The Millennium of Revelation 20
by David A. Sherwood
Eschatological Parochialism. When most Christians hear the word "millennium," they immediately think of a future, earthly one thousand year reign of Christ over the Jewish people. It is one thing for people to hold such a view. But for people to be unaware that other interpretive options exist is surely evidence that the "Evangelical ghetto" needs to broaden its horizons. Whatever you end up believing about the millennium, we ask that you at least be aware of the fact that many interpreters, Christians who believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, reject the notion of a future, earthly millennial kingdom.
Disproportionate Emphasis. One's beliefs about the millennium must not be allowed to assume a disproportionate degree of importance. We need to remember that the millennium is mentioned by name in only one biblical text. To whatever extent you form definite views on this doctrine, make sure that is merely one small part of a larger biblical theology.
MAJOR MILLENNIAL VIEWS
- Historic Premillennialism—believes in an earthly millennial kingdom set up after the return of Christ and including all of God's people, both Jews and Gentiles.
- Dispensational Premillennialism—believes in an earthly millennial kingdom set up after the return of Christ in which Christ rules over the re-established theocracy of Israel.
- Postmillennialism—believes that the millennium will be a time of the triumph of the Gospel, a substantial Christianization of the world, before the return of Christ. The millennium is either coextensive with the present age or it begins sometime during the present age.
- Amillennialism—believes the millennium of Rev. 20 is the present, heavenly reign of Christ and the saints, spanning the period of time from Christ's first coming to shortly before his second coming. It should be noted that many postmillennialists would also endorse this understanding.
GENERAL INTERPRETIVE CONSIDERATIONS
Interpreting the Obscure in Light of the Clear. One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is that obscure passages of Scripture should be interpreted in light of clear passages of Scripture, not the other way around. With respect to eschatology, we should first find out what the Bible teaches with relative clarity about the end times and then seek to find out how the more difficult texts may be understood in light of what is clear. Contrary to the views of some, the basic structure of biblical eschatology is relatively simple. There is this age and there is the age to come. This age is characterized by the inauguration, the partial fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The age to come will be characterized by the consummation, the complete fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The clear witness of the Scriptures seems to be that, after this present age, the only major epoch will be the final state. Premillennialists (and perhaps some postmillennialists) ask us to believe that there will be an "intermediate kingdom," a millennial reign that is coextensive with neither the present age nor the final state and that the basis for this intermediate kingdom is substantially if not entirely to be found in Rev. 20:1-6. We respond by saying that asking us to believe in the existence of another period/dispensation almost exclusively on the basis of one hotly-disputed text is asking too much. In our judgment, it is far more reasonable to assume the simple structure of this age and the age to come, and then ask if there's a plausible way in which the millennium of Rev. 20 can be understood within this framework.
Recapitulationist View of Revelation (Progressive Parallelism). This view of the structure of the book argues that Revelation consists of a number of sections that are chronologically parallel to one another, i.e. that all the sections describe events occurring from Christ's first coming to his second coming. In particular, this view argues that Chapter 20 begins a new section and thus the events described at the beginning of this section will likely have to do with events connected with the first coming of Christ as opposed to his second coming. Variations of this view are held by such well-respected Reformed scholars as Anthony Hoekema, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Louis Berkhof, William Hendriksen, B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and Meredith Kline, just to name a few.
AN AMILLENNIAL INTERPRETATION OF REVELATION 20:1-8
Introduction of a New Vision. The introductory phrase "And (or Then) I saw" does not indicate that John is having a vision of events temporally subsequent to the events of the previous nineteen chapters. Rather, it's simply a new vision; and, according to the Recapitulationist perspective, it's a vision of events that are not restricted to the return of Christ.
The Binding of Satan, The Casting of Satan into a Pit. The defeat of Satan and the curtailment of his influence is described in two ways: he is cast into a bottomless pit and he is bound; what this means must be defined by the context. This is not a description of Satan's final destiny, the lake of fire (cf. vv. 10, 14-15). Rather, it is a symbolic description of how Satan's influence is curtailed during the one thousand years. Specifically, the effect of the binding of Satan, of his being cast into a pit, is that he is no longer able to deceive the nations (v. 3); this is the definition of the binding that is actually given in the text. This then is a reference to the breaking of Satan's stranglehold upon the nations as a result of the work of Christ. In Mt. 12:29, the language of "binding" is used in reference to the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the decisive defeat of Satan in connection with the work of Christ. Similarly, the ministry and work of Christ are seen as bringing about the decisive defeat of Satan (Lk. 10:17-18; Jn. 12:31-32; Col. 2:15).
Thus Satan is currently in the pit, he is currently bound. This does not mean that Satan is not active in many other ways. We wholeheartedly believe that Satan tempts people and that he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8). But with respect to his deceiving the nations as he once did, he is bound. Put positively, the binding of Satan coincides with the progress and triumph of the Gospel among the nations. Consequently, this is a great missions text, giving the Church encouragement and confidence that the proclamation of the Gospel will bear fruit.
It is interesting and significant to note that this binding of Satan and his being cast into a pit finds a parallel in Rev. 12:1-14. Here Satan is cast down to the earth, having been decisively defeated by Christ. But as in Rev. 20, this decisive defeat does not mean that Satan is totally inactive. Far from it—it is a time of his persecuting the people of God.
The Thousand Years. The period of time during which Satan is bound and in the pit (and during which the martyrs reign with Christ) is a thousand years (a millennium). Numbers in the Bible are frequently symbolic. It would be natural to expect that in this, arguably the most symbolic book of the Bible, that we would find many symbolic numbers. "Ten" is a number of completeness. "One thousand" is ten cubed. Thus we would suggest that the thousand years is a long period of time of indeterminate length representing the present age in its fullness.
Heavenly Thrones. This describes the present, heavenly reign with Christ of deceased believers, particularly those who have been martyred for the faith.
The First Resurrection. It is said of the martyrs (described in the first part of v. 4) that they "came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years." Then, after a parenthetical comment about the rest of the dead in v. 5a, their coming to life is called "the first resurrection." At first glance this might seem to be a reference to the resurrection of the body, thus giving support to the premillennial contention that that there are at least two resurrections with a millennial reign in between. But the Bible teaches one general resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (Jn. 5:28-29), and this is not described until vv. 11-13. Instead, we would suggest that this coming to life, also called the first resurrection, describes the death of the Christian. In a wonderfully ironic way, for the Christian dying is a coming to life; "to die is to gain." Immediately upon death, the believer enjoys a spiritual resurrection. For a cogent defense of this view, see Meredith G. Kline "The First Resurrection" Westminster Theological Journal 37:3 (Spring 1975) 366-75.
The Rest of the Dead. This reference in v. 5a is to the unbelieving dead. But if the interpretation of "coming to life" given above is correct, why does the text read "the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended?" Does not the use of the word "until" imply that at the end of the thousand years the rest of the dead do come to life and does not this fact invalidate our contention that the first resurrection refers to a spiritual resurrection? It might seem so. But the use of the world "until" in Scripture does not necessarily imply that a condition which prevails up to a certain point will change afterwards. Cf. Mt. 24:38; Acts 23:1; 26:22; Rom. 5:13a; 8:22; 1 Cor. 4:11; Rev. 2:26. In other words, the rest of the dead never do come to life in the sense of v. 4.
The Second Death. This phrase refers to the lake of fire, eternal punishment, which has no power over the believer.
*Actually Mentioned in Text
FIRST SECOND DEATH Physical Death of Unbelievers *Eternal Punishment of Wicked at Resurrection RESURRECTION *Physical Death of Believers Physical Resurrection of Believers
The Release of Satan. At the end of the thousand years, Satan is let loose for a little while (vv. 3, 7). This happens at some time prior to the return of Christ. Once Satan is let loose, he is able again to deceive the nations (v. 8). This coincides with an end-time apostasy and wickedness and the reign of the man of lawlessness.
For a comparative study of different views of the millennium, see The Meaning of the Millennium, ed. Robert Clouse. In this volume, the amillennial view is ably defended by Anthony Hoekema. See also Hoekema's The Bible and the Future, in our judgment the best all-round book on biblical eschatology.
© David A. Sherwood