14 September 2015

Revelation 20 and the thousand years

Although I have an ongoing interest in biblical eschatology (see, e.g., my recent review of Richard Middleton's excellent A New Heaven and a New Earth), I have written next to nothing on the biblical millennium briefly mentioned in the 20th chapter of Revelation.  It may be time to weigh in, however tentatively, on this vexing issue. Here is the relevant passage:

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 worshipped 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 (verses 1-6).

Because this is the only place in the entire Bible where this mysterious "thousand years" is mentioned, most biblical commentators over the past two millennia have seen fit not to attach too much significance to it. Taken somewhat literally, it would appear to indicate that, following certain cataclysmic events described in the previous chapters, the saints of the Lord will be raised from the dead and reign with Christ for one-thousand years, after which Satan will again foment rebellion and finally suffer permanent defeat. The end of chapter 19 would seem to imply that Christ will have returned to establish his kingdom before these events, but, curiously, he has not yet scored a definitive victory over sin and death.

Interpretation of these passages has generally divided Christians into three camps: premillennialists, postmillennialists and amillennialists. Premillennialists generally believe that the events encountered in these chapters are to be understood chronologically, despite the inevitable difficulties in the attempt to do so. Postmillennialists generally anticipate that, sometime within the current historical age, the kingdom of God will advance to such a degree that we might anticipate a very long period of peace and prosperity owing to widespread obedience to his will. Then Christ will return to bring his kingdom to its ultimate consummation. Amillennialists generally interpret these passages figuratively, assuming that the thousand years stands for the present age of the church. None of these successfully answers all the questions raised by these perplexing passages.

Premillennialism

It seems to me that premillennialism, whether in its historic or dispensationalist form, improperly applies too literal a hermeneutic to a book whose language is obviously highly colourful and metaphorical. Every attempt to impose a schedule of events on the Revelation has met with seemingly intractable difficulties. For example, how many resurrections of the dead are to take place in the last days? Revelation 20 implies an initial resurrection of the righteous (20:4-6) and a final battle in which the unrighteous are destroyed (20:7-10). In other words, they die but are quickly brought to life again for the last judgement (20:11-13), but then are destroyed once again shortly thereafter (20:14-15). All of this apparently follows events recounted in the previous chapter, in which we read of the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, an event presupposing that the resurrection of the righteous has already occurred. We also see reference to a battle and to the ultimate destruction of the wicked (19:19-21). It should be evident to even the casual reader that, just as the gospel writers freely reordered the events in Jesus' earthly ministry for their own purposes, so also did the author of the Revelation describe his visions with little thought to chronological consistency. Indeed it seems likely that God gave him these visions without intending them to be in chronological order.

Moreover, Hebrew literature is filled with stories told twice but from different vantage points. The two stories of creation recounted in Genesis 1 and 2 are generally thought to reflect different authors, one describing God as Elohim and the other YHWH (rendered LORD in most English translations). But it is just as likely that a single author could have told both stories in succession to present a fuller account of God's creative work from two different angles. Moreover it is well known that the Psalms employ a certain parallelism, repeating a thought twice in two different ways. For example:

For behold, the kings assembled;
    they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
    they were in panic; they took to flight (Psalm 48:4-5).

Even the casual reader will notice that the italicized phrases restate the thought of the unitalicized phrases, thereby creating a sense of fulness of expression lacking in a single statement to the same effect. Could it be that the Revelation employs a similar literary technique? If so, then attempting to read it chronologically is a potentially serious error. Premillennialism, by reading the apocalyptic passages too literally, may not do full justice to scripture in its literary and historical context.

Nevertheless, premillennialism has the advantage of interpreting the coming kingdom as a concrete and tangible reality, at least for a time.

Postmillennialism

A few years ago I read Loraine Boettner's 1957 book, The Millennium, in which the author argues for Christ returning after the thousand years. While there is much in Boettner's argument that is compelling, it is difficult to escape the impression that for him Christian hope is in danger of becoming mere optimism. For example:

The redemption of the world is a long, slow process, extending through the centuries, yet surely approaching an appointed goal. We live in the day of advancing victory, although there are many apparent set-backs. As seen from the human viewpoint it often looks as though the forces of evil are about to gain the upper hand. Periods of spiritual advance and prosperity alternate with periods of spiritual decline and depression. But as one age succeeds another there is progress. Looking back across the nearly two thousand years that have passed since the coming of Christ we can see that there has indeed been marvelous progress. This Process ultimately shall be completed, and before Christ comes again we shall see a Christianized world. This does not mean that all sin ever will be eradicated. There always will be some tares among the wheat until the time of harvest – and the harvest, the Lord tells us, is the end of the world. Even the righteous fall, sometimes grievously, into temptation and sin. But it does mean that Christian principles of life and conduct are to become the accepted standards in public and private life. . . . Skeptics sometimes point to present day evils and tell us that we are living in a post-Christian age. But, no, there has never yet been a truly Christian age, nor has so much as one nation ever been consistently Christian. The age in which we are living is still pre-Christian.

One would not wish to deny that progress has occurred in a number of fields. But Boettner's description of progress at times appears to conflate the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 with the redemptive trajectory of history, as seen in the following passage:

A revolution has occurred in transportation, communications, home furnishings, etc., within our own lifetime. Our modes of travel and transportation have changed more within the last 150 years than in the preceding 2,000. George Washington, using the horse-drawn stagecoach which was the best means available in his day, traveled in much the same manner as did the ancient Persians and Egyptians. The automobile, hard-surface highways, electrical power for lighting and other household uses, the airplane, radio, television, etc., are all comparatively new. And now the new sciences of atomic and solar energy with the prospect for extremely cheap power, and the whole new field of electronics, in which we have as yet hardly more than scratched the surface, give great promise for the future. A leading industrialist recently said: "America is about to enter a new golden age of prosperity which will hinge upon the harnessing of the atom, and the advent of the electronic age." One new discovery follows another, and we see more and more clearly the tremendous potentials that are available for good, potentials that through all these many centuries have remained largely unused.

These developments are all well and good, of course. But they are the ripe fruit of man's implementing the Cultural Mandate, and, due to sin, they are often misdirected. Atomic energy can power our cities or it can destroy them, as it did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technical progress does not necessarily amount to or flow out of the advance of the gospel and a general obedience to God's will. In fact, technological development has often tempted human beings to imagine that they are sovereign and can get along without God. Is it mere coincidence that the most technically advanced countries of western Europe and North America are the most secularized?

At the same time, the hope characterizing postmillennialism is definitely alluring. This article seems to lend some credence to this hope: Is the World Getting Better? The accompanying map illustrates the phenomenal growth of evangelical Christianity throughout most of the world, with huge implications for the future global expansion of the gospel:


If we in North America find it difficult to be hopeful, it may be due to our lagging behind the remainder of the world, as indicated in the map above. But this appears to be a purely local phenomenon.

Amillennialism

Nevertheless, the growth of the gospel, even when it has appeared impressive, has not infrequently suffered setbacks. The largely christian lands of the eastern Roman Empire were eventually overrun by muslim armies in the 7th century. The majority christian populations were gradually replaced by muslim majorities by the 14th and 15th centuries. And in the first quarter of the 21st century, the few christian communities in what we now know as the Middle East and North Africa are close to extinction. The animated map below illustrates these advances and reverses over the course of 2,000 years:



Here is where I believe we do well to follow St. Augustine, who understood better than many that throughout history the city of God and the city of this world are living out the implications of their own loves and that this process will continue until the return of Christ. This means we will see both genuine progress towards the coming kingdom and movement away from that kingdom, and these will occur at the same time and perhaps even in the same places. Thus while we have witnessed a huge expansion of the gospel outside of the west, we have also witnessed such human-engendered tragedies as the Rwanda genocide and, in the past century, the two world wars and the rise of destructive political illusions violently eliminating more than one-hundred million people. From one angle the world appears to be getting worse, while from another there has been undoubted progress.

Am I an amillennialist then? Perhaps, but I am not particularly happy with the typical amillennial conclusion that the thousand years refers to the present reign of the souls of the righteous in heaven with God. That seems an excessive "spiritualization" of God's kingdom, which thus takes on something of an ethereal form. For all the difficulties in the alternative positions, "premils" and "postmils" at least have the virtue of  understanding God's kingdom in concrete creational terms.

The best path may be to maintain a certain benign agnosticism concerning the meaning of the thousand years in Revelation 20, recognizing that, so many centuries after it was written, we lack the resources to give it a definitive interpretation. Nevertheless, this in no way alters our faith that, in God's good time, Jesus will return to bring his kingdom to fruition. This is our ultimate hope, and however he decides to accomplish it we can safely leave to his sovereign will.

5 comments:

C Brendemuehl said...

You would enjoy Feinberg's "Continuity and Discontinuity" with its varied discussions of the subject and the hermeneutics involved.

David Koyzis said...

Thanks, Collin.

Fairly Reasonable said...

Thanks David - good overview, and I have myself come to similar conclusions, favouring amillennialism while keeping an eye open on whether this is really the best interpretation.
One thing - I didn't take amillennialism to refer to the reign of the saints in heaven -- rather, His reign on Earth beginning at Pentecost, right here on Earth, with His saints here participating in this reign.

David Koyzis said...

What I couldn't do here in such a brief post was to survey the various permutations of the three views. But, yes, your take on the amillennial position is certainly a plausible one. Thanks.

David Koyzis said...

Also I didn't discuss the dispensational approach, which I briefly found persuasive in my teens but not thereafter. My sense is that, after the runaway success of the Scofield Reference Bible just over a century ago, dispensationalism is on the decline now. Where it still exists, e.g., at Dallas Seminary and the bible schools, it does so in very much modified form -- one that brings it closer to the centre of historic christian orthodoxy.

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