Most of us probably understand that many of the things we are reading are symbolic representations of something. The difficulty lies in knowing what these things represent. In chapter 7, we read about 144,000 people who are sealed. Is the number 144,000 symbolic or literal? Jehovah's Witnesses believe that this is a literal representation of how many from their own will be in heaven. Others say that this is a symbolic representation of the many Jews who originally followed the ways of Jesus. I think understanding a little more about the common views of Revelation may help us. There are 4 main views of Revelation held by scholars:
1. Preterist - A preterist interpretation of Revelation says that the prophecies held within this book have already happened. A preterist would say that the judgments we are reading about happened shortly after John wrote this letter. Proponents of this view look at Jesus' own words in the Gospels (Mark 13, Matthew 24) as a parallel to these prophecies, predicting the destruction of Jerusalem.
2. Historicist - A historicist interpretation sees Revelation as a picture of all that will happen during the church age, our current age. Proponents look at the judgments we are reading about as happening between the first and second coming of Jesus. They would say that we are living somewhere in the middle of these very things. Historicists look at many world events as the judgments we read about.
3. Idealist - An idealist interpretation looks at Revelation as completely symbolic. Proponents say that these are spiritual lessons for the church and thus can be seen as happening again and again throughout history. They would say that there are spiritual lessons for us, just as there were spiritual lessons for 4th and 5th century Christians. They believe that this book gives a powerful picture of the spiritual warfare constantly being waged in this world.
4. Futurists - A futurist interpretation looks at Revelation as something that will one day, literally happen. Most futurists are dispensationalists. Most futurists are premillennialists. Proponents say that there will be a great tribulation, which is described in Revelation. They believe in a rapture of true believers, followed by the tribulation, followed by a 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth.
Obviously, there are significant differences in the above views/interpretations. BUT, it is important to remember that the different interpretations are not essentials in theology. There are probably, within our own church body, those who would hold to different interpretations...and even a mix of the above interpretations. Though we may have some differences in how we read Revelation, we are united in our faith which is rooted in Jesus Christ alone. We do not know what the end will look like. We do not know if these things are completely literal or completely symbolic, or a combination. We do not know when and where and how. We read, we interpret, we listen, we even debate, but we do not know with full assurance. BUT, we hold on to Christ with our lives. We place our faith only in Him. This is a great reminder that living out the Gospel, living out the teachings of Jesus, loving others with no strings attached, is vitally important in our world today. No matter the view you and I hold, may we live our lives as a sacrifice, may we give ourselves to the mission of love, no matter what may come.