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More on the Symbolism of Revelation

Two questions I often get asked about the book of Revelation (including from readers of the blog) are whether the symbolism is meant to keep Roman authorities from understanding what was in the book in order to protect the author from persecution and whether the events that it describes may be coded references to what will happen in our own future.   Here is what I say about each subject in my textbook discussion on the book.


Apocalypses as Underground Literature?

Some readers of the book of Revelation have taken its mysterious symbols to suggest that it was “underground” literature.  The symbolic language of the book, according to this interpretation, was used to keep the governing authorities from realizing that they themselves were under attack.

There may be an element of truth in this view, but one might wonder whether a Roman administrator was likely to sit down over the weekend to read a good Christian book.  It seems more plausible that the principal function of the symbolism — whether in Revelation or in other apocalypses — lay elsewhere, namely, in the character of the material itself.  For indeed, the heavenly secrets are by their very nature not straightforward or banal or subject to empirical demonstration; their mystery and splendor virtually require them to be conveyed in unearthly and bizarre symbols of the higher realities of heaven.

(In addition I might point out that talking about the “enemy” of Christ as a beast that is a city “seated on seven hills” that rules the nations of the earth – well, it doesn’t take a genius on the history and geography of Rome to figure out who the enemy is….  This is not a mysterious view that would be puzzling to an outsider.)


Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation

One of the most popular ways to interpret the book of Revelation today is to read its symbolic visions as literal descriptions of what is going to transpire in our own day and age.  But there are problems with this kind of approach.  On the one hand,


On the one hand, we should be suspicious of interpretations that are blatantly narcissistic; this way of understanding the book maintains that the entire course of human history has now culminated with us!  An even larger problem, though, is that this approach inevitably has to ignore certain features of the text in order to make its interpretations fit.

Consider, as just one example, an interpretation sometimes given of the “locusts” that emerge from the smoke of the bottomless pit in order to wreak havoc on earth in chapter 9.  The seer describes the appearance of these dread creatures as follows:

On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.  They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people… (Rev 9:7-10).ョLM0ッョTW60ッョIP4ッ

According to one futuristic interpretation (by that great scholar of all things biblical – well, not really, Hal Lindsay), these locusts are modern attack helicopters, flying forth through the smoke of battle.  The seer, living many centuries before the advent of modern warfare, had no way of knowing what these machines really were, and so described them as best he could.  They fly like locusts but are shaped like huge scorpions.  The rotors on top appear like crowns; they seem to have human faces, as their pilots peer through their windshields; they are draped with camouflage that from a distance looks like hair; they have fierce teeth painted on their fronts; they are made of steel and so appear to have iron breastplates; the beating of their rotors sounds like chariots rushing to battle; and they have machine guns attached to their tails, like scorpions’ stingers.

What could be more plausible?  The prophet has glimpsed into the future and seen what he could not understand; we, however, living in the age in which his predictions will come to pass, understand them full well.

The problem is that the interpretation simply doesn’t work, because it overlooks some of the most important details of the passage.  Consider, for example, what these “locusts” are actually said to do.  The text is quite emphatic: they are not allowed to harm any grass or trees, but only people; moreover, and most significantly, they are given the power to torture people for five months, but not to kill them (9:4-5).  Those who are attacked by the locusts will long to die, but will not be able to do so (9:6).

Now it may be that the Pentagon has designed a secret weapon, an attack helicopter that can harm people but not trees or vegetation, and that can inflict pain but not kill.  But it seems somewhat unlikely.  These locusts simply can’t be modern instruments of war designed for mass destruction because they are explicitly said to be unable to destroy anything.

The same problems occur with virtually every interpretation of the book that takes its visions as literal descriptions of events that are to transpire in our own imminent future: these approaches simply cannot account for the details of the text — which is to say that they don’t take the text itself seriously enough.  It is probably much better to interpret the text within its own historical context, not as a literal description of the future of the earth but as a metaphorical statement of the ultimate sovereignty of God over a world that is plagued by evil.


The Afterlife in Revelation
More Symbolism in Revelation: 666, The Number of “The Beast”



  1. Avatar
    erudite  September 30, 2018

    Maybe the author was high on something.

  2. Telling
    Telling  September 30, 2018

    This is slightly off the subject but close enough, I think, to mention.

    In the Jane Roberts/Seth Material I’ve mentioned before (an advanced entity long beyond the grave writing books with Jane’s help), Seth says that some things in the gospels were changed specifically to confuse the Romans in case the texts ended up in their hands. What was changed would throw off the Romans but the Christians would know what was added — what was not true.

    Because Seth says Jesus wasn’t crucified — it was another man mistaken as him — I figured Seth was probably talking about the various phrases where Jesus speaks of “the Son of man” who will be arrested and crucified, and perhaps other phrases relating to the Crucifixion. It would make sense in that the Christians would not want to tip off the Romans that their leader remained alive, yet Jerusalem Christians would understand, knowing the truth with Jesus speaking of this man in third person.

    Seth probably was not talking about Revelation, but since he didn’t reveal the added material it is unknown. Jane died in the mid 1980’s and her husband ran a web site where he could still get answers from Seth until he too died about a decade ago I think. But during their lifetime Jane ran ESP classes in Elmira, NY out of their house and Seth would appear speaking through her and answer student questions. Jane was nervous anytime Seth started speaking about Christianity however, out of fear of the Catholic Church because of course speaking with the “dead” was forbidden, much less challenging biblical passages.

    • Telling
      Telling  October 1, 2018

      Another note of possible interest regarding Seth is he mentions that one of the canonical gospels was a fabrication. He doesn’t identify it specifically but does say it is not Mark or John, which leaves Luke or Matthew as the culprit.

      And a minor correction to above original post: Seth didn’t say the gospels were “changed”, he said some things were “added” (to confuse the Romans).

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  September 30, 2018

    This sounds to me like the description of a Roman legion.

    “On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold” = either the bronze helmets of the soldiers or gold standards (e.g. the aquila) that rose out of the tops of the cohort formation
    “their faces were like human faces” = the actual human faces of the soldiers
    “their hair like women’s hair” = the centurion leading a cohort often had a fanned plume atop his helmet that could look like women’s hair
    “and their teeth like lions’ teeth” = the soldier’s swords (gladii) could look like lions’ teeth; also certain formations, where the front rank held their spears below and the rear ranks held their spear overhead could look like top and bottom rows of teeth; moreover, the guy bearing the legion’s aquila, the aquilifer, usually wore a lion’s head on his head.
    The previous also sounds like a description of a Roman helmet. The rear neck guard fanned out like a woman’s hair and the cheek guards looked like a lion’s fangs.
    “they had scales like iron breastplates” = Roman shields, held in formation (particularly the testudo) looked like rows of scales
    “and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle” = Roman shields often had wings painted on them, and the noise could be the sound of the legionnaires running in formation
    “They have tails like scorpions, with stingers,” = either the rear ranks, who when they held their spears up over their heads looked like scorpion stingers, or the actual scorpion weapons (ballistas) what were often found in the rear of the legion

  4. Avatar
    godspell  September 30, 2018

    Yeah, I put this in the same category as that wheel Ezekiel saw way up in the middle of the air being a flying saucer.

    Or for that matter, the Mayan Calendar predicting the end of the world by having an endpoint. (It’s cyclical).

    I hope everyone realizes this kind of thing would be happening if not one book of the Old or New Testaments had ever been written. An unavoidable part of the human condition.

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  September 30, 2018

    Reading Hal Lindsay as an impressionable teenager played a big role in my becoming discontented with the Anglican Church our family went to and I went down the road of later becoming a very fundamentalist Evangelical in my 20’s only to reject that nonsense in my 30’s. Now in my 50’s I guess I’m some form of atheist. I wish I’d never read Lindsay, at least at such a young impressionable age, and just stayed an Anglican. Life would have been much simpler. Part of me hates Lindsay the man for that.

  6. Avatar
    saavoss  September 30, 2018

    I love reading your blog! Hopefully you will dive deeper into the symbolism, what it really refers too (probably, historically).
    Do any of your books give an in depth analysis of biblical symbolism? I’m very interested.

  7. Avatar
    bensonian  September 30, 2018

    Good point about helicopters and the narcissistic (perhaps ethnocentric) interpretation. Would a historical or local contextual reading of the passage suggest that the concept of Hell (or Lake of Fire) derived from the Greek enculturation left over from the older Alexandrian impact to the region or do you think that the authors concept of Hell was based on something entirely different? If not from Greek influence, where did it come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2018

      Ah, that’s what my book is about! In it, I do argue that in some sense, Hell was Hellenistic.

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  September 30, 2018

    The seven heads are seven caesars. The five that have fallen are Julius to Claudius and the one that now is is Nero. The one who is yet to come and must remain for a little while is a future prediction by John which didnt come true.

    The dragon, seven headed beast and second beast (two horns like a lamb) are the anti-trinity. (God seven-spirit and lamb).

    which rules the first beast after the near fatal wound (fire of rome) leading to Neros persecution of christians.

  9. Avatar
    ask21771  September 30, 2018

    In revelation 18 12 when Citron (or scented in some versions) wood is mentioned is it referring to a specific type of wood?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2018

      The lexicon says it is actually the citron tree.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  October 1, 2018

        Does it say citron in the original greek

        • Bart
          Bart  October 2, 2018

          The word appears to mean citron tree. Or so the lexicon says!

  10. Avatar
    caesar  September 30, 2018

    Still having a hard time understanding what it means for Revelation to be understood symbolically. For example, the locusts that hurt people for 5 months…if there really are demonic locusts that literally hurt people, I understand what that means. If it’s symbolic, I can’t imagine what that could possibly symbolize. Do we just say ‘It means something, but we just have no idea.’?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2018

      It probably doesn’t mean anything specific. It means life will be miserable.

  11. Avatar
    thebigskyguy  October 1, 2018

    Well, I’ve always thought that Revelation was nothing more than the first known combination of pen, papyrus, and peyote.

  12. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 20, 2020

    The whole book is clearly symbolic, and uses symbols throughout the Hebrew bible. The whole story reminds me of “the good old” symbolic spiritual ascend.

    That the book borrow symbols from the Judaistic tradition (like Daniel, but also Isaiah, and Ezekiel) is no surprise at all. Like Carl Jung claimed in one of his books,,,:

    Quote ,,” And the essential thing, psychologically, is that in dreams, fantasies, and other exceptional states of mind the most far-fetched mythological motifs and symbols can appear autochthonously at any time, often, apparently, as the result of particular influences, traditions, and excitations working on the individual, but more often without any sign of them. These “primordial images” or “archetypes,” as I have called them, belong to the basic stock of the unconscious psyche and cannot be explained as personal acquisitions. ”


    “The existence of the collective unconscious means that individual consciousness is anything but a tabula rasa (me:empty from birth) and is not immune to predetermining influences. On the contrary, it is in the highest degree influenced by inherited presuppositions, quite apart from the unavoidable influences exerted upon it by the environment.”

    No wonder he uses symbols used through his Judaism from the Torah (in particualar but not only, the Genisis) and som of the prophets.

    • kt@rg.no
      kt@rg.no  May 20, 2020

      ,,,the last sentence,when I say “he” I mean the author of the Revelation of John, not Carl Jung.

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