In Tom Schreiner’s helpful commentary in the ESV Expository Commentary series on Revelation, he discusses the four major approaches to interpreting the timing of the events described in the book:
Preterist–Fulfilled entirely or mainly in the first century
Historicist–Fulfilled in stages throughout church history
Futurist–Fulfilled mainly in future
The preterist view argues that Revelation was mainly or entirely fulfilled in the first century. The strength of this view is how it takes seriously the historical context in which Revelation was birthed. John wrote Revelation to readers in the first century, and the book addressed their concerns, hopes, and fears. The preterist view can be divided into liberal and evangelical camps. Those who are liberal theologically maintain that Revelation promised Jesus would come soon and destroy the Roman Empire, but these promises were not actually fulfilled, and hence John got it wrong. Most evangelical preterists, on the other hand, maintain Revelation was written before AD 70 and the events prophesied in Revelation are fulfilled mainly in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The evangelical preterist view has several problems. First, it demands that the book was written before AD 70, yet most scholars and the preponderance of the evidence suggest a date in the 90s. The most common evangelical preterist view is precarious, for the book must be written before AD 70 for its interpretation to succeed. Second, the events recorded by Josephus concerning Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70 are often forced upon Revelation by preterists, instead of their interpreting the text more naturally. Third, evangelical preterists identify Jerusalem as Babylon, but we have no other instance where Jerusalem is called Babylon, whereas elsewhere Babylon designates Rome (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13). Finally, the evangelical preterist view reads the book in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem but doesn’t handle well the many texts that speak universally, in which judgment is not limited to Babylon but encompasses the entire world.
The historicist view reads the book of Revelation as if it were a prophecy of the entirety of church history. Such a reading was especially popular in classical dispensationalism and was applied especially to the letters in chapters 2 and 3. Almost all dispensational interpreters today, however, have abandoned this approach, and few scholars support it, for church history must be forced to fit into the seven letters, or the rest of Revelation for that matter. It seems that this view survives in only a few circles.
The idealist view understands Revelation in broad categories, seeing in Jesus Christ the triumph of God and the defeat of the Devil and God’s enemies. Interpreters have been attracted to this approach, for it isn’t guilty of the arbitrary readings littering the history of the church. The idealist approach rightly sees the main message of the book, but it has been criticized for being too general and vague. Almost all would agree with the general message it detects in the book, but some of the gritty details in the book are sacrificed.
The futurist view is probably the most popular in evangelical circles today. The last century has been dominated by dispensational futurist readings, where Israel is sharply distinguished from the church and Revelation 4–22 takes place after the rapture of the church. Much of Revelation, then, records (according to this view) what happens in the seven years of tribulation before the second coming of Christ, his millennial reign on earth, and the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. Not all futurists, however, are dispensationalists. In recent years major commentaries have been written by scholars such as Robert Mounce, George Eldon Ladd, and Grant Osborne from a futurist stance, but none of these scholars is dispensational. It will become apparent in the course of the commentary why I reject a dispensational reading of the book, but space is lacking to interact with that view here. Only two problems with the dispensational view should be noted here. First, there is no evidence that the church is raptured before chapter 4. Such a reading must be imposed upon the text. Second, the sharp distinction between Israel and the church postulated by dispensationalists cannot be supported by a careful reading of Revelation.
Not all futurists, as noted above, are dispensationalists, for many today identify themselves as historic premillennialists, inasmuch as a number of early church fathers who were not dispensational believed in a future millennial reign of Christ on earth. The futurist view rightly sees the book relating to the end of history, but in some instances it falls prey to speculation and dangerous fantasies. In popular circles (e.g., the writings of Hal Lindsey and the novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) speculation runs rampant, and the meaning of Revelation is subverted by modern agendas. Still, the futurist approach reminds us that God reigns over history and will fulfill his promises in the future.
Schreiner then explains his basic approach in his own commentary:
The approach taken in this commentary is a combination of the preterist, idealist, and futurist views. Revelation was written to churches in the first century, who understood and were edified and challenged by the book. The idealist view rightly sees the prophecies as consisting of patterns and correspondences, so that what was prophesied relates both to the first century and to all churches throughout history until God consummates his purposes and plans. I will argue that the patterned or correspondence character of the prophecy helps us see how the words of Revelation spoke to the first century, the church throughout history, our time, and the end of the ages. At the same time, an idealist view must also incorporate the future into its reading, for John forecasts also the denouement of God’s purposes in history.