Lesson 3 – What Are the Major Bible Prophecy Interpretation Methods?

When talking about the study of Bible prophecy specifically, there are 4 major schools of thought – Preterism, Historicism, Futurism, and Idealism.


In his article Idealists, Preterists, and Futurists, Jack Kelley discusses three major schools of thought regarding Bible prophecy interpretation.  He summarizes – “When you boil it all down there are only three schools of thought for interpreting prophecy. There are idealists, who interpret prophecy symbolically and don’t expect any of it to be fulfilled in the literal sense. Then there are preterists, who see the complete fulfillment of prophecy in past events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And there are futurists who see the fulfillment of prophecy in events still to come. All the major views fit under one of these headings.”  An additional view is Historicism, which states that Bible prophecy covers a broad period of time from the early church until an anticipated future state of perfection.

Preterism (Past)

The preterist view sees Revelation as referring mostly to events in the past, particularly in the 1st century AD.  This view suggests that the entire prophecy of Daniel’s 70 Weeks has been fulfilled, and that Revelation is a symbolic picture of first-century struggles in the new church.  Jack Kelley summarizes:

According to the preterist interpretation, after Jesus was crucified, the Romans desecrated the Temple, and the Roman Emperor Nero fulfilled the prophecies of the coming prince, also known as the anti-Christ.

Preterists believe the day of the Lord took place in 68-70 AD with the Roman conquest of Israel. The Millennium was actually only 40 years long and took place from 30-70 AD. The Earth will last forever and there will be no coming judgment and no rapture of the Church. Since there’s no prophecy left to fulfill we’ll simply transition from time into eternity on a future day of the Lord’s choosing.

(Source: https://gracethrufaith.com/end-times-prophecy/idealists-preterists-and-futurists/)

Preterism is the opposite of futurism; suggesting that all biblical prophecies concerning the “end times” have already been fulfilled.  Thus, they state that Jesus’ second coming was “spiritual” and not physical.  Gotquestions discusses some of the major flaws with this view:

Preterism teaches that the Law was fulfilled in AD 70 and God’s covenant with Israel was ended. The “new heavens and new earth” spoken of in Revelation 21:1 is, to the preterist, a description of the world under the New Covenant. Just as a Christian is made a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), so the world under the New Covenant is a “new earth.” This aspect of preterism can easily lead to a belief in replacement theology.

Preterists usually point to a passage in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse to bolster their argument. After Jesus describes some of the end-times happenings, He says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34). The preterist takes this to mean that everything Jesus speaks of in Matthew 24 had to have occurred within one generation of His speaking—the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was therefore “Judgment Day.”

The problems with preterism are many. For one thing, God’s covenant with Israel is everlasting (Jeremiah 31:33–36), and there will be a future restoration of Israel (Isaiah 11:12). The apostle Paul warned against those who, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, teach falsely “that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:17–18). And Jesus’ mention of “this generation” should be taken to mean the generation that is alive to see the beginning of the events described in Matthew 24.

Full preterism has some serious flaws in that it denies the physical reality of Christ’s second coming and downplays the dreadful nature of the tribulation by restricting that event to the fall of Jerusalem.

Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/preterist.html

John MacArthur contends that “this view conflicts with the book’s own often repeated claim to be prophecy (1:3; 22:7,10,18,19).”

Historicism (Present)

The historicist view sees Revelation as portraying a broad view of history, from the time of the early church until perfection is achieved at some point in the future.  CARM describes historicism:

It is typical that historicists will envision the history of the world as pre-written in apocalyptic language filled with symbols and visions. The Reformers believed that major prophetic writings, such as the Book of Daniel, the Olivet Discourse, and the Book of Revelation revealed the rise of the Roman Catholic Church and God’s destruction of that entity. The major prophetic writings were also believed to give exhortation to the church that would be purified during the time of the Reformation.

Within historicism, majority agreement on the prophetic fulfillment of the beginning and ending of historical movements cannot be ascertained; rather, Bible prophecy provides the panorama of historical movements throughout the various ages. It equates the current church age with the tribulation based on the day-age theory. Historicists interpret literal numbers like 2,300 days (Dan 8:14) and 1,290 days (Dan 12:11) as years. They also view Bible prophecy as finding continual fulfillment in the present age. The minority view among historicists is that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was consistent with the breaking of the seals of Revelation. The majority view is that the breaking of the first seal is consistent with the death of Domitian in AD 96. The other six seals are associated with the rise and fall of the Western Roman Empire, which would include the invasion by the German barbarians (Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals) around the middle of the fifth century.

Source: https://carm.org/scripture-chronology-prophetic-fulfillment

The issues with historicism are similar to those of preterism.

Futurism (Future)

The futurist view sees most of the book of Revelation as describing future events that have yet to be fulfilled.  Revelation 1 (and possibly 4-5) describes what John “has seen”, Revelation 2-3 describes “what is now”, and Revelation 4-22 (or alternately, 6-22) describes “what is to come”.  Futurists believe in a literal, future, prophetic fulfillment of the rapture of the church, the tribulation (70th Week of Daniel), second coming of Christ, and millennial kingdom.  The next prophetic event will be the rapture of the church; care should be taken not to attempt to overlay current events with what will occur after the rapture.

The futurist interpretation is the most literal view – the other views must allegorize some or all of the visions.  When symbolism is used, futurists look for the literal meaning behind the symbol.

John MacArthur states – “Only this view does justice to Revelation’s claim to be prophecy and interprets the book by the same grammatical-historical method as chaps. 1–3 and the rest of Scripture.” (Source: https://www.gty.org/library/bible-introductions/MSB66/the-revelation-of-jesus-christ).

Idealism (Timeless)

The idealist view sees Revelation as an allegory of the ongoing struggle between good and evil.  Because this view treats Bible prophecy as symbolic, there are many diverse opinions within this category.  Jack Kelley describes these varied interpretations thus –  “the only areas of universal agreement being that none of it will really happen as written, and the “good guys” will eventually win”.  CARM describes idealism:

Bible prophecy is not an actual record of historical events or future events. In other words, there is no single historical fulfillment. As it merely sets forth great principles that are common throughout the age of the world, Bible prophecy is applicable to believers in any age and history is almost completely separate from its fulfillment. Idealism stresses great ethical principles, hidden in symbols and metaphors, of world events that occur. The conflict between good and evil rages, but the triumph of the ages will be the victory of the good. In the idealist view, time and history for Bible prophecy are meaningless.

Source: https://carm.org/scripture-chronology-prophetic-fulfillment

John MacArthur states that the idealist approach reduces the book of Revelation (and thus, Daniel and the other Old Testament prophets as well) to a collection of stories designed to impart varied principles or truths.


Because of our previous lesson on Is the Book of Revelation Literal, we understand that the Idealism view cannot be correct as it takes scripture figuratively.  Preterism, Historicism, and Futurism all claim to interpret prophecy literally.  They use the same scriptures in the defense of their views.  How can this be so?

When Jesus was speaking to the disciples about the end times in His olivet discourse, and even up until His ascension, the option was literally open for Israel to accept Him as Messiah.  Old Testament and Gospel prophecies had to be worded in such a way as they could have had either immediate fulfillment or delayed fulfillment.  Truly brilliant.  Jack Kelley discusses this here:

God knows the end from the beginning so He always knew the Israelites would reject the Messiah and open the door for the Gentile Church. But in order to preserve Israel’s first right of refusal regarding God’s Kingdom offer, all end times prophecy had leave Israel’s options open. If Isaiah or Daniel or any of the others had come right out and said that Israel would reject the Messiah and forfeit the Kingdom, the Lord’s instructions for the disciples to preach that “the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matt. 10:7) would not have been legitimate.

But if the prophets had clearly confirmed Israel’s acceptance then there would have been no place for the Church and history would have invalidated prophecy. The prophecies had to be given in such a way that both possibilities could legitimately exist in their fulfillment.

The way Daniel’s 70 Weeks prophecy reads allows both Preterists and Futurists to defend their interpretation.

I’m convinced that had the Jews accepted Jesus as their Messiah so He could die for their sins like Daniel 9:26 prophesied, there would have been no gap in the 70 weeks prophecy. The 70th Week would have begun immediately after the resurrection and would have culminated in the Risen Lord leading His armies against Rome to restore the Kingdom to Israel and usher in the time we know as the Millennium. All the 2nd Coming prophecies would have been fulfilled at that time. (From Acts 1:6 we know this is how the disciples expected it to happen.)

Their problem with God is not that they put the Messiah to death. Their problem is that they refused to allow His death to pay for their sins, and in so doing rendered His perfect sacrifice as being of even less value to them than the actual lambs that could only temporarily set their sins aside.

Because of this, James announced that Israel was being set aside while the Lord took for Himself a people from the gentiles. When He has finished doing that, He’ll turn His focus again to Israel and fulfill the remaining 70th Week (Acts 15:13-18). This was the first time on earth that a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s prophecy had been revealed. This is what gave gave rise to the idea that God is not finished with Israel and there’s a lot of Bible prophecy yet to be fulfilled. Paul confirmed this in Romans 11:25.

If you adhere to a strict literal interpretation of His word a careful study of prophecy will lead you to the inescapable conclusion that there has to be a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel 9:24-27 and the Church Age is filling that gap. There’s no other way to make everything fit without having to reinterpret parts of it.

Source: https://gracethrufaith.com/end-times-prophecy/idealists-preterists-and-futurists/

I personally examined the books of Revelation and Daniel specifically, and was convinced that the Futurist model best represented what I was reading.  This is definitely influenced by my belief that the Bible should be read literally, given cultural, contextual, and historical considerations.  (Jack Kelley’s article “How to Interpret the Bible” explains this well).  However, the main reason why I believe the Futurist model is most accurate is because Jesus literally fulfilled hundreds of prophecies down to minute details at His first coming.  I believe He will do so again, as it is written.

“When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at it’s primary, ordinary, usual meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”  – David L. Cooper

I encourage you to explore each of the prophecy interpretation methods for yourself, to see if you agree with me!

This lesson series is a brief walk through the studies I have undertaken to get to my current understanding of End Times prophecy.  This isn’t meant to be all-inclusive so I provide links for you to explore further!  What I post here is my best insight from Scripture, but I’m only human 🙂  Thus, I urge you to search the Scripture for yourself to see if these things are so!

Further Resources:

Main Menu – Bible Prophecy Lessons

How to Interpret the Bible – Grace Thru Faith

Idealists, Preterists, and Futurists – Grace Thru Faith

Does Scripture Indicate a Chronology for Prophetic Fulfillment? – CARM

The Revelation of Jesus Christ – John MacArthur

Are you CERTAIN of your Salvation, beyond a shadow of a doubt?  Do you KNOW that no matter when the rapture occurs, you will be counted worthy to escape?  If not, please read What Must I do to Be Saved.


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