As an example of how problematic a literal interpretation may be, consider the fifth bowl plague:
Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl
on the throne of the beast,
and his kingdom became darkened;
and they gnawed their tongues because of pain,
and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains
… and they did not repent of their deeds. (Rev 16:10-11)
A literal interpretation could be that a literal chemical is poured out on a literal throne resulting in literal darkness in a literal kingdom. However:
The beast receives its throne from the dragon (Rev 13:2), which is interpreted as the Roman Empire. It is therefore not a literal throne, but a symbol of authority. Another article interprets the throne of the beast as religious authority.)
The kingdom must similarly be symbolic because ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD worship it (Rev 13:3-4, 8). In other words, the Beast’s kingdom is worldwide.
One criticism often levied against symbolic interpretations is that there are so many different symbolic interpretations that most (all?) of them must be wrong. MOST symbolic interpretations are indeed wrong, but then a literal interpretation is ALWAYS wrong.
Some people assume that, in Revelation, something is literal unless it cannot be literal. This is a false hermeneutic, for there are just too many things in Revelation that must be symbolic. To mention a few examples of things coming OUT OF MOUTHS:
Fire and smoke and brimstone coming out of the mouths of 200 million horses (Rev 9:18);
Fire flowing from the mouths of God’s witnesses (Rev 11:5);
A flood of water pouring out of the mouth of the Dragon (Rev 12:15);
Frogs coming out of the mouths of the Dragon, Beast and False prophets (Rev 16:13); and
A sword coming out of the mouth of Him who sits on a white horse (Rev 19:15).
In a book where symbols are just everywhere, it is not valid to assume something is literal unless it cannot be literal. The context must be allowed to determine whether something is literal or symbolic, without the interpreter trying to apply some preconceived rule.
Another criticism against symbolic interpretations is that such interpretations are only limited by the interpreter’s imagination. This is not a fair criticism. It is agreed that purely creative interpretations cannot be correct. Symbolic interpretations must be based on a detailed comparison of Scripture with Scripture, allowing Scripture to interpret itself. This does not guarantee a correct interpretation, often because interpreters come to the text with incorrect a priori assumptions.
A criticism against literal interpretations is that it does not ask what something means. It therefore often fails to grasp the real meaning and therefore fails to benefit from the message in the text.
For example, a literal interpretation does not ask what the throne of the Beast is, and therefore often explains the end-time conflict as military in nature, which is inconsistent with the general message of the Bible. The war on earth is a continuation of the war in heaven (Rev 12:7). It revolves around much bigger issues than simply who is physically the strongest. Jesus overcame by being a lamb (Rev 5:6). He asked: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53)
The war in heaven is a war of words: “the accuser of our brethren … he who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10).
Similarly, the war we are involved in is not physical in nature; it a war between good and evil. Jon Paulien talks about a surface current – the military language of the book – and an undercurrent. We need to look past the surface current to understand the true nature of this conflict. God has all power in the universe, but He was not able to open the book (Rev 5:3). For a discussion of the true nature of this was, see:
Why Jesus had to die
OR Explaining Christ’s death to a Muslim
OR Why Satan thought he could win
MOST symbolic interpretations are wrong, but a consistently literal interpretation is ALWAYS wrong.
The assumption that, in Revelation, something is literal unless it cannot be literal is a false hermeneutic.