What is the proper home for the visions of the Book of Revelation?
After twenty centuries, no final answer to this disputed question has
been settled upon. Most eras, including our own, are awash in strident
marketing and unseemly posturing, with various advocates arguing that
their interpretation alone has reached the crowning achievement of
certainty (not just plausibility).
Beams in the eye—optical lumber—prevent us from seeing any deficiencies in our own view while we criticize every jot and tittle of differing views. The line between strong convictions and arrogance has recently worn increasingly thin, becoming most threadbare on social media. Interpreting the Book of Revelation has become one more issue to polarize—and subsequently derail—us, while we anxiously await the next major commentary (the presumed “final word on the matter”) to be released.
Dr. R. J. Rushdoony “promoted” the preterist view of Revelation: the view that the book primarily covers events in the first century A.D. He himself was not a preterist, but he believed that sanctified scholarship needed to be applied to all plausible positions, leading him to encourage and underwrite in-depth studies along preterist lines despite the obvious departure from his own perspective. To this day, Chalcedon remains a sympathetic critic of various preterist approaches to Revelation, valuing and respecting the contribution of scholars laboring in that field.
But Rushdoony was not a preterist. He took an idealist approach to Revelation, a perspective that was once well-known, but which has since suffered neglect as the preterism-or-bust mindset started to harden among the new generation of postmillennial Christians. In 1961, Charles Feinberg published Premillennialism or Amillennialism? Postmillennialism then was considered a nonfactor. But in 2019, we discern a parallel: futurism and preterism do battle but other views are rarely mentioned. This kind of tunnel vision is unedifying: the stone the builders reject might one day become the head of the corner.
Futurism holds that most of Revelation refers to a brief span of time taking place in the future, while preterism holds that the bulk of Revelation’s prophecies refer to the divorce of Israel and her destruction in 70 A.D. But two alternative views hold that Revelation applies to the centuries between the first and second advent: the historicist school of thought regards Revelation as providing a roughly sequential description of the inter-advent period, while the idealist view see John’s prophecy as non-sequential: all sections of the Apocalypse describe the entire inter-advent period. Each view claims a different “home” for Revelation’s prophecies: the future, the past, and (to varying degrees) the present.
The Question of Relevance
Theologians often chide their opponents for making Revelation inapplicable to present concerns: If it’s meant for some future generation, it’s not meant for us; or, If it all happened in the first century, what value does that have for us? The usual reply is that most Biblical teaching is directed to ancient audiences, but no one argues that this renders His Word irrelevant or unprofitable (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Since “Thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96b), there is always indirect applicability to us, given that He has magnified His Word above all His Name (Ps. 138:2).
Futurists and preterists and historicists find this indirect applicability satisfactory. Since historicism applies various parts of Revelation to different stages of history, it follows that unless you happen to live in the particular age where those visions are directly applicable, most of Revelation remains indirectly applicable to you. (The late Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, a noted historicist scholar, maintained a strong friendship with Dr. Rushdoony, showing that historicists and idealists were at one time able to peaceably coexist.)
Intrinsic to the idealist view is that it regards most of the book of Revelation as directly applicable to us, and not just indirectly applicable or relevant. While this isn’t a decisive factor in helping us settle the question as to which view is correct, it remains a potent factor with tremendous significance. Idealism puts us directly in the sweep of history toward Christ’s total victory, alerting us to the contours of the battles we are now in. Idealism is thus a big picture view of Revelation, pushing each section of the book deep into our consciousness as a living word directly for us. We don’t need to glean lessons from it: idealism puts Revelation right in our face—not in the sense of gloom and doom, but of duty and responsibility and our calling to be more than conquerors.
Two months before his death, Dr. Rushdoony wrote a new introduction to his 1970 book Thy Kingdom Come, which includes his idealist commentary on Revelation. His comments hit the mark:
“This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). This is why knowing Revelation is so important. Some will believe I am wrong in many things about Revelation, but on this I am right. It assures us of our victory and celebrates it.1
The deep relevance of Revelation to our situation is what makes reading Dr. Rushdoony’s book so jarring to many: it brings distant visions uncomfortably close. I found the Puritans easy sledding in comparison.
But that’s not the full story: we’ve not yet mentioned the beatitudes. Not the nine beatitudes we know from the Sermon on the Mount, but the seven beatitudes that appear throughout the book of Revelation!2 Because idealism sees the whole book as directly—and painfully—relevant to us, it draws strength from the conviction that these seven blessings are the direct possession of God’s people, now.
Is Revelation a punch in the gut for ancient apostate Israel (preterism) or a punch in the gut to an alleged future Antichrist (futurism)? Or is it actually a punch in the gut to you and me, with each page speaking directly to us? That possibility might well explain why idealism has become a hard sell in our day and age.
1. R. J. Rushdoony, Thy Kingdom Come: Studies in Daniel and Revelation (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, [1970, 1998], 2001 printing), p. 1.
2. ibid., p. 92.