There is perhaps no other book in the Bible that has be subject to the most diverse and sometimes fanciful interpretations than the book of Revelation. Its content has left many confused. Even the famous theologian and commentator John Calvin did not write a commentary on it because he could not understand it. For a book that brings to close the whole of God’s written revelation concerning his acts in history for the salvation of man and his glory, the door is wide open as to how the church has interpreted it through the ages.

In an effort to help believers better understand the interpretations of the book of Revelation C. Marvin Pate has written his newest book on eschatology, Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse published by Kregel. This book is a step towards clearing the often muddy waters in ones attempt to understand the views of others as well as help the reader better see how their own interpretation looks live in the text.

Reading Revelation is not a commentary but as the subtitle states it is an interpretive translation. A simple translation is the work of a person or persons who have translated the original text into another language and do so according to a specific translation philosophy. An interpretive translation adds the translators interpretation of certain portions of the text so the reader sees how the translator understands/interprets a certain word, phrase, verse or chapter. Reading Revelation is an interpretive translation of four major distinct interpretations of Revelation along with the GNT 4th Ed. and Pate’s English translation.

A Question Posed for the Interpreters

In order to get a taste for how an interpretive translation works with Revelation we will ask each interpretive method to answer this question: Since Revelation is typically interpreted within the events of history (whether past, present or future) how does your interpretation see Revelations relation to history?

The preterist interpretation (also known as postmillennialism) sees the events described in Revelation as having already happened in history at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The address and following comfort were to the churches that existed at the time of its writing and were meant to speak to their current situation of persecution. The preterist position roots the references in Revelation in the unfolding history of the life of the first century church. Postmillennialism prides itself as being an eschatology of hope. Hope that “as the church preachers the gospel and performs its role as the salt of the earth, the kingdom of God will advance until the whole world will one day gladly bow to the authority of Christ (p. 8).” One distinctive of the preterist position is that in order for its interpretation to refer to the history of the first century church it must have a written date before 70 A.D. As such the majority view is that Revelation was written during the time of Nero between 54-68 A.D. Another distinctive of the preterist position is that chapters 20-22 reveal to us how Christ has established his earthly rule in the first century. Thus, all of Revelation refers to the past and the end of the book is similar to the books of Acts in that it is left open to the future until Christ’s kingdom rule has been completed on earth.

The historicist interpretation roots the references in Revelation to the unfolding of history in the life of the church from the first century to the return of Christ. Its major strength has been to “make sense of Revelation for the interpreter by correlating the prophecies directed to the seen churches of Asia Minor with the stages comprising church history (p. 9).” Thus, Revelation is a sort of church history book that is still being written.

The futurist interpretation takes the historical rooting of Revelation a step further removed from the first century and believes that chapters 4-22 are still future in relation to the present church. Within the futurist inperpretation there are two camps that divide on the events of the second coming of Christ. First, the Dispensational camp sees the lack of mention of the church after chapter three as indication that the church has been raptured before the events of chapters 4-18 take place as they deal with the Tribulation period (seventh week of Daniel 9). In great distinction to preterisms hopeful optimistic view of history, Dispensationalism is labeled as pessimistic since the world gets worse and worse right up to the rapture of the church. The second camp within the futurist position is known as Historic Premillennialism. It differs from Dispensationalism in that it believes the church has replaced OT Israel and will therefore go through the Tribulation period and not be saved (raptured) from it. For the futurist interpretation, Reading Revelation follows the Dispensational interpretation since it is the majority view of the two.

The idealist interpretation is the last interpretive school and sees the historical rooting of Revelation quite different that the other three. The idealist view interprets Revelation in a symbolic way. Pate describes this view as “representing the ongoing conflict of good and evil, with no immediate historical connection to any social or political events (p. 11).” Thus, the statements in Revelation are in no means predictive of actual historical events except for Christs final victory over evil at his return. This view is a combination of the Alexandrian school and the amillennial method and was the dominant view from the 3-5th centuries until the Reformation. This view has a strength in that it does not fall prey to seemingly force the text of Scripture into a specific historical event in order to either make sense of the text for the present reader or make sense of the readers situation from the text. On the other side, since there are no historical references to the events in Revelation the door of how it can be applied is wide open to abuse.

An Example

Now that we have a general idea of the four interpretive schools it would be helpful to see an example of how different the four schools can interpret a particular verse and get a real feel for what an interpretive translation looks like. We will use Revelation 1:19 as our example since ones interpretation of it sets the interpretive grid for the rest of the book – “Write therefore what you saw, and the things that are and the things that are about to be after these things.”

  1. Preterist – Write therefore what you have seen (Revb.1), and what is now (Rev. 2-3), and what will take place soon after these things (Rev. 4-22 = the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as a result of Christ’s coming to destroy it).
  2. Historicist – Write therefore what you saw, both the things that are (Rev. 1-3) and the things that are about to become after these things (Rev. 4-22 = the seven periods of church history culminating in the triumph of the gospel).
  3. Futurist – Write therefore what you saw (Rev. 1), and the things that are (Rev. 2-3) and the things that are about to become after these things (Rev. 4-22 and the signs of the times that will begin after the rapture of the church into heaven).
  4. Idealist – Write therefore what you saw (the whole vision of Rev. 1-22), both the things that are(the “already” aspect of the kingdom of God) and the things that are about to become after these things (the “not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God, which awaits the return of Christ).

As you can see from one verse alone there is significant difference in the four methods of interpretation even with the idealist school though it finds no specific historical rooting. Many verses have to interpretive parenthesis but many of them do. You could read the book in one of two ways. First, you could read each column separately from beginning to end to get a fluid feel for the interpretation. I might be best to start this way. The second way this can be read is by reading each view side by side either chapter by chapter or verse by verse. This will really allow for the interpretive differences to shine through to the reader.

Reading Revelation is a fascinating way to read Revelation and a great way to gain a better grasp of each interpretive method. It will truly open your eyes to the text and cause you to pay more attention to what is being said. It will help the reader gain a better appreciation for other interpretations and allow one to see possible weaknesses in their own interpretive line of thought. This is a must have for reading Revelation.

NOTE: I receive this book from Kergel for review and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.