In preparation for “Revelation: An Evangelical Symposium” to be held on February 23, 2013 in Reno, Nevada, that will explore three different views of the book of Revelation, I’m developing a series of questions that people might ask about the preterist view of Revelation. All three positions (preterist, futurist, and idealist) will consider when prophetic events were to take place and how they would take place. Since Revelation states that the events revealed to John were to take place “soon” (1:1) “for the time is near” (1:3), the interpreter should begin the process of interpretation by beginning with Revelation’s clear statement of the proximity of fulfillment.
As a preterist, I will defend the view that Revelation is about events that were to happen soon for those living in John’s day, in particular, in events leading up to and including the end of the Old Covenant represented outwardly by the temple and Israel’s center of worship, Jerusalem. The Old Covenant was replaced with a Better Covenant in the person and work of Jesus Christ who embodies all that the Old Covenant could only represent in temporal and fallen elements.
There is another component to consider in the interpretive process: audience relevance. How would have John’s audience understood what was revealed? In the closing chapter of Revelation John is told, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev. 22:10). There is no doubt that the first readers of Revelation would have surmised that they were the intended audience and the events described by God to John were to happen in their time. This is in contrast to what was told to Daniel hundreds of years before: “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.” (Dan. 12:4; also 8:26, 10:14). What was revealed to Daniel would not be fulfilled in Daniel’s day. It was for the end. The end of what? The end of the temporary covenant that would be completed by Jesus. Jesus addresses this end in His Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:3) and the book of Revelation.
In addition to time indicators audience relevance is very important. A. Berkeley Michelson writes:
Everyone who interprets a passage of the Bible stands in a present time while he examines a document that comes from a past time. He must discover what each statement meant to the original speaker or writer, and to the original hearers or readers, in their own present time. ((A. Berkeley Michelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 55.))
This is easier said than done since there is always the temptation to interpret Scripture in terms of our own reference point. We are comfortable with the familiar and not so competent with the way other people write and think.
One reason people get caught up in the end-time apocalypticism of Revelation is because the language used seems to describe earth-shattering and earth-ending events. So how can a preterist say that the events of Revelation have been fulfilled when there were no cosmic events like the ones revealed to John? Good question.
Revelation 6:13 says that “the stars of the sky fell to the earth” (also see 8:10; 9:1). How can this be possible since the size of a star is many times larger than the earth? A single star hitting the earth would vaporize it. And yet we are to believe that the Antichrist will rule the world using super-sophisticated technology after these “stars” fall to the earth (Rev. 13).
Then there’s Revelation 8:12: “Then the fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were smitten, so that a third of them might be darkened and the day might not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.” How can a “third of the sun” be smitten without catastrophic results on the whole earth and not just a third of it?
The more biblical approach is to follow how the Bible applies the sun, moon, and stars to the temporal judgment of nations (Isa. 13:10-13; 24:16, 19-23; 34:4; Ezek. 32:6-8; Joel 210, 30-31; 3:15-16; Hab. 3:6-11). In none of these examples is the destruction of the entire world in view even though cosmic language is used. ((George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), chap. 2.)) To ignore how a passage is used in the Old Testament is like trying to interpret Egyptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.
Then there’s Revelation 12:3. John F. Walvoord quotes E.W. Bullinger approvingly: “It is impossible for us to take this as symbolical [Rev. 12:3]; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolical interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation.” ((E.W. Bullinger, The Apocalypse (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1902), 274. Emphasis added. Quoted in John W. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 137.))
No difficulties whatever? A seemingly plausible explanation for Walvoord is that the “stars” are actually meteorites. If Jesus is describing a meteor shower, then I can’t see how this would be a significant sign today since there have been many of them over the past 2000 years. In the famous Leonid meteor shower of 1833, one estimate is that more than one hundred thousand meteors an hour passed by earth. But if John is seeing meteorites in Revelation 6:13 and 12:4, then they are meteorites in Matthew 24:29. Even “a third of the meteorites of heaven” falling to the earth would have a devastating effect on our planet. The earth would be uninhabitable. Scientists have speculated that a single meteorite threw up enough debris upon impact with Earth millions of years ago that it “ended the reign of the dinosaurs. . . . The colossal energy released in its collision with Earth is now estimated to be equal to the detonation of up to 300 million hydrogen bombs, each some 70 times bigger than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.” ((William J. Broad, “New Clue to Cosmic Collision and Demise of the Dinosaurs,” New York Times (September 17, 1993), A8.))
But there is a problem with interpreting “stars” as meteorites as Tommy Ice does in Matthew 24:29. He says the Greek word aster can mean “falling stars” or meteorites: “Stars do literally fall from heaven. They are called ‘falling stars,’ ‘shooting stars,’ ‘comets,’ or ‘meteors.’ The Greek word for ‘star’ in Matthew 24:29 can be used in this way.” ((Thomas Ice, “The Olivet Discourse,” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 192.)) Linked with sun and moon, it’s unlikely that meteorites are in view in Matthew 24:29 considering that the first use of sun, moon, and stars refers to fixed stars (Gen. 1:14–16; Deut. 4:19; Ps. 136:8) and not “falling stars.” The same is true in Genesis 37:9–10. The eleven stars that bow before Joseph are not meteorites. The use of stars in Matthew 24:29 cannot mean meteorites.
Charles L. Feinberg, writing in the dispensational Liberty Bible Commentary, writes: “The sun, moon, and stars indicate a complete system of government and remind the reader of Genesis 37:9.” ((Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation,” Liberty Bible Commentary: New Testament, eds. Jerry Falwell and Edward E. Hindson (Lynchburg, VA: Old-Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 820.)) Notice that Feinberg argues that sun, moon, and stars relate to “a complete system of government” and not literal stellar phenomena. He also references Genesis 37:9 where sun, moon, and stars are used as symbols for Israel. Other dispensational authors follow a similar pattern of interpretation.
John A. Martin, writing in the dispensational-oriented Bible Knowledge Commentary, argues that “the statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars … sun … moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction.” ((John A. Martin, “Isaiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 1059. Futurist William E. Biederwolf offers these comments on Isaiah 13:10: “Here is the usual description or the usual Scriptural characteristics of the ‘day of the Lord’—any day of His judgment. Here it must be figurative for anarchy, distress and revolutions of kingdoms, ‘although,’ says Fausett, ‘there may be a literal fulfillment finally, shadowed forth under this imagery.’ (Rev. 21.1.)” (The Millennium Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, (1924) 1964], 65).)) So why couldn’t Jesus be using the language from Isaiah 13:10 to “figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of” Israel that took place with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70?
Consider the comments of dispensational author John F. Walvoord on Revelation 12:1 and how he draws from the Old Testament to explain the meaning of the cosmic language used: “The description of the woman as clothed with the sun and the moon is an allusion to Genesis 37:9–11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Rachel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies.” ((John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 188. Emphasis added. Michael Wilcock’s comments are equally helpful: “[The woman] is not simply Mary, the actual mother of Jesus; nor Mary’s ancestress Eve, whose offspring was to be the serpent’s great enemy (Gn. 3:15); nor even all mothers in the chosen line between them. For regarded as a ‘sign,’ she is adorned with the splendour of sun, moon, and twelve stars, which in a parallel Old Testament dream (Joseph’s in Gn. 37:9–11) represent the whole family of Israel. . . . She is in fact the church: the old Israel [Acts 7:38], ‘the human stock from which Christ came’ (Rom. 9:5, Knox), and the new Israel, whom he has now left in order to go back to his Father’.” (Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976], 118–19).)) If sun, moon, and stars represent Babylon (Isa. 13:10) and Israel (Gen. 37:9) in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Rev. 12:1), then why can’t sun, moon, and stars represent Israel in Matthew 24:29?
R.T. France’s comments on the use of cosmic language are helpful since he is a well known New Testament exegete who is respected by all eschatological camps for his fair-minded handling of Scripture. The following comments are from his commentary on Mark 13:24–25 which parallel Matthew 24:29:
The passages cited in [Mark 13] vv. 24b–25 (( “But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24–25).)) use the language of cosmic disintegration to denote, as often in prophecy, climactic (not climatic!) changes to the existing world order. The lights are going out in the centres of power, and the way is being prepared for a new world order. . . . The language of v. 24b is paralleled at several points in the prophetic literature (Ezk. 32:7; Jo. 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9) but is verbally most closely related to LXX ((LXX=Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.)) Is. 13:10, part of the oracle against Babylon. . . . In most of these passages the immediate reference is to the imminent downfall of specific nations (Egypt, Babylon, Edom, Israel, and Judah). . . . In the original prophetic context, therefore, such ‘cosmic’ language conveys a powerful symbolism of political changes with world history, and is not naturally to be understood of a literal collapse of the universe at the end of the world. . . . The natural sense of such language, used in a Jewish context, is surely clear. Mk. 13:24b–27 is not about the collapse of the universe, but about drastic events on the world scene, interpreted in the light of the divine judgment and purpose. What is startling about the use of such language by Jesus in this context is not that he uses the same language as the prophetic, but that he uses it with regard to the fate of Jerusalem and its temple. ((R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 530, 532–533.))
The book of Revelation can only be interpreted by the Bible. This means a comprehensive understanding of the Old Testament – from Genesis to Malachi. It’s easier to pick up the daily newspaper and read Revelation through it than to study the Bible. It’s no wonder that G. K. Chesterton had this to say about Revelation: “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” ((G.K. Chesterton, “The Maniac,” Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy was first published in 1908.))