After the service last Sunday, a gentleman asked if he could attend the high school small group that now meets on Sunday nights. I said “afraid not,” but he is interested in growing in Christ, and was intrigued by my comment during the message on Sunday about differing views on the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is exceedingly difficult to interpret. It is a mixture of three different literary genres: apocalypse, prophecy and epistle (or letter). It contains elaborate symbolism; sometimes the symbolism is quite bizarre and defies explanation.
Given its difficulty, we need to approach the Book of Revelation with a spirit of humility. Those who presume to teach it with absolute certainty are bound to be embarrassed someday. John Calvin, one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity, refused to write a commentary on Revelation because of its inherent difficulty.
Traditionally, four major schools of thought have emerged in attempting to unravel the mysteries of Revelation:
This interpretation understands the events of Revelation in large part to have been fulfilled in the first centuries of the Christian era – either at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD or at both the falls of Jerusalem in the first century and of Rome in the fifth century.
This school views the events of Revelation as unfolding over the course of history. This perspective was especially compatible with the thinking of the Protestant Reformers, who equated the Roman Catholic church of their day with the Antichrist.
This school argues that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, holding that chapters 4-22 await the end times for their realization.
Revelation is seen from this perspective as representing the ongoing conflict of good and evil, with no immediate historical connection to any social or political events.
Over the centuries, all four schools have had their supporters and detractors. Currently, the historicist and idealist views are no longer widely held, leaving the preterist and futurist views as dominant.
The preterist view is the most widely held view among scholars and theologians; the futurist view is probably the most widely held view among average church-goers, made popular, first, by the Scofield Study Bible (1909) and, then, by the Left Behind series (1995-2007).
Any study of Revelation will likely presume one of these 4 approaches. A good teacher will declare his or her approach up-front and explain his/her reasoning. Which school a person ascribes to makes a huge difference on how they interpret the book and what they get out of it.