Revelation 20. The Devil is shut away. The saints come to life and reign on earth with Christ. 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 unbelievers so that the gospel is veiled to them (II Cor 4:3f). With his removal, ‘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 is incompatible with Scripture, as we have noted on several occasions. 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-millenialism was the earliest understanding of the Church, and it 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). The 4th-century Nicene Creed is a-millennialist, implying 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 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 in reality by the world’s increasing hostility to the gospel. In the last days life will be hard, Paul warns (II Tim 3:1). 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, for all the talk about symbolic numbers. 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, as a true number, of God’s absolute sovereignty over the timing. He prophesies what he brings about, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Isa 46:11, Matt 25:34, Eph 1:11).
With God a thousand years is as a day, Peter notes, 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 through time, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is certainly older. Nonetheless, since the 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.
|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 (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 sabbath rest. The new heaven and earth.|
Nations and empires are likened in Scripture to trees planted by God. 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 until God abandoned it as fuel for the fire (Ezek 15). In due time he planted a new vine (John 15). Jesus also likened God’s kingdom to a mustard tree that, growing from the smallest of seeds, became greater than any other tree. It would even shelter birds – nations – in its branches (Mark 4:32). 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.
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 gives us an incorruptible body. John mentions in particular the souls of those who have been martyred, seen under the altar (6:9), and of those who, whether or not they have been martyred, in the last generation refuse to worship the Devil’s human representative, 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.
The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord God Almighty. This, in its fullness, is the kingdom of God to which the Church has pointed (Matt 25:34). Drawn from every part of humanity, the saints take up the positions reserved for them by the enthroned elders and serve Christ as his viceroys: 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, II Cor 5:10). “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 the nations in the sense of governing (Ex 18:22, Luke 19:17, 22:30, Rev 2:26) rather than the judgement of souls. Nothing is said about their own judgement, nor about the book of life, for they all have life.an
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 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, subsequently called Gehenna. In the 8th century BC Ahaz, king of Judah, offered sacrifices there 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. 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.
Often misleadingly translated ‘hell’, Gehenna 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, Mark 9:44). He himself would be the one who pronounced 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. 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 every day found himself in agony, for the 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 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). Where there is forgiveness, there is neither condemnation nor punishment – that is why the gospel is so important.
‘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 (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 he who 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 (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, 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 was permanently changed. So he was barred from the tree of life, he grew old and eventually 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 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.
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, 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, of course, 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), 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, 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 (the war of Zech 14:1-3) 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 for firewood.
‘The camp of the saints and the beloved city’ refers to Jerusalem in the midst of the earth (Ezek 38:12). When Israel was in the wilderness, their tents formed a camp at some distance from the Tabernacle (Ex 33:7). By contrast, the Temple lay within the city, and a notional camp area centred on the Temple extended beyond the city’s boundary, so that the red heifer of Numbers 19 could be sacrificed outside the camp area (Heb 9:13, 13:12). ‘Camp’ suggests temporary residence, for there is a sense in which the promised land still lies in the future. Once all enemies have been subdued, there will be a new earth, and that, finally, will be the promised land.
It will take a thousand years to accomplish full obedience of the peoples. He will reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:19), and 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 (Job 14:12). The great throne is the throne of God himself. But when the dead come before it, whose voice do they hear, and whose face do they see? They hear and 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). The book is mentioned specifically in relation to the second resurrection. It is not blank, nor is its title changed to ‘the book of death’. The dead ‘stand’ before the throne, restored to their bodies. Some are appointed to eternal life, some not.
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. 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 and the country’s poorest people (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 acknowledge their sin 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, 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 understanding that they would not believe even if someone came back from the dead. They are under judgement; it is not for them 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.
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 his message 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.