Watch our Livestream 10am Sundays Give Online

Four Views on Interpreting Revelation

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Book of Revelation, Books, New Testament, Sermons

A couple days ago we introduced the book of Revelation in preparation for our summer sermon series. We mentioned a few ideas about the book that help us read it well, namely, that it is apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a letter. Now we want to look at four of the basic approaches that people have used to interpret the book. These four approaches describe when the main events of Revelation take place. Everyone agrees that from the "great white throne" judgment of 21:11 to the end of the book we are in times that are clearly future. And most would say that the opening several chapters refer to the time that John is writing (introduction, letters to the seven chapters). But once you get to 4:1 and the throne of God, paths diverge according to your understanding of the prophecies.

It's important to say at the outset that we only care about approaches where the authors believe Revelation to be the inerrant, inspired word of God. Along with this is the conviction that all prophecies will be fulfilled in every detail. So, the differences below are not that one approach believes in a "more literal" reading of the text and another is more liberal. The difference has much more to do with how symbolic Revelation is and how chronological the text is. As an example, some would say that the number 1,000 is symbolic for "an enormous amount," but others would say that it is to be taken more exactly. Some would say that "three and a half" has a more symbolic value because it is used so often in so many different situations ("three and a half days" in 11:9, 11; "1,260 days" in 11:3 and 12:6; "forty-two months" in 11:2 and 13:5; "time, and times, and half a time" in 12:14), but others would say that this is to be taken more precisely.

When we speak of the chronology of Revelation, all have observed the cycle of sevens that we find: seven seals in 6:1-8:2; seven trumpets in 8:3-11:19; seven bowls of wrath in 15:1-16:21). The differences lie in how these repeated sevens line up. Are they to be taken as consecutive events (i.e., totaling 21 or some number close to this), or the same events from different angles (thus, there are only 7 total, explained three different ways), or some hybrid of these approaches?

There is obviously great diversity of opinion on the millennium of 20:1-6, but this does play a major role in how the overall book is to be interpreted.

With those issues in mind, let's look at the four different approaches. I'll use Dennis Johnson's definitions from his commentary on Revelation, The Triumph of the Lamb.


"Historicism can plausibly claim to read Revelation quite straightforwardly as a series of sequential visions that symbolize, in order, the sequence of events that span the history of the church, from John's day to the second coming, millennium, last judgment, and the eternal state."[1]

This view holds that you can more-or-less read Revelation chronologically. It progresses from John's day to the last day as its chapters unfold. Some of the Reformers were proponents of this view, which is one of the reasons why they so often identified the Antichrist with the pope(!). Historicists of every generation simply re-interpret the dramatic signs described by John according to their own place in church history. Yet, there are too many signs given to us that John is not writing such "history in advance," but is giving us different scenes of the present and future, only some of which are in chronological order.


"Futurism, as the name indicates, views Revelation's visions as concentrated on events still largely future not only to John's first-century readers but also to us twenty-first-century readers—events that will immediately precede the second coming of Christ."[2]

In other words, most of the book refers to the return of Christ and the years immediately preceding that. According to Sam Storms, this is the view that dominates much of the conservative Christian landscape. It has adherents among Charismatics who are post-millennial (we'll get to the millennium in another post), Southern Baptists who are Dispensational, and scholars like Wayne Grudem (cf. his Systematic Theology), D.A. Carson, G.E. Ladd, and Daniel Wallace. This is also the view of fictional works like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye.


"Preterists may be either amillennial (Jay E. Adams) or postmillennial (David Chilton, Kenneth Gentry) in their interpretation of Revelation 20….The defining feature of preterism is not its understanding of the conditions on earth during the time period symbolized by the 'thousand years' of Revelation 20. Rather, preterists of all millennial viewpoints share a common agreement that a large proportion of Revelation's visions were fulfilled in the early Christian centuries."[3]

Preterists can hold to an earlier date and so believe that the book largely concerns the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70, or they can hold to a later date and see John's contemporary situation in the 90's A.D. as the fulfillment of the prophecies. Ligonier Ministries seems to have adopted this position, and Kenneth Gentry has written and spoken extensively on it.

Recapitulation (Idealism, Iterism)

"Idealism is sometimes called iterism or recapitulationism because it interprets Revelation as a series of repeated symbolic pictures of the church's struggle from John's day until the second coming, the last judgment, and the eternal state. Thus Revelation offers multiple images that provide different perspectives on the same great warfare, sometimes in terms of its behind-the-scenes heavenly sources and at other times in terms of their visible, earthly outworking in the experience of churches, countries, and cultures."[4]

The fourth view of the book is a bit of a hybrid of the other approaches in that it sees the book telling the story of the church from the time of John to the return of Christ (and then the new heavens and new earth, of course). So, for us, some of the book has already taken place and some has yet to occur.

Another distinctive of this approach is the emphasis it places on the seven divisions of the book (basically chapters 1-3, 4-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-22). While this outline is not unique, commentators who hold this view see each of these seven sections as essentially telling the same story only with a slightly different emphasis (or very different at certain points). It's been compared to watching the same play in football from several different camera angles. But regardless of the emphasis, each section is giving us the history from John's day to the return of Christ (and into the new heavens and new earth). Sometimes the weight is much more toward the present situation (chapters 1-3), but even then there are glances at the end of all things ("Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him," 1:7). Sometimes the weight is toward the latter times (chapters 20-22), but even then there are clear exhortations to Christians living now (22:7ff.).

This is the view that we'll basically be adopting as we preach this series, though different preachers that you'll hear hold more and less strongly to the view (or hold to a different one altogether).

An excellent, smallish commentary from this perspective is William Hendricksen's More than Conquerors, but Dennis Johnson's The Triumph of the Lamb comes from the same perspective in a more modern form. He is also the contributor to Revelation in the ESV Study Bible, so the notes in that Bible are his. Other thinkers who adopt this approach are Anthony Hoekema (The Bible and the Future), B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, G.K. Beale, Vern Poythress, and Sam Storms (Kingdom Come).

Only the Bible is Inspired

The truth is, none of these views can answer every question. The Bible is inerrant and inspired, but commentators (and pastors) are not! Some are better than others, but none of them can give us total understanding on every number and figure of this apocalyptic work. Our aim in this series is not to get bogged down in one view or the other, even if we have to interact with the tricky parts along the way. Our goal is to preach what is clear and emphatic in this book and spend the bulk of our effort there: The glory of God, the supremacy of God, the gospel of Christ, and the judgment of God. In other words, we're not after code-breaking and alarmism but lives of worship and obedience.

Daniel B.

[1] Dennis Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 353.

[2] Ibid., 355.

[3] Ibid., 358.

[4] Ibid., 360.

Previous Post

Reading Revelation

Cornerstone Fellowship Church logo

We are a church built on the Bible, guided and empowered by the Spirit, striving to make disciples, and pursuing holiness in the context of robust biblical relationships.

Email Updates & Newsletter

Times & Location

10am on Sundays

401 Upchurch St, Apex, NC 27502

© 2024 Cornerstone Fellowship Church of Apex