Interpreting Revelation – Preterism


As one of the two reactions to the long-hallowed historicism position, preterism reads the book of Revelation as referring entirely to the events of the first century. There is no real prediction of future events. Essentially, Preterism argues the Book of Revelation was written to describe the events of the first century and there was little if anything that referred to the history of the church beyond that period. Preterism has become the standard solution for reading Revelation among a- or post-millennialists.

One of the earliest representatives of this view among Protestants was Moses Stuart (Commentary on the Apocalypse [Andover: Allen, Morrill and Ward, 1845; New York: Newmann, 1845]). Stuart blames Joseph Mede for universal application of the year-to-day theory in prophetic studies and popularizing the 1260 year reign of papal-antichrist. Stuart is willing to accept the year-to-day interpretation in Ezekiel 4 and even Daniel 9, but argues that these two passages do not require every day mentioned in prophecy to be a year. For example, he notes that if the year-to-day principle were applied to Daniel 4:32, then Nebuchadnezzar ate grass for 2520 years!

Preterists argue that Revelation is a highly figurative book which cannot be approached with a straightforward, simple, literalism. For preterists, literalism will only confuse the meaning of the book. The meaning of the book is to be found in its rather bold use of symbolism to describe the fall of Jerusalem, not modern-era warfare, etc.

A major point in favor of preterism is that Revelation claims to be describing what will happen soon (1:1-3). Soon cannot mean some 2000 years in John’s future. The Greek word in 1:1 τάχος means “a very brief period of time, with focus on speed of an activity or event, speed, quickness, swiftness, haste” (BDAG). A preterist like Ken Gentry cannot understand why a literalist (like Thomas) chooses to take the plain meaning of the text “soon” and “allegorize” it into a meaning of 2000 years in the future.

The Fall of Jerusalem

According to some preterists, the main theme of Revelation is God’s judgement on the Jews who crucified Christ. This is one of Ken Gentry’s main points in Four Views, but he does not represent all preterists here. See also G. L. Murray, Millennial Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), 107-130). Gentry cites Matthew 27:22, 25 and John 19:1-6 as evidence the Jews are under God’s judgment for the sin of killing Jesus. In these passages the Jews ask for Jesus to be crucified and accept the blame for his death.

The preaching of the Apostles connected the crucifixion of Jesus with the Jews, see Acts 4:10, 2:22-23, 5:30; 10:39. The judgment on the Jews, according to Gentry, is the fall of Jerusalem. According to Gentry, Revelation is written in the A.D. 60’s, so the prophet is describing the horrors of the Jewish revolution in 66-70 as a just judgment against the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. It would be possible to date the book later (commonly in the 90’s) and still see the fall of Jerusalem as the focal point, although it is no longer a prophecy at that point.

As a preterist, Ken Gentry and Bruce Chilton apply everything in Revelation to the fall of Jerusalem. This is not, however, the only way of handling the book as a preterist. A number of commentaries on Revelation interpret the books as describing the situation of the church in the first century under Roman rule. The conflict in the book is not God’s judgment on the Jews for crucifying Christ, but rather then persecution of Christians by the Roman empire for refusing to worship the Emperor / Empire.

Preterism is beneficial in that it applies the book of Revelation to very real events in the first century (whether that is the fall of Jerusalem or Roman persecution). It avoids the embarrassment of unfulfilled predictions which plagued historicism and is solidly a-millennial, an important factor for many in the reformed traditions. But I am not convinced Revelation is only anchored in the past.

I certainly think that the apocalyptic events of A.D. 70 are in the background of the book.  But does the fall of Jerusalem (or Roman persecutions) exhaust the value of the book? The book claims to be prophecy as well as apocalyptic – if the book was “entirely fulfilled” in A.D. 70, is there anything in the book for the future?