Imagine yourself living almost 2,000 years ago, and you’re undergoing heavy persecution, the threat of death, for being a Christian. You worry about your own life and the lives of your family members who are also members of the church of Jesus. You are in need of comfort in the face of affliction. So, God sends you a letter of comfort, telling you that the whole church is going to fall away and turn into one large denomination, but that in 1500 years, Martin Luther is going to start another denomination. Are you confused yet? Welcome to the Historical Method of interpreting the book of Revelation.
This method was very popular from the time of the Protestant Reformation (1500s-1600s) until the early 1900s. Martin Luther, John Wesley (Methodist founder), Charles Spurgeon (famous Baptist preacher), Matthew Henry (famous Presbyterian preacher), William Miller (founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists), John L. Hinds (author of the Gospel Advocate Commentary on Revelation), and many others used the Historical Method of interpreting Revelation.
This view says that the book of Revelation is a continuous, chronological record of “the church” (most of it referring to the Catholic Church) from the time of John until the final judgment. Most who take this view will say that the book describes the apostasy of the church into Catholicism, the rise of the popes, the attacks which destroyed Rome, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, Napoleon and Mussolini, among others. Some in the Lord’s church who take this view teach that Alexander Campbell and the restoration of the Lord’s Church are referenced as well. It is noteworthy that no two Historical Method commentators can agree on which historical events are described in each section of the book.
Now, before we go any further, we need to ask some questions.
- What comfort does it bring to Christians who are suffering for their faith to say, “don’t worry, in a couple hundred years, pretty much the entire church is going to go into apostasy and become one large denomination”?
- How can this book be said to be made up of things which “must shortly come to pass” (1:1) if the overwhelming majority of the book is interpreted to be at least a thousand or more years away from when John wrote?
- Could the people who originally received this book have understood its meaning if it was about specific people and events—some of which were at least 1700 years away?
- If, as most who take this view will agree, we are living in the last section of the book before the judgment scene in chapter 20, what happens if there’s another 2,000 years of the church?
Another problem with this interpretation is that the birth and ascension of Christ are mentioned in the middle of the book (Revelation 12:1-5). In 12:10, the kingdom is said to come with power. If Revelation is a chronological record and Christ’s birth doesn’t even show up until chapter 12, exactly what is recorded in chapters 4-11?
While this view still has proponents within the church, it does not match up with the purpose of the book, nor the time which God said it would take place (Revelation 1:1, 3, 22:6, 10). As such, this method cannot be the one God wants us to use in interpreting the book of Revelation.
-Bradley S. Cobb