Revelation 20:1-15 - Part I
Unfortunately, the discussion of this passage has been muddled by statements such as: “The premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 is superior because it is literal, whereas the amillennial interpretation spiritualizes, and therefore dishonors, God’s Word.” Suffice it to say, in the words of Arthur Lewis, that
"the essential and concrete aspects of the text may not be 'spiritualized' out of existence. The martyred and enthroned saints are real, the angel who binds Satan is real, Satan himself is very real, and the wicked nations in revolt against the King are real nations and part of history. The question is not, therefore, which view is the more literal, but which correctly understands the place and purpose of the thousand years."
The point is simply that the millennium for which I will argue is just as real and literal as the millennium for which the premillennialist contends.
The first interpretive task before us is the account in vv. 1-3 of Satan’s imprisonment in the abyss for a period of 1,000 years.
Revelation 20:1-3 and the Binding of Satan
PMs believe that this vision constitutes one of the strongest confirmations of their prophetic scenario. They point to two significant features.
· First, they insist that the relationship between the events of Rev. 19:11-21 and those of 20:1-3 is one of chronological and historical sequence. Consequently, the binding of Satan for a millennium is historically subsequent to (i.e., after) the second coming of Christ.
· Second, they insist that the New Testament evidence concerning the extent of Satan’s activity in this present age is incompatible with the description of the restrictions imposed upon him by the angel in Rev. 20:1-3. Since Satan is most certainly not bound now, so they tell us, the events of vv. 1-3 must be future.
I will respond to each of these two arguments in turn.
(1) The PM insists that beginning with Rev. 19:11 and extending through 21:1 we have a series of visions that are historically and chronologically sequential. The PM appeals to two arguments.
First, much is made of the phrase “and I saw” (kai eidon), which occurs in 19:11,17,19; 20:1,4,11; 21:1. This, they argue, indicates that what John saw in chapter 20 follows chronologically and historically upon what he saw in chapter 19. Consequently, the binding of Satan and the millennial kingdom are yet future, subsequent to the second coming of Christ. My response follows:
First of all, the phrase translated “and I saw” appears countless times in Revelation and need only indicate the sequence in which John received the visions. It does not necessarily indicate any historical relation among the many visions themselves. The phrase “and when” (kai hotan) in 20:7, being decidedly temporal in force, simply indicates that the events of 20:7-10 follow historically upon the events of 20:4-6 and 20:1-3, a fact which no one denies.
Second, if we were to take the events of 20:1-3 as historically subsequent to the events of 19:11-21, a serious problem arises in that 20:1-3 would describe an action designed to prevent the satanic deception of the very nations who had already been deceived (16:13-16) and consequently destroyed in 19:19-21. In other words, it makes little sense to speak of protecting the nations from deception by Satan in 20:1-3 after they have just been both deceived by Satan (16:13-16; cf. 19:19-20) and destroyed by Christ at his return (19:11-21; cf. 16:15a, 19).
Third, note also the parallel between Rev. 19:17-21 and 20:7-10. It seems that John is providing parallel accounts of the same conflagration (Armageddon) rather than presenting two entirely different battles separated by 1,000 years of human history. This deserves some attention.
There is evidence from Ezekiel 39:17-20 that the battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19 and the battle of Gog-Magog in Revelation 20 are one and the same. The Ezekiel passage describes an invitation to the birds of heaven to assemble for the purpose of consuming the flesh of those who played a role in the Gog-Magog revolt. But interestingly, this Old Testament passage is cited in Rev. 19:17-18 and applied to “the great supper of God” which consummates Armageddon. It would appear that Armageddon and Gog-Magog are the same event, not two entirely different battles separated by a 1,000 year interregnum. Fowler White correctly concludes that
"if we are expected to interpret the revolts in Revelation 19 and 20 as different episodes in history, we would hardly expect John to describe them in language and imagery derived from the same episode in Ezekiel’s prophecy. On the contrary, John’s recapitulated use of Ezekiel 38-39 in both 19:17-21 and 20:7-10 establishes a prima facie case for us to understand 20:7-10 as a recapitulation of 19:17-21. If 20:7-10 is indeed a recapitulation of 19:17-21, then 20:7-10 narrates the demise of the dragon (Satan) at the second coming, while 19:17-21 narrates the demise of the beast and the false prophet at the second coming. Any other interpretation of how to relate these two judgment scenes, both of which are modeled on Ezekiel 38-39, will have to bear the burden of proof."
In both Rev. 16:14 and 19:19 the campaign against Christ and his people is designated as the war. The definite article in both texts draws our attention to the distinctive identity of this war as the eschatological battle which brings the present age to its end. It seems only reasonable to conclude that the use of the definite article in 20:8 is anaphoric. The war of 20:8 is the war of 19:19 and 16:14. This point is confirmed when one observes the absence of the definite article in 9:7,9; 11:7; 12:7,17; and 13:7.
Fourth, the PM view of historical succession between chapters 19 and 20 also runs counter to the declaration of Heb. 12:26-27. According to PM, there will be two wars, two cosmic dissolutions, one before the millennium (16:17-21; 19:11-21; cf. Matthew 24:29) and one after it (20:9-11). But in Heb. 12 we read: “And his voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.’ And his expression, ‘Yet once more,’ denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.” Clearly, the author is describing the cosmic consequences of the appearance of the Divine Judge, first at Sinai, and then finally at the end of the age. He could hardly have been more explicit when he said, “Yet once (hapax) more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven” (v. 26). But according to PM he should have said, “Yet twice more . . .,” i.e., once before the millennium and a second time after it. A more viable interpretation is the one which interprets the account of destruction in 20:9-11 as an abbreviated recapitulation of the destruction in 6:12-17, 16:17-21 and 19:11-21.
Second, the PM points to the fact that according to 20:10 Satan is cast into the lake of fire where the Beast and False Prophet already are. Therefore, the latter two characters must have been cast into the lake of fire before the millennium (19:20). Response:
This argument is based on a mistranslation of 20:10. The text literally reads: “and the devil, the one who deceives them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also the beast and false prophet, and they shall be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The NASB supplies the verb eisi (“are”), wrongly so in my opinion. The verb to be supplied should probably be eblethesan (“were cast”) from 19:20. Thus the text would read: “and the devil . . . was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also [hopou kai; cf. 11:8 for a similar usage] the beast and false prophet were cast (eblethesan).”
So when were the beast and false prophet cast in? The answer would appear to be, at the conclusion of the war, when the devil himself was cast in. The three jointly instigated the Armageddon/Gog-Magog revolt and are therefore jointly cast into the lake of fire to be jointly tormented forever and ever. The text does not say that the beast and false prophet were “already” in the lake of fire when Satan was cast in. Even if it did, this need only imply that after the war the beast and false prophet were first judged and cast into the lake of fire, a judgment and fate then immediately applied to Satan.
The suggestion that the judgment of the beast and false prophet precedes by 1,000 years that of the devil ignores the parallel between the war of chapter 19 and the war of chapter 20. There are not two wars with two judgments, but one war and judgment described from two distinct but complementary vantage points. First, in chapter 19, John relates the destruction of the beast and false prophet, and second, in chapter 20, that of Satan.
All that we may legitimately conclude is that the vision given to John of the beast and false prophet being cast into the lake of fire precedes the vision given to him of Satan being cast in. In order to prove the historical antecedence of the former to the latter, far more is needed than what the text itself supplies. It is just as likely, if not more so, that what we have here is simply the literary antecedence of one vision to another, not the historical sequence of their respective contents.
(2) The second of the two arguments from Rev. 20:1-3 employed by PMs pertains to the nature and extent of Satan’s binding. PMs insist that Satan’s imprisonment in 20:1-3 is not compatible with the dimensions of his present activity as portrayed in the New Testament epistles (as, for example, in 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; Eph. 6:10-20; 1 Thess. 2:18; Js. 4:7; 1 Pt. 5:8-9; 1 Jn. 4:4; 5:19).
G. R. Beasley-Murray argues that the angel in 20:1 “reduces Satan to impotence.” The “incarceration of the Devil,” says Beasley-Murray, “is trebly circumscribed. He is bound up, locked in, and sealed over. The writer could hardly have expressed more emphatically the inability of Satan to harm the race of man.” Response:
The question must be asked: “In regard to what is Satan bound? Is the binding of Satan designed to immobilize him from any and all activities?” The PM thinks so. Beasley-Murray tells us that Satan’s binding entails his inability “to harm the race of man.” But is this what John says? Clearly not. The PM interpretation errs in that it has attempted to universalize what John explicitly restricts.
Two statements in Rev. 20 tell us the purpose of Satan’s imprisonment. First, in v. 3, John says that Satan was bound “so that he should not deceive the nations any longer.” Then secondly, in v. 8, John tells us that upon his release from the abyss Satan will come out “to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war.” Note well what John does and does not say. He does not say that Satan was bound so that he should no longer persecute Christians, or so that he should no longer prowl about “like a roaring lion” (1 Pt. 5:8) devouring believing men and women. He does not say that Satan was bound so that he should no longer concoct schemes to disrupt church unity (2 Cor. 2:11), or so that he should no longer disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). He does not say that Satan was bound so that he should no longer hurl his flaming missiles at Christians (Eph. 6:16), or so that he should be kept from thwarting the plans of the apostle Paul (1 Thess. 2:18).
Rather, John says that Satan was bound so that he should no longer deceive the nations (v. 3), the purpose behind which is to mobilize them in an international rebellion against the city of God (v. 8). And the language John employs in 20:1-3 makes it clear that there is no possible way for Satan to do so during the thousand years. The restriction on this particular aspect of his sinister ministry is absolute and invincible. The intent of the devil is to incite a premature eschatological conflict, to provoke Armageddon before its, that is to say, before God’s time. But the exalted Christ, through the agency of an angelic being, has temporarily stripped Satan of his ability to orchestrate the nations of the earth for the final battle (regardless of the form that battle might assume).
The final offensive against the Lamb and his elect shall come only when the restriction placed on this element of Satan’s work is lifted. For the duration of the present Christian era Satan’s hand is stayed. Upon release from his imprisonment he will dispatch his demonic hordes “which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 16:14).
Although Satan may and will do much in this present age (as the epistles clearly indicate), there is one thing of which John assures us: Satan will never be permitted to incite and organize the unbelieving nations of the world in a final, catastrophic assault against the church, until such time as God in his providence so determines. That event, which the Lord will immediately terminate with the fiery breath of his mouth (2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 20:9), will come only at the end of this age.
John does not say Satan’s activity is altogether eliminated, but that it has been effectively curtailed in one particular domain. The binding is absolute and, at least for the duration of a “millennium,” unbreakable. That is to say, it is a binding which is intensive, so far as it goes, but is nowhere said to be extensive in relation to all that Satan does. It is designed solely for one purpose, to prohibit and inhibit a satanic plot to deceive the nations into a war which, in view of the prophetic plan and power of God, is both premature and futile.
Other amillennial interpreters would prefer to expand the limitations placed on Satan by the binding of 20:1-3. Both Anthony Hoekema and William Hendriksen, for example, argue that one form of deception that Satan perpetrated prior to Christ’s first advent pertains to the gospel. There is a sense in which prior to Christ’s first coming all “nations,” with the exception of Israel, were “deceived” by Satan and thus prevented from embracing the truth (with certain notable exceptions, of course). The universal embrace of the gosepl (Mt. 28:19) subsequent to Christ’s advent, so they argue, is the direct result of Satan’s incarceration. Hoekema and Hendriksen thus identify the binding of Satan in Rev. 20 with the decisive defeat he suffered at the time of our Lord’s first advent (see Mt. 12:29 where the same word for “binding” [deo] occurs; also cf. Luke 10: 17-18; John 12:31-32; 16:11; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8).
Especially relevant in this regard is Paul’s statement in Acts 26:16-18 concerning the mission given him by the exalted Christ:
“But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (emphasis mine).
The Gentiles or “nations” are portrayed as being in darkness with respect to the gospel, having been blinded (“deceived”) while under the dominion of Satan. However, as a result of Christ’s first coming, such deception no longer obtains. The nations or Gentiles may now receive the forgiveness of sins and the divine inheritance. Hendriksen draws this conclusion:
"In Rev. 20:1-3 the binding of Satan and the fact that he is hurled into the abyss to remain there for a thousand years indicates that throughout this present Gospel Age, which begins with Christ’s first coming and extends nearly to the second coming, the devil’s influence on earth is curtailed so that he is unable to prevent the extension of the church among the nations by means of an active missionary program. During this entire period he is prevented from causing the nations---the world in general---to destroy the church as a mighty, missionary institution. . . . By means of the preaching of the Word as applied by the Holy Spirit, the elect, from all parts of the world, are brought from darkness to light. In that sense the church conquers the nations, and the nations do not conquer the church."
It is entirely possible that these two views may be combined. Perhaps one of the principal means Satan hoped to employ to mobilize the nations for war was the pervasive spiritual darkness and unbelief in which they languished. But with the world-wide spread of the gospel, the necessary power base from which Satan would launch his attack has been dismantled. In other words, it is the influence of the church, as a result of the universal preaching of the gospel, which inhibits the activity of Satan in this particular regard. Though Satan still blinds the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor. 4:4), he is providentially restricted from hindering the pervasive expansion of the gospel throughout the world. Satan may win an occasional battle, but the war belongs to Christ!