Revelation 20 is an important chapter to the study of eschatology, but a very misunderstood chapter today. It is often used today as a primary basis for a doctrine known as “premillennialism”.
The central part of this doctrine is the idea that one day Christ will come to earth with His saints who had been “raptured up” to be with Him 7 years earlier. And when He comes with His saints the righteous dead will be raised and He will establish His throne in Jerusalem and reign as King over the earth with His saints for a thousand years (a millennium). The millennium will be a utopia time of great peace and plenty. Then at the end of the millennium, the wicked dead will be raised and a final judgment will take place in which Satan and all evil ones will be consigned to eternal punishment, and the righteous will live with God in a new world for eternity. It’s called premillennialism because it believes that Christ will return “pre”/before/prior to a millennial reign.
Revelation 20 is the only passage in all the Bible that makes any direct reference to a “thousand-year reign”. It is the heart and soul of the theory of premillennialism. The famous Presbyterian Bible commentator of the 1800s, Albert Barnes, observed, “It is admitted, on all hands, that this doctrine, if contained in the Scriptures at all, is found in this one passage only. It is not pretended that there is, in any other place, a direct affirmation that this will literally occur, nor would the advocates for that opinion undertake to show that it is fairly implied in any other part of the Bible. But it is strange, not to say improbable, that the doctrine of the literal resurrection of the righteous, a thousand years before the wicked, should be announced in one passage only.”
Does Revelation 20 teach that Christ is coming back to earth to raise just the righteous dead and to set up an earthly kingdom of peace and prosperity, and will reign from Jerusalem with His saints for a thousand years? Well, let’s see.
Let’s first familiarize ourselves with the chapter. Let’s read Revelation 20…
Something we have to understand to correctly interpret this chapter is that…
These are symbolic pictures.
John is seeing symbolic visions that represent literal truths. For example, the dragon in v2. Is John really seeing a vision here of what is actually going to happen to a literal flesh and blood dragon? No. In fact John tells us that the dragon is a symbol for something else. It represents the serpent of old, which takes your mind back to the Garden of Eden, the one who deceived Eve. And John even further defines it. He says it’s the devil. It’s Satan. Is there literally a physical key that opens up the abyss? Is there literally a physical chain that will confine Satan? Well, no. Satan is a spirit being. A literal chain has no effect on Satan. You cannot literally bind Satan with a chain and throw him into a pit. Probably if you’ve read the book of Revelation it’s obvious that it’s a book fully of symbolic figurative language.
If you know the historical context in which the book of Revelation was written it makes good sense that the Lord chose to communicate the truths of this book in symbols. The date of its writing was around 96 A.D. One way we know that is 1:9 which tells us that John was on the island of Patmos at the time. Several ancient Christian writers of the first few centuries, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius and others say that emperor Domitian, who ruled from A.D. 81 to 96, exiled John to the prison island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea during the end of his reign. So it was around the year 96. It was a time of severe persecution against Christians. From the reign of Domitian into the first part of the 4th century, the Roman government regularly made efforts to stamp out Christianity. Some Christians like John were exiled. Many were punished in other ways. There were times in many towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire, from what I understand, that a group of Roman soldiers and official representatives of the government would come in, bringing the bust or statue of the Roman Emperor, and they would line up the population and force them to pour out a libation or burn incense to the bust and proclaim Caesar to be a god or be killed. This is the sort of thing referenced in 13:15 when it says that those who do not worship the image of the beast are killed. The beast in Revelation is the same beast seen in Daniel 7:7ff who represents the fourth world dominating empire to arise from the Babylonian Empire; it’s the Roman empire. So in many places people were actually being killed if they would not say Caesar is god and worship him. In the reigns of Diocletian and Decius, perhaps even as far back as John’s day, certificates were issued to those who participated in emperor worship. And these certificates were needed in order to be able to buy or sell. You couldn’t do any business unless you could prove that you had worshiped the emperor. Much of the book of Revelation is about why Christians must not succumb to the pressures of the Roman authorities and compromise their faith, and it has much to say about the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire and those who worship the emperor. You can probably imagine how the trials for the Christians might have been intensified if their persecutors discovered that they were circulating a document that clearly and plainly predicted the overthrow the Roman Empire. The symbolism of the book would conceal the message from the Roman persecutors, but would reveal the message to the early Christians. The symbols of the book come largely from language in the Old Testament scriptures and some from the NT Scriptures, which the early Christians were undoubtedly familiar with. So the symbolism would have revealed the truths to Christians, yet kept them hidden from their enemies.
What is this chapter about?
Well, there are 2 big questions that John answers in this text. What happens to the dragon, to Satan? And, what happens to the dead? Those would be 2 questions that John’s readers would certainly want answers to. The end of ch19 pictured the destruction of 2 major enemies of God’s people, “the beast” and “the false prophet” (the Roman Empire and those who promoted the worship of the emperors as gods). But those 2 enemies were really just henchmen of the greater enemy, Satan. We’re left wondering, “What’s going to happen to the kingpin of our enemies, to Satan? Is he going to get away with all that he has done?” This text answers that. And John’s readers would want to know more about what happens to the dead. Is it really worth being faithful to the Lord until death? And this text answers that as well.
Now, what happens to Satan and the dead is organized here around this period of time called “a thousand years.” v1-3 talks about what happens at the beginning of the thousand years. v. 4-6 is what happens during the thousand years. And then v 7-15 is what happens after the 1000 years.
Let’s think about this…
How should we understand this “thousand years”? As symbolic or literal? Well, if the key and the chain and the dragon and the beast and the marks on the foreheads and such things are all symbolic here, then it seems reasonable to believe that this thousand years is also symbolic. And I think it’s all the more reasonable to understand it symbolically when you consider that throughout the book of Revelation you find lots of 10s and multiples of 10 like you do also 7s and 12s, and as you read through Revelation I think it becomes very obvious that those numbers are being used in a symbolic way. There are other periods of time mentioned in Revelation (42 months, 1260 days (multiples of 12), times time and a half time, 10 days, etc.) and none of them are to be taken literally. And so we should not expect this 1000 years to be a literal a 1000 years.
Many scholars believe the #10 to the ancient Jews and early Christians was a number signifying completeness, likely stemming from the fact that a person has 10 fingers. If you have 9 fingers you don’t have a complete #. 10 is the # of completeness or totality. And multiples of 10 also suggest completeness or totality. 1000 years here I think just means basically all the years of a lengthy complete period of time.
Let’s look at a couple other passages that use the # 1000 symbolically. Psalm 50:10, God says, “For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” So God says I own the cattle on a thousand hills. So what about the cows on hill #1,001? Don’t they belong to God too? Well yeah. Thousand there is not literal number. It means the complete number of hills that have cows on them; all the hills with cows. God owns the cows on the total number of hills that have cows. 1000 is a # of totality. Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” Now, what about generation # 1,001 who love Him and keep His commandments? Won’t God keep His covenant and His lovingkindness for them too? Well, yeah. Thousand is not a literal number there. It is a number that means totality or completeness. God will show his lovingkindness to the total or complete number of generations that love Him and keep His commandments.
Likewise, 1000 years here in Revelation 20 is not to be taken as a literal number, but just all the years of a lengthy complete period of time.
What happens at the beginning of the “thousand years”? (v1-3)
Here’s the picture that John is given. An angel, a heavenly messenger used by God to carry out His bidding, comes down from heaven. I suspect he comes down to earth. In his hands he has a key and a chain. This key locks and unlocks this lid to an abyss, or a hole in the ground so deep you can’t see the bottom of it. And he comes down and overpowers the dragon, binds him with the chain, and throws him into the abyss, and shuts the lid, and seals it.
Now, John I think helps us to understand what this vision means. He explains for us that the dragon represents Satan. And I think John helps us out even more when he says that the purpose of this binding of the dragon and throwing him into the abyss, shutting the lid and sealing it was “so that he would not deceive the nations any longer.” That’s what’s accomplished by this binding of Satan. He can no longer deceive the nations. And I believe that means he can no longer deceive the nations so as to instigate a worldwide kind of persecution against the church like he was doing at the time of the writing of Revelation. At the time of the writing Satan was turning the Roman empire, in which were many nations, against Christianity. You will notice that when Satan is released from this binding in v7-9, what does he do? He goes out and deceives the nations of the earth, and gathers them all together for war against the saints. But John sees a vision here of Satan being bound and restrained from being able to deceive the nations to bring a worldwide kind of persecution against God’s people. And I don’t think we should take this binding of Satan much further than that. I don’t think this is saying that Satan will be totally unable to do anything. I don’t think this is talking about Satan’s ability to deceive and to tempt individuals. I think the picture here is simply that Satan will be unable to instigate a kind of massive worldwide persecution against God’s people like he was doing in John’s day.
Historically, this binding of Satan happened in the 4th or 5th century A.D. It was either around the reign of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century when Christianity was finally made legal in the Roman Empire. Or it was right after the events foretold at the end of ch19, the destruction of the Roman Empire (the beast) and those who promoted the worship of the Roman emperors as gods (the false prophet). The Lord destroyed the Roman Empire in the 5th century with the Germanic tribes from the north like the Visigoths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Ostrogoths, and Lombards. So somewhere in the 4th or 5th century was when this binding of Satan from being able to instigate a worldwide kind persecution against God’s people took place. So we are either living in the millennium period of time right now where Satan is restricted in that way, or we are living immediately after the millennium when Satan has been just briefly released. And it’s impossible to tell which one.
What happens during the “thousand years”? (v4-6)
Well, John is given another picture. He says in v4, “Then I saw thrones…” He doesn’t say how many. He doesn’t say where these thrones are located. He doesn’t say they’re on earth. He just says “I saw thrones ” and normally in Revelation when he says he sees thrones he sees them as being in heaven. “… and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them.” There are some people on thrones, living and ruling in some capacity.
Who are these people? Well, John tells us. He says, “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God…” He saw the souls of men who were dead. Cut off a fella’s head and he dies. It is fatal 9 times out of 8. John is seeing dead people, dead Christians who stayed faithful through the persecution to the point of death. And John says I saw “those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand…” These are the souls of Christians who refused to worship the emperor.
John further explains the picture saying, “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed.” Now, Christ is reigning over all creation right now. He told His disciples before he ascended to heaven “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Ephesians 1:20-21 says God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” And the souls of these saints who have died reign with Christ for the thousand year period. It is a picture of the blessed condition in the afterlife for those who are faithful unto death. It’s a repeated picture in the book of Revelation (2:26-27; 3:21; 6:9-11). The apostle Paul likewise anticipated being with Christ when he departed from this life (II Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23). But John tells us that in the vision he was given he did not see the rest of the dead coming to life until the thousand years were completed. The picture just means that that those who are not faithful to Christ when they die do not enjoy this same exalted blessed condition. This blessed afterlife reigning with Christ is only for the “overcomers” (2:26-27; 3:21).
Notice John’s clarification of this picture at the end of v5. He says that this reigning with Christ after death that the faithful enjoy is “the first resurrection.” Now, whenever you say “this is the first of something” that implies that there is also a second. Saying “This is the first resurrection,” implies that there is also a second resurrection and that this is not that one. There is another resurrection after this one. What is the last, final resurrection that the Scriptures tell us about? It is a bodily resurrection of everyone who has ever lived that will take place on the last day, the day of judgment when Christ returns in all his glory with the angels and destroys the physical universe. It is a resurrection in which all who sleep in the dust of the earth (Dan 12:2), all who are in the tombs, those do did good and those who did evil (Jn 5:28-29), the righteous and the wicked (Acts 24:15), the great and the small (Rev 20:12), in the same hour will hear the voice of the Son of Man and come forth in new bodies (Jn 5:28). That’s the last resurrection. So that’s not this resurrection that John is talking about here in Rev 20:5, because he says, “This is the first resurrection.” This is not the bodily resurrection. This is a resurrection of souls. They are not given bodies yet. That won’t happen until the last resurrection on the day of judgment. But they are given a blessed disembodied life reigning with Christ. It would be a very encouraging picture to the early Christians of what would happen to them in the afterlife before the bodily resurrection on the judgment day as long as they stayed faithful until death.
So John says in v6, “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power…” Faithful Christians, who reign with Christ in the afterlife, were subject to the first death, physical death, but the second death cannot touch them. v14 defines the second death for us. It’s the lake of fire. It’s hell. “But they will be priests of God and of Christ.” That is they will serve God and Christ in their very presence. “and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”
What happens after the “thousand years”? (v7-15)
We read first here about…
What will happen to Satan? (v7-10)
v7, “When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison” He doesn’t break free. But God lets him go. God is in control of what Satan is allowed to do. God has the chains taken off and the lid of the abyss opened. And Satan will have not changed a bit after the thousand years. v8, “And [he] will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth.” That means all of the nations. He’s trying to marshal again, like he did in the first few centuries, a worldwide persecution against God’s people. He comes out to deceive all the nations, including Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore.”
Now, you have to go back to Ezekiel 38-39 to see what he is talking about with Gog and Magog. In Ezekiel 38-39 you read about a great powerful king called Gog and his nation, Magog. And interestingly we do not know of any Gog or Magog to have ever actually existed in history. It appears that in Ezekiel 38-39 God is speaking through the prophet Ezekiel in hypothetical terms. He makes up this king named Gog and this nation called Magog. They don’t really exist. He builds a hypothetical scenario. And He says through Ezekiel, “Look Israel, how bad can it get for you? What if there is this king named Gog and he’s the worst king in the world, and this nation of Magog and it’s the most powerful and worst nation in the world? They have the biggest army and greatest weapons imaginable, and they come out against you with all they have. What’s going to happen? I’ll turn their own swords against themselves. I’ll make them fight each other. I’ll rain hailstones and fire and brimstone on them. I’ll give their bodies as food for the birds and the beasts of the field. You don’t have to worry, Israel, about any enemy as long as you’re faithful to Me.” I think that was the point in Ezekiel 38-39. So John uses the same idea. He says that Satan will come out to deceive and gather the worst king and military force imaginable, the enemy forces will be like the sand on the seashore.
v9, “And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city…” It’s not looking good for the church. Satan is turning the world against the church. But what happens? “and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” So Satan is released for a bit and he tries to do the same kind of thing he did in the 1st few centuries A.D. marshalling a worldwide war against God’s people. But before there’s any battle with the saints God intervenes and consumes the enemies of His people with fire. And Satan is finally and permanently dealt with by being cast into the lake of fire.
Now, I don’t know about you, but questions arise in my mind about all that. Like why would God let Satan loose to deceive the nations again? Why not just leave him bound? And I don’t know the answer. We’re not told. We can only speculate about that. And, are we going to notice this short time when Satan is loosed? Are we going to notice the deceiving of the nations to turn them against us? And I don’t know the answer to that either. I think it’s possible that we could be living in that short period of time where Satan has been loosed right now but be unaware of that we’re living in that time.
There are 3 definite truths the picture makes. #1, God will never allow the church of be destroyed. #2, Satan will never again be able to bring the kind of massive worldwide tribulation against Christians that was able to do in the first few centuries. And #3, Satan will not get away with the evil that he has done.
Now, v11-15 tell us about…
What will happen to the dead after the “thousand years”? (v11-15)
v11, “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.” I think that’s introducing us to the last day, the day of judgment, when, as Peter said, “the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up” (II Pt 3:10).
v12a, And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne… This is the final bodily resurrection at the end of the world, when, as Jesus said, “all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of condemnation.”
v12b, “and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.” And v13 reiterates it, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it [Do you know what happens to a body that is thrown into the sea? How much do the crabs and the sharks and the fish leave? Well, it doesn’t matter what’s happened to their bodies. Even those dead are resurrected.], and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.”
Now, this “book of life” is a common image all through Scripture. The picture is a great big roster in heaven containing the names all the righteous who have ever lived. We see the image being used way back by Moses. In Exodus 32 when the people of Israel had been disobedient in making a golden calf and worshiping it and God was so upset with them and Moses pleaded with God to forgive them and even said, “If you won’t forgive them, please blot me of your book. You can erase my name if you keep theirs in it.” And God said, “I’m not going to do that Moses. Only the one who is guilty will I blot out of my book.” Psalm 69:28, “May they [the psalmist’s persecutors] be blotted out of the book of life And may they not be recorded with the righteous.” The book of life is a list of the righteous. You find the image in several other places in the Bible (Dan 12:1; Lk 10:20; Phil 4:3; Heb 12:23). Revelation uses the image repeatedly. You first encounter it in 3:5, “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life…” and then you find it at 5 more times in Revelation, according to my count (13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27.) The point of the picture I think is of God’s unfailing memory of those who were faithful to Him during their lives. On judgment day He won’t overlook you. He won’t mix you up with the wrong group.
But what about these other books that it says are opened and that the dead are judged according to? There are primarily 2 interpretations.
- Some see these as the books of Scripture. Daniel 9:2 is used in support of that view where Daniel says, “I observed in the books the number of years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.” There “the books” refers to the Scriptures, including the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. Another passage to support that interpretation is Revelation 22:18-19, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.” So you will be judged and dealt with according to what is written in books like this book of Revelation. Another supporting passage would be John 12:48 where Jesus said, “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.”
- Others interpret these books to be a record of people’s deeds. They see it as a picture of God’s unfailing memory of all that people have ever done, said or thought. They say that John just further explains the image when John says here that the dead are judged according to their deeds. Support for this interpretation might be found in Psalm 56:8, “You have taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” It speaks of God having a book, or books, of all we’ve done, all our wanderings, even every tear we’ve cried. Also, Malachi 3:16, “a book of remembrance was written before Him [the Lord] for those who fear the LORD and who esteem His name.” Presumably in the book of remembrance is recorded the faithful lives of those who feared the LORD and esteemed His name. Support for this view may also come from Daniel 7:10 where there’s a vision of heavenly court of God and it says “The court sat, And the books were opened.” And then in the vision judgment and punishment were dealt out to the 4 beasts that came up out of sea, which represent four kingdoms that would arise on the earth. Some say the books in Daniel 7:10 were records of the deeds of these kingdoms. Perhaps. Or could they have been the Scripture books?
Maybe “the books” here in Revelation 20 are both, the Scripture books and a record of people’s lives.
v14, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” That’s a picture of what Paul said would happen in I Corinthians 15:23-26; death will be abolished. Death and Hades will be no more.
v14b-15, “This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Sounds like what Jesus said, Matthew 25:31, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left... 41 He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels“.
What’s the main point of the chapter? No matter the cost, stay faithful to the Lord unto death, because then at death you go to reign with Christ and on the judgment day your name will be found in the book of life and you will not go to the lake of fire. But if you become disobedient to Christ and follow Satan, your final destination will be the same as Satan’s.
– James Williams