How is it even possible to approach the book of Revelation a literal hermeneutic?  The presence of such bizarre symbolic language seems to preclude the possibility of reading the book literally.  The presence of highly figurative language does not preclude the possibility of literal meaning. “The prophecies predict literal events, though the descriptions do not portray the events literally” (Grant Osborne, Revelation, 16).

Dispensationalism calls its method of biblical interpretation “literal interpretation,” although the methods are the same as the grammatical-historical method, or the “normal” or “plain” method, since it seeks the normal meaning of words in their original context.   To use a simple example in Revelation, chapter 12 describes a red dragon which persecutes the child of a woman.  The dragon is clearly Satan, an image which is fairly obvious from the context (and interpreted for us by John in 12:9).  Is Satan really a big read dragon?  Probably not, but the metaphor suggests things about Satan which are in fact true.

There are some troublesome points, however.  How ought we to take the numbers used in the book?  Is there a real three and a half year period predicted by the book, or is this merely symbolic of a “time of persecution”?  Ought we insist the thousand years of the kingdom be a literal thousand years, or is it a “a lengthy period under God’s control”?

When Revelation refers to something with straightforward language, we ought to take the words at face value.  For example, Revelation 2-3 refer to seven churches, the ought to be read as real churches rather than epochs of church history.

Literal interpretation of Revelation does not  deny figures of speech in the book.   When the Bible says “like a…” it is clear that a figure of speech is being employed and that we should try to understand what the author meant by that figure.  In each of the following examples, there is a metaphor / word picture which is interpreted for us by the text. Revelation 1:20 refers to seven stars and seven lampstands.  The plain interpretation of these verses is that the stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lampstands are the churches themselves.

There are a few examples which are more difficult to know how far to press the “literal” meaning.  For example, the temple in chapter 11.  Is this to be understood as the literal temple in Jerusalem, or a “spiritual temple,” such as the Church?  When chapter 16 describes a great battle in Armageddon, should we understand the location as the literal valley of Megiddo? How literal is the “mark of the beast” on the hand and forehead?  Is it a real mark, or a parody of the Jewish practice of binding scripture on the hand and forehead during prayer?

In the end, I think that a “literal hermeneutic” that takes into account the use of metaphor (and other figures of speech) is the best way to approach the book.  The goal of reading any book of the Bible is to understand the original author’s intention.  I am equally suspicious of interpretations that read Revelation from a Marxist perspective as I am of people who try to identify the Antichrist as a contemporary political figure.

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