Premillennialism and Amillennialism: A Brotherly Conversation, Part 3
In the previous post, Richard Winston introduced his amillennial position on Revelation 20:1–6. While I am eager to discuss the biblical texts that he draws upon to explain that view, today I am going to ask him about the hermeneutical principle that he is using to read those texts.
GREG: Richard, you ended that last post with these words:
The dominion and kingdom that God promised is currently manifested in the church, and will continue until Christ comes again. This is a real, actual kingdom, with authority and dominion, inaugurating the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel, and culminating in the return of Christ.
I was immediately struck by the words “real, actual kingdom.” I’m guessing that you use call the kingdom “real” and “actual” in advance of a conversation in which some may accuse you of taking a figurative or allegorical approach to the text. But, of course, the issue is not whether the kingdom is real, but what is the nature of that kingdom. Where is it located? From where does its king reign? When does it arrive? Reading the relevant texts with a grammatical-historical approach, I believe that it is located on the earth as described in the OT prophecies, with a King reigning bodily on a throne, in a future age ushered in by the return of the Lord.
RICHARD: I would like to think that I take a grammatical-historical interpretation of the text as well. In other words, I interpret the passage in accordance with the grammatical meaning of the words in context, according to their historical meaning and referents. The genre of a passage helps determines the nature of the referent, and that is where my interpretation of the passage parts way with the pre-millennial understanding.
Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means that it uses symbols to reveal the ultimate reality behind what humans see and experience. For example, Rev 6 contains the breaking of the six seals, which release national distress, warfare, famine, death (the four horsemen), and persecution upon the earth (vv. 1–11). Such are the conditions that remain until the final judgment (vv. 12–17). However, Rev 7 takes us behind the scenes. There the four angels are holding back the four winds (the first four seals), until God can seal his servants. In other words, while there may be death and persecution upon the earth, the ultimate reality is that God is sealing his servants to prevent them from falling away during this difficult time, and he will preserve them until they reach their eternal home (vv. 9–17).
I believe the same dynamic is at work in Rev 19–20. Revelation 19:11–21 describes the second coming of Christ, the coming of the great day of wrath Rev 6:17 announced. God consigns hostile powers (the beast and false prophet) to eternal punishment. Then, Rev 20 takes us behind the scenes to describe the ultimate reality the saints enjoy in the time leading up to the return of Christ (we should also note that Rev 17–18 says much about the persecution the saints undergo during the time period described in the book of Revelation).
The passage begins with the binding of Satan and his confinement to the abyss (20:1–3). Justification for identifying this with the beginning of the church age comes from Rev 12. This passage links Satan’s expulsion from heaven and decisive defeat which results in salvation for God’s people and the coming of the kingdom (vv. 7–12) to the first coming of Christ, when God thwarted Satan’s attempts to prevent Christ’s ministry (vv. 1–6).
You raise the question of how Satan can “blind the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor 4:4) and actively work in the ‘sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:1–3)” if he is presently bound. In the same way that he can do so while he is presently “driven out,” which Jesus says happened when he was lifted up on the cross (John 12:31–33). The crucifixion of Christ dealt the decisive blow to Satan, and thus he was “driven out” (John 12:31), “bound” (Rev 20:2), and “hurled down” (Rev 12:9). Such defeat does not render Satan completely inactive (Rev 12:13–17), and yet it does prevent him from effectively “deceiving the nations” (Rev 20:3), enabling King Jesus to “draw all people” to himself (John 12:32).
The second half of the passage refers to the saints coming to life and reigning with Christ during the 1,000 years. These are the believers who did not receive the mark of the beast and thus suffered the consequence of martyrdom. Again, I would submit that this describes the ultimate reality the saints enjoy even if they are being martyred for their faith. The twenty-four elders, who represent the redeemed of all ages, sit on thrones in heaven (4:4; 11:16). Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 refer to believers as a kingdom and priests now. Such language reflects Eph 2:6, which insists that believers are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. That is the ultimate reality despite what believers see and experience now.
Regarding the statement in v. 5 that the rest of the death did not come to life until after the thousand years, I think John deliberately uses the words death and resurrection with different referents based on whether he is referring to believers or unbelievers. In other words, he is making an intentional wordplay, a deliberate change of referent in order to highlight the ultimate difference between Christians and unbelievers.
In v. 4, believers are described as those who have been beheaded (physical death). In v. 6 John refers to the second death, which he later describes in v. 14 as being cast into the lake of fire. This is the spiritual death that unbelievers suffer. So, in the passage we have a first death (the physical death of believers) and a second death (the eternal spiritual death of unbelievers).
John then uses the verb “came to life” in the same dual sense, but in the opposite order. In v. 4, those who have suffered physical death come to life spiritually and reign with Christ in heaven. Later, after the 1000 years, unbelievers come to life physically and face the final judgment. In summary, then, the saints may die physically, but their reign spiritually. And unbelievers may come to life physically, but they die spiritually. This wordplay is intentional in order to highlight the drastically different destinations of believers and unbelievers.
Two last details deserve mention. First, while Rev 20:1–7 uses the number “1000” to describe this period of time, such a reference can have a symbolic meaning (Ps 50:10), and would be consistent with the use of other numbers in Revelation (e.g., the seven-fold Spirit referring to the Holy Spirit [1:4], the four corners of the earth referring to creation [7:1]).
Second, you propose that Rev 20:1–6 is when “the idea of a literal king in a literal geographical place of his kingdom” takes place. This fulfills “what God has always envisioned for the climax of human history in the present age.” But if the reign of Christ on earth is the climax of such an idea, then it does not take place in the millennium, for Rev 20:7–10 describes the end of the millennial kingdom in terms of further satanic activity. In fact, so great is Satan’s activity at the end of the millennium, that the saints are holed up on the holy city withstanding the final assault. A better realization of the ideal that you present takes place in the new heavens and new earth, which the prophets anticipated (e.g, Isa 65:17–25), and which 2 Pet 3:13 says is the NT believer’s expectation.
In conclusion, I believe that the saints are currently enjoying the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s OT promises. God has acted to save his people in the last days, and as members of his kingdom and church, believing Jews and Gentiles reign with Christ on the earth, and participate in his mission to subdue his enemies to himself through the evangelization of the nations. God has begun to manifest his promised kingdom in the church, and will bring his rule to its culmination when Christ returns and God reigns with his people over the new heavens and the new earth.
GREG: Thanks for the concise explanation not only of how you interpret the text but also what leads you to that interpretation. You have specifically commented on (1) how you read Revelation in general, (2) the nature of Satan’s binding, (3) the nature of the life of the saints who inhabit the kingdom, (4) the meaning of 1000, (5) and the relationship between the kingdom and the eternal state in the new earth. We will begin to drill down into these in the next post.