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Revelation 20:1-15 - Part II

We now come to the focal point of the eschatological hostilities which divide Premillennialists from Amillennialists, namely, the meaning of the “first resurrection”. Although for many years a PM, I am now persuaded that Rev. 20:4-6 is concerned exclusively with the experience of the martyrs in the intermediate state. Notwithstanding their death physically for disobedience to the beast, they live spiritually through faith in the Lamb. Although a number of AMs identify the “coming to life” in 20:4 with regeneration (the new birth), I am inclined to follow the suggestion of others such as Meredith Kline and Anthony Hoekema that John is describing entrance into the intermediate state and the blessings of life it brings. My explanation and defense of this interpretation will come in the next lesson. But first I must respond to the PM view of the passage.


Although there are variations among PMs, especially between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists, most forms of premillennialism hold in common the following points.


The “coming to life” in 20:4b is a physical, bodily resurrection of believers that occurs at the second coming of Christ before the millennium. The “coming to life” in 20:5a is also a physical, bodily resurrection, but of unbelievers after the millennium. Therefore, the bodily resurrection of all mankind comes in two stages separated by a thousand years. The elect are raised before and the non-elect after this millennial reign of Christ upon the earth.


Following are the principal arguments used by PMs to defend this view of Rev. 20.


(1)       Alford’s Dictum


Henry Alford writes:


"If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psuchai ezesan at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after that first, --- if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; --- then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to any thing. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain: but if the second is literal, then so is the first."




·      Whereas Alford's dictum is a helpful principle of interpretation, I do not believe it applies in this particular passage. Other texts in which it does not apply include John 2:18-22; 11:25-26; Mt. 8:22; Luke 9:24; John 6:49-50; and possibly 1 Peter 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 9:6; 2 Cor. 5:21.


·      AMs have almost uniformly appealed to John 5:25-29 as a clear exception to Alford’s dictum. Here a “spiritual” and a “physical” resurrection are spoken of in the same context.


(2)       The meaning of “anastasis” (resurrection)


The second argument employed by the PM is an appeal to the Greek term anastasis, translated “resurrection”. This noun appears forty-two times in the New Testament, thirty-nine of which refer to bodily resurrection from the dead (for an exception, see Luke 2:34). The remaining two occurrences are in Revelation 20:5,6, their meaning yet to be determined. The substance of this argument for PM is noted and acknowledged. But is it altogether convincing and compelling? I think not. Here is why.


·      Let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that John might wish to describe life in the intermediate state in Rev. 20:4-6. How else could he have done so, other than the way he has, and still secure the needed emphasis? That is to say, if John’s purpose were to encourage and console believers who were facing martyrdom, and if, in doing so, he wished to throw into sharp relief the contrast between what the beast might do to them physically and what the Lamb will do for them spiritually, what better, more appropriate, or even more biblical way could he have done so than by assuring them that though they may die physically at the hands of the beast they will live spiritually in the presence of the Lamb? I can think of no more vivid way of making this point than that of life after and in spite of death.


·      If John were attempting to describe the blessings of the intermediate state for those facing martyrdom, what terminology could he possibly have used, other than what he does use, and still maintain the desired emphasis? There simply is no other Greek noun besides anastasis that would adequately make the point. The only other Greek nouns in the New Testament which mean “resurrection” are exanastasis, used only in Phil. 3:11, and egersis, used only in Mt. 27:53. Both of these texts refer to physical resurrection also.


·      In sum, if John wished to describe entrance into the intermediate state in terms of a resurrection (and that would certainly be appropriate given the prospects for martyrdom among those to whom he was writing), with what Greek noun other than anastasis could he have done it? There are few who will deny that Scripture uses the terminology and imagery of physical resurrection to describe spiritual life (see Ezekiel 37; Eph. 2:1-6; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1; Rom. 6; etc.). Why, then, should we object to the use of the terminology and imagery of physical resurrection to describe spiritual life in the intermediate state, especially when such “life” is contrasted with “death”? I am sure John knew that anastasis might well evoke the notion of bodily resurrection in the minds of his readers. That is why, I believe, he explicitly identifies those of whom he predicates this resurrection as the “souls of those beheaded.” He knew that such a phrase, even more so in view of the parallel in Rev. 6:9-11, would have alerted his readers (prospective martyrs) that the kind of resurrection in view was spiritual life after physical death. When we add to this the aforementioned fact that only here in all the New Testament is the ordinal “first” appended to the noun “resurrection,” and reflect on its significance, the possibility of the AM position is strengthened.


·      Note well. I said the possibility of this particular AM interpretation. I do not want to be misunderstood at this point. I am not saying that John’s use of anastasis demands the amillennial interpretation. It is entirely possible that anastasis means physical, bodily resurrection in Rev. 20. At no time have I suggested that anastasis is inappropriate as a description of physical, bodily resurrection. All that I have aruged for is that, assuming John wished to describe the intermediate state, and given the historical context in which he was writing as well as the immediate prospects for martyrdom among his readers, and in view of the limitations on terminology at his disposal, anastasis would not be an inappropriate word to make his point. Whether or not this AM interpretation of anastasis is probable must be determined on other grounds. At this point all I wish to establish is that the premillennial argument based on the traditional definition of anastasis is something less than compelling.


(3)       The meaning of “zao” (to live)


The PM also appeals to the usage of the verb zao in the New Testament. This verb is used twice in our passage (vv, 4,5). The point made by the PM is that when zao is used of resurrection, i.e., of “coming to life” after death, it almost always is physical, bodily resurrection (Mt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rev. 2:8). Response:


·      This verb occurs some 130x in the New Testament and has well over a dozen different connotations. It can refer to ordinary physical existence in the here and now, to the living God, to living water, to living eternally, to Christ’s living now in heaven as exalted Lord, to the way we conduct ourselves ethically, and to spiritual regeneration and conversion, just to mention a few. It is even used of living in the intermediate state in Matthew 22:32 (cf. Luke 20:38; John 11:25-26).


·      We should not be surprised that John might choose to describe the experience of the martyrs in the intermediate state as “living”. The intermediate state is a spiritual living after physical death, is it not? Jesus did promise his people in Rev. 2:10-11 that because of their faithfulness unto physical death he would give them the crown of life, did he not? And did he not say that the kind of living granted to those who die for their faith is such that secures them against the second death, even as John tells us in 20:6 that the second death has no power over those who live by virtue of the first resurrection? These parallels between Rev. 2:10-11 and 20:4-6 are unmistakable.


·      On what grounds, then, should anyone object to John’s describing the experience of the intermediate state as “living (spiritually) with Christ,” especially in view of the intended contrast with the physical death they suffer from the beast? I do not know of another text descriptive of the intermediate state in which any verb is used to describe the quality of life experienced there by the saints. Why, then, should anyone object to the suggestion that John uses such a common, well-known term as zao in Revelation 20? I am again led to conclude that zao, like anastasis, is entirely fitting as a description of the nature and blessedness of the intermediate state. Such could not help but encourage and strengthen those who face the possibility of physical death for their faith, be it then or now.


(4)       The meaning of “chilia ete” (thousand years)


Finally, the PM insists that the words chilia ete, “one thousand years,” must mean literal years, i.e., arithmetically and calendrically precise years. As anyone who has studied Revelation knows all too well, deciphering numbers in this book is an incredibly difficult task. One need only observe the dispute down through the centuries over the meaning of 666!


·      In other texts “one thousand” rarely if ever is meant to be taken with arithmetical precision. This is true whether the context is non-temporal (Ps. 50:10; Song of Solomon 4:4; Josh. 23:10; Isa. 60:22; Deut. 1:11; Job 9:3; Eccles. 7:28), in which case the usage is always figurative, indeed hyperbolical, or temporal (Deut. 7:9; 1 Chron. 16:15; Pss. 84:10; 90:4; 105:8; 2 Peter 3:8).


·      What is the significance of the number 1,000 here? According to David Chilton, just “as the number seven connotes a fullness of quality in Biblical imagery, the number ten contains the idea of a fullness of quantity; in other words, it stands for manyness. A thousand multiplies and intensifies this (10 x 10 x 10), in order to express great vastness (cf. 5:11; 7:4-8; 9:16; 11:3,13; 12:6; 14:1,3,20).” For example, we are told in Psalm 50:10 that God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills.” Obviously this “does not mean that the cattle on the 1,001st hill belongs to someone else. God owns all the cattle on all the hills. But He says ‘a thousand’ to indicate that there are many hills, and much cattle.” Benjamin B. Warfield takes much the same approach:


"The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand the seer has said all he could say to convey to our minds the idea of absolute completeness. . . . [Therefore] when the saints are said to live and reign with Christ a thousand years the idea intended is that of inconceivable exaltation, security and blessedness as beyond expression by ordinary language."




In this lesson I have responded to what I perceive to be the strongest arguments favoring the PM interpretation of Rev. 20:4-6. My conclusion is that whereas each of these arguments is entirely possible, none of them is compelling. In each instance there is a viable AM alternative. This alternative becomes persuasive when the rest of the New Testament witness is brought to bear on Revelation 20. The task now at hand is to provide a cogent AM interpretation which not only does justice to the exegetical and theological data in 20:4-6, but is also compatible with what we have seen to be the testimony of the remainder of the New Testament on the subject of the kingdom of God.



Alternative AM views of the "First Resurrection"


Several AM interpreters have conceded the validity of Alford’s dictum but have remained AM, one of whom is Philip E. Hughes.


Hughes agrees with the PM that the resurrection referred to in both instances of ezesan must be physical or bodily. He remains an AM, however, by arguing that the “first resurrection” is not that of Christians immediately prior to a future millennial reign, but is that of Jesus Christ in whose resurrection Christians share. John says in 20:6 that “he who shares in” the first resurrection is blessed. Since one does not “share” (lit., “one who has a part in,” ho exon meros en) in his own resurrection but in that of another, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is in view, a resurrection with which we are identified and of which we partake by virtue of that relation with Christ through faith described by Paul as being “in Christ” (see Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12ff.; 3:1; Eph. 2:4-5).


Similar to this view is the one espoused by Norman Shepherd. Shepherd contends that the “first resurrection” is that which may be said to occur in Christian baptism (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:4). It is essentially synonymous with conversion, and therefore Shepherd, like Hughes, also appeals to Col. 3:1 and Eph. 2:5-6. Although in Rev. 20:6 no explicit reference is made to a “second resurrection,” it is certainly implied. This second resurrection refers to the resurrection of the body (of all the elect) at Christ’s second advent. In the light of other texts (Rom. 8:18-23; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1), Shepherd argues that this second resurrection is more than merely a resurrection of the body, but is cosmic as well. Thus he concludes that “the distance between the first resurrection and the second resurrection is not a thousand years between the ‘literal’ resurrection of the just and the ‘literal’ resurrection of the unjust. It is rather the distance between the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom and with whom believers are raised by baptism, and the resurrection of all things at the end of the age.”


Whereas Hughes and Shepherd concede Alford’s dictum but find a reference to physical resurrection in both occurrences of ezesan, James Hughes and Anthony Hoekema concede Alford’s dictum but see a reference to spiritual resurrection in both cases (something Alford refused to believe anyone was “hardy” enough to maintain). But how can it be said, someone might ask, that the non-elect are raised spiritually after the millennium? The point James Hughes and Hoekema both make is that this is precisely what the text does not say. Both men deny that the word “until” (achri) demands a change after the point to which it refers is reached. In saying that the non-elect dead do not “come to life” until the thousand years are finished, John is not implying that after the thousand years are finished they will “come to life.” Hoekema explains:


"When he says that the rest of the dead did not live or come to life, he means the exact opposite of what he had just said about the believing dead. The unbelieving dead, he is saying, did not live or reign with Christ during this thousand-year period. Whereas believers after death enjoy a new kind of life in heaven with Christ in which they share in Christ’s reign, unbelievers after death share nothing of either this life or this reign . . . . The Greek word here translated “until,” achri, means that what is said here holds true during the entire length of the thousand-year period. The use of the word until does not imply that these unbelieving dead will live and reign with Christ after this period has ended. If this were the case, we would have expected a clear statement to this effect."


It is true, of course, that in certain cases “until” does not demand a reversal of the circumstances which had prevailed antecedent to the time to which it refers. However, in the three other instances in Rev. in which achri is used with the aorist subjunctive (7:3; 15:8; 20:3) the implication is certainly of a reversal of circumstances once the point of termination is reached. Contextually, as well, the indication is that subsequent to the termination of the thousand years significant changes obtain, specifically, the release of him who, during the thousand years, was bound.


Even more decisive is the content of 20:11-15 in which the non-elect dead, i.e., those who did not live during the thousand years, are said to stand before the Great White Throne for purposes of judgment. In other words, the non-elect dead do live after the thousand years in the sense that they are raised physically in order to be cast into the lake of fire. Of course, Hoekema and James Hughes must reject any identification ot the “resurrection” in 20:11-15 with that in 20:5, for they have accepted Alford’s dictum, to wit, that both occurrences of ezesan necessarily refer to resurrections of identical character.


In response, I must agree with the PM here that the strong implication of both grammar and context is that the rest of the dead do indeed “come to life” (whatever that may mean) after the thousand years are completed. And since I am not convinced by Philip Hughes or Norman Shepherd that the first resurrection is physical or bodily, I am compelled to reject Alford’s dictum. I do in fact believe that the first resurrection is spiritual and that the resurrection of the non-elect after the millennium is physical.



A Response to George Ladd

on John 5:25-29


George Ladd objects to the AM appeal to John 5 as being analogous to Rev. 20. He insists that the two passages are not sufficiently similar, for “in the gospel, the context itself provides the clues for the spiritual interpretation in the one instance and the literal in the other.” But in Revelation 20, says Ladd, there is no such contextual clue that the resurrections are of a different order.


On this, however, I beg to differ. In the first place, why must the immediate context alone be determinative? Just because the immediate context of John 5 provides its own clues and that of Rev. 20, at least according to Ladd, does not, is hardly sufficient reason to reject the AM interpretation of the latter. If John does not supply an extensive elaboration in Rev. 20 as he does in John 5 to the effect that the resurrections are of a different order, it could very well be because the broader context of Scripture has already provided the necessary indications. In the New Testament we read of only one general resurrection, we read of no intermediate or post-Parousia millennial age, and the second advent of Christ is repeatedly and uniformly portrayed as ushering in the perfection of the eternal state. In view of this I hardly think John thought it necessary to expand greatly upon his comment. Besides, his purpose is to record a vision, not to write a theological commentary on its meaning. (Only rarely in Revelation does John interpret his visions for us.)


Furthermore, and contrary to Ladd, I am persuaded that John did in fact provide clues in the immediate context that would signal his readers to a difference in the nature of the resurrections. One such clue is the intervening millennium itself. Another is the ordinal “first,” used with “resurrection,” only here in all the New Testament. The predication of such a resurrection to disembodied “souls” of martyrs is yet another clue that the “coming to life” subsequent to their physical death is something other than bodily. The implied qualitative contrasts between the “first death” and the “second death,” as well as between the “first resurrection” and “second resurrection,” also indicate that John is speaking of two resurrections of contrasting character. Of course, the ultimate rationale for rejecting the application of Alford’s dictum to Rev. 20:4-6 must come from the cogency of the amillennial interpretation of the passage itself.