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PREMILLENNIALISM, POSTMILLENNIALISM, AND REVELATION 20

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

“Postmillennialism” is called such on theological grounds rather than on exegetical ones. By that I mean that postmillennialism is not rooted in the famous passage in Revelation which has so dominated the eschatological debate. In fact, postmillennialism ultimately sees Revelation 20 as irrelevant to framing an eschatological system, despite its widespread use in attempting just that. This passage has become so important to the modern debate over God’s eschatological plan for history that in the Zondervan CounterPoints book Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, I was criticized for dismissing Revelation 20 as significant to the schatological debate.

Nevertheless, I believe it is, as a matter of fact, largely irrelevant for understanding God’s redemptive-historical plan. In this I agree with

James L. Blevins who complains that “the millennium becomes ‘the tail that wags the dog.’”[1] To make matters worse, B. B. Warfield laments that:

The term ‘Millennium’ has entered Christian speech under the influence of the twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation. From that passage, imperfectly understood, there has also been derived the idea which is connected with this term. . . . ‘Pre-millennial,’ ‘post-millennial’ are therefore unfortunate terms, embodying, and so perpetuating, a misapprehension of the bearing of an important passage of Scripture. [2]

Indeed, the word “millennium” is based on the Latin translation of the phrase “thousand years” which is found six times in these six verses. Consequently, this brief passage provides us the descriptive phraseology differentiating the three basic evangelical schools of biblical prophecy: premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism.

And though postmillennialists generally do not concern themselves too much with Revelation 20, the immensely popular dispensational brand of premillennialism is solidly rooted in it. Indeed, dispensationalists consider the literal understanding of this passage as proof positive of their premillennialism, whereas both the amillennial and postmillennial positions teach that the 1000 years is a symbolic period of time, rather than a literal 365,000 days.

But is the dispensational approach to Revelation 20 appropriate? Or is the postmillennial disinterest in the passage more reasonable? Premillennialism is absolutely committed to this passage, seeing it as the foundation to their entire system. This is unfortunate for many reasons, two of which I will mention.

Literalism Difficulties

Despite the widespread dispensational conviction that we must approach Revelation 20 in a directly literal fashion, this approach is fundamentally flawed.

First, Revelation is a book of symbols. In Revelation 1:1 John opens by declaring that the book was “sent and signified.” Even dispensationalist John Walvoord admits that this speaks of “revelation through symbols, as in this book.”[13 Elsewhere he writes: “Apocalyptic literature is in a place all by itself because all agree that this is not, strictly speaking, literal in its revelation. Outstanding examples, of course, are the Books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.”[4] Consequently, the 1000 year reign of Christ might well be a symbolic time frame.

Second, John provides clues demonstrating the symbolic nature of his prophecies. The seven “stars” are not stars but angels (Rev. 1:20). The seven “lampstands” portray churches (1:20). The seven “eyes” on the Lamb are really “seven spirits” (5:6). The bowls of “incense” stand for prayers (5:8). The “dragon” is Satan (12:9). The seven “heads” of the beast are seven mountains and kings (17:9-10). The ten “horns” of the beast symbolize kings (17:12). And the “waters” signify peoples (17:15). He provides us only a few samples of his symbolic method, but these open up the clear prospect of further symbolic features — including the possibility of Revelation 20 being symbolic.

Third, many elements of the book absolutely resist literal interpretation. In fact, if approached literalistically these would end up as embarrassing absurdities. Do we not see strange creatures filled with eyes (Rev. 4:6)? A slain but living lamb with seven eyes (5:6)? Four lone horsemen wreaking cultural havoc (6:1-8)? Men talking to mountains (6:16)? People washing robes in blood to make them white (7:14)? Locusts with faces of men, teeth of lions, crowns of gold, and tails like scorpions (9:6)? Lion-headed, scorpion-tailed horses belching fire and smoke (9:17)?

Do we not encounter fire breathing prophets (11:5)? A seven-headed red dragon with ten horns and seven crowns who pulls stars down from heaven (12:3-4)? A woman with eagles’s wings standing on the moon (12:14)? A serpent vomiting a river of water from his mouth (12:15)? The many crowned, seven-headed beast who is a compound of four carnivores (13:2)? A two-horned beast forcing men to idolatrous worship (13:11)? An angel with a sickle reaping the earth (14:15)? Frogs coming out of the mouth of a dragon (16:13)? A prostitute riding the seven-headed beast while she is drunk on blood (17:6)? Christ returning with a sword in his mouth and on horse from heaven (19:15)? A city the size of a 1500 mile high cube floating down out of heaven (21:10, 16)? A tree bearing twelve different fruits (22:2)?

What reputable exegete would interpret these literalistically? Again, perhaps the 1000 years is another symbolic feature of Revelation.

Revelation 20 Difficulties

 Numerous other matters complicate the premillennial analysis of Revelation 20 itself, only a few of which I have space to mention.

First, why is such an important concept as the 1000 year reign of Christ found in only one book in all of Scripture? And in only one chapter of that book? In fact, in only the first six verses of that chapter? After all, the “millennium” controls the three basic evangelical views. Yet this time frame appears only in Revelation 20.

Why do we not read of the “thousand years” in Paul’s important passages on Christ’s return and reign: 1 Corinthians 15:20-58; Romans 11:1-26; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18? Or in Jesus’ own teaching on the kingdom, as in the Kingdom Parables of Matthew 13 and in the latter part of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25:31-46? Or anywhere else in Scripture? Why does it only appear in the most symbolic book in all of the Bible?

Second, why should we expect that the perfectly rounded numerical quantity (1000) must be understood literalistically? Especially since it is only mentioned in this highly symbolic book? Are we ready to believe that God owns the cattle on only a 1000 hills (Psa. 50:10)? That the Lord promises that Israel will be only a 1000 times more numerous (Deut. 1:11)? Or that God’s love is limited only to a 1000 generations (Deut. 7:9)? Or that only a 1000 years in God’s courts are preferred by the saints (Psa. 84:10)? Or that God experiences a 1000 years as day, therefore 4000 years must be experienced as four days, and so on (Psa. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8)?

Third, is the fallen angel Satan to be bound with a literal chain and placed in a literal abyss (Rev. 20:1-3)? Of what is this chain made?

Fourth, how are we to deal with contradictions of dispensationalism in the passage? Where is premillennial, pre-tribulational “rapture” mentioned? What of the two resurrections? The “first resurrection” is out of sequence in that dispensationalism expects it to occur seven years prior to millennium, whereas Revelation 20:4 ties it to the beginning of the millennium. In the dispensational system when is the resurrection of the saints converted during the tribulation (e.g., 7:14) after dispensationalism’s first resurrection?

Fifth, are we willing to accept a second humiliation of Christ based on a literal reading of this passage? Do we really expect the exalted Christ (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 1:13; 1 Pet. 3:22) to return to earth for a 1000 year rule only to have his personally administered kingdom revolt against him and surround him in Jerusalem (Rev. 20:7-9)?



Notes

 1. Blevins, “Revelation, Book of,” in MDB, 761

2. Warfield, “The Gospel and the Second Coming” (1915) in Selected Shorter Writings, 348.

3. John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 35.

4. John F. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1990), 15.

 

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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