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?

Interpreting Revelation – Modified Futurism

Futurism is the view that Revelation is a prophecy of events yet future from our perspective as well as John’s.  This view is usually associated with Dispensationalism, but I want to present a modified view similar to C. Marvin Pate in his Four Views on Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 1998).  This Modified Futurism attempts to combine the best of the preterist, idealist and futurist positions. It builds on the foundation of George Ladd, who combined idealism and futurism. Ladd 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. (New Testament Theology, 624.) One finds something very much like this approach in the recent commentary by Grant Osborne, who describes his approach as “eclectic” (Revelation, 21).

A similar attempt to blend methods is Greg Beale’s recent commentary Revelation.  He attempts to read the book as a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism” (Revelation, 48). Frequently his interpretation sounds like an idealist, but he includes a future aspect which sounds familiar to the futurist. For example, the beast of chapter 13 is representative of all the “anti-christs” throughout history, but also points to the ultimate Antichrist of the future (ibid. 680-1). 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” (Revelation, 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; Ddispensationalism 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,” especially as applied to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels by C. H. Dodd and later by George Ladd.  The phrase “kingdom of God” may refer to several different “kingdoms,” from God’s general reign over al of creation to a specific time in the future when the Messiah reigns from Jerusalem. Depending on one’s previous theological commitments, any time the phrase “kingdom of God” is used, it may invoke one or more of these ideas. Progressive Dispensationalism therefore attempts to see both the presence of God’s kingdom in the present age while also looking for an ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom in the future.

A critically important matter is the timing Revelation 4-5. When does the Lamb receive the scroll from the father? If this is a reference to the cross (and/or the resurrection, ascension), then at least Revelation 6-7 could refer to the present age. Classic dispensationalists took the prophecy as “future” beginning in chapter 2-3, the seven churches themselves prophetic of the flow of church history. I think that it is probable that chapters 4-5 represent “the current age” in that Christ has been enthroned and has not yet returned. On the other hand, I am more than warm to the idea that the seven seals are the Olivet Discourse for the Johannine community, beginning the “future” part of Revelation in chapter 8 with the seven trumpets.

All in all, I think that a modified futurism is the best approach to Revelation since it preserves the original, first-century intent along with the more general “good versus evil” teaching usually highlighted in idealist approaches to the book. Finally, by reading most of Revelation as a prophecy of the second coming of the Messiah, this modified futurism takes seriously Revelation’s own claim to be prophecy looking forward to the final consummation of God’s plan of redemption.

Is this view “futurist” enough to read Revelation accurately?  Or does it still retain too much futurism?  I suppose both sides will find fault with it, but the only way to determine the value is to apply a modified futurism to specific passages in Revelation.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 4)

Modified Futurism

This position is often listed as a final option which attempts to combine the best of the preterist, idealist and futurist positions.  George 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. (Eerdmans, 1972).  One finds something very much like this approach in the recent commentary by Grant Osborne (Baker, 2002).

Greg Beale’s commentary attempts to be a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism.” (Eerdmans, 1999).  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 (Four Views, Zondervan, 1998).  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.  Progressive dispensationalism attempts to see both the presence of God’s kingdom in the present age while also looking for an ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom in the future.

I think that recent commentaries on Revelation (like Beale and Osborne) are less worried about futurist / preterist categories, and I think this is helpful.   While Robert Thomas’s two-volume work published by Moody is an example of a purely futurist commentary, most scholars are coming to the point where they realize Revelation is too complex for a single view.  John certainly was looking at events of his own day (preterism) and did in fact deal with the problem of evil faced by the church in all ages (idealism), and he certainly looks forward to the return of Jesus (futurism).   All three of these are necessary ingredients to a full understanding of Revelation.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 3)

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.