Revelation 20. The Devil is put away. The saints come to life and reign on earth with Christ. After 1000 years some of the nations rebel. They are defeated, and some years after that the rest of the dead are raised, and judged in accordance with God’s law.
“How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first bind 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 shuts the abyss, locking the Devil in and, by implication, locking the demons back in. Having been cast out of heaven, the Devil is also barred from earth. He has fallen as far as it is possible to fall.
The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that the gospel is veiled to them (II Cor 3:14-4:4). With his removal, ‘the veil that is woven over all nations’, including the Jews, 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: pre-millennialism, a-millennialism and post-millennialism. Pre-millennialism holds that Christ will return at the start of the thousand years. As attested by Papias (c. 120), Justin Martyr (c. 150) and Irenaeus (c. 175), pre-millennialism was the earliest understanding of the Church, and is the view accepted here. Later theologians turned against it, among them Origen (c. 220, the first to teach ‘the eternal generation of the Son’), Eusebius (c. 300) and Augustine (c. 400). A-millennialism rejects the idea that Christ will reign on earth in his own person, for whatever length of time. This is at odds with Scripture, as we have noted on several occasions. Ostensibly the 4th-century Nicene Creed is a-millennialist, implying that there will be only one resurrection and saying nothing about the kingdom of God except that it will have no end; the so-called Apostles’ Creed does not speak of the kingdom of God at all. Post-millennialism, insofar as it is distinguishable from a-millennialism, holds that Christ reigns through his Church, and Christianity will continue to spread through society until the Church has brought all nations under his rule; only then will he return, and then to judge, not to reign. Naive, and exegetically perverse, the view is contradicted not least by the contemporary world’s increasing hostility to the gospel. That the Devil continues to be a free agent on earth should be evident. Only when he has gone will the nations cease to deceive themselves and be deceived. Darwinism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Marxism: all will be as chaff that swirls from the threshing floor.
Doubt that his reign on earth will last for a thousand years is doubt that Scripture means what it says, since Revelation, supported by the testimony of Papias and others, is explicit on the point. Papias must have passed on John’s own understanding, and while John did not understand everything that he saw, he must have known when he was being shown symbols and when not, and would have corrected his hearers if their understanding of the point was wrong. If the thousand years of Christ’s reign is symbolic, it is symbolic, as a true number, of God’s absolute sovereignty over the timing. Thus Jesus’s ascension to the throne of his father came exactly 1000 years after Solomon became king of Israel, in 971 BC. David reigned just over 40 years, and was co-regent with Solomon for the last 4 years. He became king of Judah exactly 1000 years after the birth of Jacob, in 2007 BC. God foretells what he brings about, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Isa 46:11, Matt 25:34, Eph 1:11).
With him a thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years (II Pet 3:8, Ps 90:4). Some have taken this to imply that the days of Creation each represent a thousand years of history. But Peter is emphasising God’s patience, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is certainly much older. Nonetheless, since Moses’ psalm refers to the Creation and Scripture elsewhere speaks of a future ‘sabbath rest’, 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, corresponding to the first day after that new beginning.
|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, 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 (Ps 68:30, 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 unending sabbath rest. The new heaven and earth.|
Nations and empires are likened in Scripture to the trees which God planted in the beginning in his garden. Assyria is described as a cedar of once unequalled height and beauty, nourished by many waters and giving shelter to all the birds of heaven, yet God dried up its waters and brought it down to the level of the other trees, even down to Sheol (Ezek 31). Israel is likened to a tender vine, a seedling grown in the nursery of Egypt. After clearing the land of Canaan of its wild plants, God transplanted Israel there so that it might grow and bear fruit (Ps 80:8, Jer 2:21); but the vine degenerated and became good only for firewood (Isa 5:1-7, Ezek 15). In contrast to Israel’s unfruitfulness, Jesus called himself the true vine and his disciples its branches; they would bear fruit if they abided in him, whereas unfruitful branches would be thrown away and burned (John 15). He also likened God’s kingdom to a mustard tree that grew from the smallest of seeds and became greater than any other tree. It would even, like empires before it (Ezek 31:6, Dan 4:12), shelter birds – nations – in its branches (Mark 4:32). This came to pass in part. But complete fulfilment awaits the millennium (Ezek 17:22-24).
There are two resurrections at the end of the age: the ‘resurrection of life’ – already adumbrated in the harvest (Rev 14:14-16) – and, a thousand years later, ‘the resurrection of judgement’ (John 5:29 refers to both).
The soul is the essence of a person. Since God has a perfect memory of who we are, and nothing is impossible for him, he is able to recreate us and give us an incorruptible body. John sees those to whom judgement is given (‘authority to judge’ in some translations is an unwarranted paraphrase). The phrase recalls the coming of the Ancient of Days, when after a period of oppression judgement was given for the saints (Dan 7:22). The president of the divine council (Ps 82:1), God himself, delivers his judgement in person, in favour of his people. John mentions in particular those who were beheaded because of their witness and those who refused to associate themselves with the beast and were also killed, the former consisting predominantly of Gentiles, the latter of Jews. Both groups were previously mentioned when the fifth seal was opened (Rev 6:9, 12:17, 13:10), but it is clear from other passages that they are representative of all who have died in Christ, throughout the generations (Rev 5:9f). They will reign with Christ over the nations: 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.
The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord God Almighty. This, in its fullness, is the kingdom to which the gospel has always pointed (Matt 24:14, 25:34, Luke 22:18, II Tim 4:1). Drawn from every part of humanity, the saints take up the positions reserved for them by the elders and serve Christ as his viceroys: blessed (the inaugural 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. “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” It is in relation to the different honours bestowed that one person can be called ‘greatest’ and another ‘least’ in the kingdom of heaven. Seated on their thrones, they judge in the sense of administering justice, of governing nations rather than judging souls (Ex 18:22, Luke 19:17, 22:30, Rev 2:26). Nothing is said about their own judgement, nor about the book of life, for they all have life.
The saints inherit the earth (Matt 5:5) and return thither with Christ (Zech 14:5, I Thes 3:13, Jude 14). Paul upbraids the church at Corinth: ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ (I Cor 6:2). ‘When Christ our life is manifested, then you too will be manifested with him in glory’ (Col 3:4).
The furnace is the lake of fire and sulphur, a smoking lava-filled chasm called in the New Testament Gehenna, formerly the Vale of Hinnom (Heb. Ge Hinnom). In the 8th century BC Ahaz, king of Judah, offered sacrifices in the valley to the fire-god Molech, 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. Ahaz’s and Manasseh’s subjects did the same (II Chr 28:3, 33:6, II Ki 17:17, Jer 7:31, Ezek 23:37).
Often misleadingly translated ‘hell’, Gehenna was almost the first thing that Jesus taught about. It was a place to avoid at all costs, for 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, Mark 9:44). He himself would be the one to pronounce sentence (Luke 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 and regret. Justice requires that there be some penalty for sins that are not forgiven. In the parable about Lazarus, the rich man who wore fine clothes and ate fine food every day found himself in agony, for Abaddon’s infernal fire had penetrated Hades. We ask God, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” If we do not, he will not (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 a settlement, the debt will have to be paid to the last penny (Matt 5:26); the same applies if we have wronged God (Luke 12:58-59, I John 1:9f). 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). He will be saved ‘as through fire’ (I Cor 3:15). We get a good idea of how God will measure out retribution by considering his law (e.g. Ex 21:12-25, 22:1-24), for the justice exemplified there is unlikely to be different from that administered at the last judgement (Matt 5:17-7:12, Luke 12:57). Whether finally saved or destroyed, those who are punished will not rise until the second resurrection. But where there is forgiveness, there is no condemnation, no punishment – that is why the gospel needs to be heard. The gospel is about forgiveness of sins.
‘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; the fire would not be quenched (Jer 15:14, 17:27). Habakkuk spoke of the ‘everlasting mountains’ at the same time as prophesying that they would be shattered and levelled, foreseeing a time when God would shake the nations and the mountains be made low (Hab 3:6). Christ will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 11:15), and the saints with him, until he has put all his enemies under his feet (I Cor 15:25). Jude spoke of the angels being kept in ‘eternal’ chains (v 6), apparently ‘forever’ (v 13). But they are 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 whoever accepts 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 destruction (Deut 7:10, Ps 9:5f, Matt 7:13, John 3:16, 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.
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. 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). But although the first man was given an opportunity to become immortal, the serpent deceived Eve, and through her Adam. In the act of eating what was forbidden, 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 was permanently changed. So he was barred from the tree of life, he grew old and in time his corrupted spirit was taken away; 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 no substitutionary atonement could have satisfied, ‘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.
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 theologians 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.
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 payback of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, we do not died as soon as we sin, just as Adam did not die immediately. 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.
The gospel brings the judgement forward into the here and now (John 3:18f) so that the punishment for wrongdoing can be anticipated, before it is too late. The penalty has been paid, so that whoever repents will not be hurt by the second death. 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, of course, the specific number of years 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), the people of the western and eastern steppes prophesied about in Ezekiel (38:1-39:16). He will assemble a great army, comprising central Asians, Iranians, 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 (the war of Rev 13:7) and all its people have returned to it (Ezek 38:8). 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! But they will be destroyed by a great earthquake, volcanic eruptions, and a hail of stones. It will take seven months to bury the dead. For seven years the people of Israel will use the weapons left behind to make fires.
‘The camp of the saints and the beloved city’ refers to Jerusalem in the midst of the earth (Ezek 38:12). When the Israelites lived in the wilderness, their tents formed a camp at some distance from the Tabernacle (Ex 33:7). The Temple which later replaced the Tabernacle lay within the city; a notional camp area centred on the Temple therefore extended beyond its boundary to define what was ‘outside the camp’ (Heb 13:11, 13). ‘Camp’ suggests temporary residence, for in a sense the promised land still lies in the future. Once all enemies have been subdued, there will be a new earth. That, finally, will be the promised land.
It will take a thousand years to accomplish the full obedience of the peoples. He will reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:19), and 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. At some indeterminate time after the thousand years, sea and land will yield up the souls who died in them and the old earth will pass away. The great throne is that of God himself. But when the dead come before it the voice they hear, and the face they see, is Jesus Christ. For all judgement has been given to the Son (John 5:22, Acts 10:42, 17:31) and he sits on the throne.
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 (Dan 7:10). 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). The book is specifically mentioned in relation to the second resurrection. It is not blank, nor has its title been amended to ‘the book of death’. Restored to their bodies, the dead ‘stand’ before the throne and each person’s life is subjected to a viva. Some are appointed to eternal life, some not.
The occasion on which all who are in the tombs hear his voice and come out is the second resurrection, not the first. Then those who have done good will rise to eternal life.
This was before Christ came into the world, and applied to all who sought to live by the light God gave 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. Job knew that he had a Redeemer, and that at the last, in his own flesh, he would see God (Job 19:25-27). 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. Those accounted righteous are made perfect at the resurrection (Heb 12:23).
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 all its 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 once their wickedness had come to fruition.
In the Old Testament, God’s saving of a person or family in this life was an indication that he would save them also at the resurrection. Those saved included Rahab the prostitute, Naaman the Syrian and, when Nebuchadrezzar brought God’s wrath on Judah, the daughters of Jonadab and the country’s poorest people (Jer 35:18f, 39:10). When Jonah, a man from an insignificant town in northern Israel, prophesied to Nineveh that the city would be overthrown, he gave no sign that he came from God. Yet God considered his message sufficient; and the Ninevites indeed 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 from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah would receive mercy, despite being judged in the flesh (Matt 10:15; Ezek 16:53, I Pet 4:6).
The gospel is good news, because it makes known the truth that God is good, and he has mercy on those who acknowledge their sin and repent. It is only bad news for those who say, “Let us drink and be merry, 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, occultism, hatred, jealousy, ingratitude, fits of anger, deceit, blasphemy, thieving, covetousness. It is only bad news for those who live by a moral law of their own making, opposed to God’s law. The charge sheet includes most people in the West. Much is expected of those who have been given much. Some say, “Prove to me that God exists and I will believe,” not seeing that they would not believe in him even if someone came to them from the dead. Or must he raise someone from the dead in every generation in order to answer that challenge? They are under judgement and in no position to make demands. 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.
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the maker of 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.