Premillennialism and Amillennialism: A Brotherly Conversation, Part 4
In this post, Richard and I exchange views on the general interpretation of Revelation, whether the events in Revelation describe present or future events.
Greg: I can already tell that we’re going to have a difficult time focusing our discussion on one or two points! But let me begin with your general reading of Revelation. You state, “Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means that it uses symbols to reveal the ultimate reality behind what humans see and experience.” For purposes of our conversation, I can live with that. I can also agree with the notion that Revelation is not entirely linear, as you suggest by your view that the Lord returns at the end of Revelation 6 and 19. In fact, the three series of judgments may be cyclical, rather than linear, i.e., describing the same time period of judgment three times. This view is suggested by three observations: (1) the trumpet judgments come from the final seal judgment, and the seven bowl judgments come from the final trumpet judgment; (2) there is an interlude after sixth judgment in both the seal judgments and the trumpet judgments, suggesting that these two series align; and (3) the Lord’s return is suggested at the end of the judgments in each cycle (Rev 6:17; 11:15–18; 16:17–21; cf. 19:11–21). Furthermore, I can even agree in general with your reading of Revelation 6 and 7.
But all of these ways that we can agree on our reading of Revelation 6 and 7 still does not answer the fundamental question of the time period in which these events occur. You read the text a reference to the general conditions on the earth (ch. 6) and God’s protection of his people in spite of these events (ch. 7) in the here and now. But I see these as references to events that are yet in the future. Especially in light of the fact that these events appear to be cataclysmic (esp. Rev 6:12–14) and final in their devastation. Does John say anything that points us to taking these as future rather than interpretations of ongoing present events? I believe he does.
First, the entire book of Revelation is framed by an inclusio that sets forth the reason John was given this prophecy. At the beginning of the prologue (Rev 1:1) and at the beginning of the epilogue (Rev 22:6) God gives John the visions “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” The word “soon” translates ἐν τάχει (en tachei), or “in quickness,” and is always used in the Bible for something that is going to happen in the future (cf. Luke 18:8; Rom 16:20; 1 Tim 3:14). The main events that John is asked to record as he sees them (Rev 1:11, 19) are events that happen in the future.
Second, commentators commonly recognize the outline for Revelation in Rev 1:19, where John is instructed, “Write therefore  the things that you have seen,  those that are and  those that are to take place after this,” or μετὰ ταῦτα (meta tauta), “after these things.” The things John has already seen are prior to verse 19. The things that “are” refer at least to the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, describing their current status in the eyes of the Lord.
When does John begin to describe the μετὰ ταῦτα? The answer is, in Rev 4:1, where John is told, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place μετὰ ταῦτα, after these things.” According to the words of the text, therefore, everything John is recording beginning in 4:1 takes place sometime in the future.
Third, Jesus leave the readers of Revelation with the impression that the events recorded by John are going to happen quickly, nevertheless they are in the future. Twice Jesus promises that he is coming soon, or quickly (Rev 22:17, 20). And, corresponding with other statements in Revelation, Jesus refers to the book not as an apocalypse but as prophecy (Rev 22;7, 10, 18, 19; cf. 10:11). Prophecy by definition predicts a future event. How soon in the future will these events occur? Well, they include the coming of the Lord which you would agree has not yet taken place. So the events surrounding the coming of the Lord have ostensibly not taken place either.
Fourth, with reference to Revelation 20:1–6, it seems strange to me to think of that passage as speaking about the current age when it follows the return of the Lord. I know that I said that I do not read Revelation in a strictly linear manner. But Revelation 20 is near the climax of the entire book. The return of the Lord is referenced earlier in the book, but in Revelation 19 the Lord unmistakably returns with great power and judgment, and the battle is final and decisive. Then the Lord reigns (Rev 20:1–6). But if that reign only represents what is happening on the earth right now, if the binding of Satan in Revelation 20 is something that happened at the cross, why place it here in the prophecy? On the other hand, it flows so well as an event that follows the return of the Lord. The καί (“and”) that begins chapter 20 continues the narrative forward, which is why many translations interpret the καί as “then” (e.g., ESV, NASB, HCS). Furthermore, Rev 20:6 contains future verbs, reading, “… they will be [future middle indicative] priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign [future active indicative] with him for a thousand years.”
Richard: You make good points, and let me answer the main ones here. First, you argue that the events of Revelation are primarily future, particularly because of the phrase “after these things” in 4:1, and the supposed threefold structure of Revelation implied by 1:19. But there is evidence that “after these things” refers not necessarily to events that are exclusively future, but to events that will happen “in the last days.”
Now, before you say, “that works, the last days are future,” let me make a case for the present inauguration of the last days. The phrase “in the last days” occurs in Dan 2:28, 29, and 45, verses that resemble Rev 1:19. In Dan 2:28, Daniel states that “God in heaven reveals what must take place in the last days” (ἀνακαλύπτων…ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν, translation mine). In Dan 2:29, we again encounter again the phrase δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν, and in Dan 2:45, ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν.
In Theodotian’s Dan 2:29 and 45, the phrase ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν is replaced with μετὰ ταῦτα. Dan 2:29 reads, δεῖ γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα,
and Dan 2:45 ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα.
This is significant because Rev 1:19 and 4:1 use Theodotian’s phrases in the
relevant verses. Rev 1:19 reads, ἃ μέλλει γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα,
and 4:1 reads, ἃ δεῖ γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα.
My point is that “after these things” does not necessarily refer to the next
events in sequence (following the church age of Rev 2–3), but rather to the
events the pertain to the “last days.” And, according to Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 10:11,
1 Pet 1:20; Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 1 John 2:18 (and thus by implication 1 Tim 4:1;
2 Tim 3:1; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18), the last days are in effect right now. John
uses the language of 1:19 not to set up a three-fold division of Revelation,
but to communicate that this book will describe present realities, as well as
the events that pertain to God’s
“end-times” salvation and judgment.
Furthermore, Rev 4–19 includes at least one event that is certainly not future: Satan’s inability to thwart Christ’s first advent (Rev 12:1–6). That event is certainly not future from John’s standpoint, though it does belong to the events that take place “in the last days.” Furthermore, one of the key events of Rev 4–5 (supposedly a future event from our standpoint), is the enthronement of Christ, which gives him the authority to break the seals, thus fulfilling the events of the “last days” that were sealed in Daniel. But according to Rev 3:21 (present reality, according to your interpretation), Christ has already sat down on his Father’s throne and begun to reign. Thus, Rev 4–5 take us behind the signs to see the ultimate reality that is in effect during the church age.
Finally, let me explain why I would take Rev 20 as another behind the scenes look at this age and not a future event. First, Rev 6 and 11 take us from the seal and trumpet judgments up to the final judgment without any mention of a thousand year period. Whether we take the seals and judgments as the present time or the future seven-year tribulation, both series go from judgments to final judgment without any mention of a thousand-year interlude. Combine that with the analogy of Rev 6–7, and the reader is prepared descriptions of the present time culminating in final judgment and then a look behind the scenes at the ultimate, stabilizing reality during that time. Rev 19–20 function just like Rev 6–7, and Rev 11–12 (ch. 11 is final judgment, ch. 12 the accomplishment of salvation at Christ’s first coming).
Second, I don’t think that the uses of the future tense that you highlight indicate that the events of Rev 20:1–6 are future. Putting aside the discussion of verbal aspect, Revelation uses future tense at times for present reality, and past tense for future reality. For example, in Rev 11:15, the voices in heaven say “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Revelation 11:16 connects this with the final judgment (so after the thousand years), but one of the main arguments of Rev 4–5 (under any interpretation) is that Christ has begun to reign long before the final judgment. Also, in Rev 12:11, after Satan has been defeated, we are told that the saints “triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Since Satan has just been cast down, and is coming to harass these saints, the actualization of their triumph is future, and yet it is spoken of here. Since the first occurrences of the saints’ reign in Revelation are present (1:6, 9), I conclude that the later reference are present reality as well.