Literal Versus Non-Literal Language in the Book of Revelation

By David Maas

26 March 2011

218 Main Street, Unit 133

Kirkland, Washington, 98033, USA


End Time Prophecy teachers often insist that the prophecies and visions of the Book of Revelation must be interpreted in the most “literal” fashion possible.  Non-literal readings are only valid if a passage expressly indicates it is not “literal” such as Revelation 11:8 (“their dead bodies lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt”). For some the necessity to interpret the visions and images of Revelation “literally” has for all intents and purposes become a matter of faith.


To some extent the insistence on literalness reflects ignorance of how human language works. “Literal” and “non-literal” represent different kinds of language. “Allegory” is only one category of “non-literal” language, yet some prophecy teachers speak as if all language is either “literal” or “allegorical,” that any form of language that is non-literal is ipso facto “allegory.” “Allegory” becomes a pejorative employed to broad-brush non-literal interpretations of Revelation and other prophetic passages. Rather than objectively evaluate a metaphorical or symbolic interpretation on its own merits, it can simply be written off as an instance of “allegorizing” scripture.


The insistence on literalness reflects an underlying assumption that literal statements are by nature more valid than non-literal ones. But a statement can be strictly literal and still be false, just as another statement can be metaphorical and true. The statement, “the freshly mowed grass is pink,” is literal and false. The Apostle Paul stated the church is “the body of Christ.” This is metaphorical since Christians collectively do not constitute the actual physical body of Jesus, yet few believers would dispute the validity of Paul’s statement. Because the statement is metaphorical does not make it any less true.


The Book of Revelation itself frequently interprets its visions in non-literal ways. Revelation’s inaugural vision in 1:12-20 describes a glorified “son of man” figure walking among seven golden lampstands and holding seven stars in his right hand. Verses 12-16 describe the vision proper, which verses 17-20 interpret. The “son of man” is none other than the Jesus who died and was resurrected.  He explains to John the “mystery of the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands.” The seven stars represent seven angels or “messengers,” and the seven lampstands symbolize the seven churches of Asia. This is symbolic interpretation, not literal. The stars John sees are not actual stars and the lampstands are not literal lampstands. The very notion of a human figure holding multiple stars in his hand should make clear this is not literal.  It does not necessarily follow that every image in Revelation is to be taken symbolically.  However, it does mean the burden of proof is on those who insist the Book’s prophecies must be consistently interpreted “literally.”


In his vision of the heavenly throne room John sees a slain lamb having “seven horns and seven eyes” (Revelation 5: 6). The passage interprets the “seven eyes” as the “seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Once again the Book itself interprets an image symbolically, that is, the seven eyes represent something other than actual eyes.


Revelation chapter 17 describes a great harlot riding a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, a female figure called “Mystery Babylon the Great” (verses 1-6). John is given its explanation in verses 7-13. The seven heads represent seven mountains on which the woman sits. This image is particularly problematic for a strictly literal interpretation since Babylon is located in the plains of Mesopotamia where there are no mountains. But this does not exhaust the symbolism of the mountains.  John is told they also represent seven “kings.” As to the ten horns, they are not actual horns but instead represent “ten kings who have not received sovereignty yet.” The Book itself does not take these images literally.  They symbolize or point to genuine realities, but they are not themselves real. 


Many images used in Revelation cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre and even ridiculous results. How is one to interpret the picture of God in Revelation 5:1:  “I saw upon the right hand of him that was sitting upon the throne a scroll?” Does the One who is Spirit and fills heaven and earth have a “literal” right hand? Does he have a physical body that occasionally needs to sit down and take a load off his feet, assuming he also has feet?


How should one read John’s picture of Jesus in Revelation 5:5-6 as “the lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David?” Is Jesus literally a lion? And what of Jesus as the “lamb” with “seven horns and seven eyes?” When Jesus arrives from heaven will he be an actual lamb rather than a glorified human being? Will seven “literal” horns sprout from his head?


How is one to interpret Revelation 9:1 where a star falls to earth (“the fifth messenger, sounded; and I saw a star fallen unto the earth out of heaven, and there was given to him the key of the shaft of the abyss”)? Would not the earth be destroyed outright if a star fell on it? Technically speaking, would not the earth be drawn in by that star’s superior gravitational pull rather than the star “fall” to the earth? As for the proposal that this refers to an asteroid or meteorite rather than a star, how does one “give a key” to an asteroid or meteorite, let alone to a star?


What is one to make of the vision of Satan in Revelation 12:3-4? Is the Devil really a giant red dragon? Does he have seven actual heads and ten horns? Does his tail “literally” draw a third of the stars of the sky onto the earth, and if so, how does the earth survive such a cosmic collision?


When Jesus returns in judgment Revelation pictures him “sitting on a white cloud having in his hand a sharp sickle” with which he “thrusts in and reaps” the “clusters of the vine of the earth,” since the “grapes thereof are fully ripe.” When Jesus comes will he be brandishing an actual sickle? Is he literally coming back to harvest grapes since that is what the text plainly states or do the grapes, in fact, symbolize something else?


In Revelation 19:7 the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride is announced for his wife has made herself ready.” Is this picture literal?  Will an actual marriage ceremony take place between a lamb and its bride? As for the Bride, she has made herself ready by arraying herself “in fine linen, bright and pure,” but this description is not literal since the verse goes on to state, “the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” Compounding the problem is Revelation 21:2 identifies the Bride as the “holy city, Jerusalem” that descends to the earth from heaven.  Once again Revelation interprets its images non-literally and does not hesitate to mix its metaphors.


The Book of Revelation describes itself as “a revelation of Jesus Christ given to John by an angel in order to signify to God's servants things that must soon come to pass” (Revelation 1:1-2). This is accomplished by means of visionary experiences in which John sees and hears images that represent specific realities. “Signify” translates the Greek verb sémainō, which means “to signify, to show, to point out, to show by sign.”  It is a cognate of the noun “sign” or sémeion (cp. REVELATION 12:1, 12:3, 13:13-14, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20). Thus from its first verse Revelation presents its visions as symbolic in nature.  The symbolic representations point to genuine realities and provide information about them, but the symbols themselves are not real.