When Charles Ryrie wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of the millennium for Dallas Theological Seminary in the late 1940s, he tellingly titled it The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, implying from the outset that other millennial views reflect a very different sort of faith. Of course, we find the idea of a thousand-year reign explicitly mentioned only once in Scripture. Like the creation narrative of Genesis 1, however, the millennium of Revelation 20 has often become a convenient staging ground for larger ideological battles which in fact have little or nothing to do with the exegesis of the chapter itself. My goal in this study is to try to move past some of the noise of those battles—which, I am convinced, have had a distorting effect upon the text by imposing their own interests onto it—in order to hear afresh what the vision would have meant both to the seer himself and to the seven churches which he addressed.
The history of debate around the subject of the millennium is a classic example of the misguided tendency to try to find a complete theology represented in a single chapter. My contention is that the preoccupation of most interpreters with the goal of finding a synthesized eschatological timeline (whether premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial) has only served to obscure the specific function which the passage holds in relation to the rest of John’s vision, which is something much more powerful and challenging than any timeline. I will argue that Revelation 20 must be read in the context of the struggling churches which comprised its original audience, and I will seek to demonstrate that for John and his first-century audience these verses promised the imminent, preliminary vindication of those who followed the Lamb unto death in resistance against the idolatrous and oppressive ideology of the Roman Empire.
Before engaging directly with the text, however, we must first address an underlying issue of hermeneutics. The way we read any text is defined to a large extent by the assumptions we make about it. We don’t read a love song or a poem the same way that we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So how should we read the book of Revelation? Is it mostly a literal description of history written in advance, a symbolic perspective on the battle between God and Satan throughout history, or something else?
In one of the most important studies on the subject in recent years, Vern Poythress has argued that a proper reading of Revelation must distinguish between at least four different levels of communication: (1) the linguistic level, consisting in what John wrote and thus involving his own interpretive perspective and authorial creativity; (2) the visionary level, consisting in what John experienced when he was “in the Spirit”; (3) the referential level, consisting in the actual historical realities that the various images speak of; and (4) the symbolical level, consisting in how the visionary images speak of reality and what meaning they give to it by describing it in the ways that they do. Thus, when we read the text of Revelation 5:5-8, for instance, we must distinguish between what John wrote (the interpretive description of his vision with its many echoes of the OT), what John saw (a slaughtered yet living lamb, with seven horns and seven eyes, standing on the throne), what that refers to (the crucified and risen Jesus exalted to God’s right hand), and what significance the imagery lends to its referent (that the cross of Christ is central to the advancement of God’s eschatological purposes).
Recognizing the presence of these four distinct levels of communication throughout John’s vision is imperative for understanding its meaning. Much confusion over the symbolism of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature stems from a more basic confusion over different types of “meaning” (Caird 37-61). When interpreters talk about the meaning of an apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely distinguish between “meaning” in terms of (1) intention, “meaning” in terms of (2) experience, “meaning” in terms of (3) referent, and “meaning” in terms of (4) significance. Of course, it’s simple enough to recognize those various levels with a text like Revelation 5:5-8, as we saw above, but it’s easy to forget when dealing with many other images throughout Revelation, not least the notorious thousand-year reign of 20:1-6.
When it comes to the millennium, futurists regularly collapse the second and fourth levels (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal, premillennial incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance (Poythress 44-5). But if the genre of Revelation tells us anything, it is that John is less interested in giving reportorial precision on historical reality than he is in giving a heavenly perspective on its significance.
On the other hand, however, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth level (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image, like the “beast” of 13:1-8, as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent. To this we must say, along with George Caird, that the “failure to identify the referent is bound to diminish our understanding of the sense, which is then left hanging in the air” (55).
But how do we identify the referent? By what guiding principle should our interpretations be anchored? Here is where the great appeal of futurism lies, for it gives the simplest answer to this question. Influenced by the wider modernist reaction to the allegorical excesses of medieval exegesis, futurists generally default to interpreting Revelation’s imagery in a more or less literal way. This “literal if possible” hermeneutic is made explicit by Robert L. Thomas, who says that the only approach that is “fair and consistent” is to assume that the images of Revelation “have a literal meaning unless otherwise indicated in the text” (35-7).
The underlying assumption behind the literalist argument is that if we allow the language of Scripture to be interpreted non-literally we will then lose all hope of ever getting at its true historical meaning, because we can make it mean virtually whatever we want it to. This assumption is expressed, to varying degrees, even by many non-dispensational premillennialists. Thus Jack Deere, when considering various amillennial interpretations of Revelation 20:4-6, dismisses the idea of a symbolic resurrection with the assertion that “they use an allegorical technique which produces interpretations that are diverse and limited only by one’s fantasy” (Deere 66).
Granted, this fear is justified to some degree by the ahistorical way that many have interpreted the symbolism of prophecy throughout the history of the church (Clouse 117-41). But the literalist method is in fact an extremely ironic stance to take, for it often keeps interpreters from reading biblical prophecy in the way that it asks to be read, grammatically and historically. Like American tourists looking for fast-food fries in France, modern readers often come to the book of Revelation with an entirely wrong idea of what to expect in a piece of literature calling itself an apocalypse. Interpreting Revelation, or any literature from a culture other than our own, takes great care and is always a matter of delicate subtlety.
But if we are sensitive to the text, we must admit that it contains many symbolic expressions that are never clearly explained as such. John never clearly indicates that the “lamb” is not an actual sheep, for instance, or that the “beast” is not an actual monster. But despite our modern predisposition towards literal interpretation, we all understand these expressions to represent something other than the images used to convey them. Why? Because they are obvious to us. But given the fact that these examples already force us to make exceptions to the rule of the literalist method, what basis do we have for insisting that there aren’t other instances of unexplained symbols in Revelation? In tested practice, the principle of “literal if possible” turns out to be an extremely blunt instrument which inevitably fulfills its own fears of subjectivity.
The biggest problem plaguing most popular interpretations of the book of Revelation is that they are not nearly as interested in understanding what the text means in its original historical context as they are in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. While most futurist interpreters assume that the meaning of Revelation will become clearer as the end times approach, generally with the implication we are now at the beginning of that period, the text itself is addressed to seven churches in first-century Asia Minor and intends to speak openly to their contemporary situation (Kraybill 26). Thus, the primary concern of the interpreter should be centered on the authorial intent and the public meaning which the imagery would have carried in the period in which it was given. The true interpretation is not necessarily the one which carries the most perceived value or spiritual application in the twenty-first century, but rather the one which best explains the text as it would have been understood by its original audience. It is the historical method, not the literalist method, that provides the guiding principle to which our interpretations must be anchored.
Two observations follow immediately from this approach. First, there is now a widespread agreement amongst scholars that the “beast from of the sea” refers to the Roman Empire, and that the “beast from the land” (also called the “false prophet”) refers to the religion of the Emperor which thrived throughout the cities of Asia Minor (McKelvey 67-8). The main issue at stake was whether John’s audience would continue to worship the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, or succumb instead to the mounting pressure and bow the knee to Caesar (Kraybill 23). If they refused to participate in the Caesar Cult then they would have to face the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, and perhaps even death (cf., 2:10, 13). Thus John writes in order to comfort and admonish them to stand strong in the face of this great pressure and to persevere through the coming “hour of trial” which he sees by the Spirit just over the horizon.
Second, once we recognize the contemporary situation of John’s audience, we can easily understand why the crisis envisioned throughout the book is repeatedly qualified as being “near” and “at hand”. We should not understand such statements in the weak and indefinite sense suggested by a doctrine of perpetual imminence, but in the very real historical sense that the original audience would have undoubtedly understood them. In 22:10 John is told not to seal the words of the vision which he received, because “the time is at hand”. This phrase forms an inclusio with the introduction, where John’s audience is told to keep the words of the prophecy “for the time is at hand” (1:3). On top of this, the phrase “do not seal the words” is an ironic allusion to Daniel 8 and 12, where the prophet Daniel is told to “seal up” the words of his own visions and “go your way” because they refer to a time “many days in the future”, i.e. beyond Daniel’s own generation (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9, 13). The explicit point in Revelation 22:10 is therefore the exact opposite: unlike Daniel, John is told not to “seal up” the words of his prophecy, because they refer a great ordeal coming upon his own generation.
All of this context is necessary for an appropriate understanding of the millennium. Now that the ground has been cleared, we are ready to discuss the text of Revelation 20 and its place within the literary narrative of John’s vision. The proof of the reading for which I will argue in the next post will be how well it adheres to the principles discussed above.
Caird, G. B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, 1980.
Clouse, Robert G. The Meaning of the Millennium. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977.
Deere, Jack S. “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6.” Bsac 135 (1978) 58-73.
Grenz, Stanley J. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out the Evangelical Options. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.
McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.
Poythress, Vern S. “Genre and Hermeneutics in Revelation 20:1-6.” JETS 36 (1993): 41-54. Print.
Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.