Revelation 20 The Final Victory

William Blake, The Angel Binding Satan (1805)

Revelation 20

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.

4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.

7 When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. 9 They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

In a book full of images, metaphors and declarations that have inspired a plethora of theological interpretations and have divided interpreters perhaps none has been as divisive in recent theological movements as the image of the millennium of peace where the devil is confined that we encounter in this chapter of Revelation. The image of the millennium has often been linked, as I will discuss briefly below, to expectations of the advent of an utopian era brought about either by the spreading of the gospel to the ends of the earth, or by the continued social progress toward equality, or by the inbreaking of God’s reign bringing about the long awaited peaceful kingdom imagined in places like Isaiah 2: 2-4. Yet, Revelation is remarkably terse in its description of this time, it is an extended pause between the defeat of the beast from the previous chapter and the binding of Satan here and the final handing over of the Devil, Death and Hades into the lake of fire. In a strange set of visions this is a strange chapter which, like the rest of the book, is permeated with images from scripture recast here in a new form.

The history of the interpretation of this chapter can fill pages in a detailed commentary and would be tedious for all but the most determined readers, yet some appreciation of how the church wrestled with this passage is highly beneficial. Many early interpreters did anticipate some manner of futuristic millennium, whether Irenaeus view of six thousand years of creation followed by a millennium of rest (based on the seven days of creation) or Victorinus futuristic interpretation where the New Jerusalem of the next chapter would descend, and the nations would serve the saints in a time of incredible bounty. Most interpreters from Tyconius in the middle of the fourth century onward assumed the millennium was the present age of the church. As Christianity was now the dominant religion in the Roman empire it was increasingly viewed that Christ in his life, death and resurrection had bound Satan, and though there were still struggles, the church was now an extension of Christ’s reign. There was a great diversity in spiritual interpretations of what the passage means, but in general the age of the church was viewed as a time where the church reigned without a massive life or death struggle with the forces of the devil. Most of the reformers of the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century rejected belief in a future millennial kingdom. Luther believed that the conflicts of his time were the final struggles before God brought about the final judgment and that the forces of the papacy and the Turkish armies were the Gog and Magog mentioned in verse seven. Calvin, Bullinger and Cranmer all rejected a future millennial kingdom. By the eighteenth century the idea of a future millennial kingdom was popular, but with the optimism of the time, the Christians of Europe and America believed they would bring about this kingdom through the spread of the gospel. By the nineteenth century the term postmillennialism was given to the idea that the millennium would begin once the ideals that would lead to this time were accomplished. For example, reformers like Alexander Campbell (founder of the Disciples of Christ) and Charles Finney tried to bring about social changes like control of alcohol abuse and the abolition of slavery in addition to the continuing spread of the gospel as tools to bring about the millennial age. At the same time, in contrast with the optimistic view of history proposed by the postmillennials, a view known a premillennialism emerged where the conditions on earth would become worse until Christ returns inaugurating the conflict that will lead to the millennial age. This view would give birth to traditions like the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses but would also reach its most popular reception in the approach of John Nelson Darby. Darby’s schema views Revelation, in combination with several other portions of scripture, laying out a path which leads to the end of the age at Armageddon, with is understood as a literal battle, and afterward when Satan is bound the Jewish people accept Christianity and people live long and prosperous lives. The above discussion is heavily indebted to the much longer and more detailed examination of Craig R. Koester in his commentary on Revelation. (Koester, 2014, pp. 741-750)

The chapter begins by locking the Devil in the abyss, an action that looks back to two earlier portions of Revelation. In chapter nine a star, likely referring to an angel, is given the key to unlock the abyss. Here the angel is given the key to lock the abyss again and to seal the devil inside it. This also continues the fall of the devil which what narrated in chapter twelve as Michael cast the devil from heaven to the earth. The devil, who has been the force behind the beast and all its conspirators, is finally exposed, bound and removed from its place as a tormentor of the earth and a threat to creation. No reason is given for the thousand-year limit on the devil’s confinement other than the statement at the end ‘he must be let out for a little while.’

In the devil’s absence those who God has judged favorably now reign. As Revelation 3: 21 promised the hearers in Laodicea, “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on the throne.” In another of Revelation’s great reversals those who received a negative judgment from God’s opponents, judgments that may have resulted in their execution, now receive a positive judgment from God by sharing in God’s reign. In the imagery of Revelation this is a first fruits of a larger resurrection that occurs at the end of the imagined millennium, but those who are highlighted here have already conquered and Death, Hades and the Devil (all personified here) have no power over them.

Revelation pulls imagery from throughout the Hebrew Scripture (or Old Testament as many Christians know the first two thirds of their scriptures) but the prophet Ezekiel continues to be a source of images that are echoed here in Revelation. Ezekiel 38-39 introduces us to Gog, the land of the prince Magog who attacks Israel and is overthrown by God and here Revelation takes both Gog and Magog and turns them into nations or groups from the four corners of the earth that one final time come to threaten the saints under the influence of the devil. In a military metaphor they surround the camp of the saints to make war upon them but, like the previous battle against the beast in Revelation 19, the saints do not fight, and God consumes these forces and then the devil is thrown into the lake of fire.

After the casting of Satan into the lake of fire comes the resurrection of all the dead. In a courtroom like scene the dead once raised are judged by how they have lived but also entirely by God’s standards. As Craig Koester states:

Revelation presents a tension: People are judged according to their works, yet they are saved by the favor connoted by the scroll of life (Boring; Harrington). Judgment is not a purely human affair in which those whose good deeds outnumber their evil deeds are saved and the rest condemned. Neither does God simply redeem some and condemn others. (Koester, 2014, p. 792)

Revelation, like most of scripture, dwells with the paradox that how one lives matters and the final sovereignty of God to determine any judgment that people would receive. The scope of God’s redemption may be wider than the limits that humans would place upon it. Throughout Revelation the hearers have been encouraged to resist the evil in the society around them and to repent when they fail. Yet, there is an acknowledgment in Revelation of the allure of the society and perhaps the multitude of people may eventually see and wash their robes so that they too may take their place among the uncountable multitude. Even with this image of final judgment, the hope of Revelation is to lead its hearers to repentance rather than resignation.

Many people come to Revelation searching for certainty, attempting to divine the exact path of the future and this has led to multiple conflicts and divisions in the church. I’m not comfortable with any of the premillennial/postmillennial patterns of interpretation nor the view of living within the millennium of many earlier Christians for various reasons. Trying to lock down history and say that this is the age where the Devil and the force of evil are imprisoned does not seem to reflect the reality of the pain and suffering in the world, and while Revelation simply assumes the reality of suffering and persecution it does imagine an ending to it. I can’t share the optimism of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christians who felt that they could bring about the millennial age by evangelism and social change, nor can I embrace the pessimism and persecution complex of many postmillennial interpreters. Yet, perhaps there is wisdom in attempting to step back from the trees to see the forest. Revelation as a book was designed to bring hope to its hearers in a time of persecution and struggle and here, at the end of the struggle, is a time of peace and hope. They could hope, as we do, for a time when God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. To paraphrase Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, in fact God’s kingdom comes and God’s will comes about without our work and our prayers, but we pray that that kingdom and that work may come about in and among us. However, the ending of the age unfolds, as a Christian I believe that falls within God’s hands. God’s judgment will not be by my standards and yet, God’s will in its own time and manner will be done. When evil can at times seem so pervasive or powerful, I can find hope that God has not abandoned or forgotten the world. Ultimately, Revelation points the faithful to lives of repentance not resignation, hope instead of hopelessness, and to yearn for the promised resurrection and the healing of the world which we get to imagine in the coming chapters.

2 thoughts on “Revelation 20 The Final Victory

  1. Pingback: The Book of Revelation | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell | Sign of the Rose

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