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.
    thanks
    David
    UK

    • 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

  • Janet Boyter

    I disagree with every aspect of this article. The reason why a futurist view of Revelation is popular is because of it’s truth. It’s ridiculous to say this prophetic book was talking about first century Christianity and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. That is really bad interpretation of the Holy Scripture. No, we Americans don’t think the Bible or Revelation revolves around us at all. How could we think that? Terrible article.

    • I honestly think that this “article” (it is actually a blog post) seems “terrible” to you because of assumptions that you are bringing to and imposing on the text. You say it is “ridiculous” to treat the text as having had meaning to its original recipients, despite their having been told that they can calculate the number of the beast, that they can figure out which Roman emperor is being referred to because “five have fallen and one now is,” and so on and so on in specific detail after specific detail.

      Do you really not see that you’re doing exactly what I suggested – treating the Bible as revolving around you, being about your time and your future, being meaningful to you even if that makes it meaningless to the people to whom it is addressed?

      How could Americans end up thinking the way you do and as I once did? By assuming that it is “ridiculous” to treat the text as meaning what it seems to when read against the backdrop of the time in which it was written, in a way that treats it as a genuine intelligible communication with its earliest readers, in ways that the text itself clearly says it ought to be…

      • Janet Boyter

        Why do you say Americans think everything revolves around them, including the end times scenario as depicted in Revelation? It may not involve me at all. i don’t know if America will still be around at the end. It is for a future time, for those alive on the earth before Jesus’ Second Coming. The book is not just aimed at the seven churches that John addresses in the beginning nor is it just for the people alive at the time of his writing. The “666” number does not refer to Nero but someone in the future,near the end of the world.

        • So you believe that John sent a message to churches in Asia Minor, instructing them to calculate the name that the number 666 represented, when in fact they could do nothing of the sort?

          • Janet Boyter

            Revelation 13 New King James Version (NKJV)
            The Beast from the Sea
            13 Then [a]I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having [b]seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name. 2 Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority. 3 And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast. 4 So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”

            5 And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to [c]continue for forty-two months. 6 Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. 7 It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every [d]tribe, tongue, and nation. 8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

            9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear. 10 He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the [e]patience and the faith of the saints.

            The Beast from the Earth
            11 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. 12 And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. 13 He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. 14 And he deceives [f]those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. 15 He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, 17 and that no one may buy or sell except one who has [g]the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

            18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.” Revelation chap 13. Only the first few chapters are addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (chap. 2-3) The rest of the book is addressed to all Christians everywhere through the end of the age. It tells us of what is to come. Those who remain on the earth after the rapture will experience the great tribulation ruled by the Beast (666). We don’t know who it is now but the “666” will be a sign for future people to know this person. Do you think the above chapter in Revelation (13) is about Nero?

          • Instead of unnecessarily and unhelpfully copying and pasting text that is readily available online and should be presumed familiar to anyone discussing this topic, why not discuss your reasons for rejecting the evidence you can find in any academic commentary that explains why scholars understand it as they do, as meaningful to its first readers in their Roman context?

            Or better still, why not just quote the verse that you think is John telling readers in Asia Minor to stop reading the text as though it were addressed to and relevant to them, lest they try to respond to an invitation to calculate things that they have no hope of calculating?

          • Janet Boyter

            What you say makes no sense. Revelation chapter 4 and following is addressed to all Christians, not just to the seven churches. The passage cannot be about Nero since none of what is described happened in his reign. I posted the entire chapter for you to read since you obviously have no idea what it says. Romans is written to the Romans and other NT epistles are written to various churches but does that mean there is nothing in them for any other Christians? Your ideas are ridiculous.

          • When you suggest that someone who teaches and writes about the New Testament for a living, who has taught a course on Revelation at their university as well as leading their Sunday school class through it, has not read the textm you simply make yourself sound like a troll who is substituting outlandish insult for serious discussion.

            It is a common approach of inerrantists to prophetic and apocalyptic texts to treat them as entirely about the future rather than acknowledge that they are not infallible predictions about the future. But one can maintain inerrancy and still accept the contingent character of prophecy. After all, was Jonah a false prophet because Nineveh was not overthrown? If you stopped simply dismissing the mainstream view of scholars, pastors, and other people who have not only read the text, but studied very seriously its relation to its ancient context, you might still not be persuaded, but you would understand that the idea that the text was meaningful to its audience is far from ridiculous. If anything, it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise. For instance, you still have not addressed why John sent this to Christians in Asia Minor when it contained an instruction to calculate the number of the beast as a human being’s number, if that was not only impossible for them but not intended for them. Likewise you have not addressed when the “one now is” refers to if not the time of the original recipients.

          • Janet Boyter

            Yours is not the “mainstream” view of any except liberal theologians. You don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. The number of the beast is in CHAPTER 13, genius. It is NOT in the chapters addressed to the seven churches. How many times do I have to say this? One other thing is Jesus was NOT TAUGHT by any women. He is God in the flesh, so why would women( or men) be able to teach God anything. You’re just a liberal who doesn’t believe the Bible

          • Janet Boyter

            If you knew the Bible, you would know that Jonah was sent to Ninevah to warn them to repent. If you read the whole book, it tells you God’s intent was that the sinful people there change their evil ways or else they would be destroyed. Jonah was angry at God’s mercy and only preached “In 40 days, Ninevah will be destroyed!” He didn’t want God to save them. Revelation is a whole different type of book. Chapters 4 and following are about the future. Those who are left behind after the Rapture are unrepentant. They are angry at God and hate Him. Those who do repent are killed. These future events are not able to be changed.

          • You are simply deciding in advance what the Bible means, and then forcing it into that mold. It is ironic to claim that doing so is “believing the Bible,” and that drawing conclusions about the meaning of texts based on careful study of the details of them interpreted within their historical context is “not believing the Bible.”

          • And this just appeared on a conservative Evangelical Christian blog today:

            https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/apocalyptic-literature/

          • myklc

            Excellent link and article (both of them). From the Zondervan link:
            “We can’t just transplant apocalyptic literature into our own cultural
            and historical setting. When we read it, we need to take into
            consideration what was happening at the time it was written.

            Since apocalyptic literature is so closely tied to prophecy, it’s
            easy to read it as though the original author was speaking about our
            future, and insert our own ideas into the text. Avoid that temptation.
            If you’re going to read apocalyptic literature, it’s important to do
            some research about the setting it was written in and the people it was
            written to. Otherwise you risk missing the intended meaning entirely.”

            Amen.