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Shouldn’t Revelation be interpreted literally?

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1430_Unknown-German-Master-Vision-of-St-John-the-Evangelist.jpg-628x337In preparation for the Reno Symposium on Revelation, I did a lot of preparation work. Some of it I was able to use (some of which you can find here). The following concerns the claim that Revelation should be interpreted in a consistently literal way.

Nobody interprets the book of Revelation literally, as the word is normally understood. Hal Lindsey, for example, is best known for his claim that the locusts of Revelation 9:1–12 could be Vietnam-era “cobra helicopters”:

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. [1]

I realize that most premillennialists, even dispensational premillennialists, would reject the way Lindsey interprets the book of Revelation, but millions of people have purchased his books in the past 40 years. They purchased them because he interpreted prophecy in less than literal way. Lindsey argued that Revelation was written in the form of an ancient code that needed a time machine to speed to the right prophetic era where the original Revelation symbols could be understood. “You might say,” Lindsey write in There’s A New World Coming, “that John was put into a ‘divine time machine’ and transported nineteen hundred centuries into the future. Try to put yourself in his place. Suppose you were suddenly catapulted nineteen centuries into the future and confronted with the marvels of that time, then instructed to return to your own century and write what you had seen!” [2]

John was told, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). This verse indicates that symbols and things signified were to be understood by Revelation’s first readers. How do we explain Lindsey’s “catapult” and “time machine” examples when John was told “the time is near”? If we follow Lindsey’s methodology, the people who first read Revelation were confused because what they were reading didn’t line up with what they knew of their world. The people who read Revelation anytime after the 19th century were also confused because the imagery was from an era long past.

Revelation uses dozens of Old Testament symbols: eating scrolls, beasts, marks on the forehead, gold, thrones, sun, moon, stars, candlesticks, dragon, Balaam, Jezebel, dragon, Gog and Magog, Sodom, Egypt, and Babylon. It’s unlikely that Old Testament references to people and places will reappear in their original forms. God is using them as reference points, a form of prophetic shorthand that Jews who were familiar with the Hebrew or Greek translation of the Scriptures could identify and make application.

Simon J. Kistemaker states the following in his commentary on Revelation:

The conclusion we must draw is that the numbers, images, and expressions of greatness must be interpreted as symbols that present the idea of totality, fullness, and perfection. Much of John’s symbolism derives from the Old Testament Scriptures and from the ecclesiastical context in which he spent his time. Let us note that the Jewish mind of the first century received and presented information by means of pictures, illustrations, and symbols. [3]

The word “literal” is derived “from the word Latin litera meaning “letter.” “To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret is as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.” [4] If someone asks if you interpret the Bible literally, the only proper response is, It depends on what you mean by literal and how the Bible uses different types of literature in various contexts. Here’s how premillennialist Robert Mounce explains the meaning of Revelation 1:1:

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. [5]

Women, sun, moon, and stars are real, 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 something familiar to the first readers (Gen. 37:9). 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” (Rev. 12:3–4). But is that what the passage is trying to communicate?

The key to interpreting Revelation is found in the Old Testament. As Beckwith notes, “the author’s mind was stored to a marvelous degree with the ideas, the language, and the imagery found in the Old Testament and in apocalyptic writings. The evidence of this appears on every page, one might almost say in every paragraph of a few verses.” [6]

Merrill C. Tenney’s Interpreting Revelation includes a chart that shows the distribution of Old Testament allusions by Old Testament books.

This chart reveals that all major sections of the Old Testament are included in Revelation, with quotations or allusions from 24 books. The “major” prophets lead with 197. Other significant books are Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, and Zechariah. [7]

 The only time machine we need is to make a trip back to the Hebrew Scriptures to understand how the symbols, figures, and images were used.

  1. Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming: A Prophetic Odyssey (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House Publishers, 1973), 138–139.[]
  2. Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming, 23.[]
  3. Simon J. Kistemaker, Revelation: Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 16.[]
  4. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48–49.[]
  5. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 42.[]
  6. Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1919] 1967), vii.[]
  7. Ferrell Jenkins, The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation (Temple Terrace, FL: Florida College Bookstore, 1984), 25.[]
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