Section 9: The End Times
Digging Deeper: Will There Be a Millennial Kingdom before the New Heaven and the New Earth?
Summary of the Millennial Views
The debate over the Millennial Kingdom centers on how we ought to interpret Rev. 20. Does it refer to a literal reign of Christ on earth prior to the appearance of the new heaven and new earth? Many theologians say it does. They argue this is the most straight-forward way interpreting the passage.
At first glance Rev. 19-22 appears to lay out the following timeline:
1. Christ returns (Rev. 19).
2. Satan is bound (Rev. 20:1-3).
3. Believers are resurrected (Rev. 20:4)
4. Christ reigns on earth with believers for 1000 years (Rev. 20:4-6)
5. At the end of the 1000 years, Satan is released (Rev. 20:7).
6. Satan gathers an army (Rev. 20:8-9).
7. Christs defeats Satan decisively (Rev. 20:9-10).
8. The final judgment takes place (Rev. 20:11-15).
9. The new heaven and new earth appear (Rev. 21-22).
The view that says we ought to understand Rev. 19-22 in this way is called premillennialism. The “pre-” refers to the timing of Christ’s return. It happens before the Millennial Kingdom, which refers to literal reign of Christ on earth prior to the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth.
If there’s a “pre-“, there’s gotta be a “post-“, right? Postmillennialism says the 1000-year reign of Christ referred to in Rev. 20 is meant to be taken figuratively. Christ currently reigns through the Church. As the gospel spreads, so does Christ’s kingdom. Eventually, the gospel will spread to all the nations and usher in a “golden age”. Postmillennialists argue this “golden age” is what Rev. 20 is talking about. At the end of this time period (it won’t be a literal 1000 years), Christ will return and usher in the final judgment and the new heaven and new earth. As with premillennialism, the “post-” refers to the timing of Christ’s return. It comes after the “golden age”, figuratively referred to as the Millennial Kingdom.
The third view, amillennialism, has a completely different take on the Millennial Kingdom. Like postmillennialists, amillennialists understand the 1000 years in Rev. 20 to be symbolic. Amilllennialists, however, don’t interpret the 1000 years as representing a future golden age. For the amillennialist, the 1000 years represent the entire Church age from Christ’s ascension to his return. The “a-” in amillennialism, thus, refers to the absence of both a literal and a figurative Millennial Kingdom.
The Structure of the Book of Revelation Plays an Important Role in Millennial Interpretations
Earlier, we looked at the general approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation. Before we delve deeper into the specific millennial views, there’s another issue concerning the book of Revelation that we need to take a closer look at. How is the book of Revelation structured?
Does Revelation Have a Chronological Structure?
Some theologians argue for a basic chronological structure. After the opening letters to the churches (Rev. 1-3), the book of Revelation paints a picture of events that will unfold in the future. Although there may be some overlap at times, the order of John’s visions in the book generally represents the chronological order of future events.
The book of Revelation, for example, depicts three series of divine judgments that fall upon the earth: The Seal Judgments, The Trumpet Judgments, and the Bowl Judgments.
Because the visions happen one after the other within the book, according to those who subscribe to a chronological structure, we ought to understand the judgments as following after one another in time.
Supporters of a chronological structure point to the fact that the visions and judgments are numbered. They believe the most “natural” way to understand this numbering is that the numbers represent the actual order in which the event will occur.[i] Futurists also point to the fact that the imagery used to describe the judgments gets progressively worse throughout the book. They argue this only makes sense if the judgments actually get progressively worse as they unfold over time.
Does Revelation Have a Parallel Structure?
A number of theologians, however, argue John did not intend us to see the visions as following a chronological sequence. They believe the visions run parallel to each other. That is, each set of visions takes us from John’s time to Christ’s triumphant return, and then rewinds to give us another picture of the same time period from a different perspective. In contrast with the futurist perspective then, the Seal Judgments, Trumpet Judgments, and Bowl Judgments are thought by some to all cover the same period in time.
What Difference Does It Make?
“Interesting,” you might say, but what does any of this have to do with the Millennial Kingdom? The 1000-year reign of Christ is mentioned only in Rev. 20, which follows the depiction of Christ’s return in Rev. 19. If the chapters follow a chronological order, the Millennial Kingdom necessarily follows Christ’s return in time. That wouldn’t be the case though if the visions reset once they reach Christ’s return. In that case, Rev. 20 would take us back to the beginning. One’s view on the structure of the book of Revelation, therefore, plays a significant role in one’s understanding of the Millennial Kingdom.
A Closer Look at Amillennialism
Amillennialists emphasize that the N.T. repeatedly presents Christ’s return as an event that occurs concurrently with the resurrection, final judgment and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth.[ii] In John 5:25-29, for example, Jesus says:
I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
Amillennialists note the sequence of events in this passage is: the dead will hear Christ’s voice, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be raised, the righteous will be raised to life and the unrighteous will be condemned. Premillennialism requires two separate resurrections -one for believers at the start the Millennial Kingdom and then another one for unbelievers at the end of the Millennial Kingdom just before the Final Judgment. Yet Jesus only describes one resurrection, and this appears to happen when he returns.
2 Peter 3:3-14 says:
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
According to Peter, the present heaven and earth will disappear when Christ returns, which means we can look forward to the new heaven and new earth appearing at that time. There is no mention of an intervening period of time.[iii]
The only place where it’s even possible to see an intervening period of time between Christ’s return and the new heaven and the new earth is Rev. 20. Amillennialists point out, however, that Rev. 20 (along with the entire book of Revelation) is a difficult passage to interpret. They note a general rule of interpretation says “more difficult portions of the Bible are to be interpreted in light of the more clear portions.”[iv] So, when we realize the rest of the New Testament teaches Christ’s return will be immediately followed by the resurrection of both believers and unbelievers, the final judgment and the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth, there is no reason to throw out all of that teaching, “on the basis of one brief passage in an apocalypse that is admittedly highly figurative, rich in symbols, and therefore somewhat difficult.”[v] For the amillennialist, that’s especially true when there are other ways to interpret the highly figurative and symbolic language.
Amillennialists argue when you look at Rev. 20 in light of the rest of the New Testament teaching, it can be understood as painting a picture of the present church age.[vi] As we noted earlier, the visions in the book of Revelation don’t necessarily follow a chronological order. Many theologians argue later visions in the book cover the same time period as earlier visions. Once a series of visions reaches the end of the time period (i.e., Christ’s return), the next series goes back to the beginning, covering the same period of time from a different vantage point. If that’s true, even though Rev. 19 describes events surrounding Christ’s return, that doesn’t mean Rev. 20 follows Christ’s return in time. Amillennialists see Rev. 20 as rewinding from the time of Christ’s return back to the beginning.
What is the beginning of that time period? The first coming of Christ. According to the amillennialist, the New Testament teaching concerning the end times “is set forth in terms off not one but two great climactic points: the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ.”[vii] The book of Revelation covers that entire time period.
The amillennialist argues we can tell Rev. 20 goes back to the time of Christ’s first coming because of the imagery of Satan being bound. When did Christ bind Satan? During his earthly ministry. In Matt. 12:24-29, for example, we read:
When the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.
Although Satan has been bound in some sense, he is still active and won’t be finally defeated until Christ’s return. And this is exactly what we see in Rev. 20:7-10, where Satan is thrown into the lake of fire. This is immediately followed by the resurrection and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15) and the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21-22).
According to amillennialists then, there is no Millennial Kingdom. The thousand years described in Rev. 20 is a figurative way of referring to the entire Church age, which covers the time between Christ’s first and second coming.
A Closer Look at Postmillennialism
Postmillennialists believe the gospel will gradually spread to all nations. When that happens, we will enter a period of human history where “faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations.”[viii] The Millennial Kingdom in Rev. 20 is a symbolic way of describing this extended period of prosperity.
Postmillennialism shares much in common with amillennialism. Postmillennialists, for example, interpret Rev. 20 symbolically just like the amillennialists do. However, the amillennialist doesn’t necessarily see the progressive triumph of the gospel occurring in the same way as the postmillennialist does. As a result, although amillennialists understand Rev. 20 to be referring to the current Church age, they don’t see anything within that age that we would call the Millennial Kingdom.
Where does postmillennialism get its sense of optimism? From passages that suggest Christ is already reigning over human history. Just before he gave his disciples the Great Commission, Jesus said that he had been given all authority. In light of that pronouncement, we know the gospel will spread to all nations because he said it will. The Church empowered by the Holy Spirit becomes the means by which Sovereign Christ extends his Kingdom to the ends of the earth.[ix]
Because Christ and his authority stand behind the Great Commission, we should expect the gospel to spread farther and farther. And as more and more people put their faith in Christ, we should expect to see greater transformation in the world because of the Spirit’s work in people’s lives.
According to postmillennialists, when we understand that Christ is currently reigning, it becomes natural to see Rev. 20 as a description of the Church’s present experience. Revelation 20 in broad strokes paints a picture in which Satan is bound, the faithful are raised to life in the first resurrection, and the faithful reign with Christ. While it is common to see these as future events, the postmillennialist argues they are symbolic ways of referring to the blessings of the current church age.
Like amillennialists, postmillennialists argue Satan has already been bound by Christ. The binding of Satan may not be total, but it is sufficient to allow the gospel to spread. What about the resurrection of believers in Rev. 20? Although many see this as a future event, postmillennialists argue this is occurring even now. When we come to faith, the Spirit gives us spiritual life. The first resurrection in Rev. 20 is thus a symbolic description of being born again.
According to Paul our reigning with Christ is also a present reality:
Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-7).
The picture of Rev. 20 then, according to postmillennialism, is one of Christ’s victory over Satan at his first coming. As a result of this victory, Satan is bound, and the gospel is spreading throughout the whole world. As more and more people come to faith in him, Christ reigns in and through them such that the entire world becomes his Kingdom.
The Millennial Kingdom, therefore, is a present reality. It represents the Church Age. Christ reigns right now. And because of his promises to the Church, we can expect his Kingdom to continue to spread. The Church, therefore, ought to be optimistic about the prospect of human history. “John’s symbolic portrayal of Christ’s kingdom and rule depicts the transcendent glory of Christianity in the world. As his rule expands through the preaching of the gospel, righteousness, tranquility, and prosperity will eventually come to majestic expression. We do not know when his kingdom will reach its height or how long it will prevail, but John’s grand vision encourages us to understand that we will participate for a long time in its growth as we worship and serve King Jesus.”[x]
A Closer Look at Premillennialism
Both amillennialists and postmillennialists emphasize Rev. 20 is the only place where there is any indication whatsoever of an intervening period between Christ’s return and the new heaven and the new earth. Premillennialists acknowledge that point. They note, however, it doesn’t matter how many times the Bible teaches a particular doctrine. If it teaches something even once, we’re supposed to believe it.
Premillennialists also point out that God does not typically reveal his entire plan all at once. Instead, Scripture tends to be progressive in nature, revealing more and more of God’s plan over time. That’s where Rev. 20 comes in. It fleshes out the end times picture presented elsewhere in the Bible. The fact that the Bible progressively adds to our understanding doesn’t mean the later pictures conflict with or contradict the earlier ones.
But why should we understand Rev. 20 as depicting an intervening Millennial Kingdom? Both amillennialists and postmillennialists argue there are other ways to interpret it after all. Premillennialists argue the amillennialist and postmillennialist interpretations don’t quite fit the facts. For one, premillennialist believe Revelation follows a basic chronological structure. The events of Rev. 20, therefore, must happen after Christ’s return in Rev. 19.
Additionally, although Christ certainly has defeated Satan, Satan is nevertheless still at work in the world in a powerful way. Not only do we know this from our own experience, but the New Testament also repeatedly affirms it. Peter, for example, warns us:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).
The binding of Satan pictured in Rev. 20, therefore, can’t be a present reality. Even within the book of Revelation itself, Satan is seen as very active prior to Rev. 20. This suggests the binding that takes place in Rev. 20 happens at some future time.
Also, according to amillennialism, the resurrection of believers and unbelievers happens at the same time when Christ returns. However, Rev. 20 clearly depicts two separate resurrections. When the martyrs are brought to life in Rev. 20:4, we are specifically told the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years are over. According to premillennialists, this demonstrates there are two separate resurrections that a separated in time.
Within premillennialism there is a subset known as dispensational premillennialism. In the section on the Church, we noted that some theologians draw a sharp distinction between the Church and Israel. They argue that a number of God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament have not yet been fulfilled. According to dispensational premillennialists, the Millennial Kingdom is when God will fulfill those promises. As a result, Israel will have a special place in the Millennial Kingdom.
[i] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: Commentary on the Greek, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, (1999), 120.
[ii] Robert B Strimple, “Amillennialism” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and Darrell L. Bock ed., Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1999), 100.
[iii] Ibid., 107.
[iv] Ibid., 119.
[v] Ibid., 120.
[vi] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House (1994), 1109-1110.
[vii] Strimple, 121.
[viii] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Postmillennialism” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Stanley N.Gundry and Darrell L. Bock ed., Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1999), 14.
[ix] Ibid., 45-46.
[x] Ibid, 55.