The Book of Revelation was intended to be interpreted symbolically. The very first verse (which is most likely the original title of the entire work) implies as much:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
Note that the revelation isn’t just sent to John–it is signified (i.e., “given by a sign”) to him. Why would anyone write this way when they could have written in plain
English Greek? Because in a time of intense political persecution, writing in plain language means signing your own death warrant. (Remember the Bugs Bunny cartoonwhere they throw him to the lions in the Colosseum?) So if the entire purpose of your text is to suggest that, contra official dogma, someone other than the emperor is divine, you’d best signify it. Symbolic reading isn’t some fancy-pants ivory tower approach to a text that we don’t like–it is how the author intended that the text be read. Just as Jesus didn’t think that you would fact-check the parable of the Good Samaritan–that’s another story that was meant to be read seriously but not as historically accurate.
I think on some level even the most conservative of us understand this idea: you didn’t really think that some day a sword would come out of Christ’s mouth (Rev 1:16); even if you didn’t consciously think about or label what you were doing, you knew that this was meant to be a symbolic representation of the idea that power and authority would emanate from the very person of Christ. And you didn’t think your eternal reward would actually consist of holding up the walls of the temple, did you (Rev 3:12)? Good instinct.
Now that I’ve buttered you up, let’s turn to something a little trickier–something where even the most liberal LDS readers tend to go all literal on me. I want to propose that Revelation 11 can be understood as a symbolic representation of the history of the church. First, the text of Revelation 11:3-12:
3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.
6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.
7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.
8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
9 And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.
10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
11 And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
12 And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
Now, before I present my symbolic reading, many of you are probably having this vague feeling that there is something in the D & C about this story . . . can I ask you to just put that thought into cold storage? I promise we’ll get back to it in a minute. But for now, let it go. OK then.
A strictly literal reading of this verse has always struck me as about as appropriate as enchiladas at a Chinese buffet. It just doesn’t fit the context or the author’s design for the book. If this chapter had more ten-headed beasts, we never even would have considered taking it literally. But because the image is something that strikes us as possible (“Mormon elders killed on streets of Jerusalem . . . film at 11.”), we slip into a literal reading. Let’s try a symbolic reading.
In Revelation 11:3, we are introduced to the two witnesses. (The time period–1,260 days–has reference to Dan 12:7, which I mention not because it is relevant to what I am doing here but only because otherwise I’d lose half of you to trying to figure out what it meant.) We are told rather clearly (er, rather clearly by the standard of Revelation, anyway) who exactly these witnesses are in the next verse: they are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks. Revelation 1:20 states that “the seven candlesticks . . . are the seven churches.” So the two candlesticks in this chapter are part of the churches. (Why only part and not all? Because we learned in those chapters that not all of the churches were righteous; some were downright apostate. The fact that this is two and not seven suggests that it represents only the righteous part of the church.)
I need to talk about v6 before v5. V6 has reference to the exercise of priesthood power of Moses (turning water to blood) and Elijah (sealing the heavens). It suggests that the church in John’s day had this priesthood authority. V5 suggests that because they have this power, they will be able to withstand their enemies. V7 implies that the witnesses (=church) will not continue on the earth forever, but that they [i.e., the priesthood power possessing church] will no longer exist. They will die. V8-11 suggest that instead of a ‘proper burial’, the people will rejoice over the dessicated corpses of the church. While I’m not one to overplay the they-were-so-wicked-in-the-dark-ages card, it isn’t a stretch for me to imagine those who gloated at the removal of priesthood from earth and enjoyed using the ‘carcass’ of the church for their own political gain. A corpse in the street is a striking, very appropriate image for a church without priesthood authority.
V11 strikes me as one of the clearest prophesies in all of scripture of the restoration of the church, and its authorized priesthood power, in the latter days. Borrowing language from Ezekiel’s vision of the bones restored to life, this verse pictures God re-creating the church as a new, living entity. The church is, as it were, resurrected. Once again, we are given a very powerful image of the difference between a church without proper authority and a church with it: it is the difference between dried bones and a resurrected body. V12 pictures the final triumph of the kingdom of God. And there you have it: a symbolic reading to Revelation 11 that takes the text as serious and prophetic–but not strictly literal.
Now it is time to defrost D & C 77:15:
15 Q. What is to be understood by the two witnesses, in the eleventh chapter of Revelation?
A. They are two prophets that are to be raised up to the Jewish nation in the last days, at the time of the restoration, and to prophesy to the Jews after they are gathered and have built the city of Jerusalem in the land of their fathers.
So if you were persuaded by my reading of Revelation 11, then what do you do with D & C 77:15? I’ll suggest two possibilities:
(1) We can read D & C 77:15 as less literal than we have in the past. Dare I go so far as to suggest that we are guilty of being overly-literal in our reading of that passage? Obviously the D &C in general requires a far more literal reading than Revelation does, but in this same chapter, we have reference to the seven thousand years of the earth’s existence (v6), four parts of the Earth (v8), and six days of creation (v12), none of which are concepts that we ought take literally. (Again: that doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously.) In verse 15, itself, we need to work past strict literalness in that we get “prophets,” plural. Who ever said that a question about a symbol could not be answered by another symbol? So I want you to at least open your mind to the idea that the “two prophets” of D & C 77:15 are not two ordained priesthood holders in suits. Focus instead on the phrase “raised up.” Indeed, the “prophets” are “raised up”–and it happens in Revelation 11:11 when the church is restored to the earth. As the title page of the Book of Mormon makes clear, part of the purpose of the Restoration is so the Church can prophesy to the Jews.
(2) Another option is to see the D & C as implying that there will be a literal fulfillment of Revelation 11 at some point in the future, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a symbolic reading of the text that is applicable throughout history. Another example of this symbolic-and-literal reading would be Revelation 13:18, the infamous number of the beast. It is possible to read that text as having a literal, historical fulfillment (following the ancient practice of assigning numbers to letters, which means that the number corresponding to the name of an actual historical real person in John’s time [probably a Roman emperor] ) as well as a symbolic fulfillment (based largely on the idea that all those sixes are one removed from the perfect, complete number seven).
Whether you find (1) or (2) more persuasive largely depends on how you choose to read Revelation: do you see it as a strictly symbolic text (and therefore prefer option one) or do you see it as a text with one specific historical fulfillment and a second symbolic fulfillment applicable more generally (and therefore prefer option two)? I personally am not sure which approach is preferable overall, although I tend to lean toward option one. While I admit that D & C 77:15 seems, at first blush, to point us in the other direction, I think closer attention to its context and precise wording doesn’t mandate a literal reading of Revelation 11. (Incidentally, while I realize that the literal reading of this story is the usual LDS approach, it has not made an appearance in General Conference in the last 30 years and makes it into the Institute manual only under the authority of Parley Pratt.)
What I do find in my reading of Revelation 11–regardless of whether you prefer option one or two–is this: a powerful, hopeful message, given to John from God, that prophesies both the apostasy and the restoration of the church in the latter days.
BONUS INTERPRETATION: Revelation 9 describes the release of four angels who are to destroy a third of humans. They have 200,000,000 horsemen with them; they are described thusly:
“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.”
The breastplates of fire would be red. The jacinth would have been blue. Brimstone (sulphur) is yellow. What are these? Primary colors. What are we led to conclude? Primary children are destructive and evil. QED.