The futuristic approach
Like Preterism, Futurism began as a Catholic reaction against medieval historicism. The Jesuit Franciscus Ribera was the first Catholic futurist. Ribera interpreted the Revelation 17 as the city of Rome defecting to the Antichrist in the final three and one-half years of human history. While the first chapters of Revelation pertained to ancient Rome at the time of John, the rest to a future reign of Antichrist in the final three and a half years of history.
The Antichrist will persecute true believers during this time just prior to the second advent. Revelation chapter 12 indicates that the true believers will “flee into the wilderness” during these last three and a half years. The Antichrist is an individual (a Jew, from the tribe of Dan) who will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and abolish the Christian religion. He will trick the Jews will accept him as Messiah. The ten horns of the beast (ten toes in Dan 2, etc.) are ten nations that will exist at the time of the second coming. Ribera was not a pre-millennialist. The thousand years were an indefinite time between the cross and the second advent. The saints are only ruling with Christ in heaven during this time, there is no literal millennial kingdom on earth. It is quite remarkable how close this version of futurism is to later “classic dispensationalism.” However, we should not say that dispensationalism is wrong because some of the ideas are found in a 17th century Jesuit.
Classic dispensationalism interprets Revelation as future for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is that Rev 1:1-3 imply that the contents of the book is a prophecy of the future, “what must soon take place.” Since the events seem to describe an apocalyptic judgment of the world and climatic return of Jesus, the bulk of the book must therefore concern the future. Part of the motivation for this is dispensationalism’s commitment to literal interpretation. Revelation is not an allegory of the church age, or of “good versus evil,” but rather a real prophecy of what will in fact happen in the future.
One problem for futurists is deciding when the future “starts” in the book. For example, the churches in Rev 2-3 can be taken as the “things which are,” but do the worship scenes in Rev 4-5 describe present worship in heaven, or is this worship still future, just prior to a tribulation? It is even possible to see the seals in Rev 6 as parallel to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, and therefore a description of this age (wars and rumors of wars, etc.) If this were the case, then the “future” aspect of the book does not begin until the sealed book is opened and the Trumpets begin. (Honestly, I am aware of few dispensationalists who would teach the seals describe the current age, but it is a live possibility and perhaps a good combination of idealist and futurist views.)
Some futurists persisted in reading Rev 2-3 in a historicist fashion by making each of the seven churches a “period” in the history of the church. This was found even in the most “future” minded forms of Dispensationalism, see the Scofield Reference Bible on Revelation 2, for example. The seven churches have a four-fold application, the last of which is a prophetic picture of the seven phases of the church from A.D. 96 to the end.
To me, Futurism does justice to the claim of Revelation that it is a prophecy of the return of the Lord. The approach suffers from an unfortunate association with predictions for the return of the Lord and the spectacular failures of those predictions.
One thought on “Interpreting Revelation (Part 3)”
I really like what the ESV Study Bible had to say regarding the futuristic approach. Is says that those who treats the order of the visions as reflecting the order of particular historical events. However, those who are futurists typically view the visions of chapters 4-22 as representing events still future to twenty-first-century readers, thus in a distant future form the standpoint of John and the churches of Asia. It goes on further tos ay that for hose who consider themselves futurists, these coming events include a discrete seven-year period of intense tribulations [ch. 16-19], followed by a millennium [20:1-6] in which Christ will rule on earth before the general resurrection and the inauguration of the new heaven and earth [20:7-22:5] [ESV Study Bible 2456].