Literal versus Non-Literal Interpretation

SYNOPSIS:  Revelation informs the reader from the get-go, and by direct statement and example, that it communicates symbolically.

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 symbolic interpretation is considered proper by proponents of strict literalism is found in Revelation 11:8. It informs the reader that the city in which the dead bodies of the two witnesses lay is “spiritually called Sodom and Egypt.” In this case, non-literal interpretation is allowed because of the description, “spiritually called.” Presumably, this means that neither “Sodom” nor “Egypt” refers to the actual geographic location.

But the claim that one doctrinal school interprets only “literally,” in contrast to other positions, is inaccurate. Christians interpret some passages “literally,” others non-literally, usually without giving the matter a second thought. This is true regardless of the topic; it is something we all 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 human language works. “Literal” and “non-literal” represent different kinds of language. A statement may be strictly literal and invalid, just as another one may be metaphorical and true. “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 for heavy rainfall.

The Apostle Paul’s called the church, “The body of Christ.” That is a non-literal description. Christians do not constitute the actual body of Jesus. Because the statement is metaphorical, are we to assume it is invalid or 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 from goatskins or stones.
The book of Revelation itself provides interpretations for many of its symbols, explanations that demonstrate the symbols are not literal or actual things.
The book’s opening vision includes an image of seven golden “lampstands,” which the text informs the reader represents seven churches. This is a symbolical interpretation, not literal. John saw “stars” in the right hand of Christ. The stars represent angels. In Chapter 5, a lamb with “seven eyes” is seen, but the text interprets the eyes as the “seven spirits of God.” The seven heads of the Beast on which Babylon sits represent seven mountains and, in turn, seven “kings” (Revelation 1:20, 5:6, 17:8-10).

There are many images in Revelation that cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre results. For example, God is the One “Who Sits on the Throne” holding 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? 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.” Is he a literal lion, a lamb, or both? Does Jesus have seven “literal” 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 literal star fell on it? Technically speaking, would not the earth be drawn into the star by its superior gravitational pull? Even if John saw a meteor or an asteroid rather than a star, how does one give a key to rocks from outer space, whether small or large ones?

Is Satan an actual giant red dragon with heads and horns? Does his tail “literally” draw a third of the stars onto the earth and, if so, how does the earth survive such a cosmic collision? If Satan is a spiritual being, how does one attach a metal “chain” to his ankle to hold him for a thousand years?

The book of Revelation is an unveiling by Jesus Christ to signify 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 said realities but are not themselves real. The Greek verb rendered “signify” is from the same stem as the noun used for “sign.” It means to “signify, show by sign, to symbolize.”

The book of Revelation informs the reader from the get-go by direct statement and example that it communicates symbolically.