Much of the end-times disagreement among believers stems from differing interpretations of the millennium of Revelation 20. Regrettably, debate over the millennium is often the sum of what Christians understand to be the end times. As suggested previously, our view of the millennium is not our eschatology but merely an aspect of it. Our apprehension of the last things should be much richer and broader than how we understand the relationship of Christ’s return to this thousand years. The especially-American preoccupation with the millennium suggests a theological imbalance.
Still, the millennium of Revelation 20, whatever it means, invites our study. In this article, six times the phrase “thousand years” is used to describe a period of time in which Satan is bound and therefore unable to deceive the nations (vv. 2–3, 7), in which martyred witnesses and priests of God live and reign with Christ (vv. 4, 6), and in which some of the dead still anticipate a resurrection (v. 5). How do these verses help us understand and yearn for the return of Jesus?
The Leading Positions
The respective positions on the millennium each answer these questions: What are the “thousand years” and when do they occur, especially in relation to the second coming of Jesus?
A Literal Event
Premillennialists believe the millennium to be a literal thousand-year period in which Christ will reign on earth after his return. Historic premillennialism can be summarized as follows. Prior to Christ’s second coming, the spiritual conditions of this present age will steadily decline, especially near the end. Under antichrist’s leadership the church will endure great persecution. At the appointed time Christ will return from heaven, destroy antichrist and his allies, physically resurrect the saints and convert the Jewish people— restoring them to their land—and inaugurate a thousand-year kingdom of God on earth in which righteousness will flourish. At the end of the millennium God will, for a second time, raise the dead and judge everyone who has lived. He will then create a new heaven and earth in which he will dwell forever with his people, having confined to hell the devil, the rest of the fallen angels, and all unbelievers.
Starting in the early nineteenth century, premillennialism became influenced by the hermeneutic of dispensationalism. In this theology, redemptive history is generally divided into seven periods of testing called dispensations. At the end of the dispensation of law (from Moses to Christ), God sent his Son to restore his kingdom to Israel. But, because his people rejected Christ, God suspended his unique dealings with Israel and began a completely separate and temporary church age. When this “dispensation of grace” ends, God will finally establish the kingdom with Israel during the final dispensation, the millennial age. According to this view, Christ will usher in the millennium in this way: First he will return in the clouds to raise deceased believers and rapture living believers to himself. While the church is with the Lord, out of the world, the Jewish people will finally embrace the message of the kingdom; those who believe will endure a terrible persecution. At the end of seven years Christ will come to earth with the church, bind Satan for a thousand years, and fulfill all God’s promises for the Jews, including the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem and the restoration of sacrifices.
A more contemporary movement, known as progressive dispensationalism, minimizes the traditional dispensational distinction between Israel and the church and recognizes that the promises made to Israel are, even in this present age, being partly fulfilled in the church.
Postmillennial theologians likewise expect a more or less literal thousand-year earthly reign of Christ, though preceding (rather than succeeding) his second coming. Postmillennialists expect “the gospel” to “in the end become immeasurably more effective than it is at present” and to “usher in a period of rich spiritual blessings for the Church of Jesus Christ, a golden age, in which the Jews will also share in the blessings of the gospel in an unprecedented manner.” Christ will return, according to this theory, “after the triumph of Christianity throughout the earth.”
Contrasting both theories, amillennialism understands the thousand years of Revelation 20 as a figurative number embracing the entire age between Christ’s work at Calvary and his final return in glory and power. Amillennialists “hold that the promises made to Israel . . . in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus Christ and his church during the present age.” Christ is presently reigning from heaven over all history. He has bound Satan and, through his Spirit, is actively advancing the kingdom through the gospel. This position anticipates a single future return of Christ at which he will raise the dead, judge the world, and inaugurate the age to come.
Key Interpretive Principles
The widespread Christian disagreement over the millennium urges us to look beneath the respective theories and behind the contested passages, to the lenses through which interpreters approach Scripture. As noted earlier, our hermeneutic—the assumptions and practices by which we interpret the Bible— precedes our interpretation. Specifically, what interpretive premises seem to favor an amillennial interpretation of the thousand years in Revelation 20?
The Unity of the Covenants
Dispensationalists sharply distinguish Israel and the church and therefore deny that the promises made to Israel can be fulfilled in the church; the promises God made to Israel must be fulfilled to Israel. An amillennial hermeneutic acknowledges that the prophetic “[projected] image of the future is Old Testament-like through and through; it is all described in terms of Israel’s own history and nation. But into these sensuous earthly forms prophecy puts everlasting content.” When God made promises to Israel he was speaking not merely to a historical, ethnic group but to a covenant people organically connected (Rom. 11:24) to God (John 15:1–8) by faith in Christ (Heb. 4:1–2). “Therefore the New Testament is not an . . . interlude, neither a detour nor a departure from the line of the Old Covenant, but the long-aimed-for goal, the direct continuation and the genuine fulfillment, of the Old Testament.” The church made up of Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11–22) can rightly inherit the promises made to Israel (Heb. 11:13–39). A covenantal understanding of Scripture eliminates an inclination to see the millennium as a unique dispensation of the kingdom of God for Israel.
The Unique Apocalyptic Genre of Revelation
As stated previously, if the book of Revelation is seen as a chronological roadmap of the future, and if Revelation 19 is understood to depict Christ’s second coming in judgment, one will tend to read Revelation 20 through premillennial lenses. But if Revelation is a multi-angled glimpse into Christ’s present and future rule over all things, then the interpreter need not force each scene into a consecutive chronology.
Likewise, given the symbolic character of the book, “‘A thousand years’ is no more to be taken literally than any other number in Revelation,” such as the 144,000 of Revelation 14. It should be noted that outside of Revelation 20, the phrase “thousand years” is never used to describe a definite time period connected to Christ’s return. In fact, in one of other three uses of the phrase, Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 to remind believers that God does not measure a thousand years the same we humans do (2 Pet. 3:8–9).
Interpreters are bound to a basic rule that especially applies to the highly symbolic language of Revelation 20: use clear texts to interpret less clear texts.
The Biblical Tension of the Inaugurated-but-not-yet-consummated Kingdom of God
When we approach Revelation 20, or similar texts, “we should not assume that biblical prophecy is weighted toward the past or the future. Rather, it is part of the ‘already’/’not yet’ dialectic of redemptive history.” The apostle John, like the prophets before him, was writing for a people who could say, “We are receiving a kingdom” (Heb. 12:28) even as they prayed for God’s kingdom to come (Matt. 6:10). God’s people have been saved (Eph. 2:8), are being saved (Acts 2:47), and will be saved through endurance (Matt. 10:22). Satan is now restrained; at the last day he will be removed. An amillennial approach can help avoid both the premillennial temptation of retreatism and the postmillennial inclination toward triumphalism. The millennium is now; the new heavens and new earth are coming.
The Thousand Years of Revelation 20:1–10
n these verses John sees current and future realities from a heavenly perspective.
Satan Is Bound (vv. 1–3)
In his vision John saw “an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:1–2). While bound, the devil is restricted from deceiving the nations (v. 3).
The dispensational assumption is that the binding of Satan is a future event reserved for the millennium.
But Jesus used strikingly similar language to describe his already-active assault on Satan’s kingdom. Here is how our Lord responded The Outlook to the Pharisees’ accusation that he was casting out demons by the ruler of the demons (Matt. 12:24): “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (v. 29). Jesus, by the Spirit of God, was plundering Satan’s house; this, he claimed, was a sure sign that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 28). The disciples Jesus sent out to preach the gospel perceived that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name. Jesus agreed: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold I give you authority . . . over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10:17– 19). Time and again the Gospels indicate that even satanic hosts understood that at Christ’s coming their rule over the nations was deteriorating. Often Jesus cast out devils that had inhabited peoples of “the nations” (Matt. 8:28–34, Mark 7:26; cf. Rev. 20:3). At Pentecost the dozen nations from which three thousand people were saved surrounded Jerusalem in every direction of the compass, stretching as far away as Rome, fifteen hundred miles west. Those who are being saved now—during the gospel age of the millennium—are a vast host from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people (Rev. 5:9).
At Christ’s first coming the dark winter of near worldwide unbelief began turning to spring. By his death and resurrection Jesus checked the devil’s seemingly unmitigated reign of treachery. He does still prowl and devour (1 Pet. 5:8). But he does so with the “desperate and angry struggle of a defeated foe.” Christ is loosening Satan’s stranglehold on the nations. John’s apocalypse is good news. And not just for those living in the millennium, but for John’s original audience and for believers today. In the cross, Christ destroyed the devil (Heb. 2:14). Believers now overcome Satan “by the blood of the Lamb” shed on Calvary (Rev. 12:11). “The truth of the matter is that the cross marks Satan’s defeat, and Satan knows it.” God’s “victory over Satan is as decisive as if the devil were already dead and buried.”
The Saints Reign (vv. 4–6)
John also saw, during this thousand years, thrones upon which sat “the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God” (v. 4). Dispensationalists assume that the thousand-year reign of these souls with Christ must take place after a bodily resurrection inaugurating Jesus’ millennial reign on earth. But John seems to be communicating something different.
John does not see resurrected people but living souls. The souls of believers who had been martyred for their Christian witness had experienced a sort of resurrection, what John calls the “first resurrection.” It is a resurrection reflective of Jesus’ conversation with Martha in John
11. Martha believed that one day her deceased brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v. 24). But Jesus corrected her. Because he is the resurrection and the life, even prior to the general resurrection, those who die in him still live (vv. 25–26). Union with Christ is a genuine resurrection. Those who are raised with Christ (Col. 3:1) will not yield to the power of the second death (Rev. 20:6). Already, prior to the general resurrection, believers are priests of God (Rev. 1:6; cf. Rev. 20:6). John, therefore, does not improperly describe the souls of martyrs in heaven as having tasted the first resurrection. By contrast “the rest of the dead”—the ungodly dead—“did not live again until the thousand years were finished” and they were raised to judgment and condemnation.
To press John’s vision into a literal future timetable introduces several problems. First, it overlooks the explicitly non-literal character of the passage. How does John see souls? John is “showing” his readers things that cannot be seen. He is painting ideas more than literal scenes. Second, to insist that the souls in these verses have experienced the general resurrection is to minimize the importance of that resurrection as a reunion of body and soul.
Rather than describing a future millennium, John seems to be describing the blessed state of those who did not “love their lives to the death” (Rev. 12:11), who did not value their lives more than their Lord. Believers are as secure in this world as they are on the thrones of heaven. This eternal security frees us to be “faithful unto death” trusting that God will give us “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
Satan Is Loosed and Destroyed (vv. 7–10)
John also saw the expiration of the thousand years, the end of the present age of gospel prosperity. Shortly before Jesus returns to earth “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations” (v. 8) “for a little while” (v. 3). For a brief season gospel progress will halt and God’s people will endure unprecedented persecution. The devil will gather the deceived nations, represented as “the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea” (v. 8). This great battle is a magnification of the war between the forces of good and evil which have battled since the beginning. As prophesied by Ezekiel (Ezek. 38–39), this great enemy of the church will fight against God’s people but will not prevail.
God’s people have never had much visible, tangible hope to see their enemies defeated. In the battle against Gog and Magog, victory for God’s people seems impossible. “In these final days which shall immediately precede Christ’s second coming the opposition to the church is going to be worldwide: the entire world, functioning as one great social and political unit under the leadership of antichristian government, will do its utmost to destroy the church.” All hope in a manmade age of peace, a human utopia, will expire. God’s plan—as always—is to save at just the right moment, so that “the weak and helpless shall his pity know. He will surely save them from oppression’s might, for their lives are precious in His holy sight.”
On the last day the battle will be decisively finished by the return of Christ in great power and glory. Satan does not determine how this age will end. “When antichrist’s program is only half finished . . . when he is about to launch his final deadly attack, then of a sudden, the heavens will open wide and our glorious Lord Jesus Christ will appear.” “Then the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (Ezek. 39:7).
Revelation 20 offers great hope for the future. But it also helps citizens of the kingdom to live contentedly, faithfully, and courageously under God’s current, blessed reign.
1. What does the word “millennium” mean? In general, how is the word used in Revelation 20?
2. What is premillennialism? What is postmillennialism?
3. What is amillennialism?
4. Summarize the dialogue in Matthew 12:25–30. How are Jesus’ words encouraging?
5. Who are the souls who reign with Christ for a thousand years? What effect can this “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) have on the church today?
6. In what sense do believers live and reign with Christ even prior to death (See Rev. 1:6, Heidelberg Cat. Q/A 32)?
7. Does Revelation 20 seem to suggest a literal, military battle between God’s people and Gog and Magog? If not, what does this battle symbolize?
8. How does Revelation 20:1–10 exalt God and encourage God’s people?
Rev. William Boekestein happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke).
1 The mere title of Charles Ryrie’s The Basis of the Premillennial Faith is anecdotal evidence of how a theory of Christ’s return can inappropriately be elevated to the essence of the Christian faith
2 See George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
3 Thanks to John Jeffery for pointing out to me that the physical restoration of land to the Jewish people is not universally held among historic premillennialists, some of whom are supersessionists (what has also been labeled “replacement theology”). George Eldon Ladd is an influential example of a historical premillennialist who would deny such future fulfillments to national Israel. See Barry Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, in the New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology, series ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 180–83, s.v. “The Hermeneutic of George Eldon Ladd.” Citations from Ladd’s writings include George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), 23; A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 433; and The Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 9–18.
4 See Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007). It should be noted that despite dispensationalism’s significant influence historic premillennialism remains a prevalent contemporary eschatology. See George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956).
5 On the differing number of dispensations identified among dispensationalists see, for example, C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2007, 1995; 1966 as Dispensationalism Today), 51–54. “Occasionally a dispensationalist may hold as few as four, and some hold as many as eight” (53).
6 It might be noted (again with thanks to John Jeffery) that especially among some of the older traditional dispensationalists the church is not seen as returning “to earth” with Christ. Clarence Larkin is one who is usually understood as depicting the church as above the earth during the millennium. On this teaching see J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 577–79. John Walvoord presents this teaching as follows: “If the new Jerusalem is in existence throughout the millennial reign of Christ, it is possible that it is a satellite city suspended over the earth during the thousand-year reign of Christ as the dwelling place of resurrected and translated saints who also have access to the earthly scene. This would help explain an otherwise difficult problem of the dwelling place of resurrected and translated beings on the earth during a period in which men are still in their natural bodies and living ordinary lives. If so, the new Jerusalem is withdrawn from the earthly scene in connection with the destruction of the old earth, and later comes down to the new earth. As presented in Revelation 21 and 22, however, the new Jerusalem is not seen as it may have existed in the past, but as it will be seen in eternity future. The possibility of Jerusalem being a satellite city over the earth during the millennium is not specifically taught in any scripture and at best is an inference based on the implication that it has been in existence prior to its introduction in Revelation 21. Its characteristics as presented here, however, are related to the eternal state rather than to the millennial kingdom.” John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 312–13, s.v. “First Vision of the New Jerusalem (21:2);” on Bible.org, https://bible.org/seriespage/21- new-heaven-and-new-earth, accessed March 28, 2017.
7 The restoration of blood sacrifices is generally though not universally held among traditional dispensationalists.
8 See Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: BridgePoint, 2000). For a critical assessment of the hermeneutical foundation of this movement see Robert L. Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism, The Master’s Seminary Journal 6, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 79–95.
9 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 716. 10 J. Marcellus Kick, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R, 1971), 4.
11 Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 40.
12 Dispensationalist C. C. Ryrie admits, “The doctrine of the millennial kingdom is for the dispensationalist an integral part of his entire scheme and interpretation of many Biblical passages. Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), 160. Emphasis added.
13 Herman Bavinck, The Last Things (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 90.
14 Bavinck, The Last Things, 98.
15 Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 223–24.
16 Indeed, a helpful definition of apocalyptic literature will emphasize the central theme of “the coming victory of God” depicted by “means of symbolic images.” Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 240. Bernard Ramm is right to say that in interpreting prophesy, including apocalyptic prophesy, “The balance in prophetic interpretation” between literalism and spiritualism “is not easy to attain. Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 254. In fact, “in the interpretation of apocalyptic imagery a complete literalistic method is impossible” (268).
17 Joel Beeke, Revelation, The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 517.
18 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 939.
19 Horton, The Christian Faith, 942.
20 D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 42.
21 Beeke, Revelation, 515.
22 So Geerhardus Vos can say, “Paul also found the principle of the resurrection in the possession of the Spirit and spoke of purely spiritual processes in terms of rising from the dead, and yet alongside of this he held to the doctrine of a literal resurrection of the body in the future. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 321.
23 Herman Hoeksema, Behold He Cometh: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), 648–49.
24 William Hendriksen, Three Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1949), 27.
25 Versification of Psalm 72:13–14 from Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), Song 135:2.
26 Hendriksen, Three Lectures, 35.