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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Revelation, by Craig S. Keener


More recently, in Christians in the U.S. bought over 3 million copies of Edgar Whisenant’s 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. A friend of mine worked in a Christian bookstore whose owner urged her to sell as many copies of the book by the end of 1988 as possible; the owner warned that no one would buy the book in 1989. Sure enough, Christians failed to buy many copies of his updated version the next year, rescheduling Jesus’ return to 1989. Let it never be said that North American Christians are easily deceived—at least, twice in a row by the same author the following year. The world was watching, however: the campus newspaper at the university where I was doing my Ph.D. mocked the failed predictions. Others predicted the Lord’s return for various dates in the 1990’s or for the year 2000. As one other writer has pointed out, all predictors of times and seasons have had only one thing in common: they have all been wrong.

Prophetic interpretation errors abound.

Often interpreters have proceeded on the basis of two assumptions: first, that we are the last generation; and second, that all prophecies apply to the last generation. The first assumption is always possible, but we cannot ever assert it dogmatically; every generation, looking at potential “signs” around them, has hoped that it might be the last generation. (Biblically, the last generation needs to do more than hope: we need to finish the task of world evangelization, whatever the cost.) The second assumption is simply wrong; many prophecies were already fulfilled within the Bible or await Jesus’ return. Not all pertain specifically to the final generation before his return.


Views about Revelation

Traditionally, readers have taken one of the following approaches to interpreting Revelation:

  1. Preterist: those who believe that everything was fulfilled in the first century.
  2. Historicist: those who believe that Revelation predicted the details of subsequent history which we can now recognize in history books.
  3. Idealist: those who believe that Revelation contains timeless principles.
  4. Futurist: those who believe that Revelation addresses the future.


The historicist interpretation has been largely abandoned because history does not fit the outline of Revelation very well. (This is true even for the letters to the seven churches, which some once read as stages of church history; very few scholars accept this today even in the “dispensational” tradition where it was once most common. Dispensationalism has also changed a great deal since it was first taught.)

Of the other views, there is something legitimate in each, provided that we do not use one of them to exclude the other views. It is true that Revelation, like other books in the Bible, was written first to an ancient audience (the preterist view); the book explicitly addresses the seven churches in Asia Minor just like Paul addresses churches in his letters (Rev 1:4), and Revelation is written in Greek and uses symbols that first-century readers would understand. This need not mean, however, that it does not speak about the future or (like the rest of the Bible) articulate principles useful for subsequent generations.

Revelation contains timeless principles relevant for the church in every generation. It also speaks about the future, in addition to the present and the past. Readers may disagree on how much of Revelation refers to the future, but almost everyone agrees that Revelation 19-22, at least, is future. Likewise, at least some of it refers directly to the past: the catching up of the child in Revelation 12 (whom most believe to be Jesus) has already happened.

Beyond these points, however, readers have come to startlingly different conclusions about Revelation’s teaching throughout history. We can illustrate this divergence by way of commenting on the “millennium,” the 1000-year period mentioned in Revelation 20. Many readers schooled in a particular tradition may be surprised to learn how many people they respect in church history have held other interpretations. That surprise offers some lessons for us: God does not use his servants solely on the basis of their end-time views, and we should always go back to the Bible to see what it teaches us. Just because everyone we know holds a certain view does not make it right; 150 years ago, most born-again Christians held a different view, and 100 years before that, a still different one.

Readers have come to startlingly different conclusions about Revelation’s teaching throughout history.

After the Book of Revelation was finished, the first church fathers (leaders of the early church for the first few centuries) were premillennial; that is, they believed that Jesus would come back before the 1000 years in Revelation. They also were all post-tribulational; that is, they all believed either that they were already in the great tribulation, or that it was future but that Jesus would not return for his church until afterwards. But a few centuries later, by the time of Augustine, most Christians were amillennial. Many believed that when Constantine ended the persecutions against Christians, the 1000 years started, and many were expecting Jesus’ return 1000 years after Constantine. Another amillennial view, more common today and easier to defend from Scripture, is that the millennium is symbolic for the period between the first and second coming, with Christ ruling until his enemies are put under his feet. Not only were most Medieval Christians amillennial, but so were most of the Reformers (including Luther and Calvin). Most denominations founded in times when amillennialism predominated are mostly amillennial today; the same is true of churches in various parts of the world founded by amillennial missionaries. By contrast, churches founded by premillennial missionaries are usually premillennial! John Wesley believed in two separate millennia in Revelation 20, one in heaven and the other on earth.

Most leaders of the Great Awakenings in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth-century United States were postmillennial, including Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney. During revivals that brought a large percentage of people in the early nineteenth-century United States to Christ, people exercised faith that “the gospel of the kingdom” would be “preached among all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). Charles Finney, who may have led as many as half a million people to Christ, and helped lead the movement against slavery, was postmillennial. Postmillennialists believed that they would, through God’s Spirit, establish God’s kingdom on earth, and then Jesus would come back to take his throne. Today many American Christians view postmillennialism as naïve optimism, but it was the dominant view of Christians in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.

On any book like Revelation, there will be serious differences of opinion, and we must be charitable in our disagreements.

Another view is first attested in the nineteenth and popular in the twentieth century. This view is called dispensational premillennialism. In or around 1830, John Nelson Darby came up with a system of interpretation that divided Scripture between what applied to Israel (the Old Testament, Gospels, Revelation, and much of Acts) and what applied directly to the church (especially the epistles). Through this system he argued that spiritual gifts were not for the church age, and that there would be a separate coming for the church (before the tribulation) and for Israel (afterward). Once introduced, the view was popularized through the Scofield Reference Bible, becoming popular especially in the early twentieth century. The failure of postmillennial optimism in the nineteenth century and the disintegration of the old, evangelical consensus in the U.S. made this view appear appealing. And after all, who would complain about getting raptured before a tribulation rather than afterward?

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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