I believe dispensationalists have a problem with their argument for a literal millennium on the basis of Rev 20. In fact, I believe they have a great number of problems. On March 21, 2014 I posted a brief article titled “Rev 20 as Dispensationalism’s Achilles Heel.” I wrote this to highlight a few problems resulting from their depending on Rev 20 for their millennialism.
One reader interacted with that article with a lengthy reply. I could not justify spending a great deal of space in a mere “comment,” so I set aside a full article in response. This one! In order to make it easier for you to follow the interaction, I will paste his comments below, then I will interact with them. I recommend your re-reading my original March 21st article to provide better context.
As I reply, please keep in mind the specific point of that my original blog article, which appears to be overlooked by this series of objections. In that article I was responding to the following line of thought: “Dispensationalists are prone to boast that Revelation 20 presents their system in clear and certain terms. They often declare throne question that they can go to one text of Scripture and find their system.” In fact, in a three-views conference at which I spoke in Toledo, Ohio, in March 2008, Thomas Ice made this express point over against my postmillennialism and Dr. Richard Gaffin’s amillennialism.
Also bear in mind that this was a brief article quickly touching on a series of matters. It does not flesh them out. It is a suggestive presentation, not a conclusive one.
Having noted these things, let me make the following replies to his observations.
Regarding my first point the objector writes: “Your first point doesn’t really seem like a serious problem since that passage has no textual issues.”
But it is not a textual critical matter, as his phrasing suggests. Rather; it is a theological one. Nor is it a stand-alone matter; it is part of a cumulative presentation whose full weight builds. I am pointing out that nowhere else in Scripture is the Messianic kingdom limited to a 1000 year period. In fact, in many places in Scripture his kingdom is spoken of as “forever” (e.g., Psa 89:29, 36; Luke 1:33, 55; Heb 1:8).
Here my objector writes: “along with the first, in a chronologically-laden passage which reads simply and clearly, I don’t see how that would be a problem. If an average person reads Revelation 20, they will come away with a straightforward chronological reading. It is only by trying to complicate things that the issue gets more complicated. Yes there are seven-headed beasts and such in the book, but those difficulties are not present in every passage in Revelation (as I’m sure you agree). The difficulties of other passages do not necessitate the difficulty of Revelation 20.”
This objection is seriously flawed. It assumes the average person can read Rev in a straightforward manner and have no problems understanding it. This is precisely the problem with naive approach of dispensationalism. The very history of Rev shows the enormous debate over its meaning. It is naive to think someone can just sit down and read Rev and understand with not problems. This is because of its highly symbolic nature.
I was pointing out in the original article that not only does no other Scripture speak of a 1000 year kingdom, but the only book in which the 1000 years appears is the most symbolic and difficult book in all of Scripture. We can see this problem from three considerations.
(1) John even opens in Rev 1:1 with a statement that Revelation was “sent and signified [literally].” The word translated “signified” suggests symbolism will characterize John’s presentation. And this is quite obvious once the reader gets into Rev.
(2) In many places John interprets the images as meaning something other than they appear to present. John provides interpretive glosses to help us understand the symbolic nature of his great work. For instance, the stars in Jesus’ hand are not stars at all, for Jesus says they represent churches (Rev 1:20). Other samples appear elsewhere: the seven lamps are said to be the “seven Spirits of God” (4:5); the seven eyes of the Lamb are really “the seven Spirits of God” (5:6); the incense bowls are images of “the prayers of the saints” (5:8; 8:3–4); the dragon is actually said to be “Satan’ (12:9); the “tabernacle” represents “those who dwell in heaven” (13:6); the frogs from the mouth of the dragon, beast, and false prophet are “unclean spirits” (16:13–14); in Rev 17:9–10 we discover that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings” (17:9–10a); the ten horns on the beast are “ten kings” (17:12); the waters of the harlot are “peoples and multitudes” (17:15); the fine linen is “the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8).
(3) Some of the visions are obviously symbolic, as all commentators agree. Do we not see Christ with feet like glowing hot burnished bronze (1:15; 2:18)? His hand holding seven stars (1:16; 2:1)? His mouth having a sword coming out of it (1:16; 2:16)? His possessing keys to death and Hades (1:18)? His giving faithful saints the morning star (2:28)? His holding David’s key (3:7)? His making his overcoming followers a pillar in the temple of God (3:12)? His spitting people out of his mouth (3:16)? His standing at a door and knocking (3:20)? Strangely compounded creatures filled with eyes and having six wings (4:6–7)? A slain but living lamb with seven eyes (5:6)? Four lone horsemen wreaking cultural havoc (6:1–8), with one of them carrying a pair of scales (6:5) and another having Hades following him (6:8)? Men talking to mountains (6:16)? People washing their robes in blood (7:14)? A third of the sun and moon being smitten (8:12)?
A key for the bottomless pit (9:1; 20:1)? Locusts with bodies of horses, 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) with tails like serpents (9:19)? Fire-breathing prophets (11:5)? A woman with eagle wings standing on the moon (12:1, 14)? A seven-headed red dragon with ten horns and seven crowns who pulls stars down from heaven (12:3–4)? War in heaven (12:7)? A serpent vomiting a river of water from his mouth (12:15)? Ten-crowned, seven-headed beast who is a compound of three carnivores (13:1–2)? A two-horned beast that speaks like a dragon and forces men to worship the seven-headed beast (13:1, 11)? Two angels possessing sickles and who reap the earth (14:15–19)? Non-coagulating blood flowing for 200 miles to the depth of horses’ bridles (14:20)? Bowls full of the wrath of God (15:7; 16:1)? A sea that becomes blood like that of a dead man (16:3)? Frogs coming out of the mouth of a dragon (16:13)? The collapse of all mountains on the earth (16:20)?
A harlot sitting on many waters (17:1) and riding a seven-headed beast (17:3). A harlot which is drunk from drinking blood (17:6), having the blood of all the saints in her (18:24)? Sins being piled up to heaven (18:5)? Christ returning with a sword in his mouth and on horse from heaven while wearing many diadems (19:11, 12, 15)? An angel possessing a key and a chain to bind the evil spirit Satan (20:1–2)? Death and Hades being thrown into a lake of fire (20:14)? God preparing to marry a city (21:2)? The city the size of a 1500 mile high cube floating down out of heaven (21:10, 16; cp. 3:12)? Gold that is like clear glass (21:18) or transparent glass (21:21)? Each of the twelve huge gates to the city made out of a single pearl (21:21)? A tree bearing twelve different fruits and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2)? Jesus as a bright morning star (22:16)?
If this abundance of symbols in Rev is compatible with a “plain” and “consistently literal” or “straightforward” approach, then anything is. Symbolism is inescapable in such a visionary work as this. So back to my observation: to have one’s millennium only appear in this one highly-symbolic book undercuts the argument. It cannot be, then, that dispensationalism only has to go to one Scripture passage to present their basic system, contrary to their claims.
My objector comments in this objection: “I am not sure any dispensationalist would argue for a physical key. Some people misunderstand a literal hermeneutic to mean everything needs to be physical, but I can’t think of anyone who would that a non-physical reality such as death would need a physical key.”
This is precisely my point. In the very text that supposedly presents the whole premillennial system as a literal reality, we have an obvious symbolism involved. And I did not even mention the composition of the “great chain” that is to hold the spiritual being of Satan. We cannot easily approach this Rev passage literalistically.
The next objections reads: “Rev 20:4 speaks explicitly about the martyrs, but there are other passages which talk about others in the kingdom (e.g., Zech 14; Matt 19:28). Taking something literally doesn’t mean that one believes a certain passage is exhaustive.”
Yet the focus on the martyrs is most relevant — and destructive — to the premillennial claim that his passage summarizes the millennial reign. Rather than roaming through Scripture elsewhere (which necessity itself undercuts the claim I am dealing with) to find references to a broader millennial clientele, we must look at this passage in its context to see what John means. And here he speaks only of the martyrs (who are a major concern in Rev). In fact, this passage is clearly the answer to the martyrs prayer in Rev 6:9–11, as the shared terms in both passages suggest. Thus, the very point of the passage is the martyrs.
The objection now raised is: “many (maybe most) dispensationalists hold to at least four resurrections actually (Christ, pretrib, premill, postmill). So, maybe a better charge would be that Revelation only mentions two. However, same point as above: taking something literally doesn’t mean that one believes a certain passage is exhaustive about all the details. What happens to millennial believers if/when they die is a good question, but I don’t think it is insurmountable objection to taking Revelation 20 literally. Some have said believers don’t die, or else they are resurrected at the end like non-believers. Either way, Rev 20 doesn’t need to say everything.”
The problem of two resurrections cannot be so easily dismissed — when remembering the point of my article. Dispensationalists claim that their system is presented in one text. But almost solely based on this text, dispensationalists have historically argued for two, separate resurrections: one of the saved and one of the lost. But now we find that they have to argue for four or more resurrections.
Sixth and seventh objections
The sixth and seventh points are jointly objected to as follows: “Six and Seven appear to be presupposed that if Christ is on the earth nothing can go wrong. Yet, the Garden of Eden presents a very similar situation where man rebelled even while being aware of immortal God walking with mankind. Also, these arguments wouldn’t be valid anyway if Scripture does in fact teach what dispensationalists claim it does. I guess the summation is that dispensationalists argue that Scriptures should be taken literally and thereby form one’s theology. Others tend to argue that Scriptures can’t mean something because that would form bad theology.”
The objection to my sixth point overlooks what I am arguing. I am not arguing that the millennium must function smoothly because Christ is ruling. I am pointing out that it largely collapses (on the dispensational view) to the point that Jesus is surrounded in Jerusalem and under threat of attack. My point was that Jesus is undergoing a second humiliation: he came back down to earth to rule, he rules 1000 years, but his kingdom falls apart and turns against him. This is a “humiliation.”
The difference between the Eden example and the millennial example is that Eden does not have Adam trying to conquer God in a battle. Whereas after 1000 years of being under the rule of the glorified Christ and his glorified, immortal saints, these natural men try to conquer them in battle.
There was no eighth objection! Why are you looking for one? Are you a literalist who has taken the Beatles’ song literally: “Eight days a week”?
There was no eighth objection, how then could there be a ninth, praytell?