Revelation 20.1–10 describes the events surrounding the Millennium, or thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ with his saints. John’s description seems straightforward enough: After an angel binds Satan in the bottomless pit, Christ rules the world for a thousand years with Christian martyrs whom he has resurrected to life. At the end of the millennial period, Satan is released and gathers armies to make war against Christ’s “beloved city” but is defeated and thrown into hell along with the Antichrist and False Prophet.
As I said, this description seems straightforward enough, but Christian theologians have never fully agreed on the proper interpretation of this passage. Broadly speaking, they have staked out three interpretive claims on Revelation 20.1–10: premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. Let us take a brief look at all three.
Premillennialism reads Revelation 20.1–10 in the most literal fashion. It teaches that Jesus Christ returns to an earth under the sway of the Antichrist, defeats him and his armies in open battle, binds Satan for a thousand years, and establishes a peaceful worldwide kingdom with its capital city in Jerusalem. At the end of that period, open warfare again breaks out with the devil and his minions who are defeated a second time, but now thrown into hell. This is the best-known millennial viewpoint in America today, whose most prolific advocate is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series.
Postmillennialism reads Revelation 20.1–10 less literally than premillennialism. It teaches that the Millennium represents the entire church age between Christ’s first and second advents. The binding of Satan and the millennial reign of peace occur as more and more people of the earth hear the gospel, repent of their sins, and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives. Verses 7–10 describe the final death gasp of Satan and his minions at Christ’s Second Coming, which utterly defeats them and breaks entirely their power over God’s creation. Postmillennialists are optimistic about the progress of history. As the gospel spreads, the world becomes better and better under its influence.
Amillennialism (i.e., “no-millennium-ism”) reads Revelation 20.1–10 symbolically. In the words of Steve Gregg, the Millennium “depicts either the vindicated martyrs reigning from heaven in the present age, or earthly believers achieving spiritual victory over personal sin during the same period.” As with postmillennialism, then, amillennialism interprets Revelation 20.1–10 as a description of the entire church age between Christ’s first and second advents. Although premillennialism is the best-known millennial position in contemporary America, amillennialism was (and is) the official doctrinal position of the Catholic Church and of the magisterial Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican).
Now, I know what you are thinking: “George, what possible relevance does this debate have for my life?” Well, I can think of at least three answers to that question: (1) The debate is relevant because it concerns the proper way to interpret Scripture generally and Revelation particularly, i.e., whether we interpret it literally or symbolically. (2) The debate is relevant because it shapes our attitude toward the future. Is the future going to be worse than the present (premillennialism) or better than the past (premillennialism)? (3) The debate is relevant because it touches on our social responsibilities in the present age. Postmillennialists and amillennialists have always taught that Christians have a responsibility to reform society by engaging culture at all levels. Premillennialists, however, at least historically, have favored personal evangelism over social concern. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” is how one premillennialist put it.
So, what is the proper interpretation of Revelation 20.1–10? I will try to offer some guidelines for answering that question in tomorrow’s devotional.