Theology Thursday - "Selective Literalism" & the Book of Revelation

This is a small excerpt from an article by Gordon Fee, “Preaching Apocolypse? You’ve Got to be Kidding Me!?” in Calvin Theological Journal 41 (2006).

The first question is: Why? Why in the world would one offer to do this, to give a lecture on preaching from apocalyptic texts of all things? On the one hand, one would think that in a world of Star Wars and Star Trek this should be easy. Unfortunately, it is also a world in which the creators of the Left Behind books and movies have become millionaires. These books and movies are so seriously flawed as literature and art, not to mention as impossible interpretations of Scripture, that one feels a sense of despair over the mental and spiritual flabbiness of contemporary North American evangelicalism.

How, one wonders, did this kind of selective literalism gain such a strong foothold in so much of the contemporary church? Then one realizes that it is ultimately the result of one of the twentieth century’s greatest ironies: that a church culture whose rhetoric railed against a world shaped by modernism and historicism had itself been so thoroughly permeated by the basic tenets of this worldview that it was the only way they could read their Bibles. The idea that God could inspire apocalyptic, or that God could inspire the telling of a story whose truth did not lie in whether it actually happened or not, sent chills of horror up and down the spines of people whose mindsets were fundamentalist, but who preferred to be known as evangelical.

The further irony of this worldview, the worldview that not only created Left Behind—and was bought into to the tune of billions of dollars—is that when it came to the Apocalypse itself, John’s marvelous revelation that concludes our biblical canon, they could only make it work by abandoning their so-called literalism. The scheme that was brought to the reading of the book was the Darbyism that gained its foothold in North America through the Bible Conference movement and the Scofield Bible at the beginning of the last century.

This scheme insisted that all Scripture must be read literally, which of course they did not really mean. After all, the absolute central feature of the scheme was a doctrine called the rapture of the church. Because the Revelation of necessity had to be read through dispensational lenses, then the Rapture, it was assumed, must be embedded in the Revelation. So sure enough, in 4:1, John’s being told to “come up here,” where he is to see his marvelous visions of God and the Lamb, was not to be taken literally as having to do with John. John, we were told, is now representative of the church; and this is where the Rapture takes place in the book. What happens to the church in chapter 10, one wonders, when John again appears on earth?

At the end of the day, that kind of reading, which has no appreciation for the genre of biblical texts, turns out to be more apocalyptic than the Apocalypse itself. Thus, my primary concern in this lecture is to urge you to recapture this great book for the sake of the contemporary church. Here, indeed, is a biblical book that is not only worth recovering for today’s church, it is absolutely crucial that it be heard the same way in our day as the Word of God that it was for the churches of western Asia Minor at the end of the first Christian century. Here is a truly prophetic word, spoken with power and insight into a world dominated by a secular power that would soon be hell-bent on wiping out all resistance to the Empire and to the policies of emperors, whose greed and power were raping the world of its natural resource treasures for the sake of the few filthy rich who ruled the world from Rome.

I have set for myself a twofold task this evening: First, I would hope to whet your appetite, indeed  to  create  in  you  a  longing  to  preach  and  teach  from John’s Revelation for the sake of today’s church; and second, I hope to offer some very practical helps as to how you might set yourselves on such a path. Before I do that, I need to say a few words about what we are about in this conference: Preaching Apocalyptic Texts. Our difficulty is not with the noun, apocalypse—the technical term that refers specifically to the Revelation. This is what John himself calls his book. Our problem lies with the adjective apocalyptic. Here is an “accordion” word, if ever there was one, having to do with how much air one can pump into or out of a word to give it meaning. When it has all the air pumped into it, apocalyptic refers to something about to happen that is foreboding and huge and disastrous. When some of the air is pumped out of it, it comes closer to its original meaning, having to do more specifically with the unveiling (the word’s actual meaning) of the future, and especially with the return of Christ.

When all the air is pumped out of it, apocalyptic has taken on its technical, but derived, sense of referring to a kind of literature represented in our Christian Scriptures by Daniel (especially chapters 7-11) and the book of Revelation. Thus, when we refer to apocalyptic texts we primarily mean these two biblical books, plus parts of other passages that belong to the second meaning of this word. Now to the Revelation itself.

At the outset, let me encourage you to buy three books.

  • The first is Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1993), which is the absolutely best book on the Revelation that has ever been written. Written by one who has unusual expertise in apocalyptic, he has captured the essence of the theology of this book in seven brief chapters. This is a book that should set your heart on fire to take this great biblical book and make it known to your congregations. When I teach the Revelation, it is the one book that I require everyone to read and write a review of within the first three weeks of term. I want them to be on the same page with me, so that we can get on with hearing God’s Word in this great book without getting bogged down in the apocalyptic details.

The other two books are two of the most recent, and easily the best, commentaries on the Revelation, in terms of their usefulness for pastors.

  • Pride of place right now goes to Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). Here is a readable, sane interpretation of the text that every pastor should own.
  • For “keeners,” who want more detail, and especially want to know how the Revelation works in relationship to the rest of the biblical revelation, you will find an enormous amount of good help in: Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International   Greek New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
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Aaron Blumer's picture


...rant by someone who doesn't understand what he's criticizing. (And doesn't seem to be trying very hard)

Not that the whole LB thing had everything straight. The truth is that even boring everyday communication between ordinary human beings has to be interpreted in a "selectively literal" way. We use idioms, figures of speech, metaphors, etc. When we run into ideas that are difficult to communicate or try to describe things we've never seen before, we get creative. 

This is all a normal part of language.

The real points of contention when it comes to apocolyptic, and Revelation in particular, have to do with what the rules are for taking something literally vs. taking something figuratively. Those of us who are persuaded that Revelation was intended to tell us more than "God wins," are going to lean toward taking more literally a whole lot of what John went to the trouble to pen.

T Howard's picture

Several years ago, I attended a Simeon Trust workshop on Biblical exposition regarding apocalyptic literature. David Helm was the main presenter. Most of the guys in the room were antagonistic toward dispensationalism and held to amil eschatology. I think there were a couple guys who held to historic premil.

Regardless, part of the workshop is to take various passages (in this case, from either Daniel or Revelation) and exposit them in small groups. My assigned passage was Revelation 8:6-13, and we went around our small group describing how we would outline and exposit this passage to our congregation. During our discussion, I spoke to the destruction mentioned (specifically mentioning the repeated emphasis on 1/3 part). David Helm "corrected" me and told the group that in apocalyptic literature we should rarely (if ever) interpret words -- and specifically, numbers -- literally, and that the various things described in this passage (i.e. sea becoming blood, ships destroyed, waters made bitter, etc.) are just different metaphors John used to describe God's coming judgment.


The irony, though, was when at the end of the workshop week, the host pastor (a Presbyterian) preached on Revelation 21:9-27. During his sermon, he insisted that everything in this passage should be understood in a literal way: the measurements, the descriptions of the walls, number of gates, etc. So, after his sermon, I went up to him and asked, "During this entire workshop week, we've been told that we can't take apocalyptic literature literally. Numbers shouldn't be taken literally. Descriptions of events taking place are figurative or metaphors, etc. So, why is it that you believe we should understand Revelation 21:9-27 any differently and interpret it in a literal way?"


Then, after a few seconds he said, "I take it literally because I believe it fulfills the garden motif found throughout Scripture beginning in Genesis 1. The New Jerusalem is the new and better Garden of Eden."

I just smiled and thanked him for hosting the workshop.

J. Baillet's picture

I offer the following as food for thought:

John F. Walvoord, in the Introduction to his section on the Book of Revelation in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, observes: “Like the Old Testament Books of Daniel and Ezekiel, Revelation uses symbolic and apocalyptic forms of revelation extensively.” Id., at p. 926 (boldface added). Among the types of figurative language employed by the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation is the use of numbers symbolically. Sixes and sevens figure prominently. According to Revelation 13:18, “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” Walvoord explains,

Countless attempts have been made to interpret the number 666, … Probably the best interpretation is that the number six is one less than the perfect number seven, and the threefold repetition of the six would indicate that for all their pretentions to deity, Satan and the two beasts were just creatures and not the Creator. That six is man’s number is illustrated in many instances in the Bible, including the fact that man should work six days and rest the seventh. … Probably the safest conclusion is that of Thomas F. Torrance, “This evil trinity 666 apes the Holy Trinity 777, but always falls short and fails”.

Id., at p. 963 (boldface in original). Therefore, when the reader encounters the number seven in the Book of Revelation, he should be thinking “divine perfection” unless the context clearly indicates otherwise. For example, “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” in Revelation 1:4 (and in 4:5) are not literally seven spirits but the one Holy Spirit of God. “John also saw seven lamps which were blazing. These seven lamps were said to be the seven spirits of God. These should be understood to represent the Holy Spirit rather than seven individual spirits or angels, with the concept of the sevenfold character of the Spirit.” Walvoord, at p. 943 (boldface in original). Moreover, there are seven churches, seven lampstands, seven stars, seven seals, seven horns, seven eyes, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven thousand people, seven heads, seven diadems, seven angels, seven plagues, seven bowls, seven mountains, seven kings, seven years, etc.

One is the one true God. Three is the Trinity. Six is man’s number. Seven is divine perfection. Likewise, the number twenty-four has figurative import. Revelation 4:4 describes the throne room of God. “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.” According to Walvoord, “There has been much speculation on the identity of the elders. The two major views are (1) that they represent the church raptured prior to this time and rewarded in heaven, or (2) that they are angels who have been given large responsibilities. The number 24 is the number of representation, illustrated in the fact that in the Law of Moses there were 24 orders of the priesthood.” Id., at p. 943.

Walvoord recognizes the significant use of the number twelve but does not seem to fully recognize its symbolic usage. In Revelation 21,

John saw a gigantic city, ‘square’ in shape (v. 16), and surrounded by a great, high wall with 12 gates. The 12 gates bore the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The number 12 is prominent in the city with 12 gates and 12 angels (v. 12), 12 tribes of Israel (v. 12), 12 foundations (v. 14), 12 apostles (v. 14), 12 pearls (v. 21), 12 kinds of fruit (22:2), with the wall 144 cubits—12 times 12 (21:17), and the height, width, and length, 12,000 stadia, about 1,400 miles (v. 16).

Walvoord, at p. 986 (boldface in original). He does appear to appreciate that 12 being squared is of more significance than merely a literal recounting of the dimensions. I would suggest twelve (the number of the people of God) as well as other numbers such as four and ten have symbolic meanings in the Book of Revelation.

Setting numbers aside for a moment, Walvoord recognizes many symbols such as golden lampstands, stars, a two-edged sword, living creatures, the Lion, the Lamb, the white horse, the red horse, the black horse, the pale horse, the dragon, the woman, the sun, the moon, the crown of twelve stars, the beast with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on the horns, the prostitute of Babylon, etc., which are to be taken figuratively and not literally.


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