I think it’s safe to say that we can probably master this topic in the next few hundred words.
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In 2021 I spent essentially an entire year’s worth of Sunday mornings walking through the Book of Revelation at Meadow Brook Church, starting with chapter 1, verse 1 in January, going verse-by-verse through the entire thing from start to finish, wrapping it up just before Christmas.
My running joke was that we were going to “solve” this thing once and for all and never have any questions about this Book ever again.
Instead, of course, I found myself in a strange paradox by the end of the year – loving this Book more than I ever have, understanding it more than I ever have, and also less certain about it than I’ve ever been, all at the same time.
Anyone who grew up in evangelical churches “knows” that the Book of Revelation is about the end-times. It tells the story of the last-days struggle between the righteous and the powers of evil, the rise of the Antichrist, the victory of the Lamb, and the consummation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many of us who grew up in this tradition would likely balk at any other interpretation of this Book, but throughout Church history there have been a number of different ways that Christians have approached Revelation in trying to understand it:
- The “Preterist” View. From the Latin word meaning “past,” the Preterist view emphasizes Revelation as a letter written to a struggling first-century Church, with its fulfillment primarily happening back then (with a few exceptions, such as the future return of Christ). This view holds that the elements of Revelation have to do with God protecting His people and judging the Roman Empire that was oppressing them at that time.
- The “Idealist” View. This perspective sees Revelation as primarily a symbolic book, not tied into any particular time or place and not speaking to specific or literal events. It has timeless truths for the Church in all seasons, and unpacks the constant and ongoing struggle between good and evil, and the consistent call for Christians to persevere against whatever challenges they are facing in their time.
- The “Historicist” View. This approach sees the events of the Book of Revelation as something that began in the first century, and will be completely fulfilled when Christ returns, but also that has been unfolding this entire time. So we are currently living out the events of Revelation right now, and have been for 2000 years, and God has been walking His Church through the elements of this Book in an ongoing way which will ultimately be completed when Christ returns.
- The “Futurist” View. This is the aforementioned predominant evangelical view, which is that the Book primarily speaks to the end-times, and prophesies the future final struggle between good and evil before the return of Christ. Think “Left Behind.”
So which is the “right” view? What is the proper way to approach Revelation?
After studying it intently every week for a year, my answer may be unsatisfying:
Why do we need to choose?
There is great value in each of these perspectives.
We can only understand any passage of Scripture by diving into the context of the original audience as best we can, and understanding what it would have meant to them, as the Preterists want to do with Revelation.
And in addition, it is always helpful to look to the greater spiritual meaning, symbolic or otherwise, of any biblical text, as the Idealists would ask of us.
And it can be very powerful to place ourselves in the story, and discern what truth the Spirit is speaking to us through the Word in our particular context, as the Historicists are seeking to do.
And there can be no doubt that at least part of the Book has to do with end-times, since Jesus didn’t come back yet and we look with hope and anticipation to the eschaton to come, as Futurists emphasize.
Fighting over the “right” approach to Revelation seems unnecessary to me.
It is, as the opening verse of the Book says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1.1).
This part of the Bible is less about the past or the future or the present than it is the story about Him.
Read it carefully, and prayerfully, asking Him the question, “What does this reveal to me about You?”
And in the traditional approaches to the Book, by all means, let us consider the first-century context. And let us see the greater symbolic picture of what God is up to. And let us place ourselves in the text to see what it means for our context right now. And let us look forward with anticipation to all that God has in the Kingdom to come in the eschaton, as we cry out “Maranatha!” to our coming King.
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