Should we read Revelation literally or figuratively?

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether one should read the Revelation literally, or figuratively. The problem is the of “literal.” Many Christians tell me they take Revelation literally, but then make comments like: “The whore of Babylon is the Catholic Church.” Now, stop for a moment, that is a figurative understanding of the text. Nowhere is it said that the “whore of Babylon” is anything particular; the reader is left to interpret. And when the reader engages in interpretation, he has begun to read the text figuratively. This is not to say that figurative and literal elements do not exist in the same text, but one will find quickly that certain texts, such as the Revelation, are replete with figures and symbols, which can only be understood in the figurative sense.

One might accept that the Revelation is literally true, but that its elements are to be understood figuratively. That is not to propose a compromise, but rather to suggest a framework. Each text must be understood as it is given. Thus, a parable is given to teach a moral, not to relate historical facts (though the parables are no doubt drawn from life). A narrative, such as a gospel, is given to relate the things “the things that have been accomplished” (Lk. 1:1), historical facts. A prophecy, well, that is a matter for interpretation (cf. 2 Pet. 1:19-21).

None of this is to suggest I have the key to understanding the Revelation, but it is to propose, as I have said before, a framework for interpreting it. First, we must comprehend its purpose, then its meaning, then we will understand.

Originally published at

© 2009, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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