Chapter Five: Premillennialism (10): Its Explanation of Revelation 20 Refuted

Previous article in this series: May 1, 2016, p. 352.

Introduction

The previous article in this series pointed out two errors of the premillennial understanding of Revelation which, although serious, are not the fundamental error of the explanation of Revelation 20 by that doctrine of the last things.

One serious error is the supposition that Revelation 20 teaches events that follow the events recorded in Revelation 19 in time and history. According to this mistaken notion, the binding of Satan and the millennium occur after the destruction of Antichrist and his infernal army as recorded in Revelation 19. This understanding of the relation between chapters 19 and 20 of Revelation is universal among premillennialists and is vital to their explanation of Revelation 20. This understanding of the relation between chapters 19 and 20 ignores a prominent feature of the structure of the book of Revelation: again and again the book takes the reader to the very end of history, only to view the last days once again from another perspective.

The vision of Revelation 20 does not consist of events that follow the events of Revelation 19 in history. Rather, Revelation 20 views the entire new dispensation, from the first coming of Christ to the last battle of Satan against Christ and His church, from a new perspective and with regard to certain, particular realities. The new perspective is the binding of Satan throughout much of the present age. The realities characterizing this present age that Revelation 20 emphasizes are the living and reigning of the martyrs during a millennium and the loosing of Satan from his bonds for a little season at the end of the millennium.

A second serious error of premillennialism is the conclusion it wrongly draws from the binding of Satan. Premillennialism thinks that this binding effectively puts an end to much of Satan’s evil influence upon the human race. As a result, the millennium, which for premillennialism is a thousand years of a “golden age” on earth—the age of a carnal kingdom of Jesus Christ—is a long period of human history during which sin and its consequences are virtually eradicated from the human race. Indeed, much of the race will be converted to God and will live godly, at least for much of the thousand years. This allows premillennialism to dream its dreams about the blessed, blissful, and godly reign over the world of the restored nation of Israel.

What premillennialism overlooks is that Revelation 20 itself describes the binding of Satan as consisting of this one thing, that Satan cannot deceive the nations, that is, deceive the nations into uniting under him in his appointed man, the personal Antichrist, in order to launch the most ferocious attack upon the church in all the history of the church.

It is also a serious error of premillennialism regarding Revelation 20 that it explains the thousand years as a literal period of time, refusing to understand the description of time as symbolical. Exposing this error is part of this article.

The Fundamental Error

The main error of the premillennial interpretation of Revelation is enormous, and obvious. Revelation 20:4-6 does not describe the circumstances of the millennium on earth, but the blessedness of the saved children of God in heaven. This truth is fatal to the millennial expectations and theory of premillennialism.

Contrary to the teaching of premillennialism, John did not see men and women in their resurrected bodies sitting on thrones in Jerusalem on earth. But he saw “souls.” These are the souls “of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands” (v. 4). These are the same “souls” that John saw under the altar, crying out for divine vengeance upon their persecutors in Revelation 6:9-11.

“Souls” are not bodies. The dwelling-place of souls is heaven, not earth. The passage proclaims the millennial victory, glory, and power of the saints in heaven at the moment of death, especially the death of martyrdom.

Revelation 20 does not foretell a fleshly reign of resurrected saints on the old earth in their glorified bodies. The idea is incongruous. It is another aspect of premillennialism that is as ridiculous as it is erroneous. Resurrected, heavenly, sinless humans are active in the old world of sin and death, cooperating with merely earthly, sinful mortals in the affairs of this perishing world!

But the passage is comfort for the church in the world with regard to persecution for Christ’s sake. At the instant of the death of the martyred believer, he or she lives and reigns with Christ in heaven—in his or her soul.

Although Revelation 20 gives this comfort particularly to those who die under the beast, who is antichrist, the comfort applies also to all the martyrs throughout history. The typical antichrist, after all, was the antichristian, persecuting Roman empire of John’s own day under its Nero, Domitian, and other godless emperors. Indeed, the comfort of living and reigning with Christ at the moment of death is applicable to all true believers, for all Christians suffer loss for Christ’s sake, in one way or another, at the hands of an antichristian, wicked world, including an apostate, hateful church.

Martyrdom takes more forms than the actual loss of physical life, as Jesus suggested in Matthew 10:39: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Reproach, defamation, ridicule, and ostracism on account of one’s confession of the truth (which is the name of Jesus Christ) are forms of martyrdom, forms of losing one’s life. Luther was a martyr, although he died of natural causes in his bed. So also was John Calvin. So also was Herman Hoeksema. So also is the faithful, uncompromising Reformed preacher today. So also are all members of the Protestant Reformed Churches who live their confession, as also all living members of other Reformed churches who suffer in all kinds of ways for their confession of the truth and for their antithetical life in a wicked world. Charles D. Alexander is right when, in his fine, though in places eccentric, commentary on Revelation, he declares that “the Church as a whole is a martyr Church.”1

The “First Resurrection”2

The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:5, 6 is the deliverance especially of martyred believers at the moment of their death into heavenly life in the soul. This is the teaching of the text. With reference to the living of the “souls,” as “souls,” verse 5 states: “This is the first resurrection.” The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 is not a bodily resurrection of so-called “tribulation saints,” as is the teaching of premillennialism. The text does not say, or even hint, that the “souls” are persons whom Christ has raised from the dead in their bodies.

Living with Christ in one’s soul at the moment of death is definitely a resurrection. It is a resurrection in two ways. First, it is the deliverance of the person, in his or her soul, from physical death. Out of death, he or she rises, in the soul into eternal life in heaven. Second, life with Christ in the soul at death is resurrection because Christ translates the soul from sinfulness to perfect holiness, from earthliness to heavenliness, and from mortality to immortality. Not even the soul of the elect believer naturally soars into heaven at the moment of the death of the believer. The soul of the believer is earthly, sinful, and subject to death. At the moment of the believer’s death, Christ Jesus performs a wondrous, saving work upon the soul of the believer, that is, upon the believer with regard to his or her soul. The work is resurrection-work. Jesus raises the soul from earthliness to heavenliness, fitting it for life in the new world; from sinfulness to perfect holiness; and from mortality to immortality.

At the moment of the death of the believer, Jesus transforms his or her soul into a soul that is suited fully to live and enjoy the eternal life of the risen Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism confesses the resurrection of the believer in his or her soul at death, as the first resurrection, in Q&A 57:

What comfort does the “resurrection of the body” afford thee? That not only my soul after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its Head; but also that this my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall again be reunited with my soul, and made like unto the glorious body of Christ.3

Inasmuch as the life of the believer in his or her soul in heaven at death is an aspect of the truth of the resurrection of the body, according to the Catechism, this life of the believer in the soul is also resurrection. According to the Catechism, the soul does not naturally fly off into heaven, but is “taken up” by Jesus Christ. This is a work of resurrection, by the “power of Christ,” as much as the life of the body one day will be.

The second resurrection of these believers will be their bodily resurrection when Christ returns.

On those who enjoy this first resurrection in the soul the second death has no power (Rev. 20:6). The second death is damnation.

As those who are blessed with the first resurrection are kings—reigning with Christ (v. 4)—so are they also “priests of God and of Christ” (v. 6). These glorious offices identify the souls of Revelation 20 as members of Christ’s church. Revelation 1:6 expressly identifies the members of the “seven churches” as “kings and priests unto God and his [Jesus’] Father.”

In the theology of premillennialism the souls of the martyrs of Revelation 20 would have to be Jews, not members of the Christian church, for premillennialism has the church raptured prior to the persecution of the Antichrist. And Revelation 20:4 identifies the souls as persecuted by the “beast.”

The binding of Satan occurred at the first coming of Jesus Christ, specifically by His atoning death for His church, His resurrection as living Lord, His ascension into heaven, and His sitting at God’s right hand. The loosing of Satan to rear up the world-kingdom of Antichrist occurs shortly before the return of Christ in the body, at the end of history.

The Millennium

“Millennium,” or thousand years, in Revelation 20 is the figurative description of the history between Christ’s ascension and a time shortly before Christ’s second coming. Ten is a symbolic number in the Bible. It symbolizes completeness as, for example, the ten commandments are the complete will of God for the thankful life of His redeemed child. The thousand years of Revelation are not a literal period of time, but, as the multiple of ten, the fullness of time and history with regard to the gathering of the church and the glorifying of God by the church and her Head, Jesus the Christ.

For the earth and its inhabitants, the millennium means that the antichristian kingdom cannot be established. During the millennium, on earth the white horse of Revelation 6:2 runs its victorious course through all the nations. The running of the white horse symbolizes the triumphant work of Jesus Christ gathering His church by the preaching of the gospel. By the gospel Jesus goes forth “conquering and to conquer.”

As the opening of the first seal, this victorious proclamation of the gospel and gathering of the church dominate and control everything else that happens in history, including the loosing of Satan at the appointed time. So important to God are the preaching of the gospel and the gathering of the church.

Here, a difference between the Reformed faith and premillennialism surfaces. Not the restoration of old Israel, but the gathering of the church is paramount in God’s counsel regarding all of history. The salvation of the church is determinative for history, not the restoration of old Israel in Palestine. And this is the fundamental difference between dispensational premillennialism and covenant theology, between the eschatology of the typical Baptist church and the eschatology of the Reformed faith and church.

Revelation 20, however, emphasizes the heavenly significance of the millennium. The truth of the thousand years of Revelation 20 is the living and reigning with Christ in heaven of those who have suffered for Christ’s sake in the world.

The millennial glory of Revelation 20 is not that of a nation of Israel on earth. It is the glory in heaven of the members of the church, who were always persecuted, whether by fire or by word, for their witness of Jesus.

Still to come in history, in or after AD 2016, not for Israel of physical Jews, but for all who faithfully confess that Jesus is Lord and who, therefore, refuse the mark of the beast, is the battle against them of deceived nations as lackeys of Satan, who will have been loosed (Rev. 20:7-9).

This last battle is already forming. Indeed, it is looming.

The foes are fearsome.

Therefore, Christians need the reassurance of Revelation 20 that death, specifically death at the hands of the persecuting Antichrist, ushers us into the glory of living and reigning with Christ in heaven and also that the time of Satan’s final, furious raging against Christ in His body, the church, is only a “little season” (Rev. 20:3).

God will cut short the time of Satan’s assault upon the church with fire from heaven. Satan will then be consigned to hell “for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

The final judgment will sit. The reward will be blissful for the elect, those “found written in the book of life,” in accordance with their having refused, in one way or another, to take the mark of the beast (Rev. 20:15). They will not be cast into the lake of fire, but will be graced with the eternal life of the risen Jesus Christ, body as well as soul.

For those whose works were evil, including willing citizenship in the kingdom of the beast and participation in the persecution of Christ’s church under the Antichrist, the judgment will be terrible, if just. According to God’s decree of reprobation (“whosoever was not found written in the book of life,” Rev. 20:15), they will be “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).

Conclusion

Revelation 20:1-10 not only gives no support to premillennialism, but also is the death-knell of the theology of premillennialism. The passage comforts elect, believing, but persecuted saints with the promise of living and reigning with Christ in heaven in the soul. It says not one word about a reigning of resurrected, unearthly bodies on earth for a thousand years of continuing earthly history. There is, therefore, no New Testament basis for the doctrine of a restoration of an earthly kingdom of Israel, on the old earth, as part of the continuation of earthly history, in which carnal kingdom of Jews are realized in a literal, earthly way the prophecies of the Old Testament. Absolutely none!

Nor is there a New Testament prophecy of the church’s escape from tribulation. The main passage on which premillennialism hangs its hat rather foretells the martyrdom of those who witness of Jesus Christ, confess His Word, and resist the seductions and threats of an antichristian world-power.

Contrary to premillennialism’s “optimism” on behalf of the church, Revelation 20 prophesies the gathering under Satan at the end of history of hordes of the ungodly against the camp of the saints and the beloved city.

And these saints are not the Jews, but those who are “found written in the book of life” (Rev. 20:15). Those found written in the book of life are the members of the elect church among all nations and in all times, as Jesus makes plain in Luke 10:20-24. They are all those who know who the Father is, by the Son’s revelation of the Father to them by the gospel. “Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven…[the] babes…to whom the Son will reveal [the Father].”

Premillennialism is false doctrine concerning the last things.

It is an utterly erroneous, and even foolish, eschatology.

Every Reformed church and Christian repudiates it, root (Israel as different from the church) and branch (the rapture of the church out of the world before the raging of Antichrist).

Reformed Christians do not face, indeed presently live in, the last days according to the absurdities and false doctrines of premillennialism. They do not live in the expectation of rapture out of the world, so as to escape persecution. But they live in the hope of the resurrection, first of the soul at the moment of death, and then of the body at the one future coming of Jesus Christ, having been privileged by Christ to suffer for His sake in an antichristian world, including a false church.

Suffer” for His sake, not escape suffering because of faith in Him.

Privileged” to suffer, as though suffering under antichrist will be “given in the behalf of Christ” as a great good (Phil. 1:29), not as though suffering for Christ’s sake in the church’s last battle is an evil from which to be spared—by being raptured out of the arena.

God be thanked for the Reformed faith.

God be thanked for the Reformed faith concerning the last things.

… to be continued.


1 Charles D. Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood (Plas Gwyn, Trelawnyd, Wales: K&M Books, 2001), 503.

2 The remainder of this article does not intend to be a thorough, positive explanation of Revelation 20. The Reformed, amillennial explanation of Revelation 20 was given earlier in this series (see Chapter Three, “The Millennium,” [1], [2], and [3]). See also Herman Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), 636-668.

3 Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 57, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 325, 326.