In the 20th chapter of Revelation is a short passage, central to millennialism, that has sparked a variety of interpretations. In this passage, Satan is bound and tossed into the Abyss for a thousand years. Then there is a resurrection of martyrs who reign with Christ for a thousand years before Satan is freed, gathers an army, attacks the camp of the saints, is defeated, and thrown into the Lake of Fire.
This thousand year period is identified as the millenium. And this post will be taking a quick look at the major ways that the church has understood this passage. There has never been a time when the church overwhelmingly held to any one of these positions. And their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years.
The Passage in Question
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, 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. He threw him 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.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share 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.
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.Revelation 20:1-10 NIV
The premillennial view understands that the events of this passage are kicked off by Christ’s second coming. When Christ returns, Satan is bound, and the saints rule for a thousand years before Satan is released, the end comes, and a new heaven and earth are produced.
This millennial kingdom is seen as a literal kingdom, established here on earth. Christ reigns on the throne of David. And all the nations are subject to this millennial kingdom. It will be a time of peace on earth, freed from Satan’s presence, and under Christ’s rule.
Premillennialism is basically a pessimistic view, expecting the world to grow worse and worse, leading up to the second coming. There are two distinct flavors of premillennialism, centered on a seven year tribulation period that precedes the millennium period.
The historical premillennialism view has been held by a least some portion of the church throughout its history, thus the name. This was probably the predominate view in the earliest church.
This view follows Matthew 24 closely. A time of tribulation will come upon the whole earth. The elect will be extensively persecuted. And at the end of this period of persecution, Christ will return and gather up his elect from across the earth. And it is those elect that he gathers, both living and resurrected, who will reign with him on earth.
This view believes that the elect throughout the New Testament refer to believers. They generally do not hold to a literal seven years of tribulation. And they distinguish between the tribulation orchestrated by Satan and the wrath of God poured out on unbelievers. Satan’s tribulation is directed primarily towards believers. God’s wrath, on the other hand, is poured out on an unbelieving world that is under Satan’s dominion.
The great hope for this view is not that the church be delivered from the great tribulation, but that it be protected during it. Much like Israel was protected from many of the plagues that struck Egypt leading up to the Exodus.
The dispensational premillennialism view is, historically speaking, a relative newcomer. It was introduced along with dispensationalism in the early 19th century. It was popularized by the footnotes in the Scofield Study Bible and by several popular writers in recent years.
This view divides the return of Jesus into two parts. The first part is a secret coming for the church, often labeled as the rapture. The church is taken prior to the coming great tribulation and does not participate in the millennial reign.
The second, and more public, part of the second coming occurs seven years later. This public return will inaugurate the millennium kingdom. Between these two comings is a seven year period of tribulation where the wrath of God is poured out on Satan’s kingdom. During this time Satan also persecutes the tribulational saints, those who have come to faith in Christ during this seven year period.
Dispensationalism generally understands that the saints who reign with Christ during the millennium will be ethnic Jews. They hold that Israel, as a nation, will turn to the Messiah at the end. All of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel’s future as a nation, concerning the temple, and the king on David’s throne will be fulfilled during this thousand years.
The postmillennial view holds that the millenium kingdom will be established on earth prior to Christ’s return. This kingdom will be established by the church. A church that will spread over the whole earth and bring most of the population to Christ. Christ will rule from heaven through his church. This kingdom will come to an end at Christ’s return.
While premillennialism is a pessimistic view, postmillennialism is an optimistic view. It sees the gospel advancing and winning the world to Christ. In this view most people will eventually become believers, and then the end will come.
The thousand years was initially taken as literal, but is now mostly thought of as symbolic. This viewpoint is most popular when the gospel is reaching great numbers of people, but less popular at other times. There does not seem to be many who hold to postmillennialism today.
The final millennial view is amillennialism. In this view that there is no literal thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. Instead, Christ is currently reigning from heaven over a spiritual kingdom, the church. His reign began at his crucifixion and resurrection. And it will continue until his second coming.
This view treats the 20th chapter of Revelation as mostly symbolic, much like the rest of Revelation. Unlike premillennialism, which looks for signs leading up to the Lord’s return, amillennialists see Christ’s return as occurring at any time; there are no special signs that forecast his return.
Like all of the other views, amillennialists believe that Christ is returning, that he will ‘rapture’ his church and then judge the world. This view was held by some of the early church fathers, and appears to have been the default view of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. It still seems to be held today by the majority of the church throughout the world.
My Own Millennial View
My first exposure to eschatology was back in the early 70’s, reading Hal Lindsey and Salem Kirban. They advocated the dispensational premillennialism position, although it was called pretribulational premillennial at the time. I accepted this view for a short time. But I could not find a pretribulational rapture anyplace in the Scripture. So I ended up as a historical premillennialist for quite a few years. But as time has gone on I have found myself more and more drawn to the amillennial position.
Why? I suppose the biggest reason is that is just makes more sense to me. It fits better with my understanding of the Kingdom of God as well as what I understand of God’s purpose in creation. In the end, I don’t see the purpose for a millenial reign on earth.
I understand Revelation to have been written to a persecuted church as an encouragement to them. I do not believe that telling them about what would happen in the distant future would have been much encouragement to them. Telling them that God was in control and helping them to see events from a heavenly perspective would encourage them to remain faithful.
In the End
In the end, I know of no one who takes everything in Revelation literally. Every perspective has those things that it sees as symbolic. And that is how I view Revelation 20:1-10, as well as most of Revelation. I also do not believe a person’s particular perspective is all that important. That Christ is returning for his people is important, and is a part of the hope in Christ that we have. But what that return is like is not really all that important. At least not in my mind.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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