Interpreting Revelation: Symbolic or literal? – Part 2

POST OVERVIEW. The second 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 together attempt to answer one very simple question:

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


In our previous post, we laid a foundation for interpreting the difficult section of Scripture between Revelation chapter 4 and chapter 20, but we left unanswered one of the most important questions for interpreting these texts, namely, “Do we approach these visions that John saw from a literal or a symbolic perspective?”

One of the most obvious features of these chapters is a continuous pouring forth of strange and powerful visions of angels and dragons and earthquakes and hailstones. Just speaking for me personally, I cannot imagine what a literal interpretation of these visions could possibly mean, so I have always thought that most of these were intended to be symbolic of other biblical realities. After all, Revelation is the extreme example of the genre called biblical prophecy, and in this genre, the symbolic and the figurative are common. So, while there are certainly parts of this section of Revelation that should be understood literally, the overwhelming majority of these chapters presents events and characters which only make sense if they are symbolic and figurative. In fact, the great challenge of interpreting Revelation 4-20 is determining the symbolic meanings of the many images that John records.

The following give evidence of the need for a symbolic or figurative interpretation. It is difficult to conceive of these being interpreted literally.

  • Twenty-four elders, four living creatures Rev. 4, 5
  • The Lamb in Rev. 5:6ff
  • The seals of Rev. 5, 6
  • The four horsemen of Rev. 6:1-8
  • The 144,000 of Rev. 7:4-8; 14:1-5
  • The seven angels with the seven trumpets of Rev. 8-9
  • The star from heaven in Rev. 8:10; 9:1ff
  • The abyss (bottomless pit) and the smoke Rev. 9:2-10
  • Locusts and scorpions Rev. 9:3-10
  • Twice ten thousand time ten thousand horsemen Rev. 9:16
  • Kill a third of mankind Rev. 9:15 (2.5 Billion people??)
  • Two witnesses, fire flows out of their mouths Rev. 11:5
  • The woman Rev. 12
  • Red dragon Rev. 13
  • The beast Rev. 13:1-10
  • Another beast Rev. 13:11-17
  • The angel and the sickle Rev. 14:17-20
  • Seven angels with seven bowls Rev. 16:1-12
  • Armageddon Rev. 16:13-16
  • Scarlet beast and the woman Rev. 17:3-18
  • The destruction of Babylon Rev. 18
  • The Rider on the white horse Rev. 19:11-21
  • The angel from heaven Rev. 20:1-3
  • The dragon, the key, the chain, the abyss (bottomless pit) Rev. 20:1-2
  • Thousand years Rev. 20:2-7

In addition to these obviously symbolic images, we should also recognize that numbers in Revelation like 3, 7, 12, and 1000, are often to be understood symbolically rather than literally. Colors also often convey symbolic meaning. White is always associated with God or Christ or holiness, so, when we see white characters or objects, we can confidently interpret them as with Christ. By contrast, red means evil or Satan.

All of this means that the student of Revelation needs to approach his study prepared for the hard work of determining the meaning of the book’s complex figures and symbols.


The reader of Revelation, whether biblical scholar or new believer, must also be constrained by the warning of 2 Peter 1:20-21: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but by men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Thus, the meaning we determine must not only fit the immediate context, but it must also harmonize with the entirety of Scripture.

This challenge of careful interpretation is one of the reasons that studying Revelation is such a difficult undertaking. There is a price that must be paid. The “entrance fee” is much time spent going deep in the Scriptures to learn how to read the Bible. The student of Revelation must be patient and persistent, reading and re-reading passages until they yield their meaning and reveal how they fit into the beautiful tapestry of God’s word. Finally, the student of Revelation must have the humility to admit when their cherished ideas about a particular passage are shown to be incorrect and then to surrender the old idea and replace it with the new.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/16/2023                   #623