Is Revelation literal or figurative?

I have an acquaintance who presented a theory to me that the book of Revelation is really just figurative language written to a specific people at that time, and was not meant to result in an expectation of Jesus' return, a tribulation period, or anything of the sort. I completely disagree with him, but I'm curious as to whether any of your contributors have heard this theory and care to comment. Thoughts?

Asked By: 
Kate
All biblical language is religious language, not scientific.

Dear Kate:

Some of the things you said are accurate, but some are not. For example, people in those days did expect Jesus coming back from heaven very soon. What we do not know is what they meant by "coming soon," since their sense of time was different from ours. They did not view the future, for example, as something very far away, this linear concept that we are used to, but more likely something fore coming which was already impacting the present. That is why Jesus announced that the kingdom of God had drawn "near."

Now the tribulation, and its related idea of a "second coming" of Jesus from heaven, is a modern concept conceived in the 19th century by John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and it is not to be found in the book of Revelation. In this book, tribulation refers to the harsh times that the believers were to experience before the end. If the original readers of Revelation would have been told of this idea of two different comings of Christ, one to rapture his church, the other to judge the world and establish God's kingdom, they wouldn't have a clue what it meant! The concept of "rapture" comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:17, from the Latin word raptio which translates the Greek word for being "caught up." But in that context it refers to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time, not to a coming of Jesus to take up his church in anticipation to that event. That was never in Paul's mind.

As for the language being "figurative," I would say that all biblical language is religious language, not scientific, so there is a lot of it that is symbolic, metaphorical, even figurative, which does not mean that it is not true. As a matter of fact, it may even be truer than plain literary or scientific language. In the same way in which you don't use religious language to describe electricity, you don't use scientific language to describe the resurrection or salvation, just to give a couple of examples from the biblical record.

So, as I pointed out above, there are some things you said that I agree with and some that I disagree with. At the end of the day, you will have to come up with your own interpretation and accept that of others as being as valid as yours. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that if your interpretation oppresses other people, if it doesn't give life, then it is not valid whether it literal or figurative. The most important feature of any biblical interpretation is that it has to be ethical.

I hope this helps . . .

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
Apocalypse now or later?
I'm going to side with your acquaintance on this one. There is symbolism throughout the book of Revelation. If I read your question correctly, however, it is mostly asking about whether Revelation and its symbols mean to predict or foretell a specific future to come or whether the book's message and imagery would have been more readily familiar to an ancient audience. I think the answer to that question has to take notice of the fact that there were other ancient Jewish and Christian writings that resemble Revelation. Those "apocalyptic" (or "revelatory") writings share similar characteristics, including: accounts of a person receiving special insights into heavenly goings-on, grotesque creatures who represent empires and their idolatries, struggles between cosmic powers, resurrected people of God, and a hope in a God who will emerge victorious in the end (see, for example, Daniel 7-12 and many writings that were not included in the Bible such as 4 Ezra, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Apocalypse of Peter).
 
Most scholars believe that these writings were meant to build faith and courage among people of faith who found themselves in trying circumstances. One of the ways these writings did that was to acknowledge the reality and danger of evil, to criticize idolatry and faithlessness, and to reassure their audiences that God was still actively committed to their well-being even though all around them it appeared that God's enemies were prospering.
 
In addition, some of the symbols in the book of Revelation seem to be describing aspects of the Roman Empire: certain characteristics of the beasts in chapter 13 resemble Nero, the name "Babylon" was a nickname for Rome at the end of the first century, the woman associated with Babylon sits on seven mountains like the ancient city of Rome did (17:9), and the description of wealth and trade in chapter 18 aligns well with the Roman Empire's economy. Not every symbol in the book matches just one thing exactly; poetry and symbolism are more evocative than that. And so the book's symbolic descriptions of empires and their insatiable appetites can of course sound familiar in other historical settings as well. Revelation's portraits of violence and hardships have been familiar to believers in many settings. All of that, I believe, reaffirms that the book's symbolic ways of speaking about the struggles of faithful living and bold witness have been vivid and powerful enough to resonate with people in many times and places.
 
The book, then, is not necessarily an arcane roadmap to a specific set of future events. I worry that those who read it that way have overlooked the power of the symbolism and the ways that this kind of literature encouraged ancient audiences. Revelation calls the church--first the congregations to which it was written and, by extension, to all congregations through time--to bear witness in a dangerous world as it awaits the unknown time when God will bring all things to their new fullness through Christ.
 
When I teach about the book of Revelation, I encourage people to see that the book is a statement about the faithfulness of God and a call to believers to hold fast to God's good news in their lives, even as they sometimes have to stand against the people and societies who misuse power and make the world dangerous for our neighbors. Presumably some believers in Asia Minor needed to hear that message at the end of the first century. As we read over their shoulders from our place in the twenty-first century, we will see that we probably need to hear a similar message.
Author: Matthew L. Skinner
Revelation's 'apocalyptic' literary style
The book of Revelation is written in a specific literary style called “apocalyptic." The Greek word for “revelation” is apocalypsis, so the title of the book is a translation of that word. There are other examples of it in the Bible…for example in parts of the book of Daniel and elsewhere in the prophets. There are also many examples in other ancient texts that never made it into the Bible. Here’s a link to a pretty good article about this kind of literature: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Apocalyptic_literature
 
One of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic language. It usually arose at times when people of faith were being severely persecuted, and many believe that the Book of Revelation was written at such a time (most scholars believe during the persecutions of Christians under the Roman emperor Domitian). The purpose was not to frighten, but to offer words of hope—to let people know that God did care about what was happening to them and would act. Many scholars think that all of the book is referencing events contemporary to the time of its writing. Others see a combination of contemporary and future events. Others see it all as a reference to the future (after you get past the letters to the seven churches at the beginning).
 
Personally, I think those details don’t matter very much. The large picture—the "Big T" Truth that I think the book of Revelation is trying to tell us—is that however bad things get, the Christian proclamation is one of hope for the oppressed. God sees it, cares deeply about it, and will ensure that—when all is said and done—there will be justice. Under the reign of God, whether that comes sooner or later; in heaven or on earth, the nations will find peace and the glory of God will be the only light we’ll need.
 
I spent at least a decade of my youth down the rabbit hole of looking for the Antichrist at every turn, and trying to sort out the debates about the timing of the rapture and tribulation as described by the people I was reading at the time. In retrospect, those efforts did nothing to bring me closer to God or to make me a better person. They just made me afraid. Now I choose to put all that aside. The end of all things will or won’t come in the way God wills it, whether I manage to figure it out or not. Now my focus is on the promise of justice and peace for all people and on the song by all creatures in heaven and on earth ringing with praise of God and of the Lamb. 
 
For me it’s the difference between the feeling you get when you listen to Handel’s Messiah (which draws much of its language and imagery from Revelation) and the feeling you get from reading the Left Behind series. I’ll take the Hallelujah Chorus any day.
 
-- Rev. Anne Robertson, Executive Director, Massachusetts Bible Society
 
 

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