The one thousand years of Revelation 20

In reference to this prophetic span of time, Christians have divided themselves into premillennialists, postmillennialists, and even amillennialists. It has been interpreted as a long period of earthly peace, the entire Christian Age, a time when the redeemed will reign with their Lord in heaven, or the restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices in Jerusalem. In one way or another, a fully developed Biblical concept of end-time events must recognize and deal with the millennium revealed in the Apocalypse.

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The term millennium does not occur in the Bible. By itself the word denotes merely a certain stretch of time—one thousand years—without any religious qualification. However, in the last Bible book such a period is endowed with a specific theological content. In Revelation 20, John saw in vision "an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time" (verses 1-3).*

In subsequent portions of the vision another theological aspect is added to this millennial period. The attention now focuses on a scene in heaven in which a work of judgment has begun and in which the resurrected Christian martyrs are reigning with Christ: "I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years" (verses 4-6).

These two features in Revelation 20, the radical binding of Satan's deceptive power over the nations and the reign of Christ with the resurrected martyrs, have charged the word millennium with theological con tent and a challenging apocalyptic significance. In one way or another, a fully developed Biblical eschatology must recognize and integrate the divine revelation of the millennium in John's Apocalypse.

Revelation 20 is one of the most controversial apocalyptic passages of the whole Bible in Christian theology. Historically, four major philosophies of history concerning the millennium have developed. A recent book calls these: historic premillennialism, dispensational premillenmalism, postmillennialism, and amillenialism. 1

In start with the last, amillennialism considers the millennium as a purely symbolic, atemporal phase signifying the whole period of the Christian church. It allows for no specific thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. The Old Testament prophecies concerning the Davidic kingdom are applied to Christ's spiritual reign in the church, while they still await their full realization on the earth made new. Amillennialism does not reject the expectation of the second advent of Christ "at any time." After Augustine systematized this view it became the traditional position in both Catholicism and Protestantism, specifically in the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches of today.

Postmiliennialism, likewise, holds that Christ's kingdom is a present reality because He reigns in the hearts of His believers. It expects, however, a conversion of all nations prior to the Second Advent. Consequently it looks forward to a long period of earthly peace without friction among nations, races, or social groups. The kingdom of God will grow gradually through ever-expanding gospel preaching. Thus the millennium is conceived to be not a quantity of time, but a quality of existence differing from our present life style only in degree. The millennium will end with the apostasy of the antichrist and the personal return of Christ in glory, followed by one general resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. Postmillenialism considers the first resurrection in Revelation 20, which introduces the thousand-year period, to be the new birth, a spiritual resurrection only.

The Lutheran Augsburg Confession and the Puritan Westminster Confession are basically postmillennial. Some extreme postmillennialists, however, have believed that a so-called social gospel or certain political programs would transform the world from the outside. World events of recent decades have left few believers in the idea.

In premillennialism two basically different types must be distinguished: historicists and dispensationalists. Both believe that the millennium is sharply marked off by two literal resurrections from the dead: the resurrection of the righteous at the beginning, and that of the wicked at the end. Both believe that the millennial kingdom will be dramatically inaugurated by Christ's visible return and characterized by His continued reign over the earth. A short, fierce persecution of true believers, a so-called great tribulation, will immediately precede the millennium. But here the general agreement among these two groups of premillennialists has already ended. The basic underlying differences of interpretation become apparent in the applications given to the terms church and Israel in the Old Testament kingdom prophecies.

Historic premillennialism has consistently held the church to be the true Israel of God and the focus of an earthly millennium. 2 Dispensationalism is based exclusively on the premise of a consistent literalism in all prophetic applications.

This requires that all Israel's kingdom prophecies must be realized in a Jewish kingdom in Palestine. Because the church does not fulfill these promises in any respect (according to dispensationalism), the millennium of Revelation 20 is seen as the only time predicted in the New Testament for their literal fulfillment.

Dispensational writers give the impression that dispensationalism, with its dichotomy of Israel and the church, is the only form of premillennialism in Christian theology. It is, however, simply one type of premillennialism. Out of the patristic school grew two types of premillennialism in the nineteenth century: the literalists (or dispensationalists) and the Millerites. Le Roy E. Froom explains: "The Millerites, like nearly all other premillennialists, placed the millennial kingdom on earth, but they regarded it as composed of the redeemed and glorified saints on the regenerated earth, the first thousand years of the eternal state. Their placing of the end of human probation at the beginning of the millennium was the root of the differences between them and the Literalists of all categories." "Millerism, midway between the extremes of 'spiritualizing' postmillennialism and 'Judaizing' Literalism, protested against both extremes in defense of the unity of the church and the covenants." 3

After the dissolution of the Millerite movement in 1844, its main successor became the Seventh-day Adventists, who continued their premillennialism with one new facet: the millennial kingdom or reign of the glorified saints would be in heaven and not on earth. Only after the millennium would the New Jerusalem—together with the saints—descend to the earth to be made new as its eternal abode.

J. F. Walvoord explains how, for dispensationalists, the millennium is given its significance exclusively from the Old Testament: "The promises to Abraham, the promises to David, the promises to Israel of future possession of the land, and the promises to Jeremiah that Israel would continue as long as the sun and moon endure (Jer. 31:35, 36) combine to provide a symphony of prophetic truth which is the grand prelude to the millennial reign of Christ." 4 According to dispensational literalism, the scores of prophecies concerning a peaceful Davidic kingdom on earth "demand" the restoration of the theocratic kingdom to the Jewish nation in Palestine. However, this Jewish form of millennial kingdom, called chiliasm, includes also the rebuilding of the Temple and the literal reinstatement of the Old Testament ritual of bloody sacrifices as prescribed in Leviticus and in Ezekiel 40-46. 5 Dispensationalists who insist on the restoration of the Temple sacrifices explain them as being "commemorative, not typical. They are retrospective then, not prospective, as of old." 6

Walvoord sees the teaching of the book of Hebrews—that Christ has once and for all fulfilled the typical cultus of Israel—as "the major obstacle" to the whole idea of a restored Temple in Jerusalem during the millennium. Consequently he does not want to insist on a future Temple, but simply admits that the literal reinstatement of the sacrificial system is "in keeping with the general principle of literal interpretation. " 7 However, Hebrews declares categorically that Christ's first advent "abolishes the first [the sacrificial system] in order to establish the second [the will of God]" (chap. 10:9, R.S.V.).+ And it further announces with divine authority: "By calling this covenant [of Jer. 31:31-34] 'new,' he has made the first obsolete: and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear" (chap. 8:13). How the cultic futurism of a Jewish millennium can be harmonized with the book of Hebrews seems inconceivable and impossible. 8 G. E. Ladd has called the superimposing of the literal application of the Old Testament prophecies upon the New Testament "the basic watershed between a dispensational and a nondispensational theology." He explains: "Dispensational ism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament." 9

Before we can ascertain the significance of the millennium and its organic function in the total plan of redemption, we need to look for both its immediate and wider contexts in Revelation 20, as well as for a possible Old Testament taproot. The connection with John's preceding vision in Revelation 19 strongly suggests a chronological sequence between chapters 19 and 20. 10 There is no doubt that Revelation 19:11-21 pictures the glorious second advent of Christ. His return to earth from heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords in order to execute judgment on the antichrist in the battle of Armageddon cannot be spiritualized away as descriptive of the progress of the church between His first and second advents. This is the apocalyptic climax of the age-long controversy between heaven and earth, in which Christ returns "to strike down the nations" with a "sharp sword" coming out of His mouth. Couched in semipoetic language, it points to the final destruction of all God-opposing powers, as predicted by Isaiah (Isa. 11:4) and Paul (2Thess. 2:8). The apocalyptic call from heaven to the birds of prey to assemble for " 'the great supper of God'" and to devour the slaughtered enemies of God (Rev. 19:17, 18) cannot be spiritualized away; it stresses the total destruction of God's enemies. This vulture vision is borrowed from Ezekiel 39:17-20. Its new application in Revelation 19 indicates in what way Ezekiel's prediction concerning the destruction of Israel's enemies will be apocalyptically fulfilled—by the destruction of the antichrist and the allied enemies of the church at Christ's second advent. It is significant that not yet Satan himself but only his two chief allies on earth, the beast (antichrist) and the false prophet, "were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur" (verse 20).

The vision about the binding of the serpent-dragon (chap. 20:1-3) logically follows, then, after the Second Advent. Satan, as the mastermind of all rebellion against God, is seized and "bound" and kept in detention for a millennium before his public arraignment as the world's deceiver before the assembled saints in the New Jerusalem. Only after the millennium will he be thrown into the lake of fire, where his two allies had already been cast at the beginning of the millennium (verses 1, 2, 10). The context of the millennium then establishes the conclusion that it begins with Christ's second coming (see chap. 19:11-21). This is further confirmed by the internal evidence of the millennium vision itself—during the thousand years the martyrs who had refused to accept the end-time mark of the beast and had lost their lives in the eschatological battle with the beast reign with Christ as priests of God after coming to life again (chap. 20:4-6).

This resurrection of the executed saints takes place not before but at the second advent of Christ (see John 5:28, 29; 6:39-44; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; cf. 2 Thess. 1:8-10). The inductive exegetical approach to Revelation 20 points clearly to a future, premillennial concept of fulfillment.

Further light can be shed on the theological significance of the millennium if one takes into account its Old Testament taproot. This we take up in the next study.

Notes:

1 Robert G. Clouse (ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1977). This instructive work is coauthored by a representative of each of the four different views, and allows all authors to criticize one another. See also Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1977).

2 L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1954), Vol. IV, pp. 1220-1227. He concludes, "A Jewish kingdom on earth was no part of the faith of the early church."—Page 1227.

3 Ibid., p. 416, note 12; p. 1226.

4 The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1974), p. vii.

5 Ibid., pp. 309-315.

6 Ibid., p. 314, referring to H. Bonar.

7 Ibid., pp. 311, 315.

8 Cf. G. E. Ladd in Clouse, op. cit., p. 94. Also F. E. Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1942), pp. 42-44, in connection with Ezekiel 46:2.

9 In Clouse, op. cit., p. 27.

10 This vital link of continued narration in Revelation 19:20, 21 and 20:1-3 is stressed also by J. Barton Pavne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper & Row Pubs., Inc., 1973), p. 625, who quotes G. R. Beasley-Murray on this point. See Mathias Rissi, The Future of the World: An Exegetical Study of Revelation 19:11-22:15
(Naperville, 111.: A. R. Allenson, Inc., 1966), pp. 29-38, for a convincing .exegesis of the progressive order of Revelation 19 and 20. Unless otherwise noted, scripture references in this article are from The Holy Bible: New
International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

 

+ From the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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