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?

10 thoughts on “Interpreting Revelation – Preterism

  1. I have really been enjoying your posts on Revelation, the arrival of which coincided with our Bible Group’s reading of that book.

    • Thanks Dennis. I am prepping for a class on Daniel and Revelation, a May-term intensive. Sorting out these issues is helpful!

  2. I agree, Phillip, that part of Revelation is future-oriented. Its author seems to have watched half of it happening, and expected the rest to occur quite soon. The split between past and future seems to be roughly halfway through the book.

  3. Looking at different views of Revelation and the sequences of events that happen in it is always a controversial topic. Looking at the preterist view where everything has essentially already happened somewhat makes sense in the context of viewing it as first century. However as mentioned the year/day type of view just doesn’t click in my head. I know that this way of interpreting things has made many people think that numbers can add up and in turn predict exactly what revelation was talking about. However in that we have seen many people try to predict things based off of numbers and thus far they have all failed. Though many of the events have been brought to light in the first century, I see the importance of considering that this doesn’t cover everything written in the book of Revleation.

    • I would definitely agree with you that the preterist viewpoint has some very solid arguments. And there is a part of this view that has a certain pull in it. For some it would be much easier to defend the account of Revelation by simply claiming that it is just a recollection of things that have already happened. But when a person takes this stand there are consequences that they will have to accept as a result. Because as soon as you say that a portion of scripture was “not meant to be taken literally,” where do you stop? What is going to stop you from going through the whole of scripture picking and choosing what you want to take seriously and what not? This is a very dangerous path to walk down. And as for the theory that we can use precise calculations to crack certain codes in the Bible to find out when God is coming back, I would say that this is ridiculous. God has made it very clear that we are not meant to know when the end is coming and I am quite certain that he did not make a mistake somewhere or “let slip” on the date of his arrival. God is God. He has his reasons and his timeline.

  4. The Preterist viewpoint is one I struggle with quite a bit. It seems so shallow to point all these events to ones in the past, and so easy to do with anything prophetic. It also seems to be hopeless with any future for the church at all! What will become of all of these things when they have already happened? When will there be no pain? no suffering? and ultimately no sin? Their viewpoint claims the time to be now, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. I just think that this waters down what could be so much more!

  5. The main focus of this article is whether or not the book of Revelation should be viewed from a preterism point of view or not. Up until reading this article I really didn’t know what preterism meant. Preterist basically believe that the events recorded in the book of Revelation are not prophecies of what is to come but merely a recollection of events that have already happened. They claim that Revelation is so full of vivid imagery and uncommon stories that it should definitely not be taken in a literal sense but that it should be read as a figurative book. They believe that Daniel simply recorded events that he knew and that John did the same with Revelation. I can see where they are coming from and I would even agree that their argument has some very valid points. There are sections of Revelation that make me question whether or not it should be taken literally or not. And the same goes for Daniel. But there are several other factors that I have to take into account here. First is the reassurance from other scripture that tells us all scripture is useful and relevant for us today. Also, if these books were to be read as only historical accounts, then why did they not specify this when they wrote it? Authors in the Bible often used imaginative language when were writing, but for the most part their intentions as to how the material was to be read was clear. So while I do agree that there is some validity to the preterist view, I would argure that these books were indeed meant to be taken literally by their respective authors.

  6. It is difficult for me to fully accept the preterist view as the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation. Although there is something enticing about being able to believe that this was only written for the time it was written and that there is no need to interpret the time statements, there is something disappointing about the thought that this book holds no real value for the future church. I believe that when interpretating books of the Bible, we should read it first in the context of which it was written, but then we should generalize it and apply it to us and how we can use it to direct us now. This was best described in the book Grasping Gods Word (J Duvall, 2012). The complete preterist view believes that everything has happened, that there is nothing left to consider. Which as Johnson educates in the ESV introduction to Revelation would mean that Jesus will not return, that believers will not be physically resurrected, and that the Lord will not remake Heaven and Earth. This is something I personally can not accept. I do not believe that this book holds no value for us living in this time. I would lean more toward the views of the partial preterists. This interpretation leaves the possibility that there are things that have not yet come, and this leaves room for the book to be applied to our time.

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