Interpretive Models for the Book of Revelation as a WholeRelated Media
The book of Revelation is one of the most encouraging books of the New Testament. In it, John1 talks about the ultimate defeat of evil and the glorious return and reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. It talks about a time when God will dwell with men and He will wipe every tear from their eyes and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain for the old order (i.e. under sin) of things has passed away (21:3, 4). In the following paper, while not forgetting about the overall broad message of hope contained in the book, we will focus on just one interpretive problem, namely, the overall interpretive framework for the book.
There have traditionally been four or five schools of thought on the interpretive framework of the book of Revelation as a whole. There are many hybrids of these approaches; indeed George Eldon Ladd's moderate futuristic approach is really a hybrid of the mostly futuristic approach. In this discussion we will focus on the following five views: historicist, idealist, preterist, mostly future and moderately futuristic.
The first one in our consideration is the historicist method of interpretation, apparently made much of by the reformers. In this understanding of the book, the events described therein refer to actual events from the beginning of the church until the time of the interpreter. Thus the reformers could say that the Roman papacy was the antichrist, entrenched in its false doctrine and deception. According to Mounce, in this view, "the Apocalypse was held to sketch the history of western Europe through the various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French revolution, and individual leaders such as Charlemagne and Mussolini."2 Apparently the method had a somewhat spurious beginning with a monastic named Joachim of Floris (d. 1602),3 and overall is open to several criticisms. Perhaps the most damaging critique is the fact that such an interpretive framework for the book leads to endless speculation and subjectivity in its interpretation. It is simply very difficult to arrive at a consensus in the identification of referents in history for the symbols in the text.4
The second method of interpretation is known as the idealist method. In this understanding, the contents of the book are not seen to relate to any historical events at all, but only to symbolize the ongoing struggle between good and evil during the church age until Christ returns. Johnson says that, as a system of interpretation it is more recent than the three other [preterist, historicist and futuristic] schools and somewhat more difficult to distinguish from earlier allegorizing approaches of the Alexandrians (Clement and Origen). In general the idealist view is marked by a refusal to identify any of the images with specific future events, whether in the history of the church or with regard to the end of all things.5
The primary benefit of this view is that it renders the apocalypse quite understandable at a basic level. It is simply a book that was written to encourage suffering saints in the knowledge that God will someday conquer all evil and make things right. One of the most significant criticisms brought against this view is the fact that Revelation is of the apocalyptic genre and as Ladd says, apocalyptic documents generally describe actual events in history.6 This also appears to contradict the clear language of the text wherein the writer says that Jesus will show him what must take place next (4:1). If there is no real chronology according to real historical events, then this statement seems to be superfluous and the section on the churches (2-3) seems be a-historical as well.
A third method of interpretation is the preterist method. In this approach to the book the symbols and content therein relate only to events and happenings at the time of the author. The beasts of chapter 13, for example, are related to "Imperial Rome and the Imperial priesthood."7 There is no future eschatology in the book whatsoever. This method is based primarily on relating the book to Jewish apocalyptic tracts written at that time to encourage faithfulness during times of persecution. Therefore, the message of the book would seem to be that while the church is threatened by the state and the demand of emperor worship, "those who endure will share in the final victory of God over the demonic powers which control and direct the totalitarian state."8 According to Johnson the system first appeared in connection with a Spanish Jesuit named Alcasar (ca. 1614) who initially developed some of its particulars. It is held by a great number of scholars today, including those from a more liberal perspective.9 The benefit of this view is that it interprets the book in its primary historical setting first. This is to be commended and maintained. But, one of the most significant problems with the view however, is that none of what was supposed to happen, happened. Rome was not overthrown by God and the saints certainly did not share in any such victory. In conjunction with this problem is the fact that much of what is in Revelation appears to be prophetic and speaking of a time quite distant from John's time (i.e. the return of Christ and the consummation of all things), but the preterist interpretation cannot account for this. For that reason many interpreters who see the events described by John as extending past the first six centuries of the church are not in agreement with this view.10
I refer to the fourth method of dealing with Revelation as the mostly futuristic method.11 In chapter 3:10 the Lord says to the church at Philadelphia that they "will kept from" (thrhvsw ejk) the hour of trial to come upon the earth. This is a literary, programmatic statement wherein the hour of trial refers to the judgments described by John in 6-18. According to John, the church at Philadelphia will not even enter that tribulation. Walvoord argues that it is unlikely that just the church at Philadelphia is ultimately in mind here—surely it must be the church as a world-wide body.12 Therefore, the seals, trumpets and bowl judgments (6-16ff), which in this system are referred to as a time of Jacob's trouble (Jer. 30:7), are all future and occur after the rapture (1 Thes. 4:16) of the church. They relate directly to Daniel's 70th week (see Dan. 9:24-27; a seven year period) and therefore concern Israel and not the church. In Walvoord's system, the seal, trumpets and bowl judgments are chronologically sequential, that is, after the seal judgments, come the trumpet judgments and finally the bowl judgments. These all occur in the last 3.5 years of the seven year period of Daniel's 70th week.13 The end result of this Great Tribulation is the destruction of ecclesiastical (17) and political (18) Babylon. Then Christ will return with the church and set up his kingdom (19, 20).
Ladd is correct when he asserts that this interpretation relies heavily upon the distinction between Israel and the church and the distinctive plan God has for both.14 Ladd, as well as a host of other commentators, are extremely critical of this distinction between ethnic Israel and the church, but there appears to be significant precedent for it in a post cross setting (cf.1 Cor. 10:32 and Romans 9-11).15 Finally, in this method, proper attention is given to the grammatico-historical context of the letter and the churches in chapters 2 and 3 are generally taken as real, literal churches. Therefore, since the first three chapters (one might also add 4 and 5) deal with "things" during John's lifetime and chapters 6-22 deal with "things" to come in the future, I have called this view the mostly futuristic view.
The fifth view and the one espoused by Ladd is referred to as a moderate futurist view. According to Ladd, an answer to the problem of the relationship of the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments to one another, could provide the solution to the view of history affirmed in the book. With that in mind, he proposes that the seal judgments represent "the forces in history, however long it lasts, by which God works out his redemptive and judicial purposes leading up to the end." Therefore, Ladd understands the seal judgments to be going on throughout the church age and the trumpet and bowl judgments (really from chapter 7 onward) to be concerned with the time of the consummation. The primary reason he argues in this fashion is because the contents of the book cannot be opened until the last seal and 6:16, 17 explicitly says that the "great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand" (NIV)? This text, according to Ladd, suggests that it had not yet arrived until the sixth seal was broken. Further, Ladd understands the seal judgments to parallel the woes outlined in Matthew 24 and that the white horse in Revelation should be understood to be the victories won by the gospel in an age characterized by evil and death.
There are several problems with this view of Revelation 6. First, it is unlikely for several reasons that the rider and white horse are to be associated with Christ and the gospel.16 It is true, as Ladd points out, that white is generally associated with spiritual victory in Revelation,17 but the identification of the rider and 6:2 rests partially on parallels with the rider in 19:11. They are similar in that they are both on white horses, but the parallel is difficult to maintain beyond this. The rider in 6:2 has a bow and a crown and is bent on conquest, the rider in 19:11 is judging to effect justice. Therefore, the purpose and contexts for their actions are different. Also, the language of "was given" (ejdovqh) is used of divine permission given to evil powers to carry out their destruction (9:1, 3, 5; 13:5, 7 and 14:14, 15). Therefore its use in 6:2 would tend to argue for the rider and his mission relating to some form of evil, perhaps military invasion, with the crown symbolizing eventual rulership over conquered peoples.18 Yet another thorn in the side of Ladd's theory is the fact that 6:2 is part of a series of judgments and calamities and it is difficult to believe that it could refer to the gospel going forth. Chapter 6 and the seals represents profound judgment, not salvation.19 Finally this interpretation of the rider in 6:2 seems to promote confusion between Christ opening the seals and also being the one sent forth as the first rider.
For reasons outlined above, the historicist and idealist views seem untenable. The preterist method of interpreting the book cannot adequately deal with the text as a prophetic piece whose many prophecies simply cannot be matched with any known fulfillment in the author's lifetime. The association of the book with Jewish apocalyptic materials is not completely adequate and therefore remains an unreasonable ground for rejecting the futuristic aspects of the book. The moderately futuristic view has much to commend it, in that it sees both the historical setting and the future as playing a role in John's work. The identification of the seal judgments with the church age, however, is dubious for the reasons mentioned, and therefore the method as a whole remains spurious. Perhaps the best model is that which takes into account the historical setting of the book and yet sees the seals, trumpets and bowls as relating to a future time near the consummation. Such a model makes the best sense of 3:10 and realizes that the calamities to come on the earth are greater than anything seen to date. The mostly futuristic method is such a model.
1 Though the question of the authorship of Revelation is as problematic as other writings ascribed to the apostle John, on the basis of external patristic evidence, as well as evidence from Chenoboskion (Apocryphon of John), it is most likely that the apostle wrote it. The internal evidence may be problematic for this view, but perhaps not insurmountable. Cf. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 932-948; Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 25-31.
4 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. ed. Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 672. See also John F. Walvoord, Revelation, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL.: Victor Books, 1983), 926.
10 Johnson, Revelation, 409. According to Ladd, Theology, 671, the preterist interpretation rests partly on the assumption that the genre of Revelation is very similar to other Jewish apocalyptic literature such as the Apocalypse of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, 4 Ezra and Baruch and is therefore interpreted similarly.
11 Ladd, Theology, 673 refers to this view as the extreme futuristic view which this author feels, by the use of the term extreme, is unduly pejorative and casts doubt on the view as being a view on the fringe of possibilities. I have chosen mostly futuristic because as a Dispensationalist, this author views the book as referring to the concrete historical setting in which it was (1-3), but with the bulk of the content referring to a yet future time (4-22).
14 Ladd, Theology, 673. See also J. Lanier Burns, "The Future of Ethnic Israel in Romans 11," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 188-229.
15 There appears to be no a priori reason for wanting to thrust Dispensationalism as a system into the circle of scholarly acceptability, but it would seem to the present writer, that if Dispensationalism as a system has a future among educated exegetes, it must continue to strive to develop a greater scholarly exegetical foundation.
16 See Daniel K. K. Wong, "The First Horseman of Revelation 6," Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (April-June 1996): 212-26, for a survey of some popular views and their criticisms. He suggests the rider is the antichrist.
18 Mounce, Revelation, 153, 54. One also must consider that if the 4 horsemen of Revelation 6 have their literary antecedents in Zechariah 1:8-17 and 6:1-8, then they all probably refer to instruments of God's wrath, since such unmistakably the case in Zechariah. See Kenneth L. Barker, Zechariah, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 636.