Four Views of Revelation: A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Christian RealTalk, Scripture by Antwuan Malone

So here’s the deal. I’m not a big Revelation fan. In fact, I really prefer not deal too much with the book because it often leads to conversations that don’t go anywhere. But I’m taking a class at B.H.Carroll Theological Institute, and one of my recent assignments was to review the Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) by C. Marvin Pate. It’s basically a book that outlines four views of interpreting Revelation. It turns out, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. So, for you seminary students out there, I thought I’d offer my review of the four views presented.

Each presenter argues his approach to understanding the book of Revelation with veracity and conviction. Here we go. I’ll apologize now for the tone of the piece. I can’t write very conversational on these sort of papers in the academic arena.

Preterist View

Kenneth L. Gentry opens the discussion with a preterist argument. The lynchpin to understanding the preterist approach to interpreting Revelation is in the word “soon,” found in the opening verse of the book (Rev. 1:1). Gentry postulates that “soon” implies an immediacy of the coming events foretold later in the writing. That is, “soon” means the coming events must occur in the lifetime of John and/or the audience to which the letter is originally written. When coupled with Matthew 24:34, where Jesus says “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place.” (New Living Translation), the case is strengthened. Matthew 24 is the recording of the words of Jesus from the Mount of Olives about the signs of his return. The passage, known as the Olivet Discourse, is an appropriate companion to the book of Revelation.

For Gentry, time is the control for his interpretation of Revelation. He concludes that the events chronicled in Revelation are, to us, past events, while to the author and his original audience foretelling of near future events. Revelation, then, describes the judgment of God on Jerusalem around A.D. 70.as administered through the Roman Empire. This coming from Christ is indirect, and is characterized by the coming judgment of God rather than the coming of Jesus in person. He draws heavily on the writing of Josephus and his recordings of the Jerusalem Wars for evidence, and connects many historic events, entities and persons to various Revelation writings. Gentry approaches the text as poetic, symbolic prophecy (for its original audience), and offers an impressive array of historical evidence to support his view.

Idealist View

Sam Hamstra, Jr. argues for the idealist. In his argument, Sam, as an idealist, is reluctant to accept any event in past, present, or future as the sole fulfillment of the Revelation symbolism. Neither is Sam surprised to find historical evidence supporting the preterist view. In fact, he expects that it would. The idealist simply believes that such historical evidence can and will be found, but that it is one of many realizations of the symbolic struggle of good and evil depicted in Revelation.

To put it more simply, the idealist believes we are in a continual state of apocalypse. Revelation serves as a description of the struggles of the Christian on a cyclical basis. Each symbolism and prophecy will have several fulfillments throughout history and into the future. Revelation reveals the ongoing battle of good and evil, rather than a prophecy of things that are to come.

That is not to say that the idealist does not recognize the book as apocalyptic. It certainly does. Apocalyptic literature is known for its high use of symbolism. So then, the control for interpretation of Revelation is that symbolism should be assumed for the entire text, unless otherwise stated. Literal interpretations are viewed as unreliable and risky.

The inclusive style of the idealist helps it rise above the erroneous interpretations of previous students of Revelation who sought to pinpoint interpretations and failed. The idealist warns us all to be leery of assigning historic events and figures as sole manifestations of the events and figures presented in Revelations.

Progressive Dispensationalist

C. Marvin Pate represents the Progressive Dispensationalist view of the book of Revelation. In essence, the progressive dispensationalist viewpoint seeks to merge together the best of the two previous views. While progressives are willing to concede that Revelation can be interpreted through past events, it also leaves room for a futurist interpretation. The progressive dispensationalist is like the idealist in that it won’t assign a sole interpretation of the writing, yet stops short of holding to a cyclical, full symbolic view.

Pate explains the key to interpretation of Revelation as “already/not yet.” This is to say that the apocalyptic literature of Revelation and its symbolism can look back into the past to find fulfillments, and look to the future to find them as well. Pate is able to overcome the “soon” in the first verse by implying that the essence of its meaning is simply a two-dimensional view of prophecy. It is akin to zooming out while viewing a map on a smart phone. While zoomed out, Dallas and Houston may seem near each other. But once we add a third dimension of depth by zooming in, we find that Houston is quite a distance from Dallas.

Using the map example then, Dallas is both near and far from Houston based on the perspective of the viewer. Since Jesus is the viewer and true speaker in Revelations (John is ultimately recording), “soon” from his perspective may very well be appropriate and true.

To sum up the progressive dispensational viewpoint, we are not restricted to a sole interpretation as the preterist suggests, and yet we must be willing to assign specific points in history as the object of the writing’s prophesy. We can find Revelation’s interpretation, then, in both our past and our future, until the second coming of Christ.

Classic Dispensationalist

 Robert L. Thomas’s representation of the classic dispensationalist point of view does the very opposite of the progressive dispensationalist in that it dismisses the preterist and idealist views altogether. The approach of the classic dispensationalist is futurist and literal. It sees Revelation as a book of prophecy while rejecting it as apocalyptic. The control for interpretation of the dispensationalist is that we should begin by accepting all that we read as literal (unless expressly stated). Thus, the symbolism found in Revelation can only find its interpretation in the last days leading up to the second coming of Christ.

Robert asserts that the grammatical-historical method of hermeneutics suggest we take a literal approach, as opposed to the historical-grammatical-literary-theological approach found in the progressive view. In essence, the latter does not find the literal interpretation as enough to fully interpret the writing. However, adding more than a literal view dirties the water of interpretation by allowing one’s own presuppositions to factor into the final results. The literal (grammatical-historical) approach minimizes the risk of false interpretation by allowing the passage to speak for itself. We are then forced to read the passage for what it is, rather than for what we thought it would be in the first place.

Synopsis:

Heretofore, my discussions on the book of Revelation have centered around the rapture (if and when it will happen), the Millennium, and who the antichrist is. It was refreshing to read a book about how to approach Revelation in its entirety.

As I read the four views, the preterist view fascinated me. It is hard to argue with the historical connections that Gentry drew, and the case he makes from the Matthew 24 passage. However, I found it unconvincing that Revelations could be solely applicable to Jerusalem rather than to the world.

The idealist point of view felt rather vague and weak to me, up until Hamstra offers his conclusion. There, he argues well against a sole interpretation of Revelation. Still, despite his construction, I am not convinced that Revelation does not have exclusive historical interpretations, and the overall view of Revelations as a description of the general plight of good versus evil feels week and unnecessary to me from a theological standpoint.

The classic dispensationalist presents a view that is not consistent with my understanding of the way God fulfills promises and prophecy. In the Old Testament, there are many examples of promises and prophecies that mean one thing to the contemporaries, and another to a future audience. God’s promise to Abraham can serve as a great example. While God’s promise to Abraham was certainly fulfilled in the physical lineage of Isaac, Paul recalled a second interpretation of the promise that included the Gentiles as sons of Abraham through faith. This sort of two-fold interpretation of events, dreams, and prophecies could be applied on several occasions in the Old Testament. Thus, the literal interpretation, while safe, does not inspire my confidence for revealing the full truth of Revelation.

I am, then, closest to the view of a progressive dispensationalist. As a theory, I am most inclined to agree that the historical manifestations of the prophecy, and the “not yet” aspects of the prophecy allow for the scripture to retain its timeless relevance (pre-Second Coming). It is always a work of beauty to find God working in more ways than one, and Revelation seems to me to be one of the greatest examples of such a working.

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.