Second, MacArthur’s analysis suffers from inconsistent application of literalism. As noted above, MacArthur begins in the Preface by promising to follow an unswervingly literal approach to the text. He is highly critical, in fact, of those who allegorize or spiritualize the text. He then proceeds, however, to offer numerous explanations of Revelation’s rich symbolic language that strays from his promise to stick to literalism.
Below is an extended list of examples:
The seven churches "symbolize the churches in general" and "are symbolic of the kinds of churches that exist through all of church history" (p. 35).
The white stone of 2:17 symbolizes those given to victors in athletic contests (p. 70).
"Jezebel was certainly not the woman’s real name… Christ labeled her with the symbolic name of Jezebel" (p. 75).
The church at Sardis "symbolizes the dead churches that have existed throughout history, even in our own day" (p. 79).
The jasper and sardius stones of 4:2-3 might "depict God’s covenant relationship with Israel" (p. 110).
The twenty-four elders "likely represent a larger group"; "they represent the raptured church" (p. 112).
The sea of 4:6 "is metaphorical, since there is no sea in heaven [21:1]" (p. 113).
The eyes on the living creatures are "symbolizing their awareness, alertness, and comprehensive knowledge" (p. 114).
The lamb’s seven horns "symbolize the Lamb’s complete, absolute power" since seven is "the number of completion" (p. 121).
The harps held by the elders "symbolize all of prophecy" and the bowls "symbolized the priestly work of intercession for the people" (p. 122).
The locusts of 9:3-6 are "not ordinary locusts, but demons"; "they are not actual locusts, since locusts have no stinging tail as scorpions do" (p. 161). So, "demons must be in view in this scene" since "these were not actual insects" (p. 162).
The description of the locusts in 9:7-10 with human faces confirms "they are rational beings, not actual insects" (p. 163).
The horses of 9:15-19 "are not actual horses" because John uses "descriptive language" and insists they have heads like lions (p. 167).
The eating of the scroll in 10:8-11 "symbolized the absorbing and assimilating of God’s Word" (p. 177).
The ark in 11:19 "symbolizes that the covenant God has promised to man is now available in its fullness" (p. 196).
The woman John saw in 12:1-2 "was not an actual woman" but "a symbolic mother" (p. 200).
The dragon of 12:3-4 is "symbolic language" for Satan (p. 201), and his sweeping stars with his tail is mere "picturesque language" (p. 202).
The woman’s flight in 12:13-14 "is figurative language that symbolically depicts Israel’s escape from Satan" (p. 209).
The serpent in 12:15-16 "is not an actual snake but a symbolic representation of Satan" (p. 210). The water he spews "is likely symbolic as well" of "an invading, destroying army" (p. 210).
The beast of 13:1 "must be understood as representing both a kingdom and a person" (p. 214). His horns "symbolize strength and power" and their number, ten, "is a symbolic number representing all the world’s political and military might" (p. 215).
Babylon in 14:8 "refers not just to the city, but to the Antichrist’s worldwide political, economic, and religious empire" (p. 233).
The blood rising to the horses’ bridles for two hundred miles in 14:19-20 is "hyperbole" suggesting a great slaughter (p. 242).
The glass sea of 15:1-2 "was not an actual ocean" (p. 245).
The frogs in the plague of 16:12-16 "are not literal frogs" but "froglike" demons (p. 255).
The great harlot of 17:1-6 "is not an actual prostitute," but the term "is a metaphor for a false religion" (p. 262). The harlot’s dupes do not actually get drunk but they are intoxicated with false religion (p. 263).
The Babylon of 17:4-5 "is not ancient Babylon" (p. 265). In fact, "the details cannot be applied to any actual city" (p. 265).
The woman sitting on many waters in 17:1 is "metaphorical" and her sitting on a scarlet beast "again is symbolic." The seven mountains are "figurative" (p. 268).
The "one hour" of 17:12 is "a figure of speech" for "shortness of rule" (p. 269).
The white horses of 19:14 "are not literal horses" (p. 290).
Of the lake of fire in 20:14-15, MacArthur states that "Whether the fire of hell is literal, physical fire is unknown…." (p. 311). He also notes that the worm is "possibly emblematic of an accusing conscience" (p. 311).
Obviously, MacArthur makes many appeals to symbolism and metaphor within the book of Revelation. He is not to be criticized for this. Even John, the author of Revelation, makes plain that many of the images in his book are symbolic. For, example, the "bowls full of incense" are "the prayers of the saints" (Rev 5:8), and Jerusalem (where the Lord was crucified) is "mystically" called "Sodom and Egypt" (Rev 11:8). The problem is with MacArthur’s emphatic rejection in the preface of the allegorical and symbolic interpretations taken by non-dispensational interpretations. His exposition reveals that even the futurist interpretation is dependent on symbolic interpretation of Revelation’s notoriously intriguing imagery. MacArthur thus can hardly claim any hermeneutical high ground in presenting a completely and uniquely "straightforward" approach.
This, in turn, undermines some of the force of his interpretive decisions. One might look at the interpretation of numbers in Revelation as an example. On one hand, MacArthur insists on a literal interpretation of the thousand year reign of "the millennial kingdom" in Revelation 20. In many other places in the text, MacArthur has chosen to symbolically interpret various numerical references. For examples, see his contention that the twenty four elders represent a larger number, the raptured church (p. 112); the Lamb’s seven horns represent perfection (p. 121); the ten horns of the dragon represent the world’s political power and might (p. 215); the one hour of the ten kings power (represented by the ten horns) is a "figure of speech" and not a literal sixty minute period of time (p. 269). Perhaps most striking in relationship to interpretation of the millennium in Revelation 20 is MacArthur’s explanation of the phrase "myriads and myriads" in Revelation 5:11 as an "uncountable host" rather than literal insistence on "ten thousands and ten thousands" (p. 124). If some numbers are to be taken metaphorically, why must one necessarily insist that the thousand years in Revelation 20 are to be taken as a literal thousand years? There is an inconsistent application of literalism in MacArthur’s exposition and a failure to acknowledge honestly his own method’s dependence on symbolic interpretation.
John MacArthur is an able Pastor and teacher who has been greatly used of God to build a strong church and exert a significant influence on contemporary evangelicalism. He is typically an able and insightful expositor of Scripture. His exposition of Revelation, however, is taken captive to dispensational presuppositions. Perhaps his recent spirited defense of this approach reveals his knowledge that the foundations of this view are shifting as the weight of closer investigation by evangelical scholars, pastors, and thoughtful laymen is laid upon them (See Craig A. Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Bridgepoint, 1993) and Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Zondervan, 1993) for major modifications of the classical dispensational scheme).