In celebration of the Mayan calendar ending, I dedicate this installment of “What’s Next” to eschatology. Specifically, we’ll look at a “new” interpretation of Revelation that is trending up. Let me frame the argument by mentioning the four main schools of interpreting Revelation.
This view teaches that the events described in Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70 with the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem (or with the fall of the Roman Empire). Most preterists believe chapters 20-22 point to future events.
This view teaches that the prophetic symbols are the chronological order of successive historical events (of Western Europe), such as fall of the Roman Empire, the corrupt papacy, the Protestant Reformation, and the French Revolution. People from this view tend to believe the events of their day (no matter which century they lived) are in the latter chapters of Revelation.
This view (the popular premillennial dispensational version), like historicism, teaches that Revelation gives a chronological order of particular historical events. But unlike historicism, all these events are still to take place in the future. These events include the rapture of the church, seven years of intense suffering (tribulation), and a thousand-year rule of Christ upon the earth before the general resurrection and the inauguration of the new Heaven and earth.
This view teaches that Revelation describes in symbolic language the battle throughout the ages between God and Satan and good against evil. It looks for timeless truths and believes that much of the book repeats itself (recapitulation) instead of revealing a chronological timeline. The symbols in Revelation are not tied to specific events but point to themes throughout church history.
You will find God-loving, Bible-believing, thoughtful theologians in all four camps (you’ll also find jerks). Preterism has always had its credible adherents (i.e., R.C. Sproul and Hank Hanegraaff). Historicism was dominant among the Reformers and Revivalists (i.e., Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards). Futurism is the most prevalent view among Evangelicals today; futurism is taught at Dallas (Texas) Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and it has become culturally popular in large part to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and their series of Left Behind novels.
Ironically, I believe it’s because of the success of those novels that futurism is now coming under necessary scrutiny. More and more Bible scholars are clearly stating they don’t agree with this view; instead they are teaching that the best interpretation is the school of idealism.
I spoke with Shane J. Wood, author and editor of Dragons, John, and Every Grain of Sand: Essays on the Book of Revelation. Wood travels to churches around the country teaching people how to understand Revelation. I asked him to share from his experiences teaching the idealism viewpoint.
Shane, what kind of feedback are you hearing from your audience when you present to them a view of Revelation that is not like what they have been reading and hearing from a futurism perspective?
Whenever I travel and do seminars on Revelation, and present to them a new option (not new in the historical sense, but new to them), I find that many people are relieved. I commonly receive feedback like, “I have studied Revelation for years (the Tim LaHaye version), and I have always felt like there was something just not right about this approach, but I didn’t know of anything else—until now!”
I think I would even describe what I find as a restlessness in the church regarding the interpretations of Harold Camping, Hal Lindsey, and the rest of them, because people are tired of failed predictions making Christians look like fools. People are tired of trying to justify yet another failed attempt to pinpoint the exact time of Jesus’ return. And so, when another option is presented—an option that actually allows Revelation to challenge, comfort, rebuke, and exhort people to action in the present instead of [focusing on] prognostications about the future—I encounter a deep sense of relief and of excitement.
Many people think that because the idealism approach is new to them, it must be a new way to interpret Revelation. So how new is it?
It’s not new at all. This position has been around since as early as we have comments on Revelation. It has been the orthodox position in the Catholic church since before Augustine. It is also the dominant view in academics. It just hasn’t made it way into the popular culture yet. Dispensationalism simply has better marketing.
Most futurist/dispensationalists say the idealism view does not interpret the Bible literally; therefore it is a liberal interpretation.
Dispensationalism ignores the rules of common language. They take a hyperliteral, unnatural approach to interpreting the symbols of Revelation. Idealism, on the other hand, is consistent with the conservative way of reading and interpreting the symbols. By my own count, in the 404 verses of Revelation, there are 516 allusions to the Old Testament. Idealism treats Revelation like other books of the Bible from which it draws most of its symbols. The idealism approach rescues Revelation from being treated like a crystal ball.
So do you believe the futurism school is waning and the idealism school is gaining?
I believe there are a growing number of people in the churches that are rapidly becoming disenchanted with using Revelation for the prediction games that have dominated the past 50 to 60 years. So something is definitely shifting in the trade winds of the interpretation of the book of Revelation, which will hopefully allow us to recapture the way the book was used in the earliest centuries of the church instead of how it has been hijacked in the past 180 years by “prophecy experts.”
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as the community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.