No biblical treatment of the subject of the millennium can avoid directly addressing the teaching of Revelation 20:1–11, especially verses 1–6.This is the one passage in the Bible which explicitly speaks of the “millennium,” using an expression which literally means a “thousand years” no less than six times.1 George Eldon Ladd, an able proponent of the classical premillennialist view, has correctly noted that, though the Scriptures may not clearly teach a millennium in other passages, one passage that clearly teaches the millennial reign of Christ after His return at the end of the present age should be sufficient to establish the doctrine. Since he and other pre-millennialists are convinced that Revelation 20 is just such a clear passage of Scripture, my evaluation of pre-millennialism, whether of the historic or dispensational variety, would be incomplete and unconvincing without giving special attention to this passage of Scripture.
Thus far, our evaluation of the two premillennial views, historic and dispensational pre-millennialism, has been rather general. I have argued that the central tenet of all pre-millennialist views, that the return of Christ will come before or “pre-cede” the millennium, does not enjoy the support of the general teaching of Scripture. I have also evaluated more directly some of the features of dispensational pre-millennialism that are unscriptural. However, the key question that may be put to any millennial view remains to be answered: Does the view do justice to the teaching of Revelation 20? If I may borrow language from the arena of warfare, the primary “battleground” in the debates regarding the millennium is the vision of the apostle John recorded in Revelation 20.
Because of the importance of this passage to the debates regarding the millennium, and because there is a great deal of divergence of opinion regarding its interpretation, my treatment of it will be divided into several parts.
In this introductory part of my treatment of this passage, I will only summarize the general understanding of this passage among pre-millennialists. Since this passage plays such a pivotal role in the case for pre-millennialism, it is important to begin with a clear statement of the case for this view so far as it is based upon this passage.
After this introduction and statement of the pre-millennialist case, I will take up in a subsequent article the question of the relation between Revelation 19 and 20. Since one of the aspects of the pre-millennialist case has to do with the relation between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, this question is unavoidable. In this part of our study, I will give some of the reasons why the vision of Revelation 20 regarding the millennium should not be read as though it described events that will occur after the vision in Revelation 19:11–21 (which depicts the event ofChrist’s second coming and triumph over His enemies).
Only after dealing with these preliminary and introductory matters will I turn to the most important parts of our study of Revelation 20. The first of these will be a consideration of the opening section of the vision in Revelation 20, verses 1–3. This section describes the binding of Satan so as to prevent him from deceiving the nations for the period of the millennium.The second of these will be a consideration of the vision in Revelation 20, verses 4–6, which speaks of the saints who “came to life” and reign withChrist during the millennium. In this second section of the vision, reference is made to a “first resurrection” of the believing saints in distinction from an apparent “second resurrection” of the unbelieving at the end of the millennium. Because of the decisive role of this distinction between a “first” and presumably a “second” resurrection in the position of pre-millennialism, this part of the vision will require special attention.
THE PRE-MILLENNIALIST READING OF REVELATION 20
In order to introduce our consideration of Revelation 20, it is necessary to summarize the general pre-millennialist reading of this passage. Most premillennialists would maintain that Revelation 20 is the clearest, most comprehensive, and most direct passage in all of the Scriptures, when it comes to the subject of the millennium. In the view of historic and dispensational premillennialists, Revelation 20 constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any non-premillennialist understanding of the millennium. Before examining this claim in the light of this passage, therefore, the main lines of the pre-millennial view needs to be set forth.
Revelation 20 describes events “after” the return of Christ
The starting point for the premillennialist understanding of Revelation 20 is the claim that the events depicted in the vision of Revelation 20 follow in time the events depicted in the vision of Revelation 19, especially verses 11–21. The sequence of visions in Revelation 19 and 20 should be, on this view, read as a chronological sequence. When read in this manner—the simplest and most straight forward reading according to the pre-millennialist—the visions in these chapters of Revelation describe a number of events in series. What the apostle John is, in effect, revealing in these chapters is on the order of a chronological tale of what will happen in the future. It is as though he were saying, “first this will occur…then this…then this.”
The importance for pre-millennialism of this way of reading the relation between Revelation 19:11–21 and Revelation 20:1–11 becomes evident, when it is noted that most interpreters of the vision in Revelation 19:11–21 regard it to be a description of the second coming of Christ. Reading the vision in Revelation 19 as part of a “continuous narrative” of events in chronological sequence, means that the event of Christ’s return precedes the events described in the vision of Revelation 20. Thus, the return of Christ, depicted at the close of Revelation 19, comes immediately before the events of Christ’s binding of Satan and reign with His saints for a period of one thousand years. When read in this way, the pre-millennialist insistence that the return of Christ precedes the millennium seems indisputable.
Though I will return to this issue of the relation between Revelation 19 and 20 in my next article, it does seem true that the vision of Revelation 19:11–21 describes the second coming of Christ and His victory over all His enemies. There are several reasons for holding this view.
In the vision of Revelation 19:11–16, Christ is described as a Conqueror, as the divine Warrior who comes to vanquish all of His enemies. Christ is portrayed in these verses as riding upon a “white horse” and coming to judge and wage war in righteousness (v. 11). His name is called “The Word of God” (v. 13) and “on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords’” (v. 16). Furthermore, the weapon this glorious and conquering Christ uses to destroy and defeat the “nations” whom He rules with a rod of iron is a “sharp sword” protruding from His mouth (v. 15).The language used in these verses seems best suited as a description of the return of Christ at the end of the age, when He will destroy both His and His people’s enemies (compare 2 Thess. 1 :6-10). The weapon with which Christ will win this victory is not the weapon of the armies of this world, but theWord of God which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
That this vision depicts the return of Christ is confirmed further by the references in Revelation 19 to the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:7–10) and the defeat of the “beast” and the “false prophet” (19:17–21). The “marriage supper of the Lamb” symbolizes the full and intimate communion between Christ, the Lamb, and His blood-bought bride, the church, who will be united at His coming. The destruction of the beast and the false prophet represents the destruction of the “Antichrist” whose person and work were earlier described in Revelation 13 and 17.These events coincide with the return of Christ as the divine Warrior and symbolize His complete defeat of His enemies and establishment of His kingdom at His coming. Within the context of the visions of Revelation, it seems apparent that Revelation 19:11–21 constitutes a symbolic depiction of the second coming of Christ.2
If Revelation 19 is a description of the return of Christ, then it is apparent that much depends upon the relation between its vision and the vision of Revelation 20. On the pre-millennialist view that the vision of Revelation 20 follows the vision of Revelation 19, it seems quite natural to regard the sequence of events in the future as one in which the return of Christ will be followed by the millennium of Revelation 20. For this reason, I will return to this question in my next article in order to argue that there are good reasons to read these two visions as describing events that are parallel and not successive to each other.
The “binding” of Satan is complete
Within the context of this understanding of the relation between Revelation 19 and 20, pre-millennialists believe the description of the millennium in Revelation 20:1–6 clearly supports their position. In these verses, repeated reference is made to a period of “one thousand years” which commences with the “binding” of Satan. This period is a literal period during which Christ will reign with His saints upon the earth after His return at the end of the present age. Throughout this period, with the exception of Satan’s “little season” of rebellion at its close, the nations will be subject to Christ’s blessed reign and the fruits of His reign will be abundantly evident in the earth. The world will enjoy a period of unprecedented prosperity and peace under Christ’s rule. The nations and peoples of the earth will be largely subject to Christ, and the rebellion and disobedience of the nations will be extinguished from the earth.3
In the opening verses of Revelation 20, the binding of Satan is described in this way:
And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time.
Pre-millennialists insist that this description means that, by contrast to his previous freedom to exercise influence and deceive the nations, the binding of Satan will not only curtail but completely exclude any active working of Satan among the peoples and nations of the earth. Christ and His people will enjoy, during the period of Satan’s binding, an unprecedented period of relief from Satan’s wiles and devices. Only at the close of the millennium will Satan be permitted a limited period of rebellion, during which he will once again gather the nations through his deception against Christ and the church.
According to the pre-millennialist, nothing less than this kind of literal millennium, during which Satan is completely bound and prevented from exercising any deceptive influence among the nations, could answer to the description of Revelation 20:1–3. Certainly, the a-millennialist view that the present age of the church coincides with this millennial period is unlikely, if not impossible. Satan enjoys at the present time far too much freedom and influence among the nations to permit this period of history to be identified with the millennial binding of Satan depicted in the vision of Revelation 20:1–3.4
The “first” and “second” resurrections
Perhaps the most vital part of the premillennialist argument from Revelation 20, however, is the reference to a “first resurrection” in this passage. Here premillennialists believe that they have a strong argument for their position on the millennium. In order to state their argument, I would like to begin by quoting verses 4–6 of this passage:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years (emphasis mine).
For pre-millennialists, this description of the “coming to life” of believing saints who reign with Christ during the millennium is of decisive importance. Only believing saints are said to come to life in this way and thereby participate in the “first resurrection.” By contrast, the “rest of the dead” remain in the grave and do not “come to life until the thousand years were completed.” Unlike the saints who are not subject to the “second death,” the unbelieving who do not enjoy this “first resurrection” will comet o life only to be cast forever into the “lake of fire” with the beast and the false prophet (vv. 13–15). Since a close parallel is drawn between those who “come to life” in the “first resurrection,” and those who “come to life” in the “second resurrection,” the most obvious and plain reading of the text would be the one which takes both resurrections to be bodily resurrections, the one of believing saints before the millennium, the other of the unbelieving after the millennium. This is precisely the view of pre-millennialism.
The classic statement of the pre-millennialist argument at this point, and one that is almost invariably quoted in the literature, remains that of Henry Alford:
If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan [souls came to life] at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan [dead came to life] only at the end of a specified period after the first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.5
As this statement of Alford shows, the pre-millennialist takes the language of this passage to support the teaching of two resurrections, both bodily in nature, though distinguished as to their timing (the first precedes, the second follows, the millennium) and benefit (the first grants millennial blessings and an immunity from the second death, the second is unto judgment and death).
When these various pieces of the pre-millennialist case are put together, a fairly clear picture emerges of its understanding of the vision of Revelation 20:1–6. After Christ returns and subdues the nations under His feet, Satan will be bound and the millennium will commence. The millennium will be a one thousand year period of unprecedented blessedness and well-being upon the earth. The nations and peoples of the earth will be united in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. Coinciding with the binding of Satan, believing saints will be raised bodily and granted the privilege of reigning with Christ upon the earth for one thousand years. At the conclusion of the millennium and the little season of Satan’s rebellion at its close, a second resurrection of the unbelieving will occur.The unbelieving will be raised to be judged by Christ and consigned to everlasting punishment in the lake of fire.
Though the pre-millennialist understanding of Revelation 20 may seem to have a kind of initial plausibility, it will be the burden of my argument in subsequent articles on this passage to show that there is another, more biblically consistent, understanding of this passage. The first step in my argument will be a consideration of the relation between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20.Though pre-millennialists insist that these visions depict events that are in chronological sequence, I will maintain in my next article that there are good reasons to read them as parallel descriptions of the same time period. In subsequent articles, I will, God willing, also consider the two most important sections of the vision of Revelation 20, verses 1–3 and verses 4–6.
When this vision is read comparing Scripture with Scripture, I believe it will become apparent that there is a more biblically consistent and compelling understanding of the millennium than that proposed by pre-millennialists. This understanding is one which regards the binding of Satan to be a present reality, spanning the period from Christ’s first to His second coming, during which the gospel of the kingdom is being preached to the ends of the earth. It is also an understanding which regards the first resurrection, not as a bodily resurrection of believing saints prior to the millennium, but as the spiritual resurrection of believers in union with Christ who enjoy thereby victory over the “second death” and the benefit of reigning with Christ.
1 Our English term, “millennium,” is actually the Latin equivalent for the Greek expression used in Revelation 20. a compound word formed from the words for “one thousand” (mille) and “year” (annus) in Latin.
2 George Eldon Ladd. “Historic Premillennialism” (in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1977). p. 34. adds the consideration that were this vision not a reference to the second coming of Christ. the book of Revelation would contain no clear reference to this great event at the end of the age. It should also be noted here that many postmillennialists regard the vision of Revelation 19 to be a description of that point in history (realized suddenly or gradually over time) when Christ’s kingdom will come to ascendancy in the earth, but not a description of Christ’s physical return at the end of the age. These post-millennialist interpreters, therefore, agree that Revelation 19 and 20 should be read as chronologically successive, though they regard the “coming” of Christ in Revelation 19 to be something other than His second coming. See, for example: John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom:Postmillennialism Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pp. 92–93.
3 There are, of course, differences between a historic and a dispensational pre-millennialist understanding of this millennium, particularly in terms of its importance for God’s peculiar purposes for Israel. Though most pre-millennialists believe in a future conversion of many of the children of Israel prior to the millennium, only dispensationalists insist that this represents the resumption of God’s distinctive program for His earthly people, Israel.
4 It is ironic that many post-millennialists echo this criticism of a-millennialism. Many postmillennialists argue that the millennium of Revelation 20 is the “golden age” that will conclude the present period of history before Christ’s return. Only an “unprecedented period” of Christ’s kingly rule, to use a phrase of John Jefferson Davis, can answer to the language of Revelation 20 when it describes the binding of Satan. The alleged “pessimism” and minimal expectation for Christ’s rule in the present age so often characteristic of a-millennialism cannot, in the view of these post-millennialists, be found compatible with the millennium of Revelation 20. See: John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, pp. 93–95.
5 The Greek Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepard,1872), IV; p. 732. Alford does overstate the matter a bit when he says this passage mentions two resurrections. It should be noted that the passage explicitly speaks only of a “first resurrection,” not of a “second resurrection.” Though the idea of a second resurrection is certainly implied, a strict reading of the passage requires noting that what distinguishes the beneficiaries of the first resurrection or coming to life is that they are not subject to the “second death.” Those who “come to life” at the end of the millennium are subject to the second death. Whether their coming to life is a “second resurrection” is not explicitly affirmed in the text.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN