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26 December 2018

Literal versus Non-Literal Interpretation in Revelation

Photot by Unsplash.com
By Unsplash.com
Some commentators insist prophecy must be interpreted in a “literal” fashion unless a passage specifically indicates otherwise. The unstated assumption is that literal interpretation is more reliable than non-literal. This is particularly problematic when interpreting the book of Revelation.
     An example in which symbolical interpretation is considered proper by proponents of literalism is Revelation 11:8, which informs the reader that the city in which the dead bodies of the two witnesses lie is “spiritually called Sodom and Egypt.” In this case, non-literal interpretation is allowed by the text; “spiritually” means neither “Sodom” nor “Egypt” refers to the actual location named.
     The claim to interpret scripture only “literally” is inaccurate. Christians interpret some passages “literally,” others non-literally, usually without a second thought. This is true regardless of the topic; it is something we do instinctively. A better way to explain a conservative position on the Bible is that one “takes it seriously.”
     The insistence on literalness reflects ignorance of how language works. “Literal” and “non-literal” represent different kinds of language. A statement can be strictly literal and invalid, just as a statement can be metaphorical and true. The “grass is pink” is literal and false. “It is raining cats and dogs” is a literal statement but, “literally” speaking, untrue. Cats and dogs do not fall from the sky; this is a figure of speech to refer to heavy rainfall.
     The Apostle Paul’s called the church “the body of Christ,” a non-literal description. Christians collectively do not constitute the actual body of Jesus. Because the statement is metaphorical are we to assume it is invalid, or at least less true than more literal descriptions of the church? Jesus is portrayed as the true Temple and Tabernacle of God in which the divine presence dwells, yet Jesus is not made with goatskins or bricks.
     Revelation provides interpretations for many of its symbols, interpretations that demonstrate the symbols are not literal, actual things.
     The book’s opening vision includes an image of seven golden lampstands, which the text informs the reader represents seven churches (Revelation 1:20). This is symbolic, not literal interpretation. John saw “stars” in Christ’s right hand, which represent “messengers” or angels. John saw a slain lamb with “seven eyes,” which the text interprets to be the “seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). The seven heads of the Beast on which Babylon sits represent seven mountains, which in turn represent seven “kings” (Revelation 17:8-10).
     There are many images in Revelation that cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre results. God is the One “Who Sits on the Throne” and in whose right is a Sealed Scroll. How does a being that is Spirit and fills heaven and earth have a right hand or a backside with which to sit on a throne? Must he on occasion sit down to rest? Jesus is pictured as a slain lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, the “lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5-6). Is he literally a lion, a lamb or both, perhaps a mutated hybrid? Does Jesus have seven actual eyes and horns in his glorified body?
     In Revelation 9:1 a “star” falls to earth and is given a “key.” Would not the earth be destroyed outright if an actual star fell on it? And technically speaking, would not the earth be drawn into the star by its superior gravitational pull? Even if John saw a meteor or asteroid rather than a larger star, how does one give a key to a space rock?
     Is Satan an actual giant red dragon with literal heads and horns? Does his tail quite literally draw a third of the stars onto the earth and, if so, how does the earth survive such a cosmic collision (Revelation 12:3-4)? If Satan is a spiritual being, how does one attach an actual “chain” to his ankle to hold him for a thousand years (20:1-4)?
     The book of Revelation is an unveiling by Jesus Christ to signify to his servants “what things must soon come to pass” (Revelation 1:1-2). This is accomplished by means of visions in which John sees and hears things that represent specific realities. The symbols point to said realities but are not themselves real. The Greek verb rendered “signify” is from the same stem as the noun for “sign,” and means to “signify, show by sign, to symbolize.” Revelation informs the reader from the get-go by direct statement and example that it communicates symbolically.

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