Last Sunday in my Sunday school class, we continued to explore general and introductory topics related to the Book of Revelation, which we’re planning on studying over the course of the next several months.
A question I posed is why, in view of the evidence to the contrary in the Book of Revelation itself, the futurist (aka Left Behind, aka premillenial dispensationalist) approach to interpreting the book remains so popular.
For some, it is the only interpretation they have ever heard, and so it is simply a reflection of lack of investigation and narrowness of experience. But even then, that isn’t the whole story, since close attention to the content of the Book of Revelation can often be enough to cause someone to start rethinking their approach.
Also a factor is the extensive symbolism, which has allowed interpreters to find all sorts of things in the book ever since it was written. The Book of Revelation is prone to becoming a sort of Christian Rorschach test, with each person, generation, and era seeing there what they are prone to.
But that still doesn’t account for the tenacity of this viewpoint, in my opinion. I think several other factors must also be considered in attempting to explain the popularity of the futurist interpretation of Revelation.
One is the fact that, if the majority of the book is not about events still in the future, then at the very least the timing is wrong.
While I can understand why this troubles Christians who adhere to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy – and probably many others too – it really ought not to be a factor, for several reasons. For one thing, all apocalyptic material in the Bible has this feature. The Book of Daniel connects the resurrection and final judgment to the crisis under Antiochus Epiphanes, and Mark 13 does something similar with the fall of Jerusalem. Of course, those are precisely the passages and texts that get a similar treatment to Revelation by futurists. But the fact that ancient apocalypticists saw divine intervention and the end of history as the only solution to their situations, and had their full hopes unfulfilled yet survived the crises in question, is best understood as a testament both to the true power of apocalyptic literature, as well as its lack of genuine predictive power. People who wrote and appreciated this kind of literature have consistently connected the expectation of the end of history with their own time. And they have consistently been wrong. This is a key clue to interpreting this kind of literature, and it should not be treated as merely a problem to be made to go away.
Another issue is that futurism deals with all unfulfilled prediction by pushing it into the future, when this is not only unnecessary, but fundamentally at odds with a key aspect of Biblical prophecy. If all true prophecy must come to pass as futurists seem to assume, then Jonah was a false prophet – as indeed was Jesus and so were most if not all other Biblical figures who spoke about the future. There is surely not one who does not describe something as happening within a certain time frame which failed to do so. Jonah’s 40 days until the overthrow of Nineveh, Jesus’ dawning of the kingdom of God within this generation, Jeremiah’s 70 years until there was no longer any exile and all those carried away returned. The Bible itself actually has a built-in explanation, and it is in fact inherent in the essence and aim of Biblical prophecy itself. All these figures spoke about the future in relation to the present, as a warning aimed at getting people to change their ways so as to avoid the predicted catastrophe. Not only should we not expect all Biblical prophecy to be fulfilled even from a conservative Christian or Jewish perspective – it is the whole point of such prophecy to try to avoid its fulfillment. And so anyone paying attention to what prophecy is about in the Bible should not view Revelation as a forecast of what will inevitably be, but a warning about what we should take steps to avoid.
Of course, this is an ironic point to make about literature that was written by people who imagined that history might reach its climax in their time. But it is still about that time, not ours.
Keep in mind that this statement is not only true about Revelation, but can be said in the same way about every other piece of literature in the Bible. This doesn’t mean that one cannot read it and learn from it. It just means that, like a letter to the Corinthians or prophetic book addressing ancient Israel, the key to understanding Revelation is to ask first what it meant to its initial audience.
The alternative, as I’ve said before, treats the Book of Revelation as a sick joke, written and sent to people who were explicitly told to understand the meaning, when in fact they could not, because it was not about them, but us.
And so for all its popularity, it is crucial to the health of the contemporary church and for an accurate understanding of the Bible that futuristic eschatology of this sort be shown for what it is: a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Biblical prophecy, and an exercise in ethnocentrism.
What do you think? Do you think I’ve rightly identified key reasons for the ongoing popularity of the futurist approach to Revelation? Are there others that also ought to be mentioned?