Through the centuries of church history there have been a great variety of different approaches to the study and interpretation of the Book of Revelation. They fall generally into the following four categories:
||all describing future events
||all about historical events in the first century
||predicting specific events of church history
||describing the timeless spiritual battle, not historical events
Since the nineteenth century this has been the most popular view. It claims that all the book after chapter three describes future events, during “end times”. The book tends to be taken chronologically and literally unless that is unavoidable.
It divides the book into three sections, based on, “Write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.” (1:19). “What you have seen” is the vision of Christ in the first chapter. “What is” are the letters to the seven churches (ch 2-3), and “what is to take place after this” are the events of end times, beginning with the rapture, through the seven-year tribulation, to the millennium and the new heaven and new earth (ch 4-22). It teaches that the rapture of the church is represented by John being taken up to heaven (4:2), so chapters four to nineteen take place during the seven-year tribulation. The second coming is described in 19:11, which is followed by the millennium (ch 20). So this view is normally pre-millennial, with a pre-tribulation rapture.
Various historical and political events of the twentieth century were used to support this view, including the cold war between the capitalist and communist worlds, the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the return of many Jews to their homeland. These events are seen as being in literal fulfilment of many predictions made by the prophets.
The disadvantage of this view is that it effectively makes most of the book largely irrelevant to John’s original readers in Asia, and to everyone who has lived since then. It also fails to recognise the apocalyptic style of literature by imposing an over-literal interpretation of the symbols. It also tends to overlook the parts of the book which are not in chronological order, like the descriptions of the final judgement early in the book.
However Revelation does speak a great deal about the future. It certainly predicts the second coming of Christ, describes the events of the final judgement, and the establishment of a new heaven and new earth.
In this view, most of, or the whole book, is understood to be only describing events of the first century. Preterists often divide the book into two parts by the statement at the end of chapter ten, “You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and peoples” (10:11). Before this, the visions are predicting the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and after this they describe the fall of the Roman empire. Supporters of this view will therefore date the book during the reign of Nero or shortly afterwards, but before AD 70. This interpretation would give the book greater relevance to the original readers, to show them that their two persecutors: the Jews and the Roman empire, will be destroyed. This interpretation becomes more relevant to John’s first readers, but tends to ignore or spiritualise the clear descriptions of the second coming of Christ, the final judgement and the new heavens and earth. Many modern preterist interpreters are post-millennial.
In this view, the book is believed to predict the whole course of church history between the first and second comings of Christ. Different visions in Revelation predict specific events in church history. For example: the opening of the seven seals represents the break-up of the Roman empire, the locusts are the Muslim invasion, and the beast is the papacy. This view was widely held during the Protestant Reformation, but very few people teach it today. Its big disadvantage is the lack of any objective way to determine which historical events are being predicted, leading to many different conflicting interpretations. Most of the Reformers held an amillennial view of end-times.
Spiritual or idealist
This view says that the book merely describes the eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil, and that good will finally overcome because of Jesus’s death on the cross. The martyrs will be vindicated and the forces of darkness will come under judgement. In this view nothing in the book speaks about actual historical events, so it not limited to one particular time in history. This makes the book easier to understand, but ignores the reality that John almost certainly did have a specific historical persecution in mind when he wrote to the seven churches.
It is probably best to use a combination of the different approaches. The risen Jesus commanded John to send the book to real churches in the first century, so was meant to be relevant to them. This would mean that the beasts probably did represent a specific evil power in John’s own time. However it also portrays the on-going battle between good and evil, showing us that ultimate victory does belong to God and the Lamb. It does also speak about the future, telling us that Jesus will return and establish his kingdom, when the forces of darkness will finally be destroyed.