A Series of Questions
What if the book of Revelation ought not to be interpreted as a history written in advance? What if, contrary to popular opinion, it is not concerned to provide its intended readers (regardless of whether these be ancient or modern) with detailed and specific predictions about the course of (relatively) future events? What if it is not intended as an account of the future (proximate or remote), if it does not refer to future-historical persons and happenings, if it is not meant to be read and understood as a detailed roadmap of things to come?
Preterists, of course, pose questions to futurist interpreters that are quite similar to some of those I have posed above. They question whether we ought to read the book as history in advance, whether the reader—i.e., the modern reader—is to read it as providing predictions about the future. My questions, despite appearances of similarity, are quite different, calling into question the approaches of both preterism and futurism to the interpretation of this book.
The Strength of Preterism
Preterists do not think that futurism does justice to the occasion of the book. Futurism seems to neglect the situation of the original readers (those whom the book immediately addresses as the primary recipients/readers) and thus fails to read the book historically, as intending specifically to address their concrete historical circumstances, to deal directly and primarily with their immediate problem with a hostile culture. Futurism treats the book as though the modern reader is the primary addressee, the originally intended recipient to whom the message directly speaks and whose situation is envisaged (or is at least close enough in time to the situation envisaged as to shed light upon the meaning of the visions). The preterist criticisms of futurist interpretation are, in my estimation, the strong suit of the preterist position and surely merit heeding, but, as stated above, my questions are posed to both futurists and preterists, questioning the correctness of certain assumptions that preterists and futurists share in common about the nature of this book and its truth-claims.
Preterists, in common with futurists, believe that the book of Revelation predicts the future (albeit, in the case of preterism, the relative future—what was yet future from the author's historically situated point of view). The then of John's time becomes the indexical reference-point for preterism's own brand of futurist interpretation that assumes that John himself was not a preterist. Like futurism, preterism believes that the Apocalypse prognosticates in a reportorial fashion of describing specific historical events in advance, of referring to things beyond the time of the writing and original reading of the book. Futurists refer the alleged predictions to a remote—i.e., distant—future (the end of the age), while preterists refer them to a proximate—i.e., imminent—future (and thus to a time that, from our late-twentieth-century perspective, is now past), but both assume that the book intends to prognosticate, to inform the readers of what specific things they should expect to happen, providing the readers with a detailed prophetic newspaper. Thus, for all their significant differences as to what historical events fulfilled (or will fulfill) the predictions and to what events (whether past or future for us) they refer, they both share the assumption that Revelation is a "crystal ball" that tells us either about ancient Rome (preterism) or about a future world-empire (futurism). This common assumption is what I would question as perhaps mistaken.
Preterists are correct in emphasizing the importance of the occasion (again, their strong suit). The book is primarily addressed to latter-first-century churches, and their historical situation must be taken seriously in any understanding of the book's message. These churches are beginning to undergo persecution, and the book certainly predicts1 that this will continue for the foreseeable future (and will even intensify in the near future). It predicts that the churches are on a trajectory of suffering and tribulation, that a clear tendency—a pattern evinced by forces of hostility and opposition presently at work in the latter first century—can be projected onto the proximate horizon as a "growth trend," such that those churches in Asia Minor that have not yet suffered deadly persecution (the shedding of blood) should expect that level of tribulation to be reached imminently and prepare themselves accordingly. What is beginning to occur in the first century already portends (providing that one interprets trends in terms of the correct model) the shape of things to come in the short run.
Given this forecast of increasing socio-political opposition, the book is intended to function as a word of comfort and encouragement to those who face this prospect of martyrdom for their Faith. Christians must not be surprised and unprepared or lose heart in the face of the growing trend of public hostility. They must, in the words of the Olivet discourse (Mt. 24:13), "endure to the end"—persevere (and so overcome) in the time of trial that is coming. They must gird up their loins and faithfully make a stand, holding fast their confidence in the truth of the Gospel that has announced the ultimate triumph of God in Christ.
Explanation, Not Prediction
The purpose of the book is to explain this persecution in terms of "the big picture." It seeks to provide the original readers with a theological understanding of their situation, opening a dimension of meaning to them that is vital to their existential comportment and their response to coming events. It does this, not by unveiling in clear and precise detail the future of history (specific predictions about particulars), but by unveiling the meaning of history and current events. The book of Revelation is something of an analysis of, or commentary on, the "news" of the first century, interpreting what were for John and his contemporaries recent and current events and trends "in the headlines." Put another way, Revelation may in fact be first-century "newspaper exegesis" rather than prophetic prognostication. It refers the readers not to the course of future events, but illumines the meaning of this kairos and, through this, illumines the general and ultimate Tendenz of history—the "megatrends." Specifically, it sheds retrospective light upon the recent and contemporary scene by referring the readers to the past: to the Spirit-interpreted Gospel-narrative (the Christ-event). It explicates the gospel and applies it to their situation as the proper context of understanding the troubled times. It unveils the first advent as God's "behind the scenes" holy war with the hostile world, explaining the latter-first-century Sitz im Leben Kirche in terms of Christ's redemptive-historical struggle with the Dragon. Thus, what preterists and futurists alike thought were predictions of a conflict that was future to the original readers is in actuality the dramatized exposition, conveyed in the genre-conventions of vivid and symbol-laden apocalyptic language, of a spiritual conflict in their past: the victory of the Lamb in his first Advent is narrated in the message of the Gospel that announces the triumph of the Kingdom of God through the accomplishment of redemption.
In many of the visions of Revelation, therefore, we deal with review more than preview. It is the recent past—not the future—that is theologically interpreted so that the meaning of events the first-century readers have witnessed in their lifetimes can be understood in a manner that will strengthen their faith and hope unto overcoming in the present or imminent time of trial. The veil of history is pulled back to reveal that God is in control; that the victory has been decisively won and the hope is certain; that the present sufferings merely signify the last, desperate acts of a definitively defeated enemy whose time is short and whose doom is sure; that even now historical events of the quite-recent past demonstrate that the Lamb is mopping up and executing judgment on his enemies, making his power known in the vindication of his people. The present sufferings are the result of hostilities which are to be understood as the maddened viciousness and blind wrath of the mortally wounded in their frightened, frantic, and frenzied death-throes. In view of what Christians have witnessed (if the meaning of what has occurred is understood correctly), Christians are reinforced in their belief that the Lord is in control, is working all things after the counsel of his will and therefore is working together all things for the good of his called ones. The coming of the Kingdom on earth and in history is most assuredly on track.
Solving the Problem of Dating
This view of Revelation solves the otherwise vexing problems over the dating of this writing. The situation of the churches in Asia Minor—in which the popular emperor-cult of this region is surely involved—accords better with a dating to the reign of Domitian than to the time of Nero. However, internal evidence provided by the actual message-content of the book seems to indicate some reference to Nero (perhaps even to the earlier Caligula!), but, even if this reference is not altogether clear and unambiguous, the book almost surely refers quite extensively to the fall of Jerusalem (A. D. 66-70). If the truth-claim of the book is to be interpreted predictively, as purporting to be a foretelling of the proximate future (preterism), then either we must date it—despite the problems with so historically situating it—in the reign of Nero and before the fall of Jerusalem, or else we must date it in the reign of Domitian (well after the destruction of the second temple) and consider its predictive form—its truth-claim of allegedly foretelling the future—to be a pious fraud: a sham "predicting" of the destruction of Jerusalem and other events and personages vaticanium ex eventu.
If we reject the notion that it was intended to be read as reportorially predictive prophecy, however, we avoid these problems. The book, written after the fall of Jerusalem and various other catastrophes and tumults—both natural and sociopolitical—within the Empire (including the violent death of four emperors within the span of one year), intends to interpret and explain the theological meaning of what has been happening—the numerous calamities of the first century—in light of the gospel and the Olivet Discourse of Jesus. What we have is explanation, not prediction, so we can situate the churches in the period when persecutions were more common and widespread without having either to deny that it makes references to the Jewish Wars (which it clearly seems to do) or to regard it as not genuinely predictive, while nevertheless claiming to be so according to the fraud of a vaticanium ex eventu prophecy.
The Real Function of Revelation
The visions revealed to John on Patmos are the apokalypsis of Jesus Christ. Apokalypsis means revelation (and is so translated in Rev. 1:1), unveiling, or disclosure. It involves an opening up to plain sight in order to make known, to lay bare and make visible. It is the pulling back of the curtain or veil that has heretofore concealed things from our view, in order to expose and bring into the light of day that which had formerly been cloaked and hidden. Ironically, the Apocalyse (or Revelation) is one of the most veiled, cryptic, and esoteric of the canonical New Testament books, but this (I believe) is due to our attempt to interpret it as primarily predictive prophecy.
The book deals with the revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1). The genitive in this construction is clearly possessive. It is the revelation that belongs to Jesus Christ, that has been given to Jesus as a special grant of divine favor and is now in his possession. It is something that God has revealed to Jesus, and Jesus in turn then shares it with his church, showing it to his servants through his prophet John. This immediately centers our attention on the action by which God made this revelation to Christ: the scene of God's giving to the Lamb the sealed scroll (a scroll no one else could unseal and open), so that he could open it and disclose its heretofore hidden contents, revealing what will shortly come to pass.
What is this sealed scroll? The allusion is to the series of visions that comprises the second part of the canonical book of Daniel. The book of Daniel was so sealed, and its words were shut up until the time of the end (Dan. 12:4, 9). It was not to be known until the determined seventy weeks were accomplished, when an end of sins and a reconciliation for iniquity had been made and everlasting righteousness had been instituted (Dan. 9:24). The Lamb's taking of this closed book and opening its seals signals that the time of the end has commenced and that what Daniel had seen in his visions was about to be fulfilled. John's book is about the apokalypsis—the opening up and revealing—of Daniel's book.
The description of the heavenly scene of Revelation 5 is based on the heavenly scene of Dan. 7:9-142 and thus identifies the time of this unsealing as the time of Christ's ascension into heaven (A. D. 30). That is, the time of the unsealing of the scroll that signals that the last days have begun is set at the conclusion of the first Advent, when Christ returned to heaven to be exalted at the right hand of the Father. The significance of this point is that the futurists are plainly wrong in thinking that the sequence of end-time events that begins with the opening of the seven seals is something that has not yet occurred, that awaits a future moment shortly before the second Advent. For John, the time is close at hand; these things will shortly come to pass relative to his own day (as preterists insist). John's book of visions, unlike Daniel's, is not to be sealed up for a future age (Rev. 22:10), for it immediately speaks to (and of) John's own time, not to events lying millennia in the remote future. Indeed, that Jesus could make known these things (the contents of the visions) to John is possible only because the revelation had already been given to Christ! The Lamb had already broken the seals and unfurled the scroll to make known the words that had been shut up. If the events accompanying the breaking of the seven seals are future to us today (immediately preceding the second Advent), then the revelation cannot be said to have been given to Christ by God, and Christ could not have given it in turn to John; the book of Revelation could not have been written, for John would have had no visions of these things if the scroll was not already unsealed by Christ. The events to which the breaking of the seals refer must be events already witnessed in history before John set quill to papyrus, and John writes of them as a preterist.
Sequence in Revelation
We must recognize then that, while there are obviously things disclosed by Jesus unto John that will shortly come to pass (relative to the time of John),3 the events accompanying the opening of the seven seals (chap. 6) are not future to John (even as a proximate or imminent future relative to his writing). They have already occurred by the time John is given his visions and are thus past events from his late-first-century perspective (having occurred sometime between the time of Christ's ascension into heaven and the time of John's Patmos visions). The events accompanying the unsealing of the scroll are likely intended to be understood as the rather general signs4—"the beginning of sorrows"—mentioned in the first portion of the Olivet Discourse (cf. Mt 24:6-8), including the famine during the reign of Claudius that is mentioned in Acts 11:28.
If the opening of the seals is past for John (as seems obvious), then the blowing of the trumpets and pouring out of the vials may be past as well. If some of the events associated with the trumpets and seals deal with the judgment of Jerusalem (as seems likely exegetically), this identification of the reference of the visions to Jerusalem's fall does not then warrant an early date (in the 60s, during Nero's reign) on the argument that we must preserve the integrity of genuine prophecy (foretelling of the future) consonant with our high view of Scripture as divinely inspired revelation (i.e., the argument from internal evidence for a Neronian dating). A later date (after Jerusalem's fall) does not place us in the dilemma of having either to choose a false truth-claim (alleged prophetic foretelling that is really vaticanium ex eventu) or intended references to something other than the fall of Jerusalem (i.e., to something else yet future for John). Clearly, John wants his readers to understand that a hostile Empire, as an enemy of Christ, will suffer a similar fate as apostate Jerusalem (its judgment is inevitable and will follow the same pattern; the judgment of one enemy—the wicked Jews—portends the judgment of all who similarly oppose God's reign), but the references to Jerusalem's fall are simply too clear to be gainsaid and transferred to some other historical referent beyond John's time, and we need not attempt such an interpretation in the interests of accepting a dating within the reign of Domitian (a dating which I believe has far more to commend it than a Neronean date).
Thus, this view of what Revelation is intended to be gives us the best of both worlds.
1. These short-term predictions are more like projections from a model (e.g., economic forecasts, social scientists' projection of megatrends, etc.). They are made on the basis of understanding the present correctly, of having a keen and profound insight into the meaning, significance, and consequences of current events into what is really going on now. In some ways this procedure can be likened to what futurists —not the Hal Lindsey brand of futurists, but the Alvin Tofler variety of futurists#151;attempt to do.
2. Obviously, Revelation 4-5 draws on details from other OT sources (Is. 6; Ez. 1) in furnishing this scene. However, the movement is clearly drawn from Daniel 7. Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Root of David/slain Lamb, has already been identified as "the one like a son of man" in Rev. 1:13(where he is depicted as bearing the very glory-likeness of the Ancient of Days) and, like the figure so designated in Daniel's vision, appears before the one on the throne, having come out of tribulation (Daniel's "one like a son of man" is the same figure as the Messiah-Prince who was cut off in 9:25-26 and Michael the Prince who stands up for the children of the people during the time of trouble in 12:1.). The slain Lamb is designated as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Root of David as a token of his royal investiture (having received the Kingdom) and gives to the saints to be a kingdom of priests and to reign over the earth.
3. John's point is that everything in Daniel's eschatological visions must either have already occurred or be on the verge of occurring very soon. The unsealing of the scroll means that the time of the end (the time to which Daniel's visions refer) has arrived, that the fulfillment has commenced in earnest, as can be seen from those signs that have already come to pass. Thus, whatever in Daniel's prophecy has not already taken place will take place shortly.
4. These signs are rather indefinite in character. They signal the beginning of the messianic woes (birthpangs of the messianic age, the collapsing of the old order), but they do not signal the imminence of the end of the age. The wars and rumors of war, the earthquakes, and the famines and pestilence of Mt. 24:6-7 (corresponding to seals 2-6) precede the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple as general portents of the shaking of the foundations that especially culminates in the divine judgment upon an apostate Israel, but the sign of the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom throughout the world (Mt. 24:14; the first seal) stretches beyond the events preceding and portending the holocaust of A. D. 66-70 to cover the whole interadvental age. The concern of John, however, is that this sign has already been initiated, that world-evangelization has begun and is well underway. Christ rides forth conquering and turning the world upside down.
- Joseph P. Braswell
The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.