Our Past and Future Hope – Chapter Twelve: The Millennium

Revelation 20

This is chapter twelve of Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

The paperback and Kindle versions are now available here.

The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

There is a great deal of confusion today when describing modern interpretations of Revelation. Most discussions, if they are had at all, revolve around the Millennium- is one premil, postmil, or amil? That is, does Jesus return before the Millennium, or after? Or is the Millennium just a description of the entire church age?

This is like trying to describe the building you live in by only giving details about the roof- “I have a flat roof, and it’s white. There’s a small parapet in the front”; or “it has a sloped roof with brown asphalt shingles. There’s a chimney in the middle.” One can make guesses about the architecture of a building based on the roof, but it would be much more helpful to hear about the framework of the building itself- “I live in a classic Chicago 3-story graystone apartment from 1920”; or “my home is a single-story modern ranch style with a two car garage.”

The Millennium is only explicitly mentioned in one chapter of the whole Bible: Revelation 20. Additionally, this chapter is a relatively cursory glance at future events compared to the rest of the book:

There is none of the detail which we have found in the previous portions of the book – for such detail was not necessary to the accomplishment of the design of the book. The grand purpose was to show that Christianity would finally triumph, and hence the detailed description is carried on until that occurs, and beyond that we have only the most general statements.1

What we have done in these modern times is load our entire framework of interpreting Revelation using the most general description of a somewhat obscure future event. If you explain to someone that you are ‘premil,’ you’ve told them that you believe Jesus will return before the Millennium to rule on Earth in person for 1000 years. You’ve described the ‘roof’ of the house- what about the framework? We would understand your view of Revelation chapter 20- what about chapters 1-19?

Four Frameworks

Maybe you don’t know what you believe about chapters 1-19 because you’ve only ever heard Revelation discussed in terms of the Millennium. This would be completely understandable, as most Christians today are unaware that there have been four historical frameworks for interpreting Revelation: historicist, preterist, futurist, and idealist. These are summarized by Steve Gregg as follows:

The historicist approach, which is the classical Protestant interpretation of the book, sees the book of Revelation as a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of John to the end of the world. Fulfillment is thus considered to be in progress at present and has been unfolding for nearly two thousand years.

The preterist approach views the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies as having occurred already, in what is now the ancient past, not long after the author’s own time. Thus the fulfillment was future from the point of view of the inspired author, but it is past from our vantage point in history. Some [partial-preterists] believe that the final chapters of Revelation look forward to the second coming of Christ. Others think that everything in the book reached its culmination in the past.

The futurist approach asserts that the majority of the prophecies of Revelation have never yet been fulfilled and await future fulfillment. Futurist interpreters usually apply everything after chapter 4 to a relatively brief period before the return of Christ.

What is generally called the idealist approach to Revelation does not attempt to find individual fulfillments of the visions but takes Revelation to be a great drama depicting transcendent spiritual realities, such as the perennial conflict between Christ and Satan, between the saints and the antichristian world powers, the heavenly vindication of the martyrs and the final victory of Christ and his saints. Fulfillment is seen either as entirely spiritual or as recurrent, finding representative expression in various historical events throughout the age, rather than in onetime, specific fulfillments. The prophecy is thus rendered applicable to Christians in any age.2

The following chart is a simple visual representation of these views:

Historicism is the oldest developed framework out of these four views.3 It is the ‘traditional interpretation’ given in this book. Developed preterism and futurism were both products of the Counter-Reformation, traced back to Jesuit theologians in a thinly-veiled attempt to keep the Papacy from being identified as the Antichrist.4 Idealism started to take shape afterward in the late 1800s.5 Around that same time, futurism gained traction among Christians, and the once ubiquitous historicist view began to diminish. With ideas like the modern interpretation of the rapture being introduced, futurism began to morph into the view most Christians seem to have today, which is called the ‘popular modern interpretation’ in this book.

Three Views of the Millennium

Once you identify the frameworks of interpreting Revelation, understanding the three views of the millennium becomes much easier. Put simply, Jesus either returns before the Millennium (pre-mil), or after (post-mil); or the Millennium is symbolic of the entire Church age (a-mil). Another chart with a simple overview:

As stated previously, the Millennium is only mentioned in Revelation chapter 20, and in very general descriptions. Each of the three (basic) views has biblical support and reasoning behind them, and this book does not endorse one over the other- it would be better for Christians to understand the framework of what the Church has believed before delving into the confusion of loaded modern definitions of the Millennium. Historicism, the traditional framework of Revelation given in this book, is compatible with all three Millennial views.6

Revelation 20

I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, the old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole inhabited earth, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were finished. After this, he must be freed for a short time.

4 I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as didn’t worship the beast nor his image, and didn’t receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand. They lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead didn’t live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years.

7 And after the thousand years, Satan will be released from his prison, 8 and he will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. 9 They went up over the width of the earth, and surrounded the camp of the saints, and the beloved city. Fire came down out of heaven from God and devoured them. 10 The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are also. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

11 I saw a great white throne, and him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. There was found no place for them. 12 I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and they opened books. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them. They were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 If anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20, WEB)

This chapter is the capstone of the book, the happy end (or as some view it, a synopsis) of the gospel age. The beast and the false prophet are gone, and the dragon is bound. The saints reign with Christ for 1000 years. Despite one last rebellion, fire comes down to devour them, and the final judgment of all people begins. What follows are brief definitions of the three major views of this chapter, along with their modern loaded definitions:

Premillennialism – Basically, Christ returns in person before the Millennium. According to this view, the saints are raised to life bodily in “the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:5), and they reign together with Christ on Earth (Israel in particular) for 1000 years. At the end of the Millennium, after the unleashing of Satan and the final rebellion is put down, the rest of the dead are raised and judged.

The strength of this view is that it takes the plainest meaning of the first resurrection, and a literal in-person reign of Christ. It is said to be the type of fulfillment that prophecies given to Israel in the Old Testament point to. A possible weakness is that it is a very literal interpretation in a book full of symbols. It raises some questions- why is it said that only martyrs from the time of the beast are raised, and not all saints? Also, the rest of Scripture points to a single resurrection of all people simultaneously, not one for the saints and another for everyone else.

Modern Premil – Today’s definition of premillennialism is tied to the framework of ‘futurism’- the interpretation that the book of Revelation still awaits fulfillment in a very short period of time yet to come. It is heavily associated with Left Behind theology, a ‘secret’ rapture in which Christians are taken away either before, during, or after (pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib respectively) a future ‘great tribulation.’ A remnant of Jews is saved during this tribulation, standing up against a future Antichrist in the form of a charismatic, deceptive, and maniacal leader.

Because of its focus on a third Temple and the land promises of Israel, modern premil and futurism are thought to be the only views that have a future hope for Israel and the Jews. These views are associated with dispensationalism, which sees the Church as separate from Jews (see chapter 10 of this book for more on that subject). This was not the case in the history of the church- Christians of every kind of eschatological view saw a future hope for Jews, and a clear prophecy of their mass conversion to Christ in Romans 11. Premillennialism was also not tied to futurism, and there are (and have been) many historicists that hold to the classic version of this view.

Postmillennialism – Christ returns after the Millennium, which is either literally 1000 years, or possibly symbolic for a long period of time. The Millennium begins after Armageddon, when the beast (the Papacy) and false prophet (Islam) are gone, and the dragon (paganism/secularism) is bound. The first resurrection is seen not as a literal bodily one, as only “souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 20:4, WEB) were seen, not their bodies. This resurrection is viewed as a revival of the principles and values of those martyrs, a long period of peace when the Church is united and leads the nations.

The strength of this view is that it is consistent with the heavy use of symbolism in Revelation, and is in line with the rest of Scripture’s teaching on a single resurrection. A weakness of it might be its de-emphasis of the land promises to Israel in the Old Testament, and the lack of a visible, bodily reign of Christ over the nations (until after the Millennium, that is).

Modern Postmil – Just as premillennialism has shifted focus and changed definitions in modern history, the view of postmillennialism has also changed drastically. It is now tied to the framework of (partial) preterism, the view that most of Revelation was fulfilled in the first few centuries of the Church. Instead of there being a marked time when the Millennium begins (after Armageddon), it is now usually said to have already started, and that we are currently living in those times. This is why postmillennialism is labeled as an ‘optimistic’ eschatology. Things in the world are said to be slowly getting better and better as biblical principles take hold. As proof of this, modern postmillennialists point to statistics showing the reduction of global poverty, crimes, and deaths.

Another consequence of this major shift is the use of Christian nationalism as a theological tool- the Church is destined to reign, so it must ‘rise up’ and take hold of civil power in this time of the Millennium. Some would say that Mosaic laws such as the death penalty for blasphemy should become civil laws, ushering in a new theocratic rule. Again, this is far different than the classic postmil view, where there is a marked time that the Millennium begins- after Armageddon, when the enemies of the church are no more. This is not the Church’s doing, but by the display of God’s power and judgment. Many famous historicists were postmillennialists, and they would not recognize the version of it that is popular today.

Amillennialism – This view of the Millennium sees it as a synopsis or overview of the entire age of the Church, from when Jesus founded it to when he returns. Miller calls it “a panorama of the Gospel age” (Miller). Amillennialism means ‘no’ Millennium, and the events are viewed as symbolic of the realities of our new life in Christ until he returns. The binding of the dragon is a symbol of Christ binding Satan through the event of the crucifixion; the apostles sit on the thrones of judgment through their words in the Scripture; Christians are those who are resurrected into a new life through the power of God, reigning with Christ as kings and priests; the end of the Millennium is the releasing of Satan for one last battle, whom Christ slays at his second coming.

A strength of this view is that the symbols can easily be compared to our new life in Christ as described in the New Testament, and it is a beautiful picture summary of those realities. It keeps things simple, showing one final battle of Armageddon, the return of Christ, a single resurrection of all people, and then the last judgment. One issue that it brings up is the reality of Satan’s work in the world today, some of which is described in the events from Revelation 1-19- so how can it be said that he is truly ‘bound’?

Modern Amil – The framework of idealism– the view that sees Revelation as symbolic of spiritual realities instead of specific chronological events- is now heavily associated with amillennialism. If one were to be labeled as ‘amil’, it would be implied that they were idealist. Because of the similarities in their approach to interpretation of the symbols in Revelation, it is easy to see how these views can go hand-in-hand. However, this is not necessarily always the case, as some historicists and preterists hold to the amillennialist view of the Millennium.

Traditional Vs. Modern Interpretation

For most Christians today, the four major frameworks of interpreting the bulk of Revelation have been forgotten, or lumped in with the three views of the Millennium in chapter 20. It becomes even more confusing when the modern definitions of those Millennial views have changed radically.

But even if you disagree with the historicist framework, my hope is that you’ll realize that there is more than just the currently popular futurist interpretation out there, and that you’ll better understand how to define and navigate the historical views outlined in this chapter.

When I first became aware of the historicist interpretation, I was awestruck. My mind was blown when I realized that the view I had absorbed throughout my entire church life wasn’t the one that the Church held from the beginning, but rather the opposite- it was a relatively recent innovation! In my zeal, before I had fully grasped the intricacies of this classic view, I started to share it with my friends and family. I found out quickly that for many of them, challenging the only view they had ever heard about their whole life was a sure way to be nearly branded a dangerous heretic!

Many of us consider our eschatological views to be issues of the utmost importance, and any disagreement with them rises to the level of a first-order issue, alongside the most fundamental doctrines of our faith. We consider them to be settled; not open for discussion.

It would benefit Christians immensely to reconsider the priority they place on their eschatological view. Dr. Mohler writes that “God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.”7 He suggests a sort of ‘theological triage,’ an ordering of doctrines according to their importance, in much the same way that the triage nurse at an emergency room ranks the seriousness of a medical emergency. He suggests the following order:

First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture… These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself…

The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident… Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism… In recent years, the issue of women serving as pastors has emerged as another second-order issue…

Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology, for example, in this category. Christians who affirm the bodily, historical, and victorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ may differ over timetable and sequence without rupturing the fellowship of the church. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.8

Christians should be able to stay in close fellowship with one another, even when their eschatological frameworks or millennial views are different. We should have no reserve in studying or discussing these views constructively, sharpening one another.

If nothing else, please do not lose sight of God’s faithfulness in the past, even as our culture fixates on the details of the future. Do not forget the amazing fulfilments of God’s promises in Daniel: the prediction of world empires before they appeared; the precise timeline given for the coming of the Messiah; the exact number of days that the Temple would be defiled under the terror of Antiochus Epiphanes before he met his end; the warning Christ gave to the disciples of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Only our God knows the future, and as the Bible shows us, he does not leave his people without a prophetic word of what is to come.

  1. Albert Barnes, “Notes, Critical, Illustrative, and Practical”, Revelation 20 introduction.
    Available online at https://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/barnes/rev020.htm ↩︎
  2. Steve Gregg, “Revelation: Four Views, Revised & Updated”, 13. ↩︎
  3. See Gregg, ibid, 48-55.
    Gregg points out the earliest interpretations (also in chapter 6 of this book) of a future apostate Antichrist coming from within the Church, appearing after Rome falls and claiming 3 of the 10 kingdoms that appear from its ruins- these are the foundations of a historicist framework. “Events, which later historicists would view as ancient history, were, in those days, present and future realities. This means that the fathers would have spoken futuristically, even if they were identifying the prophetic events with the same phenomena that historicists, and some preterists, now associate with past fulfillments.” A more developed historicism is seen in the 12th century, while futurism and preterism are developed during the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century. The idealist view is developed during the 18th century. ↩︎
  4. Gregg, ibid, 52-53: “Coming to the defense of the papacy, Spanish Jesuits presented two alternative approaches to the historicism of the Reformers. One response was that of Francisco Ribera (1537–1591), a professor at Salmanca, who taught that John, in Revelation, only foresaw events of the near future and of the final things at the end of the world, but had none of the intervening history in view… This was the beginning of many of the ideas that later developed into features of the modern futurist approach to Revelation. Another Jesuit scholar, Luiz de Alcazar (1554–1613), introduced a preterist approach to Revelation, in which chapters 4 through 11 were interpreted as depicting the church’s struggle against Judaism, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; while chapters 12 through 19 reflect the church’s struggle with paganism, ending in the fall of Rome in 476; and chapters 20 through 22 as the triumph of the church in papal Rome.” ↩︎
  5. Gregg, ibid, 53. ↩︎
  6. Three historicist authors quoted extensively in this book each have different views of the Millennium: Albert Barnes was postmillennial, Oral Collins was premillennial, and Fred Miller was amillennial. ↩︎
  7. Albert Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.”
    Available online at https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity ↩︎
  8. Mohler. ibid. ↩︎