How Should We Read The Book of Revelation?

If you’ve been hanging around the evangelical church in North America for at least the last 20 years, you’ve probably heard something like this before:

Within a generation (70 years) of Israel becoming a nation (which happened in 1948), Jesus is going to come back (partly) to secretly rapture all believers (living and dead) out of this world and take them to be with him in Heaven. They will be whisked away from the earth in the blink of an eye and everyone who did not believe will be “left behind.”

This is the beginning of a 7 year tribulation period on earth where God will cast down judgment and wrath on the world with horrifying plagues that include stuff like the ocean turning to blood. At the same time, the Antichrist will rise up, a popular political figure who will bring peace and stability to the earth, forming a one world government. Many people will be deceived by the Antichrist and take the “Mark of the Beast” (666) which may be manifested as a computer chip implanted in the hand or forehead. Without the “Mark” you will not be able to buy anything, including food. And worse, you will be hunted down by the Antichrist’s secret police and potentially beheaded for treason against him. Some people will become Christians during the 7 year tribulation period, having been evangelized by 144,000 Jews who converted to Christianity following the rapture.

At the end of the seven years, Jesus will finally put a stop to the turmoil on earth, returning with his angels (and previously raptured Christians?) to fight the Battle of Armageddon. Everyone on the earth who did not turn to Jesus will finally be killed by Him. From there, Jesus will set up the new Jerusalem on earth and everything will be at peace. However, this is only for 1000 years (the millennium), after which the devil will be given one more chance to deceive the world. After that, there will be a great judgment, where non-believers, along with the Anti-Christ, Satan, and the Beast (the unholy trinity) will finally be cast into eternal hell and the Kingdom of God will now, at last, reign forever.

Is this what you were taught? Some variation on it, perhaps?

Yeah, me too.

I grew up in the church learning this general timeline for future events, as taken primarily from the Biblical book of Revelation.

But you know what I’ve discovered over the years? It’s not as crystal clear as those who teach this interpretation would have you believe.

The book of Revelation is the most challenging book of the Bible to understand. Filled with bizarre imagery and symbols, people have been coming up with dozens of possible interpretations over the centuries, and even the brightest minds of Biblical scholarship cannot come to a consensus on how to even approach the book.

The pre-tribulation rapture, pre-millennial return of Jesus scenario I just described finds it beginnings in the 1830s with a preacher named John Nelson Darby, and was popularized in the 1960s-70s by films and books like “A Thief in the Night” and Hal Lindsay’s “Late Great Planet Earth.”leftbehind

Starting in 1995, the “Left Behind” series has taught it to a new generation, and today preachers like David Jeremiah and John Hagee, among many others, continue to teach and write in support of this doctrine. This “futurist” reading treats Revelation like it’s a crystal ball giving us detailed descriptions of a future yet to come.

But what if a futurist interpretation is not the most accurate?

The longer I study the book (and all of the New Testament’s teaching on the “end times” and the Second Coming of Christ) the less and less I think that the “Left Behind” timeline is what the author of Revelation intended. When John received the vision from the Lord on the island of Patmos, was he really seeing an unfolding of the end of the world 2000+ years down the road? Or is it possible that what he was seeing had immediate meaning and application for the people for whom he wrote the book?

I can’t say that I am 100% fully convinced in any particular method of interpreting the book of Revelation. There are four major schools of interpretation all of which have credibility:

  1. Futurist – the book is entirely about things that have yet to happen.
  2. Historicist – the book describes things that progressively happened over the course of church history, such as the Protestant Reformation.
  3. Idealist – the book is purely a symbolic depiction of the battle between good and evil.
  4. Preterist / Partial Preterist – the book (except for the last two chapters) describes events that took place around 70AD with the Roman Empire and the destruction of the Jewish temple.

The futurist school is the one I grew up on. These days, I lean toward “partial preterism” – that Revelation 21-22 describe future events when Jesus will someday return, but basically everything else has already happened in and around 70AD. Of all the possibilities of interpretation it’s the one that persuades me the most.

I recognize that in saying this, many of you will immediately disagree with me and possibly even think I have abandoned Biblical Christianity. I am sensitive to that concern and I do not expect everyone to think as I do. Yet I would argue that true Biblical Christianity does its very best to properly interpret the Bible as the original author intended, and not to impose on the Bible something that is not there, or is only there if you make huge assumptions of the text.

As you start to read Revelation for yourself, you will find that the detailed descriptions of supposed future events I outlined at the start of this post are not explicit. They are simply not there as much as you may think they are.

I believe that if nobody had ever taught you what you think you know about the book of Revelation, you would rarely, if ever, come up with the pre-trib rapture, premillennial, futurist, “Left Behind” interpretation that many people have today.

So my challenge to you is to read the book of Revelation, and as you read it, to set aside whatever you’ve been taught about it. Try your best to come at it with a blank slate. You probably won’t understand most of what it means, and I think that’s okay. If it was supposed to be crystal clear to us, I’m sure God would have made it much less mysterious.

You might also want to watch this video by pastor and author Greg Boyd. Boyd presents an introduction the book of Revelation that encourages us to read the book with first century eyes. To read it as it was intended to be read and understood by the first audience. Which is, of course, how we should always read the Bible.