Once the symbolic nature of the scriptures is understood, as well as its origins and its implementation, an entirely new perspective of the gospel emerges. Knowledge of the events and conditions that lead to the religious symbolism of all ancient cultures allows us to see that gospel symbolism and the symbolism of idolatry both have their roots in the same ancient history. That is, the symbolism found in all ancient religions — false and true — shares the same origins.
It also allows us to make a clear distinction between the symbolism of the gospel and the truths of the gospel — hence the title of this article. One gospel is symbolic; the other is literal. The trick is recognizing which is which.
The gospel of symbolism
The symbolism of the gospel is typified by the New Testament book, Revelation. Nearly everything John wrote of was described in traditional, symbolic terms. In fact, it becomes clear that little about future events is ever revealed literally. With only a few notable exceptions, revelation given to prophets seldom explains the future in literal terms. Symbolism is the device used almost exclusively to depict future events. (It is not within the scope of this article to attempt an explanation as to why this is so. Whether symbolism is injected into the message by the prophet, who then transmits it to the people, or whether it comes from a divine source, the reader may judge for himself. Still, the question is worth asking, rhetorically. Why would revelation from an eternal source contain symbolism born in this creation only?)
This symbolic gospel can be an invaluable vehicle for communicating, but both the giver and the receiver must have a clear understanding of its use. Otherwise, the receiver is left with a multitude of confusing images and metaphors that seem meaningless and muddled — the fevered inventions of manic minds. The Savior’s use of parables is a mild form of this symbolic or metaphorical method. Those who were “enlightened” got the full meaning of his story, while the remainder simply heard a prosaic homily.
Clearly, the symbolic gospel is a kind of Gnosticism — a system of metaphors and symbols that both the giver and the receiver must know (hence the Greek term for knowing, gnosis) to properly interpret the story or lesson. Gnostic writings are cluttered with symbolism that is still largely incomprehensible to modern scholars and religionists.
Latter-day Saints fail to recognize that even modern revelation has this element of Gnosticism. Yet, they seem perfectly willing to embrace the gnostic elements of temple worship. This may be a reflection of the intellectual dichotomy the Saints exhibit, or it may be due to simple ignorance and indifference.
This universal use of symbolism is the reason the traditions of other religions — indeed, all the myths and legends of antiquity — seem so extravagant to the modern mind. We have not been schooled in their symbolic traditions. The modern, rationalist philosophy has no place for ancient symbolism. The rationalist — whether an agnostic or a believer — sees ancient symbolism as so much nonsense. Thus, any religion based in ancient symbolism holds no meaning for him or her.
Common traditions, common symbols
The common origin of ancient symbolic religious systems may explain many strange similarities between religions that are usually explained away by the process of diffusion (the migration of ideas, beliefs and practices from one culture to another). The fundamental ideas behind common beliefs and traditions originated in the same ancient heavenly events. It also explains why all ancient religions possess a cosmology in one form or another.
All ancient religious traditions, no matter the religion or culture, share a common origin in ancient heavenly events. Yet, each culture created unique stories, gods, and rituals based on those events. At first glance, the symbolic traditions of one culture appear to have nothing to do with those of another. Yet, upon closer inspection and considering those ancient celestial events, we find that they all share a remarkable degree of coincidence. Those ancient traditions all tell of gods and demons: super-human beings who ruled the heavens, whose actions determined the fate of mankind; they describe a cataclysmic creation and the near destruction of the world. Their traditions are intricately interwoven with astronomical interests: stars, suns, and planets. These religions are filled with concerns for the movement and order of the heavens: the solstice, the equinox, precession, the rising of certain constellations and planets, etc. Seen from this perspective, the disciplines of Comparative Mythology and Comparative Religion are very nearly the same discipline.
This pervasive use of symbolism also explains a small curiosity. When Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord about the meanings of certain passages in Revelation, he was given a more extensive explanation of the symbols themselves — more symbolism, in other words — not their origin or their meaning. Most Saints have the impression that the revelation gave literal explanations for the symbols, but a careful reading will demonstrate that this is not the case. Rather, he was given all the shades of meaning that have been attributed to the symbols from hoary antiquity, attributions typical of the elaboration and exposition of all such symbols that have been going on since the beginning of time. (See Doctrine and Covenants, 77, “. . . explanation of the Revelation of St. John.”)
The gospel of literalism
The truths of the literal gospel are typified by latter-day revelation. (For example, see Doctrine and Covenants 138, “. . . a vision of the redemption of the dead.”) This literal gospel invariably transmits information about the nature of our relationship with God, the pre-existence, the afterlife, the eternities and the purpose of mortality. There is nothing symbolic about it, except perhaps for the language used in a vain attempt to explain the ineffable.
Thus, what we call the gospel is really a combination of two primary elements: symbolism from ancient tradition and literalism from eternal truths. If we can discriminate between the two, there is little concern about misinterpretation. However, if we perceive the two as one, then misunderstanding is inevitable. It is this kind of confusion — mistaking imagery for reality — that has caused some of the most heated debate among Latter-day Saints in this dispensation. More apostasy and more bitter acrimony can be traced to this cause than almost any other.
Take the second coming, for example. The literal gospel teaches us that the Savior will come again to the Earth to usher in an age of peace and prosperity called the Millennium. It gives no details about the actual event, except to suggest that he will simply descend from heaven as he ascended. (See Acts 1:11.) The symbolic gospel describes his coming as if it were to be a staged media event, as the return of a conquering hero: Christ comes with fire in his eyes, wearing many crowns, riding a white horse, with a sword in his mouth, his clothing dipped in blood, and accompanied by concourses of angels. (See Revelation 19:11-15.)
The literal gospel teaches truths; the symbolic gospel employs elaborate imagery to make an entirely different point. In this case, as with so very many other doctrinal issues, this view of the scriptures helps avoid misinterpretations.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2003