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Interpreting Revelation

Apocalyptic Literature

Interpreting apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Revelation, can be challenging, to say the least. Some interpret apocalyptic material with the same hermeneutic used for interpreting historical narrative, but this does not adequately account for the extensive symbolism in this particular literature genre. When approaching apocalyptic literature, we must first define our terms:

  • Apocalypse: a particular genre of literature written between approximately 200 B.C. and A.D. 200;
  • Apocalyptic: an adjective “describing either the literary genre or the worldview;
  • Apocalypticism: a worldview, ideology, or theology merging the eschatological aims of particular groups into a cosmic and political arena.

A deeper look reveals three main functions of apocalyptic literature. First, it includes visionary or revelatory communication. Second, it contains a heavy use of symbols, metaphors, and figurative speech. Finally, it includes a dualism between earthy and heavenly realities.

Interpreting Revelation

In our book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, we outline the four main approaches to the interpretation of Revelation. The preterist position “approaches the relationship of history and the Apocalypse from the vantage point that the events prophesied were fulfilled in the first century” (522). The historicist position is mainly obsolete now but was popular during the Middle Ages and the Reformation era. This position looked to its contemporary culture for the meaning of Revelation: the Pope was the antichrist and the wars in Western Europe at the time corresponded with the wars in Revelation. The idealist position “sets aside the historical question altogether by positing that Revelation is not about events in the space-time continuum but rather symbolically portrays the spiritual and timeless nature of the battle between good and evil” (523). Finally, the futurist position holds that Revelation 4–22 refers to future events. This position is the most common in evangelicalism today and is often expressed in modified versions such as historical premillennialism.

One of the greatest challenges in interpreting Revelation has to do with the interpretation of the various apocalyptic symbols. Here are seven steps that can serve as a guide to interpretation:

  1. Recognize the symbolic imagery associated with the description of people and beings, colors, numbers, institutions, places, and events.
  2. Look for interpretations of these symbols within the vision.
  3. Determine if the symbol stems from an allusion to the Old Testament.
  4. Compare the symbol with other apocalyptic writings to see if it is a common symbol with a relatively standard meaning.
  5. Look for any possible connections between the symbol and the cultural-historical context.
  6. Consult treatments of the symbol in scholarly commentaries and other works.
  7. Remain humble in your conclusions (552–57).

Related Resources:

Note: This summary was written by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger.

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