Revelation 20:1-6 and the Millennium

Posted on February 15, 2016 (originally written December 16, 2011)

Pre-tribulationism, post-tribulationism, premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism.......To most people these days these words are just gibberish, both inside and outside the church. What do these terms mean? What are they about? What Scriptures are they in reference to? It would seem that many, if not most people these days, at least within the church, have heard about the rapture, for the Left Behind book series and video series brought the idea to the forefront of our attention regarding the realm of prophecy over a decade ago. I myself remember reading a 300 page book titled The Third Millennium back when I was in elementary school that essentially claimed that, if I am remembering it correctly, around the year 2000 (the beginning of the third millennium A.D.) the rapture would take place and the Great Tribulation would begin, followed by the thousand year reign of Christ. Well, that book was a fiction novel, but we can imagine that the author might have believed the viability of the story within the text, for there are many things spoken of in the end time prophecies of the Old and New Testaments that certainly seem to be getting closer and closer to being actual possibilities based on the world we live in. What do the Scriptures really tell us about the thousand year reign of Christ and the saints on earth prior to the final defeat of Satan and the inauguration of the New Heaven and Earth? Is the Millennium literal or figurative? These are the issues we will be addressing in this short exposition/theological discussion with regard to Revelation 20:1-6. Since these verses are, for all intensive purposes, fairly straight forward in regard to what they mean, with the exception of the idea of the Millennium, this paper will be primarily a theological discussion instead of a verse by verse exposition, and so we will primarily discuss passage in general as we discuss the theological issues involved therein. We will begin with a discussion of the Millennium itself, and specifically the premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial views, followed by any other major points made in these six verses that are not generally or specifically covered under either the discussion of the Millennium, followed finally by a brief summary of what we have learned and some concluding remarks.
The Millennium
            In Revelation 20:1-6, several times a "thousand year" period of time is mentioned. There is however hot debate over whether this Millennium is a literal thousand years or if it is perhaps figurative. There are three major views to discuss in this section and they include: premillennialism, postmillenialism, and amillennialism. We will briefly discuss each one in turn.
            "Premillennialism is the eschatological view that Jesus Christ will return literally to establish His Kingdom on earth for 1000 years. This will occur after the tribulation (spoken of above) period and before the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth."[1]All premillennialists believe in a literal thousand year reign. Several evidences that favor a premillennial view of this passage are that the binding of Satan during the thousand years hardly matches Satan's current despicable activity and Revelation 20 presupposes that the events in chapters 12-19 have already actually happened.[2] Also, the early post-apostolic fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Lactantius all agreed with premillennial eschatology.3 
            Revelation 20 is the only place in the Bible that mentions the thousand year period, but to say that that is evidence against it being literal is just plain foolish. Things that are true do not even need to be spoken or written once to be true, but rather to write or to speak truth is only to make others aware of that truth, but whether it is spoken or written once, a hundred times, or not at all does not in any way take away from its still being true.  It seems to me that since the Scriptures tell us about this thousand year period, and since there is no indication in the text that this thousand years is meant to be taken figuratively, that we should in fact take it literally. Premillennialism also traditionally holds that the world will continue to deteriorate with regard to its relationship to God. People will grow more and more evil, heartless, cold, and they will hate God more and more the closer to the tribulation period that we get. This, I believe, makes the most sense out of what we see throughout history as well as in current events. Premillennialists also hold that the Millennium will be inaugurated at the second coming of Christ, and that Revelation chapters 19-20 basically refers then to the second coming of Christ. Premillennialists also hold that the thousand year period is actually a thousand year period, and not some unspecified period of time. This is the view that I tend to agree with at this point, for the reasons given above.
                        Against premillennialism is the eschatological view known as postmillennialism. According to Thomas Ice, postmillennialism was actually the last of the three major millennial views to develop historically.[3] Postmillennialists hold that the world is becoming more and more "Christianized" and it will continue to do so until the end. Postmillenialists essentially teach that the current age (the church age) will lead up to the thousand year reign. There are also those within the postmillennial position that believe that the thousand year period spoken about in Revelation chapter 20 is merely symbolic and that it is really just an analogy for the church age. These individuals generally teach that Satan is currently limited in his abilities here on earth and that Jesus is currently reigning on earth as we speak. This would of course mean that we must interpret the binding of Satan and throwing him in the pit and locking it as somehow not completely restraining him. But how are we to get that out of these verses?  Grant Osborne points out that there is incredible emphasis placed on the extent to which Satan is restrained in verses 2 and 3.[4] Indeed even if we are to take these verses symbolically as with regard to the binding of Satan (which I will argue below), we cannot miss, as Osborne has pointed out, the way that the text certainly seems to be indicating complete immobility and restraint on Satan for the entire duration of this thousand year period, whether the thousand years is symbolic or not. 
            Postmillennialists in general teach that the earth will eventually become so Christianized that we will basically "usher in" the return of Christ and the thousand year reign. Let me just say that it most certainly does not seem that we are headed in that direction. And besides, where are we to place the tribulation period if this is the case, for if the world continues to grow closer to God, what need would there be for a tribulation period at all either before or after the Millennial reign of Christ and the saints, or even if the Millennium is not meant to be taken and actually real. Ice also comments that the recent revival in postmillennialism stems from the rise of postmodern culture and "New Age optimism."[5] Some postmillennialists essentially teach that we are currently in the "Millennium." They cite Luke 17: 20-21 as one of their proof texts, which says, "Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you (ESV)." This verse and others like it they claim show that the kingdom of God is here, now, and they equate the kingdom of God here with the Millennial reign of Christ discussed in Revelation 20. There is however a fatal flaw in this particular hermeneutic. Nowhere in Revelation 20 does John use the term "kingdom of God." No where! So why do the postmillennialists insist that Revelation 20 is actually referring to this same kingdom of God that Jesus refers to in Luke's gospel? The answer to this I do not know. Nevertheless, the incoherence of this interpretation should not be surprising seeing as how the view fits so well with the idiocy postmodern optimism. There are quite simply no good reasons to hold that view this I can see, and so we will discard it and move forward.
            Amillennialism is exactly what it sounds like, a belief that there is no Millenium. Christopher Rowland compares the thousand years in this passage to 2 Peter 3:8, claiming that this passage is the only relevant passage elsewhere in the Bible to the idea of the millennium, essentially claiming amillennialism, although he did not outrightly say that he was an amillennialist in the text.[6] Now I have actually heard many people make this same argument, but in reality this is doing nothing more than completely missing the point of 2 Peter 3:8. 2 Peter 3:8 is talking about how God does not view time the same way we do, which makes perfect sense once we realize that God is eternal and therefore does not live in time as we do. God is not bound by time and so whether it is a day or a thousand years it makes no difference to God. Also, the 2 Peter passage is talking about how God views time, but Revelation 20:1-6 was written to us as humans, and so we must assume that it was written with the understanding that we view a thousand years as just that, a thousand years, since otherwise the passage would seem to be meaningless. Rowland nevertheless gives a typical argument in favor of the amillennial view. Keener, in an argument against amillennialism, states that Revelation 20:1-6 certainly makes it sound as if the Millennium will follow rather than recapitulate the Tribulation period in history, at least if the passage is taken at its most natural rendering.[7] Amillennialism also generally teaches that, since the Millennium isn't meant to be taken literally, that the tribulation also can be viewed as figurative language and that it may not actually happen either. It seems to me however that this is going a bit too far in explaining away essentially the entire book of Revelation as symbolic language that is either about the past or about the present, and I have never read anything in a history book or a modern day news paper that sounds anything like most of what is found in the book of Revelation, even if we are to take some or most of it figuratively. 
            Overall, amillennialists tend to agree with the premillennialists that the return of Christ could happen at any time and so we should all always be ready. On the other hand amillennialists also agree with postmillennialists that asserting that there are two resurrections separated by a thousand year period is unnecessary and biblically unwarranted.[8] They argue that there will be only one resurrection and that it will be at the second coming of Christ at the time of the final judgment.  Let us quickly look at Revelation 20:4-6. The text will be shown in full below, but for now we will simply discuss its contents that are relevant to our current discussion. In verse 4 the text says that those who had been beheaded for their witness to the Word of God will reign on earth with Jesus. However, we must remember that people will still die during this time and sin will still exist, because even thought Satan is bound man has not been made perfect again yet, and so the depravity and sinfulness of man will still be a reality during the Millennium. There is also nothing in the text that demands that everyone on earth will be saved during this time. This is all before the time of the New Heaven and Earth. So there will still be both saints and unregenerate people who need to be resurrected after the Millennium is over.
            Most amillennialists also do not see a distinction between the church and Israel with regard to end times prophecies.[9] In other words, they do not believe that national Israel (the Jews) will be the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation, that the Jews are still the chosen people of God, or that the Jews are still awaiting reunification with God as their God. This, however, blatantly ignores passages like Romans 11:25 where Paul makes it incredibly clear that the Jews hearts will only remain hardened until the full number of gentiles are saved, and Revelation chapter 7 that clearly indicates that the 144,000 will be from the twelve tribes of Israel, national Israel. I see no reason to "spiritualize" either of these passages and so it is my position that the
Jews, at least in part, will in the end be reunited with Christ and God's chosen people, and the Church and Israel will then be united as God's elect, His privileged and eternal regenerate children. As for those from Israel who will reign with the other saints and Christ during the Millennium, it seems best to simply say that those who have been martyred by the time the Millennium comes will reign with Christ, and those who are saved who are still alive at the end of the tribulation will enjoy the reign of Christ on earth while they live and then when they die they will be in heaven with God until the Millennium is over, for as we have already seen there will still be death and sin in the world during the Millennium, and so people will continue to die, and the text only seems to indicate that those who have been martyred (whether they be Jew or Gentile), and not all saints in general, will reign with Christ during the Millennium. Mangina seems to agree with my position on this when he states that at the beginning of this thousand years a new social and political system is formed, and Christ is the King and the martyrs of the tribulation also share authority over the earth during this time.
A Brief discussion of Revelation 20:1-6
            Now that we have discussed the major theological issues involved in Revelation 20:1-6, we are going to take a very brief look at the text itself. First, with regard to Revelation 20:1-6, Isaiah 24:21-22 is said in the Word Bible Commentary to be the closest parallel passage to Revelation 20:1-10. It is said to have parallels such as an imprisonment of the "malefactors," a vague reference to time of imprisonment (many days/thousand years), and a final ending period of judgment after the imprisonment.[10] These verses say, "On that day  the LORD will punish the host of heaven above and kings of the earth below. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit. They will be confined to a dungeon; after many days they will be punished." Now
Revelation 20:1-6 says, 
            Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. 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 ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (ESV)
It seems here by looking at these verses in Revelation that Satan is the only one said to be bound and thrown in a pit, but in the Isaiah passage it is the kings of the earth and the hosts of heaven (presumably the fallen angels) that are "confined to a dungeon." Now of course "Satan" in the Revelation passage may be symbolic of all the rest of the evil ones left in the world after the time of chapter 19 and after the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, and it seems to me that if we are to assert that the Isaiah passage is true of the future just as is the Revelation passage, this certainly seems to be the case, for if we look at the surrounding context of the Isaiah passage it seems very clear that it too is talking about the end times, and verses 2122 certainly seem then to be paralleled with Revelation 20:1-6, or at least verses 1-3.
            In Revelation 20:1-3 we see an angel binding Satan with a chain, throwing him into a pit, and locking the pit. Satan supposedly will literally be bound up and constrained for one thousand years while the saints reign with Jesus on earth. However, whether an actual chain, lock, key, and pit are used in this endeavor is open to debate. I am inclined to think that these things are not literal but figurative, mainly because Satan, we can assume, does not have a physical body, as he is a fallen angel and so he is a spirit. Hence, one cannot bind by physical means that which is not physical. That is of course unless we are to believe that Satan in the end times will possess and actual body other than that of the beast's (Antichrist), who is already in the lake of fire by this time. The dragon's names in verse 2 are in the same order as they are in chapter 12 verse 9, which is an indication, along with the fact that the same names are given, that this is the same dragon that was discussed in chapter 12.[11] Ed Hindson also writes that there is nothing in the passage to indicate that the thousand year period should not be taken literally, which I also stated above.13 The angel with the key to the pit is probably most likely the same angel with the key to the abyss in chapter 9:1, due to the similarities of the passages. Grant Osborne agrees with me on this point, for he believes that the angel coming down from heaven in verse 1 is the same as the star that fell from the sky in 9:1 and unlocked the abyss to let out the locust plague.[12] We have already taken a close look at these verses above, so we do not need to go any deeper into them here.
            Finally, let us take a brief look at verses 4-6. Now verse 4 is very vague and the text does not tell us who is sitting on these thrones, but we may assume that they are the elders from the 24 thrones from Revelation 4:4. We also looked at verses 4 and 5 above and so we need only take a brief look at them here. Verse 4 states that those who have been martyred will reign with Christ during the Millennium. Verse 5 and 6 tell us that the martyred are part of what is called the "first resurrection" and that they will reign with Christ during the Millennium, which is essentially a reiteration of verse 4. This certainly seems to imply that there will be a second resurrection, which we briefly touched on above.
            We have looked at premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. We have established that premillennialism is the best option of the three. We have established that the Millennium should be viewed as literal. We have seen that both Christians and non-Christians will be on earth during the Millennium, since it takes place before the time of the new heaven and earth. We have seen that Israel and the church are to remain distinct in our minds and theology. And we have briefly discussed Revelation 20:1-6. It seems to have been made clear through this paper that this passage is a very controversial passage, but we have seen that it is possible to take a firm position on how to interpret it. We should all do our best to remember that unless the text gives us some sort of explicit implication that the text is meant to be taken figuratively, such as the word "as," "like," or something of the sort, we should be weary of interpreting the passage in a non-literal sense. However we interpret this passage though, it should be clear to all of us that Revelation 20:1-6 seems to indicate a literal time in the future where Satan will be bound and Christ will reign on earth, which will indeed be a glorious event to behold.

This certainly seems to imply that there will be a second resurrection...

Aune, David Edward. Word Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across The Spectrum. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
Hindson, Edward. The Book of Revelation: Unlocking The Future. Chattanooga: Scofield Ministries, 2002.
Keener, Craig S. The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Lahaye, Tim, and Ed Hindson, ed. The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2004.
Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.
Rowland, Christopher C. The New Interpreter's Bible: The Book of Revelation, vol. 12. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Towns, Elmer. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage, 2008.
Willson,Mark. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.  
[1] Tim Lahaye and Ed Hindson, eds, The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), 279.
[2] Craig Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 464-465. 3 Gregg A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across The Spectrum (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 266.
[3] Lahaye and Hindson, Bible Prophecy, 275.
[4] Grant Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002),701.
[5] Lahaye and Hindson, Bible Prophecy, 275.
[6] Christopher Rowland, The New Interpreter's Bible: The Book of Revelation, vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 707.
[7] Keener, Revelation, 463.
[8] Boyd and Eddy, Across the Spectrum, 277-278.
[9] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today (Mason: Cengage, 2008), 720.
[10] David Edward Aune, Word Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1078.
[11] Mark Willson, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 358. 13 Ed Hindson, The Book of Revelation: Unlocking The Future (Chattanooga: Scofield Ministries, 2002), 202.
[12] Osborne, Revelation, 699.