Questions from Revelation 20: the binding of the dragon

In the last post we looked closely at Rev 20:4-6 and asked two tightly interwoven questions, corresponding to two of the main fault lines of the long-standing debate over the “millennium”: what do the phrases “the first resurrection” and “the thousand years” mean within the narrative world of Revelation? The answers we gave to those questions greatly favored an inaugurated (or “amillennial”) reading of Revelation 20. There is another question most relevant to the debate which we did not ask, however: what is the meaning of the event described in Rev 20:1-3, i.e. the binding of the dragon?

Or, to put the question in a more loaded manner, has the “binding of Satan” already taken place, perhaps in connection with Christ’s death and resurrection, or will it be fulfilled at the second coming? This is the way the question is usually framed, anyway, and so when we compare Rev 20 with other passages in the NT which describe Satan’s ongoing activity in the world after the resurrection of Jesus, the answer appears glaringly obvious. Paul calls Satan “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). Therefore, says the premillennialist, John could not have seen Satan imprisoned in the first century. And yet Jesus himself (as recorded in John’s own gospel) describes the victory of the cross and resurrection in terms of a great judgment whereby Satan, the “ruler of this world”, is “cast out” (John 12:31). Therefore Satan has already been judged, contends the amillennialist. He no longer holds sway as the “ruler of this world”, for Christ is risen and God has given him all authority in heaven and on earth (e.g. Matt 28:18).

Thus the debate runs on, with one side emphasizing the “already” of Christ’s victory and the other side emphasizing the “not yet”, each side having a hand full of verses to show in support of their stance. But all the while Revelation 20:1-3 just sits there, the text that everyone is fighting for but which nobody ever listens to, rather like a bride being auctioned to the highest bidder without being asked whom she’d like to marry in the first place. If the chapter in question is discussed at all, it is usually only to debate whether Satan is bound with “physical” chains or “spiritual” chains (a very platonic antithesis, not at all helpful for biblical exegesis). When we go to Revelation 20 itself and read the text on its own terms, however, we find that the whole way of framing the question (When does the “binding of Satan” take place?) has been terribly misleading, resulting in an extreme lack of clarity on both sides of the fence. It shouldn’t surprise us that the argument has stalled out, because it didn’t start out on the right foot in the first place.

What, then, is the right foot? Let’s look at the text.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

The first thing to be noticed, when coming upon this passage within the larger narrative of Revelation, is that it brings to conclusion the plot which was first introduced in chapters 12-13. That is where we first meet the dragon, as he seeks to destroy a woman and her child. After being ejected from heaven upon the child’s ascension to the throne of God, the dragon proceeds to make war with the woman’s other children through a sea-beast. These are all highly charged symbols, of course. The visionary image of a dragon represents something other than itself, namely “the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (12:9). And the same goes for the woman (who was clothed with the sun, the moon, and a garland of twelve stars) and the sea-beast (with his seven heads and ten horns), although those pictures are not interpreted for us as straightforwardly as the dragon.

But the point at present is this: that the “dragon” introduced in chapter 12 is a symbolic representation of Satan, not a literal description, just as the whole narrative of chapters 12-13 is saturated in vivid imagery that consistently represent realities other than the images used to convey them. When we get to chapters 19-20 and witness the defeat of the “beast” and the binding of the “dragon”, therefore, we are warned not lapse back into a flat literalism by simply picturing Satan himself bound in chains and imprisoned for a thousand years. To imagine this, and to thereby speak (as both amills and premills are guilty of doing) of “the binding of Satan”, runs the risk of a gross confusion of categories. Satan is not bound in Revelation 20; the “dragon” which represents Satan is bound. And just as John interprets the image of a dragon for us in 20:2 (“who is the Devil and Satan”), so too he explains the image of the dragon’s imprisonment, spelling out its truth-value in 20:3 (“so that he should deceive the nations no more”).

And this is why I don’t see the strength of the premill argument against the standard amill interpretation of the “binding” of Revelation 20, because it wrongly presupposes itself by assuming a literal binding. My contention is that the “binding” etc are visionary images which speak, within the narrative world of Revelation, of the constraint of Satan's authority over the nations. And thus, whether we agree with it or not, the theological point of the standard amill reading should be fairly uncontroversial among the orthodox, for we all agree that through the resurrection Jesus was granted all authority in heaven and on the earth, and the great commission to take the gospel throughout the earth, to the “ethnos” of Revelation 20:3, was given on that basis. Prior to the Christ Event the gentile nations were all but completely lost in darkness, but now the light of the gospel of Christ has dawned, being taken by his followers from Jerusalem to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

Of course, to establish that the picture of the dragon’s binding is non-literal does not in turn prove any particular interpretation of that picture, whether amill, premill, or otherwise. But if we are to take the “binding” as a non-literal visionary representation, as I suggest, then the possibilities of what it may specifically correspond to in history open up considerably. It could still refer to Satan’s comprehensive defeat at the eschaton, as premills contend, or it could refer to the already-and-not-yet defeat of the cross and resurrection, as most amills contend; or, as I am personally inclined to think, it could refer more specifically to the removal of the deceiving power which Satan held over the nations in the first century through the religion of Rome, which is both a prevalent theme in Revelation and an especially pertinent issue to the church of Asia Minor.

The merit of each view depends mostly on the context in which the “binding” occurs, of course. But that’s exactly why the last option is most attractive to me, because Satan is pictured throughout Revelation as the primeval enemy (the “dragon”) which stands behind Rome (the “beast”), and his “binding” coincides with the judgment of the “beast” in 19:11-21. This reading also makes for a coherent interpretation of Satan’s release at the end of the millennium (which, incidentally, the standard amill reading fails to do): the point is that once again, just like in the first century, there will be a unified, worldwide, systemic intolerance to the gospel of the Messiah, as well a virulent attack against the covenant community that bears and proclaims his name.

Since any interpretation of the imagery depends on the surrounding context of John’s vision, however, it would take much more space to adequately establish the merit of any view, especially one so unpopular as my own. But the primary goal of this post is to establish the basic literary nature of the scene in Revelation 20:1-3, and my hope is to thereby shift the discussion away from the usual antithesis of “physical” chains vs. “spiritual” chains, because I think that this way of framing the discussion misses the point altogether. In reality there are no chains, just as there is no dragon. Rather, the image of the dragon’s imprisonment represents (in the sense appropriate to the apocalyptic genre) the removal of Satan’s power to hold the nations in darkness, just as the image of the “dragon” itself represents Satan. Once we establish that, we can then ask the question: which theological interpretation best fits the imagery?