The Thousand Years in Revelation 20

One of the most peculiar (and controversial) elements of the visions in the book of Revelation is the period of a “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in chapter 20, and how it functions within the eschatological framework of the book’s visionary narrative. Unfortunately, this single visionary detail has taken on a life of its own in Christian thought as “the Millennium”, serving as a magnet for all kinds of eschatological ideas and theories, most of which are far-removed from the specific references in Revelation 20. Actually, the visions in chapter 20 really do not describe what is supposed to take place during these “thousand years”; rather, the numerical time-period functions primarily as a chronological delineating point, marking two important events or developments within the narrative:

    1. The time during which the Satan is bound and held in prison-guard beneath the earth (vv. 2-3, 7)
    2. The time during which believers—especially those who were put to death during the period of distress—will reign (as king) with the exalted Christ (vv. 4-6)

What is most curious is the release of the Satan that is to occur at the end of the thousand years (vv. 7ff). Following the defeat of the nations and the forces of evil in the great Judgment, and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ over all the earth, this second defeat/judgment of the nations, etc, is altogether unexpected and difficult to explain. Cf. the recent notes on vv. 7-10ff for further discussion.

Part of the explanation surely has to do with the complex network of images, symbols, and traditions that the visions employ, whereby the same basic event or time-period—such as the end-time period of distress or the Judgment of the nations—is described and depicted multiple times, often with overlapping sets of symbols. In some instances, the nature of the eschatological traditions themselves, and how they are used in the book, results in apparent inconsistencies and tensions within the narrative.

Background of the Motif: Two Lines of Tradition

What of this idea of the “thousand years”? The two specific details associated with it—the binding of the Satan and the reign of believers with Christ—suggest that two lines of tradition inform its meaning and purpose:

    1. The idea of a future ‘Golden Age’ on earth, free from suffering and hardship, etc, and
    2. The restoration of the Israelite kingdom under the Davidic Messiah

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. A Future Golden Age

The idea of a “Golden Age” past, and to which humankind might return in the future, is found in many cultures worldwide. It generally reflects the people’s hopes and aspirations for a better future, to see a realization of their finest ideals, throughout society and the world at large. Most systems of eschatology draw upon this religious-cultural tendency, based upon two fundamental premises: (1) the current Age is particularly corrupt and decadent, and (2) the new/coming Age will right these wrongs and bring about (or restore) a time of peace and happiness, etc. This distinction between the current Age and the coming Age may be understood in either a linear or cyclical sense (cf. further below).

In the Old Testament Prophets, and elsewhere in the Scriptures, there is evidence of this “Golden Age” idea—the hope and promise of an idealized time on earth, a period of peace and prosperity, health and long-life, and so forth. Of the many passages and references, we may note the following: Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6-9; 32:15-20; chap. 35; 65:20-25; 66:12; Hosea 2:18; Amos 9:13-15; Joel 2:22-23ff; 3:18; Jer 31:12ff; Ezek 28:26; 34:25-29. Interestingly, this “Golden Age” imagery is not mentioned in Revelation 20, but is reserved for the depiction of the “New Jerusalem” in chaps. 21-22; however, the fact that the Satan is bound and imprisoned during the “thousand years” suggests, at least, an absence of evil and wickedness.

2. The Restored Israelite Kingdom under the Messiah

Most of the “Golden Age” references in the Prophets (cf. above) relate specifically to the idea of the return of Israel to her land, following the Exile. In their original context, these passages are not eschatological per se, but anticipate a restoration that will take place in the near future. However, as the glories of this return were only partially realized at the time, the prophecies came to be applied to things which were yet to occur, sometime in the more distant future. In turn, this fed into the Jewish eschatology and Messianic expectations of the first centuries B.C./A.D.; particularly important were those ‘restoration’ prophecies that were tied to the idea of a future ruler from the line of David—i.e. the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic ruler (for an extensive discussion on this type, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The most significant such prophecies would be: Isaiah 11:1-9; 32:1ff; Amos 9:11-15; Jer 33:15-16; Ezek 34:23-29; Zech 9:9-10—all passages which blend “Golden Age” images with the idea of an Israelite restoration under a (Davidic) king. On the eschatological dimension to the Kingdom-concept, see esp. Part 5 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Developments in Jewish Eschatology and Apocalyptic

If the book of Revelation drew upon the two lines of tradition highlighted above, it is not surprising that other Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the period (i.e. the first centuries B.C./A.D.) did much the same. That the rule established by the Davidic Messiah was to be a “Golden Age” of peace and prosperity (for Israel), following the prophetic traditions of Isa 11:1-9 and Psalm 2, etc, is clear from the famous passage in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-32 (written in the mid-1st century B.C.).

Probably the earliest systematic treatment of the Golden Age and Messianic Kingdom themes is the so-called “Apocalypse of Weeks” portion of the book of Enoch (1 Enoch 93:3-10; 91:12-17). It presents human and Israelite history as a series of seven “weeks”; beginning with the time of justice and righteousness, each week that follows becomes increasingly corrupt and wicked, until the completely evil and faithless generation of the seventh week (93:9). The eighth week (91:12ff) then will see a restoration of righteousness, with Judgment executed against the wicked, and a time of rule for the righteous/Elect, along with a period of peace and prosperity for humankind (vv. 13-14). Then, in vv. 16-17 there is reference to the creation of a “new heaven and new earth”, just as in Rev 21:1 after the “thousand years”.

In the Enochic work known as 2 Enoch (or “Slavonic Enoch”), perhaps written in the late-first century A.D., human history is divided into a similar “eight-day” sequence, each of which is said to last for a thousand years. The eighth, or last, of these broadens out to become an eternal period of endless/numberless years (32:2-33:1). From roughly same time (and contemporary with the book of Revelation) is the Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), which has a much more complex and multifaceted eschatology. Like the book of Revelation, 2 Baruch expounds a basic eschatological framework, repeating it, with variations, throughout multiple visions. It is a standard three-part framework: (1) a period of increasing wickedness and distress, culminating in the rise of an evil/demonic tyrant, (2) God’s Judgment on the wicked/nations, and (3) a New Age of peace and prosperity (for the righteous), associated with the reign of the Messiah. Just as in the book of Revelation, the first two parts are presented more frequently, though 2 Baruch describes the future Golden Age in a way that Revelation does not. The main passages are:

    • 29:3-30:1—The time of prosperity is represented by the extraordinary fruitfulness of the earth, with thousand-fold increases on the vine, etc (vv. 5-6). The resurrection of the righteous follows this age of plenty (30:2ff); in the book of Revelation, this precedes the thousand years, though the general resurrection (i.e. of the wicked) follows it (20:11ff).
    • 40:1-4—The reign of the Messiah is described, briefly, in more traditional terms—i.e., the protection and preservation of his people (the righteous of Israel).
    • 72:2-74:3—This is the most extensive description of the Messianic Kingdom, set in the context of the Judgment of the nations (chap. 72). Following this, in chaps. 73-74, an idyllic world of peace and prosperity is described, alluding to a number of the Old Testament traditions and passages cited above.

In the work known as 2 (or 4) Esdras (also referred to as 4 Ezra), the core of which is Jewish and written in the late-1st century A.D., a ‘Messianic Age’ is referenced in a more precise eschatological (and chronological) context. The key passage is 7:26-30, where the Messiah (also called God’s “son”) appears, ushering in a period of joy for the faithful ones of Israel that will last four hundred years (v. 28). As in the “thousand years” of Rev 20, nothing much is said of what occurs during this period; however, what follows it is most striking, as 2/4 Esdras blends together two distinct eschatological events, or themes—(a) the dissolution of the world at the end of the Age (v. 30), and (b) the resurrection of the dead (v. 31). It is a resurrection of righteous and wicked both, followed by the final Judgment (vv. 32-35ff), described in terms similar to Rev 20:11-15. Curiously, after the 400-year Messianic Age, the Messiah himself dies, along with all of humankind (v. 29), part of the complete dissolution of world at the end of the Age (cf. further below).

The Symbolism of a Thousand

The eschatological significance of a thousand, as a symbolic number, was also well-established in Judaism by the time the book of Revelation was composed. As was noted in 2 Enoch 32:2-33:1 above, a thousand years could serve as a way of dividing human history, into periods (“weeks” or “days”), paralleling the seven days of creation. Early Christians came to do much the same thing, utilizing a synchronic principle similar to that expressed in 2 Peter 3:8 (cf. Psalm 90:4), though it is not specifically attested until the second century A.D. (Epistle of Barnabas 15; Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.28.3).

However, more generally in Israelite and Old Testament tradition, a thousand simply represents a large number, as well as symbolizing fullness and completeness—cf. Deut 1:11; 7:9; Psalm 84:10; 105:8; Isa 7:23, etc. Rarely, if ever, in such instances is a “thousand” meant to be taken as an exact number, and, in the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably symbolic, wherever a thousand (or multiples of a thousand) are used (7:3-8; 14:1, 3; 21:16). The use a thousand to represent a long period of time is not at all common in the Old Testament, but is a natural application of the general symbolism, as in Jubilees 23:27 where a thousand years represents the ideal life span (cp. the life-spans approaching 1,000 in Genesis 5; 9:29).

Application in the Book of Revelation

It is clear that the book of Revelation shares many features and traditions in common with other eschatological and apocalyptic works of the period, such as 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 2/4 Esdras (cf. above). The following parallels are especially worth noting:

    • In 1 Enoch 91:12-17, the “eighth week”, a period of peace and rule by the righteous/Elect, is followed by the creation of a “new heaven and new earth” —compare with Rev 20:4-6; 21:1
    • In 2 Baruch 72-74, a Messianic Kingdom follows the Judgment of the nations; while in chap. 30, the resurrection follows this Golden Age—this is generally the same eschatological narrative pattern in Revelation 20.
    • In 2/4 Esdras 7:26-30ff, the appearance of the Messiah ushers in a period of 400 years of joy for the righteous, followed by the resurrection and the final Judgment—compare with Rev 20:4-6, 11-15.

Part of what complicates these eschatological scenarios is that they involve three different (and distinct) conceptions of the future Age to Come:

    • An idealized continuation of the current life on earth (i.e. the Golden Age, cf. above)
    • The blessed/heavenly afterlife for the righteous, having passed through the Judgment, and
    • The dissolution of the world, followed by a new creation.

All of these are attested in Jewish eschatology, as well as in other ancient systems of eschatology. While not necessarily incompatible, they are different enough that, if treated with excessive literalism, they can be almost impossible to harmonize. This is part of the difficulty with interpreting the final chapters of the book of Revelation, as the visions in chaps. 19-22 combine and blend together all three ways of understanding the Age to Come. Even in chapter 20 there is some ambiguity—do the resurrected believers rule on earth, or in heaven? The immediate context of the narrative indicates a location on earth, and yet the parallels with chapter 19 rather suggests they are with the exalted Jesus in heaven. Probably, in terms of the overall visionary symbolism of book, both aspects—earthly and heavenly—are intended.

Consider, for example, the previous scenes where the righteous (believers) gather together with the exalted Jesus, and his kingship/rule is emphasized:

    • In 7:9-17 the multitude of believers (the people of God) stands before the Lamb—this clearly takes place in heaven, before the throne of God, and yet in the earlier vv. 1-8, the emphasis is on believers (the 144,000) on earth during the period of distress.
    • In the vision of 14:1-5, the 144,000 gather with the Lamb on Mount Zion—taken literally, this refers to a location on earth (the ancient Temple site of Jerusalem); however, as a symbol, it more properly represents a heavenly reality (i.e. the ‘Temple’ or dwelling of God in heaven).
    • Again, the vision in 15:2-4 is of the people of God (believers) in heaven, emphasizing that the true location of the Tent/Temple of God (and of Jerusalem/Zion) is heavenly.

In a sense, these two aspects of the people of God, and their place alongside the exalted Jesus, are kept separate (though connected) throughout the visions. However, in chapters 21-22 (to be discussed in detail in the continuing daily notes on Revelation), the heavenly and earthly aspects finally merge together, and are united, beginning with the opening words of 21:1: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…”. Especially powerful is the unforgettable image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem coming down to earth to become the new Jerusalem (vv. 2ff). The merging/uniting of heavenly and earthly is described in detail, and beautifully, in chapters 21-22, drawing upon a rich array of Old Testament and Jewish traditions.

An Earthly Kingdom?

Many commentators take for granted that the thousand-year period in Revelation 20 refers to an earthly kingdom—that is, to a concrete Messianic kingdom established on earth, in which Christ and the saints govern the nations (20:4-6). As I noted above, the immediate narrative context of the chapter would tend to support this, as do the Jewish traditions regarding the Messianic Kingdom referenced above. However, the precise situation of the visionary narrative in chap. 20 is by no means as clear as many commentators assume.

When we turn to the New Testament as a whole (and its eschatology), there is actually very little evidence supporting the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth. The question posed by Jesus’ disciples in Acts 1:6 certainly evinces this traditional expectation, as, we may assume, does the response by the crowds in the scene of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7-10 par, cp. John 6:15). Moreover, by all accounts, Jesus’ death was based on the charge that he had claimed (and/or was considered by some to be) the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:2ff, 26 par). However, in Jesus’ response to the aforementioned question by the disciples (Acts 1:7-8), while he does not reject the traditional concept of the Messianic kingdom outright, he clearly points his disciples (and all future believers) in a different direction, a very different way of understanding the Kingdom—one based on the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence and work of the Spirit.

In point of fact, the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth would seem to be almost entirely absent from the earliest Christian eschatology. I find little or no trace of it in Paul’s letters. In 1 Thess 4:13-18, the scenario he describes is of believers (both those currently alive and those who have died) being gathered to Jesus at his end-time return and taken up with him into heaven. In this regard, he is almost certainly following early Christian (and Gospel) tradition (Mark 13:26-27 par, etc; compare John 14:1-4, and other passages). Within his discussion at 1 Cor 6:1-7ff, Paul does make reference to believers in ruling positions as judges (vv. 2-3), however this seems to be part of the heavenly Judgment scene, and not of a kingdom set up on earth. Some have suggested that 1 Cor 15:24-28 refers to something like Rev 20:4-6, but, apart from the general idea of the supreme rule/authority of the exalted Christ (over all things), I see no real indication that Paul has in mind a specific period of rule on earth.

Outside of Rev 20:4-6 itself, the only other passage, in my view, which could conceivably refer to the traditional idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth, is the saying (or sayings) of Jesus in Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30, in which he promises his faithful disciples (the Twelve?) that they will sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. It is not clear whether these two passages represent separate traditions or variations on the same (historical) tradition, set in different narrative locations. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter view, but the matter is far from certain. The Lukan context of the Last Supper, with its connection to Jesus’ statement in 22:18 par, suggests that the place of Judgment is to be understood as in heaven, not on earth. The context of Matt 19:28, involving the promise of reward in compensation for what the disciples have given up on earth, could more plausibly seen as referring to an earthly kingdom. However, the primary contrast in the passage overall is between earthly things and eternal life (i.e. with God in heaven); moreover, the setting of the saying in v. 28 is clearly that of the resurrection, which, according to most lines of tradition (and certainly in early Christian tradition), involves a transport/translation to heaven. Some commentators, accepting this fact, would claim that, after having been taken up to heaven with Jesus, believers will return with him to earth, where the earthly Messianic Kingdom will be established. Apart from the possible allusion to this in Rev 17:14 (cf. also 19:14), the idea is scarcely to be found in the New Testament, and is more reflective of our desire to harmonize the various eschatological passages.

The book of Revelation does draw upon this same idea of believers acting in positions of rule and judgment; indeed, the statement in 2:26-28 is quite similar in tone and substance to Jesus’ saying in Luke 22:28-30 par (cf. also 3:21). However, in these references, the implication is of a heavenly/eternal (not earthly) reward for believers’ faithfulness. There is similar imagery attached to the “Elders” in 4:4, 10; 11:16; the precise interpretation of this symbolism remains debated, but I understand these “Elders” to represent the People of God in their heavenly aspect, the number 24 perhaps meant to allude to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (12 x 12, cp. 21:12-14). In any case, the setting of those visions is in heaven, not on earth. Only in 20:4-6 is there any indication that an earthly kingdom is in view, and that believers will have positions of rule there along with Jesus.

Chiliasm

The term “Chiliasm” derives from the Greek xi/lioi (chílioi, “thousand[s]”), referring specifically to the “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in Revelation 20. It has come to be a technical term for those who interpret these “thousand years” in a concrete, literal sense—if not a period of exactly 1,000 years, at least a real (and lengthy) period of time during which the Messianic Kingdom will be established on earth. That Rev 20:4-6 refers to an earthly kingdom would be a basic tenet of Chiliasm.

Throughout history, Christian commentators have been rather evenly divided on whether to understand the “thousand years” (and the Messianic reign) in a literal (i.e. Chiliastic) or figurative sense. That is to say, whether it represents a concrete period of rule on earth, or should be understood in a spiritual sense. The earliest evidence from the second century, what little we have, tends toward Chiliasm. According to Eusebius, in his Church History (3.39.1, 12), Papias (who died c. 130) believed that, after the resurrection, Christ would establish a kingdom that would be characterized by attributes of the “Golden Age” (cf. above), i.e. a time of lavish fruitfulness and prosperity (cp. 2 Baruch 29:5-7). Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-160) appears to have taken the “thousand years” more or less literally, anticipating the ‘Dispensationalist’ line of interpretation by setting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (such as Ezek 40-48; Isa 54:11-12; 60:1-3ff; and Zech 14:7-8) in the Millennium (Dialogue with Trypho 80-81). Later in the century, Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, shows a similar (Chiliastic) view of the thousand years, similarly anticipating Dispensationalist thought in the way he divides history into distinct thousand-year periods (4.20.11; 5.28.3, 30.4; cp. Epistle of Barnabas 15, and the Jewish passages cited above). For a good, convenient survey of the history of interpretation, see Koester, Revelation (Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A), pp. 741-50.

Conclusion

Given the nature of the symbolism in the book of Revelation, the “thousand years” cannot be taken literally as referring to a period of exactly 1,000 years; that is out of the question. However, in the normal and traditional sense of the symbolism, referring simply to a long period of time—and one that is full and complete—it certainly can be understood as a period of rule on earth. The earthly location of 20:4-6 would have to be inferred from the immediate context of chap. 20, and, perhaps, the parallels with similar passages in Jewish writings of the period (cf. above). The main point, however, is not the location of the scene, but the significance of it—the establishment of Christ’s kingdom (and rule) over the world and all of humankind. That believers are to rule with him simply reflects our/their union with him; through our faithfulness, even during the most intense times of suffering and persecution, we will be exalted, even as he was exalted, to a position with him alongside God the Father in heaven. This also means that believers will take part (with Christ) in the Judgment.

Even so, the position of the “thousand year” period in Rev 20 remains somewhat perplexing. Since much, or most, of the imagery associated with the Messianic Kingdom and “Golden Age” of eschatological tradition is found in chapters 21-22, what, precisely, is the point of the separate note in 20:4-6, flanked as it is between the two parallel Judgment scenes (defeat of Satan and the Nations) in vv. 1-3, 7-10? Perhaps the best explanation is, that it was deemed necessary to have a separate scene, however brief, that illustrated Jesus fulfilling the traditional role of the Davidic Messiah. This traditional role involved both the defeat of the nations, and the establishment (or restoration) of a kingdom to rule over them. The early Christian belief in Jesus as the Davidic Messiah was universal, and yet in his lifetime he never fulfilled these traditional expectations. This fulfillment would have to wait until his end-time return.

The two-fold role outlined above appears to be described specifically in chapters 19-20, and enhances the clear parallelism between the two sets of visions (cf. my earlier notes on 20:1-3ff). In 19:11-16ff, we have narrated the defeat of the nations, with the exalted Jesus appearing as a conquering warrior leading the armies of heaven (the holy ones, cf. 17:14). Correspondingly, in 20:4-6, there is a brief description of the establishment of his rule over them; again, the holy ones (the people of God, believers) are alongside of him. Both are key aspects of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and needed to be included. Indeed, these are essentially the only passages in the New Testament where it is shown that Jesus will finally fulfill these traditional Messianic roles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *