12.5. Futurist Interpretation

The approach to interpreting the book of Revelation which has gained perhaps the widest exposure of all systems of interpretation in recent times is the futurist interpretation. This is a result of a number of seminaries in the recent past which have championed a literal interpretative approach to all of Scripture within a framework which understands related Old Testament passages and promises involving Israel, and which distinguishes between Israel and the Church. The futurist interpretation is the basic interpretive framework behind the hugely popular Left Behind series of novels by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.1

Futurism derives from the consistent application of literal hermeneutics, the Golden Rule of Interpretation, across the entire body of Scripture, including the book of Revelation. Contrary to the claims of many of its critics, it is not an a priori view which is imposed on the text.2 As evidenced by the testimony of the early Church, futurism is the most natural result of a plain reading of the text and the way that most unbiased readers would understand the book on their first reading.

Futurism gets its label from its refusal to see unfulfilled passages as having been fulfilled by approximately similar events in the past. Hence, it holds that many of the events in the book of Revelation await future fulfillment:

The futurist generally believes that all of the visions from Revelation Rev. 4:1+ to the end of the book are yet to be fulfilled in the period immediately preceding and following the second advent of Christ. The reason for the view is found in the comparison of Revelation Rev. 1:1+, Rev. 1:19+ and Rev. 4:1+.3

Futurists see eschatological passages being fulfilled during a future time, primarily during the seventieth week of Daniel, at the second coming of Christ, and during the millennium. While all dispensationalists are futurists, not all futurists are dispensationalists. Futurists are also the most literal in their interpretation of prophecy passages. Dr. Tenney says: “The more literal an interpretation that one adopts, the more strongly will he be construed to be a futurist.”4

Osborne summarizes the two primary forms taken by futurism:5

There are two forms of this approach, dispensationalism and what has been called “classic premillennialism.” Dispensationalists believe that God has brought about his plan of salvation in a series of dispensations or stages centering on his election of Israel to be his covenant people. Therefore, the church age is a parenthesis in this plan, as God turned to the Gentiles until the Jewish people find national revival (Rom. Rom. 11:1;25-32). At the end of that period, the church will be raptured, inaugurating a seven-year tribulation period in the middle of which the Antichrist will make himself known (Rev. Rev. 13:1+) and instigate the “great tribulation” . . . At the end of that period . . . Christ returns in judgment, followed by a literal millennium (Rev. Rev. 20:1-10+), great white throne judgment (Rev. Rev. 20:11-15+), and the beginning of eternity . . . Classical premillennialism is similar but does not hold to dispensations. Thus there is only one return of Christ, after the tribulation period (Mtt. Mat. 24:29-31; cf. Rev. Rev. 19:11-21+) and it is the whole church, not just the nation of Israel, that passes through the tribulation period.6

Futurism was undeniably the system of interpretation held by the majority in the early church. “Variations of this view were held by the earliest expositors, such as Justin Martyr (d.165), Irenaeus (d.c.195), Hippolytus (d.236), and Victorinus (d.c.303).”7 Modern futurists wholeheartedly agree with the statement of Jerome, writing in A.D. 393: “John . . . saw . . . an Apocalypse containing boundless mysteries of the future8 As early as Irenaeus (130-200) and Hippolytus (170-236), basic futuristic concepts such as the remaining week of Daniel’s seventy weeks (see our discussion of related passages and themes) had already become evident:

When Knowles deals with the next major contributors—Irenaeus (130-200) and his disciple Hippolytus (170-236)—he describes their views as “undoubtedly the forerunners of the modern dispensational interpreters of the Seventy Weeks.” Knowles draws the following conclusion about Irenaeus and Hippolytus: “. . .we may say that Irenaeus presented the seed of an idea that found its full growth in the writings of Hippolytus. In the works of these fathers, we can find most of the basic concepts of the modern futuristic view of the seventieth week of Daniel ix. That they were dependent to some extent upon earlier material is no doubt true. Certainly we can see the influence of pre-Christian Jewish exegesis at times, but, by and large, we must regard them as the founders of the school of interpretation, and in this lies their significance for the history of exegesis.”9

Because futurism is a result of literal hermeneutics (see below) and the early church was spared the damaging effects of allegorical interpretation, the early church also understood Scripture to teach a future, one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth in fulfillment of OT promises of the Messianic Kingdom.10 This was a widespread view among early interpreters:

[Justin Martyr] asserts that it teaches a literal Millennial Kingdom of the saints to be established in Jerusalem, and after the thousand years the general resurrection and judgment. . . . Irenaeus . . . finds in the book the doctrine of chiliasm, that is, of an earthly Millennial Kingdom. . . . Hippolytus is a chiliast . . . identifies . . . Antichrist, who was represented by Antiochus Epiphanes and who will come out of the tribe of Dan, will reign 3 1/2 years, persecuting the Church and putting to death the two Witnesses, the forerunners of the parousia (held to be Elijah and Enoch). . . . Victorinus . . . understands the Revelation in a literal, chiliastic, sense . . . The two witnesses are Elijah and Jeremiah; the 144,000 are Jews who in the last days will be converted by the preaching of Elijah . . . the false prophet, will cause the image of Antichrist to be set up in the temple at Jerusalem.11

Notice that Victorinus, writing well in advance of modern futurists, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, sees the Temple of Revelation as being a future Temple, just like modern futurists.

Unfortunately, with the rise of allegorical interpretation and the opposition of the heresy of Montanism (which utilized an extravagant form of millennial teaching drawn from the book of Revelation),12 the futurist view fell into disfavor, not to be seen in a favorable light again for over a thousand years.13

During the Reformation, literal interpretation flourished in response to the allegorical methods employed throughout the Middle Ages by the Roman Church. However, the Reformers never fully extended literalism to prophetic passages and key Reformers did not fully appreciate the book of Revelation.

The primary fork in the road between futurism and all other systems of interpretation concerning the book of Revelation comes in the refusal of the futurist to be imprecise with the details of God’s revelation.14 For example, when a passage states that a man Rev. 13:13+), the futurist expects fulfillment to involve: (1) a man; (2) performing great signs in a similar way that great signs were performed in the OT and by Christ in the gospels; (3) who calls down literal fire from literal heaven as was done in the OT; (4) viewed by other men. He then asks the simple question: Is there any reliable historic record of such an event since the time of John’s writing? The obvious answer is, “No!” Hence this event awaits future fulfillment. It really is that simple!

There is a strong connection between literal interpretation and futurism: “The more literal an interpretation that one adopts, the more strongly will he be construed to be a futurist.”15 Literal interpretation allows the text to speak for itself:16

Critics frequently misrepresent futurism as if it places its entire emphasis on understanding the book of Revelation as applying to the future: “The futurist position especially encounters the difficulty that the book would have had no significant relevance for a first-century readership.” [emphasis added]17

This is a major misunderstanding of the futurist position which holds that the early chapters of the book are specifically addressed to the then-existing churches in Asia Minor and fully appreciates the historical setting and contents of these passages. Moreover, futurism concurs with Swete that the events of the book of Revelation are relevant in every age as a great source of blessing and security for persecuted believers:

In the Epistle of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, written in 177 to their brethren in Asia and Phrygia, which bears many signs of the use of the Apocalypse by the Christian societies of South Gaul during the troubles in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. . . . It is impossible to doubt that the roll which contained St John’s great letter to the parent Churches in Asia was often in the hands of the daughter Churches in Gaul, and perhaps accompanied the confessors to the prisons where they awaited the martyr’s crown.18

The critics of futurism require complete primary relevance of the entire book for the readers of John’s own day. But those most closely associated with the culture and times of the readers evidence no such requirement! The witness of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus is especially important because they both had close association with the earliest Christians who would have been familiar with the times during which John wrote the book of Revelation. Even so, they fail to understand the events recorded in the book in the way in which preterists or idealists insist, but reflect the futurist view. Writing in the early 2nd century, they were much better positioned than we to understand the relevance of John’s message to their times! Are they to be accused of being guilty of making the book “irrelevant?”

The mistake being made is constraining the book of Revelation as if it had only a single purpose. No matter which view is taken, if one fails to understand the many purposes of the book, the interpretive result will be the lacking. Preterist Chilton remarks: “No Biblical writer ever revealed the future merely for the sake of satisfying curiosity: The goal was always to direct God’s people toward right action in the present. . . . The prophets told of the future only in order to stimulate godly living.” [emphasis added]19 If Chilton were correct, then there would be little reason for prophecy to be predictive. The fact is, the prophets gave prophecy for more reasons than merely the stimulation of godly living. This was indeed an important reason, but not the only reason. The many fulfilled prophecies testifying to the identity of Jesus at His First Coming provide an abundant counter example to Chilton’s claim.

It is a misrepresentation of the futurist interpretation to assert that it denies the relevance of the text to the first-century readership. This is tantamount to saying that appreciating the prophetic predictions throughout Scripture essentially denies the relevance of the same passages to those who originally received them. The pattern of prophetic passages throughout Scripture is clearly one of both immediate local application and future prediction. Even in cases where there is no immediate local application by way of historical events (e.g., Isa. Isa. 53:1), the passages still contain inestimable worth to the original recipients in setting forth the will of God as well as inspirational value in the sure hope of what God will do in the future (Rom. Rom. 8:24-25). In the Apocalypse, this dual application of prophetic Scripture (both immediate/local and future/remote) is made explicit in the organizational framework set forth by Christ (Rev. Rev. 1:19+) and in the setting off of the seven epistles from the remaining material.

Other criticisms of futurism are manifestly silly. Gregg denies futurists the right to use the analogy of Scripture (Scripture interprets Scripture):

A major feature of the Tribulation expected by futurists is its seven-year duration, divided in the middle by the Antichrist’s violating a treaty he had made with Israel and setting up an image of himself in the rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Yet none of these elements can be discovered from a literal interpretation of any passage in Revelation. . . . The futurist believes that Revelation Rev. 20:1+ describes a period of world peace and justice with Christ reigning on earth from Jerusalem, though no part of this description can be found in the chapter itself, taken literally. This observation does not mean that this futurist scenario cannot be true. But it must be derived by reading into the passages in Revelation features that are not plainly stated.20

Gregg would have futurists interpret the book of Revelation as if it were delivered with no connection to existing prophetic information given by God. Never mind what the rest of Scripture has to say about Israel, Daniel’s seventy weeks, Jacob’s trouble, the Great Tribulation predicted by Jesus, or other matters. Those who attempt a comprehensive understanding of Scripture by bringing together everything God has said on related subjects are accused of “reading into” passages that which is simply not there!

Obviously, care needs to be exercised when connecting passages which seem to have related aspects, but if a good case can be made for a correlation, then the interpreter who fails in this synthesis is failing in his task before God. Chiding futurists who correlate the little horn of Daniel (Dan. Dan. 7:8), the man of sin of Paul (2Th. 2Th. 2:3), and the Beast of Revelation (Rev. Rev. 13:1+) because of obvious and intentional similarities given in Scripture, but providing no sensible or profitable synthesis in its place is a pattern frequently demonstrated by critics. This is the primary reason why futurists can offer a systematic and detailed outline of eschatological events while the other systems fail to provide anything even remotely similar. It almost seems that the critics of futurism dislike the certainty and coherence it offers in its interpretation of prophecy. But if God supernaturally gave the inspired Scriptures through a single author (the Holy Spirit), why shouldn’t such coherence and correlation be expected?

To the futurist, the book of Revelation has relevancy to John, to the seven churches of Asia, to the Church throughout history, and to the saints all the way through the Second Coming of Christ and into the eternal state. Now that’s relevancy!

The book of Revelation is important to us because it portrays the world as a global village. Entering the twenty-first century, no better expression describes our earth and its people. Besides a mushrooming population, other factors are pushing all humanity together, such as an interlinking economy, jet age transportation, and satellite communications.21

We believe in the futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation. This is because we are convinced of the Golden Rule of Interpretation as the key to properly understanding God’s Revelation. This is true of all written communication where the desire of the author is to convey a clear message rather than to puzzle or obscure). It is our conviction and experience that applying the Golden Rule from Genesis to Revelation will result in a futurist interpretation of Scripture and is the only reliable means of accurately knowing what God intended to the degree we may understand Him as His finite creatures.

Notes

1 Dr. Tim LaHaye is a noted futurist theologian having published numerous works on prophecy, some of which we draw on in this work. See the bibliography.

2 We can offer our own experience in support of this claim. Having been born-again and taught for five years within a Church which embraced preterism, it was our own careful study of the details of Scripture across the entire span of books which caused us to reject preterism in favor of what we only later came to understand was called futurism.

3 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 139.

4 Thomas Ice, “What Is Preterism?,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 21.

5 There is also a form of extreme futurism in which even the first three chapters of the book of Revelation are seen as yet future. [E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935)]

6 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 20-21.

7 Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 12.

8 “In two places, Jerome stated clearly that John was banished under Domitian. First, in his Against Jovinianum (A.D. 393), Jerome wrote that John was ‘a prophet, for he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing boundless mysteries of the future.’ ”—Mark Hitchcock, “The Stake in the Heart—The A.D. 95 Date of Revelation,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 135.

9 Thomas Ice, “The 70 Weeks of Daniel,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 350.

10 “The early church fathers believed in a literal, thousand-year, earthly reign of Christ because they interpreted the teachings of Revelation in a normal rather than mystical way.”—Larry V. Crutchfield, “Revelation in the New Testament,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 25.

11 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 320.

12 “The opposition to the heresy of Montanism, which made great use of the Apocalypse and gave extravagant form to its millennial teaching, caused it to be either rejected or differently interpreted.”—Ibid., 323.

13 “This was the method employed by some of the earliest fathers (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus), but with the triumph of the allegorical method . . . after Origen and of the amillennial view after Augustine and Ticonius, the futurist method (and chiliasm) was not seen again for over a thousand years.”—Osborne, Revelation, 20.

14 As we noted earlier, this is one reason why many who are trained in the sciences and engineering tend toward this view of Scripture. Being trained in logic and the analysis of details, we reject the approximate “fulfillments” and interpretations of the other systems in favor of a God Who fulfills His predictions down to the gnat’s eyelash.

15 Tenney, Interpreting Revelation, 142.

16 “Dispensationalism is actually built on the idea of letting the Bible speak for itself with a normal, literal hermeneutic. If simple rules of grammar and observation are put into place, the Scriptures will begin to make sense, from Genesis to Revelation.”—Mal Couch, “Why is Revelation Important?,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 41.

17 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 47.

18 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 1906), xciii.

19 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 27.

20 Steve Gregg, Revelation Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 41.

21 Couch, “Why is Revelation Important?,” 17.