There has been a lot of historical speculation and a lot of attention has been paid to the first ten verses of Revelation chapter 20. Christian traditions have been deeply divided over holding one particular view of the millennium over another. Although this passage is important, most of the theologies that have been formed from it are deeply dependent upon reading this text in connection to other passages of Scripture beyond Revelation. Treated in its own context, and viewed in the light of other passages in his Apocalypse, it is likely that John simply wants to celebrate several basic themes: the return of Christ, the vindication of the martyrs, and the judgment and end of wickedness and death.
20:1-3 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon, the old snake, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the abyss, then locked and sealed it over him. This was to keep him from continuing to deceive the nations until the thousand years were over. After this he must be released for a little while.
Again an angel appears as an instrument of God’s purposes. The angel seizes the dragon, binds him, and throws him into the Abyss. There he must remain for a thousand years, unable to continue his deceptions. At the close of the thousand-year period he is to be loosed for a short time.
It is likely – as it has been throughout Revelation – that John intends the images in this text to be precisely that: images. John’s purpose is theological more than historical. John understands Satan to be a real force that exerts evil in the world, but he is not trying to persuade readers that he has the body of a dragon, or that a physical chain can be used to bind the dragon. The same is true of the abyss. John does not invite the reader to speculate on the earthly location of the great abyss.
Readers must constantly be wary of using John’s powerful images to represent physical and temporal realities rather than spiritual ones. As Koester writes, “John uses physical and spatial images for spiritual realities… the same is true of the references to time. John says that Satan is bound ‘for a thousand years’ (20:2). Just as the door to the great abyss cannot be located on a map, the duration of the thousand years cannot be located on a calendar. One does not draw nearer to heaven by means of a space shuttle or nearer to the abyss by digging a shaft into the ground, and one does not enter the thousand-year period by turning a calendar page. John refers to time in order to point readers to a reality that lies beyond time.”
A non-literal reading of time fits with all of Revelation. For example, when John says that “ten kings” allied with the beast receive power for one hour (17:12), he means that their reign will be brief, not that it will literally last sixty minutes. In the next chapter – chapter 21 – John will give the measurements of the New Jerusalem not so that readers will know how much square footage to expect in eternity, but to represent the fullness or the completion of the new creation. That principle is at work here in the millennium. The thousand years represents a full and complete reign – a reign that no other empire on earth at the time (or even since) can fully imagine.
20:4-6 Then I saw thrones, and people took their seats on them, and judgment was given in their favor. They were the ones who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and God’s word, and those who hadn’t worshipped the beast or its image, who hadn’t received the mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and ruled with Christ for one thousand years. The rest of the dead didn’t come to life until the thousand years were over. This is the first resurrection. Favored and holy are those who have a share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will rule with him for one thousand years.
The next vision in the text is a judicial one. Sitting on thrones are judges before whom stand all who have been faithful to the Lamb. Having been faithful unto death, these saints are brought back to life in order to reign with Christ for a thousand years.
No location is given for where these faithful saints reign. It is never mentioned in the text that they reign on earth or in heaven. They simply reign “with Christ.” John is clearly concerned more with who is reigning and that the faithful are connected to Christ than he is in describing where or how they reign.
The text describes this as the “first resurrection” which infers that there will be a second one. No other writing, Jewish or Christian, describes two resurrections, so what should we do with this event?
It is likely that John is creating a break in the action similar to pauses that he placed elsewhere in the Apocalypse.
In chapter six John inserted a break or pause between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals. In that pause (chapter 7) all of those who were suffering and being martyred were sealed with the mark of the Lamb. Then again between the sounding of the sixth and seventh trumpets (chapter 10) John receives the scroll – that is both sweet and bitter – to eat and the church is marked off as the temple of the Lord and the witnesses to both the Law and the Prophets.
In other words, twice already in the unfolding of God’s purposes in history there has been a break in the action of judgment to recognize those who had been martyred for the faith and to celebrate their connection to the Lamb. Those who have been willing to suffer for Christ, even unto death, have truly been the witnesses to the kingdom of God on earth and John always takes time to vindicate their faithfulness.
That is again what happens in this text. Before evil and death is finally conquered there is another break in the action – a thousand year break! – in which those who have been faithful even though it cost them everything are vindicated and they reign with Christ.
“The church as a whole is pictured as a church of martyrs. Whether or not John literally expected every faithful Christian to be martyred, he saw faithfulness even to death as the essence of the Christian life in his situation and pictures the triumphant church as having been faithful.” – Eugene Boring
20:7-10 When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog. He will gather them for battle. Their number is like the sand of the sea. They came up across the whole earth and surrounded the saints’ camp, the city that God loves. But fire came down from heaven and consumed them. Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet also were. There painful suffering will be inflicted upon them day and night, forever and always.
Even the most unscholarly reader is faced with a question out of this text: Once Satan is bound and the earth enjoys a millennium of evil-free life, why must he be released again? One absolutely wrong response would be that God is somehow bound by a prearranged plan. The correct answer is likely found in some combination of traditional, literary, and theological reasons.
As has been apparent in so many other places in Revelation, John loves to reframe familiar Old Testament passages in the new light of the Lamb. To use my language, he loves to color with the crayons of the Old Testament. Without question, the latter half of Revelation chapter 20 is a reframing of one of John’s favorite prophets, Ezekiel: specifically Ezekiel chapters 34-48.
Ezekiel 34-37 celebrates the coming work of God in the life of the exiled Judeans as the Good Shepherd, the one who will cleanse the hearts of the people from sin, and the one who will rescue the people from captivity. In particular Ezekiel 37 famously celebrates the return from exile in the picture of the resurrected dry bones. So we might think of the first part of Revelation 20 as John’s version of the valley of dry bones. The martyrs who were persecuted and left for dead have, like the dry bones of Israel, been raised up to new life.
But then Ezekiel 38 focuses attention on the nation of Magog, in the far north, and Gog its king. The resurrection of the dry bones – the deliverance from exile – was not the final end of the threats Israel faced. Powers – like the power of Gog and Magog – seem to constantly rise up again and again. In a similar way, evil in the form of Satan is permitted to rise up again and threaten God’s purposes and God’s people. But in the end restraining evil is not enough. God must deal a final death-blow to the seductive and destructive principalities and powers.
20:11-15 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who is seated on it. Before his face both earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Another scroll was opened too; this is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged on the basis of what was written in the scrolls about what they had done. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and the Grave gave up the dead that were in them, and people were judged by what they had done. Then Death and the Grave were thrown into the fiery lake. This, the fiery lake, is the second death. Then anyone whose name wasn’t found written in the scroll of life was thrown into the fiery lake.
In this final vision of chapter 20, judgment on evil finds its final expression. The time has now come to judge the rest of the dead. With this final vision of judgment space is made in creation for the coming of the New Jerusalem.
It is fascinating to theologians that two scrolls are opened: the first that contains the deeds of all who have lived, and the other the scroll of life. In a powerful mixture of images John seems to take seriously both human freedom and divine grace. In this very brief passage John is not clear on what the implications are for how the deeds of all people will be judged, nor is he clear on how one’s name is inscribed on the scroll of life. What is clear is that our lives and our decisions matter, but that the Lamb is the final judge. “Revelation does not list the names that are in the book of life, but it does give readers enough information to know that the comments about the book of life are designated to encourage faithfulness, not despair… Trust that God wants you to put this faith into practice – then leave matters concerning the final judgment in God’s hands.” – Craig Koester.
At the last judgment, Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. It is the final death of Death itself. For John, connection to Christ is always connection to life. As Karl Barth writes observed about Revelation, there is in the hand of Christ no “book of death” there is only the book of life. The hope of Revelation is not just the end of all that threatens the eternality of life, but the end of all that threatens its abundance as well.