I can hear the sighs already. Who in their right mind studies eschatology for fun? Clearly the topic is left for cultist doom sayers and off kilter brain cells. While I will concede the later to potentially be true, the first is far from it. For many, eschatology means exactly what its name communicates "a study (ology) of last things (eschaton)". This definition will work but for the most part many Christians don't know what passages of Scripture actually pertain to eschatology and which do not.
I can hear the echos of scoffing already! "Of course I know which passages refer to eschatology!" And to that I would nod my head and agree to a degree. Within your eschatological system you know what you've been taught to read as writings of the "end times". But there are many perspectives and only in the past couple decades has there been a renewed interest within the Evangelical community concerning these differing opinions.
I hope to walk us through some of these differences. I personally have an agenda to convince you of my opinion. And I hope in your comments that your agenda is to convince me of yours. :-)
The book of Revelation is unquestionably one of the most intriguing books in the entire Bible. It has sparked discussion, controversy and "Bible brawls" all in the name of Orthodoxy. Recently, similar struggles have developed between those who hold to Dispensationalism (premillennialism) and everyone else (amillennialism, postmillennialism and historic premillennialism). While each side thinks they are defending the true meaning of God's Word, it is important to see a heart of faithfulness in every mind that has struggled with John's text. Below will be a very brief introduction to the four major ways to interpret the book of Revelation.
It should be noted that these same views can often be applied to other major prophetic passages of Scripture (the Olivet Discourse is next). However, the book of Revelation is typically the book that determines the answer to a person's "label". While I concede that labels are usually nothing but a necessary evil, sometimes they are necessary to understand that you fit a label and there are divergences in opinion. Below are painfully brief descriptions of the major labels often applied to perspectives on the book of Revelation. So let the labeling commence!
This is the most common method of interpretation in Evangelical America. While this view may seem strange outside of America and all the other views strange inside America, it should be noted that many layman who adhere to any view do so because it is the only one they know!
The view is simple to determine based upon the name. This view holds that the entirety of the book of Revelation remains to be completed. Independent of how much symbolism is in the book, this view sees the events depicted within the book as still on the horizon of history. In fact these events lay out the road map for the final few years (seven typically) of history itself.
Some who hold this view are actually historicist (check below) for Revelation 2-3 but once the heavenly visions start, everything is a vision of the future. Strictly speaking, the futurist does not prohibit any millennial view (a discussion for another time) but it does create conflict with the progressive victory of Postmillennialism. In Baptist churches, this view is almost unanimously held by Premillennial adherents.
Without a doubt this view is the most difficult to satisfactorily describe. The idealist approach to Revelation sees many of the symbolic visions as a description of a story so large that it cannot pertain to any specific historical event. But it would be unfair to exaggerate that as if to mean that it has no application to historical events. The truth lies somewhere between the two poles, where there are many ways in which these very same truths have been true since the foundation of the world and will continue until the end of time.
I personally believe that Idealism and Preterism are options for a dynamic pairing to a fuller understanding of John's book. However, strict idealist would not like the preterist insistence that any specific event dominates the intent of the letter. Instead the general story of war and recapitulation between God and sin/death is the main purpose. This is the normative view of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Also, idealist typically are Amillennial.
The historicist view is the grandfather of all Protestant views. The Reformers all held this view and it is evident in many (if not all) of their confessions. The historicist position sees the entire book of Revelation being a road map for the history of the church. There are (and have been) many incredible comparisons made using this view but it recently has run out of historical years to faithfully see in John's book. This has not stopped a evolution of the historicist view but a looked that is beyond the scope of this post.
While many individuals reject the full and complete historicist view, a partial view with respect to the church has become popular among futurist. However, since many of these individuals see the current church as the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22) this view may also eventually run out of time for its completion as the gospel spreads successfully in other countries.
The preterist view is basically the anti-thesis of the futurist view. Instead of seeing everything in the future, the preterist see varying degrees of prophecy already completed in Christ's resurrection, the destruction of Jerusalem and the downfall of Rome. As should be clear, within the preterist view there remains many opinions of how much has been fulfilled. The unorthodox preterist position claims that every single prophetic event has been completed. This view is deemed heretical by most Christians.
A consistent preterist approach to Revelation typically results in a Amillennial or Postmillennial view. While being preterist in Revelation grants you the "preterist" label, adherents of other views permit preterist interpretations of key passages (e.g. Olivet Discourse) without giving up their perspective of Revelation.
My own personal leaning is towards preterism. The concluding chapters of the book (Rev 20-22) provide the greatest questions for preterist but I do not think it presents challenges or conflicts to the preterist position as a whole. The passages do provides ample opportunity for the extremes of preterism or an influx of idealism to come to fruition but no one said you cannot mix labels. :-)
Now you know the labels. Comment below.