Can We Read Revelation Literally?

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 beast_of_revelationuse 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?

28 thoughts on “Can We Read Revelation Literally?

  1. I feel that the idea of taking scripture literally is key to what we as Christians are called to do from the Bible. John wrote Revelation from his own personal perspective. I think that when reading Revelation we are called to look at it literally, but in a literal sense, John had an heavenly experience. As a human, there may be things of heaven that the human brain couldn’t understand. John very well might have been using metaphors to what he saw by comparing them to the closest thing that he knew that he could describe with detail from our world. This is the way that I personally take what is said in Revelation, as John describing best what he saw with what he knew.

    • I agree. There no doubt will be some confusion in that respect since we did not witness the revelation ourselves. Nonetheless, scripture is given to us so that we can understand. Rather, the scripture that we received, is meant to be understood. If John was incapable of understanding what he was seeing, then why have him see it, let alone record it as scripture. There is a reason we have Revelation and there is certainly understanding that can be gained from it.

  2. I read the book of Revelation literally with the understanding that it is prophesy which has been made known by the prophets since the world began. (Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21). If we are to understand, this truth has to be separated from the truth that Paul the apostle of the gentiles preached. This truth was hid in God since the world began until it was made known through the apostle Paul. (Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:4-5,3:9). The key to this understanding  is 2 Timothy 2:15, separating what was known from what was not made known.  God has a heavenly program as well as an earthly program and the book of Revelation is the culmination of God’s earthly program.

  3. I have mixed opinions on reading Revelation literally. On one hand there are segments of revelation that seem to be meant to be interpreted literally while there are other sections that seem to need to be interpreted allegorically. In general I try to understand Revelation based on what the original audience of revelations would have interpreted the book. I try to use common sense in distinguishing what could be allegorical and what should be interpreted literally. It is very difficult to do, especially with all of the different theories that are spouted as the correct interpretation. I think if I had an understanding of how literal interpretation differentiated between that which was meant to be interpreted literally and that which is allegorical it would help my understanding of how to read Revelation. There are some literary works that are meant to be very allegorical, “Song of Solomon” comes to mind, while there are other works that are meant to be very literal, the book of “1 Kings” as an example. So I think that would be the most help for me in figuring out if how to read Revelations.

  4. I did just mention this in another post. John would have only a limited knowledge when writing. There is a good chance that John didn’t know about helicopters and would have described them as scorpions. However, I think that in times like that he would have known what a scorpion was and would have described them differently. I think we should definitely read it as it written, but i also think that John would have only had limited knowledge of future items.

  5. The book of Revelation is without a doubt a difficult book to work through. That’s one of the reasons that when a congregation is asked what they would like the pastor to teach on, Revelation is always on the list. We don’t quite know what to make of it. There are obvious metaphors, Such as John seeing the “Lamb of God” in Revelation 5:6. I don’t believe he saw an actual slaughtered lamb, but instead saw Jesus, who took the place of the sacrificial lamb of tradition, hence the metaphor. I also really like what Brandyn Miller posted about having limited knowledge about future items and power. Seeing planes and rockets from a 1st Century mindset would be disorienting. However, regardless of how literal you take the writings in Revelation, I think we must take it as fact. Remembering that while we are able to interpret some of Revelation as allegorical or metaphorical, it can be a slippery slope to misinterpretation.

  6. I am a big advocate for the historical-grammatical way of looking at things. What I think is important to remember is that it is not enough just to do first century studies on the imagery in Revelation but to also do some Jewish study into the imagery in the Bible. John was a Jew who thought like a Jew and wrote like a Jew from a Jewish, albeit Hellenistic, background. But I think that his imagery is steeped in the Old Testament traditions of prophets like Daniel and Ezekiel. To forget to study the the tradition from which provides the background upon which John paints his imagery is a huge mistake. I think, as I said in the other post, that we should approach the text with a literal mindset where it is clearly literal, and where it is not, to use the methods appropriate to the grammatical tools being used by the writer.

  7. Interpreting the Bible can definitely tricky at times. Where at some points, the Bible is intended to be overwhelmingly literal there are other points where it can be less obviously metaphorical. So as readers of a book that was written a couple thousands of years ago, how can we appropriately decide what is and isn’t supposed to be taken from a literal standpoint? I believe this all comes down to necessary discretion as the reader. In the case of John writing about the end times, I do believe that a lot of the material is metaphorical. John is simply truing to describe these things in a way that we can fully understand. They represent on certain levels the consequences and events that are to come.

  8. I have heard so much about Revelation and have been confused by it myself so many times. I think you are right to say we need to apply the “hermeneutics of humility” to this study. Humility to admit that we don’t actually have all the answers and study time in the library won’t bring us any closer to understanding these weird words than 2000 years of Christianity has brought anyone else. To me, this is a time to show a child-like faith. Not to say that we just dismiss what is being said, but that we do our best to understand everything written (from people we trust or books we trust) but if there is a point where nobody actually knows what it all means, we just need to admit it and move on. Our faith in Jesus that simply doesn’t require every question to be answered so we understand it should step to the front in our study of Revelation.

  9. This would also mean, perhaps that John expected futuristic people to understand his text at all: In particular this would be true if the targeted text were for people of 70 AD only, i.e., Hal Lindsey has had it wrong more than once and his dates too. Yet the Left Behind movies generate a lot of interest and tons of money as well. And if you really believed we were in the End Times would one charge money for a movie? Hardly, if the person had a pure heart. It makes me suspect of the motives. Can anyone see Jesus giving His predictions based on money: Absolutely NOT.

    • Good points all. I think we can all agree a “Hal Lindsey model” is not ever going to be the right way to read revelation.

      Popular apocalyptic literature (dystopian movies, books, etc.) are always popular whether they have a religious motivation or not. But you are right, Jesus would not have generated income as an apocalyptic prophet, nor would he make lurid predictions to generate a following, etc.

  10. History is the only way to reliably interpret the Apocalypse. I generally take numbers and colors literally. A thousand years is a thousand and red, black, and white are red, black and white but the horse might be a sea where the threat originates. I also think 666 is a year, a mark, a beginning of a threat and it must be calculated.

  11. The idea of having humility when reading books like Daniel and Revelation is important. We are not going to understand everything, and that is okay. The language used is not always easy to understand. It is also easy to misinterpret what the original author was trying to say and that can be dangerous. The authors use poetic language like figurative and emotive language to get the reader or audience to understand what they are talking about. It is then for the reader to decide how to interpret it. The book, “Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, by D. Brent Sandy does a great job of teaching the reader how to better interpret this message. He talks about different figures of speech, reading the context of the time, relating the events of the past to the present, and of course metaphors. To take these books literally, as taking the words as read on the page, would not be a good option. Rather, we need to understand the different language being used and its context.
    -McKenzie McCord-

  12. The Hebrew gives both literal and “figuratively” translations. For example: Deu 32:31 For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges.
    I taught seven preteens, a few Words, that are Bible Symbols: water =Rev 17:15 And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.

    It is Written: Rev 8:8 And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
    Rev 8:9 And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.

    I asked them to draw a picture of a sea of humanity….they all drew tall buildings then I asked them cast “something like a great mountain burning with fire” into the Sea of Humanity….

    ALL SEVEN PRETEENS: Drew a picture of 9-11-2001 in New York City…but consider Washington D. C. When a “third world army invaded Washington and attempted to destroy the Pentagon and White House.”

    There MORE BIBLE SYMBOLS…when you consider Lucifer confused a third part of the angels to be disloyal to Gods Government….Rev_12:4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

    Rev 11:18 And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.

    “The FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM” Psa 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.

    Can you image my father returning from World War II, as non combatant, a friend of Desmond Doss, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge. . .teaching us to FEAR THE LORD….rather than man, nature or the devil?

    BIBLE WORDS…..embedded in GOD COMING TO DESTROY….THE DESTROYER…the angel, the robot HE CREATED…that is trying to undermine the GOVERNMENT OF GOD…..has a name as THE DESTROYER….

    I would rather plant my feet on the SOLID ROCK…JESUS CHRIST…and KNOW HE KNEW…before the world began…that SATAN would be defeated! Because we see his heart is like a stone, hardened.

    I search my heart daily because I want no part in breaking the heart of my Saviour!

    tu for allowing me freedom of speech..

    THEREDHORSEWAR.com blog on word press

  13. It is a very dispensational feature to read the scriptures literally. It keeps a person from coming up with spiritualized conclusions that were definitely not the original intentions of a certain passage. Reading Revelation literally, however, would help the reader understand the different creative forms of word play. It is just like English in that aspect. There is no way we would read a Facebook conversation now days and take it at face value. How many people have actually ROFLed in their life? Understanding context and word usage will allow a reader to understand that the Dragon and the Great Whore are indeed metaphors or allegories. One has to be very careful in interpreting Revelation because it can be so easy to tag Oprah as the Anti-Christ (maybe she is) or use numerology skills to determine when the Rapture is going to happen. Revelation is going to play out whether or not we understand it. So in my opinion, we should stop worrying about what images mean because like the article says, we will at least be somewhat wrong. Just keep trusting Christ and all things will be fine.

  14. It can be so easy to swing from one extreme to the other. In the case of not taking the interpretation to be as literal as it may be, you may miss the specific ideas and details that John was trying to convey in his writings. For instance, I believe that John, in Revelation 4, was accurately describing the things that he was seeing, to the best of his ability—and as far as the human vocabulary could correctly explain the heavenly things. The worship described in heaven is something that is, more than likely, actually happening at all times. The description of the twenty-four elders is most likely accurately described. The description is perfectly detailed, yet vague, to give a good depiction of the truth.
    In the other extreme, you may end up like Hal Lindsey, as in your example, and read too far into the text, while simultaneously not reading far enough into it.
    For instance, in Revelation 12—titled “The Woman and the Dragon”—we are given the description of a woman who is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). The text goes on to describe her giving birth, and describe a dragon that was going to eat her child (pretty graphic…). If we were to take this all to the very literal extreme, we would miss the whole point of this description by John; unfortunately thinking that we have all the answers. However, this story is actually about the woman that is meant to represent “a great sign in heaven…her clothing with sun, moon, and twelve stars…she symbolizes Israel” (ESVSB notes, 12:1-2). By reading too far into the text, yet not far enough, you will miss the whole point of the vision. As you stated so well, “Literal interpretation does not mean that we take the words as the read on the page…recognize when the author intentionally used metaphors or other figures of speech…attempt to read those metaphors as he originally intended them.”

  15. Both extremes–the literal and metaphorical interpretation–are tempting because the book of Revelation, in its very nature, is quite bizarre. The imagery shown in the text is certainly very obscure, and if we were to re-write the book, as some authors have, we would choose more appropriate and culturally relevant metaphors. Just when you think that Revelation ought to be interpreted literally, you come across a passage like Revelation 9:10, and either you go to the extreme like Hal Lindsey and stick to your guns, or you abandon your position altogether and adopt a more liberal approach. So, it would seem that some passages in Revelation demand a literal interpretation, and without it you would not be able to understand the text correctly. But then, on the other hand, other passages– if they were interpreted in the same way–would seem frankly ridiculous, and so for these portions you would use a different approach. In other words, balance and humility–like it was stated in the above essay–are crucial. You need to have both. How do you know which one to use? Well, you merely need to read with diligence and attentiveness to the nuances of the text. Revelation chapters 2-3 are obviously about real places, and therefore the text must be read with a literal interpretation, and it is easy to see that John intended it to be so. In other places, like Revelation 9, what method we must use is a little bit more confusing. But we must do our best to find out what the original intention was behind the writings. This is absolutely critical!

  16. It is certain that the book of Revelation is a book difficult to interpret, especially if we do not fully concentrate. The book of Revelation can even be misunderstood by experts, now imagine how much more difficult it can be for a regular person. Another factor of how difficult Revelation can be to interpret is because experts are trying to study Revelation and they were not present on the day it was written. This makes it difficult to understand because over times the meaning of words and phrases change. For example, some of the English words used hundreds of years ago do not mean the same thing anymore. Therefore, it can be hard for experts and for anyone to find the meaning behind words and phrases and this happens just because of the simple fact that the meaning of words changes overtime. When it comes to reading Revelation there are some parts that I will understand literally, however, there are things that seem to be far away from it’s true meaning. This is when it gets confused. Nonetheless, it is very important for us as Christians that instead of being confused, our faith should grow and our relationship with God should grow so that He inspires us, then we will be able to interpret its true meaning.

  17. Reading the word of God is very important for the Believers. How we read it does not matter. But our interpretation of the word of the Bible really matters. As we look in the articles above, we see that some read it literally and others read it metaphorically. I believe that in order for us to understand what the author of any literature is saying, we must read his or her book literally, that is the only and best approach of understanding truly what they are saying. If we do not follow the literal guideline then we would be lost in every single book we put our eyes on to read or every single quote or saying we’ve ever heard in our lifetime. Reading scripture is the same, it was written in the human language for a reason, so that we can understand it at the first glance and then decide what that means to us. I agree with Dr. P. Long when He says that we must make sense of the book. Reading it literally is the only way to do that. As for the book of revelation, there’s no difference when we are reading 1st John, or the book of Mathews. We read the book of Revelation as it is and then we can try to define what John is saying, and this is understood by looking at the time period by when he was writing this book, we look at the history, we look at the city around him, the language they spoke, the culture, by studying all these then we can start to slowly maybe understand and have a glimpse of the meaning what he is actually sayong.

  18. I completely agree with this post that this is how we should interpret the book of Revelation. The concepts that are used for this book or metaphors should all be interpreted by the reader in a way that makes sense to them. I believe reading the scripture literally is what John intended his readers to do. This would make sense to the people during the time since they were currently living and would understand the metaphors in which John is discussing. For us, it is important to take everything that is being said in Revelation and try to interpret it in a way that would make sense for us today. It has to be understood that what is being written is meant to be situational and interpreted metaphorically. I understand that at times this can be confusing, but it is beneficial to understand the metaphors in which John is displaying in the book of Revelation. They are meant to encourage the readers of this time who were suffering because of their faith and devotion to God. The interpretation that is needed from this book will benefit the readers of today’s word with literal interpretation and the idea of taking into considerations the metaphors John was using in this book.

  19. I have always found the book of Revelation to be rather puzzling as it is just so weird, in my opinion, compared to the other books of the Bible. I think this is partly due to the crazy imagery we see throughout the book like swords coming out of mouths and eyes all over beasts’ bodies. So, the idea of whether or not we can take this book literally has always been somewhat of a struggle for me until I read this blog post. I think you did a really good job at explaining how we ought to read and interpret the book. This starts, as you have pointed out, with the correct concept of what it means for someone to interpret something literally. I think many people think this means to take everything being said at face value ignoring metaphors and imagery used to convey a message. I like that you pointed out that this is precisely what we should not do. We can still take something and interpret it literally without going so far and missing the point and misconstruing metaphors and imagery. I think it can be easy to get caught up in these things when the author probably put them in there in order for the reader to more easily understand the message. It is a bit ironic, but makes sense as we tend to overthink things.

  20. I really appreciate how this blog explained literal interpretation it made it really easy to understand. I found it very ironic that a theologian who came from background could take one of John’s metaphors so far as to think of it as a modern war helicopter today. I think sometimes as humans we just want to know all the answers and so we let our imagination take over without really having anything to back it up. I think that Revelation does have lots of crazy and hard to understand imagery that allows at least my imagination to run wild. I think that we can indeed read the book of Revelation literally if we read it in the way that the blog indicated and understanding when the author is being literal and when he is using metaphors and analogies. This requires that we use some common sense and logic when we are reading the book. If you think about it logically we do this all the time when we read books other then scripture and so why would we read scripture any differently? Now some would say that Revelation is just one big metaphor and that it is not to be taken literally at all but I strongly disagree. I do not think that God would have John write a whole book that is simply to be taken metaphorically.

  21. This blog post is incredibly important, and I plan to share this with some students of the Bible that are friends of mine. I say this because this blog post is beneficial for anyone who wants to take on the daunting task of reading and interpreting the New Testament book and apocalyptic book of Revelation. The book of Revelation can be daunting for almost anyone. Obviously, as one of the previous blog posts mentions, apocalyptic literature like Revelation concludes with hope from God; however, that hope does not make it easy and encouraging for Revelation to read. The language of the book can be deemed difficult to understand at times, the metaphors can be difficult to understand and comprehend, etc.

    This post highlights the idea that Revelation should be interpreted through a literal interpretation. As we know, there are different methods of interpreting passages and books of the Bible. A literal interpretation is one of the most common interpretation styles, and I deem it to be effective for Revelation as well. Literally interpreting a text should always involve literally interpreting the intentions and message of the author, not just literally reading and applying what was read. Similes, metaphors, and connections are used in language. If people never literally interpreted the intentions and meanings of the author, then literal interpretation would nearly always fall short when interpreting Biblical passages. That is why I believe this description of literal interpretation is important to note and understand.

    This understanding of a literal interpretation is especially helpful with interpreting the book of Revelation because of the metaphors. With this concept of literal interpretation, the reader and audience is able to literally interpret the intentions and meaning of the metaphor, rather than reading the phrase and literally interpreting the exact words of the metaphor. This idea would make interpreting the book of Revelation incredibly difficult, which is not the goal due to the fact that Revelation is already a daunting and difficult text to read and interpret.

    Lastly, according to Jobes (2011, p. 404), the island of Patmos is the location of where Revelation is written. This location, as well as the dating of the text, is important when it comes to considering and interpreting the meanings of the metaphors as well.

    Jobes, Karen H.. Letters to the Church (p. 451). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

  22. Can we read Revelation literally?
    Throughout this class, I have honestly struggled so much with understanding the book of revelation. I am a very black and white person. So when it comes to looking at a vision from the first century, then attempting to make sense of what John was seeing can be a difficult task for me. But what I do appreciate about myself is that I can give up a literal interpretation and just want the truth. The truth is the main idea behind the vision. To help make sense of that, if there is a story about a good and bad guy and the good guy forgives the bad guy for all the bad stuff. I can look at this story and see that we are to forgive as the good guy did.
    When it comes to reading the book there is something to the way you approach the scripture. No preconceived notions. It will be important to know the cultural background and context. I like the way PLong said it, “we recognize when the author intentionally used metaphors or other figures of speech and attempt to read those metaphors as he originally intended them.” so we are to not get caught up in every detail in the vision but to look at the message of the vision. Just because there is a flying scorpion that has armor on does not mean that we are to know why. Although there are some details we can look at like traditional imagery that the author might be used to hint at something. Like purple is an example of royalty. So we can imagine if something has purple then we can assume it’s referring to royalty. That all comes with knowing the cultural context and placing yourself in the position of the author.
    As of 21st-century Christians, we know that we are not the original reader. But we are reading letters as if we intercepted them and we can see that this content may apply to our future.

  23. I think the Hermeneutics of humility is a great thing to keep in mind while reading through John’s Revelation. Acknowledging the required literal interpretation of Revelation paired with a humble heart should result in a respectful and hopeful outlook on the days to come. I tend to see “The End Times” topic in scripture not as a doomsday that we try to avoid, but as the triumphant return of Christ to the earth (Rev. 1:7). I also thought your comment on the distance from the time of authorship to now was interesting. Especially since it influences our interpretation of the text. Would the first and second-century readers have understood it better than we do today? Or would they have left this text hoping that time and the further unfolding of God’s plan would bring understanding to the very same things we struggle with? I understand that our removal from that culture can negatively affect our interpretation of the text, but I wonder how the early Church handled these texts as well.

  24. I agree with this post one hundred percent. Reading the book Revelations literally would be nearly impossible. Throughout the book of Revelations there are so many different kinds of metaphors of monsters that are not in this world. Those metaphors are used to have a meaning for something and that is why the story was written the way it was so that it can be interpreted a certain way. If Revelations was written to be literal, then I think it would have been written completely different than it was.

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