We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. We instinctively understand this did not actually happen; it’s an allegory representing a moral truth. C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as an allegory to illustrate biblical truths. The characters are fictional, but they tell a story rich with spiritual meaning and application.
Many writers, pastors, and theologians tell us today that most of the book of Revelation is nothing more than allegory. The same goes for Old Testament prophecies relating to a restored kingdom for Israel.
Current day amillennialism, covenant premillennialism, preterism, and dominion theology all base their teachings on this vague allegorical way of interpreting biblical prophecy. They assume God is finished with Israel, and they use allegory to defend their differing yet similar beliefs of the future.
Those of us in the premillennial camp reject the search for such hidden meanings in biblical prophecy. We believe the prophets meant what they wrote about the coming tribulation and the restored kingdom for Israel with Jesus sitting on the throne of David, the basic beliefs of premillennialism.
The flawed allegorical approach of seeking hidden meanings in Scripture began long, long ago.
The Historical Roots of the Allegorical Approach to future Prophecy
Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who lived during the time of Christ, greatly admired the teachings of the philosopher Plato who taught all matter was evil and only the spirit realm was good.
Much to the dismay of the Rabbis of his day, Philo allegorized the Old Testament in order “to offer the Greeks the best of Judaism and the Jews the best of Greek philosophy.”[i] In other words, Philo reinterpreted God’s Word to make it appealing to the Greeks while hoping it would encourage the Jews to embrace Greek philosophy.
Philo’s symbolical approach to Scripture later became the pattern for a “new school of theological thought” within the church.”[ii] In the second century AD, two Christian teachers from the city of Alexandria copied Philo’s allegorical approach to God’s Word. An early church theologian named Clement (150-215) “embraced Greek philosophy and maintained that Scripture must be understood allegorically so as not to contradict it.”[iii]
Origen (185-254) used allegory to make the teachings of the Bible align with those of Plato. He reinterpreted biblical prophecies regarding the millennium so they would not contradict Plato’s teachings regarding the evil material realm. Origen’s attempts to align Christianity with pagan philosophy went far beyond allegory; he also believed in reincarnation and that everyone, without exception, would someday receive eternal life.
In AD 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine called all the leaders of the church to participate in the famous Council of Nicea. He called the gathering to refute the false teaching that had crept into the church during the previous centuries.
In his book, Triumphant Return, Dr. Grant Jeffries quotes from Nathaniel West regarding the Nicene Council:
Gelasius Cyzicus, a Greek historian of the fifth century (A.D 476), was fortunately able to gather together the historical records of the teachings endorsed by the Council of Nicea. Cyzicus published a history of the council that demonstrated the Church’s adherence to the doctrine of the resurrection and the premillennial return of Christ. Despite years of attacks on the doctrine of the Millennium and the authority of John’s Apocalypse by the new teachers of the allegorical interpretation (supported by the Gnostics and Origen’s school at Alexandria), the orthodox bishops of the Council of Nicea. . . strongly endorsed the book of Revelation as canonical, including its teaching on the coming Millennium.[iv]
Despite the Nicene Council’s rejection of Origen’s allegorical approach to the Bible, in the fifth century, Augustine revived it; and under his influence, this symbolic way of understanding future prophecies in Scripture dominated the church for a thousand years.
Although Augustine claimed to disagree with Plato on many issues, he nevertheless incorporated the pagan philosopher’s scheme of reality into his theology.[v] Augustine regarded Christianity as an improvement on the teachings of Plato, but did not wholly reject the dualism of his philosophy.
Plato’s view of the material realm stands in direct opposition to the glories of Jesus’ future thousand- year reign. Augustine said the idea of a millennium ‘would not be objectionable’ if the nature of the millennial kingdom was a ‘spiritual one’ rather than a physical one.”[vi] He objected to the thoughts of “carnal banquets” he visualized might be a part of such a kingdom.[vii]
The History of the Literal Approach to Biblical Prophecy
Those who today interpret biblical prophecy based on the intent of the author also find their roots in the early centuries of the church. The ancient Syrian School of Antioch championed a “literal and Historical interpretation” of Scripture. They vigorously opposed the allegorical approach of Origen to the Scripture, which they claimed “reinterpreted Christian doctrine in terms of Platonic philosophy.”[viii]
The majority of early church fathers followed the literal interpretation championed by the School of Antioch. The writings of Irenaeus reveal an unswerving allegiance to a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation. Justin Martyr proclaimed that Jesus would rule for a thousand years in Jerusalem just as the prophets predicted He would do. Both rejected the allegorical approach of Clement and Origen.
Despite their varying views regarding the future of Israel, the majority of the church leaders in its first three hundred years believed in a literal tribulation and millennial rule of Jesus based in Jerusalem. After the time of Augustine, the use of allegory to interpret God’s Word dominated the church throughout the dark ages.
Luther and Calvin, along with other reformers of their time, returned the church to a more literal interpretation of Scripture.[ix] The Bible-based approach of the Reformers restored the doctrine of justification by faith that had fallen victim to the use of allegory during the preceding centuries.
Both Luther and Calvin recognized the considerable damage allegorical interpretations had done to Scripture in other areas beside prophecy. Calvin characterized the allegorical approach to God’s Word as “satanic” because it led people away from the truth of Scripture.[x] Luther joined with Calvin in denouncing the use of symbolism to interpret God’s word.
Unfortunately, despite soundly condemning the allegorical approach to God’s Word, the Reformers failed to apply their convictions regarding allegory to prophetic portions of the Bible.
I believe the reformers’ principles of a literal biblical interpretation later became the driving force behind the resurgence of premillennialism starting in the 1700’s that continued through most of the twentieth century. As biblical scholars applied the same principles of biblical interpretation the Reformers revived, they not only revived the millennial views of the early church, but also clarified the distinction between the rapture and the Second Coming.
Is There a Hidden Meaning in Biblical Prophecy?
Not much has changed since the early centuries of the church. A great number of theologians, writers, pastors, and teachers today interpret biblical prophecy allegorically in the same way as did Origen and the Alexandrian School during the second and third centuries AD.
The Syrian School of literal biblical interpretation, to which I adhere, has lost much support during the past couple decades. The symbolical approach to prophecy dominates churches today, led by those who tell us that the prophecies regarding Israel do not mean what the words say they do.
Why do I so intently reject this allegorical approach to God’s Word despite its popularity?
First, I look at prophecies God has already fulfilled. Whether in regard to the nations that existed at the time the prophets wrote or in regard to Jesus’ first coming, I see an exact and literal fulfillment. Those who employ allegory see the Old Testament prophets as disjointed in that they switch between literal predictions and symbolic ones in the same verse or passage. Those who deny the millennial reign of Jesus view the Old Testament prophets changing their approach in relating future events.
Second, those who use allegory do not agree on the meaning of the symbolism. Some tell us that Jesus has already fulfilled all of biblical prophecy, while other believe the Second Coming is still future. Some tell us God has rejected Israel, while others assert that Jesus fulfills all the prophecies and covenants God made with the nation. Some say the New Jerusalem symbolized God’s presence, while others say we can expect a real physical city.
Third, most allegories consist of a complete story that represents another truth. This is not what we see in Scripture. The Old Testament prophets predicted events that came to pass in their lifetime, exactly as predicted. They wrote about Jesus’ first and second coming as well as a future for Israel. Their message contained dire warnings for the people of their day to repent as well as reassuring messages regarding the future of Israel. None of these things align with what we typically regard as an allegory.
Fourth, John’s choice of words refutes the allegorical approach of those who dismiss the literalness of John’s description of the tribulation and Jesus’ millennial reign. The apostle uses the word “saw” 44 times by itself and 12 times with the word “looked.” He uses the word “heard” 30 times to indicate he was writing down words he heard. The book of Revelation is NOT an allegory. John wrote the things he saw, the words Jesus spoke to him, and the things God showed him regarding the future.
God’s Word means what it says. We can safely reject the notion of looking for hidden meanings, and let Scripture speak for itself.
Those who tell us they know what God’s Word really means do not agree among themselves regarding the interpretation of it. Can we really trust their clever creations? Is it not best to trust the words of Scripture?
The writers of the Bible use allegory and symbolism at times, but it’s clear when they use it. In most places, however, words matter.
The apostle Peter says that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). The words of Scripture matter because God inspired them (2 Tim. 3:16).
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[i] Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), p. 477.
[iv] West, Nathaniel, Premillennial Essays (Chicago, F.H. Revel, 1879), p. 347 as quoted in Jeffrey, Dr. Grant R., Triumphant Return: The Coming Kingdom of God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001), p. 127.
[v] Williams, Thomas, Augustine and the Platonists, A lecture given to the Freshman Program of Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University, 23 October 2003
[vi] Allen, D. Matthew, Theology Adrift: The Early Church Fathers and Their Views of Eschatology, A paper published on the Bible.org website, Chapter Five
[viii] Joseph W. Trigg, “Introduction,” in R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory & Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 6.
[ix] Thomas Ice, Historical Implications of Allegorical Interpretation.
[x] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House 1970), p. 58.