Interpreting Revelation Literally

A questioner recently asked how historicists respond to people who claim we aren’t interpreting the book of Revelation (or the Bible) literally. I think this question comes up mainly from those who have been influenced by a dispensational understanding of Bible prophecy (e.g. John MacArthur, Jack VanImpe, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, John Walvoord, John Darby, C.I. Scofield and The Scofield Reference Bible, The Ryrie Study Bible, etc.). I also think that when many well-trained dispensational scholars talk about the importance of a literal interpretation, they make a good point. I think amillennial scholars often make some pretty big mistakes in the way they handle Scripture. Amillennialism is usually accompanied by the idea that Old Testament prophecies about the Jews are not really about the Jews at all, but about the “spiritual Israel”, i.e., the Christian Church.  They get there by spiritualizing  a lot of Old Testament prophecy, and Revelation, and their hermeneutical method then becomes more or less allegorical. So when responding to allegorical and spiritualized interpretations of prophecy, I sympathize with the concern of the dispensationalists: a literal hermeneutic is important.

But what do I mean by “literal”?  When someone says he takes the Bible literally, we need to double check what he means by that. If he means, for example, that Solomon in the Song of Solomon likes women with teeth that look like sheep (Song 4:2), then he doesn’t know how to read the Bible, much less any book containing multiple kinds of writing (i.e. literary genres). For example, when Joshua says that the sun stood still, he does not mean to convey that the sun ordinarily moves around, but that it appeared from his point of view that the sun held its position in the sky. (see here for more on that)

If someone says they take Revelation literally, and they mean they don’t think Revelation uses symbols to communicate, then I like to ask what they think of Revelation 1:20?

As for the mystery of the seven stars that 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.

(Rev. 1:20 ESV)

Jesus says there that the stars = angels of churches and that lampstands = churches. So if someone interprets Revelation literally, one should then literally follow Jesus’ example and interpret the meaning of each symbol as equivalent to real, historical things: stars = angels, lampstands = churches. (And as we read further in Revelation, and observe the allusions to Old Testament passages, we also learn that beasts = empires/kingdoms, crowns = rulership, seas = the population of the nations, land/earth = one Kingdom in particular, the Roman Empire, etc.) Moreover, when John was told in Revelation 1:1 that this vision was “signified” to him (KJV), it literally means communicated in signs or symbols. (The Greek word is semaino, which Friberg’s Lexicon gives as “σημαίνω impf. ἐσήμαινον; 1aor. ἐσήμανα; with a basic meaning intentionally produce an impression to signal or signify something;…” It is used 5 other times in the New Testament: John 12:33, 18:32, 21:19; Acts 11:28, 25:27. In all but one of these instances the point is to communicate some meaning by some kind of sign—the Acts 11 passage is ambiguous.)

In other words, if a book like Revelation literally says it uses symbols that are meant to represent other things, then to interpret that book literally means one should keep interpreting it according to that principle. This is what is meant when someone says he interprets according to the type of writing that it is: poetry should be interpreted as poetry, historical narrative as historical narrative (Genesis for example), and symbolic (apocalyptic) prophecy as symbolic. My old Bible college professor was fond of repeating that it would be silly to interpret the Bible literally (and he was a dispensationalist!), but that we must interpret the Bible literarily  (each part according its literary genre).

For more help on this topic check out “The Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy” by Dr. Oral Collins.