John, the author of the Book of Revelation, specifically called his book a prophecy (Rev. 1:19). Since John referred to his writing as prophetic, an understanding of it must be approached as such. There are five basic ways of interpreting biblical prophecies: futuristic, historical, exhortative, idealistic, and preterite. Each approach is different and has its own strengths and weaknesses, especially when it comes to the interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
The futuristic approach to interpreting prophecy assumes that what the prophet is predicting is the future for us as well. The strength of the futuristic approach is that it allows us to take unfulfilled prophecies as wholly true predictions of the future. Unfortunately, there are many weaknesses. Prophecies that have expired or that can no longer be considered reasonable cannot be salvaged, which calls into question the meaning of human freedom and predestiny. The futuristic approach also raises the issue of why the prophecy was relevant in its first readers, and if the prophecy is still relevant to us. It is extremely common for pop culture to utilize the Book of Revelation in the futuristic approach. Those who interpret the Book of Revelation in the futuristic approach have the task of deducing upcoming events as references to the Bible. The major strength with interpreting in the futuristic approach is that the climax has not happened in all of its godly glory. Unfortunately, there have been countless corrections with the Book of Revelation after the fact, with many of them doing damage. This approach also brings up the question if the Book of Revelation’s predictions are to be fulfilled long after our own time.
The historical approach to interpreting prophecy is looking at the prophecy with an understanding that the future for the prophet is the past for us, and that prophecies that are valid would have already come to pass. This historical approach to interpreting a prophecy has both strengths and weakness. One of the biggest weaknesses is that it makes biblical prophecy irrelevant to us today because the date of the prophecy has already passed. It also does not explain why with so many false prophecies, they continue to inspire faith. One of the biggest strengths is it recognizes that the Bible is written on general principles and makes all biblical prophecies relevant, in addition to the prophecies that were fulfilled. This approach takes the promise of “soon” seriously, Rev. 1:1, 1:3. The difficulty with using the historical approach to interpret the Book of Revelation is making a convincing correlation due to the fact that much of it is vague, bizarre, and deeply coated in symbolism. This brings up the question of whether the Book of Revelation is even a prediction. In any case, some have understood the Book of Revelation to be an outline of John's time to a later date that symbolized the "the end of the world," with a common example being the victory of Christianity under Constantine.
The exhortative approach to interpreting prophecy has the goal of improving moral behavior and is only valid if the behavioral change was for the better. The greatest strength of the exhortative approach is that it takes the goal of the Bible seriously, which is to inspire better behavior and help good Christians find salvation. The exhortative approach also helps salvage truth from certain unfulfilled prophecies, making them once again relevant. Unfortunately, the exhortative approach also has weaknesses, which can be seen in the prophecies that are not contingent. In addition, we rarely know how prophecies affected behavior and for prophecies that had a time window we cannot asses if the prophecy was valid because we do not know how the affected people reacted. Another weakness is that people will only change if they believe the prophecy is valid. The Book of Revelation can be interpreted as a plea to change behavior, a plea that can still be heard today, which can be seen in the seven letters (Rev. 2-3). The difficulty with interpreting the Book of Revelation in the exhortative approach is that we do not know how it affected its first readers. The current behavior inspired by Revelation is often foolish and occasionally much worse.
The idealistic approach to interpreting prophecy is based on underlying principles and it’s validity is based on whether or not the general principle is valid. The idealistic approach’s major strength is in its understanding that the Bible is based on general principles, the most obvious of which is good versus evil. The largest weakness of the idealistic approach lies in its dismissal of any actual prophecy, and how people focus on only principles they like. Another difficulty is that we have to explain why the principles are valid. The idealistic interpretation was widespread in premodern times but can still be found today. When the idealistic approach is applied to the Book of Revelation, validity could be found through looking at the timeless theological ideas of good vs evil with the explanation of the exaggeration to draw attention to the ideas. The idealistic approach doesn’t have the limitation of the other approaches and understands that much of the Bible is generalized. Since John interpreted the Hebrew scripture idealistically and considered general theological principles important, which could be seen through his many references to the Hebrew scripture, the principles in the Book of Revelation can be understood clearly.
The preterite approach is common among the scholarly community because it does not impose our theological agenda on the prophecy and allows us to understand the original meaning of the piece. One major weakness to the preterite approach is that the prophecy becomes irrelevant to the community who preserved it throughout the centuries. When interpreting the Book of Revelation with the preterite approach, many say the book was written primarily to address specific problems in John’s day. Thus making it necessary to find the original message and meaning. A common example of using the preterite approach is the understanding that the beast whose number is 666 is probably Nero, with the argument being his name can yield 666 when translated to Hebrew. He was well known for persecuting Christians, and there were rumors that he didn't die after his suicide. Another argument that comes straight out of the Book of Revelation was that the beast was the eighth emperor and a previous emperor and will return to destroy Rome, Rev. 17:8-18.
In conclusion, each of the approaches to interpreting biblical prophecy are necessary in the understanding of the Book of Revelation. Each approach has its own merit and difficulty, yet it is only with the combined efforts of all four that we may fully understand this so often misunderstood text.