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Book of Revelation

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By David M. Williams (davidmwilliams@geocities.com)
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This essay is free for distribution in any manner, with the provision that it remains completely intact, with  his notice, the author's name and the full text of the essay.  Any comments are gratefully welcomed.  Copyright 1996.


      Over the last 1900 years, four primary understandings of the Book of Revelation have developed - the Idealist, Preterist, Historicist and Futurist viewpoints.  These understandings are distinct with their own notable characteristics.  Horton believes that part of the reason for this incompatible variety stems from whether the hermeneutics employed tend to interpret the Bible more literally or figuratively (Horton, 1994, p. 619).  As will be explained however, there are stronger reasons for the variety, which pertain to one's objectivity.


      The Idealist believes simply that Revelation does not refer to any historical or future event at all; rather it is a timeless allegory of the conflict between good and evil (Stern, 1992, p. 784) - a description of the spiritual principles of God that equip one for spiritual battles, which constantly confront the Church (Goswiller, n.d., p. 5).

      This view originated with the Alexandrian School of Theology represented by Clement and Origen, who (consistent with their other teachings) taught that the "true spiritual interpretation" of the book could only be discovered through an allegorical interpretation (Goswiller, n.d., p. 5; Wilson, n.d., p. 15).

      Nevertheless, though the book does have many symbolic figures, they all represent realities.  The Antichrist is called a beast, but he will be a real person and will fulfill plain statements given in other prophecies (such as II Thessalonians 2:3-12).  Jesus must personally come to bring about the final triumph (Horton, 1994, p. 619).

      The Idealist view does not appear to have much serious support, its deficiencies being apparent.  Morris (1980, p. 1338) states, "The difficulty is that the seer does claim to be prophesying of later days".  Wilson (n.d., p. 6) writes, "The results of this method were not satisfactory, for each interpreter understood the symbols and figures according to his own ideas".   Jensen (1981, p. 498) goes as far as to claim that this view is anemic.


      The Preterist view derives its name from the Latin word praeter meaning "past".  It attempts to relate all of Revelation except for the very end to events in the first century, with Rome and its early emperors, particularly Nero, being the only principals (Horton, 1994, p. 619).

      Kenneth Gentry (n.d.) sustains this position by appealing to 1:9 ("I John, who also am your brother, and companion in the tribulation") as evidence that "the" tribulation was a reality in John's time (although most translations do not render the verse this way).  Gentry continues, citing the continual warnings, "He that has an ear, let him hear" (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) as evidence that the events of Revelation were taking place in that day.

      Gentry further appeals to Revelation 17 where a vision of the seven-headed beast is recorded, verses 9 and 10 explaining,

    Here is the mind which hath wisdom.  The seven heads
    are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.  And
    there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is,
    and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh he
    must continue a short space.

      Gentry (n.d.) proceeds to explain that the seven mountains represent the famous seven hills of Rome.  The seven heads also have a political reference, being simultaneously seven kings.  Gentry states,

    It surely is no accident that Nero was the sixth
    emperor of Rome.  Flavius Josephus, the Jewish
    contemporary of John, clearly points out that Julius
    Caesar was the first emperor of Rome and that he was
    followed in succession by Augustus, Tiberius, Caius,
    Claudius, and, sixthly, Nero (Antiquities, books 18
    and 19).

      Gentry next enlists the aid of the number of the Beast from Revelation 13:18 to prove "Nero and Nero alone fits the bill as the specific or personal expression of the Beast" (Gentry, n.d.), stating

    A Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar's name was Nrwn Qsr.
    . . . It has been documented by archaeological finds
    that a first century Hebrew spelling of Nero's name
    provides us with precisely the value of 666.

      Although Preterists believe that the last two chapters of Revelation pertain to the future (Jensen, 1981, p. 498), the essence of their position is that the events of Revelation arose

    out of conditions in the Roman empire of the 1st
    century AD.  The seer was appalled at the
    possibilities for evil inherent in the Roman empire
    and he used symbolic imagery to protest against it,
    and to record his conviction that God would intervene
    to bring about what pleased him (Morris, 1980, p.

      Nevertheless, despite Gentry's firm belief, one must conclude that the Preterist position is untenable. It overlooks the fact that the book calls itself a prophecy (1:3).  Mickelsen finds fault with the Preterist understanding of the mark of the Beast, stating,

    Nero Caesar in Hebrew letters comes out right if the
    consonants are NRWN QSR.  But in the Talmud the word
    Caesar is spelled QYSR.  If this is adopted, the
    total numerical value comes to 676.  In Greek, of
    course, no form of Nero Caesar comes to 666
    (Mickelsen, 1963, p. 202; also Morris, 1980, p.

      Finally, the Preterist view is highly dependant on Revelation having been written before 70 A.D., yet the evidence for a 95/96 A.D. date is overwhelming (Goswiller, n.d., p. 3), Irenaeus even explicitly stating that John wrote the book during Domitian's reign (Glasson, 1965, p. 8; Morris, 1980, p. 1338).


      The Historicist view of Revelation attempts to map the events described in the book to historical events, providing a panorama of the history of the Church from the days of John to the end of time (Ryrie, 1978, p. 1785).

      Thomas Foster (1983, p. 8), co-founder of the Christian Revival Crusade, sees the seven Churches in chapters two and three of Revelation as being an overview of the entire Church age (which many Futurists would also believe).   Chapters four to 19 of Revelation are claimed to be a more in-depth view of Church history, with the Millennium being described in chapter 20.  According to Foster (1983, p. 123), "the Millennium proper commences about 2000 A.D." although the Laodicean period finished in 1967 (Foster, 1983, p. 18) with the six-day war in Israel.

      Foster's views are strongly anti-Catholic.  The beast worship of Revelation 13 is related to allegiance to the Papal Empire in 533 B.C (Foster, 1983, p. 68). The mark of the beast is the Latin language (lateinus having the value 666) which is significant because Pope Vitallian issued a decree commanding the exclusive use of Latin in all services of the Catholic Church in 666 A.D. (Foster, 1983, p. 74-75).   Further, the battle of Armageddon is claimed to be nothing more than Russian Communism challenging Britain and the USA for supremacy (Foster, 1983, p. 94), Britian and the USA having replaced Israel, and Communism being related to Roman Catholicism.

      This view is fraught with complications – its interpretations are subjective and internally inconsistent.  Foster, for example, believes that the 42 months of blasphemies by the beast refers to 1260 years of Papal power from 606 A.D. to 1866 A.D. (Foster, 1983, p. 68).  Nevertheless, the closest Foster can come to a historical event for this is the capturing of Rome by Italy in 1870 (Foster, 1983, p. 89).  One must also question the hermeneutic involved in "a day stands for a year" (Foster, 1983, p. 55) used to achieve certain dates in this scheme.

      Further, Morris (1980, p. 1338) states, "It is difficult to see why the outline of history should confine itself to W[estern] Europe, especially since in earlier days at least much of the expansion of Christianity was in E[astern] lands."  Finally, Historicist adherers tend to continually rework the whole interpretation to come out in their own generation (Horton, 1994, p. 619; Morris, 1980, p. 1338).  This has been the case with Historicists in the past and undoubtedly certain of Foster's dates would now be different.


      Although the three views given above may entail some recognition of predictive prophecy in Revelation, not one of them permit Eschatological derivations to be made.  The fourth manner in which Revelation may be understood is the Futurist viewpoint, which views most of the book (chapters 4 - 22) as prophecy yet to be fulfilled.  Ryrie (1978, p. 1785) believes this to be the only logical interpretation if one is to interpret the text plainly.  Similarly, Walvoord states that the Futurist (in particular, pre-millenial, pre- tribulationism) viewpoint is the only one which most literally follows scripture under "consistent and proper hermeneutics" (Walvoord, 1978, p. 270).

      Nevertheless, the Futurist viewpoint itself contains a number of variant views.  The seven Churches in chapters two and three, for example, may be seen in a Preterist manner (that is, relating solely to the Church in the first century) or a Historicist manner (that is, reflecting the history of the Church).   Yonggi Cho, for example, holds to the latter view, with the Laodecian Church reflecting the Church from 1905 until the Tribulation (Cho, 1991, p. 47).  The most reasonable view, however, is the Characteristic Interpretation where the letters, while still written to physical Churches in John's day, present a picture of the continuous conditions of the Church throughout history - that is, at any given time there will be an "Ephesian" Church, a "Laodicean" Church and so on (Goswiller, n.d., p. 13).

      Another area for consideration is the millennium, which has its basis in Revelation 20 - "He threw him [Satan] into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended" (20:3); "They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years"  (20:4, also 20:5, 7).  "Millennium" means a thousand years, and Christian thought is divided into three categories over the millennium.   Amillennialists believe that the millennium is not a literal period of time, rather

    the millennial kingdom is not future but is spiritual
    and is in progress at the present time.  There is no
    distinction between the Church and Israel and Satan
    is actually bound now through the victory of Jesus at
    the cross and Christ reigns in the world in the
    hearts of his followers (Goswiller, n.d., p. 2).

      Post-millennialists believe that the millennium is a literal thousand year period, but in contrast to Revelation's chronological ordering, "Christ will have a spiritual reign which will last for 1,000 years.  His second coming follows the thousand year reign" (Goswiller, n.d., p. 2).  A flaw in post-millennial thinking is that Christ's spiritual reign is to come about because "the present gospel message will root out all the evils of the world" (Goswiller, n.d., p. 2). This notion was first perpetuated by Augustine who claimed that the ever-increasing influence of the Church would overturn evil in the world before Christ's return (Zoba, 1995, p. 20).  The Bible however indicates that the world's condition will worsen in the last days (I Timothy 4:1-3; II Timothy 3:1-5).

      During the Middle Ages the thought of a literal millennium was generally regarded as heretical (Berkhof, 1975, p. 263), but the faith of the early Church was undoubtedly chiliasm - an ill-defined pre-millennial outlook (Berkhof, 1975, p. 262; Zoba, 1995, p. 21) which anticipated Christ's literal thousand year reign after His Second Coming.

      Again, the Futurist viewpoint is divided over chapters four to 19.  While all recognise the seven year Great Tribulation, the timing of the rapture is in dispute, the rapture being the "catching up" described in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and I Corinthians 15:51-52. Post-tribulationists believe that the rapture occurs after the Tribulation.  This means that the Church must endure the Tribulation, and Willmington (n.d., p. 825) dismises this view by appealing to I Thessalonians 5:9 ("For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ").  Mid- tribulationists believe that the rapture occurs midway through the Tribulation, and finally pre-tribulationists believe that the rapture occurs prior to the  Tribulation. It is important to note that "only in relation to the premillennial position does the issue of when the rapture takes place arise; for Post- and Amillennialists, the rapture is vaguely identified with the Messiah's one and only return" (Stern, 1992, p. 623).

      To realise the time of the rapture one must recognise that the Tribulation is not merely a time of suffering or persecution (indeed, Christ said, "in this world you will have tribulation" in John 16:33).  It is rather a time of God's wrath being outpoured on the earth.  People will cry to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Revelation 6:16-17).  Just as God delivered Noah and his family from God's wrath (Genesis 7:6-7) and Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:14) and even the Israelites (Exodus 7:18; 8:3, 21-22; 9:3-4; 10:22-23; 11:6-7), so too the Church shall be saved from the coming Tribulation by the rapture - for the Church looks for "His Son from heaven who has delivered us from the wrath to come" (I Thessalonians 1:10).


      Four (main) views of the Book of Revelation exist; obviously not all can be simultaneously correct.  While pondering the area of modern-day miracles, former Dallas Theological Seminary professor, Jack Deere, made the conclusion,

    . . . . the majority of what Christians believe is
    not derived from their own patient and careful study
    of the Scriptures.  The majority of Christians
    believe what they believe because godly and respected
    teachers told them it was correct.  (Deere, 1993, p.

      This is not necessarily negative, however.  Many Christians believe in the deity of Jesus, for example, and believe the Scriptures teach this, but they could never defend His deity from the Scriptures, nor did they personally come to this belief through their own study of the Scriptures.  It is part of the tradition that has been handed down to them by teachers.  In this case, they benefit from tradition because this particular tradition is fully supported by Scripture.   Nevertheless, for this reason, many notions have been propagated which are not Scripturally sound.

      Revelation should not be an overwhelming mystery. John wrote to reveal, not to conceal truth, "revelation" meaning an "opening up, uncovering" (Gentry, n.d.).  The facts have been presented and conclusions may be drawn. Everyone is encouraged to read Revelation; a blessing is promised to those who persevere in its study -

    Blessed is he who reads, and they that hear the words
    of this prophecy, and keep those things which are
    written therein: for the time is at hand (Revelation

Berkhof, L. 1975 (1937). The History of Christian
     Doctrines, Baker Book House, Michigan.
Cho, P. Y. 1991. Revelation, Word Books, Milton Keynes.
Deere, J. 1993. Surprised by the Power of the Spirit,
     Zondervan, Michigan.
Foster, T. 1983. Amazing Book of Revelation Explained!,
     Crusade Centre, Victoria.
Gentry, K. L. n.d. The Beast of Revelation Identified,
     Southern California Centre for Christian Studies,
Glasson, T. F. 1965. The Revelation of John, Cambridge
     University Press, Cambridge.
Goswiller, R. n.d. Revelation, Pacific Study Series,
Horton, S. M. 1994. 'The Last Things', in Systematic
     Theology: A Pentecostal Perspective, ed. S. M.
     Horton, Logion Press, Springfield.
Jensen, I. L. 1981. Jensen's Survey of the New Testament,
     Moody Press, Chicago.
Mickelsen, A. B. 1963. Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B.
     Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan.
Morris, L. L. 1980. 'Revelation, Book of', in The
     Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. F. F. Bruce,
     Inter-Varsity Press.
Ryrie, C. 1978. The Ryrie Study Bible, Moody Press,
Stern, D. 1992. Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish
     New Testament Publications, Inc., Maryland.
Walvoord, J. 1978. The Rapture Question, Zondervan,
Willmington, n.d. Willmington's Guide to the Bible,
     Pacific College Study Series, Melbourne.
Wilson, C. n.d. The Book of Revelation, Pacific College
     Study Series, Melbourne.
Zoba, W. 1995. 'Future Tense', Christianity Today, vol.
     39, no. 11.

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