Revelation: Four Schools of Interpretation

1. Preterist School (factual….yet non-applicable)

This term is derived from the Latin word preter – meaning ” the past.” Advocates of this school believe Revelation pertains only to events in the first century. For them, the prophecies of the book were fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD. However, none of the early church fathers taught this view. There is no evidence the early church thought most of Revelation was already fulfilled in the days of the Roman Empire under Nero and Domitian. It originated in the mind of a Jesuit priest in 1613 as a response to the Protestants who identified the Pope as the Anti-Christ.

Preterists say:
“Because all the conditions in Revelation are contemporaneous with the writing of the book, it was written only to comfort the early century church which was at that time under severe persecution. Chapters 4-19, the so-called ‘Tribulation period’, is symbolic of conditions in John’s day. We are currently living in the eternal state known as ‘the new heavens and the new earth’. Revelation is descriptive rather than predictive. It is symbolic history and is not prophetic. Because it is mostly allegorical it cannot be literal. It is a statement of “principles” – not periods of time or specific events yet to come. Revelation is a description of the historic conditions of the churches of Asia in that era. All of John’s “visions” were symbolic imagery of every Christian’s spiritual battles. Revelation is a portrait of the ultimate triumph of the Church and complete spiritual victory. Most of the scope of Revelation pertains to the persecutions of Believers in ancient Rome. It was written in 65-70 AD to encourage Believers to persevere under the oppression of the Romans and therefore would only be relevant to readers in that era. Revelation is in no way predictive of the future.”

However, most scholars believe Revelation was written c95 AD and therefore could not be a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem. This view does not allow for divine prophecy, for it ignores the interpretive keys in 1:8 & 19. They do agree the seven churches are literal first century churches (Rev. 1-3). In fact, all four Schools of Interpretation believe these churches actually did exist. But Preterists are required to stretch symbols and metaphors to find any “fulfillment” in the fall of Jerusalem. According to the Preterist, Babylon and the beast are the Roman Empire and the woman in Chapter 12 is the persecuted church. They believe John is only expressing the abuses of his day when writing of “future” judgments. Liberal theologians adhere to this view because it requires no belief in true predictive prophecy.

Preterists tend to be anti-supernaturalistic, and often accept this view because they can “understand” it without having to give credence to prophetic teachings. They see no predictions concerning a literal Second Coming of Christ. Those who hold this view inadvertently deem Revelation inaccurate, because Jesus did not return soon after the Roman Empire fell. To add to the confusion, Preterists tend to weave pagan mythology throughout the book. Furthermore, this school has no regard for the chronology of Revelation. This view destroys any future significance of the book, thus reducing it to a “literary curio”.

2. Idealist School   (symbolical….yet applicable)

This is also known as the “Symbolic View”, “Spiritualizing View” or “Poetic View”. It is often called the “Presentist View” because Revelation to them describes current events. This school of interpretation was introduced by Origen (185-254 AD) and made popular by Augustine (354-430 AD). It arose from the presupposition that predictive prophecy is impossible. On this point they agree with the Preterists. Revelation’s “fulfillment” is repeated throughout history but is not tied to specific historical events. For example, the two beasts in Chapter 13 have no prophetic meaning. They hold that Revelation is largely figurative, so they separate its symbolism from any real historical or literal application. When they look into this book, it is only to determine what is happening in the present era. They spiritualize everything in Revelation, thus stripping it of any predictive value. Utilizing the allegorical method of interpretation, they do not accept the extravagances of apocalyptic language.

Idealists conclude:
“Revelation represents trends and ideals. The book is a graphic statement of the great principles of divine government throughout all time. Since the opposition to the church is ongoing, the events in Revelation are always ‘current.’ The book is an emblematic picture of the perpetual conflict between good and evil. Symbols have no bearing on historical or literal events. Revelation is only a series of figurative descriptions of situations and individuals such as the Church (or individual Christians) may have to deal with at any time. It is therefore relevant for all periods of church history. Revelation was written to inspire all Believers to endure to the end. The sole purpose of the final book in the Bible is to reveal the omnipotence of God. Although its final chapters are allegorical victories, it demonstrates the saints will one day be vindicated. Revelation is not about future events, but is an expression of spiritual warfare in any age. It is equally applicable to any century of the Church and belongs to no particular era.”

Although Idealists deny Revelation deals with any specific historical fulfillment, containing only abstract symbols of good and evil, this view does have a few attributes:

~ It glorifies Jesus Christ.
~ It summons Believers to holy and heroic living.
~ It calls for endurance amid trials.
~ It affirms evil will ultimately be overthrown.
~ It emphasizes God’s sovereignty over the human race.

The Idealist does not tend to separate the messages to the seven churches from the rest of Revelation because they theorize the entire book contains only symbolical teachings. For them, Revelation is a generic picture of the eventual triumph of Christianity. They have little or no regard for the book’s chronology because they do not think these are literal time-line events. However, the Idealist School has one other positive characteristic: it focuses attention on the applicable, spiritual truths of Revelation and not on its symbolism alone.

3. Historicist School   (allegorical….yet didactical)

This is also called the “Continuous Historical” view. Anyone who belongs to this school needs to be an avid student of Roman, medieval, and modern history in order to interpret Revelation. They fail to see the book as predictive prophecy. Though they tend to take these prophecies somewhat more literal than the Idealists, there is still much controversy among Historicists concerning the meaning of the various symbols. This school gets even more confusing when one studies the modified views within it. There are over fifty different interpretations of Revelation that stem from this theory. Heated debate continues inside this school concerning what is emblematic or metaphorical in the book because it depends on when one was born in order to interpret them. Historicists are usually post-millennialists, but many are amillenialists, denying the 1000-year reign is literal. This is what results when a school of interpretation attempts to confine a universal picture to a particular continent. Some in the Historicist school believe that Revelation is only about Israel and nothing in the book concerns the Church. Others suppose Revelation is only about the Church and has nothing to do with Israel. Many think Revelation has little to say concerning events after 1500 AD. This ideology was naturally very popular in the middle ages and Reformation era. Wycliffe, Calvin, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, Finney, and Spurgeon held this view. Most Reformers liked this idea because it fit their concept of the Pope – whom they believed to be “The Beast”. However, if the Pope is the Beast, this would mean the whole world would worship the Pope and everyone must convert to Catholicism. Historists cannot explain why God would provide such a limited view of world events by confining His panoramic scope primarily to the West when most of the early church expansion was in Eastern countries.

Historicists claim:
“Symbols in the apocalypse correspond to events in the history of Western Europe. Chapters 1-3 are seven periods in church history.
The breaking of the seals in chapters 4-7 symbolize the demise of the Roman Empire. The trumpet judgments of 8-10 represent the invasion of that empire. Because the papacy is the antichrist, chapters 11-13 is emblematic of the true church in its struggle against Catholicism. The locusts from the bottomless pit are the Mohammedan invaders. The breaking of the seals is the fall of the Roman Empire. The bowl judgments of chapters 14-16 are God’s wrath poured out upon the Catholic Church. The final overthrow of the papacy is depicted in chapters 17-19.
Chapter 19 refers to Jesus’ Second Coming and the Battle of Armageddon, followed by the thousand-year rule of Jesus in chapter 20.
The ‘millennium’ is actually Jesus’ current High Priestly ministry at the right hand of the Father. No one can be sure when events in the last three chapters of Revelation occur. Since we do not view the prophecies of Revelation the same as other biblical predictions, we conclude Revelation is already mostly “fulfilled” because it is a symbolic unfolding of Church history from Pentecost to the Second Coming. The book serves as a “calendar of events” from John’s era through the time of Christ’s return. It is an allegorical panorama of its chief phases, culminating with the return of Jesus. Revelation is a symbolic interpretation of the cumulative total of everything that happens throughout Church history.”

However, if this view is correct, why is there such a concentration of events in only the first 1500 years of Church history? Shouldn’t we expect a full development and better balance of events from 100 AD all the way through the Second Coming? By viewing Revelation as a “prophetic history” of the Church, Historicists are actually denying any current relevance.

4.  Futurist (or Prophetic) School   (literal….yet consequential)

The Futurist view is the least complicated for it interprets Revelation according to balanced exegetical rules. Because Revelation is taken literally, it is the only school that is logical. Futurists recognize the symbolism in the book, but give a more realistic interpretation of specific prophecies. Futurists divide Revelation into the three sections indicated in 1:19 –

“what you have seen,
what is now, and
what will occur later.”

Chapter 1 describes what is current.
Chapters 2 and 3 describe the present.
Chapters 4-22 describe what will take place in the future.

The Rapture happens at the end of chapter three. Because of this “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), most evangelicals ascribe to this school. 

Futurists believe:
“Chapters 1-3 is the only part of Revelation that can be fully understood today, for the rest of the book is
futuristic and follows the Rapture. The seven churches represent types of congregations with problems which might occur in any church in any era. The joys of heaven described in Revelation may have been a distant hope for the early church, but are now on the verge of realization. These prophecies have special significance, for every generation of Believers hopes to be alive at the time of the Rapture. We believe in a literal seven-year Tribulation (Daniel’s 70th week – Dan. 9:24-27), the last 3 ½ years of this period being more severe. Chapters 4-19 is the Tribulation and concludes with the Second Coming. These chapters show the horrible results of a world which has rejected Christ. God’s judgment upon the sinful human race is revealed in the seals, trumpets, and bowls. These are all literal descriptions of things occurring during the Tribulation, although it cannot be known what each specifically represents. The final three chapters are also taken literally, for judgments will actually take place. Chapter 20 is the millennial kingdom, and Chapters 21-22 are events in an era that extends into eternity.”

Those in this school tend to blur any sharp distinctions between Israel and the Church. They agree Israel is tied into prophecy, but in Revelation, Israel is prominent because of her involvement with Gentile nations. Most Futurists are premillennialists, rather than amillennialists or postmillennialists. Because the Rapture is eminent, the vast majority of Futurists are also pretribulationists. A few hold to a midtribulation Rapture, but this view is not logical when Revelation is treated literally. Jesus will return after the seven year Tribulation, establish His Millennial kingdom, and totally defeat Satan decisively and eternally.

The Futurist understands why most of Revelation centers on the seven-year period preceding the Second Coming. They feel Revelation is the prophetic expansion of what Jesus taught in Matthew 24. For the Futurist, Revelation is simply the logical climax of all biblical prophecy.


Preterists, Idealists, and Historicists view Revelation as either past events, signs emblematic of continuous events, or mystical and vague symbolism. The Futurists look to heaven – expectantly awaiting the Rapture – “to meet Jesus in the air and be forever with the Lord” (I Thess. 4:17).

Maxim of the Moment

Faults are thick where love is thin.