Because of its unusual character, Revelation has been approached from a number of interpretive principles, some of which raise serious questions concerning its value as divine authoritative revelation. All of the methods used by evangelicals today have a high view of scripture. Most commentaries use the grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation and each claims to be developing a theology of Revelation which is applicable to the first century audience, the present modern audience, and every reader of Revelation in church history. But everyone who seriously tries to read the book of Revelation struggle with the question of how interpret the apocalyptic symbols of the book.
The differences between the views have to do with theological assumptions (millennial positions) and hermenutical assumptions (how literally do we take Revelation?) These elements are interwoven, so that a preterist is normally post-millennial and takes Revelation in a fairly literal way, although the symbols are interpreted as referring to A.D.70. An idealist, on the other hand, is often a-millennial and very non-literal in their approach. Futurism is the most literal, with some unfortunate extremes in interpretation. But not all futurists want to identify the Antichrist nor to they all claim “Revelation is about to be fulfilled.”
Let me offer a somewhat embarrassing example of literal interpretation gone wild. Hal Lindsey’s now famous identification of the scorpion / locust from the Abyss as helicopters with tail-gunners. Lindsey is an example of an allegorical approach to the text rather than a literal approach since his goal is to “read into” the text modern warfare.
This is ironic since Lindsey came from a Dispensational tradition which valued literal interpretation, especially when reading Old Testament prophetic texts. This point is made more generally by Malina and Pilch, who comment that all popular modern approaches to the book of Revelation are in some way allegorical – it is hard to disagree with them on this point! (Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000], 215). To interpret a scorpion as a helicopter is no less allegorical than a 16th century commentary identifying the scorpions the rise of Islam.
When we read Revelation, we need to employ the “hermeneutics of humility” (Osborne, Revelation, 16). We must approach the book as best we can, employing all the proper tools and methodologies, but ultimately there will be elements of the book we cannot understand because of our distance from the first century.
So is it impossible to read Revelation “literally”? I think that it is not only possible, but required if we are to make sense of the book.
The real problem is properly defining what “literal interpretation” means. Literal interpretation does not mean that we take the words as the read on the page, but rather we recognize when the author intentionally used metaphors or other figures of speech and attempt to read those metaphors as he originally intended them. Returning to my helicopter illustration, I would say that there is no way that John intended us to hear the metaphor of a locust rising from the Abyss and understand a modern military machine. He intended something – our job as readers is to figure out what that original intention was.
How would this understanding of literal interpretation help us to read Revelation?