The Battle of Armageddon: Literal Interpretation of Prophecy

By Mike Willis

Understanding the premillennial idea of the events to transpire at the end of this time, perhaps you are wondering why premillennialists and amillennialists differ so much from each other in their concept of what is to happen at the end of this period of time. Both amillennialists and premillennialists are agreed that the problem centers around whether to interpret the prophecies literally, as these quotations show:

“No question facing the student of Eschatology Is more important than the question of the method to be employed in the interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures. The adoption of different methods of interpretation has produced the various eschatalogical positions and accounts for the divergent views within a system that confront the student of prophecy. The basic differences between the premillennial and amillennial schools and between the pretribulatlon and postribulation rapturists are hermeneutical, arising from the adoption of divergent and irreconcilable methods of interpretation” (J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, p. 1 as quoted by Rodney Miller in The Lion and the Lamb on Planet Earth, p. 17).

“One of the moat marked features of Premillennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal Interpretation of Scripture. It Is the insistent claim of its ad. vocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly; and they denounce as `spiritualizers’ or ‘allegorizers’ those who do not interpret the Bible with the same degree of literalness as they do. None have made this charge more pointedly than the Dispensationalists. The question of literal versus figurative interpretation is, therefore, one which has to be faced at the very outset” (Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, pp. l6-17).

Premillennialists adhere to a very literal interpretation of the Bible prophecies. They are convinced that Bible prophecies can only be properly understood when understood literally.

“Remember this also: The prophecy that hen been fulfilled, has been fulfilled literally. More than half of the predictive prophecies concerning Christ, are as yet unfulfilled. As the fulfilled prophecies were fulfilled literally …so the unfulfilled prophecies will be fulfilled literally!” (Salem Kirban, Guide to Survival, p. 14).

“These men used what may be called the golden rule of interpretation which the Biblical record of fulfilled prophecy indicates is correct:

‘When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.’

This is the method which this writer has diligently sought to follow” (Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 40).

Although premillennialists take great pleasure in the fact that they are about the only ones who try to take the prophecies literally, their literalism is the source of many of their problems.

God never intended that every prophecy of the Scripture be interpreted literally. He did not always speak literally when He foretold the coming of the kingdom of God and the Christ. One needs only to study a few of the fulfilled Old Testament prophecies to know that this is so. For example, Isa 40:3-5 prophesied,

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted. and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

This passage is quoted in Lk. 3:4-6 and applied to the ministry of John the Baptist. It is a fulfilled prophecy but was it fulfilled literally? Did John literally prepare a highway for Christ to walk upon during His ministry? Did He literally lower every hill and raise every valley in order to make a smooth, straight road for our Lord? Of course not! Yet, if we are going to demand that prophecy be literally interpreted, this is what the ministry of John would have demanded.

Another prophecy in the Old Testament which concerns itself with the kingdom of the Lord is Ezek. 37:24-26. Ezekiel wrote,

“And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.”

Premillennialists quote this passage to state that the land of Palestine will be restored to Israel during the millennium. To interpret this in any way other than literally is to abuse the scriptures, according to them. Yet, one point of premillennialism which is quite obvious is the idea that Jesus Christ will be the ruling monarch during the millennium. However, if we interpret this prophecy literally and consistently, Ezekiel is understood to say that the ruling monarch will be David. David must be raised from the dead in order to literally sit on his throne in Jerusalem for this prophecy to be literally fulfilled. Yet, the premillenialists who say that prophecy must be interpreted literally do not want this part of this prophecy to be interpreted literally.

Hence, I charge that premillennialists do not consistently follow their rule of literally interpreting Bible prophecy. To demonstrate just how much liberty premillennialists take in the interpretation of the Bible prophecy, I would like to give their interpretation of some verses. Remember, the premillennialists are the ones who are telling us that Bible prophecy must be interpreted literally. Rev. 9:17-19 reads as follows: “And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths. For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.” Here is one premillennialists’ interpretation of this passage; note how much he has departed from a literal interpretation of this prophecy:

“I am today inclined to think that they are a human army with weapons and gas masks. They are either an organized army or a spontaneous army, such as 200 million communists taking to arms suddenly in various parts of Asia ….Perhaps the army that the world will face is one of a massive invasion of tanks equipped with flame throwers. It may, however, be a dispersant of nerve gas or some biological warfare” (Salem Urban, Revelation Visualized, pp. 204, 207).

The popular writer, Hal Lindsey, takes similar liberties with the text even though he castigates those who do not literally interpret Bible prophecy. He wrote,

“The thought may have occurred to you that this Is strikingly similar to the phenomena associated with thermonuclear warfare. In fact, many Bible expositors believe that this is an accurate first-century description of a twentieth-century thermonuclear war” (Had Lindsey The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 71 ).

In Otis Gatewood’s review of Lindsey’s book, he appropriately pointed out this inconsistency of the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy.

“Mr. Lindsey would have us believe that Ezekiel 37, 38, 39 refer to the invasion of Palestine by Russia in the last times (pp. 59-71). But the literal interpretation of Ezekiel 37, 38, 39 declares that the weapons of Gog and Magog are swords, shields, helmets, horses, bucklers (Ezekiel 38:41, bows, arrows, handstaves, and spears (Ezekiel 39:9). Can’t you just see Russia, who is now equipped with all the latest jets, atomic bombs, tanks, etc., returning to the use of swords, handstaves, spears, etc. when they invade Israel? How long would they last, with such weapons, against Israel’s modern weaponry?” (Otis Gatewood, Book Review of The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 5).

I think that you can see that premillennialists interpret Bible prophecy in ways other than literally. Whereas they claim that Bible prophecy must be interpreted literally, they find a way to make figurative what they want to be interpreted figuratively. Their insistence upon the literal interpretation of prophecy is weakened by their own treatment of prophecy.

The sad part of the whole system of interpretation followed by the premillennialists is that it denies the inspired apostles’ claim that certain Bible prophecies have been fulfilled. For example, in Acts 13:33 Paul quoted from Psalms 2 stating that it has already been fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Yet, premillennialists consistently state that this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled in connection with their idea of the Battle of Armageddon. This convicts the apostles as being false interpreters of Bible prophecy, thus assaulting the doctrine of the inspiration of the scriptures. A similar case appears in Acts 2:30-33 where Peter said that Psa. 132:11 had already been fulfilled although premillennialists consistently teach that its fulfillment lies in the future.

At this point, the charge must be made that premillennialism is a system of infidelity because it denies the apostolic interpretation of Bible prophecy which interpretation was given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Let us consider some of the other consequences which result from the adoption of premillennialism.

(Continued next week)

Truth Magazine XXII: 14, pp. 227-229
April 6, 1978