By Robert Lowery
Years ago when I began my study of Revelation, I attempted to do so with no preconceived theories. I tried to let John say what I think he means to say. I came to the conclusion that John did not teach Jesus was going to return to earth and set up an earthly kingdom for a thousand years. Furthermore, nowhere else in the Bible do I find such a teaching.
Many may differ, but we can agree upon the following: We believe God, in his own time and in his own way, will bring all things to their appropriate end and establish the new Heaven and new earth. Christ will return in glory, the dead will be raised, and all will be judged. The lost will be sentenced to everlasting punishment, and the saints, in their resurrected and glorified bodies, will dwell with the Lord. Such a summary gets at the core of both Revelation and Scripture as a whole.
But why do I not believe in an earthly reign of Christians with Christ for a thousand years? My position is often called “amillennial.”1 The letter a (meaning “no”) when attached to millennial is often misunderstood, as if I do not believe in a millennium. Correctly understood, the designation means I do not believe in an earthly reign of the saints with Christ. I do believe in a millennium, but for Christians it takes place in a different realm.
The number 1,000 appears only six times in Revelation and is used in connection with either Satan (20:2, 3, 7) or the saints (20:4-6). I have drawn two major conclusions concerning use of the number. First, 1,000 is used to describe a time period concerning Satan’s activity. Until God sets him loose, Satan is bound in that he cannot deceive the nations to make one last attempt to destroy the church. Second, the number is used to describe the saints’ reign with Christ in Heaven.2 There are two levels of support for my position.3
The Structure of the Book
Revelation is not to be read chronologically.4 Rather, John uses repetition to emphasize a key theme. Time and again John takes the reader up to the end of the world to drive home the point that when Christ returns he will come in judgment—to reward those who are faithful and punish those who are not. The age-long conflict between God and Satan and their respective followers flows through the book.
There is only one end of the world and only one final coming of Jesus (Hebrews 9:27, 28), and yet John writes about the event at numerous points. For example, each series of seven (the seals in 6:12ff., the trumpets in 11:15ff. and the bowls in 16:17ff.) ends with a description of the final judgment.
There are other references to the end in which John uses the destruction of Babylon (ultimately a symbol for any godless culture in 14:8; 17:1–18:24) and the judgment of the two beasts (ultimately symbols of anti-Christian governments and anti-Christian religions in 13:1-18; 19:11-21). The Roman Empire’s hostility to God and his servants becomes a symbol for any godless culture that stands against God and his people. John covers the same territory again and again but from different perspectives.
Finally, before Revelation 20:4ff., there is no hint of any kind of earthly millennium involving Jesus and the saints. The emphasis is that when Jesus returns, the world comes to an end, Christians shall reign with him in the new Heaven and on the new earth, and the unrighteous will be punished. There are pictures of the final judgment scattered throughout the book but none about a 1,000-year earthly reign. God, through John, repeats to drive home the point: All godless cultures (from Roman society to the final godless cultures) will be judged by God. All faithful disciples will be rewarded.
The Structure of Revelation 20
A careful reading of Revelation as a whole shows that John moves back and forth from Christ’s death and resurrection until he returns a second time. Furthermore, a close reading reveals that John constantly moves back and forth between heavenly and earthly scenes. This is so in Revelation 20.
We need to be reminded that John stated that the revelation was going to be made known in symbols (1:1 in the King James Version reads that the revelation “was signified,” a word meaning “to make known in symbols”). All colors, animals, numbers, etc. are symbols pointing to spiritual realities and must never be interpreted literally. Revelation is filled with “word pictures” that help us see the inner meaning of spiritual truths. For example, Jesus is not literally a lamb, but the image symbolizes his sacrificial death.
Some interpreters try to have it both ways. They emphasize the symbolic character of the scene in 20:1-3 (a key and chain), but when it comes to the 1,000-year reign, they want to make it literal. They appear to mingle the symbolic and the literal at mere whim. Those who take the number 1,000 literally pay no regard to the symbolic use of all numbers (seven, twelve, etc.). Not once in Revelation is the number 1,000 used literally. If we interpret the 1,000 years literally in Revelation 20:1ff., it will be the only example of a literal use of numbers in Revelation. But beyond this fatal objection, consider the structure of the paragraphs in Revelation 20.
The vocabulary of 20:1-3 (“coming down out of heaven” and “Abyss”) suggests the scene takes place on earth. Satan is restricted and he cannot marshal the evil nations to make one last effort to destroy the church until God permits him to do so. The big picture is this: Satan has been defeated by Jesus, notably in his death and resurrection (John 12:31-33; 16:11; Luke 10:18). Of course, he continues to this day to attack the church through anti-Christian forces, but God has yet to release him and give him one more opportunity to have his way with the saints. In other words, for a period of time determined by God (symbolized by 1,000 years), Satan will not be given any opportunity to mount a final attack against the church.
The vocabulary of 20:4-6 (“thrones” and “souls”) suggests the action takes place in God’s presence. John uses the word “throne” 45 times, and in all but two passages the throne is always in Heaven (2:13 and 16:10 refer to evil earthly thrones). It is, therefore, probable that the throne in 20:4 is in Heaven as well (see 1:4; 4:2ff.).
Further, because of their steadfastness, Christians who are martyred, as well as the faithful who die naturally, are with the Lord when they die. They remain priests and participants of the kingdom upon death (20:4).
Note also, John sees “souls” (not bodies). He is not speaking about resurrection bodies fit for an earthly kingdom, but about our life with Christ upon death. Perhaps in using the word “souls” he is saying he sees “persons” who are victorious. The other two occasions where the word “soul” is used to describe Christians, the saints are in Heaven (6:9-11 and 12:11; the NIV “lives” is the same Greek word translated “souls” elsewhere). They escaped from their dying bodies and ascended to God’s presence. The vision, then, relates not to glorified saints having their glorified bodies, but to those saints who are in the presence of Jesus upon their death.
The big picture is this: Even though it appears as if Christians have been defeated upon their death, John assures all faithful believers that even though they die, they are resurrected to a more intimate life with Christ, something John identifies as “the first resurrection.” Each Christian experiences a reign with Christ, a reign symbolized by 1,000 years. John declares that upon death “they lived.”
The vocabulary of 20:7-10 (“the nations,” “the four corners of the earth,” etc.) suggests the action takes place on earth. God allows Satan an opportunity to deceive the nations in order to destroy the church, but Satan will fail. Nowhere is a battle described. In Martin Luther’s words: “One little word shall fell him.” The big picture is this: God will say to Satan and his allies, “Go to Hell!”
The vocabulary of 20:11-15 (“a great white throne,” “earth and sky fled,” etc.) suggests the action takes place in God’s presence. The rest of the dead referred to in 20:5 are the non-Christian dead, including those who abandoned Christ. Here we are told they will be judged by God and will suffer the same fate of Satan and his allies. The big picture is this: In contrast with Christians who continued to reign with Christ on death, the rest of the dead will be punished because they were not Christians or because of their betrayal of Christ.
Therefore, the reference to “the second death” (20:14) presumes a first death (physical death). The reference to the “first resurrection” involves faithful saints who are with Christ upon their death. The second resurrection takes place on the Day of Judgment, with the dead in Christ being given resurrected bodies while those outside of Christ will be eternally condemned.
The Significance of the Millennium
There is no problem-free interpretation of this passage, but we must seek to understand its inspired message. Accordingly, our quest must be marked by grace and humility. What we believe affects how we behave. It is a cop-out to say we are pan-millennialist (“It will all pan out”) or pro-millennialist (“We are in favor of it”). This doctrine affects the way we live and die.
If Christ is going to reign on earth, why is Scripture silent about the nature of that temporary earthly kingdom? If there is no mention of the millennium as a temporary period of blessing elsewhere in the Bible, how could something so significant fail to be mentioned elsewhere? Scripture does not speak beyond what we read in Revelation 20. What is the reason for a millennium? Do nations continue to exist as if Christ is not reigning? Do people still sin? Do Christians have to die a second time? Does death continue? Do we marry and produce children? Finally, there is a roaring silence about Jews in the millennium.
But if John is contrasting the saints’ life and reign in Heaven with those who die outside of Christ, and therefore not introducing the idea of an earthly millennium, we do not have to attempt to answer the above questions. The millennium becomes an awkward parenthesis, a pause between the coming of the kingdom in Christ and its consummation at his final coming. To what purpose? we must ask. The teaching of a thousand-year earthly reign delays and derails the hope Christians have for a total fulfillment of God’s promise to dwell with us forever.
In Revelation 20, John counsels us to find both comfort and challenge. Christians through the centuries have always been in conflict with Satan. John reminds us that not even death can make us cease being priests and part of his kingdom. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of Christ, save our own faithlessness. The millennium is a symbol for both the victory of believers and the profound truth that Satan is doomed. What a word of consolation for those who have lost loved ones!
Finally, Revelation weds at strategic points the images of saints being priests and members of the kingdom (1:6; 5:10; 20:4-6; 22:3-5). And these images convey privilege and responsibility. We have the privilege as priests to be close to God as well as the responsibility to be his witnesses. According to Revelation 1:5 and 5:10, now we are priests and in the kingdom. Revelation 20:4-6 teaches that even upon death we remain priests and part of the kingdom. Finally, when the new Heaven and new earth appear, we will continue to serve and reign with him forever and ever (22:5). Amen.
1See K. Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
2The same symbol is often used to refer to Satan or evil and God and his allies. For example, seven is used in connection with God or his followers (1:4, 11, 12, 16) as well as evil (12:3; 13:9, 9, 11, 14, 17, 18). The throne is a symbol linked with God and his allies (4:2; 20:4) or Satan and his allies (2:13; 13:2).
3I encourage you to visit my Web site at www.rlowery.com for additional reflections on the millennium.
4See my book, Revelation’s Rhapsody: Listening to the Lyrics of the Lamb, How to Read the Book of Revelation (Joplin: College Press, 2006; and Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2006), pp. 121ff.
Robert Lowery is dean and professor at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.
“Why I Take a Premillennial View” (Longer Version) by Alex V. Wilson
“Why I Take a Premillennial View” (Shorter Version) by Alex V. Wilson
“Five Books on the Millennium” by Robert Lowery