Revelation 20. The Devil is put away. The saints come to life and reign on earth with Christ for 1000 years. Then some of the nations rebel but are defeated. The rest of the dead are raised and judged.
In chapter 9 a fallen angel opened the abyss to release demonic locusts. Another angel now shuts the abyss, locking the Devil and his fellow angels in and locking the demons back in. Having been cast out of heaven, the Devil is also barred from the earth. He has fallen as far as it is possible to fall.
This is the third time that John sees an angel coming down from heaven (also at 10:1 and 18:1). All three are manifestations of Jesus Christ. “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?” Jesus was speaking of himself. Only he has the keys to the underworld and authority to imprison the Devil (1:18). Having won that authority on the cross, it seems inconceivable that he would delegate the act.
Until now, the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers (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 regarding 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 argued 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. 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, where it is distinguishable from a-millennialism, holds that Christ reigns on earth through his Church and Christianity will continue to spread until the Church has brought all nations under his rule; after that he will return, but 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 is is surely evident, if one recognises his existence at all. Only when he has gone will the nations cease to deceive themselves and be deceived. Darwinism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Marxism will all be as chaff that swirls from the threshing floor.
Doubt that Christ’s reign on earth will last for a thousand years is doubt that Scripture means what it says, since Revelation, supported by Papias and others, is explicit on the point. Papias must have passed on John’s own understanding, and while John could not have understood everything he saw, he knew when he was being shown symbols and when not and would have corrected his hearers if their understanding had been wrong. The thousand years, as a true number, asseverate God’s absolute sovereignty over the timing, a sovereignty that is clear from Christ’s ascending to the throne of his father in AD 30 exactly 1000 years after Solomon, son of David, became king, in 971 BC. God foretells what he brings about, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Isa 46:11).
With him a thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years (Ps 90:4, II Pet 3:8). Some would infer from this that the days of Creation each represent a thousand years of history. However, Moses in the psalm is contrasting our brief lifespan with God’s eternity; Peter is emphasising God’s patience, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is much older than 6000 years. Nonetheless, it may not be entirely misguided to think along these lines. Only the first few chapters of the Bible are devoted to the antediluvian world, because that world no longer exists. The emergence of dry land on the third day of Creation prefigures a new beginning. Cleansed by the waters of baptism (I Pet 3:21), the earth re-emerged (Gen 1:9, 8:13) and, as we know from geology, a new igneous crust replaced what was destroyed. That same day God planted a garden on the earth. Correspondingly, in the second half of the 4th millennium the colonisers of Mesopotamia began to cultivate a new Eden. Their cities united to form a kingdom, but God confounded their language and forced some of them to spread abroad; the earth divided into many kingdoms. Since man’s earlier history is a blank, we may infer that the colonisation of Mesopotamia marks the beginning of the present age.
|Day||1000 yrs||Genesis 1||History|
|3=1||3rd BC||God plants a garden of trees and forms Adam to look after it.||The first states after Gen 11:8: Sumer, Elam, 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, including tanninim.||Gentile nations (Dan 7-8, Hab 1:14, Acts 10:12).|
|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.||The Church called 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 established in Europe.|
|8=6||3rd AD||The man and the woman are given 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 (Heb 4:9). The new heaven and earth.|
Empires and nation states in Scripture are expressly likened to the trees God planted in his garden. As one empire was uprooted, another rose in its stead. First-millennium Assyria was a cedar of once unequalled height and beauty, supplied by many waters and giving shelter to all the birds. Then God dried up its waters and cut it down by the hands of the Chaldaeans; it went down to join the other trees in Sheol (Ezek 31). Israel in one place is likened to a terebinth (Isa 6:13), in another to a 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). Therefore, Jesus provided another vine, himself, joined to whom his disciples would bear fruit. In another simile, God’s kingdom was compared to a mustard tree. Beginning with the smallest of seeds, it would eventually grow bigger than any other tree, and even shelter birds – nations – in its branches (Mark 4:32), like empires before it (Ezek 31:6, Dan 4:12). In the growth of Christianity we can see that this came to pass. Complete fulfilment, however, awaits the millennium (Ezek 17:22-24).
Marine animals were created on the fifth day. The sea and the animals living in the sea also symbolised the Gentile world. Men were like fish (Hab 1:14-17), at the mercy of the potentate who caught them in his net for food. The king of Egypt was like a dragon, tannin, in the Nile and the seas (Ezek 29:3, 32:2). Insofar as they symbolised nations, terrestrial animals too were occasionally associated with water (Ps 68:30). Although the analogy is not perfect (terrestrial animals were not created until the sixth day), the fifth day thereby links with the 1st millennium, when Israel came into contact with many Gentile nations: Assyria, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, as well as its immediate neighbours. A beast was any kingdom that did not acknowledge Yahweh, God of Israel, to be the ultimate ruler (Dan 4:25), and although Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Greece were visualised as terrestrial beasts, they came up from the sea (Dan 7:2f). At the start of the next millennium, the Church sprang from the side of the second Adam. The apostles came to understand that the quadrupeds of the earth, the beasts, the crawling animals, and the birds of the air (Acts 11:1-18, echoing the language of Genesis 1) were no longer to be considered unclean, if God had made them clean by his Holy Spirit. Gentiles were to be part of his kingdom.
There are two resurrections: the resurrection of whoever is in the new man, Christ, and the resurrection of whoever is in the old man, Adam: the ‘resurrection of life’ at the end of the present age, and ‘the resurrection of judgement’ at the end of the thousand years. The period inbetween is ‘the age to come’ (Matt 12:32, Eph 1:21), by definition a finite period. ‘Judgement’ can be ambiguous in English. Sometimes it means the process of arriving at a judgement (krisis), and sometimes ‘verdict’ (krima), sometimes ‘condemnation’ (krisis, krima or katakrima); the Greek words can also be ambiguous. In John 5:29 the word is krisis.
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 clothe us with an incorruptible body. He contains the sum of all human souls, and more.
John sees those to or for whom judgement (krima) is given. The phrase recalls the coming of the Ancient of Days, when Daniel sees thrones being placed, as yet unoccupied (Dan 7:9), and judgement being given for the saints after three and a half years of oppression (Dan 7:22, 26f). God delivers the verdict; no court is involved (pace modern translations). He has vindicated his people and therefore they are on thrones. Singled out are those beheaded because of their witness (predominantly Gentiles) and those killed because they refused to associate themselves with the beast (perhaps predominantly Jews). Nothing is said about the book of life, for they all have life. Therefore 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 to which the gospel has always pointed (Matt 7:21-23, 25:34, Luke 22:18). The nations of the world become the kingdom of God and of his Christ. 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). Even the least are greater than those born in the present world. All receive the gift of eternal life (Matt 20:1-16) but each is rewarded according to what he has done with his talent money (Matt 16:27). One person can be called greatest and another least, even then, by reason of the differing honours bestowed. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” they will hear. “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” He will set them ‘over all his possessions’. They will repair the cities laid waste and inhabit them, together with the survivors (Isa 54:3, 61:4-9). They will judge in the sense of administering justice, priest-kings in charge of the cities, resolving disputes (Ex 18:22, Luke 19:17, Rev 2:26).
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). Returning with Christ (Zech 14:5, I Thes 3:13, Jude 14), the saints inherit the earth (Matt 5:5, Rom 4:13, I Cor 3:22). They will literally reign.
The furnace is the lake of fire and sulphur, a smoking lava-filled chasm that the New Testament calls Gehenna. The name derives from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, or Vale of Hinnom, the name of the valley on the south side of Jerusalem, where the most reprobate offered sacrifices to the fire-god Molech, even their own sons and daughters (II Ki 17:17, Jer 7:31, Ezek 23:37). Molech, whose name meant ‘King’, was ruler of the demonic underworld, the equivalent of Abaddon. Judah’s kings Ahaz and Manasseh also burned their sons as offerings in the valley.
Misleadingly translated ‘hell’ in some versions, Gehenna was almost the first thing Jesus taught about. It was a place to avoid at all costs, for into it the unrighteous would be cast headlong and their bodies and souls destroyed in it (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 pronouncing sentence (Luke 12:5).
The lake will 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 up to 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 for ever, and not necessarily in Gehenna, 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 12:58f). 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, for the justice exemplified there is unlikely to be different from that administered at the last judgement (Matt 5:17-7:12). Whether finally saved or destroyed, those who are punished will not rise until the second resurrection. 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 ‘for ever’, 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 for ever’, 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). When the destruction came, Jerusalem was ruined ‘for ever’ (Ps 74:3). 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 laid low (Hab 3:6). Christ will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (11:15), and the saints with him (22:5), 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 ‘for ever’ (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’ – 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, 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), even for the Devil (Heb 2:14).
Man’s soul is not immortal. In the beginning, God formed his body from the dust of the ground. Only after God breathed spirit into his nostrils did he become a living soul. Like every animal, he had a dual nature, physical and spiritual. So with subsequent generations: when an infant grows in the womb, it is God who forms the body and endows it with life, as he realises in time what he preordained (Ps 139). Man was given the opportunity to become immortal, but 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, that it was ‘laid bare to the eyes of him who holds us to account’ (Heb 4:13), and immediately 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). 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 such a distinction. Pain will be suffered for a time; that is clear from the crucifixion; but ultimately there is only one kind of death: the loss of life. There are two deaths only in the sense that the first is provisional, the second irrevocable.
Although ‘the payback of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, we do not die as soon as we sin, just as Adam did not immediately die. The judgement that now matters is not the judgement that God pronounced on the flesh, in the garden, but the judgement following 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 (krisis) into the here and now so that the punishment for wrongdoing can be anticipated, before it is too late (John 3:18f). 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 from torment 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. 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). At first, the camp lay at some distance from the Tabernacle (Ex 33:7), and because of the golden calf God was unwilling to go up with Israel into the promised land. But when Moses offered to atone for their sin, God changed his mind; he renewed the covenant and the Tabernacle was put in the middle of the camp (Num 2:2). Later the Temple replaced the Tabernacle. To define what was ‘outside the camp’, a notional camp area centred on the Temple extended beyond the city’s boundary (Heb 13:11). ‘Camp’ suggests temporary residence, for only when all enemies have been subdued will there be a new earth. That, finally, will be the promised land.
From what point the Devil, the beast and the false prophet begin to be tormented is not stated – possibly not until the end of the thousand years. There comes a time when the demons are also tormented (Matt 8:29). Contrary to popular notions, Scripture nowhere says that the Devil himself does any tormenting.
The same phraseology is applied to Earth and the physical heaven as to Earth’s islands and mountains on the great Day (16:20). ‘Fled’ means they vanished. ‘No place was found for them’ means they ceased to exist; they ‘passed away’ (Matt 24:35). ‘The earth’ is the whole planet, ‘heaven’ the whole universe. At the same time the sea and the subterranean regions give up their dead. ‘Death’ is metonymous for Tartarus, the abyssal world where angels and men from before the Cataclysm were confined. In the Old Testament Tartarus and Hades are commonly paired (e.g. Prov 15:11, 27:20) and, retrospectively, this understanding of ‘Death and Hades’ also applies at 1:18, where, in contrast to 20:1, ‘keys’ is plural: one key for each place. Christ revealed himself to the antediluvians before his resurrection (I Pet 3:19, Rom 10:7) and whoever responded to his word rose with him. The souls remaining are judged. After that, the two prisons will be consumed along with the earth containing them.
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 restore all things (Matt 19:28, Acts 3:21), including the devastated earth. 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 and he sits on the throne (John 5:22, Acts 10:42, 17:31).
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, which humanity has always known about (e.g. Ex 32:32, Dan 12:1). While relevant also to the first resurrection, the book is mentioned only in connection with the second. The register is not blank; nor is its title now ‘the book of death’. 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 it applied to all who sought to live by the light God gave them. While in absolute terms ‘no one living is righteous before him’ (Ps 143:2), for ‘all 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). Simeon also knew. Zacchaeus was saved because he met Jesus and repented, even though Jesus had not yet paid for his sins.
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) albeit 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 (Jer 35:18f, 39:10). When Jonah, a man from an insignificant town in northern Israel, prophesied to Nineveh that it would be overthrown, he performed no sign to testify that he came from God. Yet God considered his message sufficient; and 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 from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah will receive mercy, despite being judged in the flesh (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, stealing, 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 even if someone came to them from the dead they would not believe. 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 for ever;
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.