Three Views of the Millennium
For many Christians, the millennium is a very important doctrine. For some, it is “the wonderful world tomorrow.” It is an upbeat message about good news for the entire world — a new and far better world will come after Christ returns to put an end to this evil world. The millennium will be a thousand years of righteous rule, when people will obey God, when there will be peace worldwide, when even animals will be at peace with one another.
Can we prove it?
However, we do not stress the millennium. Why not? Why have we neglected this wonderfully optimistic message about the future? The simple answer is, Scripture. We want to be honest in our use of Scripture. No matter how good particular teachings might make us feel, we do not want to be teaching things we cannot prove from Scripture.
For example, how long will the millennium last? Many say that it will be exactly one thousand years. After all, Revelation 20 calls it a thousand years. The word “millennium” itself means one thousand years. So why would anybody doubt it?
The book of Revelation is filled with symbols. There are beasts and horns and colors and numbers that are meant figuratively, not literally. We also see in Scripture that the number one thousand is often used as a round number, not an exact count. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, it says, without meaning an exact number. He keeps his covenant for a thousand generations, without meaning exactly 40,000 years. In scriptures like this, “a thousand” just means lots and lots.
So, in Revelation 20, the question arises, is the “thousand years” meant exactly and literally, or is it figurative? In this book of symbols that often aren’t meant literally, is the round number thousand meant to be exact? From Scripture, we cannot prove that the thousand years are meant exactly. We don’t have any other passage that gives us a chronology for this phase of God’s kingdom. We cannot prove that it isn’t figurative, meaning a very long time. That is a plausible interpretive choice.
So, if we don’t want to say things we can’t prove, and we can’t prove that the “thousand” in Revelation 20 has to be literal, then we shouldn’t say that the millennium is exactly one thousand years. But we can say that “the millennium is the time span described in the book of Revelation.” That is defensible no matter how anyone interprets the thousand years. That statement is biblical, and it is true.
We can also say that the millennium is “the time span during which Christian martyrs reign with Jesus Christ.” Revelation tells us that those who are beheaded for Christ reign with him, and it tells us that they will reign with Christ for a thousand years.
When do these saints begin to reign? With this question, we get into more disputed questions about the millennium. There are several views about the millennium. Some believe that the millennium begins before Christ returns; others believe it begins when he returns.
Of those who believe it begins before he returns, some believe that there will be a special golden age of peace and godliness before Christ returns; others believe that things will continue much the way they are now until Christ returns. Of those who believe that the millennium will come after Christ returns, some believe in a special role for Israel, and others do not.
Some of these views are more literal in their approach to Scripture, and some are more figurative. But none are rejecting what the Bible says — they are just interpreting it in different ways. All of them claim to base their view on Scripture. It is a matter of interpretation.
Let me describe three basic views of the millennium, along with their strengths and weaknesses, and I will then return to what we can say about the millennium with greatest confidence.
The three views are named by where they put the return of Christ in relation to the millennium.
- In the premillennial view, Christ comes before the millennium.
- In the postmillennial view, Christ comes after the millennium.
- In the amillennial view, Christ also comes after the millennium, but it is called amillennial or nonmillennial because it says that there is no special millennium different from what we are already in. This view says that we are already in the time span Revelation 20 is describing. That might seem preposterous if you believe the millennial reign is a time of peace that is possible only after Christ returns. It may seem like “those people just don’t believe the Bible” — but they claim to believe the Bible. In the interest of Christian charity, we ought to try to understand why they think the Bible says this.
The premillennial view
Let’s start by making a case for the premillennial position. (We will later critique it.)
Old Testament: Many prophecies in the Old Testament predict a golden age in which people obey God. “The lion and the lamb will live together, and a little child will lead them. They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
Sometimes it seems as if this future world will be drastically different from the present world; other times it seems more similar. Sometimes it seems perfect, and sometimes it is mixed with sin. In a passage like Isaiah 2, for example, many people will say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. He will teach us his ways.... The word of the Lord will go out from Jerusalem.”
Nevertheless, there will be nations that need to be rebuked. There will be nations that refuse to obey. People will need plowshares, because they need to eat, because they are mortal. There are ideal elements, and there are normal elements. There will be young children, there will be marriage, and there will be death.
Daniel tells us that the Messiah will establish a kingdom that will fill the entire earth, replacing all previous empires. There are dozens of these prophecies in the Old Testament, but we don’t need to go through them right now, because they are not decisive for our particular question.
Jesus: The Jews understood these prophecies to refer to a future age on earth. They expected the Messiah to come and reign and bring these blessings. Jewish literature before and after Jesus expects a kingdom of God on earth. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have expected the same thing.
So, when Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God, we cannot pretend that the Old Testament prophecies did not exist. He was preaching to a people who expected a golden age ruled by a Messiah. When he said “kingdom of God,” this is what they would have been thinking.
Jesus announced that the kingdom was near. Then he left and said he’d be back. It would not be difficult for his followers to conclude that Jesus would bring the golden age when he came back. The disciples asked Jesus when he would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). They used a similar Greek word to talk about the time of the restoration of all things when Christ returns —Acts 3:21: “Jesus must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
The disciples expected Old Testament prophecies to be fulfilled in a future age after Christ returned. The disciples didn’t preach much about this future golden age, because their Jewish audiences were already familiar with the concept. They didn’t need to be told about the golden age — they needed to know who the Messiah is, so he was the focus of the apostolic message. Many of the non-Jewish believers had attended synagogues before, so they would have known, too. The others would learn from the Old Testament after they came to believe in Christ.
Since the apostolic message focused on the new thing God had done in the Messiah, since it focused on how salvation is possible through Jesus the Messiah, it did not say much about the future kingdom of God, and it is difficult for us to know exactly what they believed about it or how much they knew about it. However, we see a glimpse of what the apostles believed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is detailing his belief in the resurrection, and in that context he says something about the kingdom of God that many Christians believe refers to a millennial kingdom after Christ returns: “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (verses 22-23).
Paul is explaining that the resurrection comes in a sequence: First Christ, then later, all the believers. Paul uses the word “then” in verse 23 to refer to a time delay of 2,000 or so years. He uses that same word “then” in verse 24 to indicate another step in the sequence: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (verses 24-26).
Christ must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. This is not an instantaneous event: Christ reigns for a span of time in which he destroys all enemies, even the enemy of death. After all that comes the end. Even though Paul is not sketching these steps in a precise chronology, it seems that his use of the word “then” shows various steps in the plan. First, the resurrection of Christ. The second step is the resurrection of believers. Then, after a reign of Christ, the third step will be to hand everything over to God the Father.
Paul did not say how long the second phase would last. Some Jewish speculation in the first century B.C. said 400 years. When Peter wrote that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years, he may have been referring to a similar tradition, or simply alluding to Psalm 90. His point could have been made with 500 years or 10,000 years just as well. It was a round number, but God can work in round numbers. God can choose to use a symbolic number of years — the fact that a number has symbolic meaning doesn’t mean that it won’t also happen in exactly that number of years. Symbolic numbers can be exact in addition to being symbolic — it is a possibility, but not a proof.
The Old Testament predicts a golden age of peace and prosperity under God’s rule, and Paul says that God’s plan proceeds in steps. But the real foundation of the premillennial view is the book of Revelation. This is the book that many believe reveals how all this comes together. We will examine chapter 20 to see what it says.
We can begin by noting that Christ’s return is described in Revelation 19. It talks about the marriage supper of the Lamb, and the bride has made herself ready. There was a white horse, and the rider is named the Word of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He leads armies from heaven, and he rules the nations with a rod of iron. He gets rid of the beast and the false prophet and all his enemies. This chapter is describing the return of Christ.
Then we come to Revelation 20:1: “I saw an angel coming down out of heaven...” In the literary flow of the book of Revelation, this is something that apparently happens after the return of Christ. What did this angel do? “...having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” The chain is not literal — it represents something that can restrain a spirit being. The devil has restraints placed on him.
Would the original readers of Revelation, who were being persecuted by Jews and Romans, think that Satan had already been bound? Probably not. We were told in chapter 12 that the devil deceives the whole world and wars against the church. This does not sound like he is restrained. He is not restrained until after the beast and false prophet are defeated.
Verse 3: “The angel threw Satan into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.” John is seeing the devil restrained for a span of time. In chapter 12, the devil was the one who deceives the whole world. Here, he is prevented from deceiving the world for a thousand years. He is not just chained — he is locked up and sealed. The picture given to us is one of total restraint, total inability, of no influence.
What happens during that thousand years? John says this in verse 4: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.” This judgment takes place after the return of Christ.
I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (verse 4)
Here John sees some martyrs who reign with Christ. Who are they? The verse says it is those who were beheaded, but it probably isn’t intended to single out this particular form of martyrdom, as if Christians who were killed by lions didn’t get the same reward. Rather, “those who were beheaded” seems to be a figure of speech to stand for all who gave their lives for Christ. That could even mean all Christians. Elsewhere in Revelation we are told that all who believe in Christ will reign with him. For our purpose here, it doesn’t matter who this is. What matters is that some people reign with Christ for a thousand years, at a time when Satan is bound and is not deceiving the nations anymore.
Verse 5 then inserts a parenthetical thought: “(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.)” There will be a resurrection at the end of the millennium. Jews before the time of Christ believed in only one resurrection. They believed in only one appearance of the Messiah. The New Testament tells us that things are more complex than that. The Messiah comes at different times for different purposes. The plan proceeds in certain steps.
Most of the New Testament describes only one resurrection at the end of the age. But the book of Revelation says that this comes in steps, too. Just as there is more than one “Day of the Lord,” there is also more than one resurrection. The scroll is being unrolled to reveal more details of how God’s plan will come to its conclusion.
At the end of this parenthetical comment about the rest of the dead, verses 5-6 return to the millennial period: “This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.” The people will be priests and rulers in Christ’s kingdom, when the nations are no longer being deceived by Satan.
Verses 7-10 describe something at the end of the millennium: Satan will be released, he will deceive the nations again, they will attack God’s people, and the enemies will again be defeated and thrown in the lake of fire.
That is the sketch of the premillennial view. Satan is currently deceiving the nations and persecuting the church. But the good news is that the church’s persecutors will be defeated, Satan’s influence will be terminated, and the saints will be resurrected and will rule with Christ for a thousand years. After that, Satan will be released a short while, will again deceive many, will again be defeated, and this time thrown into the lake of fire. Then there will be a resurrection of the non-Christians.
This seems to be what most of the earliest Christians believed, especially those in Asia Minor. If the book of Revelation was intended to convey any other view, it apparently failed to make much of an impression on the earliest readers. And if this book simply described in dramatic language the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then it was nearly irrelevant to the original readers in Asia.
It is possible that the earliest readers got it wrong, but we can’t just ignore what they thought. In case of the millennium, they apparently believed that a thousand-year rule of Christ would come after his return.
The problems of premillennialism, and the case for amillennialism
If premillennialism is so obvious, why do many Bible-believing Christians believe in something else? They are not facing persecution or ridicule on this issue. They have no obvious external pressures to believe in anything else, and yet they do. They claim to believe the Bible, but they claim that the biblical millennium ends, rather than begins, at Christ’s return.
As Proverbs 18:17 says, the one who speaks first sounds right, until the second one speaks. We can’t answer the matter before we hear both sides, or in this case, all three sides. Perhaps it isn't so obvious.
The time of Revelation 20
For the amillennial view, let’s start with this question: What if Revelation 20 isn’t chronologically after chapter 19? John saw the vision of chapter 20 after he saw the vision of chapter 19, but what if the visions did not come in the sequence that they will be fulfilled in? What if Revelation 20 takes us to a different point in time than when chapter 19 ended? What if the vision moves to another area of history without proceeding chronologically?
In chapter 12, we can see a clear example of this freedom to move forward or backward in time. Chapter 11 ends with the seventh trumpet; chapter 12 then takes us back to a woman giving birth to a male child, and the woman being protected for 1,260 days. This is usually understood to be the birth of Jesus Christ and the persecution of the church. Yet in the literary flow, this comes after the seventh trumpet. John’s vision has taken him back in time to sketch another part of the story.
So the question is, Is this happening in Revelation 20? Is it taking us back in time? More specifically, is there evidence in the Bible that this is a better interpretation of what God is revealing?
Yes, says the amillennial view. There is evidence in Scripture that the kingdom of God has already begun, that Satan has already been bound, that there will be only one resurrection, that Christ’s return will bring the new heavens and new earth, without any temporary kingdom in between. It is a hermeneutical mistake to make the book of Revelation, with all its symbolism and all its interpretive difficulties, contradict what the rest of Scripture says. We need to use the plain scriptures to interpret the obscure ones, rather than the other way around. In this case, the book of Revelation is the obscure and the controversial material (mainly because of the apocalyptic writing style), and the other New Testament verses are clear on the matter.
Prophecies are figurative
For example, Luke 3:3-6 tell us how we are to understand Old Testament prophecies:
John the Baptist went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’”
When Isaiah wrote about mountains and valleys, roads and deserts, he was speaking in figurative language. Old Testament prophecies were given in figurative language to depict the events of salvation through Christ.
Jesus said that the Old Testament prophets were pointing to him. If we see their major focus as some future time span, we are not seeing these prophecies in the light of Jesus Christ. He changes the way we read all the prophecies. He is the focus. He is the true temple, he is the true David, he is the true Israel, his kingdom is the true kingdom.
We see this in Acts, too. Peter said a prophecy of Joel was being fulfilled in his own day. Notice Acts 2:16-21:
This [the speaking in tongues] is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
When the Old Testament prophets wrote about the last days, they were writing about the age of the church, the age we are in right now. And if there is a thousand-year age yet to come, then these are not the last days. There cannot be two sets of last days. When the prophets spoke of wonders in heaven above and strange signs in the sun and moon, such prophecies can be fulfilled in figurative ways, unexpected ways — as unexpected as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on God’s people and speaking in tongues.
We should not automatically reject highly figurative interpretations of biblical prophecies, because that is exactly how the New Testament shows us we can understand the Old Testament prophecies. Old Testament prophecies can be fulfilled either in the church age, through figurative fulfillments, or fulfilled in an even better way in the new heavens and new earth after Christ returns. Everything that the prophets promised, we have better in Jesus Christ, either now or in the new heavens and new earth. The Old Testament prophets described a kingdom that would never end, an everlasting kingdom, an everlasting age. They were not talking about a limited “golden age” after which the entire earth would be destroyed and rebuilt.
The New Testament does not give us a commentary on every Old Testament prophecy. It just gives us a sample of fulfillment that shows that the original writings were in figurative language. They were intended to be figurative. That does not prove the amillennial view, but it removes one obstacle. When we want proof, we need to look at the New Testament, and there we will find the evidence that causes many Christians to believe the amillennial view.
On the way to the New Testament, we might look briefly at Daniel 2, one of the favorite passages of premillennialists. However, it does not support premillennialism, despite the assumptions that people bring to the text.
Daniel 2:44: “In the time of those kings [the kings represented by the toes of iron and clay], the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
Daniel is describing the kingdom of God, which will eliminate human kingdoms and last forever. There is no hint in this verse that God’s kingdom will come in phases of a church age that is almost destroyed by a great tribulation, and then a millennial age that is almost destroyed by the release of Satan, then finally a new Jerusalem. No, it is simply that the kingdom will be set up and defeat all enemies and last forever. There is no need for defeating all enemies twice, or establishing the kingdom three times.
The premillennial view is not in this passage, and yet premillennialists often cite it. Premillennialism has a tendency to read preconceived ideas into the Bible, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.
Now let’s see what the New Testament says. The Olivet prophecy is the most detailed prophecy that Jesus gave. If the millennium is important to him, we should find some hint of it here. But we do not. Instead, we find Jesus describing his own return immediately followed by a judgment of reward and punishment. Matthew 25 describes not just the righteous who are raised to judgment — it is also the wicked who are consciously interacting with the judge and being sent to anguish and outer darkness. There is no evidence here for a thousand-year interval between the sheep and the goats.
Jesus gave another indication of his understanding of prophecy in Matthew 19:28: “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Is this referring to a millennial period? Only if we read that into the verse. What it actually says is “the renewal of all things.” Jesus is not talking about a thousand-year span in which sin still exists, and in which Satan is only temporarily bound. When he says the renewal of all things, he means the renewal of all things — the new heavens and new earth. He means the complete elimination of sin. He says nothing about a 1000-year period in the middle of things. Such a concept, to say the least, was not important to Jesus.
The same thing happens in the early church. In Acts 3:21, Peter said that Christ “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Peter is saying that Christ will restore everything when he returns, and that this is the proper interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies. Christ is not leaving sin around to cause an enormous crisis a thousand years later. He is getting everything settled at once — restored heavens and restored earth, all at once, all at the return of Christ.
Notice what he wrote in 2 Peter 3:10: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” The lake of fire consumes the whole earth at the return of Christ. He says nothing about a thousand-year period. Verses 12-14 say,
That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
Peter was looking forward not to a millennium, but to new heavens and new earth. If we are going to talk about the good news of the wonderful world tomorrow, then this is what we ought to focus on, not a temporary period in which sin and death still exists. We have better news than that to focus on: we should look forward to the restoration of all things in the new heavens and new earth. Peter is saying that all this will happen on the day of the Lord, when Christ returns.
Paul presents much the same view in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” God will punish the first-century persecutors when Jesus comes back. This means a resurrection of evil-doers, not just Christians, at Christ’s return. That means one resurrection, without any time span in between.
He says it again in verses 8-10:
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
This describes one resurrection, everyone at the same time, on the day when Christ returns. If the book of Revelation is talking about two resurrections, then it contradicts what Paul wrote. Paul says that both the good and the bad are to be resurrected on the same day.
Paul is repeating what Jesus said in John 5:28-29: “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.” Jesus is talking about a resurrection of good people and evil people at the same time — and if anyone knew the best way to describe the future, it was Jesus. If we read Revelation in such a way as to contradict what Jesus said, then we are misreading what it reveals.
Next, let’s look at Romans, Paul’s most thorough sketch of doctrinal matters. He describes our future glory in Romans 8:18-23:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
Why is creation waiting for the children of God to be given their glory? Because the creation itself will also be liberated from its bondage — presumably at the same time. When the children of God are revealed in glory, the creation will no longer be waiting. Creation will be renewed — a new heavens and a new earth when Christ returns.
Paul gives the same view in 1 Corinthians 15. He says in verse 23 that those who belong to Christ will be resurrected when Christ comes. Verse 24 then tells us, “Then the end will come...” That is when the end will come. When Christ comes to resurrect his people, he will also destroy all his enemies, restore everything and hand the kingdom over to the Father. There is no need to postulate a 1,000-year period between verses 23 and 24. At the least, we could say that if there is a time period involved here, it is not very important to Paul. He doesn’t even mention it. Such a time period could contradict what he wrote in other places, and contradict what Jesus said.
Romans 11, another passage sometimes cited by premillennialists, says nothing about a kingdom after Christ’s return. What it says could fit into such a time span, but there is nothing in Romans 11 itself that would cause us to think of such a time period.
Now we must look at the most difficult passage, the strange and symbol-filled vision of John, which causes all the controversy. In the sometimes bizarre beasts and heavenly symbols, is John revealing things other apostles did not, or is he simply restating in several ways the same prophetic framework?
Let’s start in Revelation 20:1 — a messenger comes from heaven to bind Satan. Someone who knew the teachings of Jesus would likely think, This has already happened. In Matthew 12, Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons. Jesus said, “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Jesus did his work by the Spirit of God, so we conclude that the kingdom of God has already come upon this age.
Jesus adds, in verse 29, “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.” The parable indicates that Jesus is able to order demons around because he has already entered Satan’s world and tied him up. It’s the same Greek word as in Revelation 20. Satan has already been bound. He has already been defeated. Here is more evidence:
- In John 12:31, Jesus said, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” Satan was being expelled during Jesus’ ministry.
- Colossians 2:15 tells us that Jesus has already disarmed his enemies, “triumphing over them by the cross.”
- Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us that Jesus destroyed — that’s a very strong word — the devil by his death on the cross: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil.”
- 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
- Last, Jude 6 tells us, “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” Satan has already been bound in chains. His power has already been curtailed. These scriptures are consistent.
So when we read in Revelation 20 that John saw Satan being bound, then we can conclude that this is a vision of the past, something that has already happened. We are being taken back in time to see a part of the picture that other visions had not shown us. We see that Satan, despite his lingering influence, is a defeated enemy. He can no longer keep the nations under complete deception. The veil is being lifted, and people of all nations are already hearing the gospel and coming to Christ.
Then we are taken behind the scenes to see that the martyrs are already with Christ. Although they were beheaded, or killed in other ways, they came to life and lived with Christ. They are now alive in heaven, says the amillennial view, and this is the first resurrection, their first coming to life again. The second resurrection will be a resurrection of the body; the first is simply coming to live with Christ in the meantime. All who participate in this resurrection are blessed and holy.
In Revelation 20, the first death is not like the second. Therefore, it is unrealistic to assume that the first resurrection is like the second. They are different in kind. Just like the enemies of God die twice, so also the saved people are said to live twice. In this vision, the martyrs are already with Christ, living and reigning with him, and it lasts a very long time, symbolized by the phrase “thousand years.” When this long time is over, Satan will be released, there will be a great tribulation, and Satan and his forces will be defeated for all time. There will be a judgment, a lake of fire and then a new heavens and new earth.
An interesting support of this is seen in the Greek of verse 8: Satan gathers the nations not just for battle, but for the battle. John has already talked about the battle — in Revelation 16:14 and in 19:19. All three verses are describing the same great climactic battle at the return of Christ.
If we had nothing but the book of Revelation, we would probably accept the literal view — that Satan will be bound for 1,000 years, there will be more than one resurrection, there will be at least three phases in God’s kingdom, and there will be at least two climactic battles and more than one set of “last days.” But Revelation is not all that we have. We have many other scriptures that teach one resurrection, and teach that the end comes when Christ returns. So in this apocalyptic book, when we come across something that seems to contradict the rest of the New Testament, we do not have to accept the strange just because it comes last. Rather, we consider its context in a book of visions and symbols, and we can see how its symbols can be interpreted in such a way that it does not contradict the rest of the Bible.
We cannot base a complex system of theology on the most obscure book of the Bible. That would just invite trouble and focus attention away from what the New Testament really is. The biblical message is not centered on a temporary kingdom after Christ returns. Rather, it is centered on what Christ did when he came the first time, what he is doing right now in the church, and as a grand climax, the way it all ends in eternity after his return.
Responses to amillennialism
The amillennial view has biblical support. Perhaps you are at least convinced that it should not be dismissed without some further study. Let me mention some books that can help you get started in a study about the millennium.
- Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary, by Steve Gregg, published by Nelson in 1997.
- The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options, by Stanley Grenz, published by InterVarsity in 1992.
- Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, edited by Darrell Bock, published by Zondervan in 1999.
Millard Erickson has a book about the millennium, too, and he has a good chapter in his Christian Theology. Wayne Grudem also has a good chapter on the millennium in his Systematic Theology. Both of them survey the options before explaining why they choose the one they do. All these books attempt to sketch the strengths and weaknesses of each concept of the millennium. In some, authors critique the other views. All the books show that the issues are complex, and the analysis of particular verses can get quite detailed. That is one reason that the debate continues.
We should also note that the views are changing. Modern dispensationalists do not argue for the millennium in quite the same way as dispensationalists did 50 years ago. Postmillennialism, which I will get to below, is considerably different than it was 100 years ago. It used to be characterized as liberal; today it is held by some very conservative Calvinists. Even amillennialism, which has the most stable tradition, has changed somewhat over the years, such as in its explanation of the martyrs who live again.
In other words, all this discussion is making some progress. People are admitting their mistakes and willing to modify their views. In Three Views of the Millennium, one author actually wrote that he was convinced by his brother’s argument on one point. Even experts who have studied the issues for a long time are willing to learn something new.
How might a premillennialist respond to the amillennial view? A brief response could include these points:
First, the Book of Revelation is part of the Bible, and we can’t ignore its teachings just because it is difficult to interpret or because it is apocalyptic literature. We have to accept it as Scripture even if it changes the way we view other passages. We have to allow it to reveal something new, not just repeat things we’ve already been told. We cannot assume in advance that it reveals nothing new or different.
Second, further revelation is not a contradiction of earlier revelation. Jesus spoke of one resurrection, but it is not a contradiction to realize that Jesus could be resurrected ahead of everyone else. So we already have two resurrections, without contradicting Christ, and it is therefore not a contradiction to suggest that the general resurrection is divided into three or more periods. The point is that each person is resurrected only once.
Third, the Jews expected the Messiah to bring the golden age right away, but he did not. There was a huge time lag in the fulfillment of the prophecies. This is explained by later revelation. In other words, inserting never-before-revealed time spans is not a contradiction — it is a clarification. Fulfillment can be, and has already been, in stages, with unannounced gaps. 1 Corinthians 15 shows stages, and Revelation in its literary sequence also does. We have to allow the possibility that things develop after Christ returns. Time does not stop.
Fourth, the amillennial view does not seem to deal adequately with the language of Revelation 20:1-3. Not only is Satan bound, but he is also locked up and sealed. The picture is that of zero influence, not a partial influence. True, Jesus did speak of binding Satan, and true, he did defeat Satan on the cross. However, Jesus Christ’s victory over Satan has not yet been fully implemented. Satan is still active, still deceiving large numbers of people. The original readers, who were being persecuted by a beastly empire, would not so readily assume that Satan has already been bound where he can deceive the nations no longer. The readers knew well that the vast majority of the Roman Empire was in a state of deception.
Briefly, the amillennialist might say in reply: True, we can allow God to reveal new things, but we cannot assume in advance that every unusual thing in the book of Revelation is in fact a new thing. Rather, it may be an old idea in new clothing. The idea that one resurrection could be separated by a time gap does not mean that it actually is. And our imagination of what the original readers felt about Satan should not control our exegesis of what the apocalyptic symbolism really means. We cannot build an elaborate scheme out of a subjective impression of a book written in figurative language.
Now let us add to this mixture the postmillennial view, which says that a thousand years or a long golden age will come before Christ returns. To a premillennialist, this may seem completely backwards, and yet this view is held by some Christians who are staunch supporters of biblical inerrancy. They firmly believe that the Bible teaches a golden age before Christ’s return.
Where are the scriptures that support this idea? First, Isaiah 55:11 — God will do all that he purposes to do. His word will not return to him empty. It will accomplish what he wants. What does he want? He wants his gospel to be preached and for all people of all nations to believe. He will get what he wants. Scripture is always optimistic of what God is doing and will do.
But he does this gradually, not by sudden force. Jesus’ parable of the growing seed and the parable of the leaven show a gradual growth of the kingdom until it fills the entire lump of dough. As Daniel said, the kingdom of God will fill the entire earth.
As mentioned in the amillennial view, Christ has already defeated Satan. He has already defeated all contrary dominions and powers. We are already in the last days. We are in the kingdom of God, and we should expect success for what God is doing. In John 12:31-32, Jesus said that Satan is defeated and that Jesus would draw all people to himself. We should expect him to do it. He has paid for all people, and we should expect him to claim his rightful property. Matthew 28:18 says he has all authority. He is already reigning as King of kings.
1 Corinthians 15:25 tells us that Christ will reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. He has already begun to reign, and we should expect progress toward his goal of putting all things under his feet. This passage also says Christians will be resurrected when Christ returns, and that is “the end,” when everything has been brought under Christ’s rule. (In this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15, the postmillennialist agrees with the amillennialist in seeing the “then” of verse 24 as the same time as verse 23b, rather than implying a gap in time, which is the premillennial view. The postmillennialist simply stresses that this means that all enemies have been subdued before Christ returns.)
Already reigning with Christ
The book of Revelation was written in highly figurative, symbolic language. Satan has already been bound, and through the gradual growth of God’s kingdom — the way Jesus said it would grow — Satan’s influence will eventually be reduced to practically nothing. The nations will enjoy a span of time in which almost everyone believes in the gospel and allows Christ to rule in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
In the first resurrection are the people who pass from death to life by responding to the gospel. 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters.” We are already in the category of those who live again. Even though we were dead in trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2:1-6 tells us, God has made us alive in Christ, and we are even now seated in heavenly realms.
If Paul can picture us as already seated with Christ, living and reigning with him, it is no small thing for the book of Revelation to give us a similar image in its picturesque language. Colossians 2:13 says, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.” We are already living again, reigning with Christ, and that is what Revelation 20 is picturing.
Postmillennialism shares some interpretive similarities with amillennialism, and postmillennialists used to call themselves amillennialists. It is only in the past 50 years that the terminology has distinguished between the views. Some postmillennialists believe that we are already in the millennial situation; others believe that there will be a distinct period in the future characterized by worldwide godliness. The chief distinguishing characteristic of postmillennialism is its optimism: It expects God’s kingdom to subdue the world in this age, before Christ returns.
Responses to postmillennialism
What do premillennialists and amillennialists say to this?
First, they agree on many points. All agree that God does whatever he wants, that he will accomplish his purpose just as he has planned to, that Satan has already been defeated and that Christ already has all power and authority.
The problem is, we cannot assume that God wants what we want. We cannot assume that he wants everyone to respond to the gospel in this age. For 2,000 years he has apparently wanted only a minority to respond. That is consistent with his purpose. He will accomplish everything he wants, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have a golden age in this age. To see what God wants to do in this age, we have to see what the Scriptures say, not assume that God’s definition of success has to be the same as ours. All the victory that Scripture promises may come at or after Christ’s return, rather than in this age. We expect God to be successful, but we need to allow him to define what success is and when it will be.
Christ already has all power, and he is already reigning in some sense. But we cannot consider his reign to be a failure even though he has not yet accomplished what we want. The evidence for the gradual expansion of Christianity is debatable. Just because some of Christ’s parables show gradual growth, we cannot make those parables dictate everything else in Scripture. Other parables show dramatic and miraculous intervention by Christ. The parable of the tares shows that a significant portion of people will remain unconverted even until Christ returns. There is no textual support for a golden age before Christ’s return.
The postmillennial view is built more on theological assumptions than on exegesis of Scripture. In the Three Views book (edited by Bock), the postmillennial author is criticized for neglecting Revelation 20. That chapter is not a key component of their position, even though the very idea of a millennium springs from it. Revelation 20 says that the people in the first resurrection are martyrs. This is not referring to spiritual rebirth — this is referring to people who have physically died, who have been killed for the faith. Martyrdom can happen even when Christ has all authority and power and is able to do all that he purposes, and martyrdom can continue until he returns. All the scriptures about being made alive with Christ are true, but it’s just not the same picture as Revelation 20 is giving us.
(Some postmillennialists have a radically different interpretation of the book of Revelation, saying that most of it was fulfilled in A.D. 70. This can affect the way they view chapter 20. However, not all postmillennialists approach Revelation in the same way. See Steve Gregg’s book for further information, or Four Views on the Book of Revelation, edited by C. Marvin Pate [Zondervan, 1998].)
The amillennialist says that we are already in the last days and that it is wrong to expect another major phase of God’s kingdom either before or after Christ’s return. There is only one “last days.”
The premillennialist says that everything will be restored after Christ’s return, not before. Satan is not gradually bound and restricted — the picture in Revelation is a sudden and complete containment.
The postmillennialist responds with the belief that God has promised victory for the gospel, and it is right to be optimistic about what God will do even in this age.
Now what can we say? We can safely say that “the Millennium is the time span described in the book of Revelation during which Christian martyrs reign with Jesus Christ.” That is what the Bible says. We do not need to say whether they are in heaven or on earth, whether they are reigning right now or in the future. We can leave those interpretive options open.
We can also say, “after the millennium, when all enemies have been put under Christ’s feet, and all things made subject to him, Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, and heaven and earth will be made new.” This repeats ideas from 1 Corinthians 15 — and this statement is acceptable to all views.
We can also safely acknowledge that there are various views — that “some Christian traditions interpret the Millennium as a literal 1,000 years to precede or follow the return of Jesus, while others believe that the scriptural evidence points to a figurative interpretation: an indeterminate time span commencing with Jesus’ resurrection and concluding with his return.” In saying this, we accept others as Christian without any need to promote one view over the others. We may personally prefer a view that is different, but we do not have to make it an obstacle between us.
The millennium is not a defining doctrine of who is a true Christian and who is not. We do not want to divide Christians by their interpretive choices on this matter. Equally sincere, equally educated and equally faithful Christians can come to different conclusions on this doctrine. Some members of our denomination are premillennial, some are amillennial, and some are postmillennial. But we have much to agree on:
- God has all power and will do all that he purposes and will fulfill all his prophecies.
- Jesus Christ has all power and authority, and he has brought us into his kingdom even in this age.
- Christ has given us life when we were dead in trespasses and sins, we go to be with him when we die, and we will be resurrected.
- Jesus has defeated Satan and Satan still exercises some influence in this world.
- Satan’s influence will be completely and permanently stopped in the future.
- All humans will be resurrected and judged by our merciful and loving and righteous God.
- Christ will return, and will triumph over all enemies, and will lead us all into an eternity with God.
- There will be a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells, and this wonderful world tomorrow will last forever.
- Eternity will be better than the millennium (no matter how we define the millennium).
We have much to agree on; we do not need to get upset about differences in the sequence in which God will do his will.
Last, I want to point out that the chronology of the last days is not part of our commission. The gospel is how we can enter the kingdom, not about the chronology of when things happen. Jesus did not stress the chronology; he did not emphasize a kingdom that would last for a finite period of time. Paul did not preach about a temporary kingdom. Peter did not write about this time span. The book of Revelation has something about it, but John gave it less space than he did the new heavens and new earth. He gave the worship of Jesus more space than he did the millennium. Out of the 260 chapters in the New Testament, only part of one is about the millennium. This shows its relative importance.
The millennium is part of Scripture, and we should study it, just as we do any other chapter in Scripture. But we do not make the interpretation of Revelation 20 an article of faith. We have more important things to preach, and we have better news to preach. We preach that through Jesus Christ, we can live with God not just in this age, not just for 1,000 years, but forever and ever in joy and peace and prosperity that never ends.
Perspective on the Millennium
1. Christians have had, and now have, various beliefs about the millennium. Proponents of each theory believe that the Bible supports their view.
2. Proponents of each view agree that Christ will return and that there will be a judgment. For the faithful, there will be an eternity of perfection and glory with God.
3. The eternal age is much more glorious than the millennial age, no matter how the millennium is understood. At best, the millennium is second-best.
4. When Jesus Christ returns, everyone will rejoice. Premillennialists will rejoice even if a millennial reign is not set up. Amillennialists will rejoice even if one is. Postmillennialism will rejoice even if a golden age did not precede his return. No one will be disappointed, and everyone will have better things to do than to gloat about getting the chronological details right.
5. Christians who have an equally high view of the authority of Scripture may nevertheless have different opinions about the millennium. Christians who hold one view about the millennium should acknowledge that other Christians sincerely believe that the Bible teaches something else.
6. Millennialism is not a doctrinal point on which we must seek conformity. Christian authenticity does not depend, for example, on the belief that Christ will set up a temporary kingdom after he returns. We should not condemn or ridicule people who hold different views.
7. People can be saved without any particular belief about the millennium. The gospel is about how to enter the kingdom, not the chronological or physical details of particular phases of that kingdom. Since the New Testament books do not emphasize the nature of the millennium, we conclude that it is not a central plank in the church’s message. Millennial positions should not dominate our messages. Rather, we should focus on the bigger picture that we all hold in common. See points 2 and 3.
8. In any study of the millennium, one should be aware of how others view the scriptures and how they come to differing conclusions. The following books may help:
- Darrell Bock, editor. Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Zondervan, 1999.
- Robert Clouse, editor. The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. InterVarsity, 1977.
- Millard Erickson. A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium. Second edition, Baker, 1999.
- Stanley Grenz. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options. InterVarsity, 1992.
The Millennium: Four Major Views
Old Testament prophecies
tendency toward literal interpretation
more figurative meanings allowed; perfection mixed with imperfection
mostly figurative, based on NT uses such as Acts 2:16-21; 15:15-18
mostly figurative, based on NT use of OT prophecies
Israel and the church
distinct; the millennial kingdom will be dominated by Jews
prophecies may apply both to the church now and to Israel later
possibly a small role for Israel as a special nation
most “Israel” prophecies apply to the church, the new Israel
return of Christ
seven years before the millennium for the rapture, then just before the millennium begins
just before the millennium begins
after the millennium
after the millennium
Satan will be bound after Christ returns
Satan will be bound after Christ returns
Satan will be or has been bound 1,000 years or a long time before Christ’s return
Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming, is now unable to stop the gospel
saints will be immortal, reigning with Christ over mortals on earth
saints will be immortal, reigning with Christ over mortals on earth
the gospel will achieve such success that the 1,000-year golden age will develop from the church age
the saints “live again” in the church age by being born again; another view is that they reign in heaven
resurrection(s) and judgment(s)
two or three
C. Scofield, D. Moody, J. Walvoord, Hal Lindsey, D. Pentecost
Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, G.E. Ladd, W. Grudem, M. Erickson
some liberals, A.H. Strong, G. Bahnsen, some Calvinists
Augustine, Luther, Calvin, L. Berkhof, most mainline churches
OT prophecies; 1 Thess. 4; Rom. 11:26
Rev. 2:26-27; Rev. 20:1-10
Matt. 28:18-20; Matt. 13:31-33
Matt. 12:28f; John 5:28f; 2 Pet. 3:10