Some Additional Thoughts on Revelation, chapter 20
Posted by Dr. Larry Taylor
Let’s not be dogmatic. You are free to disagree. I’m ok with that.
Revelation chapter 20 is one of the most difficult passages to exegete. Good, faithful Christians should be able to agree to disagree with one another on a variety of points in the chapter. We need not, indeed, we should not, allow the various interpretations to divide us, nor should we carve them into doctrinal statements as if interpreting the specifics of eschatology were as important as affirming the bodily resurrection of Christ.
The first ten verses of Revelation 20 are the only place in the entire Bible where we have anything recorded about a millennial reign of Christ. The text says that an angel is going to slap the satan (when the Bible speaks of the accuser of our brethren, it always refers to the devil as “the satan”) in irons and lock him in an abyss for 1000 years. Then, the text continues, all the martyrs will come back to life and rule and reign with Christ for 1000 years. (In Revelation, we get the impression that everyone who faithfully follows Jesus is martyred, but I think the point is that everyone who faithfully follows Jesus should be willing to be martyred – follow Him regardless of what may happen.) At the end of the 1000 years, the satan is let loose, gathers an army (that comes from an ancient Old Testament-era nation that was somewhere north of the Black Sea), surrounds the beautiful city (which is not identified), fire descends from the heavens, the army is destroyed, and the satan is tossed into the lake of fire.
What do we make of all this?
Concerning the millennial reign of Christ, most commentators today take one of three views:
- Premillenialism is the Johnny-come-lately doctrine that was first articulated within the last 200 years. It is the default position of most older American evangelicals today and is the best-funded position. It has inspired books, songs, and movies (and much angst). Premillennialism teaches that after the second coming of Christ, Jesus will rule and reign for 1000 years on the earth, then let the satan out of prison for a final hurrah, then judge all. That seems rather innoxious, except that some premillennialists are escapist, don’t seem to care about the environment or social justice, and may be nationalistic, militaristic, and relegate the Sermon on the Mount to a future age, making it irrelevant for us today.
- Postmillenialism was popular during the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution. It teaches that there will be a church age (we’re in that), then the satan will be bound, then there will be a period of time, symbolized by the 1000 years, when the gospel will spread rapidly and most people on earth will be converted and cultures will be transformed. Then, the satan is released briefly, then Jesus will come the second time. That view lost popularity with two world wars and a great depression in between. It just seemed too optimistic; things don’t appear to be getting better and better.
- The historic view that has been held by Christians for most of the last 2,000 years is amillenialism. It remains, basically, the view of an increasing number of evangelicals and most main-line Protestants, as well as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Amillenialism sees the 1000 years as symbolic of the church age, from the advent of Christ, to His second coming. It sees the satan as partially bound now – restrained enough to allow the gospel to spread. The satan is the bound strongman whose house Jesus is spoiling. Many amillennialists see the final battle in Revelation 19 as the same battle in chapter 20. After all, the one in chapter 19 is labeled “the last.” In both cases, there is no fight. Jesus just shows up and it’s over. Although I now lean towards amillenialism (I was taught premillenialism, and knew nothing else), amillenialism can also have its problems. It may lead, if we’re not careful, to deëmphasizing the seriousness of sin, and to forgetting that the coming of Christ is imminent and could happen at any moment.
Regardless of which view you take, or if you choose “none of the above,” there are a few things here we shouldbe able to all agree on.
- First, in reading Revelation, it is poor exegesis to pick and choose what is literal and what is symbolic. We don’t get to do that. Revelation is filled with symbols, but they are symbols that reveal real things. In Revelation, Jesus is depicted as a slaughtered lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. That tells us a lot about Jesus, and He is as real as it gets, but we don’t expect to see Him looking like that. Civil religion and militaristic, materialistic, pleasure-seeking empires are the biggest threat to the true Gospel, but we do not imagine we will see a monster rising up out of the ocean or one rising up out of the soil. Similarly, the “lake of fire,” cannot be literal. Elsewhere, hell is described as “outer darkness.” Which is it? A lake of fire symbolizes searing anguish. All the numbers in Revelation are symbols, not statistics. One thousand is 10X10X10. Ten is a number of completeness (ten fingers, ten toes). 10X10X10 means really really
- Second, God clearly wants us to care for His creation, be good stewards of the environment, and work for social justice. There are so many scripture passages telling us to do so that that should be blatantly obvious.
- Third, Jesus is King right now, not just in the future. We are called to pledge our allegiance to Him, bow and kiss His scepter, and no other.
- Fourth, everything Jesus taught, including the sermons on the Mount (in Matthew) and on the Plain (in Luke), all the “red letters,” is for today. Calling Him “Lord” and not doing what He says makes up hypocrites.
- Fifth, we are reigning with Christ right now – not just in the future. That’s the theme of the book of Ephesians. We reign and rule with Him by acting like Him. Every time we serve, love, wash feet, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, forgive, love an enemy, and so on, we are ruling with Christ.
- Sixth, the gospel is having a positive impact on individuals and cultures right now. It is spreading, now. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet.
With the satan out of the picture, the text goes on, in verses 11-15 to describe the final judgment. God’s great white throne is so brilliant that John the revelator is unable to see anything else. Everyone is resurrected; everyone stands before the great white throne, books (plural) are opened and all are judged according to their deeds. Yet, there’s another book (singular) – the Book of Life.
Perhaps what we are seeing is a picture of the fact that each of us has a book – the story of our lives. We will all be judged according to what we do, not according to what we believe. (Matthew 25 says the same thing.) We must not separate justification from sanctification. The Bible never does. If we are justified, we will be in the process of being sanctified. If we are rightly related to God through Christ, our lives will bear the fruit of love. There will be varying degrees of reward; everything unlike Christ will be consumed; everything like Christ will be refined. That said, our eternal destination appears to be dependent on having our names inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life. My personal belief (and I can back it up scripturally) is that everyone who sincerely turns her life over to Christ will live with Him eternally. We are not saved by works, but good works will follow from being saved.
Here again, there is disagreement about some of the details, but a few things should be salient:
- All evil will be exposed. Nothing is hidden from God
- All evil (sin, sickness, disease, disability, hatred, racism, prejudice, poverty, war, violence, tsunamis, tornadoes, wildfires, and so on) will be eradicated.
- Death itself, Hades, the abode of the dead, and the chaos that was reversed at creation, will all be destroyed.
- All those who pledged allegiance to Christ will be honored.
- There are dire consequences to rejecting Jesus.
Will you today join me in pledging allegiance to the King of Kings?
About Dr. Larry TaylorRadical Anabaptist Jesus Freak Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, husband, father, grandfather
Posted on August 5, 2018, in apologetics, Bible, bodily resurrection, Christianity, Prayer, Spirituality, Theodicy and tagged Advent, anabaptist, angels, Bible, Bible study, charity, Christianity, comfort, end times, eschatology, evangelical, evil, faith, fellowship, forgiveness, God’s Word, good, grace, grief, healing, heaven, hell, hope, hospitality, Jesus, joy, judgment, kingdom of God, love, mercy, Messiah Christ, New Testament, Old Testament, peace, progressive, red letter Christian, second coming, service, shalom, simple life, social justice, sorrow, thoughtful, truth, USA. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.