revelation & rethinking the millennium

One understanding of Revelation, including the Millennium (20:1-6). Simple, wouldn't you agree?

Surely one of the most controversial and debated sections of Scripture is that of the Millennium in Revelation 20:1-6. Different perspectives in the Church today argue adamantly for their understanding of the Millennium despite the relative unimportance and narrative space given to it by Revelation’s author. Nonetheless this argument is in many ways representative of the larger debate regarding eschatology and how to interpret the Bible, thus it is crucial in terms of the practice of the Church in the twenty-first century world.

So, ignoring some of the more speculative elements of the Millennium, my question is what do we make of this thousand year period described in the last biblical book? Is it in fact a literal time period, or a symbolic one?

Years before he outlined his premillennial position in the fiction hit Left Behind,[1] Tim LaHaye claimed that it is “sincere Bible students who believe the Bible to be the Word of God,” who accept that there will be a future kingdom age during which Christ will rule the earth, and that this reign will last one thousand years as the Bible claims.[2] Other premillenial writers have argued that one’s interpretation of the Millennium in Revelation 20 is a watershed for various approaches to prophetic Scripture.[3] The problem with such views is they betray an oversimplified methodology of biblical interpretation, that is, that interpreting Scripture should be done literalistically. Indeed, this is reflected in Walvoord’s claim that all liberals are amillennialists.[4]

It would seem then that one’s interpretation of the Millennium rests upon one’s methodology for biblical interpretation. While the question of biblical interpretive method is outside the scope of this post, it is suffice to say that our endeavour must be to understand the original meaning of the text. What, then, might be the understanding of the original audience of the Revelation text in regards to the Millennium?

John’s use of a period of time to describe a messianic reign before the last judgment and the new creation is not unique; indeed 4 Ezra 7:28[5] claims the Messiah will reign for four hundred years with the righteous on earth, after which comes the resurrection and final judgment.

Similarly 1 Enoch 91:12-17 claims that after seven of the ten weeks of years are past, the eighth will be a period of righteousness, the ninth a period marked for destruction, and in the tenth the angels are judged.[6]

The fact that these and other examples vary in their use of numbers ought to make one question the use of such content. Why use such numbers? In truth the number one thousand is never used literally in Scripture; Psalm 50:10 for example depicts God owning all cattle, said to be on “a thousand hills”, whereas Psalm 90:2-4 claims that God, who is everlasting to everlasting, views a thousand years as nothing. These uses of one thousand seem to designate completeness, or totality. John himself depicts 144,000 in Revelation 7 as a symbolic sum representing the quantitative perfection of saints.[7] Wall wisely asserts that “John has consistently employed the numbers and dates of God’s reign for theological purposes,” and thus we should not assume the thousand years are chronological years.[8]

In short, the numbers are theological symbols, and do not refer to actual numerical values.

Three points so far should lead us to logically conclude that John’s use of ‘one thousand years’ in Revelation 20, what we have subsequently dubbed ‘the Millennium’, is symbolic:

1) John’s use of what seems to be an already-existing tradition of depicting a messianic kingdom prior to the final resurrection and judgment (reflected in 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch above);
2) the varying numbers used by different expressions of this tradition in designating a length of time to this period (such as in 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch above);
3) John and the rest of Scripture’s use of one thousand as a non-literal quantity signifying completeness.

These points place the correct interpretation of the number one thousand in this case squarely in the court of amillennial scholars, or if not definitely in the court of those who do not view it literally.

Traditional amillennialism, however, is far from being able to explain the Millennium in relation to the whole of the book of Revelation. The idea that the Millennium refers to the church age between Christ’s appearances on earth must include the belief that Satan is bound during this time (20:2); this however is inconsistent with John’s previous chapters about the beasts who apparently have victory over the saints (e.g. 13:1-18). We must ask how the Millennium functions within John’s narrative in order to properly determine its meaning.

One noticeable effect of the Millennium is to separate one aspect of last judgment (20:4) from the last judgment itself (20:11-13).[9] It is obvious that these judgments derive from Daniel 7, which concerns the beast’s destruction and the transference of his kingdom to the Son of Man and his people.[10] If the destruction of the beast occurs in Revelation 19:11-21 then the transfer of his kingdom to the saints may be what the Millennium signifies. In this way the Millennium acts as a contrast to the earlier “victory” of the beast throughout Revelation representing the true victory of the saints (a similar but non-millennial equivalent is Daniel 7:17-18).

The kingdom of the Son of Man depicted in Daniel 7, which will not pass away, is symbolised then by the thousand years in Revelation’s story. In other words, the kingdom of the Son of Man is complete.

The purpose of the Millennium in relation to Revelation, though, should be consistent with the purpose of the book as a whole, that is, to call the church to persevere in the midst of social pressure and alienation.[11] Following this the Millennium functions to demonstrate the eventual victory of the saints which will vindicate them in their suffering under the beast. Moreover their reign will be ever more complete than the beast – a thousand years. In this sense ‘one thousand’ is not a numerical value, but rather a theological symbol.

While John has borrowed from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition the idea of a temporary messianic reign prior to final resurrection and judgment, he converts it into a specific concept of the victory of the saints/martyrs.[12] Bauckham notes one problem with taking the Millennium to depict any form of time period; it raises questions which John does not answer because they are irrelevant to his function.[13]

In summary the Millennium is not a literal time period. In fact, in fitting with John’s function for ‘a thousand years,’ the Millennium is not a time period at all. The Millennium depicts the meaning and not the manner or duration of the vindication of the saints in Revelation.[14] It does not describe a historical kingdom, but rather exclaims that eschatological expectations will be fulfilled.[15]

So which is correct – Premillennial, Amillennial, or Postmillennial??? (for all you Bible nerds out there…)

None of the above. Based on what I have said I conclude atemporal amillenniallism – the Millennium does not refer to either a literal or symbolic time period – it is not a time period at all.

MCA

[1] Tim LaHaye & Jerry B Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel Of The Earth’s Last Days, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), 225.
[2] Tim LaHaye, Revelation: Illustrated And Made Plain, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 285.
[3] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1983), 978.
[4] Quoted in LaHaye, Revelation, 290. To be fair he does not say that all amillennialists are liberals.
[5] Written around the time of Revelation.
[6] Raymond Brown, An Introduction To The New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 800-801.
[7] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. in Stanley N. Gundry (ed.), Four Views On The Book Of Revelation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 82. 144,000 = 12 (righteous remnant, Rev. 21:12-14) x 12 x 1000 (completeness). Richard Bauckham, The Climax Of Prophecy, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 55. Grant R. Osborne, BECNT: Revelation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 310-312. It would seem that the multiplication of the number of the saints (12×12) by 1000 represents the completeness of the number of the saints as mentioned in 6:11.
[8] Robert W. Wall, NIBC: Revelation, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 234.
[9] Richard Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 106.
[10] Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, 106-107.
[11] Osborne, Revelation, 11-12. Of course the question of Revelation’s purpose is far more complicated, but for my purpose this summary is adequate.
[12] Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, 108. Also Stephen S. Smalley, Thunder And Love, (Milton Keynes: Nelson Word, 1994), 79 briefly notes that the thousand years points to vindication.
[13] Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, 108. Questions such as “whom do the saints rule? Do they rule from heaven or on earth? How is the eschatological life of resurrection compatible with an unrenewed earth? Who are the nations Satan deceives at the end of the Millennium? And so on.” R. Alastair Campbell, “Triumph And Delay: The Interpretation Of Revelation 19:11-20:10,” Evangelical Quarterly 80/1 (2008): 9-12 agrees with Bauckham’s comment but peculiarly continues to interpret the Millennium as a temporal period (see p.10).
[14] Bauckham, The Theology Of The Book Of Revelation, 108.
[15] Brown, An Introduction To The New Testament, 801.
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Posted on August 1, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Eschatology, Hermeneutics, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great, Matt. Thanks for that.
    One of the great warning signs of religious groups who have lost their way has always seemed to me to be that they take passages from Revelations too literally and base too much of their theology on it.
    What you have said makes good sense and fits with my understanding of the rest of scripture. So I’m quite indebted to you for doing that bit of thinking and putting it so succinctly and clearly.

    Thanks!

  2. Excellent, simply Excellent.

  3. Well written Matt. I am yet to study Revelation within any great detail, though I’m reading Fee’s book on it at the moment. Till now I have always considered myself a panmillenialist…in that it will all pan out in the long term.

    2 areas have concerned me about current depictions of Revelation is the amount of fear surrounding it and the theology of escapism that also accompanies it.

  4. Again though Matt, can you explain that simply? Would the vast majority of the world’s Christians throughout history, illiterate and uneducated, be able to comprehend and be convince of your case. Is God’s word really that inaccessible? How can a pastor persuade his/her people of this and equip them to confound premillenialism?

    • Hi Ben,

      To answer your first question in short, not really. The Bible is, in my view, a very difficult book given that it is so old. People often argue that the Bible is simple, and that complicated interpretations are somehow bad, but I disagree with this sentiment. I think such claims try to idealise the reality and minimise the amount of hard work that is required to undertand a text from a different time, place, culture etc.

      You are right that the vast majority of Christians would probably not be able to understand my case. But, like the Bible, I am not writing directly to the vast majority of Christians, but rather to those in a certain culture who hold a particular understanding of things. For those outside of this target audience, including those majority illiterate Christians, hard work is required to understand what I am saying in my time, place, culture etc.

      Most such people understand the Bible differently to 20th/21st century Westerners, and do not necessarily need to hear what I am saying. Many of them will allow the narrative to guide their lives, rather than focusing on one tiny portion (The Millennium) and allowing it to control everything else.

      Is the Bible inaccessible? No, but let’s not oversimplify things, as if the Bible is either accessible or inaccessible; there are many shades of grey in between. For most of the Bible people will be able to access things if they have ears to hear. The cultural and historical distance between contemporary Christians and the authors and original recipients is, however, large enough that some things are in fact inaccessible without help.

      It is worth keeping in mind that unless “experts” were allowed to interpret the text we would have no English translations, and thus the Bible would be inaccessible for the vast majority of Christians who cannot read Hebrew (like me) or Greek. At its purest level the Bible is quite inaccessible.

      A pastor will rarely be able to make a single persuasive argument for a particular perspective on most issues, let alone millennialism. It takes time, patience, relationship and love. Only with those things will he help his community live in a consistent understanding of the story of God.

      Hope that helps. Peace,

      Matt

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