Does the “It Is Figurative” Hermeneutic Spring from Unbelief?

A correspondant wrote:
I do not believe that we should argue about whether this is literal or figurative. If you believe it is literal, then you are certainly bound by it. That is it and that’s all there is! Sorry. I don’t care how big the pearl is, if that is all there is, then we are going to be quite dissatisfied in heaven. However, if these things are figurative of things that illustrate that there is nothing on earth that can currently describe them, then that tells me something far more than a literal 20 story high oyster. My study of Revelation 21 indicates that it coule not be literal. Work your way through it and I think you will see the same thing. For example:
Rev 21:16
16 And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.
What is meant by the literal height of the city?

James replied:
I do not belive we should argue about it either. It is obviously literal . Behind the literal/figurative thing is a hermeneutic that doesn’t work. Instead of the choice of literal/figurative being based on the context and logic, with the “it is figurative” hermeneutic, the choice is based on our feeling that the statement could not be true. Our decision is therefore based upon unbelief rather than logic. When you base a literal/figurative determination on unbelief, you open the door to anything. For example, when you read about a 200 ft pearl, you do not believe a pearl could possibly be that big. Since you do not not believe a pearl can be 200 ft in diameter, it must therefore be figurative. The basis for this decision is your unbelief in a 200 ft pearl. It is not logic. It is an opinion that the text cannot be literally true. Therefore, since the literal meaning cannot be true, there must be some other meaning, and the only other meaning that it could have is some figurative meaning. The problem is that since it wasn’t figurative, there is no way to explain it, and people have to make up a meaning using word association. For example, I read about the sword of the Spirit in Eph 6:17. Therefore the sword of the Spirit must be the meaning for the sword of Jesus lips in Rev 1:16, 2:16, 19:15, 21, never mind that there are 100 other references for “sword” in the Bible that have nothing to do with the sword of the Spirit and never mind that Jesus actually uses the sword of His lips to kill people for the birds to eat (Rev 19:21). The choice of Eph 6:17 is just a word association game. There is no real logic to associate Eph 6:17 with Rev 19:21 except both use the word “sword”. That’s what is really behind this “it is figurative” business–first, unbelief, and second, a vivid imagination. Neither of them has any validity at all in arriving at truth. The whole “it is figurative” business is specious from top to bottom and rests solidly on unbelief.

The height of the city is just that–its height. The text means that the city is as tall as it is wide. The words can either describe a cube or a pyramid. I am torn between the two shapes. The Holy Place was a cube and it was typical of heaven. The pyramids may also foreshadow heaven (Isa 19:19). Both cubes and pyramids can have a base equal to the height. A pyramid is more esthetically pleasing, and such a shape would explain the need for a 200 ft wall, but the shape of the Holy Place argues for a cube, so I don’t know.

Several times people have come back at the idea of our future being intimately involved with a literal earth by complaining that they don’t want more of what they have now. If heaven is going to involve the earth, it couldn’t possibly be the happy place that God describes. What rampant unbelief! Do men really believe that if God created a place like Eden that He cannot fix what is broken in this world and make it work like it should? Do men not realize what effect that the curses God has placed upon this world have on making it a sad place? Do men not realize what an awful effect that sin has on this earth? If the curse and sin and pain and death are all gone and men are young again and live for ever, why would this world not be a wonderful place? After all, the Great God pronounced His creation “Very good!” (Gen 1:31). If God, who is sparing with superlatives, says the earth was very good, I believe Him. He says that He is going to restore all things (Acts 3:21). He says there will be no more pain, no more tears and no more dying (Rev 21:4). He says the lion and the calf will lie down together and the cow and bear will feed together (Isa 11:7). He says that if I am faithful, I will have access to the throne of God and to the tree of life and that I will be rich, famous, and powerful (Rev 21:7, 2:26, 3:9, 21). This all sounds really good to me. And to top it off, God says He is going to change my heart so it won’t have the same deceitful and insensitive nature it has now (Jer 17:9, Ezek 36:26). My body will be changed so that the warfare it now wages against the inward man will be ended. God is going to make my body into a spiritual body that will support the spirit inside instead of fight against it like it does now.

When I look at the treasures of Egypt, I am awed by the beauty and majesty of the things that they made. I am amazed by all the implements of gold. I come away feeling wonderful at having seen such beauty and riches. Heaven greatly surpasses even the treasures of Egypt. The common materials of heaven, like the streets, are pure gold. One can only imagine what the region around God’s throne must be like, and we will have access to that also.

The alternative to a literal heaven of surpassing grandeur and glory such as John describes is a fuzzy, nebulous indescribable something that must be better than what we have now. We don’t know what it is, but it surely must be glorious. We can’t describe it, but because it is so indescribable, it must be glorious, because we can’t describe it. While we don’t deny that there will be things we have not experienced that will be glorious, the renewed earth will also be a glorious thing, and a body that lives forever with no pain or tears does not sound too shabby to me either. Neither does Lord James, Master of the Realm, sound too bad to me. Being prophet, priest and king to happy, prosperous servants that live forever and whose fortunes grow with them as the population fills the earth and the worlds beyond sounds like a very pleasant way to spend eternity to me. As Br’er Rabbit said, “Throw me in that briar patch!”

About James Johnson

Bible student for 60 years. Preacher of the gospel for over 40 years. Author of commentary on Revelation, All Power to the Lamb. Married with children. Worked in aerospace and computer engineering for over 40 years.
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