Revelation 20 is one of the most debated passages in Scripture. When reading commentaries on this passage, it seems that there are about as many interpretations as there are writers. What causes this to be such a unique passage of Scripture is that according to Eerdmans’ Handbook on the Bible, this is the Scripture “which contains the Bible’s only mention of a millennium” (Alexander, 656). The questions which most are trying to answer are, what is the millennium? How long is it? Are the 1000 years symbolic or literal? Where does it take place? And, is it spiritual or physical? All of these questions are what makes this passage so unique. The focus of this post will be first, to give a basic understanding of the three most common understandings of the millenium, second to follow some basic hermeneutical principles and exegete the Scripture to get a general understanding of what the author originally meant, and third, to give arguments for and against each view.
I. General Understandings of the Millenium
The three most common understandings of the millenium may sound a little different depending on who you talk with, but can be broken down into three different categories; premillennialism, postmillennialism or amillennialism.
Today, it seems the most predominant view is premillennialism. This view holds to the idea that Christ’s second coming will precede the millennium. According to Henry Virkler in his book Hermeneutics, premillennialists believe that “He (Christ) will descend to earth and set up a literal 1000-year earthly kingdom with its headquarters in Jerusalem” (Virkler, 201). It is important to understand that not all premillennialists agree on all the details. There are two major camps of premillennialists: traditional premillennialists and dispensational premillennialists. When it comes to the actual details of the millenium there will be a lot of disagreement on its nature and purpose, but to be a premillenialist a person must believe that Christ’s second coming will take place before the millennium (pre-millennium).
Postmillennialism, according to Virkler, “is the view that through evangelism, the world eventually will be reached for Christ. There will be a period in which the world will experience joy and peace because of its obedience to God. Christ will return to earth at the end of the millennium” (post-millennium) (201). It must be clarified that postmillennialists do not believe that everyone will be a Christian during this time, but that society as a whole will be Christian.
Amillennialism, according to Virkler, “is conceptually a form of postmillennialism. The millennium, in this theory, is symbolic and refers to the time between Christ’s first and second coming. During this time Christ rules symbolically in men’s hearts. Christ’s second coming will mark the end of the period.” Amillennialists believe that Christ will never have an earthly rule (a- or no-millennium)” (201).
The terms postmillennial and amillennial are sometimes interchangeable depending on who is defining the them, since both of them believe Christ will return after (post) some kind of millennium. This paper will use the definitions provided by Virkler. The major difference between the two is that postmillennialists believe that Christianity will spread across the globe and usher in a time of peace. Amillennialists do not believe that Christianity will usher in this time of peace universally, except in the hearts of men. In the history of the Church, variant forms of these two positions have been the dominant view. Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology explains the most basic understanding of postmillennialism: “The common doctrine of the Church stated above, is that the conversion of the world, the restoration of the Jews, and the destruction of Antichrist are to precede the second coming of Christ, which event will be attended by the general resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, the end of the world, and the consummation of the Church” (Hodge, 861). This was the view of many of the reformers and the puritans and some suggest that even though the terms were not used, the bare bones of this doctrine shows through in Augustine’s famous work City of God. Postmillennialism seems to carry the worst stigmatism because of the fact that the liberals had hijacked this doctrine early in the twentieth century and turned it into a naturalistic and modernist’s doctrine. For a while, if you were a postmillennialist then you were considered to be on your way to becoming a liberal—if you were not already. Though this was an actual concern, it was based on a misrepresentation of what postmillennialist’s actually believe. In fact, the puritans were postmillennial, but not commonly considered liberal. Consequently, postmillennialism cannot automatically be linked with liberalism.
Premillennialism, being the less commonly held view, began to gain momentum about 300 years ago. This was around the time that dispensationalism came onto the scene, but it did not find its origins at this time. In fact, Charles Hodge states, “In opposition to this view (postmillennialism) the doctrine of a premillennial advent of Christ has been extensively held from the days of the Apostles to the present time.” Two world wars also led many people to reconsider the idea that the world was getting better, which helped premillennialism become the new majority view.
II. General Exegesis of Revelation 20
It is here that we will turn our attention to the actual Biblical text. The goal of finding the truth of Scripture is to find out what the author originally meant. The way to accomplish this is to start with historical-cultural and contextual analysis. This analysis means to uncover some basic information about the text, such as when was it written, who is the author, what was the situation at the time the author was writing, what was the purpose of the author, and how would his targeted audience have understood the passages. These questions can sometimes be harder to answer than they sound, but many of the answers can be found in the text itself. It is important to always interpret the obscure passages of Scripture with clear and easy to understand passages.
Most scholars place the writing of Revelation around 90-95 AD. In Revelation 1:4, the author identifies himself simply as John. According to Robert H. Mounce in his Commentary on the Book of Revelation, “Early tradition is unanimous in its opinion that the Apocalypse was written by John the Apostle” (Mounce, 27). Further insight into the historical context can be found in Revelation 1:9 which says, “I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” This verse lets us know that the audience the author was trying to reach was facing persecution and that John himself had been exiled to the Isle of Patmos at this time because of his preaching. In How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, Gordon D. Fee writes, “the main themes are abundantly clear: the church and state are on a collision course; and initial victory will appear to belong to the state. Thus he warns the church that suffering and death lie ahead; indeed, it will get far worse before it gets better (6:9-11)” (Fee, 239). Fee goes on to state that John’s message is to encourage the church not to capitulate because Christ holds the keys to history and the future, and that eventually the wrath of God will be revealed against those who persecute the Church.
After understanding the basic historical situation of the author and the original audience it is important to understand lexical-syntactical facts about the text. For the book of Revelation, the most important step is to identify and have a general understanding of the literary form. The book of Revelation is what is called “apocalyptic literature,” which was common around this time. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah are examples of apocalyptic literature according to Fee (232). Most scholars place the majority of apocalyptic literature—much of which is not canonical—between 200 BC and 100 AD (Mounce, 18).
Fee sums up the general purpose of this type of literature:
“Apocalyptic was born either in persecution or in time of great oppression. Therefore, its great concern was no longer with God’s activity within history. The apocalyptists looked exclusively forward to the time when God would bring a violent, radical end to history an end that would mean the triumph of right and final judgement of evil.” (p. 233)
This is the type of literature that is found in Revelation. Typical apocalyptic literature used many symbols and is presented in the form of fantasy rather than reality (Fee, 233). This fantasy rather than reality is where much of the trouble in interpreting the book of Revelation is found. What is to be taken as symbols and what is to be taken literally? The trouble is that in many of these cases the Scripture itself does not tell us what is symbolic and what is not. Here is actually where most of the disagreement is found.
A quick read through Revelation reveals a basic outline. The book starts with an introduction followed by a message to the seven churches of that time, which are actually the recipients of John’s letter. In Chapters 4 and 5, the book moves into a view of heaven and of Christ. In Chapter 6-22, we see the drama unfold as Christ, the only one fit to open the seals, begins to pour his wrath upon the earth and the wickedness found in it. The book closes at the end of chapter 22 with the angel giving John some basic instructions not to seal up the book because “blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev.22:7).
Whether John was writing about the past, present or the future, further complicates the interpretation of this book. There are three different understandings regarding this. First, according to J. Vernon McGee, we have the preterist view, which holds that everything John was writing about had already taken place when it was written. It was recent Church history written in symbols to encourage the Church at that time” (Mcgee, 13). The next view is the historical interpretation. This is the view, “that the fulfillment of Revelation is going on continuously in the history of the church from John’s day to the present time” (14). The third interpretation is called futurist. This is view most commonly held by premillennialists, which sees the book of Revelation as prophetic. The book is describing what will take place in the future (14).
Reading through the book of Revelation it will be difficult to fit the entire book into one of these categories. It seems pretty hard to fit chapters 21 and 22, which deal with the new earth, into a preterist understanding. It also seems hard to place chapter 12, which seems to be speaking about Christ’s birth into the futurist view. Understanding whether the fulfillment of John’s Revelation has already taken place, is taking place currently, or will take place at the end times is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the book to uncover.
The millennium seems to be found after the second coming, which is written about in chapter 19, in which Christ returns and the beast is destroyed. Moving into chapter 20, the chronology seems to flow to the dragon or Satan who controlled the beast. The dragon is then bound and cast into the bottomless pit. Those who did not take the mark of the beast during the struggle will be resurrected first and rule with Christ for a thousand years after which will be the second resurrection of the saints and the final judgment. This is where we find the “million-dollar question:” what, when, and where is the millennial reign?
Postmillennialists and amilliennialists tend to use many of the same objections against the premillennial interpretation. The following objections can be found in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. Hodge lists eight objections, many with subcategories, but due to the length of this post, only a few will be dealt with briefly. The majority of the objections against the premillennial view deal with its inconsistency with the rest of Scripture. Post- and amillennialists tend to hold tightly to the idea that Scripture is its own best interpreter. One of Hodge’s main objections is that the premillennial theory is inconsistent with Scripture, because “the Bible teaches that when Christ comes all nations shall appear at his bar for judgment. This theory teaches that the final judgment will not occur until after the millennium” (Hodge, 862). Another reason that Hodge believes this position is inconsistent with Scripture is that “the Scriptures teach when Christ comes the second time without sin unto salvation, then the Church shall enter on its everlasting state of exaltation and glory.” The inconsistency is that according to the premillennial position, “instead of heaven awaiting the risen saints, they are to be introduced into a mere worldly kingdom” (863).
Another objection that postmillennialists make against the premillennialist’s theory is that “it disparages the Gospel” (864). Since the postmillennialists believe that eventually the Gospel will spread across the globe and usher in an era of peace, because the “gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” (Rom. 1:16) and against the church “the gates of hell will not prevail” (Mat. 16:18). The premillennial view says the gospel will fail to usher in this time of peace. To the postmillennialist, this idea seems to weaken the power of the gospel to change the world.
The premillennial position also has its list of objections to the other positions. The main objection that is usually brought up is that the other positions do not take Scripture literally enough. Revelation says that there will be a thousand year reign which will follow the second coming. The other positions tend to symbolize too much. Of course, the common response to this argument is that the other positions do take the Bible literally, and when symbolism is used, they take what that symbol represents literally. The premillennialists in this instance see no indication that the millennium is a symbol.
One of the strongest arguments against the amillennial view is that if we are in the millennium now, then Satan is currently bound. This is where the premillennialists argue that this positions is inconsistent with Scripture, because Satan, according to Scripture “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). This does not appear to be someone who is bound in a bottomless pit! Not to mention that the passage says he will be unbound in the last days. If it was Christ’s death that bound him and rules in our hearts, as the amillenniallists argue, does that mean that the power of Christ’s death will be undone when he is loosed?
In the book Hard Sayings of the Bible, Walter Kaiser presents three purposes for the millennium. Two of which seem the strongest. “First, it demonstrates the victory of Christ, [and] second, it vindicates the righteous rule of God, redeeming history. Is it possible that God could not rule this earth any better than human beings” (Kaiser, 779). Dispensationalists also see it as the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament, which as they claim have not yet been fulfilled.
One of the amillennialists strongest arguments against the postmillennialist position is the parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. In this parable, Jesus paints a picture of believers and non-believers growing up in the world together, one in which they will not be separated until the day of the Lord. They believe this shows us that the church will not overtake the world, but will grow alongside of the world.
In conclusion, it seems that the way a person interprets the millennium is directly related to how they see the outline of Revelation. Is it a chronological flow of events as the dispensational premillennialists suggest it is, or are some of the visions that John sees out of order and somewhat concurrent as they portray many of the same periods of time in different ways? For example, David Chilton, in his book The Days of Vengeance, sees chapters 19, 20, and 21 as a series of seven independent visions. Speaking of the binding of Satan, he states, “The importance of the imagery in this passage is heightened by its centrality as the fourth of seven visions introduced by the expression ‘and I saw’” (Rev. 19:11, 17,19; 20:4, 11; 21:1) (Chilton, 499). Viewing the breakdown of Revelation this way makes it easier to see the millennium as not following the second coming.
Understanding apocalyptic literature, it may actually be that John through his writing of Revelation was not intending to give us a full understanding of how the end times will unfold. It seems that its main purpose was to encourage the Church through the persecution it will face, by realizing that in spite of anything we face, all struggles will eventually be solved by the coming of Christ. As believers, we should seek to live our lives with Christ as our perfect example. If the day comes when Christianity becomes the dominant religion of the world, as the postmillennialists say, then we will enjoy peace ushered in by the gospel. If that time does not come and there is no real millennium as the amillennialists say, then we have done our job and fought for what is right and the final judgment will set things straight. If there is an actual millenium after Christ returns, it will be a time when the saints who are there will enjoy reigning with Christ. But for us who are not living in that time period, our job is still to be salt and light, regardless of the fact that the Church will never become dominant in this world. I says this because it seems that some of the dispensationalists view the end times as only getting worse, believing that the church should merely huddle in a corner until it is all over because there is no hope of any significant reformation and revival. This goes directly against what Scripture has called us to do.
After reading so many sources on this topic, I find myself holding loosely to historical premillennialism also known as non-dispensational premillennialism. The reason for my gravitation to this point of view is influenced by many factors, but most importantly by my understanding of the book of Revelation itself, even though I believe some passages like, chapter 12 seem to be preterist passages, and many others are historical. It seems that many of the passages that John writes, especially in chapters 19-22, are prophecies of the future, because this is how John actually starts the book. He states that the Revelation is of things “which must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1). Seeing these passages as eschatological, they seem to follow a forward moving chronology except for a few interludes. Having both of these in place leads me to see the millenium as taking place after the second coming. As to whether the millenium is an actual thousand years, I am not certain.
At this point, I would not rule out the other views. I would be what Herschel Hobbs in his book Revelation: Three Views, calls a “pre without a program” (Hobbs, 136). By this he means someone without a detailed layout of how the end times will unfold. It seems to me that there are things about the last days that we know with certainty and it is these truths that bring us hope. The book of Revelation encourages us to hold firm regardless of any persecution we may face, because Christ is coming to judge. The Apostles Creed tells us, “[Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven. And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Because of this certain knowledge there is no further explanation that is really needed. It is with this simple truth that we can take courage and move forward proclaiming the gospel to all nations.
Alexander, David, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Chilton, David, The Days of Vengeance an Exposition of the Book of Revelation, (Dominion Press, 1987)
Fee, Gordon, How to read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Zondervan, Second Edition 1993)
Hobbs, Herschel, Revelation: Three Viewpoints, (Broadman Press, 1977)
Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1872)
Kaiser, Walter, Hard Sayings of the Bible, (InterVarsity Press, 1996)
McGee, J. Vernon, Revelation Volume 3, (Thru the Bible Books, 1979)
Mounce, Robert H., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Revelation, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977)
Virkler, Henry A., Hermeneutics, Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, (Baker Books, 1981)