One final area I need to discuss before moving into Revelation chapter 20 is the genre of the book of Revelation.The English title of the book, the Revelation, is translated from the Greek word apokalypsis and it simply means “to unveil,” “to disclose,” or “to reveal.”
There is a large group of evangelical interpreters who have poured new meaning into the word apokalypsis and equate the book of Revelation, along with the OT books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Zechariah, with a class of non-canonical books that flourished during the inter-testament period [Woods, 1]. Those non-canonical books are called apocalyptic literature and they began to circulate during the 2nd century B.C. as a response to persecution and oppression the Jews were experiencing, [Carson-Moo-Morris, 478], and they include books like Enoch, Jubilees, The Assumption of Moses, The Testament of the 12 Patriarchs, and The Sibylline Oracles.
They are called “apocalyptic” because they share many characteristics of a similar theme concerning the end of the world and the final judgment of all mankind. Such things as: The use of extensive symbolism, angelic guides, the activity of angels and demons, urgent expectations of the end of the earth in the immediate future, cosmic catastrophe, and the final showdown between good and evil, [Ladd, 621; Woods, 1].
Many modern evangelical interpreters claim the book of Revelation, along with Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, shares several of those characteristics with that collection of non-canonical apocalyptic literature. They make that claim particularly for the book of Revelation which was written roughly around the same time frame the apocalyptic books were composed. Because Revelation contains many of the thematic elements as apocalyptic literature, most notably the symbolic aspect, it is argued the book falls into an entirely different genre than most of the other books in the Bible. Hence, it must be interpreted according to a strict typological/symbolic hermeneutic, with a literal approach either being modified to favor typology/symbolism or laid aside almost completely.
The use of this symbolic principle of interpretation is especially true of the evangelical Reformed believers who employ a non-literal, typological hermeneutic to prophecy. In fact, when one surveys their writings addressing eschatology, a repeated mantra is that the Revelation is heavily symbolic and must be interpreted in a non-literal fashion.
Examples of this principle of a non-literal hermeneutic abound. Kim Riddlebarger attempts to make the case for a symbolic/typological interpretation of Revelation all throughout his main book defending amillennialism, as does Keith Mathison who also appeals to symbolism in his book advocating postmillennialism. Gary Demar of American Vision is one of the more strident non-literalists who insists in his various publications and on his radio program that a literal interpretation of Revelation only serves to ruin our understanding of the book. Popular Christian radio personality, Hank Hanegraaf and host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast, outlines in his book The Apocalypse Code* how the Bible, specifically the book of Revelation, is filled with a lot of symbolism and should be interpreted with the proper use of “types” and “allegory.”
Those men represent just a smattering of biblical interpreters who insist the symbolism of Revelation defines its genre and over rides the basic historical-grammatical hermeneutic used to study Scripture.
Two points need to be considered in response to this view of Revelation:
Though it is true the book of Revelation shares many eschatological characteristics as found in apocalyptic literature, the book is prophetic in nature, and does not belong with the non-canonical apocalyptic literature. The most noticeable proof Revelation is prophecy is the fact John calls his book a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18). Moreover, Dr. Robert Thomas argues that the number of dissimilarities with apocalyptic literature out weighs the similarities, so much so the book cannot right be called “apocalyptic,”[Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, 338].
For instance, apocalyptic literature is pseudonymous, where as Revelation is not. Apocalyptic literature is never epistolary, where as the opening 3 chapters of Revelation are epistolary, addressing seven real churches. Apocalyptic literature tends to be extremely limited with its admonitions to the readers for their moral compliance to God’s commands. Revelation by contrast has repeated admonitions to John’s readers for moral compliance to God’s commands. Then lastly, Revelation is heavily dependent upon Ezekiel and Daniel, and to some extent, Zechariah. Those prophets wrote some 400 years before apocalyptic literature circulated among the Jewish people. There are several other dissimilarities as well [see Woods], which removes Revelation from the classification of “apocalyptic literature.”
If Revelation is rightfully understood as a prophecy of further revelation from God and is not to be associated with non-canonical apocalyptic literature, then that will change entirely how one is to interpret the book. The symbolic aspects of the book will be understood in the normal way symbolism is used in the rest of the Bible, especially prophetic portions.
The idea of “literalism” when interpreting Revelation, as well as prophecy in general, is regrettably ridiculed by reformed believers. In some ways I can understand their reactive tone. There are bizarre instances of literalism being abused. Hal Lindsey’s understanding of the locust in Revelation 9 as Apache helicopters spraying chemical weapons, or perhaps my favorite: the scene out of one of those dreadful Thief in the Night films in which a gal hears a noise outside her front door, opens it to see what the racket is, and then a big, rubber foam scorpion tail appears and stings her. But examples of absurd symbolism also exist. The interpretation by various preterist commentators that the 100 pound hailstones mentioned in Revelation 16:21 were the stones catapulted by the Romans when they laid siege to Jerusalem in 70 AD, for instance.
Because Revelation is prophecy, it will be interpreted just like other prophetic sections of the Bible. Certainly there is attention to symbolic language, but there is no need to read into those symbols speculative interpretations that exist outside of the prophecy itself which is connected to a class of non-canonical writings. Again, Revelation is dependent upon Ezekiel and Daniel’s prophecies. The best rule of thumb is to consider those canonical books to help provide clarity for understanding Revelation.
Additionally, symbolism in prophecy always points to some real, historic referent. Consider Daniel 7, where Daniel sees four spectacular beasts in a night vision. Though the beasts are amazing symbolism, we learn later from the angel interpreting the vision that they represent real, historic kingdoms: the Babylonian empire, the Medo-Persian empire, the Greek empire, and finally the Roman empire. If the beasts symbolize four real kingdoms, then other symbols in the vision must also refer to real, historical objects and people. The same would also be with numbers. The number of years in Daniel’s 70 week vision in chapter 9 correspond to real, chronological years. In fact, the vision is so accurate we can date the Triumphal Entry of Christ to Jerusalem the very week He was crucified.
If symbolic images and numbers represent real things in OT prophecy, why would it be any different when we come to Revelation? This is not “wooden literalism” or an “overly active imagination,” but interpreting the biblical text in the manner in which it was meant to be understood. Appealing to non-canonical apocalyptic literature as a starting point merely muddies the whole process of Bible study.
* See a review of The Apocalypse Code HERE.
D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1992).
Martin Erdmann, The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church. (Wipf & Stock: Eugene OR, 2005).
George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 1974).
Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old. (Kregel: Grand Rapids MI, 2002).
__________, Revelation 1 – 7: An Exegetical Commentary. (Moody Press: Chicago IL, 1992).
Andy Woods, Apocalypticism, on-line paper.