Mounce and Osborne provide a good summary of the idealist approach to interpreting the book of Revelation
Its proponents hold that Revelation is not to be taken in reference to any specific events at all but as an expression of those basic principles on which God acts throughout history. . . . The idealist approach continues the allegorical interpretation which dominated exegesis throughout the medieval period and still finds favor with those inclined to minimize the historical character of the coming consummation. . . . Its weakness lies in the fact that it denies to the book any specific historical fulfillment.1
This popular approach argues that the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths. . . . As such, it relates primarily to the church between the advents, that is, between Christs first and second comings. Thus it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history. . . . The millennium in this approach is not a future event but the final cycle of the book . . . describing the church age.2By employing allegorical interpretation, the book is reduced to a symbolic exhibition of good versus evil. The more moderate form of allegorical interpretation, following Augustine, . . . regards the book of Revelation as presenting in a symbolic way the total conflict between Christianity and evil or, as Augustine put it, the City of God versus the City of Satan.3
Idealists have much in common with preterists in that they avoid an understanding of the book of Revelation which would seem to be describing future events. Here again, there is an overemphasis on the readers of Johns day, as if the book were only written to describe historic events of their time and hold devotional value for those that follow:
Its flaw is not so much in what it affirms as in what it denies. Many idealists could be classed as preterists, since they hold that the imagery of the Apocalypse is taken from its immediate world, and that the prevailing conditions of Domitians reign are reflected in the symbolic episodes that fill its pages. They refuse to assign to them any literal historical significance for the future, and they deny all predictive prophecy except in the most general sense of the ultimate triumph of righteousness. The problem with this alternative is that it holds that Revelation does not depict any final consummation to history, whether in Gods final victory or in a last judgment of the realm of evil.5 4Idealist Calkins summarizes idealism in five propositions:
1) It is an irresistible summons to heroic living. 2) The book contains matchless appeals to endurance. 3) It tells us that evil is marked for overthrow in the end. 4) It gives us a new and wonderful picture of Christ. 5) The Apocalypse reveals to us the fact that history is in the mind of God and in the hand of Christ as the author and reviewer of the moral destinies of men.6Thus, the capstone of biblical revelation, chock full of self-proclaimed prophetic relevance, is reduced to something akin to a devotional.7
Idealism also suffers from an inconsistency of interpretation where small sections are interpreted literally, but then the interpreter reverts back to symbolism and allegory. There is no clear or consistent means for determining when this shift should occur. A fundamental mistake is made when the fact that John is receiving revelation through a series of visions is seen as license to hold that Johns communication is something less than logically coherent.
They have John in a sort of dream world until their personally contrived formula has him revert to a literal mode of predicting the future in more precise terms. To be sure, the bulk of the Apocalypse resulted from Johns prophetic trance(s) . . . (Rev. Rev. 1:10+; Rev. 4:2+; Rev. 17:3+; Rev. 21:10+). There is, however, no justification for equating such a trance with a dream where logical coherence is nonexistent. Though in some sort of ecstatic state, Johns spirit was wide awake and its powers were exercised with unusual alertness and clarity.8In our view, the idealist interpretation has only one aspect to commend it: an appreciation of the value of the realities recorded in the book of Revelation to all the people of God throughout history. Especially to those who face great trials, persecution, or even martyrdom. With this, we wholeheartedly agree. In almost every other way, we oppose the idealist interpretation because it violates the Golden Rule of Interpretation and makes an accurate historical understanding of the events God has revealed almost impossible.
The bankruptcy of this approach is best illustrated by the huge variation in the interpretive results of its practitioners. If the idealist interpretation is the correct one, then the true meaning of the book of Revelation cannot be reliably determined. But then perhaps it would not matter if the book were given only to inspire the saints!
5 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 48.
7 Robertson says, There seems abundant evidence to believe that this apocalypse, written during the stress and storm of Domitians persecution, was intended to cheer the persecuted Christians with a view of certain victory at last, but with no scheme of history in view. [emphasis added]Mal Couch, Introductory Thoughts on Revelation (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Theological Seminary, n.d.). [emphasis added]