I once read s the millennium defined as a thousand-year period of time during which Christians fight over the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation (Keith Matheson)
We may add for two thousand years now Christians have debated the meaning of the millennium.
Before looking at Ch 20 and the millennium it may be best to outline some arguments for Premillennialism which is the view I will (tentatively) support.
There are three principal views on the millennium.
(Another view. seems to be gaining support by an increasing number of commentators. This understands the millennium as a symbol of the victory of God and the defeat of Satan but with no temporal reality; it is purely symbolic. In a book where all other symbols express historical realities this is hard to accept.)
Both Postmillennialism and Amillennialism have one great advantage over premillennialism – they both view the Coming of Christ as taking place after the millennium. This means that there is no conflict with OT and NT texts which seem to see the parousia as the climax of history, the point around which all judgement and salvation issues pivot and the cosmic battles of history are resolved. Sin, Satan, death, and evil do not survive the Second Coming. Premillennialism, however, believes the return of Christ, the parousia, takes place before the millennium which creates the difficulties just mentioned; full judgement and salvation is not realised at the Second Coming – Satan, sin and death still exist, God’s City will be attacked and the full cosmic renewal of a new heavens and new earth lies a 1000 years in the future.
In postmillennialism the millennium takes place on earth during the last 1000 years of the church age. The world will be Christianised through the gospel and cultures will be conformed in great part to the rule of Christ. Among the disadvantages Post-millennialism faces is its optimism that the world will be Christianised which seems to not only fly in the face of the empirical evidence but also appears to run against the grain of Scripture. The church in Scripture always faces stiff opposition and salvation is a narrow gate that few find (Matt 24, 7:13,14. When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth (Lk 18:8) is not a picture of a Christianised world
Problems with Amillennialism
Amillennialism, like postmillennialism, believes the millennium takes place during the church age. Normally it views the millennium as the present reign of Christ and the deceased redeemed in heaven or sometimes the reign is believed to be Christ’s present heavenly reign shared by spiritually reborn believers presently on earth but actually seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 1). However, the reign of believers presently alive is normally future in Scripture (2 Tim 2:12). Amillennialism’s real difficulty, however, is Rev 20. Amillennial interpretations do not seem to do justice to Rev 20:1-10. Below are some weaknesses to consider.
• There is a narrative progression between Ch 19 and 20 that amillennialism discounts. A series of snapshots of events relating to the Second Coming and beyond run through 19-22. To place the millennium before the Second Coming seems contextually unlikely.
• Resurrection is interpreted as a metaphor for the reign of deceased believers in heaven or living believers on earth, Resurrection in Rev 20 must therefore in either case be spiritual rather than physical. This is the really crunch problem for amillennialism. It is very hard to accept that ‘spiritual’ resurrection is in John’s mind. The souls of the martyrs (v4) come to life (v4)…this is the first resurrection (v5)… the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.(V5). This is language for physical resurrection.
• Amillennialism’s view that Satan is presently bound is also hard to square with Rev 12 where Satan is marauding against the church. Amillennialists normally see Rev 12 as a description of the whole church age making it even more difficult to articulate with Rev 20 where Satan is bound for a 1000 years. In Rev 12 Satan is cast from heaven to earth to attack: in Rev 20 he is chained in a bottomless pit that he may not attack.
• Within its own system the two disparate time periods are difficult for amillennialism; The 3½ years (viewed by amillennialists as the whole church age) that dominate the majority of the book and Ch 20’s 1000 years are quite different symbols; one suggests a short period of time and the other a long period of time yet amillennialism must think of them as applying to the same time period.
• The idea of a 1000 years or a very long period of time before Christ’s return rubs against the emphasis on imminency Revelation teaches.
Lastly both these views (post-millennialism and amillennialism) place Rev 20 :1-10 before the Second Coming whereas Rev 20 is part of a series of visions that seem to be about the Second Coming and beyond.
I want now to present some of the leading arguments both for and against premillennialism since it is premillennialism that I think best fits Ch 20.
• Premillennialism has probably the longest history among any views on the millennium. It seems to have been the dominant view in the early church fathers (I am speaking of historic premillennialism not dispensational premillennialism which is a much more recent variant).
• From Ch 19-22 a series of visions (introduced by ‘I saw’ ) describe the Second Coming and beyond. They are all a celebration of God’s victory in Christ. This includes the millennium passage. If the millennium passage describes events before the Coming it seems out of place in this series of cameos.
• Although the decisive passage for the millennium is Rev 20 there are OT passages that seem to fit with a millennial reign that falls short of eternal perfection. For example in Ezek 38,39 Israel is living in idyllic conditions with no thought of danger (unwalled villages) then an alien army (Gog and Magog) comes to attack only to be utterly destroyed before it can do any harm. These chapters are alluded to in Rev 20. Other OT chapters describing perhaps not quite perfect conditions include: Isa 11, 54, 65. Any passages which seem to describe life in the renewal of all things yet mention elements that are unexpected… the poor, death, sin, violence fit more readily with a premillennial kingdom. However, it’s important to remember that OT kingdom imperfections could be pointing to aspects of the kingdom presently. Its also possible the more limited description an idyllic future is because they describe the future blessedness in terms of the promised covenantal blessings described by Moses (Deut 8,11, 30)
• For most of Revelation (6-18) the action time-span is 3½ years. This is probably a literal 3½ years at the end of history though many think the time-span is a symbol for the whole age of the church. There is no sign, however, of 1000 years as a symbol of the church age. This seems to be a unique time-span (literal or symbolic as a number) that presumably points to some kind of perfection. Further, for the 1000 years to symbolise the present goes against the narrative of Revelation which stresses imminency.
• Premillennialism is the most natural interpretation of Rev 20
There is a number of ways premillennialism does not sit comfortably with the rest of the NT. For example:
• It seems that the Second Coming of Jesus is the decisive event for the overthrow of all evil (2 Thess 1). Yet a premillennial kingdom has Satan, sin, death, unbelievers and revolt all present and active. This is a great difficulty for premillennialism.
• The NT and OT point to a renewal of creation what Jesus calls, ‘the regeneration of all things’ (Matt 19:28; Cf. Isa 11, 25, 65, 66). This seems to happen at his Second Coming (2 Pet 3:10-13; Roms 8:19-23). Yet in Revelation new creation is placed beyond the millennium in the eternal state (Rev 21:1,2). Are there two regenerations?
• We are told that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor 15:50) and that unless we are born of the Spirit we cannot see the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:5). The unrighteousness and unclean will be barred (1 Cor 6:9-11). Yet it seems that many in the premillennial kingdom will be unregenerate and will at the end rebel against God.
• The NT seems to envisage an ‘’age to come’ or kingdom that is eternal not merely for 1000 yrs. (Lk 1:33, 18:30). However, we should remember Jesus will deliver up the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 15:54) suggesting continuity and discontinuity. Nevertheless consummated kingdom followed by a separate and distinct eternal state does not have a lot of support.
• The resurrection of the just and the unjust appears to be one event (Jn 5:28; Dan 12:2) yet in premillennialism they are separated by around a 1000 years.
• The clearest mention of a temporal millennial kingdom (Rev 20) is found in a symbol-laden chapter in a symbol-laden book.
• It is difficult to see where the nations come from that inhabit the kingdom. It seems the unrighteous are destroyed (Rev 19:17-21). It seems at the judgement of his Coming those opposed to Christ go into everlasting punishment while the righteous go into everlasting life implying full glorification (Matt 25:46). If the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:37-43) and the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46.) are consigned to their respective destinies where do the non-reigning inhabiters of the millennium originate?
• OT allusions to the kingdom in Revelation are mainly applied to the eternal state not the millennium (Rev 21).
• The final battle of the millennium (Ch 20) along with the battle of Armageddon (Ch 19) draws from the same Gog Magog battle (Ezek 38,39). Amillennialists argue this is proof that the same battle is in view in both passages.
• There is an apparent awkwardness in the transition from the temporal (millennium) to the eternal in premillennialism. If there are believers on earth who are not at that point part of the church what happens to them? The Bible does envisage the kingdom being transferred from Christ to the Father but this seems a more natural transfer at Christ’s Second Coming (1 Cor 15:24).
• A great deal that premillennialism claims for the millennium is imported from other Scriptures, mainly OT ones. At least some of these OT passages are used by John to describe the eternal state. Rev 20 itself says very little about life in the 1000 years.
Other problems can be raised, marriage and procreation in a kingdom where it seems they neither marry nor are given in marriage (LK 20:34-36; Matt 22:30). Death appears to be vanquished at the parousia yet is present in the millennium (1 Cor 15 :54). Finally, tears and distress are said to be wiped away in the new creation which follows the millennium not in the millennium itself (Rev 21:4). However, enough has been said.
Do these problems mean that the concept of a premillennial kingdom is wrong? No, in the first instance they reveal my limited grasp. Also, many of these objections have possible answers even if some are not always convincing. More importantly they mean we may want to avoid being over dogmatic. Both Amillennialism and Postmillennialism have a long pedigree in the church and should not be considered heretical. Perhaps we should also remember that we are still reading visions. How the vision translates into temporal realities is not always clear to us..
I confess to a fair degree of inner conflict on this question. It is said that amillennialism is stronger systematically whereas premillennialism is stronger exegetically. This rings true. The case for premillennialism is exegetically strong in Revelation. If other NT texts are privileged then amillennialism will be adopted: if Rev 20 and a few other texts are privileged then premillennialism will be adopted. I think I must allow Rev 20 to be heard. Other texts need not, I think, be in ultimate conflict with a premillennial reading of Rev 20.
At the moment, to repeat my opening acknowledgement, my own position on Rev 20 is (tentatively) premillennial. In the paraphrased words of Churchill: premillennialism is the worst of all millennial views until you consider the alternatives… yet amillennialism pulls.
(I have not distinguished between historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism though they express two very different approaches to Scripture. Dispensationalism must be judged on the basis of its very literal hermeneutic; its absolute disjunction between Israel and the church; and its pretribulation rapture)