Eschatology Part 5 (What Rev. 20 Doesn't teach)
What about Revelation 20?
When discussing the millennium there is one text that dominates the discussion more than any other. This is for good reason: Revelation 20 is the only chapter of the Bible that talks about the millennium. Now, this is not to say that we can simply ignore the text. As G. E. Ladd says, if even one text of the Bible teaches a millennium, then we must accept the doctrine. However, it is simply a call to be wary of developing a full orbed theology around one passage in an apocalyptic book. Nevertheless, the text has become somewhat central to premillennialists (for good reason), and therefore it is necessary to do an evaluation of the text.
That being said, let us examine Revelation 20. This passage is very important and very controversial and therefore will take some time. Consequently, I will give some reasons against the premillennial view in this post. In my next post I will provide an alternative way to read the passage. Let us begin:
The first key point that must be addressed is that Premillennial theologians argue that Revelation 20 follows chronologically after Revelation 19. This is crucial to the argument (notice: Jesus returns 19:11ff and then we see a millennium in 20:1-6 - therefore PRE-millennial). At this point, one might think that this should be a fairly agreed upon point. Shouldn’t we always assume that a passage that literally follows another be chronologically sequential. In general, that answer is yes. Genesis 50 follows chronologically after Genesis 49. However, if common sense and literary structure suggest otherwise, then we modify our presupposition. Example:
Consider Genesis 1 and 2. At the end of Genesis 1 we already have man created and God giving commands for the both of them to multiply. In Genesis 2 we hear of God creating Adam and then Eve. Now, does all of Genesis 2 follow chronologically after Genesis 1? Of course not! The author is using literary style to zoom in on the 6th day and explain it more fully for effect.
I happen to believe the literary structure of Revelation is best described as Progressive Parallelism. The term is largely irrelevant for this discussion (at least at this stage). The point is that I believe there are literary alternatives that make it possible to read Revelation in such a way that it is not chronological. At this stage, however, my goal is to show that it is exegetically necessary to reject the Premillennial understanding of the text.
I believe that there are several reasons to reject the assumed chronological succession by the Premillennialists. The first point, and I believe most compelling, is the almost sure discrepancy between Rev. 19:11-21 and Rev 20:1-3.
Revelation 19 begins with Jesus coming back to subdue the nations. Notice what is said in vv. 15-21:
15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
17Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, "Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great." 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Who does Jesus come to strike down? The Nations! (v. 15)
What flesh will be left for the birds to eat? The flesh of all men! (v. 18)
Who were slain the battle? All the rest! (v. 21)
Now we read from Revelation 20:
1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
That is interesting. According to Revelation 20, the reason for binding Satan is so that he might not deceive the nations any longer. However, this does not make much sense in that Jesus has just obliterated all opposing nations in the previous chapter. There are only a few ways for the Premillennialist to avoid the clear conclusion. A) Nations in Chapter 20 could refer to different nations than those in verse 19. This seems unlikely because of the all-encompassing language of chapter 19 and the fact that “nations” seems to be used consistently through Revelation. B) Some people could have survived the battle (or not fought, I suppose) and therefore they are left to be potentially deceived in chapter 20. Unfortunately, this seems to be a violation of the Premillennialists own claim of “being literal” and again does not consider the absolute language used throughout Revelation 19.
I happen to think that this argument is conclusive. However, some other supporting points can be considered. Consider Cornelis Venema’s analysis:
In the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, the language used is extensively borrowed from Ezekiel 38-39. This prophecy describes a great end-time battle between the Lord and the nations of the north who are opposed to him and his people. In the description of this great battle upon the mountains of
There are several striking parallels between Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 19 and 20. In Revelation 19:17-18, an angel issues an invitation to the great supper of God. This is almost an exact quotation of the invitation extended for the Gog-Magog conflict in the prophecy of Ezekiel (39:17-20). However, in Revelation 20:7-10, when the Apostle John describes the great warfare that will conclude Satan’s little season at the close of the millennium, the prophecy of Ezekiel regarding Gog-Magog is again drawn upon extensively. The nations in rebellion are termed Gog and Magog (verse 8; cf. Ezek. 38:2; 39:1, 6). The weapon used by God to destroy Gog-Magog is a fire coming down from heaven (verse 9; cf. Ezek. 38:22; 39:6). This means that the Apostle John, in his respective descriptions of the rebellion and defeat of the nations in Revelation 19 and 20, is drawing upon identical language and imagery from Ezekiel’s prophecy. It seems hard to believe, accordingly, that the episodes described in these visions are different episodes in history, separated by a period of one thousand years duration. A much more plausible reading would conclude that these visions describe the same event and are to be read as parallel descriptions of the same historical period
The last point (and I will be brief here) is that Chapter 15:1 says “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished.” This is the beginning of the section on the seven bowls of wrath. Notice carefully that according to this passage, this is supposed to conclude the wrath of God. The seventh bowl is described in 16:17-21 and virtually everyone draws a parallel to the battle in 19. However, it becomes somewhat difficult to understand how another cosmic battle between Christ and the forces of evil can take place 1000 years later. It would seem that God’s wrath towards the rebellious nations should have been finished at the end of the 7th bowl as 15:1 indicates.
For these reasons and others, I find it very hard to accept the Premillennialist understanding of Revelation 20. However, no alternative has yet been suggested. It is not enough to simply state (possibly prove) that Premillennialists understand this passage wrong. We must press on and consider how the text can and should be understood.
This marks a transition point from a negative theology (that is, why I believe Dispensational Premillennialists are wrong) to a positive theology (what it is that I actually believe). At this point we will now begin to consider whether it is possible to have a non-dispensational-premillennail view that is grounded in good exegesis and stays faithful to the content of Scripture.
In Christ alone,