Most evangelicals today assume that Revelation is speaking about their own future. Too few of them realize there are other approaches to Revelation. Futurism is a difficult view to overthrow because of its large installed base of adherents. In this article I will be focusing on futurism’s strengths and weanesses, having presented the basics of the system in my previous article.
Futurism enjoys certain apparent strengths that make it appealing to many today.
(1) It seems to allow for the apparent universal and catastrophic events of Rev, in that these are so destructive they could not occur prior to the very end time. After all, “most natural disasters . . . pale into insignificance when compared with the Seer’s descriptions of the sixth seal” (J. Court). In this light J. F. Walvoord states that “the futuristic position allows a more literal interpretation of the specific prophecies of the book.”
(2) It encourages fidelity among God’s people at all times due to the potential outbreak of the judgments in Revelation as the end suddenly begins erupting on the scene. Therefore it keeps Christians looking ahead to God’s completing his plan for history.
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(3) It informs us how history will end and under what circumstances, making an appropriate conclusion to the biblical canon which starts with the very beginning of history (Gen 1).
Despite its seeming strengths several debilitating weaknesses undermine it.
(1) Futurism almost totally removes the relevance of Revelation f rom John’s original audience, and at a time of their great suffering. This approach virtually renders Revelation as a time capsule sent to the twenty-first century. C. Koester amusingly complains that many seem understand Revelation 1:1 as if it read: “John, to the Christian in North America, who live in the twenty-first century.”
J. F. Walvoord himself admits that (on his view) Revelation “could be only dimly comprehended by the first readers of the book.” But John is writing to a persecuted Church (even beyond the seven churches of Asia 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) about things they themselves must heed (1:3, 9; 3:10; 6:9–11). Yet futurism claims that the prophesied events lay off in the distant future.
Futurist A. Kuyper sees this weakness as a strength when he writes: “Meanwhile, however, as really the Apocalypse gives no data with respect to history, but presents solely an account of the wondrous events that will herald the parousia, immediately precede it, and prepare the way for it, the church has not been able to give instant currency to this only correct understanding of the Apocalyptic prophecies.”
(2) Futurism requires the current-day reader of Revelation to re-interpret its phenomena (which are drawn right out of the historical context of John’s day) to make them fit modern times. This includes such ancient military issues as bows-and-arrows, sword-fighting, mounted cavalry, walled cities, and so forth. Populist dispensationalists, for instance, will transpose these ancient weapons with modern weapons — despite their vigorous protestations that they are literalists. Thus, the system (within the dispensationalist branch) is torn by dialectical tension.
(3) The futurist must wholly re-interpret Rev’s claims of the nearness of its events, despite their introducing and concluding the whole work (1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). As D. deSilva observes: “The distance created between the first hearers and the fulfillment of Rev’s visions stands in stark contrast to the consistent emphasis throughout Revelation that ‘the time is near’ (1:3; 22:10) and that the visions are imminently relevant (coming to pass quickly: 1:1; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).
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Particularly problematic is the claim by ‘prophecy experts’ that the message of Revelation is finally being revealed in current events, when John himself regarded the message of Revelation to stand ‘unsealed,’ open to be understood by his immediate readers (22:10p; contrast Dan. 12:9).” Indeed, “John gives a clear signal that Revelation is to be read as a letter, specifically a pastoral letter. . . . John therefore intended his letter to be understood by them, shape their perceptions of their every day realities, and motivate a particular response to their circumstances” (deSilva).
(4) Futurism too often involves exegetical subjectivity despite its claims to involving a “more normative” approach to Scripture (J. F. Walvoord), “a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation” (R. L. Thomas). “The plain, literal or normal principle of interpretation” (C. R. Ryrie). After all, new technologies will arise in our future that will require a re-interpretation of Rev’s already altered imagery.
For instance, Hal Lindsey’s Cobra helicopter interpretation of Revelation 9 could eventually give way to the newer, remote-controlled drone warfare technology. It is not subject to historical verification presently and thus is incapable of falsification. Consequently, it fails the verification principle which according to some scholars renders it philosophically meaningless.
As P. Desprez notes regarding passages that are difficult to confirm in history from a preterist perspective: “True, we may resolve them all into futurity, and this is the course generally adopted by commentators when any difficulty arises, and a most convenient course it is; for, as no one can refute that which has not yet taken place, so no one, from the necessary ignorance of things future, can positively say that such things shall not be.”
With these serious weaknesses, I would imagine futurism does not have much of a future any longer.