Shortly before the end of his book, John writes about “the battle” and the millennium. In the previous issue, I argued that these images may be more fluid and flexible than most readers recognize. “The battle” may be a reality (a confrontation) that runs throughout salvation history (therefore a “war” rather than a “battle”). In fact, “the war” is salvation history seen from the perspective of dealing with the forces of evil. But what, then, is the millennium?
Before I answer this question, let me summarize the traditional views. For some of you, this is overly familiar, so feel free to skip this section. But if you are new to the subject or need a refresher, this may be helpful.
The Traditional Views
Traditionally, the millennium in Revelation 20 has been understood in three different ways, each leading to a different scheme for the end times and each named after the millennium. They differ in when they expect Christ to return: either before or after the millennium (pre- and postmillennialism). And they differ in whether they understand the millennium as a future or as a present reality (so amillennialism).
There is a fourth view, a variant of premillennialism, which is quite different from its parent and influential among evangelicals, even among those who have never heard its name. I will, therefore, include it in this overview as well.
Premillennialism believes that the second coming of Christ will be followed by a millennial kingdom on earth, during which Satan is bound and Jesus reigns from Jerusalem. It will, therefore, be a rule marked by peace and prosperity. In the end, Satan is released for a short while and a second “final battle” takes place, in which he is soundly defeated again, this time forever.
Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism. It first emerged around 1830 in the writings and teachings of John Nelson Darby. It is far more complex than “historic” premillennialism. For one, Darby proposed a “secret rapture”, seven years before the visible return of Christ, and went into great detail as to what would happen during these years. This is the stuff most popular end-time books are made off.
Postmillennialism believes that the second coming follows a long era of great peace and prosperity on earth, a golden age of humanity or, in other words, a “millennium”. This millennium comes about as the gospel is preached to more and more nations, transforming them in the process. In this gradual way, the yeast of the kingdom is doing its work. The mustard seed grows up to be a mighty tree and the stone rolling down and overthrowing the statue in Daniels dream (Dan. 2) becomes a mighty mountain filling the whole earth. This golden age will not be a perfect world, but it will demonstrate within history the power and the wisdom of the gospel – God does not win by the exercise of raw force at the very end, but by transforming human history through truth and love from within.
Amillennialism sees the millennium as a symbol expressing something about the present age. In spite of its name (“a” meaning “not” or “non”), therefore, it does not deny John’s millennium but understands it as a present, not a future era in salvation history. We will explore below what a symbolic interpretation of John’s vision might look like.
A Few Things about the Book of Revelation
This was covered under this same heading in the previous issue. Here is a quick refresher.
- Much in Revelation reflects its setting in the Roman Empire and is deeply rooted in this time. The book does therefore not look at a distant future (“distant” from the perspective of the early readers); this would have made the book irrelevant to them. Why would they have to know what would start to happen 2000 years after they were gone?
- Much in the book is symbolic. Things are often not what they are, but represent something else. At least in principle, this could also apply to the idea of “a thousand year” or the binding of Satan.
- The book is far from chronological or sequential. Instead, it is marked by recapitulation and parallelism: the sections, consisting of seven scenes each, roughly run parallel. In each section except the letters, scene number 6 marks “the end” and scene 7 describes what follows the end. This is also true for the sections: section number 6, consisting of seven scenes of judgment, confronts us with “the end” – the end, that is, of Satan, evil and the beast. Section number 7, the new Jerusalem, shows us the new reality that will follow the end of evil.
- Each section begins with an introduction or setting, which shows us something of the heavenly reality. In Revelation 19:11-16, this is Jesus as the Divine Warrior riding into battle.
A Few Things about the Millennium
Here are a few points to notice about the millennium.
- Different from the final battle, the millennium is not an established Old Testament motif. Indeed, there is no other passage in Scripture that refers to it. People sometimes point to OT prophecies of a glorious and renewed creation as a parallel, but in context, these prophecies depict what could be called the “final (or eternal) state,” God’s new creation. These passages do not describe a temporary phase between history and eternity.
- People often assume that the rule described in Revelation 20:4-6 occurs on earth. However, the text does not state this. Most thrones in the book are in heaven. These thrones, it appears, are located in heaven as well. This is an important observation and helps us to answer the following question.
- What is the point of this passage? It is not to give us information on future chronology. Rather, it is a word of encouragement for the martyrs. There is a reward for them. It is they who come to life (so they are not dead after being killed) and find themselves with Christ in heaven, sharing in his rule. This is parallel to Revelation 6:9-10. There, John sees the souls of the martyrs “under the altar” – a place of honour that symbolizes how dear their sacrifice is to God. It is also parallel to the experience of the two witnesses in Revelation 11:11-12. After their death, lasting a mere 3½ days, they are raised and are called up into heaven.
- Some see in the war scene in Revelation 12:7-12 an additional parallel to Revelation 20. Obviously, the second half of the book of Revelation shows how evil, both satanic and human evil, will be brought to an end. It is possible to see Revelation 12 as the beginning and Revelation 20 as the end of this war, but it is also possible to see them as different visual representations of the same truth: Christ, through his death on the cross, has triumphed over Satan. In this view, Revelation 20:1-6 is parallel to chapter 12 and offers us a flashback. Even if this is not the case, it is still part of this storyline and therefore deals with the ultimate and complete defeat of Satan – not with dreams about a millennial kingdom on earth with Christ reigning from Jerusalem for a thousand years of peace.
- Numbers in Revelation are not literal but carry symbolic meaning. Ten is a number of completion (we have ten fingers). One thousand equals 10 x 10 x 10, a very large and complete number, in this case, a long duration of time. It stands in deliberate contrast to the 3½ years of the Beast’s rule and apparent victory (Rev. 13:5-7) and to the 3½ days of the apparent defeat of the two witnesses (Rev. 11:7-9). This, too, demonstrates that the purpose here is to encourage the martyrs – not reveal future chronology.
The Millennium: One? Progressive? Repeated Manifestations?
If the millennium is not a future kingdom on earth, how should we understand it? As with “the battle,” there are several alternatives.
1. The traditional amillennial interpretation sees the millennium as a symbol of the church age. The power of Satan has been broken on the cross; as a result, the “strong man” has been bound (Mt. 12:29). In the language of Colossians 2:15, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” One consequence of this victory is that Satan can “not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev. 20:3), as he was able to do before Christ, when all nations apart from Israel walked in spiritual darkness. Another effect is that deceased saints find themselves in heaven ruling with Christ. This view treats Revelation 20:1-3 as a flashback, going back to Christ’s earthly ministry: the binding of Satan took place before the two scenes of the one war described in the passages immediately preceding and following Revelation 20:1-6 (G. K. Beale argues extensively for this view; 1999:972ff).
Before presenting two additional options, it should be recognized that there are two scenes in Revelation 20:1-6, not just one. Each is introduced with its own “and I saw” formula (Revelation 20:1 and 20:4). The second scene (20:4-6; strictly speaking, it continues until verse 10) is about the martyrs. This is a constant reality, in heaven. Martyrs, who appear to have lost everything, do not lose at all: they find themselves in heaven reigning with Christ. The first scene (20:1-3) is different and potentially more dynamic.
2. A progressive view. It is possible to think of Revelation 20:1-3 as a reality that increasingly comes true within the course of history as the yeast does its work and the mustard seed grows into a mighty tree. This is a progressive understanding of the binding of Satan, one that obviously has affinities with postmillennialism.
3. The cyclical understanding. It is also possible to think of the battle and the binding of Satan as a cycle or pattern in history, as something that repeats itself. This is based on a different understanding of the phrase “not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev. 20:3). Revelation 20:8-9 shows what this phrase means, what happens when Satan deceives the nations: they gather for war and attack the “camp of the saints.” To deceive the nations, then, is to entice them to an all-out attack on the people of God.
The climax of the battle takes place whenever human ideology and state power devote their considerable resources to eradicate the church. This is parallel to the way Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod conspired against Jesus. It is what the Roman Empire sought to do during the second and third centuries. What followed was a very long time (a “millennium”) of relative peace for the church, enabling it to firmly establish itself in Europe and from there in the rest of the world.
The Roman Empire failed in its attempt to destroy the church. Other governments and ideologies have tried since. In the end, the church survives and the ideology lies in ruins. Perhaps every cycle adds to the level of binding or restraint that applies to Satan’s power.
Conclusion: The Millennium Is Now
So here are three alternative understandings of the millennium. In each of them, it makes sense to state that the millennium is now. We begin to realize, if we did not do so before, that much in John’s visions is not meant to foretell the course of history, but rather to interpret it. Plus: The visions convey truth in a way that is not easily systematized; they certainly do not establish a chronology, an order of specific end-time events. Instead, they give us the big picture of things.
Starting with Revelation 12, we learn about the war that followed the completion of Christ’s redemptive mission on earth. Satan has been defeated (in the language of Rev. 12:7-9, cast out of heaven; in the language of Rev. 20:1-3, bound), he is increasingly defeated, and he will ultimately be defeated in full, even though the battle can still be fierce.
Simultaneously and for a very long time, martyrs and deceased saints find themselves in heaven, reigning with Christ. In the meantime, on earth, each attempt to deceive the nations (or some nations) into an all-out attack on the church fails and is followed by a binding of Satan, according to the progressive and cyclical understanding of the millennium.
More importantly, and this is the big picture of things, in the end, Satan is conquered completely and for all eternity. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is the lamb that conquers the dragon, not the other way around. So stand firm; you are on the winning side.
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K. Beale (1999), The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)
K. Beale & D. Campell (2015), Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
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