Why is the Futurist Interpretation of Revelation so Popular?

Why is the Futurist Interpretation of Revelation so Popular? March 17, 2012

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.

Finally, one more reason why futurism is popular particularly in the United States is American ethnocentrism. We find it incredibly hard to believe that the Bible is not focused on us, that the climax of all God’s plans and the final chapter of Scripture itself is not something that directly involves the United States. And so a key reason why exposing the problems with futurism is important is that it bursts the bubble of the ego of American Christianity, in a way that the Gospel itself calls for it to be burst. And so perhaps this is the most important message to get across about the Book of Revelation if one is to promote a serious understanding of the work against the background of its time and context:

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?

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  •  I agree with much of what you say.  But I have a slight problem with what you say about American Christians thinking Revelation has to be about the United States.  I can see that with Armstrongism, which treated the United States as one of the lost ten tribes of Israel.  But what I find interesting about some other American eschatological scenarios is that they present the United States leaving the picture pretty quickly.  Their focus is more on Russia, Israel, Europe, and China, not the U.S.  Many of them present the U.S. getting nuked early on in the Great Tribulation!

  • I’ll add that another eschatological scenario that is America-centric would be that of the Seventh-Day Adventists, who regard the U.S. as the second beast of Revelation 13.  But what amazes me is how minor of a role the U.S. plays in so many conservative Christian end-time scenarios.

    • I’m not so sure. In the Left Behind movies, English-speakers are the key players. The United Nations on American soil is a key venue. Americans are the major figures for good while a Romanian, someone from the former Communist bloc, is the Antichrist.

      I suppose for some the reason America is not a big focus is a realization that we are hard to shoehorn into a text that had no awareness of continents beyond the Atlantic from where it was written. And so the text is still allowed to have its say, to a certain extent, but the focus is still on our time, if not on our place, even in those systems.

  • Helenmarplehorvat

    With you on most of this but with NTW on Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God coming within a generation as being the AD Temple destruction….the parallel of former crisis in Jeremiah…..

  • Paul

    I’m tempted to answer the question in the title, “because people are idiots.”

    But such has always been true. The genesis of the NT was people of the first century believing that their generation was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel. That formed the basis of apocalptic beliefs that inspired John and Jesus and led to the creation of Christianity.

    There must be something in human nature that makes people want to think of their time, their tribe, as having some special significance.

  • Mtymousie

    Another relevant point that futurists overlook is that Daniel was told to seal up his prophecy (Dan.12:4) because it would not be fulfilled for another 500 years. But John was told not to seal up his prophecy (Rev.22:10) because it was happening then!

  • Drmightie

    Hi Dr  James McGrath could you please shed some light on Jesus statement in Mark 13.Would you say that Jesus was mistaken about these things coming to pass in ‘this generation’.Does his statement only relate to the destruction of jerusalem or the destruction of the end of the world.Just bought ‘the burial of Jesus’ and it is one of the books that I have read in my life that really opened my eyes.

    • David, sorry for the delay in replying. I think that, if one gives passages about the generation Jesus was addressing not passing away before various things would occur, then it does indeed seem that the natural conclusion to draw is that Jesus was mistaken. Of course, N. T. Wright makes the case that apocalypticists knew that they weren’t really giving a timeline for the end, but I’m not persuaded.

      Glad you’ve found The Burial of Jesus interesting and useful!

      • Anna

        Of course Jesus wasn’t mistaken! “These things” did indeed come to pass within “this generation”. Not only was the temple destroyed 40 years later, but along with it, the sacrificial system, the Jewish religion, the Jewish religious leaders and all things related to the Old Covenant (the current age as it was then). The “end of the age” was upon the first century Christians, and the events of AD 70 were the consummation of the “age to come”, the eternal gospel age, in which we now dwell. A study of preterism will clarify all of these issues, and show that neither Jesus nor any of the NT writers, who ALL without exception, expected the return of the Messiah and the “end of the age” ( NOT the end of the WORLD), were mistaken about their beliefs.

  • Cdwild

    Interesting, but the bit about trying to avoid fulfillment being the point of Bibilical prophecy and apocalyptic literature seems way off. The kingdom of God was supposed to be a good thing. Sure, Jesus and the prophets warned of judgment, but their promises of salvation were also meant to give hope to those who were suffering at the time. He taught people to pray for “thy kingdom come,” not “spare us thy kingdom.”

    • True – when it shifts from the coming of judgment in the form of disaster for the entire nation, to final judgment, things get configured differently. But even then, delay in the coming of final judgment is still viewed as merciful, for some, is it not?

      • Anna

        The “final judgment” was the last judgment God would ever perform on Israel. There is no future “final judgment” or “day of Judgment”, all of these dire warning are for the first century Jews who refused to accept, and in fact, tried to destroy, their own Messiah. It was “delayed” 40 years until the measure of their (the first century Jews) was full, and then God let rip with his judgment, and destroyed all vestiges of the Old Covenant.

  • Moi.

    Maybe the futurist position is so popular because it makes the most sense.

  • The futurist position…, we believe that all things concern us and that we are the last generation, when in fact we are the same generation that needs hope, regardless of the time at which we refer. Hopefully something better will come from outside of us, when in fact the change would be to work within. That is our curse.
    P.S. Romania is the antichrist? At least we had one role in history 🙂

    • Nu România este antichristul în cārtile lui Tim LaHaye, ci un român cu numele pseudoromânesc Nicolae Carpathia. Bānuiesc cā n-a putut sā renunte chiar de tot de orice legāturā cu romanii si n-a stiut cum sā facā o legāturā cu romanii asāzi altfel decât sā includā un antichristromân în romanele lui.

      But enough antichrist code… 🙂

      There is certainly much truth in your point that every generation thinks it is the last, and the most important, and the worst or the best. We are indeed prone to think that we are special. It is both a curse and a blessing, I suppose.

  • Greg

    I think one of the reasons this view is so tenacious is that its promoters have successfully framed it as a test of orthodoxy.  This is similar to young earth creationism.  If you don’t accept these “obvious” viewpoints, you are a heretic.  Or at least you don’t take the Bible seriously.  With this as the context, many Christians are afraid to examine other views for fear of finding themselves on the outside looking in.

  • Cdwild

    True, though I think the ‘delay because of mercy’ line usually a rationalization made to explain away the prophet’s error. We all roll our eyes at Harold Camping’s recalculations but take reinterpretations of Daniel, Mark 13, and Revelation seriously for some reason.

    • Who is the “we” who take the reinterpretations of Biblical texts seriously in that comment? It sounds like it includes you and me, but the tone of the comment suggests that it doesn’t! 🙂

  • Andy Crome

    While broadly agreeing with this post, I’m going to have question the comments on American ethnocentrism as well. While I think you’re right that this is reflected in futurism’s contemporary appeal in the US, I don’t think that it is an element that can be limited to futurist exegesis. The historicist position, for example, favoured similarly Anglo and American centred expositions, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. So I’m not sure I’d blame futurism for that. Personally, I think that the concept of the rapture is the key to much of futurism’s current popularity: it enables us to imagine the apocalypse as fantastic (often revenge driven) spectacle while safely removing us from having to participate in it.

    • Andy, on this side of the Atlantic, large numbers of futurists think that the Rapture is something that they will participate in!

      But I take your point – it is not as though other approaches automatically sidestep the pitfall of reading without realizing how their own historical and cultural standpoint determines their interpretation.

  • Andy Crome

    Sorry, my use of personal pronouns inadvertently revealed my dispensational past in that last post! I meant “us” as in the “reader” – so the futurist can think about the “post-trib” world without worrying about actually seeing any of the scary stuff.

  • Theo Colt

    I am inviting you all to my blog its about revelation. 3w.interpretation-of-revelation.blogspot.com thank you

  • newenglandsun

    The majority of Biblical prophecy was meant for shock value and was not intended to come true any way. I highly doubt that a god intends to torture people in a bath of fire forever and ever.

  • newenglandsun

    It might have something to do with the way they have come to understand the Bible. They read it, it seems obvious there haven’t been many locust storms, they conclude futurism.

    A lot of people are also historicists now. Most of these people are just anti-Roman Catholicism though and haven’t given too much to Eastern Christian traditions.

  • Ray Dubuque

    Thanks for an EXCELLENT analysis! What a shame that so many are enamoured with folly of the “Left Behind” series and so few have read and commented on this eminently sensible piece of yours. Rev. Ray Dubuque, author of http://JesusWouldBeFurious.org/ . https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/38698ebf87918270711db0e6423ae3b9f3d700a4a1d3f03b6dc6e162a35caad9.jpg