Now for the answer to the question of where in the Apocalypse preterism gives way to futurism. For me the most plausible cutoff point is chapter twenty. Several factors lead me to this conclusion. First, there is the structure of the book of Revelation. The first three chapters are the prologue or introduction, and the judgments begin in 4:1. From this point through the end of chapter nineteen the focus is upon God’s judgments against the two satanically energized first-century enemies of the bond-servants of Jesus. Apostate Judaism is dealt a death blow culminating with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (chs. 4-11), and then Rome is the focus of God’s wrath for the next eight chapters (12-19).
By the end of chapter 19 the Apocalypse is technically over. The fourth kingdom of Daniel’s visions has been crushed to dust by the fifth and final empire–the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The beast and false prophet are gone forever, having been cast into the lake of fire. Jesus and his saints are now going forth in battle equipped with the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. In a real sense it was the gospel that ultimately conquered Rome.
The final three chapters form the epilogue or conclusion and answer the question: Now what? With the preterist portion of the book of Revelation complete it is time to conclude with a broad sweep into the future. 20:1 is the natural place to begin. If this is the correct approach it means the so-called millennium does not follow the return of Christ (premillennialism), but rather precedes it (amillennialism and postmillennialism). I will be presenting the classic amillennial position here because it is the view I hold. But before I do, a word of caution. This is the only place in the entire Bible where a 1,000 year reign of Christ is mentioned; therefore we must be humble and gracious in our convictions.
The chapter begins with the binding of Satan. One key detail is that Satan is not cast into the lake of fire with the beast and false prophet–that must wait until the end of the 1,000 years (v. 10). Instead he is thrown into the abyss. This tells us that the binding is neither total nor permanent. He is said to be bound with a chain, but surely this must be a figurative expression, since a spirit being cannot be restrained with an iron chain. Further, the text tells us that Satan is bound with respect to one sphere of activity: that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while (v. 3). The word nations (Greek ethne) can also be translated gentiles. In Old Testament times the covenants and promises were restricted to a small ethnic group, and the nations walked in darkness. But in the present age the gospel goes forth to people of every nation. In fact the Great Commission commands us to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20). And Acts 1:8 predicted that the gospel witness would start in Jerusalem and spread outward to all Judea and Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the world.
Premillennialists object with verses warning us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) and that the whole world is under his power (1 John 5:19). In light of these verses is it not laughable to suggest that Satan is presently bound? Well, let’s look at the words of Christ in Matthew 12:28-29 in response to that question: But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.
Here the same Greek verb for binding is employed as in Revelation 20:2. Obviously the Lord is not saying that He has totally incapacitated the devil. The reference is to a partial binding. When we compare this Matthew passage with other statements about Satan being dealt a decisive defeat by the ministry of Christ (Luke 10:17-18; John 12:31-32), it is no stretch to think of Satan being bound so as to no longer deceive the nations as he did before the coming of Christ.
Satan is said to be bound for 1,000 years, a long and complete period of time which I believe refers to the present church age. At this time Satan is restricted from deceiving the nations as he did in the Old Testament, but at the end of the age he will be unbound and allowed to go on one brief and final rampage. After my exposition of Revelation 20 I will flesh out my basic eschatalogical framework with material from some other biblical passages. For now let’s just leave it at this: Revelation 20:2-3 describes a partial temporary binding of Satan with respect to his ability to restrict the gospel from going forth to the gentile nations.
Verse four is debated as to whom it depicts, but my view is that there are three classes of believers identified here. First there are those seated on thrones, which hearkens back to the various appearances in Revelation of the twenty four elders. These enthroned ones would describe believers generally–living and deceased–who are seated positionally in heaven and reigning with Christ (Ephesians 2:6). The second group is self explanatory: they are the souls of believers who were executed for their testimony. The third group might really be a more full description of the martyrs, but I am inclined to see them as believers who refused to worship the beast or receive his mark but somehow escaped martyrdom. At any rate what we see in this verse are two or three groups which encompass all believers. It is important to note also that the scene is not earth–a fact that is a real burr under the saddle of most dispys–but heaven. Disembodied souls are not earthly, and godly thrones in Revelation are always depicted as heavenly, whereas satanic thrones are earthly.
Of these believers it is said that they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years, and that the rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were completed. The living and reigning of the believers is called the first resurrection, which implies that the raising of the rest of the dead later is the second resurrection. In a nutshell: the first resurrection describes regeneration, or the new birth, which is depicted as a raising up in Christ (Ephesians 2:1, 5-6; Colossians 3:1). The second resurrection is a general bodily resurrection which accompanies the final general judgment.
Premillennialists argue that this rendering of the text is inconsistent because the verb live is the same in both cases. How can one resurrection be spiritual and the other physical? Wouldn’t consistency demand that they be either both spiritual or both physical? Not necessarily. In Revelation the expression the second death describes an eternal spiritual reality, and it also implies a first death, which we all know to be physical death. Apparently Jesus saw it this way too, for as John (same guy who wrote Revelation) records in his gospel, Jesus speaks of two deaths and two resurrections in the same context:
Most assuredly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted to the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:24-29).
In this text Jesus speaks of death and life in two different ways. In the first instance he is referring to spiritually dead sinners receiving spiritual life, and in the second instance he refers to physically dead sinners being physically raised unto judgment. So here in the Johanine passage we see the same two deaths and resurrections mentioned that are stated or implied in Revelation 20:4-6. The description is of believers reigning spiritually with Jesus during the 1,000 years (present age), followed by a general resurrection and judgment at the end of the age.
According to this interpretation there will be no future earthly Jewish Golden age, complete with restored Levitical sacrifices. The millennium is a present reality. The label amillennialism is really a misnomer because it literally means “no millennium.” A more accurate way to frame the issue would be realized versus unrealized millennialism. As to where the many Old Testament predictions of a future golden age fit into the puzzle let it just be said that the dispensational dumping ground of Revelation 20 is the wrong place. More on this later.
At the end of the thousand years Satan is turned loose to mount a final rebellion against God. He is defeated and cast into the lake of fire. Here is where I would place the second coming of Christ, even though it is not specifically mentioned in the text. Following the Lord’s return there will be a single general resurrection and judgment. Unbelievers will spend eternity in the lake of fire, and believers will enter the new heavens and earth. You can see that this scheme is much simpler than the bewildering maze of multiple resurrections and judgments through which the dispensationalist must grope his way.
In the next post I will flesh out this basic framework with information gleaned from a few other key end-times texts and details of Revelation 20 not covered here. Hold on to your hat because if I have been boring you thus far, things are about to get interesting.