Preterism is a system for the interpretation of the book of Revelation. Its strange name comes from a Latin word meaning “past tense.” The word is appropriate because this view holds that either all or most of the book of Revelation was fulfilled in the First Century!
Does Revelation infer that its prophecies were to be fulfilled in the time it was written?
It would be easy to get this impression because the very first verse in Revelation speaks of “the things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1). Also, two times the text states that “the time is near” for the fulfillment of the prophecies (Revelation 1:3 and 22:10).
But in view of the fact that the prophecies have not been literally fulfilled in history, it appears that these statements point to imminence rather than nearness in time. Imminence is the concept that an event can occur at any time, and the creation of that sense seems to be the purpose of these statements.
The principle is one that Jesus stressed in His teachings about the end times. Over and over He told His disciples to be ready for His return at any moment. “Be ready,” He warned, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (Matthew 24:44). Jesus used the parable of the ten virgins to illustrate His point. Five were unready when the bridegroom came and were thus left behind. “Be on the alert, then,” Jesus warned, “for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:1-13). On another occasion, He put it this way, “Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps alight… for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect” (Luke 12:35, 40).
The apostolic writers make it clear that living in a state of suspense, expecting the Lord to return shortly, at any moment, will have a purifying effect, because it will motivate holiness. Paul urges us to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:12-13). Peter tells each of us to “keep sober in spirit,” and he says the way to do it is to “fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). John says we are to focus on the Lord’s return because “everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself just as He is” (1 John 3:3).
Words must always be interpreted in terms of context, and context is often shaped by historical setting. In the First Century setting, the references to “soon,” “shortly,” and “near” seemed to indicate a quick fulfillment. But as time has passed without any literal fulfillment, history has shaped the context to indicate imminence — that is, the events prophesied can happen any moment.
A similar phenomenon can be found in statements used in other portions of the Scriptures. For example, James wrote that we are to be patient until the coming of the Lord, and then he stated, “the coming of the Lord is at hand… behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:7-9). In like manner, Peter wrote, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). The fact of the matter is that we have been living in the end times ever since the Day of Pentecost when the Gospel was first preached, and the end times could be consummated any moment with the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies.
The generalized time references in Revelation are not indicators of nearness in time. Instead, they are warnings of imminence — that the events prophesied could start unfolding at any moment.