In my previous article summarizing the pre-millennialist case for its understanding of Revelation 20, I observed that a key issue in the interpretation of this passage is that of the relation between the visions of Revelation 19:11–21 and Revelation 20:1–11. If the vision which concludes Revelation 19 is a vision of the second coming of Christ at the end of the present age, and if the vision of the millennium in Revelation 20 describes events which occur after this event, then the primary claim of pre-millennialism would seem to be confirmed. For on this understanding of the relation of these visions, the millennium would commence after the return of Christ. An important piece of the pre-millennialist case, accordingly, rests upon its claim that these visions be read in a chronologically successive manner—they describe events on the order of “first this…then this,” the return of Christ preceding the binding of Satan and the millennial reign of Christ with His saints.
Before taking up directly the vision of Revelation 20, especially verses 1-6, in subsequent articles, I would like first to address this issue of the relation between the visions of Revelation 19 and Revelation 20. Must these visions be read in chronological succession, as pre-millennialists typically maintain? Or, are there reasons to believe that the events depicted in these visions may parallel each other?
Though the claim of pre-millennialism that these visions are successive has an initial plausibility, there are several reasons, some more significant than others, why they should be read as parallel descriptions of the same time period and events. A careful study of these visions within the setting of the book of Revelation as a whole suggests that these visions describe the same period of history, but from differing vantage points.
THE RECAPITULATORY STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Many students of the book of Revelation have observed that it is structured according to a series of visions, several of which repeat or recapitulate events and periods of history covered in preceding or following visions. The book consists of a series of visional sequences, each of which covers events that occur within the period between Christ’s first and second coming. It can hardly be read, therefore, as a prophecy of future events which describes them in their exact chronological order. There is a great deal of overlapping among the visions recorded, and often the visions jump from one set of events to another. In spite of the wide range of interpretation of the book among those who are preterist, futurist or idealist in their reading of its prophecy, most interpreters of the book are agreed that it should not be read like a historical novel, a kind of preview of upcoming events listed in their order of occurrence, from the first to the last.1
William Hendriksen, for example, in his overview of the book of Revelation concludes that its structure is one of progressive parallelism. He notes that the book can be divided into seven distinct sections, the first three describing events between Christ’s first and second comings as they transpire upon the earth, the second three describing events between Christ’s first and second comings as they transpire in heaven. The first three sections are: the description of Christ dwelling among the seven churches in the world, represented by means of the seven lampstands (chapters 1–3); the vision of the church suffering trial and persecution, represented by the seven seals (chapters 4–7); and the description of the church protected and ultimately vindicated, represented by the seven trumpets (chapters 8–11). In these first three sections of the book, the progress and unfolding of events under Christ’s dominion are portrayed from the vantage point of the earth. These sections describe the foreground of history.
However, in the last four sections of the book, events are described from the vantage point of their background in the conflict between Christ and the anti-Christ. These four sections are: the description of Christ opposed by the dragon and his helpers (chapters 12–14); the description of the pouring out of God’s wrath upon the unbelieving and impenitent, represented by means of the seven bowls of judgment (chapters 15–16); the description of the fall of Babylon and of the beasts (chapters 17–19); and the description of the final defeat of the dragon, including the commencement of the final state (chapters 20–22). According to Hendriksen, the seven sections of the book of Revelation should be read as parallel descriptions of the period between the first and the second coming of Christ. They parallel and often recapitulate events earlier described in preceding visions. Furthermore, as the book of Revelation proceeds, there is a progressive emphasis upon the events that lie upon the furthest horizon of history, just prior to the end of the present age. For this reason, the book concludes with a grand vision of the state of consummation, the new heavens and the new earth.2
Whether Hendriksen’s analysis of the structure of the book of Revelation is entirely correct in all of its particulars is not so important at this juncture. What is important is that it illustrates a commonly acknowledged feature of the book: that it should not be read as a linear description of end-time events. The simple fact that a vision follows another vision in the sequence of visions in the book of Revelation does not mean that the events depicted in these successive visions are successively occurring events. They may well be events, as is often true throughout the book, which parallel and recapitulate events earlier represented in a preceding vision. This means that the visions of Revelation 19 and 20 need not be read as though they depicted events in sequence. If there are other clues in the text that suggest that these visions are parallel or recapitulatory, then there is no reason to insist, certainly no reason so far as the structure of the book of Revelation is concerned, to insist that they are in chronological order.
Recognizing this general structure of the book of Revelation is important because it raises the question whether Revelation 20 might be introducing a new vision sequence, a vision whose events parallel and repeat the course of events earlier depicted in other visions. However, an analysis of the general structure of Revelation alone is insufficient proof that this is in fact the case. Is there more specific evidence that Revelation 20 begins a new vision sequence in parallel with the vision of Revelation 19? Indeed, there is. There are several features of the visions of Revelation 19 and 20 that corroborate the thesis that they should not be read in sequence, but in parallel to each other.
There are at least six such features that are of particular significance and that I would like to enumerate.3
PARALLEL FEATURES OF REVELATION 19 AND 20
1. The theme of angelic ascent and descent
First, the vision of Revelation 20 begins with the descent of an angel from heaven in order to bind Satan for a period of one thousand years. In other instances in the book of Revelation where an angel’s as cent or descent begins a new vision sequence, the vision portrays the course of events from the present time to the time of Christ’s return at the end of the age. For example, similar visions of an angel ascending or descending are found in Revelation 7:2, 10:1 and 18:1. In these instances, the angel’s ascent or descent occurs at a time clearly prior to the return of Christ and marks the beginning of a vision whose sequence of events concludes with the coming of Christ in final victory over His enemies. It would not be surprising, accordingly, were the angel’s descent in Revelation 20 to be another instance of this pattern. Not only would this be consistent with the structuring of the book of Revelation throughout, but it would also be following a pattern evident elsewhere in which vision sequences which parallel each other are introduced by the announcement of an ascending or descending angel.
2. The discrepancy between Revelation 19:11–21 and Revelation 20:1–3
Second, there is an obvious discrepancy between the visions of Revelation 19 and Revelation 20, if they are read in sequence. In Revelation 19:11–21, especially verses 19–21, we see a vision of Christ’s triumph over and destruction of “the nations” which are opposed to His kingdom. The language used to describe this triumph is very vigorous: all the nations are described as taking up arms against Christ and are said to fall without exception by the sword that He wields against them. Christ’s victory over the nations is complete and final. They are wholly destroyed at His coming. However, if the vision ofRevelation 20 follows in time and sequence the vision of Revelation 19, it seems nonsensical to speak of the binding of Satan in order to prevent his deception of the nations. Presumably, nations that have been utterly destroyed constitute no viable or continuing threat to the reign of Christ or the deceptive wiles of Satan. What sense does it make to speak of nations being protected from Satanic deception, when the nations which were formerly deceived by Satan have now been completely vanquished?
Pre-millenialists who recognize this discrepancy may suggest, in order to mute its obvious implications for their view, that the “nations” of Revelation 20 are survivors of the battle described in Revelation 19. There are two difficulties, however, with this suggestion. On the one hand, the language of Revelation 19’s vision of the nations’ defeat is too absolute to allow for the notion that some nations survive unscathed. And on the other hand, the terminology of “the nations” is typically used in the book of Revelation to denote nations in their opposition to Christ and His church. The nations are the nations in rebellion against the Lord’s anointed. On this pre-millennialist construction, the nations of Revelation 20 would actually be the peoples of the earth during the millennial reign of Christ. The nations of Revelation 20 would have a different reference than the nations mentioned just before in Revelation 19.
3. The use of Ezekiel 38–39 in these visions
Third, in both the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, the language used is extensively borrowed from the prophecy of Ezekiel 38–39.
The prophecy of Ezekiel 38–39 describes a great end-times battle between the Lord and the nations of the north who are opposed to Him and His people. In the description of this great battle upon the mountains of Israel, reference is made to “Gog,” prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and to “Magog.”
There are several striking parallels in the use of Ezekiel 38–39 in the visions of Revelation 19 and 20. In Revelation 19:17–18, an angel issues an invitation to the great supper of God. This invitation is almost an exact quotation of the invitation extended for the Gog-Magog conflict in the prophecy of Ezekiel (39:17–20). However, in Revelation 20:7–10, when the apostle John describes the great warfare that will conclude Satan’s little season at the close of the millennium, the prophecy of Ezekiel regarding Gog-Magog is again drawn upon extensively. The nations in rebellion are termed “Gog and Magog” (v. 8; compare Ezek. 38:2; 39:1, 6). The weapon used by God to destroy Gog-Magog is a fire coming down from heaven (v. 9; compare Ezek. 38:22; 39:6). This means that the apostle John, in his respective descriptions of the rebellion and defeat of the nations in Revelation 19 and 20, is drawing upon identical language and imagery from Ezekiel’s prophecy. It seems hard to believe, accordingly, that the episodes described in these visions are different episodes in history, separated by a period of one thousand years duration. A much more plausible reading would conclude that these visions describe the same event and are to be read as parallel descriptions of the same historical period.4
4. “The battle” of Revelation 19:19 and 20:8
Fourth, there is a similar parallelism between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20 when it comes to their description of the battle that will terminate the period of history portrayed in these visions. In the book of Revelation, there are three instances in which the language “the battle” is used to describe an end-time conflict between Christ and His enemies, a conflict in which Christ is triumphant and the rebellious nations defeated. Not only is the definite article used, suggesting that this battle represents a final and conclusive defeat of Christ’s enemies, but the language used to describe the nations’ revolt and campaign against Christ is virtually identical (compare Rev. 16:14; 19:19, and 20:8).
Many interpreters of the book of Revelation readily acknowledge the parallels between the description in Revelation 16:14–21 of the battIe on the great day of Christ’s second coming and the description in Revelation 19: 19–21. The latter battle is regarded commonly as a resumption and conclusion of the battIe first described in Revelation 16. Few interpreters, by contrast, have noticed the similarities of language in Revelation 20:7–10 in its description of the Gog-Magog revolt. This is likely due to the assumption that the battle of Revelation 20:8 refers to a different battle after the millennium which repeats the battle that occurred before the millennium and at the time of Christ’s second coming.
If we reckon with the possibility of a parallel description of the same period of history in Revelation 19 and 20, then it becomes quite plausible to regard the battle described in these passages to be the same battle. Rather than positing the reoccurrence of a similar conflict and victory for Christ at the end of the millennium, a conflict that replays the earlier war that concluded history at Christ’s second coming, it would be more likely that these battles are the same battle, variously described in visions that parallel each other and depict the same historical period.5
5. The “end” of God’s wrath
Fifth, there is a further discrepancy introduced when Revelation 19 and 20 are read as two visions in sequence. Just as we noted a discrepancy between the complete destruction of all the rebellious nations in Revelation 19 and their continued presence in Revelation 20 (were these two visions describing events in sequence), so there is a discrepancy between the end of God’s wrath in Revelation 19 and the further outpouring of His wrath and judgment yet again in Revelation 20.
In Revelation 15:1, there is an important declaration regarding the end of God’s wrath: “And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished” (emphasis mine). This verse indicates that the dispensing of the seven bowls of wrath by the seven angels will bring to a close the outpouring of God’s wrath upon the wicked in the course of history. The last of these bowls of wrath is described in Revelation 16:17–21, a passage which is resumed and concluded with the final defeat of Christ’s enemies/the nations in the vision of Revelation 19:19–21. The vision of Revelation 19, therefore, represents the completion of the course of history and the finishing of God’s wrath upon the nations. The time frame for the fulfillment of the outpouring of God’s wrath in Revelation 15:1 is concluded by the vision of Revelation 19.
However, on a pre-millennialist reading of the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, the battle and pouring out of God’s wrath in the vision of Revelation 20 comes one thousand years later than the battle and pouring out of God’s wrath in the vision of Revelation 19. But this would seem to contradict the teaching of Revelation 15:1. It would suggest that God’s wrath in history is not finished with the events depicted in the vision of Revelation 19. Some one thousand years later, there would be another and truly last outpouring of God’s wrath upon the nations. The deadline set for the completion of God’s wrath in history in Revelation 15:1 would be exceeded. For this and for the reasons already mentioned, it makes better sense to read the vision of Revelation 20 as a recapitulation of the period of history earlier described in the vision of Revelation 19. Both visions would then be describing the same battle at the close of history with the final outpouring of God’s wrath upon the nations.
6. The cosmic destruction of Revelation 19:11–21 and 20:9–11
And sixth, there is another parallel in the visions of Revelation 19 and 20 that reflects the influence of Old Testament prophecy. In the Old Testament scenes of the Lord’s judgments and triumphs among the nations, there are often references to the creation’s involvement in these events. Similarly, in many of the visions in Revelation of the warfare between Christ and His enemies, there are descriptions of the shaking of the cosmos itself. It is remarkable to notice how in a series of such descriptions in the book of Revelation, the shaking of the cosmos accompanies the coming of Christ as King and the exercise of His judgment upon the nations (compare, e.g.: 6:12–17; 16:17–21; 19:11–21; 20:9–11). The last two instances of this association of Christ’s coming in victory and the shaking of the earth itself occur in the visions of Revelation 19 and 20.
Again, this would confirm that these visions describe the same end-time event, but from a slightly different vantage point. Since the shaking of the earth at Christ’s coming is elsewhere said to be the last instance of such shaking, after which nothing shakeable will remain to be shaken further (compare Hebrews 12:26–27), it would not make sense to say that the shaking of the cosmos at Christ’s second coming (Rev. 19) would still have to be followed by a further shaking of the cosmos at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20). A more likely reading would take these two visionary descriptions of this shaking to refer to the end of present history at the second coming of Christ.
Having considered these various clues and indicators of parallels between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, it may be helpful to summarize the significance of them for the understanding of the vision of the millennium in Revelation 20.
As I have emphasized, the pre-millennialist position depends significantly upon the claim that the visions of Revelation 19 and 20 be read in sequence. Since Revelation 19 is a vision of the return of Christ, and since the millennium of Revelation 20 follows this event, it seems that the premillennial position is the most likely one. However, ifthe considerations I have mentioned in this article are correct, the premillennial position is seriously compromised, if not refuted. Not only does premillennialism not enjoy any clear support from other portions of Scripture, but it also fails to provide a plausible account of the relation between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20. For if these visions are not to be read in sequence but as parallel accounts of the same period of history, then the millennium of Revelation 20 would precede rather than follow the event of Christ’s return at the end of the age.
This seems to be the clear conclusion to which the above considerations lead. Just as the vision of Revelation 19 describes the return of Christ, the complete destruction of all the nations, the last outpouring of God’s wrath at the close of the present period of history, so the vision of Revelation 20 describes the return of Christ at the close of the millennium, the complete destruction of all the nations, and the last outpouring of God’s wrath at the close of the present period of history. The parallels between these visions—in language, symbolism, use of Old Testament prophecy, and content—is so pervasive and compelling as to yield but one likely explanation: they are describing the same period of history, the same episodes and the same conclusion at the end of the age.
This means that, in our study of the vision in Revelation 20 of the millennium, we have every reason to believe that the millennium it describes is NOW. The millennium of Revelation 20 coincides with the period of history prior to Christ’s return at the end of the age, prior to the day of Christ’s final victory over His and His people’s enemies, and prior to the last judgment and all the other events that will accompany the close of this present age. And so, it is to the vision itself of Revelation 20 that we will turn in our subsequent articles.
1. My interest here does not require that I take sides in the debates between the preterist, futurist and idealist schools of interpretation of the book of Revelation. A preterist reading of the book says that the events described in its language of vision and prophecy were events occurring or about to occur at the time the book was first written. These events are, from our vantage point, past events, things that have already occurred — hence, the term preterist, meaning past. A futurist reading of the book says that the events described in its prophecy are events yet to occur in the future, primarily in the period just prior to Christ’s coming at the end of the age. An idealist reading of the book says that the visions and prophecy of Revelation have reference to events that typify the principles and forces at work in the entire period of history between Christ’s first and second comings. It is best, in my judgment, to read the book of Revelation, not exclusively in terms of one of these approaches, but inclusively in terms of the insights of each. The book, though addressed originally to the circumstances of the church in the first century of the Christian era, certainly speaks of events that will occur prior to the return of Christ and as well of events that are typical of the entire period of history in which we now live.
2. Willaim Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1939), pp. 11–64. Hendriksen’s analysis treats Revelation 20, therefore, as an introduction of a new vision sequence spanning the period from Christ’s first coming to the second coming and the consummation.
3. In what follows, I am especially indebted to R. Fowler White who has thoroughly studied the question of the relation of the visions in Revelation 19 and 20 and summarized his findings in two studies. See: R. Fowler White, “Reexamining the Evidence for Recapitulation in Rev. 20:1–10,” Westminster Theological Journal 51/2 (Fall, 1989), pp. 319–44; “Making Sense of Rev. 20:1–10: Harold Hoehner Versus Recapitulation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (December, 1994), pp. 539–51. Since some of what follows requires a careful reading of the language of these visions, I would encourage my readers to follow the argument with your Bibles in hand.
4. It is interesting to observe that some premillennialists, recognizing John’s use of the same prophecy in Ezekiel 38–39 to describe these allegedly distinct episodes, disagree among themselves whether Ezekiel 38–39 is fulfilled before and/or after the millennium! See: R.H. Alexander, “A Fresh Look at Ezekiel 38 and 39,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1994), pp. 157–169.
5. Perhaps this is the place to mention a phrase coined by Jay Adams in his criticism of premillennialism. Adams uses the phrase “premillennial diplopia” to describe the double-vision that often characterizes its reading of Scripture in general and the book of Revelation in particular. Because differing visions that are descriptive of the same history and events are read as though they described different events in sequence, there is a kind of doubling that occurs (two second comings of Christ or victories at the end of the age, two resurrections and others). See: Jay Adams, The Time is At Hand (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1966, 1974), pp. 17–40.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.