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INTERPRETING THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Four Major Views

This article will discuss and compare four major interpretive views of the book of Revelation.  It is a spin-off of our Interpretation Chapter within our Introduction to the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.  With the author’s abundant use of prophetic and apocalyptic language, along with an occasional dose of symbolism, it should come as no surprise that it is considered by many to be one of the most difficult and controversial books of the Bible.

The two basic questions underlying the debates are “Do we interpret the test literally of figuratively (symbolically)?” and “when do these predicted events occur (or have some or all already occurred), and how do the various events interrelate chronologically and theologically?”.  Then, for those schools of thought that take an allegorical approach, “what do the events in the text actually symbolize?”.

Thus, perhaps the most difficult overarching challenge to perspective interpreters of Revelation is, how to approach the book.  In this article, we’ll survey the various schools of interpretation and examine how each view interprets the various events within the Book of Revelation.  In additional, the method (or view) by which each student of the Word interprets the book will influence not only how he or she will interpret other related biblical texts, but their overall approach to prophetic literature as a whole.

As a disclosure, the author of this article prefers a literal approach to the interpretation of Scripture, which naturally leads to a Historical-Futurist View of Revelation.  In our Final Thoughts on the Various Views of the Millennial Kingdom, we explain what we mean by a “literal” interpretation and why we believe a literal interpretation is the best hermeneutical approach (method of interpretation) to not only Revelation, but to the Bible as a whole.

We also point out that, although Scripture is inerrant and infallible, we as interpreters are not.  Therefore we must remain humble in our discussions with those who hold differing viewpoints.  We finally point out that all four schools of thought are generally thought to fall within the realm of historic Christian orthodoxy, although as we’ll point out, some push the limits with some of their beliefs on certain points.

Terminology Note:  In this article (and generally in other eschatological articles), we use the term “last days” to refer to the current church age (Ac 2:17, Heb 1:1-2, Ja 5:3) , and the term “end times” to refer to the time of the future events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ.  The one exception would be in quoting Bible text, in which the term “last days” can refer to either of these times, but the context makes each occurrence clear.

Table of Contents

Important Elements of Essential Agreement

There are several essential truths that the Holy Scriptures teach about the End Times.  Therefore, before we tackle the primary similarities and differences between the various views / interpretations, we’d like to mention a few essential truths upon which almost all Christian proponents of the varying views agree.  Although orthodox Christians may differ on the exact timing of these events, almost all agree on the essential truth of the events themselves, and on the various lessons that we can derive from the book.

A Time of Turmoil / Tribulation between the First and Second Advent of Christ.  Prior to the second coming of Christ, the Anti-Christ (“Man of Lawlessness”) will appear and assume power (2Th 2:3; 1Jn 2:18).  In addition, the Bible speaks of coming earthquakes and other natural disasters, increased persecution of believers, wars, famines and other disasters (Mk 13:5-37; Lk 21:8-36). 

The Visible, Bodily Return of Jesus Christ.  While the apostles were watching Jesus’ Ascension, two angels appeared in the form of men and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Ac 1:11).  See also Zech 14:4; Mt 24:30; 1Th 4:16-17; Rev 1:7.

Final Judgment of True Believers and Unbelievers.  In the Parable of the Weeds and Wheat (Mt 13:24-30), Jesus taught that both the wheat (believers) and weeds (unbelievers) would exist on earth until the harvest (end times judgment) when the weeds would be burnt (cast into Hell) and the wheat would be gathered into His barn (Heaven).  See also Dan 12:2; Ac 10:42, 17:31; 2Cor 5:10; Rev 20:12-13.

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Brief Description of each View

The study of Revelation throughout the church age has produced four primary schools of interpretive thought.  Even within each approach, various scholars sometimes have differing opinions on some the finer points of interpretation.  Those who hold to the first three views employ an essentially symbolic or allegorical approach in their interpretation, while the fourth employs an essentially literal (plain or normal) reading of the text.  In addition, some interpreters may favor a particular viewpoint, but will also borrow some principles from one or more other viewpoints.  The following is a brief description of each.

Preterist View

Preterism is the belief that the events prophesized in Revelation have already been fulfilled in our past, most of them symbolically.  The word Preterism comes from the Latin praeteritum, meaning “past” or “ancient events”.  Most advocates view everything as fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70AD.  Thus, they must maintain that the Apostle John wrote Revelation in the late 60s AD when most evidence points to a date in the late 90s AD. 

Others (sometimes called Partial or Modified Preterists), see additional fulfillment with the Jewish Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 135 AD and/or the Fall of Rome in the late fourth century AD.  Many Partial-Preterists also allow for some additional fulfillments (the Second Coming, final resurrection and final judgments for example) in the end times.  Preterists however, interpret all prophecy in the Bible as now being past history.  Thus, advocates of this view ignore the principle that many prophecies have both an immediate and future fulfillment or application.  They also ignore the abundant number of still unfulfilled promises to Israel (Is 11, Is 66, Dan 2:44, Hos 3:4-5, Mic 4, Amos 9:11-15; Oba 17-24, Zech 14, just to name a few).

Preterism appears to have originated in the seventeenth century and slowly gained popularity, but accelerated somewhat in the past 50 years.  A primary “proof” text often used is Jesus’ statement from the Olivet Discourse in which He is teaching His disciples about the end times and states, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  The Preterist takes “this generation” to mean the current generation living at the time of Jesus’s first advent.  The context however, makes it clear that Jesus is speaking about the future generation living at the time that these things will occur.  His point is that these future events, once begun, will occur in rapid succession, all within a single generation.  In his Second Epistle, the Apostle Peter appears to confirm that these events will be in the distant future when he talks of the scoffers of the last day that will say “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?  Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation”...  But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pe 3:3-10).

Historicist View  (aka “Historical View”)

Proponents of the Historicist approach interpret the Book of Revelation as a broad sweeping view of church history from the time of the Apostle John until the future end of world history.  In this view, the visions and events of the book are a symbolic representation of certain people, groups, nations and events throughout church history.  The book has been seen as symbolically predicting such coming events as the Fall of Rome, the rise of the Roman Catholic Church (some even find predictions about the papacy being associated with the Antichrist), and the rise of Islam, among other suggested past, present and future events.  These events will eventually lead to the evangelism of the world (final victory of the church) which in turn, brings about the final events such as the Second Coming, the final resurrections and judgments, and the New Heaven and Earth.  The Historicist approach became popular in the early fifth century and became the dominant view through the eighteenth, but the majority of its proponents have converted to the Idealist position today.  Most Historicists hold to an Amillennialist position.

Due to the vast amount of symbolism used by this method, it is not surprising that advocates often disagree on the exact interpretation and fulfillment of the book’s prophecies.  Most agree that John is prophesizing about real people, nations and events, but often disagree about which particular people, nations and events actually fulfill each of the specific prophecies.  This is because each interpreter arrives at his or her own subjective, but specific, identification of the historical fulfillment of each of the book’s prophetic visions.

Idealist View  (aka “Allegorical View” or “Symbolic View”)

The Idealist school takes a similar symbolic approach to the Book of Revelation as does the Historicist.  Thus most advocates also hold to an Amillennialist position.  The Idealist, however takes a very different approach in interpreting how the book portrays history.  In fact, this is the major fundamental disagreement between the two schools.  While Historicists see each of the various visions pointing to specific historical events, groups or persons, the Idealist sees each prophetic vision as a historical pattern containing timeless principles.  In other words, most visions represents a typical person, group, event that is continually occurring, or often reoccurring throughout history.  Although the particular names and places may change, the constant battle between good and evil continues unabated.  Thus in this view, the interpretations of the book of Revelation are in effect, divorced from almost all specific past, present and future historical events (a few elements in the book are still seen as pertaining to the end times).

The visions are also interpreted within the framework of the Idealist’s perceived purpose for the book, which is to illustrate, in highly figurative language, certain spiritual truths such as God’s sovereignty, true and false religion, the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and the relationship of Christ and His church.  Thus, when coupled with the Idealist view of the visions predicting certain patterns, the Tribulation for example, is generally seen as the ongoing persecutions and martyring of Christians throughout history.  In addition, certain characters such as the Beast and False Prophet may not represent actual persons, but merely symbolic elements within the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

Despite the interpretive challenges faced by the Idealist method, we can certainly profit much from their emphasis on application.  Even though some events are past and others are still in the future, there is still many principles that we can draw and apply to our lives today.  The weakness of this viewpoint comes from the fact that its allegorical approach to the book would have rendered much of the book meaningless to the original readers to whom John was instructed to write and send the scroll.

Futurist View  (aka “Historical-Futurist View” or “Historical-Prophetical View”)

Finally, the Futurist view is based on a literal interpretation of the book (interpreting the book as written and intended by the author).  Thus proponents of this view use the proper interpretation guide to this book given to the author by Jesus Himself, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (Rev 1:19).  This leads to interpreting chapters 2 and 3 as historical (occurring in John’s day), and understand chapters 4 though 22 to reveal events that are still unfulfilled in our day, but will be at some time in the future.  This view is probably the most popular among modern evangelicals, and the primary view that we take when writing on the Book of Revelation.

Some critics of this view often misunderstand the futurist concept of interpreting the Bible literally.  Many believe that taking a literalist approach (holding to a literal interpretation of the text) precludes the inclusion of any symbolism.  On the contrary, Literalists recognize that the author of Revelation obviously meant for some of the text to be interpreted symbolically.  For example, the Great Prostitute in Rev 17 is meant to be understood as symbolic of a future new world order based on a false religious and political system.  In addition, Babylon is not meant to be seen as the literal city, but refers to the one-world government and religion under the control of the Anti-Christ in the end times.

As we’ve noted above (and in many other articles), a literal interpretation basically means to interpret a text in the same manner as we would in an ordinary conversation.  Perhaps, calling the method “normal” or “plain” would be better than “literal”, but since “literal” has been the accepted term for centuries among theologians, we’ll continue to stick with it.  Literalists favor the plain, normal meaning of the text unless the plain interpretation doesn’t make sense within the context or contradicts a statement made elsewhere in Scripture.  So, both the literalist and allegorist recognize the presence of symbology in the Bible.  One difference however, is that even when the literalist interprets a portion of Scripture as symbolism, he or she still views the symbols as expressing a plain normal meaning.

Finally, and at the risk of confusing the situation, we should mention that there is an unrelated viewpoint that is also called the “Futurist View”.  This very small school of thought views the entire book except for chapter one as referring to the end times.  Thus it differs from the Historic / Futurist in that it views the messages to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 as being prophetic rather than historical.  The churches are seen to be churches that will exist during the future tribulation period.  This view could thus be considered unorthodox since it violates the “what is now” statement (Rev 1:19) and the command to “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea” (Rev 1:11).

Thus, when we refer to the “Futurist View” elsewhere in this article, we’re speaking of the Historical-Futurist View.

Canonical View?

Some scholars have suggested a fifth interpretive view, one that has been called the Canonical approach.  From this perspective, the book should be interpreted based on the canonical intent of all Scripture, in particular, the Gospel thread that runs throughout the entire Bible, even if it appears to differ from the author’s intent for an individual book.  This can sometimes lead to a diminishing or even a disregarding of the historical events relative to the narratives, particularly when combined with unwarranted allegory.  Christianity is not limited to a philosophy, or a system of rules and regulations like other religions.  It is based on a Person, but is also firmly rooted in history.

We certainly agree that all portions of Scripture should be interpreted in the context of the particular book, and each book should be interpreted within the context of the entire Bible.  We’ve stated many times that the three most important rules of Bible interpretation are context, context and context.  Even with its dozens of authors from various backgrounds, the Bible is amazing in its unity and harmony throughout due to the inspiration from its Divine Author.

Thus, we endorse the overriding principle of this approach.  Unlike some others however, we see this view not so much as a separate standalone approach, but as a sub-approach that should be applied to any or all of the other approaches.

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Overview of Revelation According to each View

Before we examine the various elements within Revelation, it might be helpful to briefly consider how each school of thought might take an overall conceptual approach to the book by dividing it into three sections.

The Seven Churches (Rev 1-3)

Preterist:  Seven actual first century churches in Asia Minor existing at the time Revelation was written.

Historicist:  Same as the Preterist view.

Idealist:  Symbolic of seven types (spiritual conditions) of churches that exist throughout history.

Futurist:  Seven actual first century churches in Asia Minor existing at the time Revelation was written.  May also symbolize the type of churches that will be in existence during the end days.

The Tribulation (Rev 4-19)

Preterist:  Events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Partial Preterists see additional fulfillment with the fall of Rome in the 4th century.

Historicist:  Specific episodes of Christian persecution during the church age.

Idealist:  The ongoing pattern of Christian persecution during the church age.

Futurist:  A future seven-year period of tribulation (the 70th week of Daniel 9:24-27).  Dispensational Premillennialists believe the church will be raptured prior to the Tribulation.  Almost all other positions believe the church will go through the Tribulation.

The Second Coming, Millennium, Final Judgments, New Heaven and Earth (Rev 20-22)

Preterist:  After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Christ began reigning spiritually through His church, who are currently building the New Jerusalem while Christians await the final renewal of all things at His second coming.

Historicist:  Similar to the Preterist view.

Idealist:  Similar to the Historicist view except Christ is seen as spiritually reigning and continually renewing things in the lives of believers.

Futurist:  The future visible Second Coming precedes a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth.  After the Millennium, Satan is destroyed, followed by the final resurrection and judgments of believers and unbelievers, and the literal creation of the new heaven and earth.

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Interpretation of Major Elements in Revelation According to each View

We now examine how some of the most important elements within Revelation are generally interpreted by each school of thought.  As we might expect, particularly when dealing with future prophecy, minor discrepancies of opinions have (and continue to) exist even within the same view category.  We'll therefore attempt to cover the major issues without getting bogged down in the relatively insignificant details.  All scripture references without a bible book are to chapters and verses in the Book of Revelation.

What must “soon” take place (Rev 1)

Notes:  John was given a vision to show “what must soon take place” (1:1, also 22:6) for “the time is near” (1:3).  In the last chapter, Jesus repeats three times that “I am coming soon” (22:6, 12, 20).  Thus the question becomes, “when will the visions be fulfilled?”.

Preterist:  Literally soon, as in the next few years (70 AD).  Partial Preterists see additional fulfillment with the fall of Rome in the 4th century.

Historicist:  Fulfillment began soon after John’s day and continues throughout church history

Idealist:  Symbolic of Christ saving and reigning over and through his people throughout history.

Futurist:  Refers to the end times that are near but will fully come at a time known only to God.  Some of the visions were partially fulfilled with the first coming of Christ, but won’t be fully fulfilled until His second coming.  Remember the familiar phrase “already and not yet”, in that the last days began with the first coming (Heb 1:2), but the kingdom won’t be fully consummated until the end times.  As we noted previously, 2nd Peter 3:3-10 appears to indicate that the events of the end times events will be in the distant future with respect to John’s day.

The Seven Churches (Rev 2-3)

Preterist:  Seven actual first century churches in Asia Minor existing at the time Revelation was written.

Historicist:  Same as the Preterist view.

Idealist:  Symbolic of Seven types (spiritual conditions) of churches that exist throughout history.

Futurist:  Seven actual first century churches in Asia Minor existing at the time Revelation was written.  In addition, the literal first century churches may also symbolize the type of churches that will be in existence during the end days.

Comment:  The command for John to “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea” (1:11) is strong evidence for seven literal first century churches.  In addition, early church fathers and historians have written that, after the death of Roman Emperor Domitian in 96 AD, John was allowed to end his exile on the Island of Patmos and return to Ephesus and minister to the various churches.

The Timing of the Rapture (1Th 4:14-17)

Notes:  The Rapture itself is not explicitly addressed in Revelation.

Preterist:  No Rapture.

Historicist:  Historical Premillennialists place the Rapture at the same time as the Second Coming (chapter 19) before the Millennial (chapter 20).  Amillennialists also place the Rapture at the same time as the Second Coming, but do not recognize the chronology of Revelation 19 and 20.

Idealist:  Similar to Historicist Amillennial position.

Futurist:  Dispensational Premillennialists place the Rapture just prior to the future events depicted in John’s vision of the throne room in chapter 4, that in turn, leads into the Tribulation.

Comment:  In 2Th 2:1-8, Paul writes that Satan is currently being restrained (in the Church Age), and “the one who now restrains [the Holy Spirit working through true believers] it [the spirit of lawlessness / Satan / Antichrist] will continue until he [the Holy Spirit / the church] is taken out of the way” [raptured].  Thus the events of the Tribulation (chapters 4-19) occur after Satan is no longer constrained and is temporarily allowed to wreck havoc on the earth.

The Throne of God (Rev 4)

Preterist:  God prepares to hold court to pronounce upcoming judgment on Israel for rejecting His Son.

Historicist:  God prepares to symbolically give a synopsis of His upcoming rule over the church age in chapters 6-22.

Idealist:  God gives John a vision symbolizing His sovereignty over all things to come.

Futurist:  God gives John a series of visions of the end times, the “things that must take place later” (Rev 1:19).

Comment:  The twenty-four elders sitting on surrounding thrones are typically interpreted to represent the twelve Jewish patriarchs and the twelve apostles, and/or to be representative of all the redeemed.

The Lamb and the Scroll with Seven Seals (Rev 5-6)

Notes:  All schools identify the Lamb as Jesus Christ.

Preterist:  The scroll is God’s divorce decree with Israel over rejection of His Son.

Historicist:  The scroll contains the imminent history of the church age.

Idealist:  The scroll reveals God’s ongoing plan of salvation.

Futurist:  The scroll contains God’s prophetic message as recorded in the remainder of Revelation.  Some have also suggested that the scroll might be the title deed to the earth.

Comment:  Only Christ was found worthy to open the seals of the Scroll.

The Seal Judgments (Rev 6)

Preterist:  The seals symbolically describe the coming Roman war with the Jews (mid to late 60s AD) that culminates with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Historicist:  The seals probably are symbolic descriptions of events in church history up to the fall of Rome near the end of the fourth century AD.

Idealist:  The seals are symbolic of the authority of God over evil throughout history.

Futurist:  The seals describe the first judgments (conquest, war, famine, disease, death and the grave, judgment against those who persecuted believers, great earthquake, supernatural events in sky) that will occur in the Tribulation that kills a fourth of the earth’s population.  Many believe that the Seal Judgments occur during the first half of the seven year Tribulation, while the Trumpet and and Bowl Judgments occur during the second half which is often called the Great Tribulation.

The 144,000 Sealed (Rev 7:1-8)

Preterist:  Possibly Jewish Christians who survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Historicist:  A symbolic number of Christians representing the entire church.

Idealist:  Symbolic of the church as the true spiritual Israel.

Futurist:  Jews from all tribes of Israel who become believers and witnesses for Christ during the Tribulation.

The Great Multitude (Rev 7:9-17)

Notes:  A vision of the great multitude that would come out of the Great Tribulation in White Robes.

Preterist:  Probably Jewish Christians who died during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first century and will be resurrected.

Historicist:  A vision of future Christians enduring the first six trumpet judgments.

Idealist:  Symbolic of tribulation that Christians suffer throughout history.

Futurist:  A vision of those who would become believers during the second half of the Tribulation.

The Trumpet Judgments (Rev 8-11)

Preterist:  These visions symbolically add further details to the descriptions of the seals regarding the Roman war with the Jews (mid to late 60s AD) that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Historicist:  The trumpets symbolically describe events in church history, probably from the fourth century AD to the fifteenth (just prior to the Reformation).  Some interpreters include historical events up to our present day,

Idealist:  These visions symbolically add further details to the descriptions of the seals regarding the recurring pattern of sin, the resulting consequences, and God’s salvation.

Futurist: The seals describe the next judgments (hail, fire, burning mountain cast into sea, falling burning stars, sun moon and stars darkened, demons from the Abyss, invasion by demonic army from the east) that will occur in the second half of the Tribulation.

Comment:  The Preterist and Idealist schools typically view the Seal (Rev 6), the Trumpet (Rev 8-11) and the Bowl (Rev 16) judgments as three descriptions of the same events.  The Historicist and Futurist schools typically view the judgments as three distinct sets of judgments that become increasingly destructive with each set.  The latter view is supported by a normal reading of Scripture.  The Seal judgments were limited to a fourth of the earth (6:8), while the Trumpet judgments affected a third of those who were left after the unleashing of the Seals (8:7-12).  Finally, the Bowl judgments affected every living creature who survived the other judgments.

The Four Angels at the Euphrates River (Rev 9:13-19)

Notes:  At the Sixth Trumpet Judgment, Four (demonic) Angels that had been bound at the Euphrates River were released to kill a third of mankind.  In addition, they led an army of 200 million soldiers (perhaps also demons).

Preterist:  Possibly representative of four legions of Roman soldiers (~20,000) under the command of Roman Emperor Vespasian (founder of the Flavian dynasty) who suppressed a Jewish revolt during the First Jewish - Roman War (66-69AD).

Historicist:  Typically thought to represent four tributaries of the Ottoman empire that conquered Constantinople in 1453, thus ending the modern Roman Empire.

Idealist:  The Euphrates River symbolizes God’s restraint against sin.  Thus, the four angels are seen as God’s judgment against evil when all restraint is removed.

Futurist:  The four angels represent the vast armies from the East that will march against Israel in the end times.  The releasing of the angels at the Euphrates is seen as the river drying up to allow the Eastern armies to march against Israel on dry ground.

Comment:  The Euphrates River was the eastern boundary of the land originally promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15:17-21), and thus seen as a protective barrier against ground troops from the east.  Incidentally, since the 1970s, Iran, Syria and Turkey began building dams upriver that has reduced the water flow by about half, and the water levels are expected to continue their fall in the future.  See additional comments on Revelation 16 below.

The Little Scroll (Rev 10:8-11)

Preterist:  The little scroll is the same divorce degree between God and Israel that is previously found in chapter 5; however is now unsealed and the judgments against Israel are being implemented.

Historicist:  Many Reformers see the little scroll as symbolic of the Bible at the time of the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic Church persecuted and even martyred many who translated the Word of God into the common language of the people.  It’s taste is seen as sweet to those hungry for the Bible, but bitter to those attempting to prevent common people from reading the Word for themselves.

Idealist:  The little scroll is the Gospel that must be preached to all nations.

Futurist:  The little scroll represents the Word of God that is sweet as honey when received by God’s people, but it also contains bitter messages of judgment for many.

Comment:  See Ezekiel 3:1-15 for a similar account of the prophet eating a scroll.

The Temple (Rev 11:1-14)

Preterist:  The Temple represents true worshipers while the outside courts represent the pagans.  The measuring of the Temple but not the courts confirms God’s acceptance of the former and His rejection of the latter.

Historicist:  Similar to the Idealist position but with specific historical ties.  In addition, the measuring of “those who worship there” ties into a major defining issue of the Reformation, namely how is a sinner justified before God (by faith alone), and thus the means by which a person becomes a true member of the Church.

Idealist:  The measuring of the Temple but not the outer courts represents the spiritual separation between true believers and pretenders.  The trampling of the Holy City for forty two months symbolizes the temporary corruption of the church by unbelievers.  See the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-29 & 36-43.

Futurist:  The measuring of the Temple and worshipers represents the future division between true believers who will be saved and unbelievers who will be condemned for eternity.  Some Dispensationalists believe that the Jewish temple will literally be rebuilt during the end times, while others see this symbolizing the future rebuilding of Israel’s faith.

Comment:  Both Preterist and Futurist schools typically recognize a connection to the measuring of the Temple in Ezekiel chapters 40-47.

The Two Witnesses (Rev 11:1-14)

Notes:  The biblical law required a minimum of two witnesses to give testimony in court (Dt 19:15).

Preterist:  Two Christian prophets who were martyred shortly before the fall of Jerusalem (70AD).

Historicist:  Two Christian prophets who will appear shortly before the Second Coming of Christ.

Idealist:  The two witnesses may be symbolic of all the saints.  Some have suggested that, due to their association with the lampstands, and lampstands identified as churches in Rev 1:20, these witnesses may symbolize churches rather than individuals.

Futurist:  Some believe the two witnesses are two OT prophets, often suggested as Moses and Elijah, that will be resurrected for this special ministry.  Others believe they will be two faithful Jews living in the Tribulation who are divinely empowered with similar authority as was given to Moses and Elijah to perform their special ministry.

Comment:  The association of the two witnesses with the two olive trees and two lampstands appear to associate the two witnesses with a vision of the prophet Zechariah (Zec 4).

The Woman and the Dragon (Rev 12)

Preterist:  The woman is faithful Israel and the Child to whom she gave birth is Christ.  The Dragon is Satan.  The first century church in Jerusalem escaped the wrath of Satan (the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) fleeing to the place prepared by God (the desert hills) per Jesus’ instructions (Mt 24:15-21; Lk 21:20-24).

Historicist:  The woman is symbolic of the church under persecution.  The “third of the stars” is thought to possibly refer to the division of the Roman Empire under three emperors in 313AD that resulted in the Edict of Milam that permitted freedom of religion in the Roman Empire.  Alternately, it may refer to divisions within Europe that occurred after the Reformation.  In addition, the 1260 days (12:6) is seen symbolically to predict the 1260 years that began the year (588 AD) that Pope Gregory I instituted papal supremacy that declared that the pope has full, supreme, unhindered and universal power over the entire church, and by divine institution, over the care of souls.  The 1260 years ended in the year 1848 when Pope Pius IX was forced to flee Rome during an Italian revolution.  Pope Pius IX was the pope that called the First Vatican Council which defined papal infallibility, papal primacy (doctrine of papal infallibility), and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the doctrine that Mary, mother of Jesus, was also born free from original sin).

Idealist:  The woman is Israel, who is seen as the ideal symbol of all the faithful.  The Child is Christ and the Dragon is Satan, the great persecutor of the Church in every age.  The seven heads and crowns speak of Satan’s political power and authority over the pagan nations, and the ten horns signify the military strength of his armies.  The stars are the angels that fell with Satan at his rebellion in heaven, not at the time of creation, but at his defeat by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Futurist:  The woman is faithful Israel and the Child to whom she gave birth is Christ.  The Dragon is Satan who will indwell the coming Antichrist.  The “seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns” are seen as ten future kingdoms that the Antichrist will lead in attacking Israel.  The ten kingdoms are often seen as a revived “Roman Empire” (Dan 7).

Comment:  See also the Great Prostitute on the Beast (Rev 17) below.

The Two Beasts (Rev 13)

Notes:  The first Beast (13:1) is the Antichrist.  In the Bible, the “sea” typically represents the Gentile nations, so “out of the Sea” indicates that the Antichrist comes from or represents the Gentile nations (see also Daniel 7 for an example of four beasts symbolizing four Gentile nations).  In this case, the ten horns represent his authority over ten nations, possibly a federation of nations that will make up a new Roman Empire.  The dragon who gives the beast his power and authority (13:2) is Satan.  The second Beast (13:11) is the False Prophet.  John does not identify this person, but he may be Jewish (“out of the earth”).  He is more than just the public relations person who promotes the agenda of the Antichrist.  He also exercises the authority of the first beast and performs signs and miracles that seduce many into following the Antichrist. 

Preterist:  The first Beast is identified as the infamous Roman Emperor Nero who ruled during the 60s AD and was the first emperor to engage in the mass persecution of Christians.  The second beast is representative of the Jewish people who sided with Nero against true Christians in the first century AD.

Historicist:  The first beast is a power (person or political and religious system) that will arise near the end of time.  The second beast is a person or religious system that aides and promotes the first beast.

Idealist:  The first Beast is symbolic of the antichrists who are present in each generation (1Jn 2:18-19).  The second Beast is symbolic of all the false prophets and/or false religions whose focus is on anyone or anything other than the one true God and Jesus Christ.

Futurist:  The first Beast is the Antichrist who receives his power and authority from Satan.  The second Beast is the False Prophet who induces many to follow and worship the Antichrist.

The Number / Mark of the Beast - 666 (Rev 13:18)

Notes:  In Revelation 13:18, “the beast” is referring to the first Beast, who is the Antichrist.

Neither the Greek nor the Hebrew alphabet contained numbers. Instead, either the writer spelled out the number, or they wrote out the number using the letters in the alphabet.  The latter involved the use of an alphanumeric code known as “gematria”.  In our verse the author wrote “six hundreds sixty six” in the Greek (hexakosioi hexēkonta hex).  In the Scriptures, the number 7 often symbolizes perfection, that is the number of God, and the number 6 symbolizes man’s imperfection.  Thus the three-fold repetition likely is intended to indicate that the beast will be a very powerful man, but still a man.

Preterist:  In using the Hebrew alphabet and spelling, the letters in “beast” and “Nero Caesar” both add up to the number 666, but using the Greek in which Revelation is written, the letters for “Nero Caesar” add up to only 616.

Historicist:  Many Reformers suggest that the number refers to the Roman Catholic papacy.  They point to the Latin word Lateinos (the Greek spelling of the Roman Latinus, the reputed founder of the Latin race) that means “Latin man” or “one that speaks Latin”.  When adding up the numerical value of each Greek letter in the name, the total comes to 666.

Idealist:  The number is symbolic of human imperfection and evil.  Some believe the mark itself is symbolic of a person’s actions (right hand) and beliefs (forehead) per Exodus 13:9,16.

Futurist:  It is the number of the future Antichrist, man’s number.

Comment:  Many have speculated about the associated “’Mark of the Beast”.  Throughout history, most have held to some kind of physical mark or ID.  With the advance of modern technology, the idea of imbedded microchips for scanning has increased in popularity.  Despite the speculation, all we know for sure is that the mark on one’s right hand or forehead will contain the name or number of the beast, and it will be required for anyone to conduct any public transactions.

The Lamb, the 144,000, Messages of the Angels, and Harvest of the Earth (Rev 14)

Notes:  Each of the four schools of thought recognize Christ as the Lamb (14:1) and Son of Man (14:14).  Each also interpret the 144,000 as the same people or symbols as noted in Chapter 7.

Preterist:  Babylon is seen as a symbol of first century Jerusalem, and the Son of Man comes to gather and safeguard his church from the judgment that was about to fall upon Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.

Historicist:  The Son of Man comes during the end times to gather his faithful flock to Himself.

Idealist:  The Son of Man with the sickle symbolizes the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the church age.

Futurist:  The vision is of the Son of Man commencing with the harvest that will separate the wicked for judgment and the righteous for salvation as He promised in the parable of the weeds and wheat (Mt 13:24-30).

Seven Angels Singing the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb (Rev 15)

Notes:  This vision is the introduction to the bowl judgments, and the final wrath of God that is to follow.  Some believe that the accompanying choir (15:2) may be the same 144,000 from the previous chapter.

Preterist:  The song is a song of victory over the persecution from the pagans, particularly the Romans in the first century.

Historicist:  The song is seen as a song of freedom from the religious and political persecution from the Roman papacy.

Idealist:  The song is an ongoing song of salvation that Christians have sung throughout history and will continue afresh at the Second Coming.

Futurist:  The song is a song of victory over the persecution from the Anti-Christ during the Tribulation, and a song of praise for God setting all things right with his righteous final judgment against evil.

The Seven Bowl Judgment of God’s Wrath (Rev 16)

Notes:  The final sets of judgment included painful sores on followers of the beast, death of all sea creatures, rivers became blood, fierce heat from the sun, darkness over the kingdom of the beast, the Euphrates River drying up, and a massive earthquake such as there had never been before.

Preterist:  These visions symbolically add further details to the descriptions of the seals (Rev 6) and the trumpet judgments (Rev 8-11) regarding the Roman war with the Jews (mid to late 60s AD), but with a greater emphasis over the finality of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.  The fifth bowl (darkness over the kingdom of the beast) is seen as a judgment upon Rome in 68-69 AD.  Nero’s suicide in 68 was followed by a Roman civil war that saw three emperors (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius) dethroned before Vespasian restored order near the end of 69 AD.  Prior to Vespasian taking the throne, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (aka Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus) was burned in Rome, causing a blackened sky during the day, and thus interpreted as darkness over the kingdom of the beast.

Historicist:  These visions are generally seen as various judgments against Rome during and following the Reformation.  The fifth bowl (kingdom of the beast plunged into darkness) is sometimes seen as judgment against Pope Pius VI in 1798 when the Vatican was overrun and the Pope was taken captive during the French Revolution.

Idealist:  These visions symbolize God’s judgment against those who oppose him and His people, both now and in the end times.  Several of the judgments also are seen as having parallels with the plagues against Egypt in the days of Moses.

Futurist:  The visions are of the final sets of judgment that are poured out on the followers of the Antichrist (possibly a restored Roman Empire) during the second half of the Tribulation (Great Tribulation).

The Woman (Prostitute) on the Beast (Rev 17)

Notes:  This is not the same woman as the woman in Revelation 12.

Preterist:  The prostitute is Jerusalem, whose political and false religious influence is carried by the Roman Empire (the Beast).  The seven heads are the first seven emperors of Rome, with the sixth, Nero, the one who is ruling during the 60s AD (17:10).  The ten horns are the ten Roman imperial provinces at the time.

Historicist:  The prostitute is the seen as corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, including her political and religious influence on Western European culture.  The Roman Church and her papacy is seen as “drunk on the blood of martyrs” (17:6), that is of those who were executed for attempting to take the Word of God to the common people.

Idealist:  The prostitute is a symbol of all false religion that throughout history, has formed alliances with corrupt governments in order to dominate in the political arena.

Futurist:  This vision is an extension of the angel announcing the fall of Babylon (14:8) as rendered with the seventh bowl (16:17-21).  The prostitute is Babylon, that is portrayed as the symbol of a future new world order based on a false religious system.  The political influence of this religious coalition will derive its political influence from its ties to the power of the Beast (the Antichrist) who is the head of the future world alliance, seen as of ten nations (ten horns) in Europe (possibly a restored Roman Empire) in the end times.

The Fall of Babylon (Rev 18)

Notes:  Previously, we have seen visions announcing the coming fall of Babylon (14:8; 16:17-21).  In chapter 18, we find the announcement that Babylon has now fallen.  This Babylon is not the capitol city of the Babylonian empire that dominated Israel and most of the Middle East in the 7th and 6th centuries BC.

Preterist:  The fall of Babylon is symbolic of the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  Some of the Jewish populous supported the Romans in their persecution of Christians during Nero’s reign after AD 64.  The horror of the destruction and the resulting economic disaster was nearly indescribable.  The Temple still lies in ruins to our present day.

Historicist:  The fall of Babylon is symbolic of the decline and ultimate destruction of Papal Rome, due to the preaching of a false gospel, the persecution of true believers, and entering into alliances with the corrupt political systems to enhance their own power.

Idealist:  Babylon symbolizes the corrupt political and religious powers in every generation that attempt to defy God and to persecute His people.  All are destined to fail in the end.

Futurist:  Babylon symbolizes the future one-world government (politically and economically) and the one-world false religion system, all under the control of the Antichrist in the end times.

The Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:1-10)

Notes:  The marriage supper celebrates the union between Christ (the Groom) and the the church (His bride).  There are differences of opinion on whether or not the bride at the time of the supper includes or excludes OT saints and/or tribulation saints.

Preterist:  The marriage feast of Christ and His church is seen as the culmination of illustrations using the institute of marriage to illustrate both faithfulness and unfaithfulness of the church. It began with the divorce decree with Israel in chapter 5 and 10, continued with the image of the the faithful persecuted woman (chapter 12) and the great prostitute of chapter 17.  The Preterist interprets the marriage supper occurring symbolically in the first century.  Many Partial Preterists see a literal or symbolic feast during the end times.

Historicist:  The Marriage Supper is symbolic of all people who accept an invitation to come into a saving relationship with Christ.  This is perceived to happen when the false religion represented by Rome/Babylon will be removed, and the faithful will be free to evangelize the rest of the world.

Idealist:  The Marriage Supper, and indeed the entire history of salvation can be seen symbolically through the events of the ancient Jewish wedding tradition.  The prophets would announce the wedding.  The groom (Jesus) comes and betroths his bride (church), paying the dowry (at the cross).  The groom goes and prepares a home for the bride, and when the father of the groom (God) says it’s ready, the groom goes to get his bride.  The bride must remain ready because she does not know the day that the groom will return, but when he does, the wedding back at his place is followed by a tremendous wedding feast.

Futurist:  The Marriage Supper is the celebration following the union between Christ and His church.  The celebration is thought to take place in heaven just before the Second Coming of Christ (Rev 19:6-16).

The Rider on the White Horse and the Battle of Armageddon (Rev 19:11-21)

Notes:  All view identify the Rider as Christ, either symbolically or literally.

Preterist:  Christ returned in the Spirit in the first century AD.  Some Partial Preterists believe in a fuller and even physical return during the end times.

Historicist:  The vision represents Christ’s victory over pagan Rome.  The return of Christ is also connected with the defeat of Satan (20:7-10).

Idealist:  The vision is symbolic of Christ’s final victory over the forces of evil.  Others see this not as an end times battle, but as symbolic of Christ and God’s Word triumphing over evil in all eras.

Futurist:  The vision is of the Second Coming of Christ with the armies of heaven as prophesied in Zechariah 14:3-9.  He will defeat the armies of the beast and false prophet at the literal Battle of Armageddon (19:19-21) in the Valley of Megiddo as promised by the angel with the sixth bowl (16:12-16).  Christ’s victory thus ends the Tribulation (chapters 4-19) and begins His 1000-year reign known as the Millennial Reign of Christ, or the Millennium for short.

The Millennium (Rev 20:1-6)

Preterist:  The Millennium refers to Christ’s spiritual return and reign through His true believers beginning in the first century.  Some Partial Preterists see either a fuller literal future reign of Christ on earth (Premillennialists), a spiritual reign throughout the church era (Amillennialists - no millennial), or a future return after after Christ establishes peace on earth through the work of the church (Postmillennialists).

Historicist:  Most advocates are Amillennialists, viewing the millennium as Christ’s spiritual reign in the lives of His people during this present age.  A minority are Historical Premillennialists who envision a future millennium following the Second Coming of Christ, but of unknown length rather than a literal one thousand years.

Idealist:  Almost all are Amillennialists, viewing the millennium symbolically as Christ’s spiritual reign in the lives of His people during this present age.

Futurist:  Most are Dispensational Premillennialists who interpret these passages as a literal one-thousand year physical reign of Christ on earth following His Second Coming.  Many believe that the still unfulfilled promises to Israel will be fulfilled during this time.

Comment:  See our article “Views of the Millennium / Millennial Kingdom” linked in the “Related Articles” chapter below for additional information on this topic.

Satan’s Doom and the Great White Throne Judgments (Rev 20:7-14)

Preterist:  Some advocates interpret these events to be fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem as judgment for Israel’s disobedience to God.  Others (particularly Partial Preterists) see the events referring to the fall of the Roman Empire with possible additional fulfillments in the future.

Historicist:  Most see the defeat of Satan (20:7-10) as another description of the Battle of Armageddon (16:12-16; 19:11-21).  Historical Premillennialists view this as a final battle after the millennium.

Idealist:  Symbolic of the eventual final triumph of good over evil.

Futurist:  After the 1000-year millennium ends, Satan is released, deceives the nations (unbelievers), and gathers his armies for a final battle against the saints.  Satan’s followers are destroyed by fire from heaven, and Satan is cast into the lake of fire.  At the Great White Throne, all unbelievers are resurrected, judged, and throne into the lake of fire (hell).

Comment:  The Great White Throne is for the final judgment of unbelievers only.  Believers will be given an “examination” or “evaluation” of their faithfulness in serving the Lord, but this is for the purpose of determining rewards in heaven, or lack thereof (1Cor 3:10-15; 2Cor 5:10).

The New Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21)

Notes:  At this point, all unbelievers throughout history, along with Satan, the beast, and false prophet, are now eternally in the lake of fire.  The entire universe has been destroyed as foretold in 2Peter 3:10-13, and God now replaces the old with a New Creation that will be the eternal dwelling place of the redeemed, including both OT and NT saints.

Preterist:  We’re currently living in the new creation.  After the destruction of the old Jerusalem (70AD), Christians began building the New Jerusalem by preaching the gospel.  It will be fully completed when Christ returns.

Historicist:  Similar to the Preterist position.  The new creation will descend with Christ at his second coming, yet it has already arrived in the believer’s heart.  Therefore in a certain sense, Christians are already living as citizens of the New Jerusalem.

Idealist:  The new creation is symbolic of the work that God is continually accomplishing though Chist with each new day.  Yet there will come a future day when Christ will personally return and make all things new.

Futurist:  As predicted in Isaiah 65:17, the New Creation will come after Christ puts all enemies under His feet (1Cor 15:24-28) and institutes the age to come.  The New Jerusalem will be the capital city of Heaven as prophesized (Heb 11:8-10; 12:24), and as promised by Jesus (Jn 14:1-3).

The River of the Water of Life (Rev 22:1-5)

Notes:  The River flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Christ) and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Preterist:  The healing of the nations, that began with the First Advent of Christ in the first century, will continue as the gospel grows and spreads throughout the world, just as the water flows “down the middle of the great street of the city” (22:1-2).  Jesus will finalize and renew all things when He comes.

Historicist:  The healing of the nations is happening now (in the church age) and will finally be completed when Christ returns.

Idealist:  God has always been healing the nations through Christ by seeking and saving the lost.  Christ will make all things right when he returns.

Futurist:  After the Second Coming of Christ (Rev 19:11-21), and the final judgment of the wicked, including Satan, Christ will usher in the New Creation, the final salvation, and the healing of all the faithful from all nations.  God and Christ are now dwelling with the saints.

Epilogue (Rev 22:6-21)

Notes:  The visions given to John end with verse 5.  The epilogue reaffirms the truthfulness and reliability of the book including its transmission from Jesus via His Angel, interweaves several major themes of the book, and pronounces blessing for those who keep its words and curses for those who alter it.  The book concludes with another promise of Christ’s return.

Comment:  The book ends with He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon”.  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people.  Amen. (Rev 22:20-21)

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Related Articles

Introduction to the Book of the Revelation

Interpretation of Daniel’s Visions and Prophecies

Views of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9

Views of the Millennium / Millennial Kingdom

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Bibliography

As we mentioned earlier, the author of this article prefers a literal approach to the interpretation of Scripture, which naturally leads to a Historical-Futurist View of Revelation.  In our attempt to give an unbiased and accurate interpretation of the other positions, we consulted a number of resources written from various perspectives.  The most prevalent resources are listed below.

  • Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 20 Volumes - Various Authors.  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2005-2016
  • Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 1-12 - Gaebelein, Frank E.  Zondervan, Inc. 1971-1992
  • ESV Study Bible - Crossway Bibles Publishers. 2008
  • Holman Bible Handbook - Dockery, David S.  Holman Bible Publishers. 1992
  • New American Commentary, 42 Volumes - Various Authors.  Broadman & Holman. 1992-2012
  • New International Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (NICOT/NICNT), 48 Volumes - Various Authors.  Eerdmans. 1974-2016
  • NLT Study Bible - Tyndale House Publishers. 2008
  • Reformation Study Bible - Sproul, RC.  Reformation Trust Publishing. 2005, 2015
  • Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy - Jones, Timothy Paul PhD.  Bristol Works, Inc. 2011

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