How to read Revelation literally

The book of Revelation (more properly entitled “the Apocalypse of John”) is a tricky book for us moderns to read.  We’re used to certain styles of writing in which a “literal reading” is one that is historically accurate, physically descriptive, and otherwise plan and simple and straightforward.  This style of reading works well with the four Gospel books, for example, gets a little tricky with the poetry of the Psalms, and utterly falls flat with the prophetic and (especially) apocalyptic literature in the Bible.  Poetry, first of all, uses imagery which is not meant to be taken at face value.

For example, in Psalm 98:8 we read: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together.”  The correct reading of this does not mean that we’re asking the hills suddenly grow arms and hands and start clapping; it’s a metaphor in which we draw all of creation into our praise for God.  If someone were to define the “literal reading” as being a direct physical description, he would be in great (and humorous) error.

The writings of the Old Testament Prophets are very similar.  They’re mostly written in poetry, just like the Psalms, so you have the challenge of dealing with imagery and metaphor to begin with, plus the fun of dealing with the frequent double-layered voice of the Prophets.  (By double-layered, I mean the fact that they often were pointing a present-day or immediate-future condition in addition to a later-date promise of Christ Jesus.)  Apocalyptic literature is much the same, except the imagery gets more vivid.  Sometimes the images are explained within the text (and often by angels who are part of the vision), and sometimes they are not.  Of those unexplained images, many of them hearken back to previous Scriptural images such that a careful reader can make sense of them, while others are simply mysteries to be pondered as we sit in awe of the great wisdom of God.

That said, I want to point out a few features in the book of Revelation that help us to understand how to deal with its many fantastic images.  Many people today insist on a “literal reading” of Revelation, by which they seem to mean that they expect every image described to take place as physically described.  What I’m seeking to point out here is that the correct “literal reading” should actually recognize when the images are meant to be physical descriptions, and then they’re metaphors for greater things.  Obviously, it’s a big book so I’m not going to cover everything.  But I will grab a few anchors throughout the book.

the seven lampstands and the seven stars

Right off the bat, in chapter 1, there’s an opening vision of Jesus.  His outfit is described, there’s a sword coming out of his mouth, things are pretty awesome in general.  But then the last verse goes and ruins everything: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”  Wait, so those lampstands and stars were actually just symbols of something else?  Yup, they are.

And that’s okay, because rather than fixating on the decor up in heaven, or the awkward question of what Jesus is doing with seven massive luminous spheres of plasma in his hands (or, alternatively, seven shurikens), the Scripture is pointing us to more important concepts such as God’s Church and the angels he appoints to look after us.

the lamb that was slain

Among the many visions reported in the book of Revelation, one of the most commonly-occurring characters is a lamb, which, as described is chapter 5, is “standing, as though it had been slain, [and] with seven horns and with seven eyes.”  What a creepy-sounding mutant sheep!  Except, it isn’t a mutant – those seven horns and eyes “are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”  So it’s a metaphor.  And this really isn’t news to anybody; every Christian who reads this passage will see the words lamb and slain, and immediately think of Jesus.  And that’s the whole point!  John the Baptist prepared us well for this metaphor.

Throughout the book, this image of the Lamb shows up about 30 times; each time functioning as a metaphor for Jesus.  This is not particularly controversial either, so it should serve as a major clue as to the metaphorical nature of the writing style of the whole book.  At the very least, the visions in which the Lamb appears should not be expected to be physical descriptions.

one third of the heavens

In chapter 8, we read the following verse: “The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.”  Setting this in context, one finds that a lot of things get one third of them destroyed.  This can all be taken as physically descriptive; it’s a little difficult to make scientific sense of what “one third of the sun” really means, but it can be done reasonably.  The real problem here is in verse 10, when “a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.”  As I commented in the previous point, stars are massive luminous spheres of plasma.  What’s described here is physically impossible unless you re-interpret the star be a meteor or something, in which case you’re no longer taking the text literally anyway!

So if one of these angel trumpet events is best understood as a metaphor, a consistent faithful reading demands that we treat the other trumpet judgments the same way.  Besides, those stars need a break; another third of them are struck down in chapter 12… by a dragon’s tail… and they land on the earth.  Again, the whole “physical description” thing just doesn’t belong in this literary style.

the New Jerusalem descending

In chapter 21 we read this beloved promise in Scriptures: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  What on earth does that mean?  How can a city be dressed like a bride?  Is the world’s largest white wedding dress encompassing its walls?  Or could it be that this is a metaphor?  Consider what it says in verses 9 & 10: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  And he … showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.”  Rather than trying to focus on the physical description, once again, there’s a far more important thing to be learned from this image.  This isn’t so much a description of a physical city so much as it is a description of a wedding!  Christ and his Church are finally getting married, and everything about it is beautiful and perfect.  (And even that is a metaphor of sorts, seeing how millions of humans cannot be singularly wed to a baby sheep.)

There are those who argue that the detailed description of the city in verses 12-27 demand a physically-descriptive reading.  Why tell us about all the gates, precious stones, and names and such if they’re just metaphors?  But once again there’s an issue amongst all this: the city is 1,380 miles long, wide, and tall.  Let’s go for a visual here:

the city on the earth

Needless to say, this presents a few problems:

  • If the base of the city is on the ground, we wouldn’t be able breath the extremely thin air even halfway up the city.
  • The roundness of the earth wouldn’t fit a cubic city that large.
  • If the city just flattened out the land (as in the picture above), the earth’s crust could easily be broken, resulting in mass destruction as lava from the earth’s mantel ravages the lower sections of the city.
  • I’m no architect, but I can’t imagine any material (much less the solid gold frequently described) having the strength to hold a city this large together.
  • I’m no physicist, but wouldn’t something that massive mess up earth’s rotation and its orbit around the sun?  And what about the tidal effect of the moon?

Granted, any and all of these issues can be countered by the “I am making all things new” concept.  Who says the laws of physics will be the same in the New Creation?  Fair enough.

But the point remains: chapter 21 is more grounded on bridal imagery than city imagery.  We don’t need to fear metaphors; they’re wonderful things!  And, like in the parables of Jesus, there is plenty for us to learn and appreciate in these images, and if we were to try to box them into physical descriptions and over-analyze them to death, we’d quickly miss their whole point.

Be careful what you mean by literal!

So remember folks, a “literal reading” is not limited to a flat physical description.  Rather, it means according to its “letter” or its “literary genre.”  Note: literal, letter, literary, literature.  It’s about the genre of the text, not one specific reading style of the reader.  You wouldn’t impose the rules of meter & verse on an historical treatise; neither should you impose the rules of physics or biology on an apocalyptic vision.  It requires a different kind of reading, where images have meanings beyond their simple descriptions.  This isn’t about “reinterpreting” the Bible, it’s about interpreting it faithfully according to its authors’ intent!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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