Revelation: Flow of History or For the Future?
If you pick up any book on Bible prophecy you will likely find an introduction to the four main schools of interpretation in approaching the book of Revelation. Those four approaches are 1) Preterists, 2) Futurists, 3) Idealists, and 4) Historicists.
The Preterists view is an approach that assumes the book of Revelation is speaking to past circumstances, visions, and descriptions that they say were fulfilled in the era of Nero’s Rome when Christians were under sever persecution and martyrdom.
The Idealists view is an approach that assumes the circumstances, visions, and descriptions in Revelation are meant to be taken as an idea but not literal and with a kind of transcendental application across all time and for all people. It’s an approach that assumes Revelation is allegorical, figurative, and spiritual, but not literal.
Now we come to two views that are most popular in today’s Christian churches and even in our fellowship at CrossHope Chapel, that is the Futurists and Historicists views.
The Futurists view reads the circumstances, visions, and descriptions in Revelation as having application for the future. However, most who hold to this school of interpretation will tell you that the first three chapters of Revelation are past but everything from Revelation 4 to the end is yet future.
Futurists usually break the book of Revelation into these three sections: 1) Revelation 1 which is the vision of Jesus to John; 2) Revelation 2-3 which is the letters of Jesus to the 7 churches of various periods of church history; 3) Revelation 4 onward which is said to be all future after the rapture of the church.
Futurists tend to think that their approach is the one that best takes Revelation literally, without having to determine or discern if circumstances, visions, and descriptions in Revelation have any type of spiritual or symbolic application. Of course the implication is that prophecy should be taken literally all the time.
I would slightly disagree with that statement, but I would express it differently that prophecy should be taken literally if it can be, unless the context, grammatical use, historical setting, or author’s intent dictates otherwise.
Interpreting everything in prophecy as strictly literal does pose some problems of contradiction with the whole of Scripture, much like interpreting Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:30 when He said “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off” literally, poses some obvious problems to understanding His intent.
Sometimes prophecy is given in symbolism, as we see with the use of beasts and images in Daniel to refer to nations and kingdoms of earth. Much like Jesus’ use of parables to teach principles of the Kingdom of Heaven, we have prophecy in symbolic references.
There are some unanswered questions that are raised, ignored symbolism, and conflicts with other the whole Scripture when it is pre-determined that 18 chapters of Revelation are yet future.
This brings me to explain the Historists view.
The Historicists view reads the circumstances, visions, and descriptions in Revelation as having application in the flow of church history. In other words, the Historists view of approaching Revelation takes it as it is written, as it unfolds, and as intended by the authorial intent.
Historicists tend to think that their approach is the one that best allows the text to speak, and in the case of Revelation, best allows John and Jesus to lead with the intent meant for us in its circumstances, visions, and descriptions. They see the book of Revelation as a natural progression of church history, with stops and pauses to recap or adjust the telescope for greater detail.
Where the Futurists sees events taking place in their absence during the tribulation period, the Historicists sees events in the flow of church history. I have found that outside the theologians who teach these things, most parishioners and Bible studying Christians are not strictly dogmatic or insistent on one extreme or the other.
My ministerial education back in the 1980’s was in the eschatological school of Historicists interpretation, but I have devoted a great deal of personal study in Futurists theology since 2014. I have dug deep into the written works of the late John Walvoord, Wayne Grudem, and continue to follow others who carry-on their teachings like Mark Hitchcoock, Don Stewart, and Ron Rhodes.
If you push me to take a stand on whether Futurists or Historicists is correct I may sound a little like a waffling politician running for office because I see these approaches as merely interpretive tools. Since I have about invested as much time in both camps I find it easy to converse with the language of both Futurists and Historicists because I believe the principles behind them are what we need — like hope in our deliverance, assurance that God has not forsaken us, and He is working His plan to safely and securely bring an end to sin.
Having said that, I would not be completely honest with you if I didn’t admit that in studying Revelation contextually, getting into the details of chapter and verse, I find the the Historicists approach makes more sense to me. It is comforting to me to see that God has not forgotten His church and He will avenge His saints throughout all the ages.
If I step back from the context and begin with a dispensational understanding that a section is considered part of a tribulation period, for example, than I can completely see how Futurists arrive at their interpretation.
Personally, I prefer to distance myself from labels, but I also prefer to allow the text to speak and not pre-determine it to be future and literal, but with the Holy Spirit, the context, the grammatical structure, the historical setting, and the authorial intent, I want the text to communicate truth.
At CrossHope Chapel, we do not have a test of fellowship that requires one to have a Futurists or Historicists view, a pre-tribulation or post-tribulation view, or pre-millennial or post-millennial view. We value differing understandings on these non-salvific doctrines and being about our mission of helping people grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am not of the opinion that every believer in Jesus has to be a prophecy nut who grasps with certainty verse by verse detail of the book of Revelation. We can all have the blessed hope of knowing that our Lord is returning for us, without being able to create a prophecy chart from scratch.
The question I posed as the title of this article is more rhetorical than not, unless you are one that thinks you have to take an extreme position one way or another. Revelation is both an orderly flow of church history and for the future, as I see it.
During the next several months or maybe even a year, I will be diving into my own verse by verse study of the book of Revelation and recording notes and writing blog posts regarding my study here at this website at the Thru Revelation page.
I have recently created a new Thru Revelation blog category so my articles dealing specifically with this study of the book of Revelation can be easily searched and read.
My personal objective is to be able to address some of the differences and common ground between the Futurists and Historicists interpretations of the book of Revelation, so I’ll have a reference tool for my pastoral ministry.
If you have any questions regarding these positions of Revelation and related prophecy, please contact me and I will be more than happy to answer or research it.