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Should the Bible Always be Interpreted ‘Literally’?

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How many commentaries on the book of Revelation have been promoted that claim to be “the most literal interpretation of Revelation”? In fact, it’s often argued that the only way to interpret Revelation is literally. Does literally mean “truly,” or does it mean “just what a verse says and nothing else”? It can’t mean the latter since no one, not even those who claim to interpret Revelation literally, interprets every verse in Revelation in a formally literal way. Of course, this does not mean that everything is a symbol. Far from it.

There are numerous symbols in Revelation that reference some concrete aspect of reality. If this is the meaning of literal then I, too, interpret the Bible literally. To interpret the Bible literally – from the Latin litera — is to interpret it according to its literature. For example, in Rev. 1:20 we are told, “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” The seven stars and the seven lampstands are said to be angels and churches. These very explicit images that John saw represent something else. To be sure, lampstands and stars are real, but there’s more to the image than lampstands and stars. The same is true of the majority of Revelation.

None of this should surprise us since the first verse of Revelation 1 expressly tells readers that the book is going to communicate with symbols. The Greek word shmainwis is used, which means “to signify.” Here’s a literal reading of the first verse of Revelation 1: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and signified [shmainwis] it by His angel to His bond-servant John.” Here’s how Robert Mounce explains its meaning:

The revelation is said to be “signified” (AV) to John. The Greek verb (sēmainō) carries the idea of figurative representation. Strictly speaking, it means to make known by some sort of sign. This is admirably suited to the symbolic character of the book. This should warn the reader not to expect a literal presentation of future history, but a symbolic portrayal of that which must yet take place. [1]

I would add, because of what John is told, the things that must take place must take place “shortly” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). It’s always amazing to read someone who claims that he interprets Revelation literally but when he comes to words like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly, and “about to” he argues for a less than literal interpretation. In doing this, he begins his interpretive journey going in the wrong direction. He’s an interpretive Wrong Way Corrigan.

Women, sun, moon, and stars are real (Rev. 12:1–2), but Revelation is not telling us that there’s a giant woman out in space who’s big enough to stand on the moon, fireproof enough to be draped with the sun, and strong enough to hold 12 stars as a crown on her head (Rev. 12:1-­2). She and the heavenly host attending her represent other things. God can certainly make a giant woman and a giant baby and a dragon “having seven heads and ten horns” who is powerful enough with his enormous tail to sweep “away a third of the stars of heaven” and throw “them to the earth” (12:3–4). But is that what the passage is saying?

Now we come to a dispute between dispensationalist Thomas Ice and preterist Kenneth Gentry over the meaning of the “huge [mega] hailstones” that weighed from 60 to 100 pounds (a “talent” in weight) that “came down from heaven upon men” (Rev. 16:21).

Gentry argues that the hailstones were actually boulders lobbed at the Jews by the Romans from catapults. He cites a reference Josephus (A.D. 37–100) and his most important work The Wars of the Jews (c. 75 AD) to support his view:

Not only is the size mentioned the same . . ., but the boulders thrown by the Roman catapults were white colored, as are hailstones. Would not the effect of the catapulting stones be virtually that of a hailstorm of such proportions? [2]

The Wars of the Jews is the only post-destruction history we have of the destruction of Jerusalem. Here’s Josephus describes the Roman war machines:

The engines [catapults], that all the legions had ready prepared for them, were admirably contrived; but still more extraordinary ones belonged to the tenth legion: those that threw darts and those that threw stones were more forcible and larger than the rest, by which they not only repelled the excursions of the Jews, but drove those away that were upon the walls also. Now the stones that were cast were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and further. The blow they gave was no way to be sustained, not only by those that stood first in the way, but by those that were beyond them for a great space. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them notice when the engine was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried out aloud, in their own country language, THE STONE COMETH so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves down upon the ground; by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone, who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow. [3]

Ice points out that Gentry does not include the observation made by Josephus that the stones were painted black. Gentry should have. Of course, John does not say the hailstones were white. He only writes that they were hailstones. Given the symbolic nature of Revelation, it’s not impossible to argue that the hailstones represented something else, even the war machinery of the Roman armies. As we’ll see, Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22 suggest such an interpretation. We know from Revelation 12 that sun, moon, and stars represent other things, most likely the nation of Israel (Gen. 37:9). The same is true for Babylon and other descriptions of national judgment (Isa. 13:10, 13; cf. 34:4; Jer. 4:23; Ezek. 32:7; Joel 2:10; Matt. 24:29). If this is true, then why is it difficult to believe that something like hailstones couldn’t represent something similar?

What do we make of the “third of the stars” that the red dragon sweeps from heaven and threw to earth? [4] Are they “literally” stars? They can’t be. Such a cataclysmic event would turn the earth into a burned out cinder. What would be left of the earth if just a single star was thrown down to earth? How could anything take place in Revelation 16 after the devastating impact of these fallen stars? Claiming that they’re meteorites does not solve the problem since such a barrage would ravage the earth in a similar way. Think of the films Armageddon and Deep Impact. Robert L. Thomas, who consistently criticizes those who interpret much of Revelation in a symbolic way, interprets the stars in Revelation 12 as “angels who fell with Satan in history past.” [5] So a star can be an angel, but hailstones can’t be boulders.

The claim made by Ice is that Gentry’s interpretation is “naturalistic.” But God often uses human agents to fulfill His divine judgments. For example, in Daniel 1:1 we read, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” God used human means to bring about a prophesied judgment. At the same time we are told in the very next verse, “The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god.” Is it “naturalistic” for God to use Nebuchadnezzar to bring about His promised judgment?

Jesus prophesied that the temple in Jerusalem would be torn down so that “not one stone would be left upon another” (Matt. 24:2). This was God’s promised judgment. Did God do this? If you mean did God personally remove the stones, then no. The Romans did it. Is this a “naturalistic interpretation” because God was not personally and immediately involved in the destruction of the temple? Why is it unreasonable for God to use the Romans to reign down heavy boulders on the Jews as a judgment and describe them as hailstones?

Hal Lindsey didn’t have a problem infamously turning locusts into “Cobra helicopters” in Revelation 9:1–12:

I have a Christian friend who was a Green Beret in Viet Nam. When he first read this chapter he said, “I know what those are. I’ve seen hundreds of them in Viet Nam. They’re Cobra helicopters! That may be conjecture, but it does give you something to think about! A Cobra helicopter does fit the sound of “many chariots.” My friend believes that the means of torment will be a kind of nerve gas sprayed from its tail. [6]

Commentaries on Ezekiel from the dispensational perspective have no trouble turning horses into horse power, chariots into tanks, bows into launching pads, and arrows into missiles.

I don’t believe, however, that it is necessary to turn hailstones into rocks to retain the integrity of what John was shown. Why couldn’t real hailstones have come out of heaven by God’s direct action in the period leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70? Ice might argue that there is no record of such a thing happening, therefore, the fulfillment must take place in our future after a pre-tribulational “rapture.” But who says that real hailstones were not part of God’s judgment?

Where outside the Bible is there evidence that any of these OT hailstorms took place? We don’t need another source if the Bible is to be trusted as history. It’s no different with Revelation 16:21. John is told that the events in Revelation were to take place “shortly” because the time was near for these events. I suggest that there is a mix of literal and symbolic in all of Revelation. A good example of this methodology can be found in Acts 2. In quoting Joel, Peter has no problem mixing stellar phenomena and blood (2:19–20).

Psalm 18 is interesting since it mentions “hailstones and coals of fire.” This particular Psalm carries a descriptive title: “A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” Where in the biblical or extra-biblical historical record is it recorded that during David’s battles with Saul that hailstones and coals of fire rained down on him? The only place where this account is mentioned is in nearly two identical poetry sections (2 Sam. 22 and Psalm 18).

Much more can be said about a topic like this, but it’s simplistic of Ice to argue that passages like Revelation 16:21 can only have a yet future fulfillment.

  1. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 42.[]
  2. Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1998), 246.[]
  3. Book V, Chap 6, sec. 3.[]
  4. The Greek word for “earth” is gēs and can be translated as “land,” “dirt,” “soil,” or “earth.” If you read these verses and insert “land” — “land of Israel” — where many translations use “earth,” a more local context is in view. The focus of Revelation is on Jerusalem’s coming judgment: “And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (11:8).[]
  5. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 124.[]
  6. Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming: A Prophetic Odyssey (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House Publishers, 1973), 138–139).[]

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