PMT 2016-031 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is part two of a two-part study on the question of literalism in Revelation. Despite televangelists and rapture-predictors, Revelation is not to be interpreted literalistically. I examined three reasons why this is so in the previous article. I now would like to present one final argument against literalism:
Even if we set aside John’s own opening announcement regarding the symbolic nature of his prophecy, and his explanation of his very first vision, and his interpretive practice elsewhere in Revelation, we should avoid literalism on the basis of common sense. Consider the following absurdities that would arise on the literalist approach.
We should expect bizarre and rather grotesque angels in heaven: “Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back” (Rev. 4:6). And this is despite the fact that when men actually see angels on the earth, they can be confused with humans (e.g., Gen 19:1, 5; Dan 9:21).
Though John actually sees a lamb in some of his visions, we know that he is not literally teaching us about the actions of a mammal of the genus Ovis in the family Bovidae. “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). I noted previously in this chapter that this “Lamb” is actually worshiped and praised as the Redeemer of God’s people.
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Nor should we expect a time in the future wherein the world witnesses a global assault by four literal horsemen, each riding upon an Equus caballus:
“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword. When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’ When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:1-8).
Elsewhere in Revelation John speaks of men actually washing robes in blood in order to make them white: “And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’” (Rev. 7:14).
And what shall we say of the locusts he sees? “And the appearance of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle; and on their heads, as it were, crowns like gold, and their faces were like the faces of men” (Rev. 9:7). Or of the horses and their riders? “And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone” (Rev. 9:17).
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Do we really expect a literal multi-headed dragon to pull down one-third of the trillions of stars in the Universe, throwing them upon the earth? “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born” (Rev. 12:3-4).
On the literalist approach, who is the winged woman who stands on the moon? And the serpent that vomits out a river of water? “The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent” (Rev. 12:14-15).
Will John’s dreaded beast literally look like a compound of three representatives of the mammalian order Carnivora? “The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion” (Rev. 13:2a).
Is the second beast John sees literal? “Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon” (Rev. 13:11). Is the angel of God actually going to reap the earth with a literal sickle? “Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, ‘Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe’” (Rev. 14:15). Do demon spirits literally appear in history in the form of frogs coming from the mouths of evil beings? “Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet” (Rev. 16:13).
Is the Great Harlot really a vampire who drinks blood to the point of intoxication? “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 17:6). Will Jesus physically ride out of heaven and through the sky on horse, while clamping a sword in his teeth? “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Rev. 19:15a).
Do we expect a literal city (complete with plumbing and electricity?) to descend to the earth from heaven? “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:10). And will it be so gigantic that it will extend from the earth’s surface upwards of 1500 miles, about 1200 miles higher than the Space Shuttle orbits? “And the city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal” (Rev. 21:16).
Surely no one would interpret Revelation in this way. And as we have seen, Revelation confronts the literalist with one problem after another. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we might say of Revelation’s absurdities if taken literally: “Revelation is just one darned thing after another.”