In Matthew 24, Jesus gives a list of signs which precede his Second Coming in glory. However, some people, called partial preterists, say that all these signs have already been fulfilled. They say that all the signs of the “end times” took place in or around 70 A.D. when the Romans came and sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. (1)
However, as we have seen in a previous article, the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24 is riddled with insurmountable problems. There are many events described by Jesus which certainly did not take place in the 1st Century.
Symbolic, Literal, or Both?
The same is true of the book of Revelation, which contains multiple unfulfilled prophecies from the standpoint of the year 2020. However, Revelation is replete with symbolism. Yet by very definition, all symbols stand for something literal. Otherwise, they don’t symbolize anything. For example, the allegorical book “Animal Farm” contains numerous characters which represent literal figures and groups during the Russian Revolution. (2)
This is not to say that Revelation is an allegory. Rather, Revelation is “apocalyptic literature.” This kind of literature has several unique features. According to the Encyclopedia of the Bible, this kind of literature contains:
...the presence of a cosmic dualism, visions and revelations; a contrast between the present evil age and the coming eschatological age; pessimism concerning the present age and optimism concerning the age to come; references and allusions to mythology, numerology, and animal symbolism; the idea of the unity of history and a goal toward which history is moving; the development of belief in life after death, and esp. the resurrection of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked (there is no resurrection for the unrighteous dead); and the appearance of a transcendent figure identified as “the Son of Man.” (3)
Of particular interest to us are the symbolic elements of this kind of literature. It is well known that Revelation is full of symbols. However, to what literal truths do these symbols refer? Is the entire book symbolic, or is it a mixture of symbols and literal descriptions of the future?
An Interpretive Shortcut
This may seem hard to answer on the surface. However, there is a shortcut. When examining Revelation, we can find cross-references to other parts of the Bible which describe the same thing in more literal terms. By using this method, we can determine which parts of Revelation are symbols, and which part are literal descriptions. Once we have identified the correct interpretive framework from the cross-references, we can then proceed to interpret the rest of the book consistently and accurately.
In Daniel 7, Daniel sees a vision of four beasts come up out of the “great sea,” which is a Biblical term for the Mediterranean Sea. When the angel interprets the vision, we learn that the four beasts represent four kingdoms that will arise on the earth. Furthermore, the fourth beast in particular has symbolic features (like ten horns on its head). These symbolic features are then interpreted by the angel. Most Bible scholars, preterist or futurist, believe that the fourth beast represents the Roman Empire. In the words of John Walvoord, former President of Dallas Theological Seminary, states that:
Conservative scholars with few exceptions generally identify the fourth beast as Rome. (4)
Therefore, it is actually quite simple to find out which parts of Daniel 7 are symbolic, and which parts are literal. The beasts and their physical descriptions are symbolic, whereas the angel’s interpretation is literal.
Daniel 7: Both Symbolic and Literal
For example, take the “little” horn of Daniel 7:8:
After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things. (Daniel 7:7-8)
But what does it mean? The angel explains it for us:
“Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, times, and half a time. (Daniel 7:23-25)
Here we can see how Daniel 7 contains both symbolic and literal language, which is easy to distinguish.
Revelation 13 describes the same beast as Daniel 7, but with additional detail. Furthermore, Revelation 13 reiterates what Daniel 7 says about the fourth beast, but more explicitly:
The left hand side represents literal descriptions of the reign of the fourth beast. We know these are literal, because they are mostly derived from the angel’s literal interpretation found in Daniel 7. However, these literal facts about the beast are reiterated by Revelation 13. Therefore, the Revelation 13 descriptions of the Daniel 7 beast are literal as well.
Of note is that the Daniel 7 beast devours the “whole earth.” This probably may to the known world, since the term “all the earth” is used to describe Alexander the Great’s empire as well (Daniel 2:39). However, Revelation makes explicit the totally global scope of this final empire. It has authority over “every tribe and people and language and nation.” (Revelation 13:7b) This obviously did not happen in the 1st Century.
Preterists would likely dismiss this statement as hyperbole. However, in the interest of consistency, that means they would have to interpret this part of Revelation 7 as hyperbole.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
Many partial preterists, such as R.C. Sproul, believe that the Great Commission remains unfulfilled, and is for literally every ethnic group. (5)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
The Greek word for “nation” refers to ethnic groups (Greek: ethnos). (6) Therefore, it would be hard to dismiss the Revelation 7 passage as hyperbole. And if we can’t dismiss the Revelation 7 passage as hyperbole, neither can we dismiss the beast’s global rule as hyperbole.
Personal or Corporate?
The beast from the sea is both a personal and a corporate entity. We know it is corporate, because it has ten horns and seven heads. The ten horns represent ten kings, (Daniel 7:24) who later give their power and authority to the beast (Revelation 17:12-13). The seven heads represent a series of kings and kingdoms which represent the beast’s past and future (Revelation 17:9-11).
The beast is also a specific man. We know this for several reasons. First, Jesus and Paul speak of a person in the end times, who is particularly evil and makes themselves out to be God (Matthew 24:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:4, cf. Mark 13:14). Daniel speaks of how the beast’s final leader speaks against God (Daniel 7:25).This is reiterated by Daniel 11:36-39, where a specific man in the end times exalts himself above every God. This is also found in Revelation 13, where it says:
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. (Revelation 13:5)
It is men who boast, not empires. Therefore, the Revelation beast also represents a specific man.
Furthermore, it is a specific man that persecutes God’s people for 3 1/2 years (Daniel 7:23-25). This lines up with Revelation 13, where the beast’s reign of terror lasts 42 months (3 1/2) years. During this term, they persecute God’s people. Furthermore, the whole world worships the beast from the sea, because it survives a mortal wound (Revelation 13:3, 12, 14). An empire which comes back after a mortal wound would not cause the world to fall down and worship it. However, a man who survives a mortal wound could certainly do so.
Finally, Revelation 13 speaks as if the beast is a specific man as well:
so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:17-18)
This is further supported by Revelation 16:10, which says:
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish (Revelation 16:10)
Therefore, we can conclude that the beast and its kingdom are interchangeable. There is no king without a kingdom, and neither is there a kingdom without a king.
Matthew 24 vs. Revelation 13
The rest of Revelation 13 describes familiar concepts from Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2, with novel and uncanny detail. In the previous article, we talked about how Matthew 24 is in a literal genre and should be interpreted literally. Therefore, Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2 should be taken literally as well.
A Publicly Visible Idol
From Matthew 24, we know that there is a publicly visible idol in the Jerusalem temple in the end times. As we have explored elsewhere, this is a literal idol. It is the Antichrist himself, who sets himself up as God in the temple. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4)
Jesus also speaks of an abomination, who stands where “he” ought not to be.
But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Mark 13:14)
In the parallel passage in Matthew 24, Jesus says that this man, who is the “abomination of desolation” will be in the “holy place” (i.e. the temple).
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), (Matthew 24:15)
The book of Revelation refers to the image of the beast at least 7 times. This image is worshiped by the world. For those who refuse, the penalty is death. When speaking of the Antichrist’s assistant, it says:
It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. (Revelation 13:13-15)
Such an image would not be surprising, given current technology. Although the Antichrist sets himself up as God in the temple, the image would be worshiped in his absence. As weird as a talking image may sound, we actually experience these everyday. Television, computer, and mobile phone screens provide numerous talking images of people. Furthermore, artificial intelligence would allow for the image to seemingly speak on its own, ordering the deaths of those who do not worship it. Finally, the serious divine penalty for worshiping the image further adds to its literal character. God would not want to confuse his followers about such an important command. As it says in Revelation 14:
And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. (Revelation 14:11)
Based on Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2, the publicly visible idol is literal. Furthermore, the image is also literal. This is the case, because it is mentioned 7 times, in Revelation. It also makes sense from a practical standpoint, as the Antichrist cannot be worshiped by the whole world unless everyone in the world can see him, for example, through a talking image. As a result, the image of the beast and the abomination of desolation remain unfulfilled. There was no such talking image in the 1st Century, which demanded the deaths of those who would not bow to it. Furthermore, no one in the first Century set themselves up as God in the temple.
Extremely Deceptive Miracles
Consistent with the first part of the chapter, the “beast” in question is symbolic, but its activities are literal. Yet Revelation 13 provides an alarming amount of detail regarding those familiar activities. For example, one of the heads of the beast survives a mortal wound. It says this three times in the chapter:
One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed,... (Revelation 13:3a)
...the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. (Revelation 13:12b)
...the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. (Revelation 13:14b)
In Revelation 17, the angel interprets the heads of the beast as representing 7 kings/kingdoms in a succession. Therefore, one of the leaders of this political system survives a mortal wound. This is what causes the worldwide deception. A miracle of this gravity shouldn’t surprise us, since Jesus says:
For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand.
Paul also says:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)
A leader who has a mortal wound that is healed certainly fits the bill. It goes without saying that this didn’t happen to any leader of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century.
Jesus speaks of a worldwide persecution in the end times, perpetrated by “all nations.” As we have seen before, this refers to every ethnic group. Therefore, it is global in scope.
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. (Matthew 24:9-10)
Revelation 13 also describes a global persecution. As we saw before, the beast has authority over every ethnic group in the world. But what does the beast do with this power?
Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:7-10)
The Antichrist’s spokesperson, later called the “False Prophet,” enforces the worship of the beast from the sea.
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. (Revelation 13:11-15)
Nevertheless, the global persecution that Jesus mentions is specifically mentioned prior to the abomination of desolation. The abomination of desolation happens halfway through the Antichrist’s 7-year contract with Israel. Furthermore, the beast’s reign of terror is 3 1/2 years, which corresponds to the second half of this seven year timeline. As a result, the global persecution mentioned by Jesus does not start because of the beast’s reign of terror.
However, its safe to say that the persecution Jesus describes extends until “the end” (Matthew 24:14). As a result, even though the beast does not necessarily launch this persecution, he helps enforce the global persecution in its later stage, which extends all the way until the Second Coming of Christ.
The Mark of the Beast
One element of the end times persecution is the mark of the beast. As with previous parts of the chapter, the beasts are symbolic, but their activities are literal. Therefore, in the interest of consistency, the mark of the beast is also literal. Furthermore, at least three Bible passages are clear that the mark is something that is on the forehead or the hand. A coin of a Caesar just won’t do the trick.
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Revelation 13:16-17)
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. (Revelation 14:9-11)
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)
It is unclear if the beast actually succeeds in marking the whole world. This would be a massive logistical challenge, especially when the beast’s reign of terror is only 3 1/2 years. Nevertheless, its very clear it plays a role in the persecution, as those who refuse the mark escape God’s judgment in hell.
The Defeat of the Beast
The beast is personally defeated by God after his 3 ½ year term. As it says in Revelation 19:
1 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Revelation 19:11-21)
Unless one were to say this is entirely symbolic, 2 Thessalonians also clarifies this, saying:
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:8)
2 Thessalonians is a letter to a confused church. Paul wrote to them to clear up issues surrounding the end times. Unlike Revelation, it is not apocalyptic literature. Therefore, we should take this verse literally. Jesus did not make an “appearance” in 70 A.D., nor did he kill any specific Roman emperor.
Daniel 7, also describes the fate of the beast.
“I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. (Daniel 7:11-12)
Around the same time, the son of man comes on the clouds of heaven. After the defeat of the beast, God sets up an eternal kingdom, where all rulers serve and obey God and his people.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, times, and half a time.
But the court shall sit in judgment,
and his dominion shall be taken away,
to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ (Daniel 7:25-27)
This certainly did not happen in the 1st Century.
Furthermore, many preterists believe that the “beast” of Revelation is the emperor Nero. However, preterists also believe that the son of man came in judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (7) However, this poses a problem. The Bible is very clear that the beast is defeated at the coming of Christ. In the case of Nero, he died by suicide in 68 A.D., two years before the fall of Jerusalem. (8, 9) He was not defeated at Christ’s alleged coming in judgment in 70 A.D.
Furthermore, Nero reigned much longer than 3 1/2 years. (8) In addition, the time from the start of the persecution at the Great Fire of Rome, to his eventual suicide, was closer to 4 years. (10, 11)
We’ve seen how comparing the literal parts of Daniel 7 with Revelation 13 help us understand which parts of the passage are symbolic and which are literal. As a result of this comparison, we have seen that the beast’s rule is global. Furthermore, literal descriptions from Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2 also help us determine which other parts of Revelation 13 are literal. As a result, we have seen how the idol is literal, the global persecution is literal, and the false miracles are literal. Finally, the preterist favorite for the Antichrist, emperor Nero, was not violently defeated at the Second Coming of Christ. As a result, we can conclude that the beasts are symbolic, but their descriptions are literal. As a result, the beast from the sea in Revelation 13 is still coming, and has not been fulfilled.
- Sproul, R C. “The Last Days According to Jesus by R.C. Sproul.” Ligonier Ministries. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/last_days_according_to_jesus/.
- “Animal Farm.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 28, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Farm.
- Apocalyptic Literature - Encyclopedia of The Bible - Bible Gateway. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Apocalyptic-Literature.
- Walvoord, John F. “Chapter 7 Daniel's Vision Of Future World History.” Chapter 7 Daniel's Vision Of Future World History | Walvoord.com. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://walvoord.com/article/248.
- Sproul, R C. “Should All Christians Pursue Missions?” Youtube.com, July 26, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08Rrzlj3RIM.
- “Strong's Greek: 1484. Ἔθνος (Ethnos) -- a Race, a Nation, Pl. the Nations (as Distinct from Isr.).” Bible Hub. Accessed July 3, 2020. https://biblehub.com/greek/1484.htm.
- Sproul, R C. “The Beast: The Last Days According to Jesus with R.C. Sproul.” Youtube.com, September 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR12QsI8obs.
- “Nero.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 26, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero.
- “Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 18, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE).
- “Great Fire of Rome.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 30, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_Rome.
- “Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, June 29, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_the_Roman_Empire.
- Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
- Tiger eating: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/494144274/
- Revelation beast: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_B%C3%AAte_de_la_Mer.jpg
- Chains: https://pixabay.com/photos/chains-feet-sand-bondage-prison-19176/
- Earth: https://pixabay.com/photos/earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-11015/
- AI: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/robot-artificial-intelligence-2167836/
- Nero: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nero_1.JPG