Literal and Nonliteral Language

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash
- The book of Revelation informs the reader from the start that it communicates symbolically - [
Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash]. 

Must prophecy be interpreted only or even primarily in a “literal” fashion unless a passage specifically indicates otherwise? Often in our minds, there is an unstated assumption that literal language is more reliable than nonliteral, an assumption that becomes especially problematic when interpreting Revelation.

Any insistence on only using strictly “literal” readings of prophetic passages reflects ignorance of how human language works. “Literal” and “nonliteral” represent different kinds of language. A statement may be strictly literal and invalid, just as another may be metaphorical and true. “It is raining cats and dogs” is a literal statement, but “literally” speaking, it is untrue. Cats and dogs do not fall from the sky; this is a figure of speech for heavy rainfall.

The Apostle Paul called the church the “body of Christ,” which is a nonliteral statement. Christians do not become the actual body of Jesus upon conversion. Because the statement is metaphorical, are we to assume it is invalid or less reliable than more literal descriptions of the church? Jesus is portrayed as the true Temple and Tabernacle in which the divine presence dwells, yet he is not made from goatskins or stones.
The book of Revelation itself provides interpretations for many of its symbols, explanations that demonstrate the symbols are not “literal” or actual things.
The opening vision presents an image of seven “golden lampstands.” The text informs the reader that the image represents “seven churches.” This is symbolical interpretation, not literal. John saw “stars” on the right hand of Christ. The stars represent “angels.” In chapter 5, a lamb with “seven eyes” is seen, but the text interprets the eyes as the “seven spirits of God.” The “seven heads of the Beast” on which Babylon sits represent “seven mountains,” and in turn, seven “kings” - (Revelation 1:20, 5:6, 17:8-10).

Many images in Revelation cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre results. For example, God is the One “Who Sits on the Throne” holding a “sealed scroll” in his right hand. How does a being that is Spirit and fills heaven and earth have a right hand or a backside with which to sit on a throne? Jesus is pictured as a “slain lamb” with “seven horns and seven eyes,” the “lion of the tribe of Judah.” Is he a literal lion, a lamb, or both? Does he have seven “literal” eyes and horns in his glorified body?

When the fifth trumpet sounded, a “star” that fell to earth was given a “key.” But the earth would be destroyed outright if an actual “literal” collided with it. Technically speaking, the earth would be drawn into the star  by its superior gravitational pull. Even if what John saw was a meteorite or an asteroid rather than a star, how does one give a “key” to a rock from outer space? Certainly the “star” could represent an angel or some other sort of spiritual being, which would, of course, also mean the image is NOT literal.

Is Satan an actual giant “red dragon” with heads and horns? Does his tail “literally” draw a “third of the stars” onto the earth, and if so, how does the earth survive such a cosmic collision? If Satan is a spiritual being, how does one attach a metal “chain” to his ankle to imprison him for a thousand years?

The book of Revelation is an unveiling by Jesus Christ to signify to his servants “what things must soon come to pass.” This is accomplished by means of visions in which John saw and heard things that represented specific realities. The symbols pointed to these realities but were not themselves real things. The Greek verb rendered “signify” is from the same stem as the noun used for “sign.” It means to “signify, show by sign, to symbolize.”

Thus, the book informs the reader from its start by direct statements and examples that it communicates symbolically.


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