by W. J. Mencarow
Generally speaking there are four approaches to understanding the scope of the book of Revelation: Idealism, Futurism, Preterism and Historicism. Two were invented by Roman Catholicism and one of the two is taught by most Protestant churches.
Idealism, also known as the Spiritual approach, “spiritualizes” many, if not most, passages that other interpretations take more literally. Idealism says that many of the events in the book of Revelation are not historical but are meant to have a spiritual interpretation. Idealism does not teach that the book of Revelation predicts many specific events in history. Rather, the Idealist understanding teaches that John’s visions represent eternal spiritual truths that find expression throughout history. It teaches that after Revelation chapter 3 (after the letters to the seven churches are complete and where the symbolism begins) little or none of the text has application to earthly nations and events, past or present. According to Idealism the message of the book after chapter 3 is largely spiritual.
The proponents of Futurism, Preterism and Historicism disagree with Idealism. They believe that the symbolism of Revelation corresponds to actual nations and events. However, they disagree on what nations are referred to and on the timing of the events.
Futurism posits that most of the events described in the book of Revelation after chapter 3 have not yet taken place. The Futurist view assigns most of the prophecy of Revelation to a future time (thus it is called “Futurism”), shortly before the final coming of Christ. It predicts a “Great Tribulation,” a seven year period of time when believers will experience worldwide persecution. The resurrection of the dead and the later “rapture” of believers who are still living on earth will occur during the end times. (If you wonder why I put quotation marks around “Great Tribulation” and, later, “rapture,” see www.reformation.sermonaudio.com and search for “tribulation” for my sermon series.)
Most fundamentalists and evangelicals are Futurists. Some of the more famous Futurists include John Nelson Darby, C. I. Scofield (the namesake of the Scofield Bible, the Bible of dispensationalism), Dwight Moody, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Chuck Swindoll, John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, J. Vernon McGee, Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, Tim LaHaye and others. Futurism is taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, among other well-known institutions. The vast majority of popular books on Revelation are written by Futurists, such as the “Left Behind” novels. Do not assume that because there are so many Futurists, or because you respect some of those people (as I do for many reasons), therefore that settles it: Futurism must be correct. We must never think that way about anything. The majority is often wrong: The vast majority of scientists believe in the general theory of evolution, but that doesn’t make it true. Not that long ago all scientists assured us that the germ theory of disease is a myth and antiseptics were of no use.
Preterism is in many ways the opposite of Futurism. Preterists believe that most of the book of Revelation describes the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire. It teaches that virtually all of the events described in the book of Revelation have already occurred.
Like every school of interpretation, there are degrees of belief. Some are “halfway” Preterists (just as there are “halfway” Futurists and “halfway” Historicists). A fully-convinced Preterist believes that the “Great Tribulation” and the battle of Armageddon have already occurred. Some Preterists believe that the final coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment have already occurred.
“Preterist interpretations generally identify Jerusalem as the persecutor of the Church, “Babylon,” the “Mother of Harlots,” etc. They see Armageddon as God’s judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army, which is identified as ‘the beast.’ Some Preterists believe that the second half of the book of Revelation changes its focus to Rome, its persecution of Christians, and the fall of the Roman Empire. It sees the Revelation being fulfilled in 70 A.D., thereby bringing the full presence of God to dwell with all humanity.”
Preterism is not as well-known as Futurism. It is taught in very few Protestant churches. For that reason the major Christian publishers aren’t interested in printing Preterist books, and thus most Christians don’t know about Preterism. Which do you think sells better; a book about how you can know the future, the signs of the last days and the coming of Christ, or a book about how there’s nothing to know, it’s all happened already? There’s no money to be made trying to sell a book like that, and you certainly can’t make movies about it.
Historicism says that some of what Futurism and Preterism interprets is true, but most of it is false. According to those who believe the Bible teaches Historicism, Revelation chapters 1 through 5 describes events that happened during the first century and shortly thereafter, and chapters 6 onward predicts events starting from 70 A.D. (when Jerusalem fell to the Roman Empire’s army under General Titus) through the end of this present earth and beyond.
“Politically, historicist interpretations apply the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and a Muslim empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire while Europe attempts to reunite and recreate the Roman Empire.” – http://christianity.wikia.com/wiki/Book_of_Revelation
Historicism understands the book of Revelation to teach that the church will expand despite persecution; two steps forward, sometimes one step back, until it conquers the whole world. It sees the book of Revelation as a great panorama of the past, present and future of this present world and the eventual Christianization of most of mankind. In short, Christ, not Satan, wins on earth as well as in eternity; the fulfillment of “Thy will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven.”
Historicism is all but forgotten by the church today. You won’t find books teaching Historicism at most websites or book stores. However, some names you will recognize who taught Historicism to one degree or another – and increasingly as the centuries rolled on — are: Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Knox, Theodore Beza, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Huldrych Zwingli, Philip Melancthon, Heinrich Bullinger, Thomas Cranmer, John Cotton, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, John Owen, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, Matthew Henry, Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, most of the Puritans, J.H. Bavinck, J. Marcellis Kik, Herman Hoeksema, Francis Nigel Lee, and many others. In other words, Historicism is the view of many of the early church fathers and most of the Protestant Reformers.
Futurism says that virtually all of the book of Revelation predicts events that will take place far into the future. It says Revelation is largely a prophesy of events that will take place at the end of world history and beyond. Preterism says virtually all of the book of Revelation is ancient history, that it reports events that were over and done with in the first century, and then in the final chapters it tells us what will happen at the last day. Historicism says that the book of Revelation is both: it is a history book reporting events from the first century until now and prophesies events that are to come until God’s book of world history is complete when Christ returns for the final time.
No Christian in the first 1500 years after Christ ever heard of Futurism or Preterism. Futurism was invented in 1585 by Francisco Ribera, a Jesuit theologian, when he published his book “In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalyps in Commentarij” in which he theorized that the first few chapters of the book of Revelation apply to ancient Pagan Rome, and the rest of the book prophesies events in the distant future during three-and-a half literal years immediately prior to the final coming of Christ on earth. About the same time the Jesuit Roman Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (the judge/inquisitor of Galileo) supported Ribera’s thesis of Futurism in his work “Polemic Lectures Concerning the Disputed Points of the Christian Belief Against the Heretics of this Time.” These two books are the earliest I have found to articulate Futurism.
The earliest book of which I am aware that presents Preterism is “Vestigatio Arcani Sensus In Apocalypsi” (“An Investigation Into The Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse”). It was published in 1614 and was written by the Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis De Alcazar. In his book Alcazar claimed that all of Revelation applies to the era of pagan Rome and to the first six centuries of Christianity.
The Genesis Of Dispensationalism
“The writings of Ribera and Bellarmine contain the precedence upon which the theory of Dispensationalism is founded.”
Of course no Roman Catholic theologian, then or now, could publish a book, especially an interpretation of Scripture, without the approval of the Pope, called the “imprimatur.” The Futurist books by Ribera and Bellarmine and the Preterist book by Alacazar were, as required, approved (imprimatur) by the Pope; therefore they became tenets of the Roman Catholic faith.
The Pope, who claims to be the infallible interpreter of Scripture, endorsed two vastly different, contradictory and thus incompatible interpretations of Scripture. How could that possibly be?
The answer is that both Futurism and Preterism serve the interests of the Pope. Which was the true interpretation of the Bible was not a concern. This is proven by the fact that he gave his imprimatur to BOTH interpretations, the Futurist and the Preterist. Why? Because the Pope cared about just one thing — the one thing that Futurism and Preterism have in common — defending the supremacy of the Papacy against the Biblical proofs mounted by Reformation theologians. Here is the key to understanding this: If the book of Revelation is about events during ancient Roman rule (as taught by the Jesuit Preterist Alcazar), or it is about events at the very end of time (as taught by the Jesuit Futurists Ribera and Bellarmine), then the book of Revelation cannot, as the Reformers said, teach that the whore of Babylon is Roman Catholicism, and the antichrist is the Papacy.
It is incontrovertible that Futurism and Preterism were invented by Jesuits in a last-ditch effort to counter the Reformers: Those who actually read the Bible and discovered that the institution of the Papacy is the Antichrist. The Vatican claimed: If Antichrist will appear near the final judgment (Futurism), or he has already appeared (Preterism), then he cannot be the Pope. These are the threads, no matter how ephemeral, no matter how contradictory, that the Papacy must cling to in order to survive.
Evangelical and fundamentalist pastors aren’t Roman Catholics. But when they preach and teach Futurism they are teaching a theory that originated and is propagated by Roman Catholicism to defend the Papacy against the truth of Scripture. Moreover, what they preach and teach is diametrically opposed to what the early church fathers, the proto-Reformers and the Protestant Reformers believed Scripture teaches.
The timing of the invention of Futurism and Preterism is interesting. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, igniting the flame that would become the Protestant Reformation and consume much of Europe with the Word of God at the expense of the Papacy’s power. John Calvin issued the last edition of his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” 43 years later, in 1560, which was eagerly read all over Europe. The Papacy was under siege. In reaction it created the Counter Reformation. “The Counter Reformation is generally considered to have three aspects: the Jesuits, the Inquisition, and the Council of Trent. In view of the significance of the Protestant apocalyptic interpretation of history which prophetically pinpointed step by step the events covering the whole Christian era from the beginning to the end, it seems justifiable to suggest a fourth aspect, namely the praeteristic and futuristic interpretations launched by Catholic expositors as a counterattack.” — V. Norskov Olsen as cited in “The Ecclesiology of John Foxe: A book review by Kevin Reed of John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church by V. Norskov Olsen, ” p. 47 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973]
The accuser, judge and executioner of Protestants in the Counter-Reformation was the Inquisition, which was called by a variety of names: “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition,” “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office,” and today it goes by the name of “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” or CDF, which was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he became Pope Benedict XVI. Whatever its name today, this is the same Inquisition which hunted down, tortured and murdered Protestants.
The Roman faith invented Futurism and Preterism to counter the Protestant teaching that the antichrist and whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation are the Papacy and Roman Catholicism. Preterism says that antichrist and the beast have already come and gone, because they were Nero and the Roman Empire. Futurism says antichrist and the beast will only appear at the very end of time. Again, what do Preterism and Futurism have in common? They both serve the interests of Roman Catholicism – hardly surprising, since Roman Catholic theologians invented them both. The strategy is simple: If either Preterism or Futurism is true, the book of Revelation cannot be describing the antichrist and the whore of Babylon as the Pope and Roman Catholicism.
Sadly, most evangelical and fundamentalist seminaries, ministers and authors teach one of those two Roman Catholic inventions.
W. J. Mencarow was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and pastored Reformed churches in Texas.