As discussed in Back to the Future, the Book of Revelation has been described as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and that efforts to understand it are a waste of time.” Such a view hardly suggests any real hope in understanding its contents. The fact of the matter is any book taken out of its original context becomes difficult to understand, and no book in the entire Bible has suffered more from being removed from its historic context than the Book of Revelation. The contention of this study is that the Book of Revelation is virtually without meaning if its historical context is not given center stage. However, when it is given this perspective, the pages often open to our understanding like petals on a beautiful flower.
Methods of Interpretation
Throughout Christian history, the Book of Revelation has been approached in many different ways.
For instance, the Futurists see in Book of Revelation a prophecy about times that have not yet come and events that have not yet occurred. Although written to seven churches nearly 2,000 years ago, they see in it no significant message to those churches, because to the Futurists, this book is about a future rapture, tribulation and millennium. Dispensational Premillennialists dominate in the Futurist’s camp.
The denominations that commonly subscribe to this position include independent Baptist, the Mormons, the Armstrong Church of God, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Branch Davidians. In addition, many who use the term “Bible Church” or “Community Church” and most graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary Moody Bible Institute would be advocates of Dispensational Premillennialism. The Dispensational Premillennialist view is that of the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, two prominent Dispensational authors. Some others who share this view are John Nelson Darby, Arno C. Gaebelein, Donald Grey Barnhouse, H. A. Ironside, Hal Lindsey, David Koresh, Henry M. Morris, Charles C. Ryrie, J. A. Seiss, Charles L. Feinberg, M. R. DeHaan, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Gleason L. Archer, Lehman Strauss, Merrill C. Tenney, Dwight Pentecost and John Walvoord.
Introduction and Methods
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For the Historicists the message of the Book of Revelation works itself out through successive eras of history. Generally, each of the seven churches is portrayed as a period of time in church history. Again, this group sees no significant message to the churches to which it was written. Inevitably, advocates of this position tend to see themselves as the last church and generation before Christ comes. Generally, the Reformers of the 16th century were Historicists. One theologian/historian has summed up the weakness of this position by remarking “…while the historicist approach once was widespread, today, for all practical purposes, it has passed from the scene. Its failed attempts to locate the fulfillment of Revelation in the course of the circumstances of history have doomed it to continual revision as time passed and, ultimately, to obscurity….”
Premillennialists have often been fascinated with the Historicist’s position and many, perhaps most, have attempted to mix the Historicist’s and Futurist’s positions into one system. In addition, there are a few Amillennialists that still subscribe to the Historicist’ position as well. Names in Historicist’s this camp would include Albert Barnes, Robert Caringola, Adam Clarke, E. B. Elliott, Matthew Henry, and Fred P. Miller.
The Spiritualists, sometimes called Idealists, those who advocate a symbolic approach to the book, do not attempt to find individual fulfillments in the visions, but instead take “…Revelation to be a great drama depicting transcendent spiritual realities…. Fulfillment is seen either as entirely spiritual or as recurrent, finding representative expression in historical events throughout the age, rather than in one-time, specific fulfillments.” “One group of interpreters holds that there are no historical references in the Revelation at all, hardly even to current events. The symbols represent abstract ideas or general principles which may be seen at work in any age; if there is any reference to current history it is only because figures in current history (like Nero) are good examples of the general principle in question.”
And again, this group sees no significant message to the early churches to which this book was written. Amillennialists dominate this view and include Henry Alford, William Hendriksen, R. C. H. Lenski, William Milligan, Earl Morey, Leon Morris, S. L. Morris, Rousas John Rushdoony, H. B. Swete, Edward J. Young, Abraham Kuyper, Anthony A. Hoekema, Lewis Berkhof, G. C. Berkouwer, F. D. Maurice and Geoffrey B. Wilson.
The Preterists are the next group we will consider. Their position is not well known and even the term they use to identify themselves, Preterism, is foreign to the vocabulary of most Christians. “The word comes from the Latin praeteritus (“to go by, pass”) which, in turn, is based upon praeter (“that which is beyond, past”).” This word was chosen because it makes the point that most of the Book of Revelation has, in their view, been fulfilled in what is now, our past.
For Preterists the message to the seven churches has contemporary significance to the generation to which it was written. They understand that most of the prophecies of the book were determined for the near future, and were substantially fulfilled by the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. As one author clarifies, “…the sustained attempt to root the fulfillment of the divine prophecies of Revelation in the first century A.D. constitutes the preterist’s distinctive approach.” Preterists contend, therefore, that because of its first century context, most of the prophecies of Revelation have been fulfilled and are now, two thousand years later, in our past. In other words, “Though the prophecies were in the future when John wrote and when his original audience read them, they are now in our past.” In this camp you will find Jay E. Adams, R. C. Sproul, Hank Hanegraaff, N. T. Wright, Kenneth L. Gentry, Greg L. Bahnsen, Gary DeMar, J. Marcellus Kik, R. T. France, Morris Ashcraft, Philip Carrington, C. Vanderwall, David Chilton, David S. Clark, J. Stuart Russell, Phillip S. Desprez, Moses Stuart and Milton Terry.
In the Preterists camp are found Amillennialists, Historic Premillennialists and Postmillennialists. In other words, you could be an Amillennialist, a Historic Premillennialist, or a Postmillennialist and also be a Preterist. These theological camps deal with questions about the Millennium and Preterism does not deal directly with millennial question. “Some form of preterism could conceivably be incorporated into all of them." This author writes from the Biblical Preterist (partial or orthodox preterist), position in this commentary. Hence the name of this book-Back To the Future. It is only by going back some two thousand years, do we come to a time when the prophecies in the Book of Revelation were yet future. Preterists believe that if Christ’s words in Matthew 24 are correct, then this position is inevitable.
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)