- Early Figurative Interpretations
- PreMillennialism in the 19th Century
- 7 Dispensations
- The 7 Churches in Revelation
- The 20th Century
- Problems with A Premillennialist Approach
- Historical Interpretation of Apocalyptic Texts
- Purpose of Revelation
- Rome at the Time of Revelation
- John the Prophet
The question of whether to interpret Revelation as literal or spiritual has existed at least since the time of Origen (182-251). Some Church Fathers believed it did refer to an earthly kingdom ruled by Christ following his second coming and lasting 1000 (see Justin Martyr, Dial. Trypho 81-80, Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39, Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30-33, and Tertullian, Ag. Marcion 3.25). It is believed that these writers emphasized this teaching to counter Gnostic ideas circulating at the time that focused on a purely spiritual notion of salvation.
Early Figurative Interpretations
Origen completely rejected a literal interpretation of the prophecies of the End, arguing for a figurative interpretation. (De Principiis 2.11.2-5) Later, Augustine (354-430) also interpreted Rev 20:1-6 figuratively as a reference to the ministry of Jesus, and was understood as the Age of the Church which would be followed by the Second Coming of Christ, although at one point he did predict the end date to be 1000. The beasts of Revelation 13 were interpreted as this wicked world and hypocrisy, respectively. This gradually became accepted as the dominant view until the 12th century when the idea of an earthly reign resurfaced with Joachim of Fiore’s prediction of 1266 and again became popular from time to time up until the present, including predictions such as Luther at 1558, William Miller and the Adventists at 1844, and Pastor Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses at 1914.
PreMillennialism in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, a ‘dispensational premillennialist’ movement was born with the teachings John N. Darby, founder of the Brethren Movement. It was called ‘premillennialist’ because they believed the Second Coming would take place before the 1000 year reign. These teachings reconstructed time so that the past, present and future were linked into God’s all encompassing Plan. Here, God promises that Christians will have a special form of salvation called the ‘rapture,’ derived from rapiemur (‘we shall be caught up’) in the Latin translations of 1 Thess 4:13-18 and 1 Cor 15:51-58. Charles C. Ryrie describes the doctrine as:
“At the close of this age, premillennialists believe that Christ will return for his Church, meeting her in the air (this is not the Second Coming of Christ), which event, called the rapture or translation, will usher in a seven-year period of tribulation on the earth. After this, the Lord will return to earth (this is the Second Coming of Christ) to establish his kingdom on the earth for a thousand years, during which time the promises to Israel will be fulfilled.” (Ryrie 1953:12)
7 Periods of Time (Dispensations)
The 7 periods of time (dispensations) are:
- Innocence (Gen 1:28-3:13) – Adam & Eve’s obedience in the Garden of Eden
- Conscience (Gen 3:22-7:23)– Because man received understanding of good and evil, God now required man to employ it. When they did not meet his expectations, he caused the Flood.
- Human Government (Gen 8:20-11:9) – God allowed man to govern himself. The Jews failure led to their captivity. The Gentiles failure led to the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in Dan 2
- Promise (Gen 12:1-Exod. 19:8) – Blessing of Abraham and his progeny so long as they remained in the promise land. It ended in Egypt.
- Law (Exod. 19:8-Matt. 27:35) – Mosaic Law up to the Cross.
- Grace (Rom. 3:24-II Tim. 3:1) – Christ’s resurrection to the rapture of the Church and the Great Tribulation
- Fullness of Times (Eph 1:10) – Second Coming through the 1000 year reign. During this time, all past epochs and promises are fulfilled.
The 7 Churches in Revelation
This tradition also views the 7 churches in Revelation as prophecizing the 7 stages in Church history. One interpretation describes these 7 churches as the Patient Church (1st Century), the Persecuted Church (100-316), the Polluted Church (316-500), the Paganized Church (500-1500), the Peculiar Church (1500-1750), the Pure Church (1750-1910) and the Passive Church (1910-?). The present church age is equated with the lukewarm church of Laodicea, as one Brethren writer described:
Whatever interpretation we may take of the book of Revelation, it is undeniable that the church of Laodicea presents a vivid picture of the age in which we now live. Luxury-living abounds on every hand while souls are dying for want of the Gospel of Christ… There is no sense of spiritual need, no longing for true revival… This is our condition on the eve of Christ’s return.
The 20th Century
By the 20th c., the movement was mixed with an imminent expectation that the end would happen in our time. These practitioners believe that through numerical calculations and a closer look at biblical prophecy of books like Daniel and Revelation, they could estimate the date of the Second Coming – that the sequence of events predicting the Second Coming is revealed in code form in Revelation and if one can correlate the events of Revelation with historical events, they can determine how close we are to the Second Coming. This idea was made popular by Hal Lindsey in the 1970s in his bestselling book, The Late Great Planet Earth.
In premillennialist thought, the bible is interpreted as a whole, whereas most biblical scholars break up each piece into when it was written, who the author was, and generally try to put the text in the social and historical context. In Lindsey’s case, he interprets Daniel and Revelation together, with the fourth beast of Daniel corresponding to Rome. In phase 2 of its power, it will appear as a 10 nation confederacy (the Common Market or a United States of Europe). The beast of Revelation 13 is identified with the Antichrist, whom Lindsey calls the ‘Future Fuehrer.’ He will be correlated with a Roman dictator who rules the 10 nation confederacy and will become known when he recovers from a fatal wound in a sudden and miraculous manner. Lindsey apparently first predicted that the Second Coming would occur in 1988, but has since revised his views.
Problems with A Premillennialist Approach
The main problem in the premillennialist approach to Revelation is that scripture is compared to other scripture, so that one passage in Scripture may be used to interpret another, even if they were written at different time periods by different authors. This isn’t problematic to premillennialists because they see God as the author of every biblical book, but it is to historians because it ignores the human contribution to the composition. Instead, historians look at the historical and social context in which the text was written. Premillennialists immediately assume that if the symbol is found in one passage, it must mean the same as in a different passage in a different book. Because they find such striking similarities, they take both books and interpret them as if they were a single text.
A second problem involves interpreting the images of Revelation as if they were unique to the bible and were created to convey historical information through simple codes. Biblical scholars such as Hermann Gunkel have shown that this isn’t the case and that biblical writers borrowed heavily from their environment including ancient Near East myths.
Historical Interpretation of Apocalyptic Texts
Historical interpreters try to compare apocalyptic texts not on the scripture interprets scripture view, by comparing texts with other texts of the same type (in form, content, or function). This has been a major focus of biblical study from the late 1970s onwards. To compare texts of similar types, a general definition of ‘apocalyptic’ had to be created to fit a wide range of extra-biblical texts along with biblical texts such as Daniel and Revelation. The following definitions were produces.
“Apocalypticism” is used to mean a historical movement or to refer “to the symbolic universe in which an apocalyptic movement codifies its identity and interpretation of reality.” A movement then would be called “apocalyptic” if it “shared the conceptual framework of the genre, endorsing a worldview in which supernatural revelation, the heavenly world, and eschatological judgment played essential parts.”
Framework of an Apocalypse
The general framework of an apocalypse describes some kind of revelation being revealed by a vision or otherworldly journey. The seer usually engages in dialogue with an otherworldly being or is allowed to read a heavenly book, which reveals heavenly secrets and hidden events of the future. There is almost always an angel that acts as an interpreter of the vision or serves as a guide during the journey, implying that the revelation requires some kind of otherworldly aid to be interpreted correctly, and the seer almost always pseudonymously takes the name of a figure from the past. Some have a review of history and all have some form of eschatology, which can involve political and cosmic transformation or only a personal afterlife.
When evaluating a text, it is essential to look at the function of the text in context. This can be:
- “The functional relations between the elements of content… how the text works (literary function”
- “what the author wants to accomplish with the text, its message”
- “the social function, the relation between the text and its social setting.”
Purpose of Revelation
The function of Revelation is the promise of eternal reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. It is probable that the text was read aloud so that the listeners could participate in the revelation in order to understand them, and during such, the text was a call to change their current way of thinking through a shock-like experience.
There is an overall tension in the text to emphasize on one hand, the belief that the listeners were the chosen people and on the other hand, their suffering and persecution at the hands of their enemies. The visions of God triumphing over their enemies “suppress the distinctions between the flawed present and ideal future” and presents something for them to look forward to during their troubled times.
Rome at the Time of Revelation
The current thinking on the social situation of Revelation is one where Rome did not directly persecute Christians on a massive scale. They were a despised minority and from time to time, Christians were brought to trial. During the second century, Christianity did become a crime. However, Revelation was written towards the end of the first century in western Asia Minor after the fall of the Second Temple, and therefore deals with a perceived crisis. The main questions asked in Revelation are “Who rules this world?” and “What is the meaning of the tragic events we’ve experienced?” or basically, it is a response to “If there is a God almighty who controls everything, why doesn’t he do something about the present situation?” To which the author responds that “He will. But history is a unified story that isn’t over yet.”
This led to a symbolic system by which the author wrote Revelation. At that time, the Roman emperor was considered to be divine, so Christians were atheists because they refused to worship Caesar. Rome also bestowed great blessings upon those who were loyal to it. Revelation flips this so that Christians shall reign with Christ while the blasphemous Roman Empire reigns with the power of Satan. Here, the emperor is the Beast, the symbol of the forces of chaos which threatens the order of the world. He (Domitian and the other Caesars) has usurped the title of “Lord” (kurios) from God “Almighty.”
John the Prophet
John’s position is as a prophet is to interpret history. Like other prophets, the prophet did not have a personal experience of revelation which imparted to him knowledge from the otherworld. There was an immediate crisis in hand in which both the prophet and the people lived. The prophet’s job then was to interpret that situation as an act of God. For example, while the people of 8th century Israel might see their prosperity under Jereboam II as God’s blessing, Amos sees it as an illusory prosperity occasioned by the military advance of Assyria which would soon engulf Israel as the wrath of God. He is then labeled a prophet, then, not because he is better at judging the current geopolitical scene than his fellow people, but because he claims that the information is given to him from God. Likewise, Jeremiah is the prophetic interpreter of the advancement of Nebuchadnezzar, Joel of the locust plague, Haggai with the drought, and Daniel with the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. Moses is also considered one because he attributes the parting of the Red Sea not as an opportunistic wind, but as the saving act of God.
In John’s case, the church is in a historical crisis, one where there was a threat of persecution. This has resulted in John’s banishment to Patmos and claimed the life of at least one person, Antipas. The situation was then that the ones who were faithful to the God Almighty were the ones being persecuted, while those who denounced God were living prosperously.
Unlike the Old Testament prophets, however, John interprets the events in relation to the Christ having already appeared in history, and who will become the anointed king of the End Time raised up by God to renew the world. Christ would be given the power and wisdom from God to establish the Kingdom of God.
- Collins, John. The Apocalyptic Imagination
- Boring, M.E. “The Theology of Revelation: The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns.” Interpretation 40.01, July 1986. pp.257-269.
- Collins, A. Y. “Reading the Book of Revelation in the Twentieth Century.” Interpretation 40.01, July 1986. pp.229-242.
- DeBernardi, Jean. “If the Lord Be Not Come… End-Time Teachings and Evangelical Practice in the Brethren Movement In Singapore.” Journal of Ritual Studies 15 (1) 2001.
- Origen. De Principiis 2.11.2-5