The Interpretation of the Book of Revelation
Is it symbolic or literal in nature?
Dr. David R. Reagan
Please don't be deceived by those people who come along and say, "The book of Revelation is apocalyptic;
therefore, you can't understand it." That's a bunch of
nonsense - just nonsense. I heard that for years. "It's
apocalyptic! It's apocalyptic!" The word scared me to
death. It sounded like a disease.
All the term means is that the book of Revelation is
a type of prophetic literature that uses a lot of
symbols. Because it contains so many symbols, some
people teach the book as if it were a sort of
Alice-in-Wonderland story for adults. Part of that
approach is to explain away the vivid picture images by
spiritualizing them to mean anything the teacher
desires. The only limit is the imagination. This is an
Keep in mind that symbols are used for a specific
purpose. They stand for something. They have a literal
meaning behind them. They were not selected pell-mell by
the Holy Spirit when He inspired book, and they do not
stand for just anything we may desire.
Take Jesus, for example. In the Bible He is referred
to as the "Rose of Sharon" (Song of Solomon 2:1) Now
Jesus is not a rose, but the statement that He's the
"Rose of Sharon" communicates something real about Him.
It tells us that He's beautiful, that He's glorious,
that He's wonderful, that He's the spiritual aroma of
God. He's also called the "Bread of Life" and the
"Fountain of Life." Each of these symbols is used to
emphasize a different facet of His character. Think how
improper it would be to refer to Him as "the Tumbleweed
of Texas"! That symbol conjures up the image of
something that is ugly and rootless, subject to every
whim of the wind.
The same is true of symbols all through the Bible.
When a symbol is used, always look for the literal
meaning behind it. God does not use symbols randomly,
just pulling them out of the sky as if they have no
Using First Coming Prophecies as a Guide
If you will look at apocalyptic books in the Old
Testament, like the book of Zechariah, you will see that
the First Coming prophecies contained in this literature
meant exactly what they said. This is an extremely
important point because the way in which First Coming
prophecies were fulfilled is the best clue to how Second
Coming prophecies will be fulfilled.
Let's consider some examples from the book of
Zechariah. The prophet said that the Messiah would come
on a donkey and that He would ride into Jerusalem on
that donkey. (Zechariah 9:9) Now, I'm sure that some of
our liberal theologians today, if they had lived back
before the coming of Christ, would have taken that verse
and said, "Well, of course, this verse doesn't mean what
it says. This is apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic
literature must be spiritualized. The Messiah certainly
isn't coming on a donkey. That's silly. All the verse
means is that He's going to be a humble person." Wrong.
The verse meant what it said. Jesus came on a donkey,
exactly as prophesied in apocalyptic literature (Matthew
Zechariah also prophesied that the Messiah would
be betrayed by a friend (Zechariah 13:6) for thirty
pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12). He said the Messiah
would be pierced (Zechariah 12:10) and that He would
have wounds in His hands (Zechariah 13:6). All these
prophecies proved to be literal rather than
Concerning the Messiah's Second Coming, Zechariah
said He will come back to the Mount of Olives and the
mountain will split in half when His foot touches the
ground (Zechariah 14:4). The Messiah will speak a
supernatural word, destroying the Antichrist and his
forces with a plague (Zechariah 4:12). And in Zechariah
14:9 it says, "On that day the Lord will become king
over all the earth." I believe those words mean exactly
what they say.
Accepting the Plain Sense
Another key to understanding the book of Revelation,
a very important key, is to accept the plain sense
meaning of each passage. Even if you don't understand
it, the best rule of thumb is to just accept the plain
sense meaning. My "Golden Rule of Interpretation" that I
use throughout the Bible from beginning to end, whether
it's prophecy or not, is this: "If the plain sense makes
sense, don't look for any other sense, or you will end
up with nonsense."
Because I realize that prophetic
literature contains symbols, I don't like to use the
term, "literal interpretation." I prefer the term,
"plain sense interpretation." Yes, there are symbols,
but symbols have meaning. And when symbols are used, I
look for the meaning of them. Again, if the plain sense
makes sense, don't look for any other sense, or you will
end up with nonsense!
Remember, God doesn't write in riddles to
purposefully confuse us. He knows how to communicate.
Normally, He says what He means, and He means what He
says. Try always to accept the plain sense meaning. If
you don't understand it, don't worry about it. Put aside
what is confusing and hang on to what you do understand.
Don't give in to the temptation to spiritualize a
passage to death or allegorize it. It is a serious thing
to play loose with God's Word.
The spiritualization of Scripture is actually a
blasphemous act. The reason is that when you start
spiritualizing God's Word, you start playing god, for
you can make the Scriptures mean whatever you want,
rather than what God intended.
Believing When It's Difficult
The best commentary I have ever read on the book of
Revelation is one called The Revelation Record by
Dr. Henry Morris. Right at the very beginning he makes a
statement that made me want to shout "Hallelujah!" He
says, "The book of Revelation is not hard to understand.
It's just hard to believe. If you will believe it, you
will understand it." What a profound insight! And it's
so true. Don't forget it.
Accepting the plain sense meaning applies even when
you don't understand the passage. Let me give you an
example. In Revelation 9 it says that in the end times
an army of 200 million is going to march out of the east
toward Israel. At the time that was written there
weren't even 200 million people in the world. Can you
imagine the early readers of the book trying to figure
out what that meant? Today, one nation, China, can send
an army that large against Israel. You see what I mean
by accepting what it says even if you don't understand
This is one of the reasons I have always held the
writings of C. I. Scofield in high esteem. He is the man
who in 1909 produced the very first study Bible - a
Bible with explanatory notes.3 He gave a literal
interpretation to Ezekiel 38 and 39, concluding that
these chapters prophesy that Russia, together with
specified allies, will invade Israel in the end times.
Commenting on this interpretation, he stated, "I don't
understand it. I can't explain it. But that is what it
says. Therefore, I believe it."
That statement required a lot of faith in the literal
meaning of the Word of God. Think of it - in 1909 Russia
was a Christian Orthodox nation and Israel did not
exist, nor was there any prospect that Israel would ever
The Impact of Technology
Modern technology has helped us to understand many
prophecies that previously have been a mystery. For
example, in Revelation 13 it says that when the
Antichrist is revealed, he's going to be accompanied by
a person known as the False Prophet. This False Prophet
will make an image of the Antichrist, and that image
will seem to come alive. People will worship the image.
For thousands of years people have had to wonder what
was meant by the reference to an image that appears to
be alive. Scholars wrote many pages giving the passage
all kinds of spiritualized explanations. Today, with the
technology that we have, it is not at all difficult to
make a robotic or digital image that appears to be
Forty years ago I went into a theater at Disneyland.
When the curtain opened, I saw a person who looked like
Abe Lincoln sitting on the stage. He got up, walked over
to the edge of the stage, grabbed his coat lapels, and
proceeded to deliver the "Gettysburg Address." The
person was so lifelike. I thought he was an actor. He
wasn't. The person was a robot.
The Bible says the False Prophet will make an image
of the Antichrist that will appear to come alive. I
think we should believe the Bible means what it
In the same chapter of Revelation, chapter 13, we are
told that every person on earth during the Tribulation
period will be required to have a mark of the beast
(either his name or number) on their forehead or on
their right hand in order to buy and sell. For
centuries, this was a prophecy whose plain sense
fulfillment was difficult to comprehend. But no longer.
Today, with the kind of technology that we have with
computers and lasers, such a mark is something that is
readily possible. Nonetheless, until recently people
just had to accept by faith that the passage meant what
Another example is found in Revelation 11 where it
says that during the Tribulation two great witnesses of
God will testify for three and a half years. They will
perform mighty miracles and then be killed by the
Antichrist. Their bodies will lie in the streets of
Jerusalem for three days, and it says all the people of
the world will look upon them. Then, suddenly, they will
be resurrected and taken up to Heaven. Needless to say,
before the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, that passage was
difficult to explain. How could all the world look upon
two dead bodies lying in the streets of Jerusalem?
Today, there's nothing to it. All you do is take a TV
camera, point it at them, and zap the transmission up to
a satellite. Instantly, the whole world can look upon
those bodies without any difficulty at all.
Summing It Up
People have spent centuries explaining away God's
Word simply because they did not necessarily understand
it. I'm saying take the plain sense approach. Assume
that God wants to communicate, that God knows how to
communicate, and that God says what He means and means
what He says. Believe that symbols stand for something
literal, and accept them for their plain sense meaning.
You will start understanding the book of
Source: Lamb & Lion Ministries
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