Revelation 20 doesn’t stand on its own. Within the narrative of John’s vision, the millennium is preceded by the judgment of the “beast” (the Roman Empire) and the “false prophet” (the Caesar Cult) in 19:11-21. Traditionally, the thousand-year reign of Revelation 20 has been defined by its relation to Christ’s second advent, which most readers have located in chapter 19. But is that what John intended? Does the vision of the rider on the white horse refer to the same climactic event which we see in places like Acts 1:11 and 1 Thessalonians 4:18, that is, the bodily return of Christ? I don’t believe so.
At this point even most amillennialists have been guilty of confusing the visionary and symbolical levels of the text with the referential level by their insistence that this scene portrays a more or less literal forecast of historical events. Clearly, the messianic portrait of 19:11-16 has a more direct correspondence to its referent than the vision of the slain lamb in chapter 5, since it describes Christ with the physical characteristics of a human being. But both descriptions are symbolic in the sense that they are visionary images written up with multiple echoes of biblical and post-biblical tradition, which means that we should not assume photographic realism as much as impressionistic and kaleidoscopic depictions of reality. John’s visionary experience contains images and narrative that represent, i.e. are symbolic, of things and events that existed, exist, or will exist in the real world. But his experience and the images themselves should not be confused with the realities which they represent.
On this note, R. J. McKelvey points out that many of the commonest features of the early parousia tradition, and the OT passages from which they came, are absent from Revelation 19—like the motifs of a cloud theophany, a great trumpet call, the gathering of the saints, and (most significantly) the restoration of creation (McKelvey 78-9). Instead, John’s portrait draws primarily from the “Divine Warrior” passages throughout the OT, a tradition expressed most often in connection with the judgment of nations within continuing history (e.g. Psalm 2; Isa. 63; Ezek. 1; Hab. 3). John has combined that Jewish tradition with the Greco-Roman portrait of a victory procession (e.g. the white horse and red robe) in order to parody the pomp of Rome and boldly proclaim its downfall (Fee 274).
Scholars often debate whether this scene portrays retributive judgment or nonviolent triumph, but this is a false dichotomy. Revelation’s theology of judgment is shaped by the cross, so that God’s wrath upon injustice is released by the lamb who was slain. And in the same way that John sees God’s victory over Satan in the sufferings of the crucified Messiah (Rev. 5:5-6; 7:9-10; 12:7-11), so also he sees God’s victory over Rome, Satan’s earthly representative, through the sufferings of those who “follow the lamb wherever he goes” and conquer “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:7-11; 14:4; cf. 20:4). While the visionary image is of a messianic army dressed in white and conquering the enemy by a giant flying sword, the historical referent of the image is the triumph of Jesus’ testimony, borne out by the martyrs, over the idolatry of the Empire and the Imperial Cult—a retributive judgment through nonviolent resistance. Coals of fire are heaped upon the head of the beast and his followers through the faithful witness of those who refuse to take his mark or worship his image.
While this scene of judgment meets the faithful as a promise of vindication, however, it meets others as an urgent call to repentance (cf. 3:2-3; 16:15). This passage forms the angelic response to the embarrassing episode of 19:10, in which John himself nearly succumbs to the lure of idolatry. As the seer, John stands as the representative of the churches which he addresses, and his stumbling thus stands as a warning for them; the vision of the rider on the white horse reveals how God will respond to those who do not repent of their idolatry. As Jesus said to the church in Pergamum, prefiguring this scene: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).
Following John’s narrative into 20:1-3, we are warned once more not to confuse the visionary and symbolical levels with the referential level by simply picturing Satan himself bound in chains and imprisoned for a thousand years. To imagine this, and to thereby speak (as both amillennialists and premillennialists are guilty of doing) of the binding of Satan, runs the risk of a gross confusion of categories. Satan is not bound in Revelation 20; the dragon which represents Satan is bound. If we read the text historically, the binding and imprisonment of the dragon most naturally refers to the removal of the deceiving power which Satan held over the nations through the religion of Rome.
The dragon is called “the deceiver of the whole world” in 12:9 and 20:3, and according to 13:14 it is through the false prophet (who looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon) that he “deceives those who dwell on the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast.” With the judgment of Rome and the end of the idolatrous Caesar Cult, therefore, Satan’s primary seat of authority is removed, his hands and feet tied, so that Jesus’ testimony can shine forth unhindered.
Thus, with Daniel 7 as his backdrop, John is showing that the suffering of the saints carries greater weight in God’s court than the brutal strength of Empire, and that through their witness the case of their accuser is reversed so that he, and not they, will eventually suffer the sentence of imprisonment and death (cf. 13:10). This reading also makes for a coherent interpretation of Satan’s release at the end of the millennium (which, incidentally, the standard amillennial reading fails to do): the point is that once again, just like in the first century, there will be a worldwide, systemic intolerance to the gospel of the Messiah, as well as a virulent attack against the covenant community that bears and proclaims his name.
After the judgment of the beast and the imprisonment of the dragon, John then shows us the other side of the great reversal of fortunes: the vindication of the martyrs. One of the primary questions modern interpreters ask at this point is whether John has all the saints in mind or only the martyrs, but McKelvey is right to point out that this question probably never entered John’s head (82). The prospective martyrs are obviously the party in view here, but within John’s visionary world there are only two parties: those who worship the beast and those who don’t and thereby suffer under his hand (13:15). The martyrs are not presented here as a sub-group of the larger community of faith, but rather as representatives of the whole community portrayed in visionary juxtaposition with the followers of the beast.
But where does this vindication take place? Isn’t it obvious that the millennial kingdom is an earthly kingdom? For several reasons, I believe the answer is a most decisive no. We note first that all of the descriptions of earthly restoration in the closing passages of John’s vision are to be found in the “new heaven and new earth” of chapters 21-22, and not in the “thousand years” of chapter 20. There is no indication of a progressive restoration of the earth or of a return to the promise land in chapter 20, just as there is no rebuilt Jerusalem and no rebuilt Temple (Hill 237-8). Especially considering John’s many allusions to the OT—which constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision—it is remarkable that he does not allude to any of the OT passages which have long been labeled “millennial” by both premillennialists and postmillennialists in his write-up of the millennium. In fact, John consistently saves such earthly associations for the post-millennial and eternal new earth of chapters 21-22.
On top of this, we note that the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-14 stands behind the vindication of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6. In that famous passage, “one like a son of man” is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. That scene largely forms the OT background behind the vision of Revelation 4-5 as well, where John sees the risen Christ enter the heavenly throne room and receive the authority to complete God’s eschatological plan (note also the parallel in 12:5-12, where the male child is “caught up to God and his throne” and, after the dragon is cast to the earth, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that “the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come”).
But the point is this: if the heavenly scene of Daniel 7 stands behind chapters 4-5, where Christ receives his kingly authority in heaven, then it stands to reason that the martyr’s vindication in 20:4-6 itself belongs in heaven. This is confirmed twice over; first, by the appearance of “thrones” in v. 4, which almost everywhere else in Revelation belong in heaven; and, second, by the parallel scenes of heavenly vindication in 7:9-17, 11:11-13, and 15:2-4.
One final point, which I believe puts the nail in the coffin of an earthly interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, is the argument set forth by M. G. Kline in his article “The First Resurrection”. The crux of the argument is that throughout Revelation 20-21 the word translated “first” or “former” (protos) is consistently used to qualify things which belong to the pre-consummate order, in contrast to those things which are “new”, i.e. consummate. In Hellenistic Greek protos often had the sense of “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two (e.g., Matt. 27:64; 1 Cor. 15:45-47; Heb. 8:13; 10:9). In Revelation 21:1-5 the word “first” is employed in juxtaposition with “new”: the consummation of history brings “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when the Creator God makes “all things new” (v. 5)—and when the word “first” appears throughout the passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”. It may be good to see the words side by side to get the effect.
“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the first things have passed away… Behold I make all things new.”
In light of this contextual meaning of protos, Kline argues that we should not understand the “first resurrection” as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order. It is a proto-resurrection, an anticipatory coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.
This is confirmed by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6). In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.
The point though, within the narrative of Revelation 20, is that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the beast. The focus of the passage is on their position in contrast with the position of the beast and the dragon and the wicked dead. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the beast, who ironically goes alive to the “second death”. If we do not bias the case a priori by the clumsy application of a literalist hermeneutic, then I think this reading clearly has the evidence in its favor.
Now, with all of the above in mind, we note that this passage looks back in fulfillment to the promise to the persecuted overcomers in 2:8-11. When John tells the saints in Smyrna to “be faithful until death” so that they will not be hurt by the “second death,” he is directly alluding to the later part of his vision in which the souls of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ for a thousand years, thereby being exempt from the “second death” (20:4-6). In receiving this admonishment from Christ, the struggling saints in Smyrna would be uniquely comforted by the vision of the millennial reign and strengthened to stand fast in the face of persecution. The two passages belong together as promise and fulfillment, which points to at least one dimension of the numerical symbolism of the millennium.
We recall that the saints of Smyrna were told that Satan would be allowed to throw some of them into prison, in order to test them, for ten days (2:10). After the judgment of the beast, however, John sees the dragon himself thrown into the prison of the bottomless pit, not for ten days, but for the greatly multiplied number of a thousand years. Since the number ten represents totality or completion throughout Revelation (e.g., 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16), and because of the contextual relationship between the millennium and the promise to the suffering saints in Smyrna, the “thousand years” very likely represents an intensification or heightening of the imprisonment period of 2:10 according to the law of retribution in kind, or lex talionis.
In other words, the purpose of the numerical symbolism, in its immediate application to the suffering Christians in Asia Minor, is to strengthen the conviction that their momentary light affliction is working the far exceeding glory of resurrection life, a great reversal of fortunes to be rewarded at the throne of the risen Messiah, even prior to their being clothed with new bodies at his return. The number may carry further meaning, but this is its most explicit reference.
In light of all of the above, we conclude that John’s vision of the millennium presents the promise of life to the faithful and a powerful warning to those colluding with idolatry. It pulls back the curtain of history and shows the heavenly antitype to the tyrannous reign of Rome, the preliminary vindication of the suffering saints, and their participation in the priestly reign of the Messiah in anticipation of the day when he makes all things new. This view is thus markedly different from the classic expressions of the three main schools of thought. Instead of trying to create a synthesized eschatological timeline out of John’s vision, it focuses on the purpose of the vision itself in its original historical context. There can be little doubt that the suffering saints of Asia Minor would have received the vision as a promise of reward aimed directly at them, as they faced the prospect of imprisonment and possibly even of death for the sake of staying true to Christ. Whether the vision meets us now as promise or warning depends entirely on where we stand in relation to the testimony of Jesus.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.
Hill, Charles E. Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.
Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection.” WTJ 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Print.
McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.