That there are at least four major views to the end times (eschatology) question should cause us to pause. As mentioned before, all these views teach Christ’s personal return, the resurrection of every person, the judgment of all men, the eternal blessedness of the redeemed, and the everlasting punishment of the wicked. In these matters, we are all in agreement. An illustration will reveal where the differences might lie. We all know that the USA defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan and ousted Saddam Hussein in Iraq. On those major issues, all are in agreement. However, the account of those events may differ somewhat, depending on one’s political view. In addition, the purpose and reason for those events are under dispute. Similarly, all genuine Christians agree on the above items, but many of us disagree on how it will all come about.

Various Millennial Views

Our study on the rapture and an earlier overview of the question of Israel and the Church have given us an adequate survey of the Dispensational Premillennial position. The other three positions include Classic (or “Historic”) Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. The key distinctive element to Classical Premillennialism is its emphasis on a literal millennial reign. They believe Christ will come before the millennium. Many things will happen before Christ’s coming (evangelization of the nations, the great tribulation, apostasy and rebellion, and the appearance of the a personal antichrist).  It is a position maintained (though some details may differ) by some of the early church fathers (Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Hippolytus, and Lactantius) and some in the Reformation and Puritan centuries.[2] Both The Augsburg Confession (1530, article 17) and the Second Helvetic Confession (11:14) of 1566  denounce a form of premillennialism (they believed that old Jewish beliefs were being resurrected). Most premillennialists were Anabaptists (e.g., Thomas Müntzer) or part of the radical wing of the Reformation movement.[3] Perhaps the most modern exponent would be George E. Ladd and the CRC church historian at Calvin Seminary, Dr. H. Kromminga (also, the Bible Presbyterian Church).

Postmillennialists include Loraine Boettner and most Theonomists. These men believe that Christ will return after the millennium. The thousand years is not an exact number for them but rather represents a lengthy period of time where the gospel will penetrate the world and where God’s word through His Spirit will subdue a large majority of the people on earth. As a result, much peace and good will come of this; nations will work together, and there will be a long span of spiritual prosperity (maybe longer than one thousand years). “This does not mean that there ever will be a time on this earth when every person will be a Christian, or that all sin will be abolished. But it does mean that evil in all its many forms eventually will be reduced to negligible proportions, that Christian principles will be the rule, not the exception, and that Christ will return to a truly Christianized world.”[4]

No one view is entirely satisfactory. Whereas in many other things, we can be dogmatic, in this, we must be tentative. However, that does not mean we cannot draw conclusions. We believe that the amillennial view is the most consistent and scriptural position. Ever since Augustine, many Christians have believed that the millennial reference depicts Christ’s present reign. The reference therefore is symbolic of Christ’s present heavenly reign until His final return. Crassly put, we are in the millennium right now because Christ reigns with power from on high. “The so called ‘signs of the times’ have been present in the world from the time of Christ’s first coming, but they will come to a more intensified, final manifestation just before his Second Coming. The amillennialist therefore expects the bringing of the gospel to all nations and the conversion of the fullness of Israel to be completed before Christ’s return. He also looks for an intensified form of tribulation and apostasy as well as for the appearance of a personal antichrist before the Second Coming.”[5]

Scriptural Defense

Before we can interpret Revelation 20, we need to see some of the other passages that will have a bearing on our overall interpretation.  The Book of Revelation was not written in a vacuum. Christ utilized the apocalyptic imagery of the OT when He revealed Himself to John in the Book of Revelation.


Daniel gives us an important insight into the reign of God. Israel had been exiled and her own national sovereignty was taken away. Did God cease to rule since His own people failed? Of course not.

In Daniel 2, we are given Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (vv. 21ff.). The ability to interpret this dream was what set Daniel off from the rest of the wise counselors in Babylon. In it, Daniel speaks of four kingdoms. Every evangelical commentator has interpreted these four kingdoms to be a reference to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and then Rome. Also, every evangelical commentator takes the reference to the rock (vv. 44-45) to be Christ and His rule. Dispensationalists say that it can only be fulfilled if he rules from Jerusalem and is “literal.” So, they place this after the rapture and the great tribulation. But, the rock crushes Rome and all the previous kingdoms. The kingdom therefore is established by Christ’s earthly ministry, namely, by his life, death and resurrection, at His first coming. Dispensationalists read the prophecy like a Jew and expect a national hope—we must read the prophecy as it has been fulfilled in the NT through Christ.  Let us look at the NT evidence that Christ’s kingdom was established.

The powers of the world were broken and given to Christ. So we read in Acts 2:36 that Jesus has been made “both Lord and Christ” and has been “exalted at the right had of God” (2:33).[6] This clearly is a reference to Christ’s Lordship, His Kingship. He has been given all power and authority and everything is subject to Him (Mt. 28:18ff.; Phil. 2:9-10). It is true that we do not “yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8) but its reality cannot be denied since He was “crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:9). Philip Hughes commentary on this text is brilliant:

…for while it is obvious that enemy forces are still active and as yet unsubdued in the world, yet the gaze of faith penetrates to the great reality that Jesus is already enthroned on high… we are not to judge by appearances. All the powers of evil and rebellion and antichristianity so much in evidence in our world do not contradict the fact that judgment already hangs over them because the supremacy of Christ is a present reality.[7]

The NT sees Christ as the exalted King and in no way sees His power undiminished. His kingdom has been established and is going forth. Though the church herself is coextensive with Christ’s kingdom, she nevertheless is one of the primary expressions of His kingdom rule. The point is, Christ has a kingdom and that kingdom is currently in power. Why labor this point? Daniel 2 indicates that the Rock will crush the kingdoms and the expression of that overthrow is not as the Jews would have liked it (or even as the Dispensationalists) but as God has determined it. The Rock or Stone “that was cut from a mountain by no human hand” has broken in pieces all the kingdoms (Dan. 2:45).

In Acts 4:25, 26, the gathered believers appealed to Ps. 2 and teach us that the very Psalm was fulfilled (v. 27). The nations (mentioned in Ps. 2) are gathered against Christ right then and there (“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus…”)—the believers were convinced that the Psalm was being fulfilled. Dispensationalists say that the Psalm is only a reference to His future kingdom and did not fulfill it as His first coming.[8] But that is now how the NT interprets the passage. The NT interprets the fulfillment of Ps. 2 at that time which assumes the reign of Christ (cf. Ps. 2:6ff.). Dispensationalists believe only that Christ has been exalted waiting to rule over all the earth, but certainly that cannot be true.[9] Acts 13:33 specifically states that the second Psalm was fulfilled by the resurrection of Christ (also see Heb. 1:5; 5:5). Christ is King and Paul went about “proclaiming the kingdom” (Acts 20:25). Believers have been brought into “the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13) and we are to labor so as to “be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (2 Thess. 1:5). Christ has a kingdom of which we are members and that kingdom is not waiting for “its actual establishment on the earth.”[10]

For the dispensationalists, the “literal” or physical/national kingdom in Israel is the real kingdom (“theocratic kingdom”). They admit that there is the spiritual and sovereign kingdom but it is the literal kingdom that is the goal of God’s purposes.[11]

This is a most curious emphasis. Even in their understanding of the millennial reign, Christ is said to rule from Jerusalem to govern both genuine glorified believers and unconverted souls. For the dispensationalists, that He rules physically is more important than that He rules absolutely and sovereignly right now. In other words, Christ’s physical rule over those who hate him during the millennium is deemed to be more important than His present sovereign rule in the hearts of men and women.[12] Remember, after the thousand years, those who pretended to submit to Christ will fight against Him— what kind of rule is that? What sort of kingdom will Christ really have if after those many years, it only ends in rebellion and not glad submission? Richard Baxter’s complaint against a literal thousand years is helpful:

Is it in [the subduing of all Enemies] Mean you in fieri [i.e. in being made or in the course of completion], or in facto esse [i.e., to be in fact]? If the first, Is he not subduing them now? Doth he not subdue them in every sanctified Soul? and did he not subdue the Grand Pagan Roman Empire, &c. If you mean in facto esse, as consummate, then what needs a Thousand years to do it, when the Resurrection is the finishing of it?[13]

In other words, God is already subduing and He will literally finalize it at the resurrection or more specifically at the consummation of the ages after judgment. Christ will truly and absolutely rule but not merely provisionally for a thousand years but absolutely and eternally. The Stone cut out of Mountain is Christ and He rules now. Yes, not in the fashion demanded by Dispnesationalists. Interestingly, they believe that is the only way God can be true to His Word. Which is better, to rule for a thousand years and say that the millennium fulfilled the OT prophecies or to take all the prophecies and culminate them under Christ’s eternal rule on earth and say that is the final and full fulfillment of all His prophecies?

Furthermore, Daniel 6:26, 27 says something about God’s kingdom.  God’s kingdom existed during Darius’s reign and continues to endure now! Darius was not speaking about a future kingdom but recognized that the Sovereign God of Israel was still king over all things even during his own reign— “his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end.” God has never ceased ruling and that rule is under His Son as the exalted Mediator.

The dispensational understanding of Christ’s current rule is for the most part futuristic.[14] They admit that Christ possesses a heavenly throne but does not yet possess the earthly Davidic throne.[15] They seem to imply that Christ can only subjugate the earth from Jerusalem and therefore the Davidic earthly throne must be fulfilled. Yet we have seen that Ps. 2 was fulfilled and more importantly Ps. 45:6, 7 was also fulfilled by Christ where it speaks of Christ’s scepter, kingdom, and His throne (Heb. 1:8, 9). The writer of Hebrews was not citing Ps. 45 to suggest that another throne awaited Christ. The whole point of the reference to the throne was that this throne was the final and last exalted throne: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever…” (Heb. 1:8).

It is said that one CRC minister believed in premillennialism and this led to the “Maranatha controversy.” Rev. Bultema published a book called Maranatha where his premillennial view included the denial of Christ’s present kingship over all the nations.[16] This is interesting because Christ’s kingship is implicitly denied by some dispensationalists. To argue that his rule is only heavenly and not earthly is a distinction that belittles the grand significance of the exaltation of Christ. It is precisely because He rules heaven that He rules earth.  If Christ is ruling from the heavens, then what is He ruling? Is He not ruling all of earth? To suggest that George Bush is only the President of the United States and is not the Governor of Texas is to emphasize an irrelevant point. Being on top assumes control of the lower dominions. Christ’s heavenly rule embraces all earthly rule; there is no more need for an earthly one.

So, what we can conclude from this brief overview is one simple and essential point. Christ is ruling now and this was envisioned in the OT and the NT sees it as being fulfilled. Further manifestations of this rule will unfold, but there are no more thrones, no more kingdoms, etc. since He is already exalted above all things. When the NT speaks of Christ being made Lord, it is not assuming that other thrones must be occupied.

Revelation 20

How do we interpret the book of Revelation? Many theories have been offered and the most popular we think is the perhaps the most mistaken, viz., to view the book as a sequential account of future events.

OT Allusions

Moses Stuart set aside ten years to prepare to study Revelation by studying the OT. He, like we should all know, recognized that a study of the OT was indispensable to our understanding of Revelation. We mustn’t forget that this last book is “the climax of prophecy” since is brings to fulfillment the prophetic tradition of Israel.[17] For that reason, the church is viewed as Israel since she is the true (new) Israel of God.

The display of divine splendor that initiates John’s prophetic call (Rev. 1; 10) has appeared before as prophets were commissioned to carry God’s message from his council chamber (Ezek. 1; Dan. 9-10). The beast that emerges from the sea in Revelation 13 is a composite of the four beasts of Daniel 7, namely, the world kingdoms that oppress the saints until the Son of Man receives royal dominion from the Ancient of Days. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 are the two olive trees of Zechariah 4, “the two anointed ones who are standing by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. 4:14). The woes of judgment that fall on the harlot Babylon (Rev. 18) echo those that fell on Israel’s ancient oppressors, Tyre (Ezek. 27) and Babylon (Jer. 51: Isa. 48).

Revelation’s symbolic vocabulary is drawn not only from the thesaurus of the prophetic literature but also from the other parts of the Old Testament. The tree of life in paradise at the dawn of biblical history (Gen. 2:9) reappears at the consummation (Rev. 2:7; 22:2). The ancient serpent whose murderous lie seduced the woman and plunged the world into floods of misery (Gen. 3:1) is seen again, waging ware against the woman, her son, and her other children—but this time his doom is sure and his time is short (Rev. 12: 20). Plagues that struck ancient Israel’s Egyptian oppressors (Exod. 7-12) strike the church’s persecutors (Rev. 8:7, 10, 12; 9:3; 11:6; 16:13), so the church’s exodus-deliverance is celebrated with eh song of Moses and of the lamb (Rev. 15:3; Exoud 15).[18]

Hermeneutical issues

Whatever one might say about the book of revelation, one cannot discount the highly symbolic nature of the book. To say that we should take everything as literal as possible is more problematic than one thinks.

Revelation is a book of symbols in motion. What John has seen in prophetic vision is the true character of events, individuals, forces, and trends, the appearance of which is quite different on the physical, sociocultural, observable plane. One of the key themes of the book is that things are not what they seem. The church in Smyrna appears poor but is rich, and it is opposed by those who claim to be Jews but are Satan’s synagogue (Rev. 2:9). Sardis has a reputation for life but is dead (3:1). Laodicea thinks itself rich and self-sufficient, but this church is destitute and naked (3:17). The beast seems invincible, able to conquer the saints by slaying them (11:7; 13:7); their faithfulness even to death, however, proves to be their victory over the dragon that empowered the beast (12:11). What appear to the naked eye, on the plane of human history, to be weak, helpless, hunted, poor, defeated congregations of Jesus’ faithful servants prove to be the true overcomers who participate in the triumph of the Lion who conquered as a slain Lamb. What appear to be the invincible forces controlling history—the military-political-religious-economic complex that is Rome and its less lustrous successors—is a system sown with the seeds of its self-destruction, already feeling the first lashes of the wrath of the Lamb. On the plane o f visible history things are not what they appear, so Revelation’s symbols make things appear as they are. Its surprising, paradoxical imagery discloses the true identity of the church, its enemies, and its Champion. Paradox is central to the symbolism. Not only are things not what they appear to be in history, but also typically their true identities as portrayed in the visions are the opposite of their appearance in the world.[19]

Cycles or Recapitulations in Revelation[20]

Dispensationalists take Rev. 4-19 to be a chronological account of eschatological events. They read the chapters linearly and believe each chapter unfolds sequential future events. But, we will see, that that is not the only way of interpreting the passages. In fact, the cyclical view does greater justice to the passages.

Vern Poythress has listed seven cycles of seven judgments as being the structure.[21] Wilcox utilizes a similar structure culminating in eight sets of sevens.[22] Some of these appear to be forced but one cannot help seeing sevens. We see seven church, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, the seven spirits of God, etc. All these sevens are not mere sequential accounts; they speak of God’s perfect judgment on the wicked.

In these cycles, judgment is meted out and then the end of all things occurs. For example in Rev. 14:1, Christ is present on Mt. Zion. [See below for more cycles.][23] This section represents Christ’s coming (14:1-5) for His people. This does not fit the chronological reading of Revelation. So, Dispensationalists argue that the chapter is proleptic, namely, it talks about what will happen in Rev. 20.[24] After the seven bowls of God’s wrath (16:1ff.), we see the culmination of judgment fall on the Beast and Babylon (17:1ff.). Babylon has truly fallen (ch. 18) and then there is rejoicing in heaven (ch. 19) with the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6ff.; esp. v. 7). Again, the cycle of judgment and finality is brought out again.

Chapter 19 seems to speak of the marriage and final judgment against all Christ’s enemies (19:11ff.); a complete destruction is in view— “and the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (v. 21). There is no more! Yet, we come to Rev. 20 and the whole cycle once again appears. [SEE Bible Study handout on Rev. 20!]

More about Rev. 20 and the Millennium

Dispensational Premillennialists believe that the Millennium will be populated by those who survived the “Great Tribulation” as well as the raptured saints returning with Christ.[25] Unfortunately, the passage says nothing of those living at Christ’s return—it says, “they were raised from the dead and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (v. 4). It is these alone who reign with him (v. 6 “they will reign with him for a thousand years”).[26] This poses one significant problem for them because their literal hermeneutical principle forces them to accept everything this text but it doesn’t say everything they espouse regarding the Millennium. The text only allows for those who have been resurrected the first time. This, if just taken literally, excludes most of their theology because it leaves no room for those who were not martyred, surviving believers through the Millennium, OT resurrected saints, all the other saints with Christ in heaven, etc.

Dispensationalists must presuppose earthly millennial reign from v. 4. Most references to “thrones” are heavenly in nature. Noting in this verse stipulates that it is earthly. Verses 4-6 do not teach that it is an earthly event; in fact, it seems to depict an heavenly reign. Furthermore, vv. 7-10 assume an earthly attack on the saints and not on Christ. Nowhere do these verses teach that Christ is in the city. It is an attack on “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” (v. 9). This is the final attack on the saints and it will end with fire from heaven (v. 9). The throne once again mentioned in v. 11 assumes a supra-terrestial reference.

Verse 10, in ESV supplies the verbal tense as past—“where the beast and the false prophet were.” There is no tense or verb supplied in the original. Following Beale, it could be “where the beast and the false prophet will be.” “The devil is cast in to the fire together with or immediately after his two fiendish allies. The probability that 20:7-10 is a recapitulation of 19:17-21 makes unlikely the supposition that he is cast into the fire ages after his Satanic cohorts have gone in to the fire at the end of ch. 19.”[27] The recapitulation cycles assume either exact event or similar coordinate events. Ch. 19 spoke of the demise of the beast and the false prophet. Ch. 20 speaks of the beast; the cohorts might have already been in the lake of fire chronologically or may be there already in the narrative (sequence of the narrative). The recapitulation structure does not demand exact time frames or sequences.

[1] Remember, millennium comes from two Latin words— ‘one thousand’ (mille) and ‘year’ (annus). Millennialists were traditionally called chiliasts (chilias,  Greek word for a thousand).

[2] For example, Baxter wrote at least two works against premillennialism, see R. Baxter, A Reply to Mr. Tho. Beverley’s Answer to my Reasons Against his Doctrine of the Thousand Years Middle Kingdom, and of the Conversion of the Jews (London: Printed for Tho. Parkhurst, 1691) and The Glorious Kingdom of Christ, Described and clearly Vindicated (London: Printed by T. Snowden, for Thomas Parkhurst, 1691). In this last work, Baxter lists Joseph Mede and William Twisse as being Millennialists.

[3] See Robin Barnes, “Millenarianism” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, 3:61-63. Barnes lists one major Lutheran theologian who seems to have adopted a millenarian view.

[4] L. Boettner, The Millennium, revised ed. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1984), 14.

[5] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 174.

[6] Also see our paper “Rapture—Is this a biblical doctrine?” — the fifth reason against the Rapture.

[7] P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 87.

[8] Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 73, 81-82.

[9] Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 83.

[10] Cf. Pentecost, Things to Come, 471.

[11] Cf. Pentecost, Things to Come, 433-445, esp. 443.

[12] Baxter says, “Is not the New City and Earth after a Thousand years experience, worse than weak Christians are now? If by known Devils, and condemned wicked ones of all Ages raised, they will be drawn from Christ, after a Thousand years Miracles?” (A Reply to Mr. Tho. Beverley’s Answer, 6).

[13] Baxter, A Reply to Mr. Tho. Beverley’s Answer, 4.

[14] Walvoord, Jesus Christ our Lord, 226.

[15] Walvoord, Jesus Christ our Lord, 224.

[16] See Venema, The Promise of the Future, 197ff.

[17] Cf. D. E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2001), 2-3.

[18] Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 12-13.

[19] Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 9.

[20] Some of the thoughts in this section will be taken from our Bible Study series on the book of Revelation.

[21] V. Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), 60-63.

[22] M. Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, BST (Leicester: IVP, 1989), 15-18. Cf. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 37-38.

[23] Also, see 7:9-8:1 where Christ is with his people, in 7:17, it speaks of the end of all things! Once again, the end is in view, a complete cycle! Another one concludes in 11:15ff. Here we see that Christ’s kingdom is complete! In these verses, the words certainly speak of the finality of all things.

[24] See Thomas’s commentary on Revelation, 2:189.

[25] Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 291.

[26] Cf. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 184. Interestingly, Walvoord admits that they have a difficult time explaining whether the OT saints are raised at this time or not, pp. 279ff.

[27] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, ed. I. H. M. D. A. Hagner, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 1028.

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