The topic of the millennium as described in Rev 20 is often seen as one of the most difficult topics to talk about and yet I think it’s also one of the most important. What we believe about the end times is vital because it shapes how we see the goal of the present age and the main goal for us as followers of Jesus. This is the reason why the writer of Hebrews names two elements of the end times the “elementary principles of the faith” (Hebrews 6:2). Its why Jesus made sure to go over the topic clearly with His disciples. Its why Paul and likely other Apostles saw making what would happen at the end times clear during his first visit as we can see from passages like 2 Thes 2:5 where Paul reminds the Thessalonians of what will happen in the end of days as he says he discussed with them multiple times already.
Before analyzing lets look at the passage itself below:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
The History of the Discussion
The discussion on the millennium is divided into three views: amillennialism, postmillennialism and premillennialism. The millennium is a time when the book of Revelation describes the resurrection of those in Christ followed by Jesus ruling with those resurrected Saints for 1000 years (hence the name millennium meaning a thousand years). Amillennialism is the view that the thousand years are completely allegorical, there is no actual thousand-year rule but that passage in Revelation is allegorical in the same way passages about dragons or actual beasts are. Postmillennialism is the belief that the millennium will happen prior to Jesus’ second coming, usually the church is seen as ruling “with Christ” in spirit in the millennium then Christ will return after this period. Finally, premillennialism is the belief that Christ will physically return prior to the millennium and rule during those thousand years.
In the last 100 years there has been controversy between whether postmillennialism or premillennialism are true. The disagreement usually is like this: Postmillennial Christians tend to agree with someone like Jonathan Edwards who believed that there would really be a time in history when a country like the US would really be right with God. So, we as Christians should work towards that and see our country become more of a place that honors God and obeys Him. Premillennialism is typically identified with a view like the Rapture that we see in the Left-Behind series. Usually, people identify this view with the belief that God is going to eventually burn this world away anyway so why bother too much with the current reign of things. I think the Left-Behind rapture picture though distorts a more Biblical outlook of the premillennial view. At its heart premillennial simply means that Jesus will come back prior to the millennial period in Revelations 20 the Rapture is a separate sort of idea that should be looked into separately.
How We View Scripture
Now, I think the typical way people resolve which view they will go with has to do with the outcome of the view mixed with a feeling of skepticism in general about if anyone can really know. The book of Revelation is confusing, and we shouldn’t expect to understand it if so many well-meaning people in history have disagreed about it. I think this answer is not the way we ought to approach scripture. The principal God gives in Deuteronomy to the people of Israel regarding understanding scripture at that time is this:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.Deuteronmony 20:11-14
Paul then repeats this in Romans concerning the Gospel message of faith. In other words, God communicates in such a way as to be understood. He does not give us puzzles or truths that need much to be understood unless it is really due to people sinful hearts as we see when Jesus gave parables in the gospels, afterword explaining the clear meaning to His disciples. Instead, scripture is God’s word into a language that is meant to speak to those who wish to really pursue Him. This is true whether or not people have disagreed about the meaning. After all, there are more reasons to disagree than just a commonsensible looking at a passage itself and the millennium is a good example of that. Eusebius and Saint Augustine both have in common rejecting the millennium as a literal reign of Jesus Himself on earth due to a false teaching that existed in their day that they said was causing Christians to behave in a carnal (or worldly way). Eusebius even specifically says this false teaching had to do with a false teacher who was a “lover of the body” referring to a leaning Eusebius seems to have had towards a more Greek way of thinking considering the body to be earthly and less good and the soul being the holy and good part of a human. This false teacher taught a literal reign of Christ. In both cases Eusebius in the 4th century and Augustine in the 5th interpreted more based on desiring to eliminate this false teaching rather than looking simply at the passage as it is written. They therefore end up giving a long explanation that is certainly not common sense at all of what the different elements of Revelation 20 represent allegorically.
How Past Misinterpretations Affect Us Today
The big issue with these two church fathers interpreting the millennium in this way is that they (especially Augustine) are respected by both the Protestant and the Catholic Church alike. So, the church pretty much went on with Augustine’s interpretation for years before it was really challenged. Augustine also took another misstep that has been even more damaging to the later church. That is in considering that the millennium represented the present day. In other words what we read in Revelation 20:1-6 was a present reality. While Augustine tried to explain away the clear meaning of the passage that this was a physical rule on the earth this understanding did not last long and the Catholic church eventually took this interpretation to its logical conclusion. If the millennium was now, and Christ was spiritually reigning with the Church it meant the Church had a second mission in addition to the great commission in Matt 28:19-20, the Church was supposed to be ruling and affecting the ruling of the nations of the earth in a very direct way as the term “reigned with Christ” clearly implies.
This second mission however is not found in Acts or in Jesus teaching in the gospels and so it really led to a sort of church that was doing something quite different from what Jesus or the Apostles had done. It is also clear from the New Testament that the first resurrection, of the righteous (1 Thes 4:16, Luke 14:14, John 5:28-29, Rev 20:5), is something that will happen in the end times. So, whatever one’s view is of the millennium this is something that will come when the righteous are resurrected from the dead, something that certainly has not taken place yet. I personally think this fact weighs the case significantly in the direction of premillennialism.
I think there are two really important applications to this overview. One is that we can read scripture and see the clear meaning of the text for those important doctrines of the faith. We should learn from the example of the Bereans who after hearing Paul “searched the scriptures daily whether those thingswere so”. When we hear a teaching on an important doctrine we should take a look at scripture and review if what we heard lines up with what God’s Word says.
The second application has to do with the End Times teaching itself. Jesus gave His disciples and us one mission and that is to “make disciples of all nations”. That’s it. to follow Him in His disciplemaking mission until He returns. Now we are also told to “remain as we are” (1 Cor 7:20) and to live a godly life doing all things “as unto Christ” (Col 3:23). This means we pursue in a godly way our job in whatever field including politics if so called and our lives as citizens with rights in our country to participate in the government. Even more so one day Jesus is coming back to earth, and we will be resurrected so even more so learning to work and live well on earth is extremely valuable. Let us then as followers of Jesus pursue Him, making Him known, helping others to follow Him, and being the best workers, family member and citizen we possibly can be.