on 18 December 2010
The Book of Revelation, attributed to the apostle John, has mystified Christians ever since it was first written. This volume contains contributions from four Protestants, each defending a different interpretation of the book.
Unfortunately, only two of the articles are readable: Kenneth Gentry's defence of Preterism (or Partial Preterism) and Sam Hamstra's argument for Idealism. Robert Thomas' text on "Classical" Dispensationalism (actually a 19th century novelty) is barely readable, and C. Marvin Pate's article on Progressive Dispensationalism is incomprehensible. Weirdly, Pate is both a contributor and the editor of this volume. In all fairness, it should be noted that all contributions are heavy reading unless you already have a working knowledge of Revelation. Within those parameters, however, Gentry and Hamstra did the better job expounding their respective positions.
Gentry's and Hamstra's articles are also the most interesting. Everyone "knows" that Revelation is supposed to be about future events. Non-believers see it as a failed prophecy about the future. The large number of fundamentalists and cults which spin weird, apocalyptic scenarios based on Revelation certainly add to this impression. It may therefore surprise people that some conservative Christians deny that Revelation is about events in our future.
Gentry argues that Revelation was written already during the reign of Nero and predicts events in John's future but our past. Thus, most of the prophecies in Revelation have already been fulfilled. Gentry believes that Revelation, in allegorical form, deals with the Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The "return" of Jesus was actually a spiritual return, whereby the heavenly Christ punished the unrepentant Jews with war, pestilence, famine and eventual dispersion. (Note the anti-Semitic overtones.) Gentry never argues for his early dating of Revelation. Interested readers should consult his book "Before Jerusalem Fell".
Hamstra believes that Revelation isn't about any specific period in history at all. Rather, it depicts the constant struggles of Christians against persecution in every age. It's also a message of hope to Christians in every age. Hamstra doesn't deny the future second coming of Christ. However, he doesn't believe that Revelation sets a timetable or deals with any specific historical period. In that sense, the book is symbolic.
Personally, I don't think the question of what Revelation "really" means will ever be settled. The real meaning of the book (probably written in the reign of Domitian around AD 95) seems to have been quietly forgotten already at an early stage. Papias (early 2nd century) seems unsure whether the apostle John really wrote all works attributed to him. Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century) admits that Revelation was interpreted differently by different Christians during his lifetime. The Church Father Irenaeus (late 2nd century) claimed to know the correct interpretation of Revelation from Polycarp, supposedly a disciple of John. But not even Irenaeus knew the meaning of the mysterious number 666. Thus, the knowledge of Revelation (or even its authorship) was lost during the second century. Yet, John supposedly didn't die until AD 100 and his disciple Polycarp not until AD 150 - 160! My guess is that Revelation was an obscure work which might not even have been written by John, but which survived because it was wrongly attributed to him. Then, various Christian writers projected their pet theological notions onto the text (some even rejected it), and the rest is history. As for Irenaues, he was only a small boy when he met Polycarp, ruling out more advanced teachings being imparted to him by the old man.
"Four views on the Book of Revelation" might give theology students an overview of the most common interpretations within American Protestant fundamentalism, but it really says very little about Revelation itself.