One of the more familiar topics in Christian prophecy discussions is the millennial reign of Christ mentioned by John in Revelation 20:1-6. The word “millennium” is based on the Latin translation of the phrase “thousand years” which is found six times in these six verses. In fact, this brief passage provides us the descriptive phraseology differentiating the three basic evangelical schools of Biblical prophecy: premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism.1
The immensely popular dispensational brand of premillennialism is solidly rooted in Revelation 20. Indeed, dispensationalists consider the literal understanding of this passage as proof positive of their premillennialism, whereas both the amillennial and postmillennial positions teach that the 1,000 years is a symbolic period of time, rather than a literal 365,000 days.
But is the dispensational approach to Revelation 20 appropriate? And if not, how shall we interpret this important passage?
Despite the widespread dispensational conviction that we must take Revelation 20 in a strictly literal sense, this approach is fundamentally flawed.
First, Revelation is a book of symbols. In Revelation 1:1 John opens by declaring that the book was “sent and signified.” Even dispensationalist John Walvoord admits that this speaks of “revelation through symbols, as in this book.”2 Elsewhere he writes: “Apocalyptic literature is in a place all by itself because all agree that this is not, strictly speaking, literal in its revelation. Outstanding examples, of course, are the Books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.”3 Consequently, the 1,000-year reign of Christ might well be a symbolic time frame.
Second, John provides clues demonstrating the symbolic nature of his prophecies. The seven “stars” are not stars but angels (Rev. 1:20). The seven “lampstands” portray churches (1:20). The seven “eyes” on the Lamb are really “seven spirits” (5:6). The bowls of “incense” stand for prayers (5:8). The “dragon” is Satan (12:9). The seven “heads” of the beast are seven mountains and kings (17:9-10). The ten “horns” of the beast symbolize kings (17:12). And the “waters” signify peoples (17:15). He provides us only a few samples of his symbolic method, but these open up the clear prospect of further symbolic features — including the possibility of Revelation 20 being symbolic.
Third, many elements of the book absolutely resist literal interpretation. In fact, if approached literalistically these would end up as embarrassing absurdities. Do we not see strange creatures filled with eyes (Rev. 4:6)? A slain but living lamb with seven eyes (5:6)? Four lone horsemen wreaking cultural havoc (6:1-8)? Men talking to mountains (6:16)? People washing robes in blood to make them white (7:14)? Locusts with faces of men, teeth of lions, crowns of gold, and tails like scorpions (9:6)? Lion-headed, scorpion-tailed horses belching fire and smoke (9:17)?
Do we not encounter fire-breathing prophets (11:5)? A seven-headed red dragon with ten horns and seven crowns who pulls stars down from heaven (12:3-4)? A woman with eagles’ wings standing on the moon (12:14)? A serpent vomiting a river of water from his mouth (12:15)? The many crowned, seven-headed beast who is a compound of four carnivores (13:2)? A two-horned beast forcing men to idolatrous worship (13:11)? An angel with a sickle reaping the earth (14:15)? Frogs coming out of the mouth of a dragon (16:13)? A prostitute riding the seven-headed beast while she is drunk on blood (17:6)? Christ returning from heaven with a sword in his mouth and on horseback (19:15)? A city the size of a 1,500-mile high cube floating down out of heaven (21:10, 16)? A tree bearing twelve different fruits (22:2)?
What reputable exegete would interpret these literalistically? Again, perhaps the 1,000 years is another symbolic feature of Revelation.
Revelation 20 Difficulties
Numerous other matters complicate the premillennial analysis of Revelation 20 itself, only a few of which I have space to mention.
First, why is such an important concept as the 1,000-year reign of Christ found in only one book in all of Scripture? And in only one chapter of that book? In fact, in only the first six verses of that chapter? After all, the “millennium” controls the three basic evangelical views. Yet this time frame appears only in Revelation 20.
Why do we not read of the “thousand years” in Paul’s important passages on Christ’s return and reign: 1 Corinthians 15:20-58; Romans 11:1-26; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18? Or in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom, as in the Kingdom Parables of Matthew 13 and in the latter part of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25:31-46? Or anywhere else in Scripture? Why does it only appear in the most symbolic book in all of the Bible?
Second, why should we expect that the perfectly rounded numerical quantity (1,000) must be understood literalistically? Especially since it is only mentioned in this highly symbolic book? Are we ready to believe that God owns the cattle on only 1,000 hills (Ps. 50:10)? That the Lord promises that Israel will be only 1,000 times more numerous (Dt. 1:11)? Or that God’s love is limited only to 1,000 generations (Dt. 7:9)? Or that only 1,000 years in God’s courts are preferred by the saints (Ps. 84:10)? Or that God experiences 1,000 years as a day, therefore 4,000 years must be experienced as four days, and so on (Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8)?
Third, is the fallen angel Satan to be bound with a literal chain and placed in a literal abyss (Rev. 20:1-3)? Of what is this chain made?
Fourth, how are we to deal with the contradictions of dispensationalism in the passage? Where is premillennial, pre-tribulational “rapture” mentioned? What of the two resurrections? The “first resurrection” is out of sequence in that dispensationalism expects it to occur seven years prior to millennium, whereas Revelation 20:4 ties it to the beginning of the millennium. In the dispensational system, when are we
to expect the resurrection of the saints converted during the tribulation
(e.g., 7:14)? After all, the “first resurrection” is for believers only and the second resurrection for non-believers. But this leaves the tribulation-era saints with no resurrection.
Fifth, are we willing to accept a second humiliation of Christ based on a literal reading of this passage? Do we really expect the exalted Christ (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 1:13; 1 Pet. 3:22) to return to earth for a 1,000-year rule only to have His personally administered Kingdom revolt against Him
and surround Him in Jerusalem (Rev. 20:7-9)?
What, then, does the postmillennialist make of Revelation 20? The 1,000 years seem to function as a symbolic value, not strictly limited to a literal thousand-year period. One thousand is the cube of ten (10x10x10); ten is the number of quantitative perfection (apparently because it is the full complement of digits on a man’s hands or feet). The “thousand years,” then, serve as John’s symbolic portrayal of the long-lasting glory of the Kingdom Christ establishes at His first coming.
In Revelation 20:1-3 John portrays the negative implications of Christ’s triumph over Satan, when “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan” (v. 2) is spiritually bound [Gk.: deo]. This binding restricts him from successfully accomplishing his evil design in history. The angel from heaven who binds him evidently is Christ Himself, in that: (1) The struggle of the ages is ultimately between Satan and Christ (Gen. 3:15; Mt. 4:1-11; Jn. 12:31-32; Ac. 26:15-18), making it most appropriate for Christ to bind Satan; (2) Christ appears under angelic imagery elsewhere in Revelation (cp. Rev. 10:1 with 1:13-15).
Furthermore, Matthew 12:28-29 informs us of Satan’s binding by Christ during His earthly ministry: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up [Gk.: deo, same term as in Rev. 20:2] the strong man? Then he can rob his house” (Mt. 12:28-29). This parallels the thought of Revelation 20:1-6.
Christ accomplishes Satan’s binding judicially in the first century. This binding does not result in the total inactivity of Satan; rather it restrains his power by Christ’s superior might. The context specifically qualifies the purpose of the binding: it is “in order that” (Gk: hina) Satan not “deceive the nations.” Before the coming of Christ all nations beyond the borders of Israel were under the dominion of Satan (2 Kin. 17:29; Lk. 4:6; Ac. 26:17-18). Israel alone of all the peoples of the earth was an oasis in a sin-parched world; only they knew the true God and salvation (Ps. 147:19-20; Amos 3:2). But with the coming of Christ and the spread of “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 24:14; cp. Mt. 4:17, 23; Mk. 10:25, 29; Lk. 9:2, 6) beyond the borders of Israel (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8; 13:47; 26:20), Satan begins to lose his dominion over the Gentiles.
In Revelation 20:4-6 we see the positive implications of Christ’s Kingdom. While Satan is bound, Christ rules and His redeemed people participate with Him in that rule (Rev. 20:4). These participants include both the quick and the dead: the martyred saints in heaven (“those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God”) and the persevering saints on earth (“and those who [Gk: oitines] had not worshiped the beast”) (NASB). Christ’s kingdom rule involves all those who suffer for Him and enter heaven above, as well as those who live for Him during their earthly sojourn.
The “first resurrection” refers to the spiritual resurrection of those born again by God’s grace: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death” (1 Jn. 3:14). “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6; cp. Col. 2:13).
In fact, in his gospel the author of Revelation parallels the spiritual resurrection of salvation with the physical resurrection of prophecy as he does in Revelation 20: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (Jn. 5:24-29, emphasis added).
Having been spiritually resurrected, the saints (whether in heaven or on earth) are spiritually enthroned. Revelation 20:4-6 speaks of the saints living and reigning with Christ, which elsewhere refers to a spiritual reality in the present experience of God’s people: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6; cp. 1 Cor. 3:21-22; Col. 3:1-2).
This is a redemptive reign in that John informs his original audience early in Revelation that Christ already “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6). Peter tells the first century Christians (and us): “[Y]ou are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9). These observations parallel Revelation 20:6.
Thus, the saints’ reigning “with Christ” on thrones while Satan is bound beautifully pictures Christ’s redemptive Kingdom already established: Christ brings His kingdom into the world to battle with Satan during His earthly ministry (Mt. 4:1-11; 12:28-29); God formally bestows kingly authority upon Him at His resurrection/ascension (Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4); and Christ promises continuing growth in history until the end (Mt. 13:31-33; 1 Cor. 15:25). The King of kings, possessing all authority, commissions His servants to bring men into His kingdom, promising all the while to be with them and to bless them in their labor (Mt. 28:18-20; Phil. 4:13). Christians are “overcomers” (cp. 1 Jn. 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5) and are seated with Christ who presently rules: “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21). The “millennial” era has already lasted almost 2,000 years; it may continue another 1,000 or 10,000 more for all we know.
The “rest of the [spiritually] dead” do not participate in this spiritual resurrection. In fact, they “do not live again until the thousand years” is finished (Rev. 20:5). At that time they are physically resurrected (implied) in order to be subjected by “the second death” (eternal torment), which is brought about at Judgment Day (Rev. 20:11-15). At that time, of course, God will resurrect all men physically (Job 19:23-27; Is. 26:19; Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rom. 8:11, 23; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thes. 4:16).
Premillennialists’ foundational passage fails to support their theological structure. Their approach to Revelation 20 has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Kenneth Gentry is Chancellor of Christ College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a full time pastor. He is the author of fourteen books and contributor to several others from Zondervan, Baker, Kregel, P&R and other publishers. He operates the Christian educational website www.kennethgentry.com where he offers a correspondence course in Christian research, writing, and publication.
1. I would note that premillennialism is divided into two sub-positions: dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism. The dispensational view is the most popular eschatological option in the evangelical church in America, even though it is the most recent position, having arisen in the early 1800s.
2. John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 35.
3. John F. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1990), 15.