Some people claim Bible prophecy should be interpreted allegorically. The allegorical method of interpretation seeks to uncover figurative or secondary meanings of Bible verses.
I once encountered a person who assured me that the “second coming” occurs whenever a person finds God in their heart. Another person told me that references to “hell” in the Bible refer not to a future destiny for the wicked, but rather, to terrible conditions we create during earthly life.
Contrary to the allegorical approach, there is good reason to interpret Bible prophecy literally. Indeed, based on a literal understanding, we can confidently affirm a physical second coming of Christ to the earth. (“Every eye will see him”—Revelation 1:7.) We can be just as confident there will be a fiery hell that will be the eternal habitat of the wicked. (“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”—Matthew 25:46.)
The literal interpretation of Scripture embraces the standard, common understanding of each word in Scripture. Bible expositor David Cooper explained the literal approach this way:
There are several good reasons for taking a literal approach to interpreting prophecy. Foremost, a literal interpretation is the standard approach used for all languages. The greater part of the Bible—the prophetic portions included—makes perfect sense when understood literally. The literal method also provides a safe check on the subjectively prone imagination of human beings.
It may surprise you to learn that a literal approach allows for symbols and parables in the biblical text. Significantly, these symbols and parables always communicate something literal.
A literal interpretation can certainly help us better understand the nonliteral (or metaphorical) statements that sometimes occur in the text of Scripture. To illustrate, we know that God is spirit (John 4:24). This being so, we surmise that the reference to Him as being a “rock” (Psalm 18:2) is not literally true. This term must be understood figuratively. God is a “rock” in the metaphorical sense that He is our rock-solid foundation.
Finally, 2 Timothy 2:15 instructs us:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
The phrase “rightly handling” literally means “cutting straight” in the Greek text. Bible expositor Thomas Constable tells us that elsewhere, the Greek term “describes a tentmaker who makes straight rather than wavy cuts in his material. It pictures a builder who lays bricks in straight rows and a farmer who plows a straight furrow.”2
We can best satisfy the “cutting straight” requirements of 2 Timothy 2:15 by using the literal method of interpreting Scripture.
Confirmation of the literal method of interpretation occurs within the biblical text itself. More than 100 Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were literally fulfilled at the first coming of Christ (for example, Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2; Isaiah 53; Zechariah 12:10). Here is a principle to remember: If you want to understand how God will fulfill prophecies of the future, consider how He has already fulfilled prophecies in the past. As theologian Charles Ryrie puts it, “In the interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy, fulfilled prophecy forms the pattern.”3
What rules of interpretation can guide us as we seek the correct understanding of prophecy?
These six are essential:
- Beware of any preexisting personal theological biases you may have. Don’t forget that Scripture alone is authoritative.
- Pay close attention to the context. No Bible verse should be interpreted in isolation from other verses.
- Different genres of biblical literature have unique characteristics. In the Bible, there are historical books (such as Acts), dramatic epics ( Job), poetry (Psalms), wise sayings (Proverbs), and apocalyptic books (Daniel and Revelation). Each genre has unique characteristics. (Both poetry and apocalyptic books, for example, contain some symbols.) Genre-awareness helps us to interpret Bible books correctly.
- Consult history and culture. The more we understand the biblical world, the easier it is to interpret Bible verses.
- Pay attention to the “law of double reference.” A single prophetic scripture may refer to two events separated by a period of time. Both prophesied events blend into one picture, masking the intervening time period between them. While the time gap may not be clear in the text, it becomes evident in consultation with other verses. Zechariah 9:9-10 is an example: it prophesies both the first and second comings of Christ.
- Watch for insights about Jesus. From beginning to end—from Genesis to Revelation—the Bible is a Jesus book ( John 5:39-40; Luke 24:27, 44). To illustrate, Jesus is involved in the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17) and the second coming (Revelation 19:11-21), as well as the future judgments of Christians (2 Corinthians 5:10) and unbelievers (Revelation 20:11-15). To correctly understand Bible prophecy, always watch for how Jesus is involved.
Excerpted from Ron Rhodes’s new book, 40 Days Through Bible Prophecy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2023). The book releases on February 7, 2023, and is available wherever books are sold online.
 David Cooper, cited in Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah (San Antonio: Ariel Ministries, 1983), n.p., insert added in place of the less-understood word “axiomatic.”
 Thomas Constable, “Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes,” in The Bible Study App, Olive Tree Bible Software, 2021.
 Charles Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Dubuque: ECS Ministries, 2005), n.p.