Questions from Revelation 20: the "first resurrection" and the "thousand years"

This article concerns two interrelated questions from Revelation 20: (1) what does the phrase “the first resurrection” refer to? and (2) what does the phrase “the thousand years” refer to? I've been coming to some very different conclusions in my recent studies of Revelation to what I would have thought possible when I read the same book several years ago. I now look much more favorably on (what I prefer to call) an “inaugurated” reading of chapter 20, for instance, which I would have never even considered when I wrote a series of posts in response to amillennialist Sam Storms. The argument presented here reflects some of the fences I’ve jumped since then.

I am indebted to several scholars for the content of this post, and for my shift in general. In regards the questions asked here of Revelation 20:4-6, I follow closely the argument of M. G. Kline in his article “The First Resurrection”. Also very helpful has been the article from Vern S. Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6”. Lastly, N. T. Wright has been most instrumental for sneaking in under the radar and destroying my caricatures of amillennialism. His book Surprised By Hope is pure gold, regardless of your millennial persuasion.

One last introductory comment: I must say that I am not beyond jumping back over the fence into premill land once more. This side seems the greenest at the moment when I try to step back and weigh the evidence, but I'm still willing to compare and leave open the possibility  for reading the text in a fresh way. I must also ask for patience on the part of the unconvinced, however, as this post does not constitute my own '95 Theses on the subject.

So then, lets address our first question: to what does the phrase “the first resurrection” in 20:6 refer? To my knowledge there are three options available to us: (a) it speaks of the bodily resurrection of the saints at Christ’s second coming; (b) it speaks of the spiritual regeneration of all Christians this side of the resurrection; or (c) it speaks of a new stage of life which every Christian experiences upon entering the presence the Lord after death. There are many different modifications of these three positions, but such variations still tend to fall within these general categories.

The proponents of (a), i.e. premillennials, often make the point that the “first resurrection” must be a bodily rising from the grave since the implicit “second resurrection” in 20:12-13 is a bodily resurrection. This is seen to be contradictory, however, by the premillennial recognition that the “second death” is a death of a different sort from the loss of physical life in the implicit “first death”. According to 20:14, the “second death” is the lake of fire. It is, in other words, not just a death of a different sort, but a death of a higher order than physical death, a new reality to which the state of physical death gives way after the great judgment. If we see any sort of symmetry between the first-second death and the first-second resurrection, therefore, this suggests that the “first resurrection” refers to a life of a different order from the bodily resurrection of 20:12-13.

Option (a) becomes even less likely when we recognize that the “second death” is not something that happens to an entirely different group than those who experienced the implicit “first death”. On the contrary, “Death and Hades” give up their “dead” in verse 13, and they are thrown into “the lake of fire” in verse 14. This suggests, once more, that the “first resurrection” is not the same sort of reality as its implicit follow-up, the first in a sequential series of events of the same kind, like an underground railway on a circuit returns to pick up those who missed the early train. Rather, as the text implies, those who take part in the “first resurrection” are the same group guaranteed to take part in the “second resurrection”, since they are the ones over whom the “second death” has no power (20:6).

This is strongly confirmed when we read Revelation 20 in the context of the following chapter. In Revelation 21:1-5 the word “first”, or protos (πρῶτος), is employed in juxtaposition with “new” (καινός). The consummation of history brings “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when the Creator God makes “all things new” (v. 5). And when the word “first” appears throughout the passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”. It may be good to see the words side by side to get the effect.

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the first things have passed away… Behold I make all things new.”

When God makes all things new, all the “first things” pass away—all death, sorrow, crying and pain. In this passage, to be “first” means to belong to the order of the old world that will give way to the new when God acts to liberate the whole of creation from its bondage to decay. In this context protos does not mean merely the first in a series of like kind; rather it characterizes this world as both different and lesser in kind from the “new” world of God’s consummate redemption. It shows the present transient state of things in contrast with the new world order that will abide forever. Even death, the kind of “death” associated with the “first things”, gives way to a reality of a higher, eternal order: the “second death” referred to in verse 8 (cf. v. 4). Thus we see that an alternative term for “new” in Revelation 21 is the word “second”. The term “new”, with its positive redemptive undertones, would be inappropriate to refer to the higher order of “death” which belongs to the future world, but “second” is clearly intended as a synonym to “new” given it bears the same antithetical relationship to “first”.

In this juxtaposition of first death (v. 4) and “second death” (v. 8), Revelation 21 presents us with the same idiom that we find in the previous chapter with the “first resurrection” (vv. 5, 6) and the second resurrection (which is implicit in the chapter). The chances that this is coincidental are extremely low. Rather, the force of context compels us to think that the word protos in the phrase “the first resurrection” serves to qualify the type of resurrection described in contrast to the implicit second resurrection; i.e. the “first resurrection” belongs to the “first things”, while the second resurrection belongs to the new order that supersedes the first things—all death, sorrow, crying and pain. While the implicit second resurrection is the final redemption of our bodies, the “first resurrection” refers to the intermediate state of “life” which every Christian experience upon entering the presence of the Lord after death. It refers, in other words, to life after death, not life after life after death.

We find, then, that a contextually grounded exegesis of Revelation 20 leads us to the solid conclusion that option (c) is the right answer to our question.

Now, although this does indeed make for an unusual and innovative use of the word “resurrection”, it is also quite appropriate, since the martyrs of Revelation 20:4-6 are people who were thought to be dead and are now seen to be, in a very real sense, alive. Yet it is nonetheless expressed as a kind of postmortem life before life, since the phrase “first resurrection” implies that there will indeed be a “second resurrection” for these martyred saints—the resurrection of the body which will take place at the end of the “thousand years”, i.e. the time when the “first” (πρῶτος) things will pass away and God will make all things “new” (καινός). Furthermore, the picture does not thereby collapse the concept of resurrection into a Gnostic parody of a disembodied bliss, for this resurrection is qualified as being preliminary and inferior to its implicit successor: it is the protos to which the bodily resurrection is the new. The point is not that death equals resurrection for the Christian, but rather that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the Beast. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the Beast, who ironically went alive to the “second death”. In vindicating polarity, although these saints died, yet they live (cf. 2 Cor. 6:9).

There are two main passages in the Apocalypse to which this scene points back in fulfillment, the beatitude of 14:13 and the promise to the overcomers of the church of Smyrna in 2:10-11. By highlighting each of them we shed great light on 20:4-6, as well as giving a plausible answer to the outstanding question of “the thousand years”. The first passage, 14:13, has a claim of close relationship to our present text firstly in that it constitutes the second of seven “beatitudes” in the Revelation, while 20:6 constitutes the fifth (cf. 1:3; 16:15; 19:9; 22:7, 14). And out of all seven beatitudes, these two bear the most striking similarity in both concept and terminology. It may be helpful to read them back-to-back:

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”

“Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of the Messiah, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”

Both passages proclaim the blessedness of the martyrs who did not give way to the great pressure of the Beast’s persecution. The “rest” which “the dead who die in the Lord from now on” receive in reward for their works in 14:13 is very much the same as the promise that those who take part in the “first resurrection” should be “priests” of the risen Messiah and “reign” with him for “a thousand years” (cf. also Rev. 6:11). The Sabbath blessing in the one is equivalent to the millennial blessing in the other, for in Judaism the eschatological reign was always conceived of as the reality to which the Sabbath rest was a signpost.

The second text to which our present passage looks back in fulfillment is the promise to the persecuted overcomers from the Church of Smyrna. Like 20:4-6, 2:10 speaks of the blessedness of martyrdom by promising that the “crown of life” will be given to those who are “faithful unto death”. This alone would be enough to remark on, but the parallel becomes explicit when verse 11 goes on to assure that those who inherit this postmortem “life” are no longer subject to the “second death”, a phrase which (very significantly) does not appear again until 20:6. Once more, it may be helpful to read both texts, one after the other:

“I know your works, tribulation, and poverty… Do not fear those things which you are about to suffer… Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life… He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”

“Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands And they lived and reigned with the Messiah for a thousand years… Over such the second death has no power.”

The souls of the martyrs living and reigning with the Messiah in the millennium is clearly intended, within the scope of the Revelation, as the direct fulfillment of the promise to the Christians in Smyrna. Indeed, it would be more than unusual if the climactic scene of this prophecy, picturing the vindication of the martyred saints over their oppressors, would not have a direct application to the persecuted saints to whom it was sent. That is the great weakness of the chiliast interpretation of this passage, as it is the great weakness of a strictly futurist reading of the rest of the Apocalypse. Without a doubt, the worn out, beaten and battered saints of Asia Minor would have taken 20:4-6 as a word of comfort and fulfillment aimed directly at them, as they faced the prospects of imprisonment and possibly even of death for the sake of staying true to Christ.

This fulfillment is seen to be much more significant, however, when we recognize the role that the archenemy “Satan” takes in both passages. The saints of Smyrna were told that Satan would be allowed to throw some of them into prison, in order to test them, for ten days. After the destruction of the beast, however, John sees Satan himself thrown into the prison of “the bottomless pit”, not for ten days, but for the greatly multiplied number of a thousand years. This scene thus shows the ultimate outworking of one of the main messages of Revelation, intended to strengthen the persecuted church in their patience and faith; that is, that he who leads into captivity will eventually go into captivity (13:10), and that the great victory will be won and the accuser will be cast down not by retaliation but by the testimony of the cross borne in word and deed by the followers of the Lamb (12:11; cf. 5:5-6, 9-10).

The fact that 20:1-3 is intended as the fulfillment of a promise to the prospective martyrs of 2:8-12 thus opens up a further possibility to the outstanding question of the “thousand years”. Ten represents totality or completion throughout Revelation (e.g. 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16), and a thousand is ten to the third power, representing an intensification or heightening of the imprisonment period of 2:10 according to the law of retribution in kind, or lex talionis. The plain and powerful purpose of the numeric symbolism, in its immediate application to the suffering Christians in Asia Minor, is to evoke the conviction that their momentary light affliction—loving not their lives even unto death—is working the far exceeding glory of resurrection life, a great reversal of fortunes to be rewarded at the throne of the risen Messiah, even prior to their being clothed with new bodies at his return. Though they die, yet they will live. This, quite plausibly in my opinion, is the meaning of the millennium.