Literal vs Nonliteral

The Book of Revelation informs the reader from the start that it communicates visually and symbolically. Must prophecy be interpreted only or primarily in the most “literal” fashion possible unless a passage specifically indicates otherwise? Often in our minds, there is an unstated assumption that literal language is more reliable than nonliteral language, an idea that becomes especially problematic when interpreting the visions of Revelation.

Any insistence on only strictly “literal” readings of prophetic passages reflects ignorance of how human languages work. “Literal” and “nonliteral” represent different kinds of language.

Reading - Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
[Reading - Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash]

A statement may be strictly literal and invalid, just as another may be metaphorical and true. “It is raining cats and dogs” is a literal statement, but, “literally” speaking, it is obviously false. Cats and dogs do not fly or fall from the sky. The statement is a figure of speech used to portray heavy rainfall.

The Apostle Paul called the church the “Body of Christ,” a nonliteral statement. Christians do not become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus upon conversion. Because the statement is metaphorical, are we to assume it is invalid or less reliable than more literal descriptions of the church?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true “Temple” and “Tabernacle” where the divine presence dwells, yet he is not made of stones or goatskins.

The Book of Revelation provides interpretations for many of its symbols, explanations that demonstrate the symbols are not “literal” or things with any real physical existence in and of themselves.

For example, the opening vision presents the image of seven “golden lampstands.” The text informs us that the lampstands represent “seven churches” or “assemblies.” This is symbolic language and interpretation. John saw “stars” on the right hand of Jesus. These were not “literal” or actual stars. They represented “angels” or “messengers.”

In Chapter 5, the “Lamb” has “seven eyes.” The text interprets the “eyes” by stating that they are the “Seven Spirits of God.” Similarly, the “seven heads of the Beast from the Sea” on which Babylon sits represent “seven mountains,” which, in turn, represent seven “kings” or kingdoms - (Revelation 1:20, 5:6, 17:8-10).

LITERAL IMAGES?


Many of the Book’s images cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre and ridiculous results. God is the One “Who Sits on the Throne” and holds a “sealed scroll” in his right hand. 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?

Jesus is the “slain lamb” with “seven horns and seven eyes,” and the “lion of the tribe of Judah.” Is he a literal lion, a lamb, or both? Does he have seven “literal” eyes and seven horns protruding from his head?

When the Fifth Trumpet sounded, a “star” fell to the Earth that was given a “key.” Would not the Earth be destroyed outright if an actual star collided with it? Or more correctly, would it not be drawn into the star by its superior gravitational pull and instantly annihilated? Even if what John saw was a meteorite or asteroid rather than a star, how does one give a “key” to a rock that falls from outer space?

Is Satan an actual and rather large “red dragon” with heads and horns suspended in the atmosphere above the Earth? Does his tail “literally” draw a “third of the stars” to the Earth, and if so (once again), how does the Earth survive such a cosmic catastrophe? If the Devil is a spiritual being, how does one attach a metal “chain” to his ankle to imprison him for a thousand years “in the Abyss”?

The Book is an unveiling, a “revelation” of and by Jesus Christ whereby he signifies to his servants what things must soon come to pass.” This is accomplished by means of visions in which John sees and hears things that represent specific realities.

The symbols point to very real things, events, and persons but are not themselves real. Satan does exist, but he is not a giant “red dragon” with multiple heads and horns who hovers in the sky.

Thus, Revelation informs the reader by direct statements and examples that it communicates symbolically. That does NOT mean John’s visions are allegorical, but to understand the significance of his visions we must first determine exactly what each symbol represents.



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