The book of Revelation and many other prophetic passages in the Bible are apocalyptic literature and contain numerous symbols, but are greatly abused due to allegorical interpretation.
The Literalist does not deny that figurative language and symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein as well. His position is simply that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the laws of language). That which is manifestly literal being regarded as literal, and that which is manifestly figuratively being so regarded.
But what exactly is allegorical (also known as mystical) interpretation?
The position of Amillennialism (including the Roman Catholic Church), on the other hand, holds that certain portions are to be normally interpreted, while other portions are to be regarded as having a mystical sense. Thus, there is a lack of consistency in this method of interpretation.
Allegorizing is searching for an underlying hidden or secret meaning, unrelated in reality to the more obvious meaning of a text. In this approach, the literal is superficial while the allegorical is the “true” meaning.
According to Trench, the true (allegorical) meaning is “clothed” by the representation of the literal text. Presumably, the interpreter must remove this outer garment of literal text to see the deeper and more glorious reality (Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861).
To cite a few examples of allegorical hermeneutics: The two pence given by the Good Samaritan has the hidden meanings of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The river Euphrates means the outflow of manners and is not an actual literal river in Mesopotamia. Pope Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the Book of Job is equally disheartening: ‘The patriarch’s three friends denote the heretics; his seven sons are the twelve apostles; his seven thousand sheep are God’s faithful people; and his three thousand hump-backed camels are the depraved Gentiles!’
While it is tempting to chuckle at these examples from early Christianity, it is just as alarming to read some of the equally obscure views by modern interpreters of the book of Revelation and other prophecies in the Bible.
So where did this tendency begin?
Historical evidence is hard to find that allegorical interpretation of Sacred Scriptures prevailed among the Jews from the time of exile, or that it has been applied by the Jews at the time of Christ and His apostles. Although the Sanhedrim and the hearers of Jesus often appealed to the Old Testament according to the testimony of the New Testament writers, they give no indication of an allegorical interpretation.
The roots of allegorical interpretation can however be traced to Jews in Alexandria Egypt. They were interested in accommodating the Old Testament Scriptures to Greek philosophy as a tool for removing or reinterpreting what were considered embarrassing anthropomorphisms and immoralities in the Old Testament.
Philo (20 BC –54 AD) used philosophical allegory to harmonize Jewish scripture, mainly the Torah, with Greek philosophy. Philo spent his whole life in Alexandria. Clement (150-215 AD) arrived there in an unknown period and was influenced by Philo and proposed a system of interpretation where any passage of the Bible might have up to five different meanings. Aristobulus, who lived around 160 BC, believed that Greek philosophy borrowed from the Old Testament, and that those teachings could be uncovered only by allegorizing.
Origen (185-254 C.E.), though a native of Alexandria, was expelled from the city after a confrontation with the local bishop. He studied Platonic philosophy and is thought to have been a scholar of Clement. He went so far as to say that Scripture itself demands that the interpreter employ the allegorical method.
They all read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek version called the Septuagint, and they all interpreted it through a procedure called allegory. Few figures in church history have stimulated the level of debate and controversy that surrounds Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s interpretations pushed the boundaries of orthodoxy. He believed, for instance, in the pre-existence of souls and that eventually everyone, including the Devil, could be saved. In addition, he described the Trinity as a hierarchy, not as an equality of Father, Son, and Spirit.
Amillennialist Schaff is fair when he describes the great hermeneutical failings of Origen: “His great defect is the neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning. He even goes further in this direction than the Gnostics, who everywhere saw transcendental, unfathomable mysteries.” Origen’s entire interpretation of the book of Revelation is therefore spiritual rather than literal.
Origen’s interpretive approach had great influence on those who would follow in the Middle Ages, as did Augustine (354-430) who saw allegorization as a solution to Old Testament “problems.” The allegorical system of interpretation prevailed throughout most of the Middle Ages.
During the Middle Ages, the fourfold sense of Scripture was taught. Medieval scholars took Origen’s threefold sense – the literal, the moral, and the spiritual—and subdivided the spiritual into the allegorical and the anagogical. As schoolman Thomas Aquinas affirmed, ‘The literal sense is that which the author intends, but God being the Author, we may expect to find in Scripture a wealth of meaning.’ As an example, let us look at Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.” Medieval churchmen interpreted the sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally – An act of creation; (2) Morally – May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically – Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically – May we be led by Christ to glory.
Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Bible prophecy dominated the understanding of eschatology during the medieval period. It found acceptance also with the Roman Catholic church and among the leaders of the Reformation. Even today, Augustinian eschatology is held by most of the largest segments of the Christian church. Sadly, even those Reformers, who cast off the darkness of Medieval allegorization in so many areas, failed to escape the influence of those who went before them in their understanding of the book of Revelation and other prophecies in the Bible.
The main reason why so many have resorted to allegorical interpretations is that they have found the literal meaning of prophecies difficult to accept, scientifically, and aesthetically, and have tried to “explain” them on some less offensive basis. What they do not realize is that prophecies is not to scare but rather to prepare the believer.
Reconstructionists utilize forms of allegorical interpretation in order to work around passages in the book of Revelation which do not conveniently fit into the “newspaper events” surrounding the times prior to 70 A.D. Since John’s writings clearly indicate a coming time of wrath and judgment upon the earth, their motive is to attempt to remove this reality in favour of a more optimistic future for Christianity and their churches on earth.
Reconstructionism’s interest in this subject stems from its optimistic outlook that Christianity has the ability to gain control of secular society. Because Revelation is admittedly pessimistic in this regard, the system’s scheme for disposing of this unfavourable evidence is to relegate its fulfillment almost entirely to the past, to a time prior to A.D. 70.
Thomas Aquinas (1224/6 – 1274 AD) recognized some of the dangers of allegorization. He put forward a threefold argument against allegory: (1) it is susceptible to deception; (2) without a clear method it leads to confusion; and (3) it lacks a sense of the proper integration of Scripture.” All three of these significant drawbacks are evident in much interpretation of the book of Revelation today.
Those who stand opposed to God’s promises made to Israel, dislike the literal meaning of Revelation 20 as it suggests the fulfilment of the Messianic Kingdom prophecies scattered throughout the Old Testament. Allegorical interpretation provides the “solution” by turning the thousand years into an indefinite period and the physical rule and reign with Christ into the current spiritual standing of the believer. Never mind that interpreting the first resurrection as being spiritual and the second as literal runs rough-shod over the rules of sound hermeneutics.
The net result of allegorical interpretation is to place a veil of darkness over God’s divine Word and plan. It takes that which God has graciously revealed to the saints and subjects it to the dark vagaries of human imagination and speculation. “The question is if these allegorizing commentators are not as much in the dark in relation to the second coming and the glory that should follow, as the Jews were in relation to His First Advent and His atoning suffering and death.” [emphasis added] – Arnold Fruchtenbaum, “The Little Apocalypse of Zechariah,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 270.
There is not a chapter in the Bible which could not be totally explained away. They turn the Revelation of God into uncertainty and emptiness. Their allegorical explanations are, at best, the wild guesses of men who have never got hold of the real thread of the matter, whilst under the necessity of saying something.
“Among non-literal prophetic interpreters, a state of virtual interpretive chaos exists. It is rare, for instance, to see a well-ordered or definitive work by an Amillennial interpreter setting forth positively and consistently his prophetic interpretations. On the contrary, the Amillennial writings usually concentrate on attacking and ridiculing the Premillennial position. This approach is probably one of necessity, for Amillennialists seldom agree with each other in specific interpretations of prophecy except to be against the earthly millennium.”—Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Dallas, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1993), 73.
“Augustine proposed seven (ridiculous) rules of interpretation by which he sought to give a rational basis for allegorization.” – Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 39.
“Though the Reformers had come out of the interpretive darkness into the light of literal and historical hermeneutics, they still clung to allegorical details in their attempt to understand the book of Revelation.” – Mal Couch, “How Has Revelation Been Viewed Interpretively?,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 40.
(Main source: Bible Study Org.)