Literal and Nonliteral Language

The book of Revelation informs the reader from the start that it communicates visually and symbolically

Must prophecy be interpreted only or primarily in the most “literal” fashion possible unless a passage specifically indicates otherwise? Often in our minds, there is an unstated assumption that literal language is more reliable than nonliteral language, an assumption that becomes especially problematic when interpreting Revelation.

Any insistence on only strictly “literal” readings of prophetic passages reflects ignorance of how human languages work. “Literal” and “nonliteral” represent different kinds of language.


A statement may be strictly literal and invalid, just as another may be metaphorical and true. “It is raining cats and dogs” is a literal statement, but, “literally” speaking, it is obviously false. Cats and dogs do not fly or fall from the sky, and the statement is a figure of speech used to portray heavy rainfall.

The Apostle Paul called the church the “body of Christ,” a nonliteral statement. Christians do not become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus upon conversion. Because the statement is metaphorical, are we to assume it is invalid or less reliable than more literal descriptions of the church?

In the gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true “Temple” and “Tabernacle” where the divine presence dwells, yet he is not made of stones or goatskins.

Revelation provides interpretations for many of its symbols, explanations that demonstrate the symbols are not “literal” or things with any real physical existence.

The opening vision presents an image of seven “golden lampstands.” The text informs us that the image represents “seven churches.” This is symbolic language and interpretation. John saw “stars” on the right hand of Christ. The stars represent “angels” or “messengers.”

In chapter 5, the “lamb” has “seven eyes,” which the text interprets as the eyes as the “seven spirits of God.” The “seven heads of the beast” on which Babylon sits represent “seven mountains,” and in turn, seven “kings” - (Revelation 1:20, 5:6, 17:8-10).


In Revelation, many images cannot be interpreted “literally” without producing bizarre and ridiculous results. God is the One “Who Sits on the Throne” holding a “sealed scroll” in his right hand. How does a being that is Spirit and fills heaven and earth have a “right hand” or a backside with which to sit on the throne?

Jesus is the “slain lamb” with “seven horns and seven eyes,” and the “lion of the tribe of Judah.” Is he a literal lion, a lamb, or both? Does he have seven “literal” eyes and seven horns protruding from his head?

When the fifth trumpet sounded, a “star” fell to the earth that was given a “key.” Would not the earth be destroyed outright if an actual star collided with it? Or more correctly, would not the earth be drawn into the star by its superior gravitational pull?

Even if what John saw was a meteorite or asteroid rather than a star, how does one give a “key” to a rock that falls to the earth from outer space?

Is Satan an actual and rather large “red dragon” with heads and horns? Does his tail “literally” draw a “third of the stars” to the earth, and if so, how does the earth survive such a cosmic collision?

And if the Devil is a spiritual being, how does one attach a metal “chain” to his ankle to imprison him for a thousand years?

The book is an unveiling by Jesus Christ to signify “what things must soon come to pass.” This is accomplished by means of visions in which John sees and hears things that represent specific realities.

The symbols point to those very real things and persons but are not themselves real. Satan is very real, but there is no giant “red dragon” with multiple heads and horns hovering in the sky above the planet earth.

Thus, Revelation informs the reader by direct statements and examples that it communicates symbolically. That does NOT mean John’s visions are allegorical, but to understand the messages of his visions we must first determine exactly what each symbol represents.


Second Trumpet

Redemption of the Nations