Revelation yields tremendous truths for living and for a Christian worldview. Like some other parts of Scripture, it does not yield these truths apart from careful study. Taken on its own, Revelation is a challenge for Christian readers. They often feel like they need a commentary or guide to help them approach the book and learn something from it. Anyone who has gone looking for such a guide quickly realizes that not all books on Revelation come from the same perspective. Furthermore, some books present perspectives that are not easy to harmonize with one another. It is helpful to know something about common approaches to the interpretation of Revelation. Every book on Revelation follows a certain approach or combination of approaches. It is important to determine what each author’s approach to Revelation is. Otherwise, the uninformed reader will not know what accounts for radically different interpretations of a particular passage.
The Preterist Approach
A preterist is someone who interprets the book of Revelation with respect to the past. The term is related to the word “preterit,” which is used in grammar with respect to past time. Specifically, the preterist believes that John wrote Revelation in the first century to address the situation faced by the church at that time. John’s prophecy should be interpreted in relation to the persecution of the church in Asia Minor, which is part of the Roman Empire. The fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) or the fall of Rome (A.D. 476) is a significant event, because John is predicting the fall of one of these cities (Rev. 18). The preterist approach generates a lot of data relevant to those sections of the book where historical background is helpful for interpretation. A good example would be the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. The preterist interpreter also reminds all interpreters that one important aspect of the interpretation of Revelation is to pay attention to the relevance of the book for John and Christians of his day. As a result, most commentaries on Revelation will sound like preterists from time to time.
Here is another example of an interpretation that would fit within the preterist camp. Revelation 17:9-10 says, “Here is the mind that has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits. And they are seven kings: Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come, and whenever he comes it is necessary for him to remain for a short time.” Those who see the seven mountains as a reference to Rome’s seven hills and the seven kings as a reference to seven Romans emperors are providing a preterist interpretation of these verses. In this case, the preterist interpretation of these verses is quite popular among a variety of interpreters who would not be taking a preterist approach to other parts of the book. For a different approach to these verses, see my commentary.
If you find yourself reading a commentary that seems to want to correlate everything with events that occur in the time of John, you may very well be reading a preterist commentary. It is a very common approach to the book of Revelation, especially outside of Evangelical circles.
These paragraphs represent an expansion of a portion of my book:
Paul Hoskins, The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, p. 30 (that page provides further sources and footnotes that I have omitted above). Click on the image below to check out the book.