It’s the End of the World As We Know It – Interpretive Methods


The ABC’s of Reading the Book

I remember sitting in my fifth grade Sunday School class at the Church I was raised in. The Pastor’s son was the teacher. He was a huge hulk of a man. He was impressive in stature and in confidence. I believed every word that came from his mouth and it was never questioned.

We had a pretty boring lesson one Sunday so he hurried through it and decided to open the class up for questions of all sorts. My best friend, Steve, was sitting next to me. Steve asked if the Rapture would happen within the next year because he heard so many people make that claim at the time. This was during the prophetic uproar of the mid to late 1970’s when the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet earth was at its zenith.

I knew the real reason Steve was asking the question. This was fifth grade which meant we would be allowed to go to our first Youth Camp that Summer and between the horseback riding, getting away from home and the GIRLS, we did not want to miss out on this traditional rite of passage from boyhood  to manhood!

The Pastor’s son reassured us that the rapture surely couldn’t happen within the next year because there were way too many prophetic signs relating to the Rapture that simply had not taken place yet. This included things we didn’t understand like the rebuilding of a Temple in Jerusalem and the needed election of a truly evil man as President of the United States. The newly elected President at the time was a nice, Southern Baptist man with a genial drawl in his voice whose only great sin was agreeing to an interview in Playboy magazine. He most assuredly wasn’t the embodiment of evil necessary to be labeled the Beast, Antichrist or Son of Perdition.

When questioned further as to why he believed without a shadow of a doubt that these things had to take place before the Rapture could occur, he responded with calm assurance, “Those things I mentioned are all supposed to take place before the rapture – in the FUTURE!”

Steve and I felt assured. And I most definitely was relieved…I hadn’t even held hands with Dawn yet!


Before continuing on to a more detailed description and analysis of the previously discussed Millennial positions it would be wise to first consider the process by which an individual reads prophetic passages in Scripture. These are the interpretive methods that guide the reader and have the single most important impact on how the reader comes to a particular conclusion regarding prophetic passages under consideration.

Just like the previously mentioned Millennial views there are also four different primary interpretive methods. These four are most notable and distinguishable when they are employed in understanding the book of Revelation. The different methods are also used when discussing other popular prophetic passages like Daniel 9 (the Seventy Weeks prophecy) and the Olivet Discourse (Matthews 24), but are most clearly determined while reading the Apocalypse.

The four Interpretive Methods are:

  1. Idealism
  2. Historicism
  3. Futurism
  4. Preterism

It is important to understand a few things about these interpretive methods before defining and discussing them in more detail. The first is that there is no one to one correlation between the interpretive methods listed above and the Millennial positions discussed in the previous chapter. By that I mean that Postmillennialist are not necessarily Preterist and Premillennialist are not necessarily Futurist. Different adherents to each Millennial position may use any number of the above interpretive methods.

I know, that would be too easy!

Though nearly all Premillennialist are futurist by definition there are many Premillennialist that are Historicists and it would be quite possible to find an Idealist that is Premillennial as well.

The same could be said for Postmillennialist as many today are Preterist, some are Idealist and most traditional or historical Postmillennialist were Historicist. Amillennialism, which is most often associated with Idealism can also find adherents that employ the Preterist, Historicist and even the Futurist (though rare) interpretive methods.

The other point worthy of discussion before proceeding is that many students of eschatology will employ a combination of the above interpretive methods within their eschatological studies. In fact, it is very rare to find a proponent of one particular view exclusively employing just one interpretive method, though one will clearly be the most dominant method.

Most Preterist also believe that some events described in Scripture are yet to take place and interpret those events accordingly, while at the same time interpreting some passages in a clearly figurative, or Idealistic manner. Most Idealist, who understand much in prophetic utterances to be understood symbolically, also teach that many events are actual historical events that have been fulfilled (Preterism) and that there are also future events yet to be fulfilled (Futurism).

The Historicist may read the entire Book of Revelation from the perspective that it describes events that will take place throughout the entire Church Age, but may also read the Olivet Discourse found in the first three Gospels (most notably Matthew 24) as an event from our distant past, which would be using the Preterist interpretive method.

So, like the previously discussed Millennial positions, the interpretive methods are not as cut and dry as the student might hope. The discussion, then, revolves around how and when to use the differing methods when interpreting prophetic passages.

Just as we defined the Millennial positions briefly in the previous chapter, below you will find the Interpretive Methods defined for ease of reference. These very short definitions should be viewed as complete, but only for the purpose of understanding the method enough to continue the discussion in future chapters. Also the reader should be directed to reference the Glossary of theological terms found in the back of the book.


The book of Revelation is a chronological picture of the history of the Church Age running from the first advent of Christ through the Second Coming and into the Eternal State. This is the view of most of the Protestant Reformers but it currently has the fewest number of adherents due most likely to constant revisions needed to keep the timeline going throughout Church history. This view, though, has been the most commonly held view in Church history up until the last century. Most modern Seventh Day Adventist would employ this method. This method is primarily used within the confines of the book of Revelation and is not normally employed when discussing the Olivet Discourse, Daniel 9 or other popular prophetic passages.


The book of Revelation is seen as primarily figurative or symbolic in nature. It is interpreted as a cyclical look at the history (and future) of the Church through constant ebbs and flows of victory and defeat for the Church throughout history. The events and images used in the Apocalypse should not be considered actual historical or future events, but rather symbols or images of events that the Church encounters throughout her entire history. Like the above mentioned historicist view, the Idealistic method is most prominent within the pages of the book of Revelation and is not normally employed to interpret other prophetic passages.


The book of Revelation and nearly all New Testament and much Old Testament prophetic utterances are yet to be fulfilled in time. The futurist uses this method not only within the confines of the book of Revelation, but also throughout the rest of Scripture. Many futurists (primarily Dispensationalist) also argue that many prophecies related to the first advent of Christ have been postponed until the Second Coming of Christ. These would primarily include Kingdom prophecies.


The book of Revelation and nearly all New Testament prophecy is now history and has seen its primary fulfillment through events relating to the siege and destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 AD at the hands of the Roman armies. Though most will argue there are still events that have yet to be fulfilled within the pages of the book of Revelation, most, if not all of the Apocalypse and other related New Testament prophecies have been fulfilled. So, unlike Idealism and Historicism, Preterism is used as an interpretive method throughout the Scriptures. Preterist, in contrast to the Futurists, argue that the Kingdom prophecies are present realities for the Church.

It should be noted here that some Preterist are what is called “full-Preterist” and believe that all prophecy is complete and there is no literal future Second Coming of Christ. Though this view is worthy of consideration and may be mentioned in upcoming chapters, that view will not be the view in mind when the term Preterist or Preterism is used. Within these pages, the term Preterism should be seen as relating to the view that most prophetic passages have been fulfilled but that there is yet a future Second Coming of Jesus Christ, a consummation of all things, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Judgment of Christ  and the Eternal State when the Kingdom is handed over to the Father (1 Corinthians 15).


But just how does this work out in the real world of Biblical Interpretation?

Let’s consider the popular prophetic passage below taken from the book of Revelation. Albeit from the outset it is a little unfair to all positions to start in the middle of such a difficult and challenging book; our purpose here is not to exegete the passage with fine accuracy and pinpoint precision, but to reveal just how the four different views may interpret this popular passage and to show the vastly different conclusions the interpretive methods provide.

It should be noted that these interpretations below are not held by all of those who hold to a particular position, but rather they are popular and broad descriptions and positions held that will hopefully help the reader distinguish between the particular views. Not only that but the descriptions below are only “scratching the surface” on the interpretive exegesis of this passage and a more detailed exposition can be found in Steven Gregg’s wonderful book, “Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary” as well as in the follow up book to the one you are reading entitled, “An Evangelically Incorrect Guide to the Book of Revelation.”

Rev 13: 1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”


The Historicist may quite possibly interpret the above passage as to represent the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Beast, which later is said to be nation located on seven hills, is the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and the seven heads represent the different popes during that time.

This Beast is said to make war against the Saints who are believed to be the Protestant Reformers. But the Saints eventually prevail and this New Babylon of the Roman Catholic Church is defeated and destroyed. The connection to Rome is obvious and the over-powering influence of the Roman Catholic Church is undeniable at that time. This would place Revelation 13 in the 15th to 17th century timeline of events.


The idealist looks at this same passage and sees and powerful image of the ever-present activity of the evil forces against the Church throughout her history. The beast is no one particular enemy the church has faced, but rather a combination of enemies as shown in the combination of beastly characters described as being combined to create this image.

This could be the Romans on the first three centuries, Islam of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century and the influences of modernism, post-modernism and humanism of the present age. Rather than an actual enemy represented, the Idealist sees the constant and never ending battle against the princes and powers of the earth battling against the Bride of Christ.


This popular view quite possibly sees this passage representing yet future evil nation that has set itself against the people of God during the seven year tribulation time period. The Beast is also known as the Antichrist and the nation he controls is actually the one world government that is soon to rise.

This nation in question is quite possibly a united and revived Roman Empire disguised currently as the European Common Market. This could be related to the seven heads or the ten horns of the Beast. This is said to take place in the near future and will come complete with a new monetary and economic program and a systematic persecution of the followers of God.


This historic and recently increasing popular view would interpret the same passage above as being directly related to the time leading up to the destruction of the city and Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Army lead by General Titus and commanded by then emperor Vespasian (Titus’ father).

The Beast is seen as a whole image as the Nation of Rome as the city on seven hills would allude to and the seven heads represent the first seven emperors of Rome. The sixth head that was reigning at the time of John’s writing was the evil tyrant Nero. Nero would be the “Beast” specifically representing the nation of Rome and was responsible for the intense persecution that the Christians (Saints) faced during the first century.

Nero was killed by the sword through his neck (head) and his resurrection is seen in the revival of the Roman Empire that was assumed to be dealt a deadly blow at his death. As the last in the line of Julius it was assumed the Nero’s death would bring in an end to the roman Empire as it was known at the time.


These four different views examine the exact text and come to four radically different conclusions. This is based solely on the presuppositionally accepted interpretive methods.

The question then becomes; how does one come to a particular interpretive method and how can one know whether that method is accurate? That is the crux of the discussion and it is the hope of this writer that over the next several chapters the methods and their strengths and weaknesses will become more evident.


Over the next several chapters we will examine in more the detail the four primary millennial positions. In that discussion we will see how different interpretive methods come into play and how both the timing and nature questions are answered by each view. We will also discuss those who held or currently hold to those positions.

Finally in the next section we will spend a great deal of time discussing the most popular view, Dispensational Premillennialism. This discussion will include its history, interpretive method and impact on the current evangelical world. The emphasis on the discussion of the view does not portend to reveal the author’s particular view, but rather, since the view is so commonly engrained in our evangelical experience that a thorough discussion and critique is necessary.


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