Revelation 20. The Devil is shut away. The saints come to life and reign with Christ on earth. After 1000 years the rest of the dead are raised and judged.
“How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.” (Matt 12:29) In chapter 9 a fallen angel had opened the abyss to release demonic locusts. Another angel now closes the abyss, locking the Devil in and, by implication, locking the demons back in. Having been cast out of heaven (Rev 12:9), the Devil is also for the first time barred from the earth. He has fallen as far as it is possible to fall.
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that the gospel is veiled to them (II Cor 4:3f). Once he is removed, ‘the veil that is woven over all nations’ will be swallowed up (Isa 25:7), ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD’ (Isa 11:9).
He deceives believers too, alas. There are three schools of thought as regards the thousand years: a-millennialism, pre-millennialism and post-millennialism. A-millennialism rejects the idea that Christ will reign on earth in his own person, for whatever length of time. This contradicts what the Bible says, as we have noted on several occasions. Pre-millennialism holds that Christ will return at the start of the thousand years. As attested by the writings of Justin Martyr (c. 150) and Irenaeus (c. 175), this was the earliest understanding of the Church and – with the small qualification that Christ’s reign begins with the first resurrection, before the Devil is bound – it is the view accepted here. Later theologians turned against the idea, among them Origen (c. 220, the first to teach ‘the eternal generation of the Son’), Eusebius (c. 300) and Augustine (c. 400). The 4th-century Nicene Creed is a-millennialist, for it implies that there will be only one resurrection, and says nothing about the kingdom of God except that it will have no end; the 4th-century Apostles’ Creed does not speak of the kingdom of God at all. Post-millennialism holds that Christ has already been reigning through his Church, and Christianity will continue to spread through society until the Church has made disciples of all nations; only then will he return, in order to judge, not to reign. Naive, and exegetically perverse, the view is further contradicted by the West’s increasing hostility to Christianity, to say nothing of the resurgence of Islam. That there has never been a time when the Devil ceased to be a free agent on earth should be obvious. When he has gone, the nations will cease to deceive themselves and be deceived. Darwinism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Marxism: all will be like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor.
Doubt that his reign will last for a thousand years is doubt that he means what he says. Jesus’ death and resurrection came exactly 1000 years after Solomon became king of Judah, in 971 BC. David reigned just over 40 years, and was co-regent with Solomon for the last 4 years. He became king of Israel exactly 1000 years after the birth of his forefather Jacob, in 2007 BC. If the thousand years of Christ’s reign is ‘symbolic’, it is symbolic of God’s absolute sovereignty over the timing. He prophesies what he brings about, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Matt 25:34, Eph 1:11).
Peter notes that with God a thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years (Ps 90:4, II Pet 3:8). Some have taken this to imply that the days of Creation each represent a thousand years of history. But Peter is here emphasising God’s patience through time, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is certainly much older. Nonetheless, since the psalm refers to the Creation, and Scripture elsewhere speaks of a future ‘sabbath rest’ that is longer than a day (Heb 4:4-9), it may not be unreasonable to think along these lines. After only a few chapters, the Bible describes God’s work in the new world. The second day of Creation represents that new beginning, when, cleansed by the waters of baptism (I Pet 3:21), the earth re-emerged (Gen 1:9, 8:13). God first intervened in the affairs of man when he divided the earth into nations, languages and territories, in the second half of the 4th millennium.
|Day||1000 yrs||Genesis 1||History|
|3=1||3rd BC||God plants a garden of trees and forms man to look after them.||The first civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt (Ezek 31), India, China, Crete.|
|4=2||2nd BC||He makes the Sun, the Moon and the 12 planets.||Jacob, Rachel and their 12 children (Gen 37:9)|
|5=3||1st BC||He creates marine and flying animals.||Israel among the nations (Dan 7-8, Acts 11:1-18).|
|6=4||1st AD||He creates land animals, but they are not a suitable bride for man. He forms woman and gives her to him.||God calls the Church into being from the side of the last Adam (I Cor 15:45, Eph 5:31f).|
|7=5||2nd AD||He rests the seventh day.||The Church is established in Europe.|
|8=6||3rd AD||The man and the woman exercise dominion over the animals.||Christ and his bride exercise dominion over the nations (Ps 8:6, Heb 2:8).|
|9=7||God’s sabbath rest. The new heaven and earth.|
Nations and empires are likened in Scripture to trees planted by God. Bygone Assyria is described as a cedar of once unequalled height and beauty, yet God brought it down to the same level as the other trees, to drink the waters of Sheol (Ezek 31). God cleared the land of Canaan of its wild plants and transplanted Israel into it, a vine grown from pure seed (Ps 80:8, Jer 2:21). But the vine degenerated and God gave it up as fuel for the fire (Ezek 15). In due time he planted a new vine (John 15), a mustard tree (Mark 4:30-32), a kingdom that started from the smallest of seeds yet was to become greater than any other kingdom. It would even shelter birds – i.e. nations – in its branches (Mark 4:30-32). This came to pass in part. But the prophecy will only be completely fulfilled in the millennium (Ezek 17:22-24).
The first of the two resurrections at the end of the age takes place at the last trumpet. While the 144,000 were killed and brought to life and the children of Israel were raised both slightly earlier, they too are among these ‘firstborn enrolled in heaven’ (Heb 12:23). Nothing is said about judgement, though all must appear before Christ’s judgement seat (II Cor 5:10), nor about the book of life, for they all have life.
The soul is the enduring essence of a person, whereas the body is changed. There is no sense that the souls here are disembodied (Acts 2:43, Rev 18:13). John mentions in particular those who have been martyred (alluding to 6:9 and 11:7) and those who, whether or not they were martyred, in the last generation refuse to worship the Devil’s human representative or prostrate themselves before his image or take his mark. They will reign over the nations with Christ (Dan 7:9): literally, not in some pale ‘metaphorical’ sense. Whoever accepts death rather than deny his name will gain far more than he loses. The rest of the dead remain unconscious.
This, in its fullness, is the kingdom of God (Matt 25:34). The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord God Almighty (Rev 11:15-17). Drawn from every part of humanity, the saints take up the positions reserved for them by the enthroned twenty-four elders (4:4, 5:9f) and serve Christ as his viceroys and priests: blessed (the bliss promised in the beatitudes now realised) and holy (all sin removed). All receive the gift of eternal life (Matt 20:1-16), but each is rewarded according to what he has done (Matt 16: 27). “Well done, good and faithful servant,” he will say to some. “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The ‘judgement’ they are entrusted with is the administration of justice: ‘judging’ in the sense of governing (Ex 18:22, Luke 19:17).
The saints inherit the earth (Matt 5:5) and will return to earth with him (Zech 14:5, I Thes 3:13, Jude 14). Paul rebukes the church at Corinth: ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ (I Cor 6:2). ‘When Christ is manifested, our life, then you too will be manifested with him in glory’ (Col 3:4). ‘The saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever’ (Dan 7:18).
The furnace is the lake of fire and sulphur, a smoking lava-filled chasm, formerly the Vale of Hinnom, or Gehenna. In the 8th century BC Ahaz, king of Judah, offered sacrifices to the fire-god Molech there, even burning his sons as offerings. Molech, whose name meant ‘King’, was ruler of the demonic underworld, the equivalent of Abaddon. Two generations later Manasseh repeated the abomination. Their subjects did the same (II Chr 28:3, 33:6, Isa 57:15, Jer 7:31, Ezek 23:37). After the Jews were exiled the valley became a place where garbage was burnt, along with the corpses of animals and criminals. There were always fires burning somewhere in the valley.
Gehenna (often misleadingly translated ‘hell’) was almost the first thing Jesus taught about. It was a place to avoid at all costs. Into it the unrighteous were to be cast headlong, and their bodies and souls destroyed (Matt 5:22-30, 10:28). The sentence would be irrevocable: the maggots that destroyed the body would not die; the fire that destroyed the soul would not be quenched (Matt 3:12, Mk 9:44). He himself would be the one who pronounced sentence (Lu 12:5).
When Jesus warned about the horrific finality of Gehenna he was alluding to these words of Isaiah’s.
The lake will also be a place of torment. Justice requires that there be some penalty for the sins that are not forgiven. In the parable about Lazarus, the rich man who wore fine clothes and ate fine food each day found himself in agony, for the fire of the abyss had penetrated Hades. We ask God, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” If we do not, nor will he forgive (Matt 6:15). He will deliver us to torment: not forever, but until the debt of unforgiveness is paid (Matt 18:34). If we have wronged another and not reached settlement, the debt will have to be paid to the last penny (Matt 5:26). The pastor who neglects to prepare his flock for the Lord’s coming will receive a beating, light or severe depending on how much the neglect was wilful (Luke 12:42-48).
‘Eternal’ (aiωnios, lit. ‘age-long’) and ‘for ever and ever’ (eis tous aiωnas tωn aiωnωn, lit. ‘to the ages of the ages’) do not necessarily mean ‘time without end’. Moses provided for a slave in certain circumstances to be bound to his master ‘forever’, not meaning to all eternity but until one of them died (Ex 21:6). Jeremiah warned that a fire would be kindled ‘that will burn forever’, referring to the day when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem’s palaces and temple (Jer 15:14, 17:27). Habakkuk spoke of the ‘everlasting mountains’ at the same time as prophesying that they would be scattered and levelled, foreseeing a time when God would shake the nations and the mountains be made low (Hab 3:6). The Lord will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 11:15), until he has put all his enemies under his feet (I Cor 15:25). Jude spoke of the angels being kept in ‘eternal’ chains, apparently ‘forever’ (v 13). But it is eternal, age-long, ‘until the judgement of the great day’. Nor was the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ‘eternal’ (v 7) – go to the land of Jordan and you won’t see any fire where the cities were (the south-eastern Dead Sea). As an example of what awaits the ungodly, they were turned to ashes (II Pet 2:6). It was the effects of the fire that were perpetual: the cities were never rebuilt.
Everything depends on context. When the context is the everlasting life that comes from God, the meaning is ‘for all eternity’, and we know this because of the assurance that he who accepts his salvation will never die (John 11:26). Where the context is torment in the lake of fire, the meaning is not necessarily ‘for all eternity’. Other scriptures categorically state that the final penalty of sin is complete destruction (Ps 9:5f, Phil 3:19, II Thes 1:9, II Pet 2:3). Eventually Death itself will be thrown into the lake, not to be tormented obviously, being a personification, but to be destroyed.
The condition of being alive is that of a body animated by spirit (Gen 2:7, I Cor 15:45), and the spirit is taken away when one dies. The logical opposite of eternal life is permanent extinction, not eternal life in another place (conceived of, somehow, as a state of being destroyed but never attaining destruction). Death occurs when body and spirit are severed, the one returning to the dust from which it came, the other returning to God (Eccl 12:7, Luke 23:46). That is what the word means. Some commentators draw a distinction between ‘physical death’ and ‘spiritual death’, as if the body could live apart from the spirit, but the Bible knows nothing of the distinction. Pain may be suffered for a time, but ultimately there is only one kind of death: the loss of life.
Man’s soul is not immortal. In the beginning, God formed his body from the dust of the ground. After God breathed into his nostrils he became a living soul. Like every animal, he had a dual nature, physical and spiritual, but what gave him life was the breath that came from God. So with every generation: when an infant grows in the womb, it is God who forms the body and endows it with life (Ps 139, Eccl 11:5). Life is given for a time. Although the first man was given the opportunity to become immortal, the serpent deceived Eve, and through her Adam. He internalised evil so that he knew what it was from within; his body knew that it was naked, and now he feared his Maker. He had to die, because once corrupted, the spirit could not be restored to a state of purity and guiltlessness. He needed a new, holy spirit. Thus, at the end of his life, his spirit was taken away and he returned to the dust. Terrible though the penalty was, it was not vengeful. Had everlasting torment been the consequence, it would have been a penalty that no substitutionary atonement could satisfy, ‘for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world’ (Heb 9:26). The justice of God would have been a travesty of justice.
Revelation speaks of two deaths, in the sense that there is an interval between the first and the second, not that they are different in nature. The paradox is that although ‘the wages of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, death is not necessarily the end. Adam did not immediately die, and nor do we. The judgement that now matters is not the judgement that God pronounced in the garden – on the flesh – but the judgement that follows death (Heb 9:27), relating to what we do in the years allotted to us in our state of reprieve. Death does not have to be the final sentence.
That is the point of the gospel. The judgement is brought forward into the here and now (John 3:18f), so that the punishment for sin can be anticipated, before it is too late. The penalty has been paid, so that anyone who repents will not be hurt by the second death (Rev 2:11). Those who reject the offer of eternal life will find the second death merely a confirmation of the first. He will forfeit the life he had on loan.
‘When the thousand years are ended’ implies the number of years specifically stated. Satan is released in order to draw out the last dregs of evil in one last purge. Gog is the leader of the Magog nation (Gen 10:2), prophesied about in Ezekiel (38:1-39:16). He will assemble a great army comprising his own people of the western and eastern steppes, Persians, Sudanese, Libyans, and the peoples around the Black Sea (Meschech, Tubal and Gomer, Gen 10:2). He will attack Israel at a time when the land is restored from war and all its people have returned to it (Ezek 38:8), the war being that of Zechariah 14:1-3. Even though the Great King himself is there and rules with a rod of iron, these nations will conspire to attack the apparently defenceless country and plunder it. They are interested in its silver and gold! The power of the Devil to deceive should never be under-estimated. But they will be destroyed by a great earthquake, a hail of stones, fire and sulphur. It will take seven months to bury the dead. For seven years the people of Israel will use the weapons left behind as firewood.
‘The camp of the saints and the beloved city’ is hendiadys, referring to Jerusalem in the midst of the earth (Ezek 38:120. Its characterisation as a ‘camp’ implies a comparison with the people of Israel encamped in the wilderness (Ex 16:13, Heb 13:11), for the saints will not be there for ever. Once the creation is restored and all enemies subdued, Christ will hand the creation back to his father.
The end does not come until he has subjected all mankind to his authority. It will take a thousand years to accomplish the full obedience. He will restore all things (Matt 19:28, Acts 3:21), including the earth itself following its devastation. During that time people will still be born and die. Eventually, sea and land will give up their dead and the old earth will pass away. The great throne is the throne of God himself. But as the dead come before it, whose voice do they hear and whose face do they see? They see Jesus Christ. For all judgement has been given to the Son (John 5:22, Acts 10:42, 17:31). He sits on the throne of his father.
The question whether an individual is granted eternal life (here put negatively, ‘thrown into the lake of fire’) is determined according to what he has done. A record has been kept of his life, and it is reviewed. There is also one other book, the book of life (Luke 10:20, Rev 3:5), which humanity has always known about (e.g. Ex 32:32, Dan 12:1), recording the names of the elect. The book is mentioned specifically in relation to the second resurrection. It is not blank, nor is it here retitled ‘the book of death’. The dead ‘stand’ before the throne, restored to their bodies. Some are appointed to eternal life, some not.
All this was before Christ came into the world, and applies to all who sought to live by the light God had given them. While it is true that in absolute terms ‘no one living is righteous before him’ (Ps 143:2), for ‘all men have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23, 5:12), Psalms and Proverbs abound with references to the righteous. At the general resurrection the righteous are made perfect (Heb 12:23). Zacchaeus was saved because he met Jesus and repented, even though Jesus had not yet paid for his sins. In the case of righteous Simeon, it was enough simply to see him.
God says, “The soul that sins shall die,” referring to the soul that persistently does what is wrong, and referring to the second death, not the first (Ezek 18). But he remembers mercy in the midst of wrath, for he knows that we are flesh. When Abraham asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?” the reply was not that his concept of justice was flawed, or that no one on earth was righteous. God destroyed Sodom because its entire population was wicked, except Lot, who was ‘righteous’ (II Pet 2:7f) but far from perfect. On the other hand, he did not destroy every city in the plain, nor the other cities in Canaan, though he would do when their wickedness came to fruition.
In the Old Testament, if God saved a person or family in this life, it was an indication that he would also save them at the resurrection. What we say and do in this world matters. In times of crisis many in fact were saved, including Rahab the prostitute, Naaman the Syrian and, when Nebuchadrezzar brought judgement on Judah, the daughters of Jonadab in Jerusalem and Judah’s poor (Jer 35:18f, 39:10).
The gospel is good news, because it makes known the truth that God is good, and he has mercy on those who fear him, including those who acknowledge their wickedness and repent. It is only bad news for those who say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” who have heard and rejected the word of life, who are materially rich (for though they have more, they give less), who appear to be godly but shun the Holy Spirit, who are defiled by persistent fornication, homosexual relations, dishonouring of parents, witchcraft, hatred, jealousy, ingratitude, fits of anger, deceit, blasphemy, thieving, covetousness. The charge sheet includes nearly everyone in the West. Much is expected of those to whom much is given. Some say, “Prove to me that God exists and I will believe,” not understanding that they would not believe even if someone rose from the dead. The onus is on them to seek him, not on God to show himself. There has never been an age that had more proof of God.
When Jonah, a man from an obscure town in northern Israel, prophesied to Nineveh that the city would be overthrown, he gave no sign. Yet God considered that the message delivered was sufficient; and indeed the Ninevites repented. So he reversed his decision, and not only for this life. Jesus told his hearers, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah – and see, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41). Even many in Sodom and Gomorrah would receive mercy (Matt 10:15, 11:24; Ezek 16:53).
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD releases the prisoners;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the foreigners;
the widow and the orphan he embraces
but the way of the wicked he makes crooked. (Ps 146)
The prisoners are the dead. Who cannot see that this is a psalm about the resurrection? Lazarus was a sinner, like everyone else. But God took no notice of his sin. His life was blighted by hunger and disease, but after death he was comforted. Saif ul-Malook is a Muslim lawyer who risks death by defending Christians in Pakistan accused of blasphemy. God will receive him too.
and the heavens were the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away. (Ps 102)
He will change them like a set of clothes, just as at the resurrection the soul is given new clothes. The new will never wear out.
No one likes the idea of there being no more sea, for the waves crashing on the shore thrill, beach resorts give pleasure, the creatures of the sea amaze. But God will not abolish what is good. ‘Sea’ in this context denotes the boundless ocean waters of the present world, waters that had erupted from the subterranean deep during the Cataclysm. In the first world the ‘seas’ (Gen 1:10) were surface inland bodies of water, and it was these that teemed with marine creatures.
Some commentators impute symbolic significance to the sea, because of its association with the beast. But the metaphor in 13:1 could hardly be reason for God to abolish the literal sea, any more than the false prophet’s rising out of the earth in 13:11 would be reason to abolish the literal earth. As in Revelation 14:7, and Psalm 146 above, the standard way to summarise God’s work as Creator was to affirm that he had made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them. The significance here is that the new creation will be like the original creation, made, evidently, to be inhabited. We look to a new heaven and earth, in which righteousness dwells (II Pet 3:13).