Q. How much of the beasts and descriptions that John gave in Revelations do you think are real? Do you think what John wrote are interpretations of what he saw in today’s modern world? Or do you take the descriptions like the first and second beast and red dragon as a literal reference to what will occur?
A. The golden rule of interpretation says to read the Bible literally except when there’s clear instruction not to. Rev. 1:1 says the Lord sent and signified His message to John. The word signified means he gave the message in signs, rather than in plain language, so some references are obviously symbolic. You can see this in the language, as in references to a first and second beast. These two are not animals. The use of personal pronouns in referring to them tells us they’re humans, the anti-Christ and his false prophet. Where the dragon is concerned, Rev. 12:9 tells us the dragon represents Satan.
I believe there are also times when John is trying to describe a 21st Century event using a 1st Century vocabulary, but there are relatively few of these.
Some people see the use of symbolism in some places as justification to make everything in the book symbolic, but that’s a violation of the rule to take things literally unless there’s reason not to. For example the reference to a 1,000 year kingdom is very clear. There’s no reason to treat it like symbolism.
I think all of the Book of Revelation is real in the sense that it’s all going to happen just like John said it would. Whether we figure out the symbolism correctly or not has no impact on the overall message, and can’t prevent us from understanding it. The message is this. One day soon God is going to judge the world for its sins, and for those who have rejected His free offer of pardon, there’ll be hell to pay.