Lesson 2 – Is the Book of Revelation Literal or Symbolic?

One of the first discussions we need to have regarding Bible Prophecy is whether or not it should be taken literally or symbolically.  Of course there are symbols used in prophecy – but should we look for a literal meaning behind them or a broad allegorical one?

For this we need to discuss the interpretation of the Bible in general – should the Bible as a whole be taken literally, or is it open to personal interpretation?

literal vs symbolic

Peter and Paul give us the answer to these questions here:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,  knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV

 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness… 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.  2 Timothy 2:15 ESV

Unfortunately, in some Christian denominations, varied interpretations of scripture passages are accepted because people want to choose for themselves what verses mean.  This departure from sound doctrine was foretold:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  2 Peter 3:16 ESV

Gotquestions explains the importance of sound doctrine here:

“Sound doctrine is important because the gospel is a sacred trust, and we dare not tamper with God’s communication to the world. Our duty is to deliver the message, not to change it. Jude conveys an urgency in guarding the trust: “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3; see also Philippians 1:27). To “contend” carries the idea of strenuously fighting for something, to give it everything you’ve got. The Bible includes a warning neither to add to nor subtract from God’s Word (Revelation 22:18-19). Rather than alter the apostles’ doctrine, we receive what has been passed down to us and keep it “as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13).”

(Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/sound-doctrine.html)

In interpreting the Bible, including prophecy, the goal is to understand what God is trying to tell us.  God says what He means, and means what He says – He is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).  Answers in Genesis explains it this way:

“The Bible is God’s message to manWe can have perfect confidence that God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understandAs such, it is crucial that we learn how to interpret properly so that we can determine the Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM) rather than forcing our own ideas into the textA given document means what the author intended it to meanThe alternative would make communication futileThere would be no point in writing anything if the readers are simply going to take what they want from the passage, rather than what the writer intendsAll communication is predicated on the presupposition that language conveys the author’s or speaker’s intention (unless, of course, the person is trying to deceive us, which is something God does not do since He wants us to understand His Word).”

(Source: https://answersingenesis.org/hermeneutics/how-we-interpret-the-bible-principles-for-understanding/)

So how are we to understand the scriptures then?  First of all, we should pray for wisdom and understanding as we read the Bible for ourselves.  Secondly, we should accumulate wise and sound teachers to help us understand.  Thirdly, we should go back to the scriptures with these teachings to see if these things are so.  Pay particular attention to entire passages, not just single verses (which are easy to take out of context).  A note on Bible versions at this point – one of the word-for-word translations (NASB, ESV, NKJV, KJV) is preferable to a thought-for-thought or paraphrase (NIV, NLT, MSG), as those tend to have the translator’s bias incorporated into the text.

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.  Acts 17:11 ESV

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  John 14:26 ESV

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  John 16:13 ESV

While we are reading and examining the scriptures, we need to use standard rules of grammar and interpretation.  Without following these rules, we can wander off into myths.  Standard Bible interpretation in evangelical Christianity follows a method called the “literal, historical, grammatical, contextual” approach:

That is, we try to find the plain (literal) meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was writtenWe then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the book’s particular genre, to arrive at an interpretationWe seek to perform careful interpretation or exegesis—that is, to “read out of” the text what the author intended it to meanThis is in contrast to eisegesis, which occurs when someone “reads into” the text his own ideas—what the reader wants the text to meanIn other words, exegesis is finding the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the passage because its true meaning is determined by the sender of the message, not the recipient.

This hermeneutical approach has several strengthsIt can be demonstrated that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in this mannerAlso, it is the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure one is on the right trackAs will be shown, other views allow for personal opinion to sneak into one’s interpretation, which does not truly reflect what the text means.

(Source: https://answersingenesis.org/hermeneutics/how-we-interpret-the-bible-principles-for-understanding/)

“When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at it’s primary, ordinary, usual meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”  – David L. Cooper

Jack Kelley explains:

“Literal means that each word is given the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking. Unless it’s clearly indicated otherwise, we’re to assume the Bible means exactly what it says. Examples of passages that are not intended to be taken literally are parables, dreams, and visions. These are all identified as such, alerting us to the fact that they’re meant to be understood symbolically.

Historical means that each passage is put into its proper historical setting and surrounded with the thoughts, attitudes, and feelings prevalent at the time of its writing. In Biblical times the Jewish view of the Messiah was one of a charismatic leader like King David. In other words, a man, not God in human form. Knowing that helps us understand how they failed to recognize Him, and why they accused Him of blasphemy when He claimed to be God.

Grammatical means that words are given meanings consistent with their common understanding in the original language at the time of writing. Grammatical interpretation also includes following recognized rules of grammar and in its more advanced form, applying the nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages to the understanding of a passage.

Contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine its meaning. The Holy Spirit has usually prompted the Bible’s writers to place indicators in the text surrounding a passage to guide you in interpreting it. In 1 Cor. 9:24-27 Paul compares our life to that of an athlete, training and competing for crowns. The mention of crowns tells us the passage is not about salvation, which is a free gift, but rewards believers can win after being saved. (In this case it’s the crown of victory, awarded to those who overcome the ways of the flesh by getting rid of selfish desires, bad habits and attitudes, etc.)

When you stop to think about it, reading the Bible this way actually makes perfect sense. If you received a letter from a friend you wouldn’t have to be reminded to apply these principles. You would naturally assume that your friend was using words that meant the same thing to both of you. You would understand them within the parameters of your shared history, you would assume that the rules of grammar you had both been taught applied, and you would interpret what was written within the context of your relationship. You would expect your friend to alert you if any of these assumptions were not going to apply, and explain the reason for it.

The only difference with the Bible is that it was written over a long period of time, during which the meanings of some words changed, and society is generally different now than it was when the Bible was written. This makes books on Bible history and a good concordance valuable additions to your library.”

(Source: https://gracethrufaith.com/topical-studies/the-bibles-authority/how-to-interpret-the-bible/)

Some denominations will teach a sound, literal interpretation of scripture on other topics but then stray into allegorical territory when it comes to End Times prophecy.  To address this I think we need to agree that Jesus literally fulfilled hundreds of Bible prophecies the first time He came, which is the template for future prophecy fulfillment.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Acts 1:11 ESV

Gotquestions supports the literal interpretation of prophecy as well:

There are at least two reasons why literalism is the best way to view Scripture. First, philosophically, the purpose of language itself requires that we interpret words literally. Language was given by God for the purpose of being able to communicate. Words are vessels of meaning. The second reason is biblical. Every prophecy about Jesus Christ in the Old Testament was fulfilled literally. Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection all occurred exactly as the Old Testament predicted. The prophecies were literal. There is no non-literal fulfillment of messianic prophecies in the New Testament. This argues strongly for the literal method. If a literal interpretation is not used in studying the Scriptures, there is no objective standard by which to understand the Bible. Each person would be able to interpret the Bible as he saw fit. Biblical interpretation would devolve into “what this passage says to me” instead of “the Bible says.” Sadly, this is already the case in much of what is called Bible study today.

Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/dispensationalism.html

Bible prophecy works in types and anti-types, shadows and substance. The Word of God is a unified whole, with connecting threads throughout.  It is as we weave these under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that our understanding comprehends the larger picture.

I strongly believe that all of the Bible, including Daniel and Revelation, should be read literally, given cultural, contextual, and historical considerations.  As we studied in Lesson 1, fulfilled Bible prophecy is one of the main ways that the Bible reveals itself to be the inspired Word of God. Jesus literally fulfilled hundreds of literal Bible prophecies during His first coming and I have no doubt at all that He will literally fulfill hundreds more at His second coming.


This lesson series is a brief walk through the studies I have undertaken to get to my current understanding of End Times prophecy.  This isn’t meant to be all-inclusive so I provide links for you to explore further!  What I post here is my best insight from Scripture, but I’m only human 🙂  Thus, I urge you to search the Scripture for yourself to see if these things are so!


Further Resources:

Main Menu – Bible Prophecy Lessons

How to Interpret the Bible – Grace Thru Faith

How Should We Interpret the Bible. Part 1: Principles for Understanding God’s Word – Answers in Genesis

Why is Sound Doctrine so Important?  – Gotquestions

Are you CERTAIN of your Salvation, beyond a shadow of a doubt?  Do you KNOW that no matter when the rapture occurs, you will be counted worthy to escape?  If not, please read What Must I do to Be Saved.

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