EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
As is inherent in apocalyptic literature, symbolism is rich throughout. This naturally places a lot of responsibility on the reader, whose own imagination as to what these texts are saying can, unfortunately, come up with endless speculation. One immense help in deciphering Revelation is consulting the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which helps “qualify” what is being described whenever the human mind fails: When we read of something bizarre occurring, we can search Scripture to see if anything similar is mentioned elsewhere. Despite this major tool, there are still questions about whether the symbols and signs of Revelation point to literal or figurative fulfillment, as well as to past, present, or future fulfillment.
Modern scholars adhere to some of the following approaches far more than others. Though the authors of this book maintain a futurist outlook, we do not disrespect those who interpret it differently. Many ideas floating around in the academic world say that there are about six to eight different interpretational methods regarding the Revelation, but scholars agree that most folks land in one of the following four categories. (Note that these summaries are intentionally oversimplified. Our purpose is to look at them generally. One might find exceptions to our generalizations, and we anticipate that. A far more in-depth view regarding how each of these differs from the next and a more complete list of arguments for or against any of these interpretational methods can be found in hundreds of alternate sources. To keep this book clean of irrelevant information, we’ll address these subjects briefly.)
Idealist: This approach also falls under the labels “nonhistorical,” “spiritual,” or “poetic,” and it states that the whole work of Revelation is allegory, determining righteous principles to live by at all times. This view sees the struggle between good and evil in general, portraying God as victorious throughout all time. Naturally, there is no true “event(s)” the text can be tied to in such a method.
Our problem with this view: For this method to hold, we must disregard details in Revelation that are precise and specific, such as time markers (for example, Revelation 11:2, mentioning forty-two months). Likewise, the “fulfillment” of key, end-time religious and political figures are much harder to explain in this view, and when they are, the explanations seem insufficient. Most importantly: If no “event” can be tied to Revelation, then a lot of prophecy found in the rest of the Bible (both Testaments) is voided.
Preterist: Also referred to as the “contemporary-historical” method, this is the view that Revelation’s prophesied events have already taken place in the past; more specifically, the imagery relates to what was going on between Christians and Rome in John’s day. Persecution of the early Church, the fall of Rome, and the destruction of the Temple would all be examples of this.
Our problem with this view: Revelation is distinctly and repeatedly called a (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18–19). Prophecy, in the context of apocalyptic literature, looks forward to things that could not have happened at the time the literature was penned. (Note that if the most widely accepted dating of the early centuries is accurate, Revelation was written in AD 95, during the reign of Emperor Domitian, well after such occurrences as the fall of Rome or destruction of the Temple. So how could a prophecy of the future in AD 95 “look forward” to something that happened about twenty-five years before its writing?) This view also calls for us to disregard specifics. For example, Revelation 9:18 says one-third of mankind would be killed, and this did not happen at any point during or around John’s day (or between his day and now, further supporting that this is yet to come).
Historicist: Alternatively called the “Church history” or “Church-historical” view (or other similar, equivalent terms), this is the idea that the focus of Revelation is entirely about the history of the Church from the date of its writing to the time of Christ’s return (the entire “Church Age”). Adherents of this view are not, like the preterists, limited to the scope of events occurring in John’s day, but to any event the individual interpreter believes to have been a fulfillment at any point, including very recent history (ongoing until the Second Advent).
Our problem with this view: It opens a can of worms wherein anyone can see the fulfillment of prophecy each time they watch the news. No two interpreters appear to agree on what is represented by Revelation’s symbolism, which is an interpretational nightmare. For instance, the angel or star named “Wormwood” that falls to earth (see Revelation 8:10–11), causing one-third of the earth’s water to become poisonous, is viewed by some to have been fulfilled in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986: the radioactive fallout is the “black herb” (chernobyl, linked by some to the herb also known as wormwood) that made the environment around the nuclear plant uninhabitable. We don’t believe this connection responsibly fulfills the prophecy regarding one-third of all the world’s clean water in a city that, before the reactor incident, maxed out at a population of only fourteen thousand people and, after the tragedy, caused a derelict “exclusion zone” of only approximately twenty square miles. (Note that the contamination area is larger than this. But even while taking into consideration the farthest extent of the affected zone in areas that are technically still inhabitable, with clean water, a generous estimate doesn’t allow for more than a hundred square miles around the reactor, or three hundred square miles if you travel directly north of the site where most pollution was carried after the explosion. The earth’s water—just water, by itself—calculates to barely under 140 million square miles, so “one-third” of the water being poisoned as a result of Chernobyl is not even close to a fair comparison.) Nor do we, after an exhaustive dip into the etymology of the word “wormwood,” find any true link between the herb with the same name and the star/angel that falls from the sky. (This etymological trail is irrelevant here, but for those who are interested in our conclusions regarding these terms, Thomas Horn’s book, The Wormwood Prophecy, debunks common assumptions about these verses and the history of language associated with wormwood, including references to it in the Old Testament.) Additionally, the historicist view forces Revelation to be isolated from other books of the Bible that describe the same events in similar, but clearly unfulfilled, ways (such as 2 Thessalonians 2:3, which tells that Jesus’ return will follow the rising up of the Antichrist, or Man of , who causes the worldwide “falling away” from the Church as well as many passages from the Old Testament describing the Millennial Reign).
Futurist: A “literal” interpretation…though by “literal,” we don’t mean that Satan is a red dragon with ten horns and seven heads and so on, but that the symbolic language of Revelation foresees actual events of the future with real people: A “king” could represent a literal president or politician with extreme executive power over earthly “kingdoms” (countries, states, etc.), even though exact words like “kings” and “kingdoms” may be rendered obsolete by the time of Revelation’s fulfillment. Since this book might be reaching folks who are unfamiliar with Revelation, let’s state this another way: The new believers of Christ’s time saw the fulfillment of the Old Testament references to “the Branch” in Jesus. Obviously, Jesus was a real human Messiah (not discounting His role as also deity), and not part of a plant that grows out from the trunk of a tree like branches do. But prophecies about this Branch were also not about some invisible or metaphorical element that fits into the grand scheme of good versus evil, either. Just as the “Branch” was a real Person—a literal fulfillment of prophetic, figurative “Branch” language—the characters and events of Revelation will be literal fulfillments of prophetic, figurative language (dragons, beasts, etc.). In this view, most of the frightening events from Revelation will escalate at the end of all time, right before the Second Advent of the Messiah, and the fortunate events for believers will follow.
We do not find a problem in this view, and we are, ourselves, futurists.
Despite the name of this interpretational method, even the most dedicated futurists acknowledge that some of the events did occur in the past (almost all agree that this includes Revelation chapters 1–3 involving the letters to the churches of Asia Minor at that time) while we await the fulfillment of others. (You will see how this shift from past events to future ones naturally occurs in the narrative of John’s visions when we get there.) Some of these concepts are often broken down into groups that fit into an “already-happened” versus a “hasn’t-happened-yet” label, and sometimes it’s both: Christ’s warnings “already happened” with the churches the letters were written to, while they still apply to us today, and therefore have “not yet happened” in our time. Although this sounds complicated, one quick and easy way to illustrate these concepts is to look at our own current salvation status.
The Word says that when we accept Christ, we become “a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). That is, while we are in this world and in our current physical state, we “already” become something we weren’t before, and the proof of that is observable in a changed nature. The Holy Spirit—if believers are sincere—is invited in and allowed to convict. Our old habits are passed away, and a relationship with God replaces any relationships we’ve had with pornography, alcohol, drugs, casual hook-ups at the bar, or whatever our individual’s vices might have been. Even smaller things, like giving someone “the bird” for cutting us off in traffic or being grumbly in a long line at the grocery store, are slowly uprooted and traded for righteous behavior. Or, perhaps the change is an internal one: we have faith in God where there was hopelessness before, or joy that overwhelms our sorrow. However it manifests, an authentic conversion from one who is lost into one who belongs to the Family of God can, and does, make that person new. This is the realization of salvation here, while we live on the earth. But because we give our lives to Jesus while we live in these bodies—the “already”—we will experience another change there, on the other side of this life, passing into eternity with perfect bodies like Christ’s post-Resurrection body, and perfected spiritual status, dwelling in the presence of God for all eternity: this is the full consummation of a biblical promise that completes the “not yet” side of our blessed hope. The “already” and “not yet” theology is apparent in some places of the book of Revelation. (We mostly explained all this to help readers who hear teachings about this by others in church or other venues of biblical study. Our book’s goal is to avoid confusing terminology wherever possible, so we won’t go into much of the already/not yet discussion. But since so many today are turning to more impersonal presentations of the Word—such as YouTube sermons, studies on ministry websites, etc.—we want to explain this for your benefit because it’s not easy to approach these “distant” teachers personally with questions.)
Also, early on in the study of biblical prophecy, it’s important to know about a concept called “dual [or “double”] fulfillment”: the idea that a prophecy in the Bible can refer to more than one fulfillment. (This is sometimes referred to as “short-term” vs. “long-term” fulfillments.) Historically, this concept has introduced some controversy. For example, Theodore of Mopsuestia, a Christian theologian from the earlier centuries (circa 350–428), would not believe that a single prophecy could refer to more than one future event. From his time forward, a number of well-trained theologians and scholars have agreed with him, and their concerns are valid: If we acknowledge the possibility of dual fulfillment, what stops us from opening another can of worms by saying that every headline on the news is the actualization of something foreseen? Eventually, that approach would make Christianity somewhat of a joke to unbelievers who observe from the outside that none of us agree or, more pejoratively stated, “Christians don’t even know what they believe.” (Consider how many possible “marks of the Beast” (the Antichrist) that have been brought to attention through the years. For example, most recently, Christian social media has been ablaze with warnings that the COVID-19 vaccine is “the mark.” One of Howell’s friends called her in a panic a couple of months ago asking her about this, and by the end of the conversation, this friend was comforted to learn that we still had time, as Howell explained various other prophecies from Revelation that have not yet been fulfilled, and the vaccine could not therefore be Antichrist’s prophesied, mandatory mark. Confusion like this is simply a part of what happens when the human race is given a peek into the supreme plan of a deity whose ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts [Isaiah 55:8–9]. Other “marks” have been improperly identified as being anything from credit cards to medical-history chips. We will discuss the mark later on, but suffice it to say here that it will be introduced alongside a mandatory-worship plan by a major political leader when it does occur, so that is one thing to watch for.)
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On the other hand, the Bible itself tends to favor the likelihood of dual fulfillment. For example: We frequently see Joel’s prophecy in chapters 2 and 3 about the Holy Spirit as referring to the Day of Pentecost. In order to illustrate the duality, we need to look at the whole prophecy:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call. For, behold, in those days, and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. (Joel 2:28–3:2)
In Acts, we read of a fulfillment of this prophecy, as acknowledged by Peter, himself, before a crowd of witnesses:
But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, “Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words…this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ [Note that this is the end of what Peter quotes from Joel; he then goes on to speak for himself once again:] Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs.” (Acts 2:14–22)
Both books, Joel and Acts, are canonized as the authoritative written Word of God. We therefore cannot say, “Well, Peter got it wrong. What happened on the Day of Pentecost had nothing to do with what Joel said,” unless we are among the minority that dabbles in the dangerous craft of picking and choosing which parts of the Word we will believe and which parts we won’t. Therefore, we have no choice but to see that what Joel prophesied was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. However, Peter gets to a certain point and stops quoting from the prophecy of Joel, even though Joel went on to describe things that did not happen on the Day of Pentecost: the gathering of all nations into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for example. Thus, Joel’s prophecy has been “already” fulfilled, while “not yet” at the same time, because we are awaiting the moment when all nations are gathered in this valley and the judgment of God falls upon all people. This event, futurists believe, occurs in the book of Revelation (more on this later). When it does occur in the future, we will have the second part of the “dual [or “double”] fulfillment.”
Balance is needed here: Interpreting a single Scripture or passage apart from the rest of the Word’s treatment of a topic leads to error. Responsible Christians will not find repetitive fulfillments each time another world event takes place, but, in credit to those who tend to do just this, they are watching the signs of the times, and it is these folks who will likely be the first to recognize when prophecies are coming into light in the future. So whereas we cannot applaud every panic, we do commend those who are being open-minded, end-times watchmen of signs.
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Not surprisingly, scholars frequently disagree about what events have and have not yet occurred and how they align with Revelation’s symbolism, breaking the futurist category into several subcategories, primarily differing in the interpretation of the timing of Christ’s thousand-year millennial reign on earth (Revelation 20):
Amillennialists: The “a” at the front of the word “amillennialism” here suggests “no millennial.” This is an unfortunate title, as amillennialists do believe in a millennial reign of Christ, but rather, they think it to be metaphorical: They believe Christ is reigning now, in this Church Age; no reign of Christ in a visible and earthly manner will occur. Mention of the “one thousand years” is also a metaphor, or a spiritual timeline: The “millennial reign” of our Lord began at His First Coming and ends at His Second Coming. Saints are experiencing this time currently, because we are free to preach the Gospel as the enemy was defeated through the work of the cross.
Our problem with this view: These interpretations offer little hope to Christians today in countries where we are not celebrating the reign of Christ, but where we are instead still being persecuted (sometimes to the point of death) for following Him. Therefore, amillennialism is primarily a Western theology that doesn’t truly apply worldwide. If we are to believe that this moment in time is the great and wonderful reign of Christ over all the earth, some of this grand promise from Scripture appears bleak in its fulfillment. Also, certain issues arise in this viewpoint that force inconsistent interpretation. For example: The two references to resurrection mentioned in Revelation 20:4–5 are described with identical words, and John’s writing doesn’t indicate in any way that he is referring to two different kinds of resurrection. However, amillennialism, with its emphasis on spiritualizing these events regarding the saints, often asserts the first resurrection to be a spiritual one and the second to be physical. Also, anytime a literal millennial reign is diminished to allegory, many, many of the Old Testament prophets’ words appear to be wrong (see Isaiah 9:6–7; 11:1–5; 40:9–10; Jeremiah 23:5–8; Daniel 7:13–14; Malachi 3:1–2 for just a few examples). And finally, we must ask: If the prophecies of Jesus were fulfilled literally in His First Advent, why wouldn’t there be a literal fulfillment of the millennial reign involving the same Messiah in His Second Advent?
Postmillennialists: Folks with this perspective believe Christ will return after the Millennium , which is a kind of Golden Age wherein Christians will enjoy worldwide influence and prosperity. John’s reference to a thousand-year reign is not literal; it simply means “a really long time.” Believers therefore are responsible for “Christianizing” the world—realizing the Kingdom of God here, as things get better and better over time—until Jesus sees that this place is worthy of His return, and only then will He come back.
Our problem with this view: To begin with, Revelation clearly and explicitly describes how things will get worse and worse (not better) before Jesus’ return. Several verses in the Epistles (for instance, 2 Timothy 3:1–7) also point to the increase of terrible times in these last days. Further, Jesus’ Kingdom was “not of this earth,” and it won’t be until this earth is taken from the enemy and given over to Christ (Revelation 11:15). If a postmillennialist sees Christ’s Kingdom as the “Christianizing” of this old world we’re currently living in, then we must revisit whether Jesus really meant what He said when He told His captors quite frankly that this current world was not His Kingdom. Additionally, we have a hard time believing that Christ, in all His authority, majesty, and power, is waiting on fallen, imperfect humanity—who has, since the time of Adam, messed up repeatedly—to perfect the world and the people within it. Many other hiccups arise in the postmillennialists’ allegorical interpretations that cause the meaning of the words in Revelation to become subjective to the reader, and when word definitions are dropped, we arrive, yet again, at the point wherein anyone can claim he or she has the answers to what John says in Revelation. It’s a battle, over and over, to get any two Christians to agree on what is really being stated.
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(Note, too, that many take “Christianizing the world” to mean an aggressive political stance in favor of a theocratic government. We do believe Christians should vote and be involved in the legislation of their land, but we don’t believe that ushering in a president or powerful political group representing God’s ideal is the same as a millennial reign; such an approach to Scripture would eventually come to embrace Antichrist, who will outwardly uphold God’s ideal for his own deceptive purposes in the beginning, ironically fulfilling the opposite of what God wants for His people and bringing in the Beast. However, we have reason to be grateful for postmillennialism. This method became a dominant movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Great Awakenings spread across American soil, and the spiritual results were so massively positive for the quickly growing Church that believers thought Christianizing the world was quite possible. Before the Great Awakenings, earlier settlers in the United States were largely amillennial. Yet, once the fever of duty hit these men and women with the promise that their earthly actions toward aggressive evangelizing would usher in the Second Coming, they raised churches, schools, missionary organizations, and all forms of ministry as a bedrock of American life. Essentially, the postmillennial, Puritan activists were the driving force behind how much of the Western world established its God-fearing roots in society. All this goes to show that even when Christian men and women are not united in perfect interpretational harmony, God blesses the sincerity of their hearts toward a reformed religious and social atmosphere on earth. This argues in favor of why interpretational differences regarding Revelation should never cause strife or division in the Body as it currently does. Christians can “part ways” on their beliefs about the future, but they must always remain “forever united” in evangelism!)
Premillennialists: Adherents to this thinking believe Christ’s return is set to occur before the Millennium. The era of peace, or the “Golden Age,” is the same era as the Millennium, ushered in by Christ, personally. The millennial reign is a literal, visible time in the future when Christ’s Kingdom on earth is realized. Put simply: The victory that was accomplished on the cross will be made known to the world and God’s enemies when Christ returns. The events of Revelation occur in a specific, chronological order once the visions are aligned, and characters (such as Antichrist) are real people who fulfill true religious and political roles within this order. The climax of the book of Revelation will play out in actual world events leading up to the apocalypse or the destruction of our current planet, which will then be replaced by a New Earth that somewhat resembles the perfection God intended at Creation before the Fall of man. From the correct standpoint that Scripture interprets Scripture (the principle that more than one passage in the whole of the Word helps bring into focus a particular verse), the premillennialist is less likely than some interpreters to read the Bible subjectively and believe any current event on earth is related to something Revelation says, because we take the whole of the Word into account in interpreting this one book. We believe the “literal” approach to the Bible is the correct way, unless such an approach creates an absurdity that language, grammar, syntax, and context show to symbolize or illustrate another concept. The premillennialist also allows for 2 Peter 1:20–21 to guide us when it states that no prophecy ever originated from within a prophet or came about by his own interpretations. Some in these previous categories self-interpret, looking for a deeper or more spiritual meaning than the events Revelation otherwise clearly teaches. Finally, in immense support of premillennialism are the words of Christ, Himself, when He said that the Son of Man will come from the heavens “immediately after the tribulation [and among some other astronomical signs]” (Matthew 24:21, 29–30; 25:31). This positions Christ’s return—not to be confused with the Rapture of the Church earlier on (in pre-Trib theology, which we will discuss in a moment)—after the Tribulation but before the millennial reign.
Again, we have no problem with this view. We are premillennialists, ourselves.
But it should be stated that even some of our closest associates in ministry fall under some of the former categories of interpreters, and we can (and do) break bread with these fellow believers without allowing our differences to stifle the unity we are commanded in the Word to share. Our biggest issue is not with folks who study the Word and come to a conclusion that’s different from ours, but with folks who come to a rigid conclusion without truly studying the Word. Likely, any readers who have made it to this point in our book belong to the former category, for even owning this book shows an interest in diving deeply into the Word of God, “rightly dividing” it and “showing themselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15). That said, we openly acknowledge that not every one of our readers will agree with our interpretation of Revelation, even if they follow our same interpretational methodology. The boundaries around each method, scholars acknowledge, “are difficult to classify. History is messy, and most prophetic movements do not consult with theologians before putting together their belief systems. Consequently, historians who trace these [interpretational] movements over time often find it very difficult to fit them into neat categories.”[i] Therefore, we hope the brothers and sisters who don’t agree with our approach are as willing as we are to continue being a part of God’s community alongside each other despite our differences.
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One last thought before we continue: Just as futurists fall into three main subgroups, premillennialists fall mostly into two subgroups: historical premillennialists and dispensational premillennialists. There are a number of differences between these two labels (including the question of when the Church actually started—Old Testament or New—but note that until the events recorded in Genesis 12, “Jews” were not in existence), but the main variation that tends to come up early on regards the Rapture of the saints. From there, interpretational differences include those centering on concepts of the afterlife, the Millennium, and the resurrection of the saints.
Historical premillennialism is closer to what the early Church (heavily influenced by Judaism) believed, including most of the Church fathers (but note that by the fourth century, because of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, amillenialism arose as a major movement). The Church will be here on earth during the Tribulation and will be rewarded for its faithful service afterward at the Second Advent (post-tribulation view; frequently shortened to “post-trib”). For most historical premillennialists, the millennial reign is a literal reign, while reference to it lasting a thousand years can be figurative language describing a very lengthy time. This method navigates the Old Testament treatment of the Tribulation and the Millennium and compares it to concepts of the New Temple using the Major Prophets’ words regarding the restoration of Israel: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel pronounced judgment on both pagan nations and Judah, building up to themes such as return from exile, universal domination, and the New Temple.
From A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology—a collaborative effort by several scholars—an “X is Y” formula is introduced as necessary to justify any kind of allegory within the historical premillennial method: If the text directly states something (X) is something else (Y), it can be allegory, while any other language must be interpreted as literal. Using the “dry bones” example from Ezekiel 37, the bones (X) were interpreted directly within the text to be the house of Israel (Y). In that case, the bones are allegory, while everything else is literal, such as the New Temple in Ezekiel 40–43.[ii] The post-exile community of Ezekiel’s readers didn’t interpret the promised Temple restoration as a metaphor, and neither should contemporaries, these scholars say. The removal of God’s presence from the old Temple in Ezekiel was literal, so the last Temple, and all of its descriptions, would be also, suggesting that God personally restores the Old Covenant with His people, Israel, in the last days. The problem with such an approach is that, in Revelation 21:22, the Temple is God and the Lamb. When asked for answers to this conundrum, one scholar who contributed to A Case for Historic Premillennialism, Richard Hess, states that he “cannot easily harmonize the two streams of teaching in the New Testament.”[iii] Rather than to see this “God and Lamb” Temple-speak from Revelation as possible evidence that any eschatological temple/Temple is allegorical or figurative fulfillment through only the power and presence of God (or that a literal temple on earth could be some kind of end-time trickery by Antichrist), he inadequately and inexplicably maintains his trail of proof that the Old Testament Temple will be restored during the Millennium even though he can’t “harmonize” that with the New Testament. (We are not suggesting this is the approach of all historical premillennials. We do, however, see this same kind of interpretational hiccups in a lot of their arguments.)
Scholars of this method draw many conclusions from ancient Jewish writings, wherein the “messianic age” (a sort of Millennium interpretation) is followed by such concepts as the raising of the dead and the afterlife—though interpretations of timeline range from “forty to seven thousand years.”[iv] Despite this dramatic variation, these texts, as these scholars interpret, collectively teach that this time of peace will be immediately preceded by suffering, so Christ’s return is premillennial, but the Rapture is post-tribulational . To get to these conclusions, many extrabiblical Jewish writings—texts from Intertestamental Period, rabbinic literature from the patristic age, and even later Jewish texts—are consulted. Whereas this may appear to be a fair approach, Helene Dallaire (another collaborator in the aforementioned book) admits that a single, collective Jewish teaching on any of these themes is not possible, as her entire chapter has shown that very few of these ancient documents agree.[v]
In further support of these conclusions (that some would understandably find confusing), collaborator and editor of the work, Craig Blomberg, explains that, according to Jewish apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the War Scroll of Qumran), the whole reason for the Messiah’s return is to “intervene and save his people from unprecedented distress in this world,” which is the Tribulation,[vi] suggesting that the Church will be on the earth at that time. Blomberg expresses that the 144,000 (from Revelation 7:1–8) are “servants of God” (generically) who are on earth during the Tribulation.[vii] Paul’s use of “tribulation” in Colossians 1:24 may, Blomberg states, allude to “a fixed amount of suffering” for Christians just before the Messiah’s return. The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:21; Mark 4:17) can be interpreted as the Tribulation for Christians, as can the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:9–29; Mark 13:19–24). Blomberg believes the word “tribulation” is used in Acts 11:19 to refer to the diaspora and persecution of Christians, and in Acts 14:22, Christians must endure Tribulation to enter the Kingdom of God.[viii] Blomberg draws from these teachings (and others we won’t include because of space limitations) that the Tribulation began at the desecration of the Temple in AD 70 and will end at His Second Coming; therefore, any possible pre-Tribulational Rapture would have to have occurred before AD 70.[ix]
Later on, scholar Sung Wook Chung continues the case for historic premillennialism by proposing an alternative reading of Genesis 1–2 to show that earth was a “kingdom” from the beginning. In Genesis 1:26–28, humanity is created in the image of God as “vice-regents” with dominion over the earth, which is their “kingdom” of the “reign of God on the earth.”[x] Chung maintains that “Eden” was God’s first “temple.” The dominion God gave Adam was “physical/kingly.” Therefore, the Covenant between God and Abraham shares this literal, physical nature. The messianic prophecy of Genesis 3:15 thereby points to restoration of the dominion-kingdom that was lost at the Fall of man. This restoration will occur through the “last Adam” in the literal millennial reign.[xi]
Whereas we find this book and others like it to make a few compelling arguments that challenge the thinking of the dispensationalist, we don’t believe the matter is irrefutably settled.
Dispensational premillennialism claims that Christ will return before the Millennium, and the Church will be raptured away before the seven-year period known as the Tribulation. It also holds to a literal interpretation of Scripture, or, as one end-times writer from another collaborative work coins, a “normal use of hermeneutics.”[xii] In this method, there are seven epochs of time known as “dispensations,” and we are currently in the sixth (the seventh is the millennial reign that follows the Second Advent). For most dispensationalists, the millennial reign is literal, as well as one thousand years long.
Since Jesus was the literal fulfillment of Old-Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, prophecies referring to His return and His millennial reign should be expected to be literally fulfilled as well, cancelling the overspiritualized amillennialism. (This also allows for 2 Peter 1:20–21 to guide us when it states that no prophecy ever originated from within a prophet’s own understanding or interpretation.) As we mentioned prior, the dispensationalist sees that Revelation 6–18 shows events getting worse before Jesus’ return, and 2 Timothy 3:1–7 also describes the increase in terrible events, cancelling postmillennialism.
One feature of dispensational premillennialism is that it maintains “a sharp and clear distinction between Israel and the church,”[xiii] meaning that God would have two separate, spiritual-redemption plans for two people groups in the last days. These scholars also believe that Scriptures in the Old Testament pointing to the Millennial Kingdom (Daniel 2:34–35, 44; Isaiah 2:2–4; and Micah 4:1–8) are literal, while the New Testament adds confirmation to these ideas (Luke 1:32–33; Matthew 24:1–25:46; Revelation 20). Therefore, dispensationalists say, the Millennium will play out differently for Israel/Jews than it will for Christians. The New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–33 was distinctly (and again literally) made with Judah, or Israel, and not Christians. God’s promises about the restoration of the land, Temple, and worship system as defined in Ezekiel 40:1–48:35 must be fulfilled in the manner described—which would not refer to Christians, since Jesus was the one Sacrifice for all.
However, this view is evolving, as many contemporary scholars acknowledge that dispensationalism is beginning to allow “greater continuity between the Testaments” than before.[xiv] This hybrid dispensationalism (sometimes categorized under the term “progressive dispensationalism”) maintains a premillennial timeline with a pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine, but allows for the merger of the Church with Israel in God’s ultimate plan. This approach “has preserved many valuable insights from traditional [or classic] dispensational readings of Scripture,” while avoiding the pitfall of splitting them “into irreconcilable [end-time] programs.”[xv]
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
BEHOLD HIDDEN MYSTERIES CONNECTING THE OLD TESTAMENT “OPENING MIND” WITH THE SCROLL “SEALED WITH SEVEN SEALS”
Dispensational premillennialism was not widely taught in Church history until the nineteenth century (as heavily introduced by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren at the third Powerscourt Conference in 1833), but arriving late in the interpretive game doesn’t necessarily make all of its theology wrong. As many researchers into the background of eschatological subjects will concur, the early Church was so focused on establishing who and what Jesus was (refer back to the section “Where and How Some Went Wrong,” wherein we illustrated that so much focus of the first three or four centuries was upon the hypostatic union between Father and Son) that the Millennium and the Rapture took a back seat in scholarly discussion. The early Church fathers were, for the most part, unanimously premillennial, so nobody really challenged that area, and the pre-trib/post-trib (and the other “trib” stances) were not discussed until far later. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when a new and more successful platform was established upon which theologians could “challenge the hierarchy” and produce fresh exegesis of Scripture, the entire Church was so entrenched in and occupied with proving or refuting Roman Catholic doctrines and practices like the sale of indulgences and so on that Rapture timing was, again, not a priority.[xvi] When Christendom finally did calm down enough to tackle a discussion about Rapture timing and other theological issues formerly considered marginal, dispensationalism came a few centuries later, so it’s not alarmingly “young in the game,” all things considered. It took three centuries just to decide what “substance” Christ was, so in this case, the race to “who got there first” is even less important than it normally is.
As for which of these two groups we belong to, we tend to lean toward dispensational, pre-Trib, premillennialism, but we don’t agree on every conclusion it has drawn. For instance, let’s look at the idea that the Old Covenant will be restored by God for Israel in every literal way, including the priesthood, customs, and animal sacrifices of the Jews in the Old Testament. The main problem we have with this is trying to comprehend why, when Jesus was the ultimate Sacrifice for all, there would ever need to be a return to the former system…? Darby’s teachings, solidified circa 1840, maintained God’s “two peoples” and “two plans” theology—“the Church” and “Israel” being given different covenantal treatment in the end times—and God could only restore Israel after the Rapture of the Church saints. However, we admit that his “two peoples” and “restoration of Israel” reasoning for this division is suspect as there is little biblical evidence to suggest that God has two separate plans for His followers. (See Hebrews 9:28; 10:3–4, 12, 14 for an absolute and outright refutation of this idea.) Rather, we believe the literal Temple of the Jews will be restored…but that it will be a tool for mass deception by Antichrist and it will be replaced by the plan of God throughout the Millennial Kingdom and in the New Temple, not because God has “two peoples” and therefore “two redemptive plans regarding them.” (Antichrist will defile the Temple of the Jews in the end times, suggesting that before that moment, politically and socially, he has much clout in the religious establishment of that day, including the support of the Jews’ religion and worship practices.) This is only one area where our interpretations of prophetic opinion places us in a minority “hybrid” group all our own.
But that’s not to say that such an approach is irresponsible, or that it means we don’t know what camp we belong to—and we note this for the benefit of others out there (including you?) who also read a lot of eschatological materials and find that there are flaws in each of them. The more we study the mysteries of Revelation, the more we realize that a scholar could have a hundred doctorates in theology and still be challenged by the words of John’s visions we’re about to dive into. We are absolute futurist premillennials, but when it comes to historical versus dispensational, pre-trib versus post-trib, and so on, there are arguments from almost all sides that we find to be convincing alongside many interpretations that “cheat” Scripture to arrive at their clean conclusions, so we are choosing not to draw any hard lines around a particular group in which we belong where this is concerned.
(A funny title that probably started out as a joke back in the 1980s or so is “pan-Trib,” so named after the phrase, “It will all pan out in the end.” Also, the prefix “pan” means “all,” so, more elaborately, the phrase could be “I respect all tribulational theories.” It has gained so much momentum that, today, there are “pan-Tribbers” all over the globe, including some of us. This stance doesn’t excuse irresponsibility or indicate a lack of interest in the Word of God; rather, the label helps unite two communities—pre-tribbers and post-tribbers—that have been historically warring for dominance since the rise of dispensationalist theology in the nineteenth century. [The “mid-Tribulation” view, as the name suggests, asserts that the Rapture will occur at the middle of the Tribulation, right about the time Antichrist defaults on all his promises to Israel. There is another view that is less common but equally fascinating called “pre-wrath,” which positions the Rapture directly prior to the moment that God’s supreme wrath is poured out upon the earth. What precise moment that is referring to varies depending on the speaker, but most often these folks believe the “great day of…wrath” from Revelation 6:17 is that fateful instant that occurs just between the last seal and the first trumpet.] In the end, we will see who is right and who is wrong when it all plays out. Meanwhile, personal “pet theologies” that cause strife or division among believers are simply not worth it any more than investigating the subject of “food offered to idols” to the embarrassment of fellow brothers was worth it in Paul’s day. We may personally prefer the pre-Trib side of the issue theologically, as it makes the most sense to us, but we are also happy to accept a pan-Tribber position socially.)
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That said, we’ll just share a couple of pre-Trib thoughts in case some readers are new to the concept and find the Tribulation terrifying (just two verses, we promise).
- First Thessalonians 5:9a directly states about believers: “For God hath not appointed us to wrath.” If God didn’t appoint us for His wrath, why would we be here on earth when His extreme wrath will fall upon everyone during the Tribulation? This question gets even meatier when we consider that the whole purpose of the Tribulation is to give everyone on earth one final chance to turn to God. Why would that apply to believers who have already given their lives to God? According to many interpreters who specialize in the timing of Revelation events, the Church will be experiencing certain things during the Tribulation, such as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, supporting the idea that we would be gone by the start of the Tribulation. (Support for this idea is partly found in the order of events. The Marriage Supper of the Lamb, involving all saints together, takes place in Revelation 19:7–9, and then Christ comes to establish the millennial reign in Revelation 19:11–20. How could He have this Supper without us, the saints, who are the subject of this feast, if we are on earth suffering at the time?)
- Second, in Revelation 3:10 (in the letter to the church in Philadelphia), Christ states: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” Initially, this English rendering makes it sound like Jesus is going to keep people from being tempted. The “hour of temptation” is frequently (and for good reason) translated as “the hour of trial.” The Greek word used here, peirasmos, can be translated “temptation,” but first and foremost, in this context, the word means “trial, probation, testing, being tried.”[xvii] It is derived from another Greek word, peirazo, which scholars collectively acknowledge to state: “I make trial of, try, test… God tests man by means of suffering or in some other way.”[xviii] More accurately, then, Christ is here promising to “keep” His followers from “the hour of trial” that will come “upon all the world,” the folks who are “upon the earth,” as it pertains to how God will “test man by means of suffering.” Who is He keeping from having to suffer the trials upon the earth in that hour if His plan is not to Rapture the saints before the Tribulation? That His promise here would only apply to the Christians in Philadelphia is unreasonable, because the blessings and warnings of the letters to the seven churches of Revelation are unanimously agreed among academics to be relevant to all people of all time. Some believe the true intent of His words were that He intends to “protect” believers during that time, but if that’s the case, why did He mince words? Why wouldn’t He just say “protect during” instead of “keep thee from”? And lastly, He didn’t only say He would “keep thee from trial,” He specifically said “the hour of,” which denotes a specific time period (a key element of eschatology that further supports that the Tribulation is in view here).
It’s food for thought, anyway…
But, in addition to offering a crash-course, two-verse reflection on behalf of the pre-Trib theology for those seeking reassurance, we shared our leaning to make a very important point: There are certainly wonderful, sincere pre-Tribbers who are very concerned with what happens to people after they are raptured away, as they believe they will be. However, for other pre-Tribbers, there tends to be a self-righteous attitude that permeates their faith in this one area, making them somewhat Pharisaic in their ministry to others. These are the folks who say, “What do I care what happens after I’m gone? People had their chance to accept Christ and they didn’t, so now they will suffer. The issue of the Tribulation regarding [fill-in-the-blank event] doesn’t matter to me anyway, because I’m not going to be here. I’ll be with Jesus in the clouds.” We can sit down with a fellow believer and agree on every one of their eschatological conclusions, and still feel as if we have little in common with them if this is their callous approach to those who remain. The Great Commission of Christ was paramount to what makes the Church His Family. If we start watching the signs of the times and find ourselves to be “the enlightened ones”—who can’t be troubled to truly care and pray for those who will go through the most intense suffering in human history—we have no business calling ourselves followers of the Man who demanded that His people love the lost.
If you’re pre-Trib, we challenge you: Look for every opportunity you can for the works of your life to outlive you. If the Rapture does take all the saints from the world, that event will be a message to the lost in itself, but those who are still on earth will only have what remains of your ministry (and of others) after you’re gone to help them find and come to know the precious Yeshua. Assuming you are willing to live your life today as if it will affect your grandchildren, as most likely do, then live as though everything you do will be presented to a future generation of souls who matter just as much to God as your own family. For we will not know the hour of Christ’s return, and we must be ready always: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:14).
Quick Note Regarding Sources
Going forward, part of our research centers on several works from renowned Revelation expert and theologian, Gregory K. Beale. Though he has been described by others in the field as personally belonging to amillennial leanings, of all the multiple studies out there on Revelation, his wholly unbiased approach is the most thorough. It encompasses, quite exhaustively, the numerous methodologies that have been raised throughout Church history from every known interpretational angle, discussing the strengths and/or weaknesses of each opinion. Because of his in-depth, systematic breakdowns and immense knowledge of ancient languages and culture, alongside his frequently neutral treatment of all passages, his collection has been championed as both a fair and meticulous visitation into Revelation by many, including the well-known ancient Hebrew and Greek theologian, Dr. Michael Heiser. We believe, for this reason and many others (such as his willingness to visit extrabiblical documents relating to some subjects in Revelation), Beale is a responsible first (but not only) source for us to consult regarding the harder passages.
A few other sources we’ve found immensely helpful are Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown’s Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible; Albert Barnes’ Barnes’ Notes; Kendall Easley’s Revelation: Volume 12; Bruce Barton’s Revelation; and Leon Morris’ Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 20.
We will now turn to the common symbols and their most frequently assigned meanings, followed by a short analysis of the sequence of judgments, and then the body of the text within Revelation.
Because of Revelation’s extensive use of numbers and symbols, it’s easy to get lost in what means what in this apocalyptic book. Though the following list isn’t necessarily every premillennial scholar’s opinion, generally, folks in the academic world agree on the following list of symbols and their meanings (or what they link to). It’s a good idea to get familiar with these now, and to bookmark them for reference later (but note that we clarify them as we go along, too):
Numbers (in numerical order, whether literal or not):
- One: certain special use is capitalized in many translations; often refers to God and infers the union of the Trinity
- Two: indicates confirmation (like Old Testament rules of “two witnesses” and so on)
- Three: Trinity
- Four: the earth
- Six: the number of man; evil
- Seven: the number of God; goodness; divine confirmation, fullness, or completion; sometimes meaning “infinite”
- Ten: politics or political completion; the rule of man; man’s government; often relating to the man of sin in charge over man’s government
- Twelve: another number of God relating to the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, and their relation to sacred items or images; also, like “seven,” relating to divine confirmation, fullness, or completion, but this time in regard to God’s ultimate and final plan
- One quarter/one-third: measurement of judgment
- Three and a half: half of seven; midway point of the Tribulation; temporary circumstances
- Ten thousand: the largest number in Koine Greek (without having to add) representing an indefinitely large amount or number; can translate to “myriad”
- One hundred forty-four thousand: the number of the elect people of God, based on twelve thousand times twelve (therefore possibly meaning “complete”)
- Two hundred million: representing the number of people alive on earth (figurative language of John’s time); can translate to “two myriads of myriads”
- Lion/Lamb: capitalized in many translations; always refers to Jesus
- Wild beasts: Antichrist; False Prophet
- Frogs: demons
- Horses: military power; invasion
- Black: chaos; tragedy; disaster; misfortune
- Red: war; blood; violence
- Scarlet: royalty; luxury; immoral, immodest, or shameful
- Purple: divine royalty; extravagance
- Gold: royalty; glory; brilliance; magnificence
- Pale/pale green: death; mortality; plagues; sickness
- White: cleanliness; washed clean; purity; something/someone ancient or ancient wisdom
- Green/Emerald: rest; relaxation; rejuvenation; something refreshing
- Alpha and Omega: literally, the “alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and the “omega” is the last letter; representing God as the “First and the Last” eternal authority and comprehension of, and over, all earthly things
- Harlot [sometimes “whore”] of Babylon: false religion; one-world superchurch of Antichrist; the one the Beast devours
- Angel(s): messenger(s) of God who carries out His commands and the events of the book
- Woman: people; cities/regions that represents certain people groups (like Israel being known as a “she”)
- Bride/Bride of the Lamb: matrimonial term representing the people of God, the Church, and, some say, the New Jerusalem
- Seven churches: literal churches active in Asia Minor at the time Revelation was written; today their warnings and messages are directed to the contemporary Church universal
- Twenty-four elders: first, as members of the heavenly court; second, as the addition of the twelve tribes to the twelve apostles; third, some say “people of God,” generally, as is represented by the twelve tribes and twelve apostles in history
- Antichrist: Man of Sin; literally the one who appears “opposite of” and/or “instead of” Christ (terminology discussed later), resembling Jesus and His works but from wicked, evil motives to deceive; the great politician who establishes both his one-world order and one-world religion
- Dragon: Satan; some say the “ancient serpent”
- Babylon: “city” (or territories) of wicked, evil people, belonging to the Man of Sin
- Jerusalem/New Jerusalem: “city” (or territories) of good, righteous, and faithful people who belong to God
- Sodom: in context of Revelation: less of a “place” and more of a symbol of rebellion/hostility against God (as the Sodomites of the Old Testament were); symbol of apostasy (see: Deuteronomy 32:32; Isaiah 1:9; Ezekiel 16:46, 49, 55; Jeremiah 23:14)
- Egypt: like “Sodom,” less of a “place” and more a symbol of rebellion/hostility against God and His purposes or plans (as the Egyptians of the Old Testament were)
- The sea: symbolic habitation of evil and destructive forces; “sea of humanity”
- Armageddon: location of the final showdown between good and evil
- Crowns/coronets/diadems (or other headdresses related to royalty): royal authority and/or power
- Thrones: royalty; authority
- Heads and horns: kings; rulers; power; authority; sometimes a kingdom
- Sword: judgment of God; Word of God
- Robes/long robes: priesthood; priests
- Eyes: knowledge
- Palms: victory
- Wings: mobility; fastness or swiftness; omnipresence of God
- Lampstands: the seven churches of Asia Minor; by extension, the Church universal and/or Israel’s faithful
- Seals: fixtures on the scroll representing the contract of mankind’s redemption; the first of three judgment series
- Trumpets: instrument representing the announcement of an event (possibly also the voice of God as opposed to a literal trumpet blast); the second of three series of judgments
- Bowls that “pour out”: represents the vessels that pour down the third and final of the three judgment series of God
UP NEXT: Judgments: Parallel or Sequential?
[i] Weber, T. P., “Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism…” chapter one in: Blomberg & Chung, A Case for Historic Premillennialism… 4.
[ii] Blomberg, C. L. & S. W. Chung (Eds.), A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2009), 30.
[iii] Ibid., 35.
[iv] Ibid., 40.
[v] Ibid., chapter 4.
[vi] Ibid., 62.
[vii] Ibid., 63, 76–77.
[viii] Ibid., 71.
[ix] Ibid., 74.
[x] Ibid., 137.
[xi] Ibid., 138–142.
[xii] Mayhue, R., MacArthur, J. F., Jr., Busenitz, N., Waymeyer, M., & Vlach, M, Christ’s Prophetic Plans: A Futuristic Premillennial Primer (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers; 2012), 208.
[xiii] Hays, J. D., “Prophecy and Eschatology in Christian Theology,” as quoted in: M. J. Boda & G. J. McConville (Eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Inter-Varsity Press; 2012), 607.
[xiv] Gentry, K. L., Jr., “A Postmillennial Response to Craig A. Blaising,” as quoted in: S. N. Gundry & D. L. Block (Eds.), Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 1999), 228.
[xv] Ibid., 182–186.
[xvi] Hoyt, Herman A., The End Times (BMH Books ed. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute of Chicago; 2012), 91.
[xvii] Souter, A., A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, on page 197, under “πειρασμός.”
[xviii] Ibid., under “πειράζω.”