Is Revelation about the Past, Present or Future?

I have written about various approaches to Revelation in the past (see these posts on historicism, preterism, and futurism). Let me summarize these positions here, if you need more, follow the links.

Preterism argues that Revelation refers only to events of the first century, although there may be a hope for a final return of Christ in the future in the book. Futurism believes that most of Revelation predicts events in the future (a real tribulation full of judgment, etc.) Idealists and Historicists both see Revelation as referring to the present age, but in much different ways. The old historicist method saw the symbols of Revelation as referring to events in history, while idealism tends to see the symbols as referring to the struggle of good and evil in this world.

Homer Not AgainFew people would argue in favor of historicism as it was practiced prior to the early nineteenth century and I am unaware of a commentary from a major publisher that would advocate for the view. Preterism has become very popular recently and there are quite a few monographs that could be described as idealist/preterist. This may be part of a sometimes violent backlash against the popularity Left Behind series and the nonsensical hatred of dispensationalism as a heretical teaching hatched in the pit of hell.

Following the lead of George Ladd, many commentaries on Revelation reject a single approach to the book in favor of some combination of the three main views. Ladd, for example, combines idealism and futurism. He held that most of Revelation was future, but only after chapter 6. Chapter 6 is symbolic of the general flow of the church age, similar to the idealist position rather than the historicist. Greg Beale’s commentary attempts to be a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism.” He attempts to read the symbols very much like an idealist, but includes a future aspect as well. The beast of chapter 13, for example, is representative of all the “anti-christs” throughout history, but also points to the ultimate Antichrist of the future. For Beale, the idealist view is primary, the futurist is secondary.

Grant Osborne concurs with Beale’s approach, but emphasizes the future aspect of the prophecies. Osborne defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22). For example, Osborne feels the three and one half year great tribulation in Revelation serves as a model for all previous tribulations the church has faced.

C. Marvin Pate writes as a contemporary dispensationalist attempting to read Revelation as a book about the future, to be understood as literal, but also to address some of the excesses of the dispensational approach. The criticism of dispensational futurism have merit; dispensationalism needs to “reinvent itself” in order to deal with the critique from Reformed writers (primarily a-mil and idealist / preterists.) This “re-invention” is modeled along the catchphrase “already / not yet” as applied to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels by C. H. Dodd and later by George Ladd.

It is therefore possible that creating a “four views on Revelation” style rubric then forcing a commentary through that grid creates an interpretive environment that misses some aspect of Revelation’s message. By making it entirely past, we miss the prophetic element. But by making it entirely future, we miss the application of the book to the present age.

Is there a specific way a “blended” view might help shed light on a particular portion of Revelation? Is there are section of the book that is better read as referring to both the past and the future? Or are we forced to choose one or the other?

24 thoughts on “Is Revelation about the Past, Present or Future?

  1. Interesting thoughts. For a long time I wasn’t much interested in eschatology in general as I was trying to leave some things behind and needed to sort out other things first. A “Blended” perspective probably would be a healthier alternative to strict keeping of any one of the “traditional” perspectives, but I imagine there will be as much discussion, disagreement, and debate over the various blends on offer. So much the better.

    These days I resonate most with an Amillennial/Partial-Preterist view. Chapters 21-22 definitely future, but 20 is present and 19 back through 1 would be past…or something like that. Revelation is tricky enough to constantly make you rethink what you thought the last time you read it.

    If you are interested in a very good and thorough (though not exhaustive) book on Amillennialist/Partial-Preterism, I highly recommend Sam Storms book “Kingdom Come.” It’s been very helpful for me in sorting out eschatological matters. Douglas Wilson (Post-Millennialist) also being a Partial-Preterist has an interesting and very short book called “Heaven Misplaced.” He sounds a lot like N.T. Wright in “Surprised by Hope” at points throughout, but emphasizes an optimistic Post-Mill perspective. Additionally, if you have 2 hours to spare there’s a great Youtube video called “An Evening of Eschatology” featuring a round table discussion between Historic Premill (James Hamilton), Postmill (Douglas Wilson), and Amill (Sam Storms) and is moderated by John Piper. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ws0vbT4Yu2s

    • I think Revelation has to have a future aspect no matter how preterist you want to be, if only to say that the book ends with a second coming of Jesus. When does the future aspect begin is the critical question, old dispensationalism said from chapter 2, so the seven churches were future to John. Hopefully that is mostly dead now. Chapters 4-5 is probably the present, post ascension, preparing for judgment. I toy with the idea chapters 6-7 are John’s apocalyptic version of the olivet discourse, so that could be this age as well. That leaves the trumpets and bowls, and the fall of babylon. For me, that is future, calling God’s people out of Babylon, new exodus, etc.

      I might check out the YouTube video, although I don’t have two hours!

  2. I am not a big fan of eschatology. Maybe it is because of situations from men like Harold Camping (did anyone read him Mark 13:32?) who have incorrectly guessed the end of the age and lead many non Christians and Christians astray. Or maybe because of people who equate some of the symbolic language in Revelation to current things and call Obama the Antichrist. Or it maybe it is because it seems like many who focus strictly on eschatology seem to focus on judgement and death, and forget about living out God’s kingdom now and loving your neighbor. Don’t get me wrong, these viewpoints are skewed by bias to some extent, and i am sure that not all those interested in eschatology are this way… but is this what Jesus ministry is focused on? To my dismay, it actually is. Jesus is constantly proclaiming the kingdom to come and living with an eternal perspective. He has a ton of eschatology in his teaching, and even used apocalyptic literature in the Olivet Discourse. BUT, Jesus is also very balanced in living out love and mercy in the here and now, with the knowledge that this lifestyle echoes into eternity. How does this affect our view of Revelation?

    I believe that John had a similar viewpoint with Jesus in that it is important to think about the future, while staying rooted in this present day. In reading through Revelation, it seems as if there are many allusions to the future, as well as the first century. There are way too many allusions to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and Rome in the first century to explain away the use of historical events, that would have been fresh in our audiences minds, to say it is strictly futuristic. There are also way to many allusions to events that have not happened to say that there are no futuristic implications. With this in mind, i rest more towards the futuristic side in realizing that John probably used images that would resonate with his audience to prove a point about the future. But can we assume that the letter portion of Revelation was about the future? I don’t think so… with that in mind, i would side in the middle with men like Grant Osbourne in keeping both sides in mind (i know, it may seem like a bit of a cop out). This futuristic or historical viewpoint should not stop us from realizing the implications of Revelation in our present age though, as we can glean a lot from the text in the light of God’s power, justice, and love.

    Just as Jesus focused on the future, so should we. But don’t forget about this present day either.

  3. A blended view of the future and the past would be the most intriguing to me. There are sections of Revelation where the past is most likely referenced, like Revelation 2-3 (letters to the churches). Then there are sections that seem to be futuristic, like the New Heavens and new earth reference in chapter 21. I think that there are definitely sections in which the past and the future would be blended. The literal meaning points to what was the present for the readers, but also points to the future in which the prophetic nature of it would be fulfilled. Perhaps in Revelation 13 when it talks about the beasts, or with the name Babylon used. These may refer to figures during the past in which the rulers (who are portrayed as evil) also show what the future time will be like. Knowing the history of that time is paramount to interpreting those sections of Scripture.
    I would say that a blend of both past and future should be considered throughout Revelation. The author, as an writer or speaker, would have had to make it relevant to the readers. He would have to reference things in the present (now past) in order to explain his message/vision.

  4. It does not seem likely that a completely preterist view is scriptural when it comes to considering Rev. 20:7-10 on Satan’s last stand. It would imply that Satan has been marching against God’s people in this present age in a way he wasn’t before. Also, an idealist view does not explain certain aspects of the same passage. It would imply that Satan has lessened power in this present age.

    It makes sense to the dispensationalist that, if the Kingdom of God were “put off,” a futurist and literal interpretation of Revelation, at least after Chapter 3 and especially in Chapter 20, is almost unquestionably necessary. However, as Phil points out, it misses some important parts of Revelation that would have been immediately applicable to the original readership.

    Since we have already passed the 1,000-year-mark since Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, would the “already/not yet” idea from Inaugurated Eschatology make necessary a figurative interpretation of the 1,000 years in Revelation 20?

    It seems to me that a blended view, while possible for almost all of Revelation, misses the point of some passages which are clearly intended to be either preterist or futurist.

    • “Inaugurated Eschatology” would say that some aspects of the kingdom are present (the Holy Spirit, for example), but other aspects are “still future” (like the rule of the Messiah in a kingdom). The period between the first and second coming are not the 1000 years, that is referring to the future messianic age. I think most pre-millennialists who use the already/not yet catchphrase would still see the 1000 years as a literal period still in the future.

  5. I definitely see the benefits of a blended view of Revelations, but it is also something that we need to be cautious with. When I think of combining multiple kinds of interpretation no matter which ones they are, it sounds like it will be more confusing, if a person does not go about forming a well rounded interpretation they will quickly be over their head in one big mess. But if one does it right, they will see there are scenarios in the Bible that simply can not be in the same view as other sections. Sean made an excellent point of this when he talked about Satan’s last stand in chapter 20, that is clear a future event. But the letters to the seven churches is historical.

  6. I believe a blended view of historicism and futurism is the best way to read Revelation. For instance, knowing what had occurred with Rome allows the reader to understand the “Great Whore of Babylon” reference. However, understanding the idea and symbolism of the return of Jesus helps us look to the future. By knowing what has occurred and what is to come in the future, Christians can then make practical decisions on how to currently live out their faith in modern society. The sense of urgency to share this faith is all the stronger knowing how the Christians before us have lived out their faith… and how we should share our faith based on the events that are yet to occur.

  7. I believe that the text of Revelation’s an it’s eschatology is better to be thought of a mixture of all three, past, present and future. The author used illustrations of persecution that was happening during the time that the text was written of something bigger but ever present. I believe that Satan is the ruler of this age, and is practicing his authority of the earth now. Was Satan at work against the believers in the first century? Yes. Is Satan at work now against the Church? Of course. I also believe that there is going to be a final persecution of the church which is yet to come. So, in short, a blended view would be easier to agree with.

  8. In your post “Revelation as Resistance Literature” you note in the opening lines “Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming.” I would agree with this statement when it comes to the issue of blended as opposed to past or present or future. There are portions of the book that the original readers would have undoubtedly understood as very present (now past). It contains portions that are best interpreted in a futurist perspective, and some portions that are best interpreted as a present issue for the original readers. I am unsure is a truly blended view is ever a great idea. It is difficult to understand something as both past and future, however it is not an impossible idea. I would advocate for an understanding of the book in a way that the original readers would have understood it. Some portions present and some portions very much future.

  9. I agree with Dan, that having a mix of all three would be best. There definitely are parts in Revelation where it would be helpful to understand the past in order to get the reference that John used in his depictions. However, I think that the vast majority of Revelation is pointed toward the future.

  10. Here’s what I think we’re seeing in Revelation and other apocalyptic texts. The ancient Hebrews, like pretty much all ancient peoples, viewed time as circular. What has happened before, will happened again. When a prophet shares a vision, it is a symbolic description of what they see happening in the spiritual realm. It’s purpose is to illuminate of the archetypal patterns at work in their world. That way, when a time cycles back and a time such as the prophet’s comes around again, we might better understand the spiritual reality of what we are seeing.

    This is why bible prophecies which clearly refer to a specific person or set of events in the past continue to inform us about what we see going on around us today. For example, the whore of Babylon in Revelation obviously refers to the Roman Empire. And also bears a striking resemblance to the corrupt Roman Catholic Church of the late middle ages. And is arguably a good illustration of a certain super power at work in the world today. It’s an archetype of empire at work in the world. So long as empires which rely on violence, greed, fear, idolatry and control continue to arise, the whore of Babylon will also continue to arise.

    Of course, the prophets didn’t leave these odd descriptions behind just for entertainment and speculation. The intention, I believe, is two fold. First, as I said, the hope is that when a time such as theirs comes around again, we will recognize what is happening. And second, when we see it happening and we are properly equipped, we will be able to align ourselves with God in order to interrupt the cycle once and for all, leading to the new heaven and new earth.

  11. The topic of if Revelation is referring to past, present, or future has been a long debated subject that has theologians arguing for decades. P. Long, in his blog, does a nice job of presenting multiple views such as the historicism view, preterism view, and the futurism view.

    Merely through class lectures and my time at Grace Christian University, my conclusion of Revelation would be some type of mixture in which Revelation both refers to things past and also contains prophecies yet to be fulfilled. P. Long, when lecturing on Daniel, has pointed to this aspect of Biblical, prophetic literature that it often consists of both prophecy that, for us, has been fulfilled and also prophecy that is yet to occur. For the Book of Revelation, an example of this would be the use of Babylon in Revelation 18. Babylon works as metaphor or analogy referencing the great diaspora, destruction of the temple, and the past tribulation Jews experienced when they were conquered by Babylon. The use of Babylon in Revelation 18 points back to the trials the Isrealites experienced and points to a future time of tribulation in which similar events will take place. Thus a double meaning, taking into account both a past and future perspective, is placed upon prophetic literature.

  12. The answer to the question of whether or not the book of Revelation is about past, present, or future events is a simple and straightforward answer: Everything transpiring and written in the book after chapter 6 is about future events. Everything before this is events that have already happened in the past. However, an important stipulation to make is that none of us can know or “predict” with 100%, absolute, infallible certainty. All one can do is simply make our best, educated guess. Firstly, we know that the events after chapter 6 refer to the future because, although it may appear to be an overly obvious answer, the answer is the events have not happened yet. For just one example, in chapter 12, we are told that “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” will appear (Revelation 12:1-2) We are also told a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns will cast down a third of the stars of heaven to the earth”, etc. (Revelation 12:3-4). Additionally, we are told further, in Revelation 16:3 that the seas, rivers, and springs of the earth will be turned to blood, and every living thing in them will die (Revelation 16:1-6). Now obviously as mentioned before, it must be emphasized that one cannot say or claim with absolute certainty that these refer to the future, however it is most likely they do. If the seas, rivers, and springs of the earth turned to blood and everything in them died, on which millions upon millions of individuals rely on for their income, food, travel, commerce, and livelihood, it is most likely it we would know about it if it had already happened. This is just one simple example of the coming, future prophetic events contained in the book.

  13. It is very interesting to know that the topic of whether Revelation focuses on the past, the present or the future has been a very debated topic. Even though theologians have argued for many years, I strongly believe that there is no right answer. However, I do believe that Revelation could be focusing on the past, but also on the future. I also believe that when the book of Revelation says written, it was written with the hope and purpose that future generations would know what could happen whenever people are sinful. I strongly believe that what happened to the 7 churches has a lot to say. Most of the seven churches were not doing what God commanded them to do, therefore, God sent a letter to each one of them. Each message that the churches received either shamed them or congratulated the churches. This is a great point because it shows that God is watching over us. At the same time, it is a great example because future generations (us) will have proof of God’s power. This is the main reason why I believe that Revelation focuses on things of the past and on things of the future. Whenever I read Revelation, I know that God is also speaking to me through Revelation, therefore, I have faith in Him and follow His commands.

  14. This is an interesting topic that I think does not have a clear answer. I think that there are elements of past, present (for John’s time) and future. I do not think this is a book that can be read literally as the imagery is fantastical and confusing for us today. I believe that some of the imagery was written so the John can bring the Jewish people along side the Christian people of his time. When you read verses like 16:3 it’s hard not to link it to Exodus or any of the seven plagues for that matter. All the plagues seem to reference Exodus 32. Since this would have been historical for the Jewish people it would be hard to argue that John is not referencing the Hebrew Bible. This is where the present would come in to play since John would be referring to the Hebrew Bible it would make sense he would need to connect an older text to a current event. For example the fall of Babylon which seems to be referred to especially in Rev 17-18. Rev 18 talks about the fall of Babylon specifically. The does contain things that are future events as well Rev 21:7 states “I am coming soon”. This wording implies a future event which most Christians would agree has not happened given our current situation.

    • Jason,
      You make some very meaningful points here. I agree that it is very difficult to take some of John’s words literally since they are so bizarre sounding and make me feel like I’m reading something out of Lord of the Rings. I also agree with you on the fact that John may have used a lot of this bright imagery to help the people who were reading his words gain a better understanding of what he was trying to say. You made a great connection with the plagues and how that would have definitely struck a chord with the people who were listening because of their people’s history. Revelation is a very tough book to really understand and I would say that anyone who knows exactly what is going on throughout the whole book is either very unintelligent or is simply a liar. I really appreciate your post and think you did a great job.

  15. The book of Revelation has always been a book that has brought me a lot of confusion. I have always struggled to find the purpose and meaning behind many of the stories and narratives. However, over the course of this class I have begun to have a much better understanding of many of these examples. But even with a much better understanding of what is actually going on in the book, it is still very difficult to clearly understand what parts of it are meant to be historical content and what parts are prophetic in nature. I think that you made a very poignant statement in your article when you pointed out how it is possible that there is a blend of these two genres for Revelation. Because if we focus solely on the historical side of Revelation then we begin to lose the importance of the prophetic side. And if we focus completely on the prophetic portions then we forget what this means for history as a whole. So in conclusion I think we need to approach the book of Revelation with open minds and be willing to look at it from a fresh perspective. I do believe that there is a middle ground we can take that accepts both the historical and prophetic approach into consideration.

  16. There are several views of Revelation. Like Professor Long points out these three views are historicism, preterism, and futurism. However there are some who argue that there is a combination of the three views. When one reads Revelation, one can see parts of each view. Part of Revelation talks about the future and about Jesus’ coming. Then there are the churches. It is believed that Revelation is talking about the churches that were formed during the apostles’ time, but were used as an analogy for the future. Yet as Professor Long points out if one focuses too much on whether or not it is future then one misses the other aspects of Revelation.

  17. Prophecies in the Bible have a history of being cryptic to people until they are fulfilled. Some are clear, but others take a lot of thinking in order to understand what is being said, especially when combined with such imagery as Revelation. We see prophecies that looked ahead to future events, and others that forth-told, and had to do with the situation that people faced at that time. When looking at Revelation, there are many debates on whether the events have already happened, are going to happen, or are just a pattern. I believe that in order to cover the whole scope of what is being said, you need to understand it in the same way as other prophecies.
    In the Old Testament, for many of the prophecies, they spoke to the situation that people faced then, as well as pointed to something in the future. One common one is the prophecy in Isaiah that a baby would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). This pointed to not only Isaiah’s wife bearing a child, but also to the special way in which Jesus would be born. If we keep prophecies like this in mind, it becomes easier to see how Revelation applied to the original readers of the book, while also showing what will happen in the future.

  18. I personally do not think that there a certain way to blend the two. Readers will read how they understand it. Granted I believe there does need to be a balance on how much literal and how much prophetic needs to be understood. I just do not think there will ever be that. There is importance to the historical and prophetic reading of Revelation. The authors wrote these books in their culture, time, and language. As much as we try and understand it, I do not think there will be an 100% understanding, because of the differences of our culture, time and language. Most readers do not understand prophesy an believe that a lot of it is imagery, and make believe. Yet, the Old Testament had a lot of prophecies that had to do with the circumstances they faced. We should read Revelation like any other book in the Bible, but with more patience and try to have a better understanding.

  19. I appreciated reading this post because I had never heard about the different stances when it came to viewing the events described in the book of Revelation. I, personally, always viewed the events described as futuristic event, not even thinking about the Preterism view or even the present. It is interesting to think that the events of the end times have already occurred or are presently playing out in a different way than it is described. I suppose that I always visualized the end times as all of the events described in Revelation happening one after another or simultaneously. The view that was described above about some events have already occurred and others have not is interesting to think about. I did not occur to me before that there could be a large distance of time between each event that is described in the book of Revelation by John. It is important, I think, for Christians to hear and learn about the different views of subjects such as the end times because no one person truly knows what is meant by the book of Revelation, are the events that are described literal or metaphors? Christians need to be sure of one thing about the end times and that is that they can happen at any time and Jesus could return at any time so Christians need to be ready for when that time comes. In Matthew 24, Christians are warned to always be ready and prepared for Christ’s return because it will happen when we do not expect Him to come (Matthew 24:44).

  20. I think that prophecies throughout scripture have a way of being confusing or really hard to understand. Now that does not mean that we cannot understand them but just that they can be difficult to understand. Some of the book of Revelation seems to point to events that have already taken place while others seem to clearly point towards events that will happen in the future at the end of the earth. There are tons of arguments on both sides as to whether the book of Revelation points to events that have already happened or events that are still to happen. I think that it is really hard to say for sure which argument is correct. Only God knows for sure if these prophecies have already been fulfilled or not. In the Old Testament, there were several prophecies predicting the births of people in the future. For example, the angel came and told Sarai and Abraham that they would have a son (Genesis 16). Amos the prophet prophecies about how Israel fell in the past(Amos 5). All this to say that we cannot really know for certain what Revelation is prophesying to.

  21. From all of the reading and understanding that I have on the book of Revelation, it was all meant to be for the future. Some people could say that in Chapter 13, when the beast rose from the sea and the mountains meant they were that anti-Christ. Then that was supposed to be the present time. But I do not believe it was meant to be understood that way. I think that it was portraying what all will happen leading up to the return of Christ. Some individuals may think that everyone believes that Revelation is all based on the future and from a few chapters throughout revelations may make it seem that it could mean past or present time.

Leave a Reply