A Millennial Reign, but How?
We are days away from the year 2000. The arrival of a new millennium arouses expectations with many people. If by that time the return of Christ has not yet taken place, also Christians will step across the line. With these words we are already indicating something very essential about our expectation of the future. We await the coming of Christ in glory. It is good that we are looking forward to that future. For this expectation of the future is based on the promises and prophecies of the Lord our God.
Unfortunately, this expectation of the future divides Christians, because the promises and prophecies are explained in different ways. The differences centre especially around the expectation of a millennial reign of which Holy Scripture speaks in Revelation 20. Many people connect this to a new future of national and spiritual restoration for the people of Israel. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 has added new impulses to these expectations. As another century comes to a close, and the year 2000 dawns, the question once again comes to the fore: What will the new millennium bring? Can we look forward to the millennial reign of Christ in the near future?
It is my intention with this article to discuss several ideas that are prominent particularly in American evangelical circles – though not only there – with regard to the millennial reign. Then I hope to look in the Scriptures, especially in Revelation 20, to see what the Lord reveals to us about “what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). Within the framework of this article, I will have to leave out many things, and will only be able to briefly refer to other studies. The key question is whether there will be a period within this New Testament dispensation (that is to say, toward the end of this dispensation, just before Christ’s return) in which the promises to Israel will be realized. On the basis of Scripture, we all believe there is a millennial reign. The questions are: What does it look like, and, what can we expect from it?
According to the postmillennial position, the present dispensation will gradually lead into the millennial reign. An increasing number of people, both Jews and Gentiles, will give heed to the proclamation of the gospel and will put their faith in Christ. During the millennium the gospel will have a dominating impact on the nations of this world and on the lives of individual believers. After the millennium Christ will return and the end will come.
Various objections could be brought forward against this position. I restrict myself to two of them.
In the first place, this notion finds no support in Revelation 20. This Scripture passage does not describe some future golden age on earth toward the end of the present dispensation. Rather, as we will see shortly, this passage speaks of the reign of the souls of the believers with Christ in heaven during the entire new dispensation.
In the second place, Scripture shows us that until Christ’s return there will be a continuous struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. That tension will be there throughout history, until the end, when the great war will be waged, that of Armageddon (Revelation 16:13-16) and of Gog and Magog (Revelation 20:7-9). The idea that toward the end of history evil will be reduced to negligible proportions does not do justice to the reality of the struggle, and it creates an idealist expectation of the future that cannot be maintained in the light of Scripture.
Premillennialism argues that the return of Christ will take place before the millennium. The church will go through the great tribulation. When Christ returns the dead believers will be raised, and the living will be taken up with them on the clouds and will meet the Lord in the air. They will accompany Christ as He returns to earth.
The great majority of the Jews will then accept Jesus as their Messiah and will be saved. That will be the beginning of the thousand-year reign. Christ will then visibly rule over the entire world, together with his redeemed people, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. This millennium does not mean the end. There will still be sin and death during this period, even though evil will be pushed back to the far edges of society.
Satan will be bound during the thousand-year reign of Christ, but will be released toward the end in order to once again deceive the nations. He will gather them for the battle of Gog and Magog. Fire, however, will come down from heaven and put this revolt to an end. When the millennial reign has ended, the unbelievers will be raised from the dead, and the last judgment will take place.
We will soon come to an evaluation of these views in the light of Revelation 20. Now already I want to comment that the idea that the glorified Christ and the glorified believers will return to an earth where there will still be sin and death is a strange notion. Scripture teaches us differently! Christ will return in glory, and the believers will be raised to live in a situation where death and sin will have disappeared forever and where the tears will be wiped from their eyes (Revelation 21:1-4).
Dispensationalism is a shoot from the root of premillennialism. Dispensationalism has its origins in John Nelson Darby (1800-82). He and his followers, known as Darbyists or Plymouth Brethren, speak of three dispensations: the dispensation of Israel, that of the church (a parenthesis, an insertion between the first and the third dispensation), and that of the kingdom, in which the promises made to Israel will be fulfilled.
Dispensationalism gained prominence when the Scofield Reference Bible was published in the United States in 1909. This Bible assumes seven dispensations, in which man is put to the test with regard to his obedience to God. Also in this scheme of things, the church is a parenthesis, an inserted dispensation. In 1967, the New Scofield Reference Bible was published, in which the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible were revised in response to criticism. Around the same time, Charles C. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today (1965) was published, a book which for a long period would be a standard publication in these circles.
Characteristic features of dispensationalism are the literal explanation of biblical prophecy and the separation between Israel and the church. 1 With respect to the latter notion, the idea is that Christ, when He was still on earth, offered the kingdom of heaven to the Jews of his days. This kingdom was an earthly rule over Israel in which the Old Testament prophecies would be fulfilled. The Jews, however, rejected this kingdom. Its definitive establishment was therefore postponed to the time of the millennium. In the meantime, the visible church arose as the “mystery form” of the kingdom.
At the present time, Christ gathers his church from all nations, Jews as well as Gentiles, until He returns. This return will take place in two stages. In the first stage, the rapture of the congregation will take place. This rapture of the congregation to Christ can take place at any time. At the same time, the resurrection of the true believers will take place. These will then be taken up, together with the believers who are still alive at that time, to meet the Lord in the air. Then the church will go to heaven for seven years to celebrate with Christ the marriage feast of the Lamb.
During these seven years, which are related to the 70th “seven” in the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27), the great tribulation will take place. During this period, impressive events will take place, such as the reign of the Antichrist. But also a remnant of Israel will be converted to Jesus as her Messiah, and this remnant will proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. The result will be the salvation of a great multitude from the Gentiles. After this, however, the nations will be gathered together for the great war, the battle of Armageddon.
At the end of this seven-year period, Christ will return in glory, accompanied by his church. The people of Israel will then be gathered together again in Palestine, and the large majority of the Israelites will accept Christ as the Messiah. In this way the biblical prophecies will be fulfilled. Satan will be bound and thrown into the abyss for a thousand years. Believers who died during the seven years will now be raised to life (Revelation 20:4).
At this point, Christ will begin his millennial reign. He ascends the throne in Jerusalem, and from there will rule the world during a time of incredible prosperity and peace. In the rebuilt temple of Jerusalem, sacrifices will be offered up again. They will not be sin offerings but sacrifices in remembrance of the death of Christ.
Toward the end of this millennium, some of the believers’ children will revolt against Christ. Those who are only nominal Christians will be gathered together by Satan for the last great revolution, which will be put down by Christ. Before the end of the millennium all the believers who died during the thousand-year reign will be raised from the dead. After the end of the millennial reign all the unbelievers will be raised up, and the last judgment will take place. This will be the close of the age.
Serious scriptural objections can be brought against this scheme of things. In the first place, it is not biblical that there are seven periods in which people are put to the test with regard to their obedience to God. The idea is put forward that whenever people do not pass the test, God has to start over again. Only once, however, in paradise, has man been put to the test. Since the fall into sin there is salvation only by grace. God immediately placed this perspective before mankind in the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). This redemption is the central theme in the entire history of revelation from Genesis to Revelation. There are two different dispensations, the Old and the New Testaments, but both proclaim redemption in Christ. There are differences in administration between the Old and the New Testaments, but it is one covenant of grace.2
It is also wrong to consider the church as an in-between dispensation. The promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) is fulfilled in the congregation of Christ, which is being gathered from Jews and Gentiles. The New Testament shows clearly that from the beginning God had this congregation in mind. 3 By creating a different future for Israel, separate from the church, one turns back the clock of redemptive history to the Old Testament.
The dispensationalist method of interpreting biblical prophecies, and the way in which it relates these to the millennium as a Jewish affair, would require a separate critical evaluation. This method of exegesis is far removed from Calvin’s reading of the prophecies. In Calvin, the salvation promised in the Old Testament prophecies receives the following progressive unfolding:
the return from exile;
the coming of the Messiah and the addition of the nations to the dispensation of Easter;
the final kingdom of peace of the Messiah in the new heaven and on the new earth.
Here there is no trace of a restoration of Israel in the Jewish land.4
Developments in Dispensationalism
It would not be right to end this part of our discussion without paying attention to developments within dispensationalism in which earlier points of view are being corrected. In 1992 a remarkable book was published entitled Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church. 5
This book shows that the distinction between Israel and the church is retained (compare the title of the book). But this distinction no longer functions in the same way as before. The church is no longer seen as a parenthesis, an insertion into God’s plan of redemption which has become necessary because the Jews rejected their salvation. The book underlines the importance of the church which is not an afterthought of God but a stage in God’s plan with his people.
To describe this new position, a new expression has been coined: progressive dispensationalism. This phrase indicates that there is progression in the various stages of salvation. In all stages of history, Christ is present with his salvation: in the period of the church, of the millennium, and of the close of the age. But there is progression! The period of the church is regarded as the bronze age, the period of the millennium as the silver age, and with the close of the age, the golden age will arrive.
A positive point in this new position is that the notions of a postponed kingdom and of the church as an afterthought has been abandoned. Both notions are clearly in conflict with Scripture. That such a position is untenable becomes clear when we imagine what would have happened if the Jews had accepted the kingdom that had been “offered” to them. Theoretically at least, the cross of Golgotha might not have been necessary for redemption. Another positive point in this re-evaluation is the Christocentric approach. In the various dispensations, God’s plan of redemption is progressively unfolded: from less to more!
This new dispensationalist approach is attractive to Reformed people. Nonetheless, big questions remain. Distinctions are still made between various kinds of salvation. The salvation which God gives in the church is of a different order than the salvation which is realized in the millennium. The former is spiritual, the latter national/political; and the former is less (“bronze”) than the latter (“silver”).
The idea of the church as a parenthesis (insertion) has been abandoned. In its place, however, the idea of a thousand-year reign appears as a stage inserted between the church and the close of the age. There is no straight line from the church to the close of the age.
This is dispensationalism’s Achilles’ heel, which is still there in this progressive dispensationalism: Between the period of the church and the close of the age another period is inserted in which the salvation is of a different nature. This salvation is of a different nature because it has national/political dimensions in the state of Israel and among the people of the Jews.
This is certainly not progression! It is a relapse into the Old Testament. It means a denial of the biblical message that nation, cult, and priesthood of the old covenant have been fulfilled in Christ (see the theme of the letter to the Hebrews). This approach is far removed from the progression of salvation as sketched by Calvin who drew a straight line from Israel in the Old Testament to the church of the new dispensation, and from there to the close of the age in the new heaven and on the new earth.
A Millennial Reign, but How?
The question still remains how we should explain Revelation 20. Unfortunately, the book, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, does not contain a detailed exegesis of this chapter. In this article we have looked at various views on the millennium. What is the Reformed position on this? To distinguish it from postmillennialism and premillennialism, it is often called amillennialism, which literally means: no millennial reign.
It is certainly true that Reformed people do not believe in a thousand-year reign as it is propagated by post- and premillennialists. This does not mean, however, that they deny the millennium. Also our Bibles contain Revelation 20. It is better, therefore, not to use the term “amillennialism” to describe the Reformed position. We would do better to take over Jay E. Adams’s suggestion and speak of “realized millennialism.”6Then the positions become more clear: Over against post- and premillennialists, who expect a millennial reign in the future, we believe that this kingdom is already realized at the present time.
The exegesis of Revelation 20, about which I will finally make a few comments, is tied in with the place of this chapter within the whole of the book of Revelation. 7 Several times, this book traces the entire history of the church of Christ, from its beginning to the end. This history is viewed each time from a different perspective.
Chapter 19:11-21 pictures the triumphal return of Christ as the rider on the white horse. His coming introduces the last great war against the beast and the false prophet, who are captured and thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This brings the end of history. Revelation 20:7-10 runs parallel to Revelation 19:19-21. Note the expression “war” or “battle,” which occurs in both passages. This concerns the (great, definitive, decisive) battle at the end of history.
This means that the events of Revelation 20:1-6 do not chronologically follow after Revelation 19:11-21. Of course, there are connections between both passages. It is best to regard Revelation 20:1-6 as an overview of the entire history of the New Testament church from the beginning and from the perspective of the triumph of Christ, described at the end of the previous chapter. It is a triumph which is hidden from the human eye. After all, the history of the church is one of oppression, of blood and tears. But Christ is victorious!
The verses 1-3 describe the binding of Satan. He is thrown into the abyss. Earlier, in Revelation 12:9, we read that Satan was hurled to the earth. But apparently there is progression in the history of redemption! Satan now gets hurled from the earth into the abyss, a bottomless pit, which is the temporary abode for the devil and his evil spirits (cf. the same word “abyss” in Revelation 9:1, 11).
Satan remains bound for a thousand years. The number 1,000 should not be taken literally. In this book God makes known the future to John by means of signs or symbols (see 1:1). Also the number 1,000 has a symbolic meaning. 1,000 is ten (the number of perfection) to the third power. It is the indication that Christ’s rule covers a perfect period.
The binding of Satan shows the superiority of Christ over Satan. 8 That is clear also from verse 3 where it says that Satan is bound to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore. During the thousand years of Christ’s reign, Satan cannot prevent that the gospel goes into the world of the nations, and during that period he is unable to gather Christ’s enemies for the attack against the church.
The verses 4-6 describe the same period as the vv. 1-3, as can be seen in the occurrence of the expression “the thousand years” in both passages. Where are the thrones? Of the 47 times that the word “throne” appears in Revelation, all but three refer to a throne in heaven. Add to this the fact that John sees (not the bodies, but) the souls of those who have been beheaded, and it becomes clear that this vision transfers us to heaven.
At this point we arrive at the crucial sentence, “They lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” These are the words to which the adherents of a millennial reign appeal for their doctrine of the bodily resurrection. In their view there is a two-fold resurrection, one at the beginning of the millennium and one at Christ’s return, which then also means the close of the age.
The Greek word ezèsan (and they lived) can indeed refer to a bodily resurrection; nevertheless, this meaning is not very likely, because the resurrection of the dead is mentioned later on in this chapter (Revelation 20:11-13). Therefore, verse 4 must speak of something else than a bodily resurrection. We will have to think of the situation in which the believers, who died for Christ, live in heaven and rule with him during these thousand years.9 Here the triumph of Christ, hidden until now, is revealed.
In verse 5 we read, “The rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were ended.” This refers to what happens – or does not happen – with the unbelievers after their death. They do not share in life in heaven with Christ during the thousand years of his rule. This does not mean that they will come to life afterward.10 Later on in this chapter we read what happens with those other dead, after the thousand years have been completed. They come into the grip of the second death, and at the resurrection in the last judgment, they are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur. It does not become better, but worse for them!
“This is the first resurrection,” says John. The word “resurrection” is rather unusual for the life of the believers in heaven. But considering the situation, it is not strange. Here on earth, the believers die as martyrs. But in heaven, those who have been killed here appear to live. Although the expression “second resurrection” is not used in Revelation 20, we may regard the bodily resurrection of these believers as the continuation and crowning of their first resurrection, the life of the souls in heaven.
Those who also after death may live and reign with Christ in heaven are congratulated. For the second death has no power over them. The second death is the eternal punishment, according to the conclusion of this chapter. This confirms us in the opinion that the “first resurrection” is not a bodily resurrection. For those who share in the bodily resurrection live in a glorified situation in which there will be no more death (Revelation 21:4). Then it would not be necessary to say that the second death has no power over those people.
From the above, the conclusion may be drawn that the premillennial explanation of Revelation 20 has no basis. There simply is no earthly rule of Christ during a millennium which precedes the close of the age. Much less is there a kingdom in which Israel plays a central role. Revelation 20 does not say a word about this.11
This does not mean that our expectation of the future is less real. On the contrary! We may know that also in our time, as the attacks on the church and the gospel are becoming increasingly sharp, the government remains in the hands of Christ, until the thousand years have been completed. We may know that at their death believers go directly to heaven and there will be seated on thrones. We may know that at one point everything will be fulfilled in a new heaven and a new earth. That comfort allows us to enter a new millennium in the year 2000 looking forward to the return of Christ.