Kayle B. de Waal, PhD, is education director and disciple-making and prayer coordinator at the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, St. Albans, United Kingdom.

Why must Satan be set free after the millennium? After all the high drama of Revelation, we would expect that, in chapter 20, Satan would be exposed and then immediately annihilated. Instead, the chief architect of suffering and misery is released, at least temporarily: “He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time” (Rev. 20:3, NIV).

One answer is that the unchanging nature of Satan needs to be exposed to the righteous and the unrighteous and that a full disclosure at the executive judgment necessitates his release. That answer is correct—and this piece will provide a deeper linguistic, literary, contextual, and theological framework for it.1

Commentator’s questions

Earlier commentators like Austin Farrer, George Caird, and John Sweet were perturbed by Satan’s release. Farrer asked, “But why is Satan merely bound and why is he ever to be loosed again?”2 Caird’s question is more provocative: “Why, once Satan had been securely sealed in the abyss, must he be set loose to wreak further havoc? And what claim does he have on God, that God is bound to give the Devil his due?”3 Sweet asked, “But why, theologically, must he be loosed to deceive the nations? Why did he have to come down to earth with great wrath? Why could he not have been liquidated from the beginning?”4

More recently, New Testament professor emeritus James Resseguie has asked,“Why not simply destroy Satan at the beginning of the thousand year period? Why is it important that Satan is not destroyed during the millennial period?”5

Good questions that deserve equally good answers.

Cosmic meta-narrative

The cosmic conflict between God and Satan is the meta-narrative background of Revelation.6 Meta-narrative simply means an overarching story or thought structure that lends meaning and context to the particulars of experience or, in a different context, provides cohesion and structure to a society. At the heart of this meta-narrative is the eternal gospel.7 This meta-narrative also provides a biblically sound background to understand not only Revelation but also all Scripture.8

In Revelation, John brings this narrative together through numerous symbols to depict the struggle for universal supremacy between God and Satan.9 Revelation 12:7 states, “And there was war in heaven” (KJV). The language of battle dominates Revelation (11:7; 12:7, 8, 17; 13:7; 16:14; 17:14; 19:11, 19). The book addresses the issue of theodicy in relation “to God’s handling of the reality of evil within the context of the larger biblical narrative.”10 Theodicy essentially addresses how a good God can allow suffering in the world. One of the ways the conflict is brought to the fore in Revelation 19 is when John contrasts the “wedding of the Lamb,” where the people of God rejoice and feast (vv. 7–9), with “the great supper of God,” in which the enemies of God are vanquished with the sword from His mouth (vv. 15, 17, 18).

Certain words in Rev. 20:2, 3, and 8—deceive, serpent, the devil, and Satan—allude to Genesis 3. In both texts, Satan is portrayed as “the ancient serpent,” and his key attribute of deception is mentioned in Revelation 20:3 and 8 and Genesis 3:13. The Genesis text reads:

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (NIV).

The serpent questions God’s word and, hence, his authority and character. In the Genesis 3 account, the central issue involving the character and authority of God must be brought to bear on the interpretation of Revelation 20:3.

The importance of structure

To better understand the issue at hand, we need to grasp the structure of Revelation. The book’s structural landscape has a range of microchiasms.11 Professor John Breck states that certain “hermeneutical principles or insights can be derived from the study of chiasmus that directly serve the task of exegesis.”12 In a detailed study of the millennial vision, theologian Ed Christian has demonstrated that Revelation 19:1–21:8 is a unit in the form of a chiasm, summarized as follows:

A Premillennial announcement of the inauguration of the marriage supper (19:1–10)
 B Premillennial appearance of Christ in the sky to judge and fight the wicked (19:11–16)
  C Premillennial defeat of those who war against God on earth (19:17–21)
   D Binding of Satan in the abyss for 1,000 years (20:l–3)
    E Millennial reign of Christ and saints in heaven (20:4–6)
   D' Release of Satan from the abyss after 1,000 years (20:7)
  C’ Postmillennial defeat on earth of those who war against God (20:8–10)
 B' Postmillennial appearance of God in the sky to judge the wicked (20:11–15)
A' Postmillennial re-creation of earth and consummation of marriage (21:1–8)13

The structure suggests that there is a chronological progression from Revelation 19:1 onward. The events that John sees in vision are, therefore, sequential and keep the narrative moving toward the consummation of all things and the reunification of God and His people (Rev. 21:3).

Immediate context

Revelation 19 also announces four hallelujahs that declare the salvation (vv. 1–3) and reign of God (v. 6) and the wedding of the Lamb (v. 7). The passage is infused with exultations that celebrate the destruction of evil. After all, Babylon has fallen, and the true bride, the New Jerusalem, awaits.14 The bride prepares herself (v. 7), her nuptials demonstrating that salvation is not a passive experience but one in which free will is always respected.15 She adorns herself with bright, fine linen, the righteous deeds of the saints (v. 8).

There is a theological tension between “preparing herself” (v. 7) and that of being given her garments (v. 8). The garments refer to justification (Isa. 61:10). The actual phrase “was given to her” (Rev. 19:8, NCV) is a divine passive indicating that justification is solely the work of God.16 The phrase in verse 7 points to a transformed life, the proper response to the invitation of the heavenly bridegroom.17

The King of kings, Christ Himself, is depicted on a white horse leading the armies of heaven (vv. 11, 14, 16). The color white points to purity, holiness, and vindication (Rev. 3:4, 18; 6:11). The white horse on which Christ rides, the myriads of white horses that are ridden by the angels, and the white clothing they wear—all point to the justice and holiness in which Christ will wage war.18 John then sees “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army” (Rev. 19:19, NIV). The beast and the false prophet are captured and “thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur” (v. 20). In Revelation 20, Satan is left alone on the narrative stage.

Satan’s release: A deeper probe

Revelation 20:3 reads: “After that, he must be set free for a short time” (NIV). The immediate context of verses 1–3 exposes Satan; his name, character, identity, and modus operandi are evident for all to hear.19 The word must (dei), most commonly used in Greek with an infinitive, conveys the idea of necessity.20 This divine “must” (used in Rev. 1:1; 4:1; 11:5; 17:10; and 22:6) demonstrates God’s complete control of all events.21 Biblical commentator Grant Osborne contends that Satan’s release is “pictured as the parole of a prisoner.”22 The Greek word translated “released” or “set free” (lythēsetai) is a divine passive: God Himself will release Satan. The devil has no claim on God. God must remain true to Himself and, in remaining true to Himself, He will release Satan.

In the context of the cosmic conflict, Satan must be released because “when the voice of the ‘ancient serpent’ is heard in Genesis, it charges deprivation of freedom as the fundamental characteristic of the divine government (Gen. 3:1). . . . It is the logic of freedom that leads to Satan’s release, and it is within the logic of freedom, precisely the value he said to be lacking in the divine character, that Satan proceeds to work his own undoing (20.7-9).”23

Furthermore, Satan must be released to demonstrate the unchanging nature of his character. In Revelation 12:9, he is introduced as a deceiver. Even though he acts in an entirely different context, his tactics and nature remain the same.24 The unchanging benevolence of God sets Satan free to demonstrate his own unchanging malevolence.

God could have destroyed Satan and his evil angels during the millennium, as the righteous have already seen the outworking of evil. However, the wicked have not. Satan must be released after the millennium so that the wicked, after experiencing the second resurrection, can see firsthand the unchanging nature of his heart and theirs. New Testament scholar Robert Mounce says that Satan must be released to make plain that neither his designs “nor the waywardness of the human heart will be altered by the mere passing of time.”25 The righteous, who, during the millennium, got a broad revelation of Satan’s evil, will also get to see the final outworking of Satan’s character, especially in his attack on the city. God will once more reveal His character as He rescues His people, and Satan is finally cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:8–10).26

Theological perspective

If the center of the cosmic conflict meta-narrative is the eternal gospel, then this meta-narrative itself invites theological reflection. The controlling symbol in Revelation is the Lamb (Rev. 5:6, 8, 12, 13; 13:8; 14:4, etc.), which points to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, the core of the eternal gospel. New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie states that “the title Lamb must provide an important clue for determining the purpose and meaning of the whole book.”27

It is in this cosmic conflict meta-narrative that the juxtaposition of the Lamb and the release of Satan can be explored further. The symbol of the Lamb reveals God’s love and exposes Satan’s hatred of all that is good and just. It is, in fact, at the Cross where salvation occurs by the blood of this Lamb and that Satan loses his place in heaven as earth’s representative (Rev. 12:7–10). Before the Cross, Satan still had limited access to heaven, but the Cross finalizes his “no-access card” there.28

As we reflect on Jesus the Lamb, we realize that while Satan is released after the millennium, even though for a limited time, Jesus chose not to release Himself from the suffering and humiliation of death, even though He had the power to do so. For Jesus, the freedom of His children was more important than His own. His freedom was in bondage to God’s will. If, as has been argued, the logic of freedom required the release of Satan, which led to his eventual demise, then the logic of freedom required that Jesus did not release Himself from the cross, which led to His eventual victory. His love for us was greater than His need for freedom.

Ultimately, Satan is set free, but temporarily, because the divine government operates on the principles of freedom and justice, which are exemplified at the Cross. As we listen to what the Spirit is saying, Revelation always exceeds our expectations.

  1. Jon Paulien’s methodology is helpful in the interpretation of Revelation. He advocates examining literary context, symbols, chiasms, and the Old Testament background in light of the Christ-event. Jon Paulien, Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, vol. 11 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1988), 156, 157.
  2. Austin Farrer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1964), 202.
  3. George B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1966), 249.
  4. John Sweet, Revelation (London, UK: SCM, 1979), 290.
  5. James Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 25.
  6. See Gregory Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997).
  7. “This good news . . . tells how for the world’s redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.” F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1960), 2.
  8. Kayle B. de Waal, Ancient Words Present Hope (Melbourne, Australia: Signs, 2015), 89.
  9. Warren Carter writes, “Revelation discerns its much larger context in a cosmic struggle between God and Satan.” Warren Carter, “Vulnerable Power: The Roman Empire Challenged by the Early Christians,” in Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches, ed. Anthony J. Blasi, Jean Duhaime, and Paul-Andre Turcotte (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2002), 484.
  10. Sigve K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (London, UK: T & T Clark, 2006), xv.
  11. Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy (London, UK: T & T Clark, 1993), 1–37.
  12. John Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language (New York, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1994), 341.
  13. Ed Christian, “A Chiasm of Seven Chiasms: The Structure of the Millennial Vision, Rev 19:1-21:8,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 37 (1999): 221.
  14. Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Revelation: The Apocalypse Through Hebrew Eyes (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2002), 170.
  15. Doukhan, 171.
  16. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 935.
  17. Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 340.
  18. Beale, Revelation, 950.
  19. Sigve K. Tonstad, Revelation, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2019), 287.
  20. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “dei.”
  21. Richard K. Eckley, Revelation (Indianapolis, IN: Wesley, 2006), 208.
  22. Grant Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 710.
  23. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation, 155.
  24. Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John (London, UK: Continuum, 2006), 268.
  25. Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 371.
  26. Louis A. Brighton, Revelation, Concordia Commentary (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1999), 577.
  27. Donald Guthrie, “The Lamb in the Structure of the Book of Revelation,” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981):64.
  28. De Waal, Ancient Words Present Hope, 90.

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Kayle B. de Waal, PhD, is education director and disciple-making and prayer coordinator at the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, St. Albans, United Kingdom.

December 2023

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