Chapter 2 - Do You Really Think Revelation Is Literal?

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The Revelation is called the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, as is understood from the Greek word used in this writing. The Greek word apokalupsis is translated as “revelation” and literally means unveiling. This book is one that has had thousands of men and women try to correctly interpret the highly symbolic signs and symbols over the centuries. What an amazing piece of literature it is. This little document has had the power to change history, it has altered the path of readers for centuries, and the book of Revelation has done more to advance the belief in Satan than any single book of the Bible. But is there a way to figure this out? How is it possible that for all the apocalyptic Satan references in this book, that Satan is not real? In this book, we find Satan to be very active. The text points to the Dark Lord in several ways. We find in the pages of this epic manifesto a Beast, a Dragon, a false Prophet, a serpent, and this character is sometime depicted as a multi-headed monster. What does this Satan really look like then if all these images are literal depictions?

For many in Christendom, there is no other way to hear the words of Revelation outside of the belief that there is a super-powerful and horrifically intense satanic entity striving to destroy all mankind and even, if it were possible, inflict damage on the Almighty God. Yet….when all things are considered, can we find this Satan character in Revelation? Or is there another possible understanding that upholds the value of the Bible and allows this apocalyptic literature to be recast as a serious composition that pushes back on the Roman Empire? An insightful and exposing epistle that advances the believer’s plight to become insulated from impending perils. Perils that have a far less supernatural import and a far greater connection to the reality that was apparent to the hearers of John’s Apocalypse. The Ontario Consultants on religious Tolerance have an informed perspective on the Book of Revelation.

The Book of Revelation appears to be ambiguous, and open to many interpretations….

Unfortunately, as in so many other important Christian beliefs there is no way to harmonize the diversity of Christian belief. Even within the evangelical wing of Christianity there are many conflicting opinions about fundamental beliefs. Some suggest that believers can pray to God to seek the correct interpretation from among the beliefs that have been suggested. Unfortunately, a pilot study that we performed appears to show that a person cannot assess the will of God through prayer.

Some interpretations of Revelation have led writers to prophesy catastrophic events in their own future. Fortunately none of their predictions have ever come true. We will have to wait to see [in] if the prophecies about our future will materialize -- … But with a 100% failure rate to date, it is difficult to place much confidence about prophecies of events in our future.[1]

What Is The Apocalypse Of John…Really?

As far as literature goes, the book of Revelation is of the genre called Apocalyptic Writing. Therefore, the only way to understand the Book of Revelation is to consider the mindset, the symbols, the language, and apocalyptic references the writer would have used. What could John have been thinking when He wrote these things and were his thoughts the same as many of the thoughts Christendom has applied to the revelation?<'p>

Apocalyptic writing became popular in the last centuries of the BCE period and continued into the first couple of centuries of the CE period. Apocalyptic writing was never intended to be taken literally but it plays a huge role in showing today’s reader how much the apocalyptic mindset steered the language and thinking of the period. Due to the highly interpretive nature of apocalyptic literature, disputes over the varied symbols in The Revelation do not occur very often. There is such a broad body of interpretive works that most scholars avoid refuting the claims of another interpreter and they typically just advance their own understanding. Pretty much anyone can throw their hat in the ring in an attempt to explain the obscure ideas and expressions that have come through to us in written form from the writer who is said to be John the Revelator.

Even understanding that title, John the Revelator, for the author, will aid us in our pursuits. No doubt, John was a Hebrew man, and to call him John the Revelator in English could be stated as Yochan the unveiler when one looks through a Hebrew lens. Oddly enough, it seems there is little actual mystery in the unveiling when one tunes in to what exactly John meant by his symbolic and coded language. A single, concise, and comprehensive view of John’s writings is hard to come by and as I mentioned above, there is no shortage of differing interpretations for this misunderstood revelator. And the diverse interpretations are not without their own baggage as they are embraced by readers.

When Two Witnesses Become Two Lunatics

One example of the impact of the misunderstanding of meanings of concepts from Revelation is seen in the 15th century trial and sentencing of one Lodowic Muggleton. According to Blount’s 1691 Law Dictionary, Muggleton was believed to be a heretic and is described as the leader of a blasphemous sect. Muggleton was sentenced to stand in the pillory and his counterpart, John Reeve, died unpunished.

The pillory was a device made of wood and resembled the “stocks.” The head and arms of the person were placed through holes in the device and they were then subject to public derision and harassment, which was often physical and intended to cause pain and discomfort. But it was not intended to take the life of the victim of the pillory. Wikipedia explains the pillory further;

Rather like the lesser punishment called the stocks, the pillory consisted of hinged wooden boards that formed holes through which the head and/or various limbs were inserted; then the boards were locked together to secure the captive. Pillories were set up in marketplaces and crossroads to hold petty criminals. Often a placard detailing the crime was placed nearby; these punishments generally lasted only a few hours.

Time in the pillory was more dangerous than in the stocks, as the pillory forced the malfeasant to remain standing and exposed.[2]

Muggleton and Reeve did many interesting things and made numerous outlandish statements of which some could be said to be true. On the other hand, many of the Muggleton claims could be said to be flamboyantly heretical. Their errors however don’t alter the fact that anyone who is vigilant to apply the writings of the “New Testament” to their life will undoubtedly testify to some truth. Just as the Messiah hating Pharisees were able to preach correctly that there is One God but were still called a brood of vipers by the Messiah for their hatred and heresy, so too did Lodowic Muggleton understand certain things correctly. One such true statement that came from Muggleton was regarding what it is that tempts man. In agreement with Yeshua and Paul Muggleton said;

“There is no other Satan to tempt God or man but the motions and words that proceed from the seed of reason in man and woman.”

Muggleton and Reeve had made many profound conclusions and in so doing, they went along a path that led them into great error, all the while trying to prepare their followers for the Second Coming of the Messiah. You see, Muggleton and Reeve felt compelled to understand and apply the words of the Revelation in quite a literal sense. They came to the point in their ministry where they read the words of Revelation 11:3, and believed it to be referring to themselves. If you are unfamiliar with the statement about the two witnesses in Revelation, you may find it helpful to apprise yourself below.

“I will give power to my two witness and they shall prophesy one thousand, two hundred and sixty days clothed in sackcloth.” Revelations 11:3

Applying this verse to their own lives and interpreting the Revelation through their own theological ideas, these men declared themselves to be the Two Witnesses of Revelation. They were convinced that they were the last Two Witnesses of Jesus, to be upon the Earth and that they had absolute power to save and to damn anyone they pleased. I am not sure how they decided to play the good cop bad cop routine, but it was decided that one of them would call himself the ‘blessing prophet’ and the other would call himself “the cursing prophet.”

Were These Guys The Two Witnesses?

Obviously neither of these men were the last two witnesses to walk the earth and the world is still waiting for the return of the Messiah. Which was to Muggleton and Reeve, on the brink of occurring when they were living. Sadly, these two men and their followers are just one example of what often happens when 2000-year-old writings that were written in a particular cultural context, are drastically misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied.

Therein lies much of the dilemma we face when we encounter apocalyptic literature. One understanding can be dramatically different from another, which can be completely different from yet a third; and all of the understandings may be completely wrong. This is a self-perpetuating error because, as I said, we are thousands of years from the time of their writing. And few have toiled to address these writings from their cultural and historical context all the while remaining inside of their bias. A bias that affixes a literal Satan to virtually every biblical passage that uses the word satanas.

The very style of apocalyptic writing, lends itself to multiple possibilities for understanding the signs and symbols used. The hugely diverse understanding for this vision in Revelation allows most scholars the freedom to explore the opinion of another without accepting that another scholar’s interpretation might have equal merit to their own. The exploration then of various interpretations becomes wholly unthreatening to the views of a scholar convinced by his own understanding. I have not read of many abject denunciations of one particular interpretation or another for the book of Revelation, as not many have elevated themselves to be the final interpreter for such a symbolic book. And when it comes to symbolism, I have mentioned the use of symbolism in biblical literature throughout this book series. We find the Revelation is yet more potent with instances of symbolism. I will therefore discuss with you today how symbolism was likely the intention of the writer when he penned these letters and distributed them to the communities in Asia. The symbolical intentions will become apparent as we look at various passages that pertain to our discussion.

It truly is nice to see a general attitude of tolerance for other opinions regarding this letter. Conversely, we may think to count ourselves as having suffered a loss in having such an absence of strong opinion on the correct interpretation of this letter. This letter is said to be written in the latter half of the first century by John the Apostle when he was exiled to the island of Patmos in Asia. We need not enter the debate of who is the author or when precisely was the time of writing, as it is of little value to our present discussion regarding the non-existence of a literal “Satan.” John was however, expressing through the medium of the written word what his visions consisted of and he was obedient to the character that appeared in his vision. A messenger of sorts who directed John to write down the things he was shown. Shortly, we will discuss who that messenger might have been.

Apocalyptic literature was widely known to John and to his audience. There were many apocalyptic writings circulating in the first century CE, about the time this letter was penned. This type of literature captivated imaginations, inspired people of many faiths to remain firm in their faith, and spawned numerous religious movements that based themselves on their understanding of the writings. Apocalyptic writing also proved to confuse many. All the while acting as a form of coded message to the faithful whom it was written to. The Illumina Bible describes Apocalyptic literature in this way;

A type of Jewish literature that uses symbolic imagery to communicate hope (in the ultimate triumph of God) to those in the midst of persecution.

This style of writing cannot be properly understood without having some understanding of the ideas and terminology that is commonly used in apocalyptic literature. Revelation is known to be the ultimate “Book” of signs and symbols. There are said to be over 400 allusions to elements, concepts, and characters from the Hebrew Scriptures in the 404 verses contained in The Revelation. Scholars have recognized its connection to the Song of Songs. There is an irrefutable theological and thematic integration between the Revelation and the Song of Songs. The bulk of the symbology found in the Revelation comes from the Book of Daniel. In fact, it is so full of Danielian speech, that one might almost accuse the writer of plagiarism. Vincent Word Studies elaborates on the intensely symbolic nature of this letter;

The style is figurative and symbolical. It deals with principles rather than with particular events. To the neglect of this characteristic, and the corresponding attempt to link the symbols and prophecies with specific historical incidents or personages, are due most of the extravagances of interpretation…. [3]

The symbolism of Revelation is Jewish, and not Greek or Roman. It is pervaded with the style and imagery of the Old Testament, and is molded by its historical and prophetical books. “The book,” says Professor Milligan, “is absolutely steeped in the memories, the incidents, the thoughts, and the language of the Church's past. To such an extent is this the case that it may be doubted whether it contains a single figure not drawn from the Old Testament, or a single complete sentence not more or less built up of materials brought from the same source.... It is a perfect mosaic of passages from the Old Testament, at one time quoted verbally, at another referred to by distinct allusion; now taken from one scene in Jewish history, and now again from two or three together[4] emphasis added

How Did A First Century Citizen Understand John’s Unveiling?

My question then is this. How can a document, known to be so symbolic, and not considered Scripture by the Apostles or the writer or the Messiah, be interpreted so often as literally How can readers believe this is all referring to angelic wars and mystical cosmic activities? The poignant question to ask here is; How would a person living in the first century have understood the “signs and symbols” of The Revelation? Would they have automatically interpreted these things as referring to literal characters that possessed supernatural attributes? If you were in the Roman Empire at the time of this letter, would it not be likely that you would have understood the words of John as somewhat coded and veiled terms to refer to the enemy of the believing community? That enemy was the political power.

John had been exiled to the Island of Patmos because of his testimony for Yeshua the Messiah. Allowed certain privileges by his Roman captor, John was eager to write down the visions and inspirations he had seen in his mind’s eye so that he could send the letters of encouragement to the persecuted believers throughout Asia. John’s revelation did not come without the wisdom that was needed to help him articulate it successfully. This wisdom allowed John to avoid having his message intercepted and destroyed by a Roman oppressor who was able to subdue any negative press or opinions. Wouldn’t you want to write an important exposé on your captor by using an undetectable code in order to avoid worsening your punishment? Well, we find that is exactly why John wrote the way he did.


1 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,  Author: B.A. Robinson - - Latest update: 2009-MAY-05


3 Vincent Word Studies, Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.; Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union

4 Vincent Word Studies, Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.; Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union

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