Is the Book of Revelation Symbolic?


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The Great Tribulation

A Promise!

"Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the word of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near."
Revelation 1:3

A Warning!

"For I testify to everyone who hears and reads the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." 
                                                                      Revelation 22:18 & 19

A Problem

There are several lines of doctrine around today that, in the view of this writer, are giving Christians dangerously false expectations and are thereby setting them up for a terrible surprise. These include:

  1. The Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine. There is solid Biblical reason to believe that the entire Church will go into the Tribulation.
  2. Dominion - Kingdom Now Theology,* which generally teaches that Christians will eventually take over the world, presumably soon, and Christ will return in triumphant glory simply to take His throne as King of a Christian world.
  3. Amillennialism,* which generally teaches that Christ will return, Judgment Day will happen, and the world will be destroyed and that's that.
  4. The Preterits view, that says the prophecies of the Second Coming were fulfilled spiritually in 70 AD, and denies any future fulfillment.

*This writer confesses to not being well informed on the details of their beliefs, but this is the impression he has been given.

None of the above lines of thought teach Christians to expect to go through a Great Tribulation. But the Scriptures make it overwhelmingly clear that that is exactly what is going to happen, if one has the faith and discernment to understand it to mean exactly what it says in several key passages.

The key to resolving all this is in the issue of how we understand the Book of Revelation.

Three Ways of Understanding the Book of Revelation

  • The Spiritualist Interpretation, which is believing that the Book has no literal fulfillment other than the triumph of good (i.e. Christianity) over evil. It usually sees the book as having been written to give encouragement to Christians suffering persecution at the time it was written. It gives a symbolic interpretation to everything. That is, all the events and personalities (other than God, Jesus and perhaps Satan) are seen as figurative or metaphorical.
  • The Preterist Interpretation, which, as stated, is believing that all the prophecies in the Book were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Accepting this requires belief in an earlier date for the writing of the book than is   accepted by others. If it was true, the book would have had to have been written before 65 AD. However, the writings of several of the Early Church Fathers attest to a date circa 95 AD.

It is this writer's impression that there are a number of different lines of teaching around that give a variety of renderings of one or both of these general views. All contribute to the "setup".

The third one is:

  • The Future Historical Interpretation, which is believing that the Book of Revelation was a prophecy of the future of the Church, from the time that St. John wrote the book right through to the New Jerusalem, the central topic being the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming of Christ. This is of course how it is understood in this Web site. As far as it applies to us, the future history starts with at least Revelation 6:12, or maybe with verse 6:1.

The Preterist View

The problem, as stated, with the Preterist view is that it is based on a date earlier than is generally accepted for the writing of the Book of Revelation. It is widely held, based on the writings of Early Church Fathers,  that John was sent into exile on the Isle of Patmos (in the northeastern Mediterranean) by the Roman Emperor Domitian. If this is true, then the Book of Revelation had to have been written, as is popularly believed, circa 95 -96 AD. John himself says he was on Patmos. He was still in Jerusalem when Paul made his last visit there, circa 57 AD (Acts 21:18). Following the death of Mary, for whom he had been caring, he left and went to Rome, were he was imprisoned by Nero along with Peter and Paul. Unlike them, he survived. After the death of Nero, he was released and went to Ephesus. The intervening period of nearly thirty years was spent in relatively quiet ministry. He is believed to have been a sort of circuit preacher among the Churches of the Roman Province of Asia, now western Turkey, particularly the ones mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 & 3. But then, during the Persecution of Domitian, he was arrested again, and sent to Patmos, which was a Roman prison colony at the time. And there he received the visions and wrote the Book of Revelation.

It is true that some of Matthew 24, and the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21, was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. But if Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and the Book of Revelation was written in 95 AD, it logically follows that the Revelation has nothing to do with that event. The Book itself says, at the beginning and the end, that it is about "things which must shortly come to pass" (Revelation 1:1 & 22:6). In other words, it is about the future. Not the past!

Note that we must understand the "shortly" and "the time is near" in terms of Psalm 90:4 and II Peter 3:8. From God's standpoint, it hasn't yet been two full days since the Revelation was written! Looking at the question of time another way, we can consider the future historical fulfillment to have begun shortly after the Revelation was written, with the end of the age of the Church of Ephesus when John died. Although we often do need to understand Scripture in the light of Scripture, in many cases the surest way to arrive at the correct meaning of Scripture is to understand it to mean exactly what it says.

The Spiritualist Interpretation

It appears that the Spiritualist interpretation may have a wider following than the Preterist. This is the view taken by those into Dominion Theology and other related lines of doctrine. But there are serious theological and spiritual problems with it.

In II Thessalonians 2:11, Paul speaks of God sending "a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie". By the context, this is part of His wrath against the unsaved. But since the Great Tribulation is as much a great chastisement of the Church as it is judgment on the unsaved world, it follows that in a secondary sense this may also apply to Christians. This curse - that is what it is - manifests itself in the large numbers of Christians who accept and even fight for unscriptural ideas about the Second Coming; ideas that, again, are setting them up for the terrible surprise.

A major aspect of the Spiritualist, i.e. symbolic, view of the Book of Revelation is that it belittles, or in extreme cases, flat out denies, the future - prophetic, i.e. foretelling, aspect of Biblical prophecy. While the proponents of this view are maintaining that what they teach is a deeper understanding of Revelation and prophecy otherwise, they are violating the principles of the warning near the top of this page. They are both taking away from and adding to the Book of Revelation.

These people may not realize it, but the fact that the Bible contains so many prophecies and that the prophecies get fulfilled is one of the most significant things that sets Christianity apart form other religions. In fact, in Isaiah 44: 6-8, God claims, in so many words, that His ability to accurately predict the future is the proof that He is the one true God. This is borne out in the Book of Ezekiel, where we find, again and again, passages that say that such-and-such a thing will happen, "and they will know that I am the Lord".

While the Bible assumes the existence of God, it also recognizes unbelief as a major problem. God, in the Bible, does not use argument to prove His existence. He uses the fulfillment of Prophecy. See "Does God Exist?"

The Basic Errors

Belittling the foretelling aspect of prophecy is a serious error bordering on damnable heresy. It is doing one of the things that the Book of Revelation warns us not to do. It is taking away from the words of the Book! The Amillennialist view takes away from Scripture by denying that there will be a Great Tribulation. And why do they want to argue about the Millennium? Pre-Millennialists do very little arguing for the Millennium, but Amillennialists and Peterists seem to feel compelled to do a lot of arguing against it. The very fact that they want to make a divisive issue out of it is a sign that they are into error.

Similarly, in their interpretations of the "symbolism" that those who hold this view claim is there, they are often adding to the words of the Book!

Anyone who teaches anything relevant to the Book of Revelation, and the Bible generally, should be very careful both with what he says, and the attitude with which he says it. See "The Proper Handling of Prophecy".

Actually, most doctrinal error that is taught originates with one or both of the above errors. It usually takes the form, in the former case, of ignoring and/or belittling Scripture passages that clearly contradict what is taught. In the latter, it is reading things into the Bible that aren't there.

For example, if you are familiar with Pre-Trib Rapture doctrine, you know about the idea that the Christians will all suddenly disappear at the beginning of the Tribulation. This writer challenges all readers to show him a Bible passage that clearly and undeniably says that the Christians will disappear. It isn't there! On the contrary, there are several passages that suggest that  the resurrected and raptured saints will light up like the sun. Or, to put it differently, like Jesus in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2). See Daniel 12:3, Matthew 13:43, Romans 8:18, and I John 3:2. Pre-Tribbers, in saying that the Christians will disappear, read an idea into the Bible that isn't there, and ignore one that clearly is there.

This is not to say that none of the symbolic meanings that are taught are theologically acceptable. Since they are basing their thinking on the Bible, it is no surprise if they do stumble onto some valid conclusions. However, the acceptability of some of their conclusions doesn't mean that their basic premises are right.

To give you a parallel example from science, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s a man named Immanuel Velikovsky made a number of radical scientific predictions that proved to be correct. Nevertheless, it is known that the theory on the basis of which he made those predictions was wrong. His correct predictions were just good luck. In the case of Spiritualist interpreters of the Bible, theologically acceptable conclusions are the result of the fact that they are interpreting the Book of Revelation by other Scriptures. So they can be to some extent right without having to be lucky. (Note: there is such a thing as being "lucky" or "unlucky". See Ecclesiastes 9:11.) But they still are missing the true meaning of the Book.

Special Note: Perhaps the most flagrant case of adding to the Scriptures is the Schofield Reference Bible. Much popular thinking about Second Coming Prophecy is based on Schofield's notes. Christians who use this Bible are not conscious of it, but in their thinking, they are frequently putting those notes on the same level of authority as the Scripture itself. This subjects the Christian who does so to the warning of Revelation 22:18. Any Christian who owns one of those Bibles should burn it. Understand that it is not the Scripture that is the problem, it is the notes.

The Significance of Foretelling

If the foretelling aspect of prophecy had no significance, it would seriously weaken the Scriptural basis of our faith. One of the basic doctrines of Christianity is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah of Israel. This claim is based entirely on the fulfillment of Prophecy. It is a matter of basic Christian doctrine that the life of Jesus was prophesied from His Conception right through to the Ascension. When the Wise Men came to see Herod, and wanted to know where Jesus had been born, the priests referred to Prophecy, specifically Micah 5:2, to tell them where:

"But thou Bethlehem Ephratah*, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting."

*There were two Bethlehems in ancient Israel. 
The word "Ephratah" identifies specifically the one in which Christ was born.

The priests certainly expected a literal fulfillment of that prophecy. And that case of a literal fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy in the life of Jesus was just one of many, as any real student of the Word knows. Jesus Himself appealed to prophecy to affirm His identity as Messiah (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 & John 5:39). If the prophecies in the Old Testament were literally fulfilled, why should the prophecies of the Second Coming, and the Book of Revelation in particular be different? Just as many Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the First Coming of Christ, we can reasonably expect that most of the Book of Revelation will be fulfilled in the Second.

In the Law of Moses, the test of a prophet was that he be 100% accurate with his predictions (Deuteronomy 18:22), with the additional condition that he must not lead people to worship other God's (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). Again, trivializing the significance of the "foretelling" aspect of prophecy is taking away from the Word of God.

A certain person who holds the "Spiritualist" view, with whom this writer omce discussed prophecy, said that he wasn't "trivializing" the foretelling aspect of prophecy, but that he was saying that the "foretelling" aspect of prophecy is "incidental" to prophecy. This is playing games with words. The man  was saying the same thing with different words and trying to say that he was saying something different. Anyone else with any discernment could see that he wasn't! If he really believed he was telling the truth, he was deceived.

Relevant to this issue, one prophecy that is being literally fulfilled in our times is II Timothy 4:3 & 4, which see. It is being fulfilled in, among other things, the erroneous teachings discussed above.

The Composition of the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is a series of visions. Some of them are visions of things that happen in Heaven, and some are visions of things that happen on earth. It makes sense that the visions of things that happen in Heaven are not literal, though for all we know they could be. On the other hand, when the vision is something that happens on earth, either the vision is meant literally, or it symbolizes something that will literally happen. In such cases, the Book itself often gives clues, however mysterious, to what is being symbolized. The clearest example of this is Revelation 17:7-18. The Beast and the Great Harlot aren't literal, but they represent entities that will literally exist, and the angel gives clues as to what they will be. As shown in "Two Beasts" page of "The Great Tribulation" section of this site, this is a prophecy about Islam and a revived Babylonian Empire. In other cases, such as Revelation 8:7-9:2, as is shown in the "A Mountain Burning With Fire" page, the passage is meant literally. John just didn't have the right words to describe what he saw, so he did the best he could with the words he had. As shown, he did a good job of it, especially in verse 8:8! That verse is a vividly accurate description of an asteroid or comet collision, the impact occurring, most likely, in the northern Pacific Ocean.

The Preeminence of the Book of Revelation

One of the principle ideas held by the Spiritualists is that the "symbolism" of the Book of Revelation must be understood in terms of Old Testament symbolism. Wrong! Bordering on damnable heresy wrong! As far as the Second Coming is concerned, the Old Testament prophecies should be understood by the Book of Revelation. Here's why:

The Hierarchy

Although all Scripture is inspired by God, there is a hierarchy of authority from passage to passage, and especially between the Old and New Testaments. As far as prophecy is concerned, the Book of Revelation is at the top of the hierarchy.

The hierarchy is first shown in Numbers 12:6-8, in the story of the incident in which Aaron and Miriam challenged the authority of Moses. What God says in these verses shows that the word of Moses had preeminent authority over the Prophets. Therefore, even they had to submit to the authority of what Moses said. This idea is echoed in Isaiah 8:20.

Moving ahead to the New Testament, in Matthew 17:15, we find Jesus standing on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. The Father speaks out of the bright cloud and says, "This is My Beloved Son....Hear Him!" Moses was there representing the Law. Elijah represented the Prophets. The Father meant, "Hear Jesus, as opposed to the Law and the Prophets.

Remember that in Matthew 28:18, Jesus said, "All authority has been given to me...". His authority includes the authority of His Word. And in Philippians 2:9-11, the expression "name above all names" includes the concept of supreme authority.

This idea is also supported by Hebrews 2:1-4 & 12:25-27.

As we also know, the Law and the Prophets do not tell us what Jesus meant. Jesus tells us what they meant. This is shown in the Gospels. See Matthew 5:21-48 and Luke 24:44-47.

Applying This to the Book of Revelation

In chapter 1, it is Jesus who appears as the Giver of the Book, and in His glorified state at that. Sixty years after the Ascension! Yet for all that, the Book clearly says of itself, "which God gave Him". There are verses that suggest that during His flesh - and - blood life on earth, Jesus was to some extent limited in His knowledge by His material state (see John 5:19-20). This was demonstrated in the incident in Luke 8:45-46 when He had to ask who touched Him. It was also demonstrated by the fact that in Matthew 24:36, He said that He did not know when He would return. In His earthly life, He had the limitations of First Corinthians 13:9. If what He said then has Divine Authority, how much more what He said (or more accurately, showed) long after His Resurrection and Ascension? From the circumstances in which it was given, it logically follows that the Book of Revelation contains information that even the Lord Jesus, as a man on earth, may not have known. He probably did not know these things until after the Ascension. It follows therefore, that as far as Prophecy is concerned, the Book of Revelation has preeminent authority over everything else in the Bible, even the prophetic discourses given by Jesus Himself in the Gospels.

Using the Old Testament as a standard for understanding the Book of Revelation is actually putting the words of the Prophets above the Word of Jesus. To put it differently, it is, theologically, making Jesus submit to the Prophets! This is tacitly denying the Lordship of Christ and thus borders on damnable heresy (II Peter 2:1). This error will absolutely prevent those who believe it from being ready for the Great Tribulation, and may cause some who teach it to lose their salvation.

The Revelation and the Second Coming

Perhaps the most glaring error of the Spiritualists is denying that the Book of Revelation is about the Second Coming of Christ. So why does Jesus say, at the end of the Book, "Surely I come quickly"? Was He not talking about a future event in which He will fulfill the promise of Acts 1:11? This is the event that we specifically call the "Second Coming of Christ". (There are Christians who dispute the use of this term in this way. They are engaging in pointless disputing of doctrine. Christians who use the term this way are usually aware that there are other possible meanings that can be given to this term.)

This is an expectation that has been part of the mainstream of Christian belief so long (since the days of Christ's First Coming, in fact) that to say it is wrong is, bluntly, an exercise in pride and arrogance. It is also divisive fault-finding. A typical Laodicean attitude.

The fact that it has been so long since the Book was given and the fulfillment has yet to come to pass poses no real theological problem. However, as shown in the "BABEL RISING!!!"pages, it may pose a problem if it doesn't happen soon.

If you want to receive the promise quoted near the top of this page, don't add to or take away from the Book of Revelation. Read it frequently. Be knowledgeable about it. Believe what is says. It is the last word (read "Word") on Prophecy, literally and figuratively. Make it a major part of your study of the Word. This should be a significant part of your efforts to be ready. We should all be serious about being ready....

....So that we can confidently say with John,

"Amen! Even so, Come Lord Jesus!"

See also:
"Can The Church Survive?"
"The Best To You In Warning!"

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Contact Author, William D. Brehm