Interpreting Revelation: Symbolic or literal? – Part 1

POST OVERVIEW. The first of a two-post series discussing whether our default approach to Revelation 4-20 should be to interpret the text literally or symbolically.

These two articles attempt to answer one very simple question:

When interpreting the book of Revelation, should our default be to understand the book literally or symbolically?


But before we tackle this “one very simple question,” I wanted to make some general comments about interpreting Revelation. It is almost universally regarded that Chapters 4 through 20 of Revelation is the most difficult passage to interpret in the entire Bible, and this for several reasons.

The first reason is that the visions that John sees are dense with details requiring interpretation. In most of Scripture, we occasionally encounter something that requires us to interpret its meaning, but in Revelation it seems that almost everything must be interpreted and understood, and this is both daunting and intellectually demanding.

Second, interpreting Revelation requires a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the entire Bible. Chapters 4 through 20 are packed with allusions to Old Testament passages and, if you do not recognize those allusions or references, you may assume that these images or scenes have never occurred before. You thus interpret them as if they are brand new. This leads to interpretive errors.

Third, “small” interpretive errors in Revelation can produce big confusion. It is thus very easy to find yourself well off the interpretive path.

Fourth, because interpreting Revelation is so intimidating and demanding, there have sprung up three or four simplified schemes for understanding the book that attempt to remove the difficulties by telling the reader what things mean. The net result of this is that, when someone tells you they understand Revelation, they really mean they have learned one of the canned approaches to the book. Unfortunately, it turns out that most of these people have spent very little time wrestling with the text of Revelation and so remain largely ignorant of what the book actually says.

For these reasons and more, the Bible student is required to bring all their sharpest skills to bear when interpreting Revelation 4-20. Also, the student of Revelation should move forward slowly and thoughtfully, being ever-ready to acknowledge when a more biblically accurate idea has surfaced.

There are also several principles that can help keep us on the narrow path of interpretive accuracy.


First, we consider three skills that greatly aid the student of Revelation. I call these the “Sherlock Holmes skills of eschatology.” Using these skills, Holmes solved crimes and using these same skills, we can better understand Revelation.

  1. Keen observation of all the details. Here we are making note of all the potential clues in the text, so nothing escapes our gaze.
  2. Evaluate the details and assign meaning to them. Which details are useful clues? What is the meaning of each clue in this context?
  3. Fit the clues together into the proper order so that the clues yield a solution that gives understanding to the verse or passage. Note that, in the case of Revelation, our solution must not only fit the context of the immediate passage, but it must also agree with the rest of Revelation and it must be consistent with the entirety of Scripture. A solution that disagrees with other teaching in Scripture is in error and must be either abandoned or modified.

There are also three purposes of Revelation which establish boundaries for our interpretations. Keeping these in mind helps in evaluating clues (see Step 2 above).

  1. As the concluding book of the Bible, Revelation has the purpose of filling in some blanks. Many of the details of the end times have already been announced or described in the previous sixty-five books, but there are a few minor details that Revelation adds that make the picture of the end times more complete. Examples would be the time period of the “42 months” (Rev. 11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5) and “another beast” (Rev. 13:11-17), who is also the false prophet of Rev. 16 and Rev. 19.
  2. As the final book of the Bible, Revelation supplies the final, most detailed picture of characters and events which have already appeared before. Examples are the final (seventh) appearance of the antichrist as the beast in Rev. 13, etc., and the final occurrence of Armageddon in Rev. 16, 19, and 20.
  3. With Revelation, we receive the last opportunity to discern the order of the events of the end times. Thus, Revelation allows us to connect the dots. For example, a careful reading of Revelation allows us to order the events of the Last Day, including how the coming of Jesus, the occurrence of the Resurrection, and the events of Armageddon fit together. Revelation also provides a general flow of the events of the “42 months” (see a) above) as they move toward the Last Day. So, Revelation has the purpose of connecting some dots.

Having these six basic principles in our interpretive tool-belt allows us to approach the text of Revelation 4-20 with a degree of confidence that, with work, we can find out the meaning and put the puzzle pieces together.


You may think that I have forgotten the “one very simple question” that we were going to answer, but that is not the case. We are now prepared to address our question: “When interpreting the book of Revelation, should our default be to understand the book literally or symbolically?” Our next post will answer that question.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/16/2023                   #622