • It often involved a trip to heaven for the person receiving the message.
  • It often featured strong colors and perhaps other strong, vivid visual themes.
  • Use of symbolism as a central theme was common and was often presented as a mystery that is usually very difficult to understand.
  • It often featured strange or mysterious beasts. Sometimes these beasts were composites of other creatures.
  • It often expressed a negative view of the writer's present time.
  • It usually foretold supernaturally inspired cataclysmic events that will occur at the end of the world.
  • The authors of such works often took on a pseudonym.
  • It was often written in narrative form and used complex, intellectually oriented language.
  • Determinism was a prominent feature of such literature, which is the idea that any event is determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. In the case of apocalyptic literature, this meant that God has already determined the future by his own counsels, for which reason it was likely viewed as fixed and unalterable.
  • It usually treated final events as imminent.
  • The main theme usually is that the current suffering, such as disease and wars, will someday be over. Then God will judge those who cause such suffering and set things right for those who are righteous.

Not all apocalyptic literature was divinely inspired, but for those apocalyptic books which are considered divinely inspired and became part of the Bible (primarily Daniel and Revelation), a method of interpretation must be chosen. This must be done because of the highly symbolic nature of these books. For your information, we present here a description of the four main methods of interpreting Revelation.

The first method is the preterist perspective. The preterist method of interpretation takes the position that most everything in Revelation was about contemporary events of John's time and usually rejects continuous divine involvement in human affairs. As a result of this viewpoint, they deny any future application for apocalyptic prophecy beyond John's own time because, as they view things, God did not tell John the future. For them, all apocalyptic prophecy is only a reflection of the past, a mirror of the author's own day (Roman times of John); they have no hope that God will come and restore the earth to its originally created condition as he has promised to do. It would seem that, at a minimum, they do not believe that God is able to foretell the future. At worst, perhaps they do not believe that God even exists.

The viewpoint of the preterists, of course, makes the beast of Revelation 13 into Pagan Rome and, as a result, they usually think that the number 666 refers to Nero or sometimes one of his contemporaries. It makes Revelation into a coded commentary only about the "evil empire", Pagan Rome. From their perspective, nothing else of significance beyond Pagan Rome occurs in Revelation and God had absolutely nothing to do with it. John created all of it.

If a person believes that God has the ability to foresee the future, then rejecting the future application of the vision rejects divine involvement with the book of Revelation. If one believes that Revelation is divinely inspired, then one must believe Revelation when it says that the angel instructed John that from Revelation 4:1 onward, the vision was about the future. Therefore, one must reject the Preterist interpretation method because it disallows any future application of the vision. Of course, if one does not believe that God has the ability to foresee the future (or maybe even does not believe that God exists), then probably nothing can be said to convince such a person that the future was foretold in the vision.

The second method is the futurist perspective. This method teaches that most everything in Revelation is about events that occur just before the second coming of Jesus. Those who take this position do the reverse of those who take the preterist position.

Futurists deny all forms of conditionality. The Bible clearly demonstrates that some prophecies are conditional, particularly where Ancient Israel itself was concerned, but futurists deny the evidence for this. For them, God's prophecies to Israel in the Old Testament never "failed." Instead, they simply apply to the future. Futurists usually look forward to the "rapture" and a literal temple rebuilt in Jerusalem; they expect David's kingdom to be reestablished here on earth, to flourish during a millennium that occurs on this world (instead of in heaven), complete with childbirth, death, and animal sacrifice. With what they perceive as the demise of historicism after 1844, futurism has become by far the most popular approach to eschatology (study of beliefs largely concerned with the end of the world, such as the second coming of Jesus and events connected with it) and apocalyptic prophecy in conservative churches and groups today. One obvious conclusion is that the events of 1844 are still having a strong effect on the viewpoints of prophecy taken by many.

There is a serious problem with the futurist perspective. The books of Daniel and Revelation both show a "time travel" perspective of history rather than a futurist perspective. The dreams and visions of Daniel began with the empire of his time (Babylon) and moved forward into the future, showing the future of three additional empires important to God's people because they were to be directly affected by these empires. Each successive dream or vision covers much of the same historical ground but give a different perspective and greater detail of certain things. Revelation demonstrates the same approach. Futurism literally shortchanges the reader because it avoids this obvious time travel understanding of Daniel and Revelation. Those who take this viewpoint miss everything important about the prophecy because they fail to appreciate the evidence of God's working through history to bring things to a just and fair conclusion. Consequently they cannot build their faith in God as they should be able were the prophecies properly understood by them.

The third method is the idealist perspective. Those holding to this view see the prophecies of both Daniel and Revelation as symbolic pictures of eternal truths about good and evil. To them the sole purpose of Revelation is for us to create a spiritual lesson from the material presented. In addition, idealists reapply prophecies, depending on the situation at hand. Thus, the restoration of a defiled temple is relevant for the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the temple defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes and finally destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

There are several problems with the idealist approach. First, this approach sometimes leaves out the obvious historical nature of the prophecies, so it shortchanges the reader. Second, It strongly suggests that the prophecies are not definite messages, but rather instead they are highly subjective because the interpretation does not so much depend on Bible definitions of symbolism, but rather much more depends on the personal experience of the individual reader. This may especially occur in a situation in which the believer in the idealist perspective may be observing in the world around him. Those who use this approach may believe in the broad outlines of the historical approach, but avoid the fine details of the prophecies.

The multiple application of prophecies by Idealism often appears very uncertain to those who want an exact outline of the end time, so they tend to reject this approach. The Bible shows many examples of the definite nature of Bible prophecy and its ability to precisely predict the future, which contradicts the more indefinite stand taken by the believers of the idealistic approach.

Of course, the fourth and final method of interpretation is the historicist perspective in which both Daniel and Revelation are viewed as expressions of different aspects of history in progress leading up to the end of the world as seen through symbolic means. The idea is that the progression of events evident in the prophecies can be lined up with the progression of history, usually from the prophets day and continuing to the Second Coming of Jesus. In other words, events predicted can be lined up with real matching events evident in history. The matched events will show a movement of time and events from John's time to some future time, usually the Second Coming of Jesus, but some may also extend to the end of the coming millennium.

A clear example of this is found in Daniel 7, in which a series of beasts came up out of the water. These beasts represent a series of empires that were to directly affect the people of God. If you study the history of the Middle East of Daniel's time and afterwards, you will discover that there were four kingdoms which came and went in succession which had a direct affect on God's people, thus showing that the four beasts did represent the four kingdoms which came and went in succession. This shows that there is a match between the prediction and actual historical events and the progression of time. This match between the symbols of prophecy and actual historical events is the foundation of the historicist approach to understanding Bible prophecies.

The ultimate purpose of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation is to build faith in God and explain, through the events of history, that God will ultimately triumph over evil and sin will be destroyed someday, along with death, disease, and war. This will help build faith in God and his ability to guide us through life so that we will ultimately reach heaven.

Historicism first rose to prominence about 1000 AD at the end of the first millennium. According to historians, there were many predictions of the end of the world at that time. The more rigorous form of it largely died out after the Great Disappointment event of 1844, an event created by those teaching that Jesus would return to earth in 1844.

The idea that Jesus would return to earth in 1844 was based on the prophecies of Daniel, particularly Daniel 8:14, which says that the sanctuary would be cleansed at the end of the 2300 day prophecy. Obviously, Jesus did not return in 1844. Consequently, most people simply assumed that some sort of terrible mistake had been made and left it in their past without ever carefully investigating to find the nature of the mistake.

The mistake of interpretation was that people in those times believed the sanctuary to be cleansed was the earth itself. The thought apparently never entered their minds that Daniel 8:14 was speaking of the heavenly sanctuary rather than the earth itself, something which should have been self-evident because there was no earthly sanctuary in 1844. God permitted this to happen for a purpose, which was to see who would and who would not study after the disappointment of 1844 to discover the real truth about what did and did not happen. Sometimes God tests people this way.

Because of this apparent failure, after 1844 most people abandoned the historicist method of interpretation with little or no further analysis to determine why it apparently failed. This was a mistake on their part because they never learned from the Bible how the prophecy was actually fulfilled on the appointed date. They missed the real event and to this day, most people insist that nothing happened on the appointed day. The trouble is, something did happen on the appointed day, something very important for our salvation, but it did not happen on earth so it appears as though nothing at all happened.
Appearances can be very deceiving sometimes (try some visual illusions to see that this is true - click here for more optical illusions).

The author recalls an incident years ago in which a physics teacher brought a container to him and asked that he remove an electronic part from inside the container, which, if correctly recalled, was a resistor. The author, knowing that the teacher had bad arthritis, without hesitation reached out and put his hand right through the resistor! It turned out that the container was designed to create an optical illusion so that the resistor appeared to be where it was not. The author put his hand through a virtual image and was given quite a surprise and a good laugh by it all. Of course, the teacher enjoyed his little trick too. The point, of course, is that appearances can be very deceiving sometimes. One must dig deeper to understand it when one encounters such a situation.

Note that viewpoints to define the terms presented above are adapted from a Walla Walla University Theology School Document (
en&ct=clnk&cd=7&gl=us&client=google-coop-np) written by Alden Thompson.

Because both Daniel and Revelation clearly demonstrate that the historicist perspective is the fundamental method by which the message of both books is transmitted, that is the primary method used by the authors of this web page to interpret it. Other methods may also be used where appropriate, but are always used in conjunction with the historicist method. Other methods are never used alone because doing so misrepresents the clear intent of God's design of Daniel and Revelation.

To summarize, there are four main methods of interpretation of Revelation that are commonly used, which are:

  • Idealist - Views the prophecies of both Daniel and Revelation as symbolic pictures of eternal truths about good and evil. People try to create a spiritual lesson from the material presented. This probably results in as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Idealists also do reapplication of prophecies, depending on the situation at hand, and tend to focus on the broad outlines of the prophecies rather than the fine details.
  • Preterist - The preterist method of interpretation takes the position that most everything in Revelation is about contemporary events of John's time and usually rejects continuous divine involvement in human affairs. There is no future prediction in Revelation to those who believe in this method. In their view, God did not tell John the future. For some believers in this method, there is no God to foretell the future so it is impossible for prophecy to accurately predict the future and therefore, only commentary about the present time of the prophets is found in their writings.
  • Futurist - Those who believe in this method do exactly the opposite of the Preterists. They place almost everything in Revelation just before the Second Coming of Jesus and onward from there.
  • Historicist - In this viewpoint, Daniel and Revelation were symbolic presentations of future history that spans from the days of Daniel or John until the end of the millennium that follows the second coming of Jesus. History is seen presented in Daniel and Revelation as an ongoing progression through time demonstrated graphically through symbolic means. There is a match between the symbols and actual events of history that progress through time.

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