Are the Images in Revelation Literal or Symbolic?


QUESTION: In the book of Revelations it describes the throne of God and in detail about the 4 beasts and all that other stuff. Is that a literal vision of the throne or is it possible that it’s different and that that was just an example of authority that God has over creation?

RESPONSE: In apocalyptic literature (such as Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation) the message is explicitly being communicated through dreams and visions, which are by nature highly symbolic.  So the short answer to your question is yes they are symbolic.  This is obviously so, for in many cases the prophet himself knows that he is seeing only symbols of coming realities, not the realities themselves and he is perplexed by them.  Daniel for example doesn’t understand the ACTUAL meaning of his vision about 4 beasts in Dan 7:15-18.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. “So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth.’

Dan 7:15-18

So here we have it… the beasts are not ACTUALLY, literal beasts.  They are symbols of nations/kingdoms that are to come.  Therefore, when John sees similar beasts in his Apocalypse, of course we are to understand that God is not predicting the coming of ACTUAL beasts to terrify the earth.

The LaHaye “Left Behind” books leaned toward a literal understanding of almost every vision in Revelation which to me based on verses in Daniel alone is very misguided.  For example, when rendering Revelation 9:17-19 which talks about mysterious horses which have lion’s heads and emit smoke and sulfur… LaHaye imagines actual, demonic horses roaming the earth killing people.  Why would these beasts be literal, and the beasts of Daniel and earlier in Revelation be symbolic?  That doesn’t make sense.

One more example.

“This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king.

Rev 17:9-11

So again, here the author who is bringing the prophetic vision explicitly tells us that he is talking in SYMBOLS.  Sometimes, the symbols may mean more than one thing and he tells us what they are – the beast is a King.  The seven heads are kings.  They are also seven hills – which is certainly a symbolic reference to Rome, known to John’s audience and world history as “the city built on seven hills”.  The woman then, is some kind of false religion or system that calls for the allegiance of the nations and she sits in Rome.

This is not to make the interpretation of Revelation to sound like an easy thing.  It’s not.  But your basic instinct is dead on:  these are symbols and codes – non-literal representations of historical realities that are present or coming.

The visions of the heavenly court are likewise probably symbolic descriptions of real things.  There are really angels that worship God day and night.  The description of these beings in the heavenly court are meant to capture some aspect of them, like their power, submission, transcendence, sight, truth, love, wonder, spiritual nature etc.

Now, I am less certain that John’s descriptions of the heavenly court are purely symbolic, because there he has been explicitly caught up to heaven, in another dimension of space and time entirely, whereas the other parts of Revelation deal with history, nations and life in our dimension.  Like with Ezekiel’s wheels, John may be describing the scene as he actually saw it playing out literally in heaven, but his words are still filled with similes and metaphors because he’s struggling to find words to describe the immense, unutterable glory of God.