Revelation 20: A Thousand Years of Vindication A Thousand Years of Vindication
Of all of the apostle John’s visions on the Isle of Patmos, the one described in Revelation 20 is among the most difficult to understand. Where millenarianism (also known as ‘chiliasm’, the doctrine of the thousand-year kingdom of peace) draws on the New Testament, it bases itself largely on this chapter.
Reformed exegetes, for the most part, follow the interpretation of Augustine. In his view, the millennium began with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, has continued ever since, and will end when Christ returns.
Martyrs in Revelation
In this article, I will attempt to approach Revelation 20 from another perspective, one that the book itself holds out to us. For one blood-red thread runs throughout the Book of Revelation: God Himself acts on behalf of His innocent martyrs. The Almighty takes their side, and in the end, will publicly vindicate their cause. One of those is the otherwise unknown Antipas, who was put to death in Pergamum. He is described as ‘my faithful witness’ (literally: ‘my faithful one, my witness’ – ho martus mou, ho pistos mou) in ch 2:13.
John hears the martyred witnesses cry out for justice, for the avenging of their blood. And a voice from heaven assures them of divine vindication (ch 6:9-11; compare also ch 16:5-6). The woman Babylon personifies a society that will, if necessary, go over dead bodies. She is drunk with the blood of the prophets and the saints, the blood of all who have been killed on the earth (ch 17:6; 18:24).
But God will avenge the blood of his servants. He will provide justice, once and for all, for those who have been beheaded, or have met other violent ends because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God (ch 19:2; 20:4). They will be publicly vindicated!
From this perspective, Revelation can be read as a book about Christian martyrs, full of comfort. When John recorded his visions, the blood of relatively few martyrs had as yet been shed, at least on a global scale. Still, in this respect, the Book of Revelation has a prophetic character. Throughout all of history, it has remained extremely relevant.
The martyrs’ reign
Actually, Revelation 20 doesn’t really talk about a kingdom as such. It focuses on a thousand-year reign of the martyrs, together with the Messiah. Those who share the privilege of this shared dominion are, as verses 4 and 5 tell us, the martyrs who had been beheaded. In his vision, John sees them come back to life (just as Christ Himself died, and came to life again, ch 2:8b). They had been told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed (ch 6:11).
Chiliasm fleshes out an assumed ‘millennium’ with Old Testament prophecies about a kingdom of peace, prophecies that in reality fit much better with the New Jerusalem of ch 21 and 22. For in Chapter 20, there is no mention of Israel at all. A thousand years, a symbolic expression, points to a relatively long period. And that is in clear contrast to the ten days of oppression we read about in the letter to Smyrna (ch 2:10b). Unfortunately, this vision does not allow us to construct for ourselves some kind of calendar of the end times.
The martyrs’ vindication
This eschatological resurrection of the martyrs – their souls are given a body – appears to mean that they are to be vindicated (compare Daniel 7:22 in the Septuagint). In vss 5 and 6 this is referred to as ‘the first resurrection’, some kind of resurrection-in-advance, one that precedes the general resurrection of all the dead, which takes place on Judgment Day. At the same time, it also denotes a judgment-in-advance, in which the resurrected martyrs are declared holy. Later in the vision, John sees ‘the rest of the dead’, the ones who died a natural death, who lie buried in the sea or in the earth. Then the books are opened – the Book of Life also! – and everyone will be judged by God (ch 20:11-15). The threatening prospect of ‘the second death’, the fire of hell, follows this final judgment. For the martyrs, however, there is no such threat (ch 20:6)! Those who, like them, have overcome will not be hurt at all by the second death. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, are headed for destruction (ch 2:11b; 21:8).
Together with the Messiah
All faithful Christians may look forward to reigning forever with the Messiah (ch 5:10b; 22:5b; compare also Daniel 7:21-22); however, only the martyrs may already share in this reign during the thousand years when Satan is bound. Their public vindication makes them the advance guard of all the righteous. These witnesses, whose blood was ruthlessly shed, are the first to enjoy the victory through Jesus Christ.
This thousand-year imprisonment of Satan also proves to be a judgment-in-advance. After a short time of release, he is to be thrown into the lake of fire, and this will bring his acts of deceit to a definitive end (ch 20:10). When Death and Hades themselves are also thrown into the lake of fire (‘the second death’), there will finally be room for the full realization of the promise of God. For then, John sees ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.
In Revelation 21 and 22, John describes the features of a new Jerusalem, a city of peace at the centre of the new world.
And here we have our Christian expectation for the future, for martyrs and for every faithful believer. With transgressors at a safe distance, and with the Lord God Almighty together with the Lamb on the throne, all the righteous will flourish. And the Messianic kingdom of peace will have no end!
- On June 16, 2006 a symposium on eschatology was held at the Free University of Amsterdam. At this event, Dr Henk Bakker highlighted the theme of martyrdom in the future expectations of early Christianity. Subsequently, at a guest lecture at the Theological University of Kampen on March 15, 2010, he was asked to elaborate on this theme with reference to the Book of Revelation. I thank him for his insights.
- For an introduction to the Book of Revelation see: P.H.R. van Houwelingen: ‘Revelation: how, why and when?’ in Lux Mundi 29.3 (2010): 60-62.
- The expectation of an earthly Messianic kingdom has parallels in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. However, the Book of Revelation is unique in that it pays special attention to the martyrs’ resurrection.
- For comparable interpretations, see: L. van Hartingsveld, Openbaring. Een praktische bijbelverklaring (Tekst & Toelichting. Kampen: Kok, 1984), 101-102 and 122; Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (The International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 351- 360; N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 472-476. Jochem Douma expresses similar thoughts in Christenen voor Israël? Verantwoording van een politieke keus (Barneveld: De Vuurbaak, 2008), 116-121.
- H.R. van de Kamp, in his commentary (Openbaring. Profetie vanaf Patmos [CNT, Kampen: Kok, 2003]) also rejects the millenarian point of view, albeit from a different perspective: all believers live on after their deaths. However, death and resurrection are to be understood here in a bodily sense.