Questions from Revelation 20: the problem with premillennialism

Let’s take a step back from the specific questions of the last two posts to look more broadly at the theology and setting of Revelation 20. Is the narrative content of this chapter best explained by a chiliast (that is, early premillennial) reading or by a non-chiliast (that is, early amillennial) reading?

Intrinsic to the chiliast reading is a particular understanding of the “thousand years” of Revelation 20. This understanding generally involved some version of the following characteristics, with variations here and there: (1) the return of the ten tribes to the land of Judea; (2) the exaltation of the nation of Israel above the surrounding Gentile nations; (3) the servitude of those nations to the Jews; (4) a rebuilt Jerusalem and a rebuilt Temple; (5) a progressive restoration of the earth to a pre-Fall Edenic state, resulting in a superabundance of the earth’s produce, the mutual reconciliation and submission of the animal world to mankind, an increase of human life and an extension of the human lifespan, etc. This basic portrait is essential to the Jewish chiliast works of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, and it seems to have been basic to the early Christian chiliasts as well.

But the question is, does the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 actually reflect the chiliast portrait of a restored Israel and an earthly paradise, or does that system impose upon John’s vision a picture foreign to what John actually saw? In other words, did the earliest Christian chiliasts really get their theology from Revelation 20, or did they get it from elsewhere and eisegetically read it into Revelation 20?

I've come to believe that this is the most important question facing the millennial debate, since it focuses on the content of John’s “thousand years” as we have it in Revelation 20 itself, and not on other NT writings outside of Revelation or on the literal vs. symbolic nature of the designation “thousand years”. While both of those questions are very important and should have some bearing on the discussion, they should not hold the decisive place which they often have. Whatever conclusion we reach on the writings of the rest of the NT, whether they support a chiliast reading of Revelation 20 or not, and whatever conclusion we reach on the “thousand years” being literal or symbolic, is all secondary to the conclusion we reach on what the text of Revelation 20 itself says in regards to the defining characteristics of those “thousand years”.

That said, let's return to the question: what are the defining characteristics of John's millennium? Or, more pointedly, does Revelation 20 contain any of the traits classically associated with the earthly interim kingdom of chiliasm?

We can at least say confidently that John was not a world-rejecting Gnostic, for he clearly portrays the traditional Jewish hope of a restored cosmos in chapters 21-22. This seems to present more of a problem than a help for the premillennial case, however, for it shows that the closest approximations to some of the “chiliastic” characteristics in the closing passages of John’s vision are to be found in the “new heavens and new earth” of chapters 21-22, and not in the “thousand years” of chapter 20. Indeed, there is no indication of a progressive restoration of the earth or of a return to the promise land in chapter 20, just as there is no rebuilt Jerusalem and no rebuilt Temple.

Some would argue, I’m sure, that the phrase “the beloved city” in 20:9 at least implies a rebuilt Jerusalem; but since that phrase is paired with “the camp of the saints”, and since Israel-language is consistently used by John to describe the ethnically diverse family of God in Christ, it is probably best taken as a metaphor for the new covenant community.

But that does bring our attention to an important aspect of John’s millennium relevant to our present question, namely that he calls God’s people “the camp of the saints”. “Camp,” notes George Caird, “is the word used in the story of the Exodus for Israel’s wilderness home, and reminds us that God’s people are still, even in the golden age of the millennium, the church in the wilderness, the church in pilgrimage” (The Revelation of Saint John, p. 257). This is a point recognized by most commentators, including dispensationalists like Robert Thomas (Revelation 8-22, p. 425), but its particular relevance to the properties of John’s “thousand years” are seldom acknowledged. To refer to Christians on earth during the millennium as “the camp of the saints”—that is, as having not yet reached the promised land, but of being, rather, in a state of exodus, of pilgrimage—simply does not belong to the chiliast portrait of the Messiah’s temporal kingdom, but fits instead within the non-chiliast Christian portrait of the intra-advent age, the present era of “already but not yet”.

But what about the highly debated vv. 4-6? Verse 6, of course, does speak of at least some of the saints participating in the “reign” of Christ for the duration of the thousand years. What are we to make of that? Does it not support the temporal earthly kingdom of chiliasm? For several reasons, I believe the answer is a decisive no. We note first that the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-14 stands behind the vindication of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6 (on which, see this post). In that famous passage, “one like a son of man” is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given the authority and dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. That scene largely forms the OT background behind the vision of Revelation 4-5 as well, where John sees Christ enter the heavenly throne room after the cross, resurrection and ascension and receive the authority to judge the earth and complete God’s eschatological plan (note also the parallel in 12:5-12, where the male child is “caught up to God and his throne” and, after the dragon is cast to the earth, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that “the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come”).

But the point is this: if the heavenly scene of Daniel 7 stands behind the vision of chapters 4-5, where Christ receives his kingly authority in heaven, then it’s more than likely that the vision of the martyr’s vindication in 20:4-6 itself belongs in heaven. This is confirmed twice over; first, by the appearance of “thrones” in v. 4, which everywhere else in Revelation belong in heaven; and, second, by the parallel scenes of heavenly vindication for the martyrs in 7:9-17, 11:11-13, and 15:2-4.

One final point, which I believe puts the nail in the coffin of an earthly interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, is the argument set forth by Meredith G. Kline in the article “The First Resurrection”, which was slightly modified in this post. The crux of the argument is that throughout Revelation 20-21 the word protos (translated “first” or “former”) is consistently used to qualify things which belong to the pre-consummate order, in contrast to those things which are “new”, i.e. consummate. Hence the way “first” and “new” are set in juxtaposition in 21:1-5:

“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.”

In light of this contextual meaning of protos, we should not understand the “first resurrection” as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order. Thus the “first resurrection”, or “proto-resurrection”, is the preliminary coming to life of the faithful “souls” in heaven, while their bodies remain in their graves until the consummation. I encourage everyone to see the full argument for this interpretation in the linked post above.

But if this interpretation is correct, then the “reign” which these souls in heaven share with Christ should be understood as a priestly participation in the advancing government of God throughout the present age, cognate with the “reign” which Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:25 (cf. Rom 5:17; Eph 1:20-22; 2:4-7). And if that is the case, then there is absolutely nothing in the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 which supports a chiliast scheme. There is no return of the ten tribes to the land of Judea, no exaltation of the nation of Israel above the surrounding Gentile nations, no servitude of those nations to the Jews, no rebuilt Jerusalem or rebuilt Temple, and no progressive restoration of the earth to a pre-Fall Edenic state. John’s millennium, with its consistently “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated” eschatology, stands in stark contrast to the portraits of both early Jewish and early Christian chiliasm.

Of course, none of this refutes the possibility of Revelation 20 still reflecting some form of a premillennial scheme, but it does insist that if modern premillennialism wishes to remain exegetically credible it must develop a theology from Revelation 20 itself, instead of imposing a fully developed theology onto Revelation 20 from outside. And if the underlined point above is conceded, to the extent that premillennialists build their theology from the exegesis of Revelation 20 instead of from a complex web of deductions read into Revelation 20 from the outside, then I would venture to say that the theology of that brand of premillennialism would end up looking so much like orthodox amillennialism that the whole debate over the "millennium" would become almost completely moot, not having any theological consequences one way or the other.