I have been asked before several times how I interpret Revelation. Revelation has been a fascinating book to many since it was written. It has been a mystery, a puzzle that quite a few have attempted to solve, and as a result of the complex imagery, there are many different interpretations of it. Like many who grew up in conservative evagelicalism, I was a convinced pre-millenial, pre-tribulation, dispensationalist in my eschatology. I was one of those who worried that the rapture would happen before I could get married. When I was a junior in high school (at a private Christian school), I was accidentally placed in an advanced Bible course on Revelation. The book for the class was written by Tim Lahaye (one of the minds behind the Left Behind book series), however, the teacher was not a firm follower of Lahaye, and we spent much of the year critiquing the book. By the end of the year, I still held to the views I grew up with, but I was much more humble in my position. I was more skeptical when speakers just knew that there position on Biblical prophecy was the correct one.
In college, I started going to a reformed church, which further shook my faith in a pre-tribulational rapture, and i eventually abandoned it. I don’t know quite when it happened, but at some point, I couldn’t really distinguish the passages that supposedly differentiated a rapture, from Jesus’ second coming. It all became the same event to me. I also could no longer hold to dispensationalism, a theology that came out of John Darby, an Englisman, in the early 1800’s, as covenant theology made much more sense to me. Dispensationalism is too arbitrary and makes too much of a distinction between Israel and the Church, which I just don’t see in scripture. Instead I was attracted to Covenant theology, which structures salvation history around the various covenants that God made with his people. It flows from Reformed theology, and although I am no longer a Calvinist, I still consider myself reformed in my theology (but that is a post for another day).
Continuing on with a little background story, several years after college I came across the New Testament historian and theologian N.T. Wright, and my thinking on Revelation, and eschatology has been changed forever. I had already abandoned the very strict literalism I grew up with. Too little of a distinction was made of the various genres and cultural history of the books of the Bible. Today, if I was classified as anything, it would be a partial preterist, amillennialist. What does all that mean?
Revelation is an ancient genre called apocalytpic literature. No such genre exists today, so it makes sense that we would struggle to understand Revelation. However, there are many similar books, especially written by Jews during the intertestamental period, as well as written by surrounding non-Jewish culture. Apocalytpic does not refer to an apocalypse in the future, where everything comes to an end. What apocalytpic literature does is use cosmic imagery, as well as other symbols, to represent significant events in history and the future. Jesus does this himself when he speaks of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. He is not literally referring to coming on clouds. He is referencing Daniel 7, where the son of man is actually moving upward to God, rather than downward, a vindication after much suffering. Jesus is saying that he will be vindicated by God after his suffering, rather than referring to a second coming. Revelation is filled with this type of imagery and symbols. Dragons, stars swept from heaven, odd locusts stinging people, rivers being dried up, blood infusing oceans and lakes, a sword coming out of the rider on the white horse, beasts coming up out of the land and sea, and much much more. This is all symbolic, and represents events that have already happened. I don’t take there to be any seven year tribulation being referred to.
When John is writing Revelation, the church is under heavy persecution by the Roman Empire and by local communities as well. The church is looking for hope and vindication. In Revelation, John is giving the answer to their longing. God will bring justice to those who are suffering persecution, and defeat the evil in this world, no matter how it manifests itself. Whether it be empires, or demonizing communities, or the dark forces behind the scenes, God will have the final say. The central message of Revelation is that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.
What about the thousand years? Again I take that to be imagery. I think (and this is more or less speculation, but I think it is accurate) that it is the time that Paul referred to when Jesus brings everything under the feet of God the Father, so that he may be all in all. When that is complete, God makes all things new and transforms everything into the New Heavens and New Earth. I firmly believe that we will be living on the same earth we do now, but that it will be made new and resurrected (just like Paul says we will be), without sin and evil. This is the hope that John is communicating to those under persecution, and to all the world, because God will reconcile all things to himself.
As in the link I posted the other day, this is a system, a model for understanding and making sense of Revelation and other prophetic literature. No model is perfect, but I think this works the best, when taking into account other scripture, the historical evidence that we have of other books of a similar genre, and what we know of the time period. If I came across new information that made more sense of the material, I would most certainly revise the model, but this is what I think at the moment.
People should stop freaking out about the mark of the beast. A chip that is implanted in your arm has absolutely nothing to do with anything in Revelation. God will not be angry if someday it makes sense for you to have that done.
If you want a good laugh, try watching those televangelists who try to interpret end times prophecies, and make predictions, using the latest headlines. Jack Van Impe is the best, with Pat Robertson and John Hagee close behind.