In my class on the book of Revelation at the Dispensational Bible college I attended, I was taught that if you did not read Revelation "literally" then you had a liberal view of the Bible. Only the literal reading of Revelation maintains the evangelical doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. I was also taught that reading Revelation symbolically was to read it allegorically.
You can find this perspective represented in the work of Robert L. Thomas. Thomas has argued that reading Revelation primarily as apocalyptic renders one guilty of utilizing a non-literal approach. For Thomas, this non-literal approach is not biblical and leads people to subjective interpretations instead of the true meaning of the text.
For instance, he argues that the apocalyptic genre is not a biblical genre, but has come about because of scholars utilizing extrabiblical literature. Scholars are forcing an extrabiblical model onto the scripture of Revelation. And what is worse, is that according to Thomas, is that this approach is like the contextualizaton interpretive approach of the liberals of the World Council of Churches. For Thomas, reading Revelation as apocalytpic leads you into a subjective reading of Revelation, substituting personal preferences for the one correct interpretation, which is a careless regard to the book's meaning and is an abuse of the text, and is not evangelical-- "Allowing this liberty for subjective opinion cannot satisfy the criteria of a grammatical-historical system of hermeneutics such as characterized an evangelical Christian understanding of Scripture" (emphasis mine).
Thomas argues instead for a literal approach to reading Revelation according "normal principles of grammar and facts of history." This literal approach says that the default reading of Revelation and its symbols and visions is to be literal unless otherwise indicated by the text. Check first to see if the symbol or vision can respond to a normal, physical reality, if not, then it is figurative and concerned with the future. In other words, you are to interpret literally until you are forced conceptually to interpret figuratively/symbollically. He concludes that Revelation should be read like the rest of the Bible--it should be read as a prophecy and treated like all other prophecies. For Thomas, if you read it apocalyptically, then you are not reading it literally, but allegorically.
So are these charges true? Does reading Revelation apocalyptically mean that you are not reading it literally? Does it mean that your approach is dependent on extrabiblical literature (coming from outside the Bible)? Does it mean that you are engaging in liberal theology? Is Thomas right?
When we look at the opening verses of Revelation 1, we find at the very beginning an allusion to Daniel 2. In fact what we find is that the opening of Revelation is structured in accordance with Daniel 2. In Daniel 2 we find the narrative of where King Nebuchadnezzar is troubled by a dream that he does not understand. He calls in his magicians, enchanters and sorcerers to have them interpret his dream for him. When they arrive, they are surprised to hear that Nebuchadnezzar is not going to tell them the dream so they can interpret it; they have to tell him the dream and then interpret it.
They are unable to do so, so Nebuchadnezzar issues a decree for all the wise men to be killed. In steps Daniel. He approaches the king and arranges a time to tell the king his dream and its interpretation. Daniel then prays to God and God makes known to Daniel the dream and its meaning—through a vision. In 2.18-19, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which is the thing that needs to be made known, is called a “mystery.” Daniel then praises God in for “revealing” this mystery to him and “making it known.” In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Greek words behind “reveal” and “make known” are the same words used in the Greek NT in Revelation 1.1 for “revelation” and “made known.” Later in 1.20, the vision of Christ and the seven stars and seven lampstands is called a “mystery,” and the Greek word for mystery is the same as used in the Septuagint in Daniel 2 for the “mystery” of the king’s dream. Daniel, then, is sent by God as his servant to reveal and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
Next, we find that the content of the vision concerns a large statue that consists of four parts. The head is fine gold, the chest and arms are silver, the middle and thighs are bronze, its legs were iron with its feet a mixture of iron and clay. This large statue is then shattered and destroyed by a rock that then grows into a great mountain that fills the earth. Daniel informs Nebuchadnezzar that the dream is God’s means of revealing the future of human history. The four parts represent different human kingdoms. After these four kingdoms, there will be a final kingdom that is established by God, God’s kingdom, which will be eternal and victorious and will bring an end to human kingdoms. God is letting the king know what will come after his kingdom, which consists of the coming eternal victorious kingdom of the one true God, which will bring human history to its close.
Now, obviously, this communication is prophetic—God is revealing what is going to come to pass. But how does he reveal this prophesy? How was this prophecy understood? God revealed his plans for history through a vision, which could only be understood symbolically. If Daniel had interpreted the vision “literally” he would have gotten it wrong. The statue, the rock, the mountain, these were all symbols being used by God, and only when understood as God intended could it be rightly interpreted. The “mystery” of God’s plan for history, which will reach its goal with the establishment of God’s victorious and eternal kingdom, was “revealed” symbolically and “made known” symbolically through a mediator sent by him.
We see this same structure once again in Revelation 1. As was mentioned above, all of these same key words are found in Revelation 1—but more importantly than just the presence of the words is the form in which those words are found. God once again is portrayed as the revealer of human history that will conclude with the consummation of his eternal and victorious kingdom. This revelation once again comes by way of a mediator sent to “reveal” it and “make it known.” And the mode of revelation is a vision that consists of highly symbolic imagery. Dare we say that God has purposely repeated himself here on purpose, or is this mere coincidence? Are we to interpret Revelation as the vision in Daniel 2, since they have been communicated the same way, or are we to do something different? If we read Daniel’s vision according to Thomas’ hermeneutic, do we run that risk again?
John’s allusion to Daniel 2 suggests that Revelation 1 should be read not just as a prophecy—but an apocalyptic prophesy and therefore the apocalyptic/symbolic methodology is the proper method for reading Revelation. Greg Beale suggests that in this allusion between Daniel 2 and Revelation 1, what we find is that Daniel 2 is programmatic for Revelation. Thomas’ idea that Revelation should be read literally unless forced to read it symbolically, is then on the one hand wrong, while at the other hand he is right and just doesn’t realize it.
With Revelation being an apocalyptic prophesy, it should be read primarily symbolically unless forced to read it literally. The irony here, however, is that we come to this conclusion by reading Revelation 1 literally! It is the literal reading of Revelation 1 that helps us to see the allusion to Daniel 2 and hence, the fact that it is apocalyptic literature that should be understood symbolically. This is how God has designed it and intended it to be read and understood. The true meaning of a literal hermeneutic is to allow the original intent of the author establish the meaning of the text, and God (the author) communicates to us that it is to be read symbolically.
The literal reading of Revelation necessitates a symbolic reading.
Well, it is interesting to me that Thomas states that if the book could be shown to be apocalyptic, then maybe it should be read in a way different from his way. The irony is that it is when one utilizes his hermeneutic, that the apocalyptic nature of Revelation is established. Reading Revelation symbolically is not the product of liberal scholarship, it is not the product of utilizing extrabiblical material, it is not allegorical and it does not lead to an abuse of the text--it is God's intended method for reading his intended message.