Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 1, 2010, p. 198.
The Postmillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20
The interpretation of Revelation 20, the one passage in Holy Scripture that mentions the millennium, or thousand-year period, is basic to the right understanding of the millennium and, indeed, of the truth of the last things generally. The explanation of the passage by Reformed amillennialism appeared earlier in this treatment of the biblical doctrine of the last things.¹
Here I sketch the interpretation of the passage by the leading spokesmen of postmillennialism in the Reformed tradition. According to the Puritans and their modern disciples, Presbyterian postmillennialists such as J. Marcellus Kik and Loraine Boettner, and the Christian Reconstructionists, who lean heavily on Kik’s exegesis of Revelation 20, the millennium of Revelation 20 is a very long period of time, extending (in the judgment of most) from the ascension of Christ to a time shortly before Christ’s coming again.
Like amillennialism, therefore, postmillennialism explains the millennium figuratively, not as a literal period of one thousand years. Indeed, many postmillennialists suppose that the heyday of the millennium—the “golden age” for the church on earth—will last for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the second coming of Christ.
But it is in its explanations of the binding of Satan (vv. 2, 3) and of the reign of the martyr-saints with Christ (v. 4) that postmillennialism differs radically from amillennialism in its interpretation of Revelation 20.
The Binding of Satan
Postmillennialism understands the binding of Satan to be Christ’s gradual restricting of Satan’s influence upon men and nations throughout this present age until finally at least the vast majority of humans alive in the world are converted to Christ; all nations are “Christianized,” that is, governed by the law of God and influenced by the Spirit of Christ in all their activities; and such evils as war, poverty, and crime are severely curtailed.
The more optimistic postmillennialists suggest that when Satan’s binding has been fully realized, even sin and death will sharply diminish. R.J. Rushdoony promises a “world relatively free of crime, at peace, and men having a long life expectancy.”² Christian Reconstructionist Martin G. Selbrede envisions “voluntary obedience to Christ on a world-wide scale so total that all rebellion and depravity have been ‘extinguished.'” Selbrede is certainly right to describe his millennial hope as “unbounded optimism.”³
A curious feature of the postmillennial conception of the binding of Satan is the notion that the binding of Satan is dependent upon the aggressive actions of the church. Postmillennialists charge that Satan’s obvious influence over nations and people in our day is the fault of the church. If the church would exert herself, she could accomplish Satan’s full binding in the postmillennial understanding of it. Whereas Revelation 20:1 places the chain that binds Satan in the hand of the angel, postmillennialism puts it in the hand of the church.
Unfortunately the Church of today does not realize the power that Christ has given her. Christ has placed in her hands the chain by which she can bind Satan. She can restrain his influence over the nations. But today the Church bemoans the fact that evil is becoming stronger and stronger. She bemoans the fact that the world is coming more and more under the control of the Devil. Whose fault is that? It is the Church. She has the chain and does not have the faith to bind Satan even more firmly. Satan is bound and the Church knows it not! Satan can be bound more firmly and the Church does it not!4
Christian Reconstruction likewise condemns the Christian church for the sorry state of a world under the spiritual domination of Satan. Especially if the church would promote the law of God in national and societal life, Satan would soon be completely bound.
The teaching that the coming of the millennial kingdom of Christ in its full glory is being held back by an unfaithful church is yet another instance of the striking formal similarities of postmillennialism to premillennial dispensationalism that I have already noted.5 Dispensationalism teaches that the millennial kingdom Christ intended to establish at His first coming was delayed by the unbelief of the Jews. Postmillennialism teaches that the millennial kingdom in the fullness of its power and glory is being delayed by an unfaithful church.
What postmillennial interpretation of the binding of Satan ignores is that the binding of Satan is a present reality, not a future possibility. He is bound. He has been bound. He has been bound as tightly and completely as can and need be during this present age. The one who has bound him is an angel from heaven, not the church. The church has many important callings. Binding Satan is not one of them. And, of utmost importance, the binding of Satan concerns one limitation of the devil, and one only: he is not able to deceive the nations, so as to bring about the world-kingdom of Antichrist. His binding has nothing to do with converting a majority of the human race, “Christianizing” the nations, putting an end to wars, diminishing crime, and increasing “material blessings” for the human race.
The Reign of the “Souls”
The reign of the “souls” with Christ of Revelation 20:4-6, according to postmillennialism, coincides with the gradual binding of Satan. Throughout the present age, as Satan is increasingly bound, the church progressively gains influence in society and power over the nations until at last, in the heyday of the millennium, she will have dominion—earthly dominion—over all the nations of the world. By the word of God (for Christian Reconstruction especially the law of God), the church and her members will control politics, civic justice, public morality, economics, education, the media, entertainment, and the arts—worldwide. Coming is a universal, earthly kingdom of Christ, prior to the bodily return of Jesus Christ. This will be the mediatorial, or Messianic, kingdom in its fullest and final manifestation. Leading postmillennial theologians teach that this glorious manifestation of the kingdom of Christ may last hundreds of thousands of years before Christ returns.
This splendid earthly kingdom will be the victory of Christ in the world. Apart from this kingdom, Christ would be defeated.
For this kingdom, the postmillennialists ardently hope—as ardently as the dispensationalists hope for their earthly kingdom.
When this kingdom holds sway over all nations and peoples, the Christian Reconstructionists intend to implement once again the civil and judicial laws of the Old Testament, which ordered the national life of Israel. Hence, the name “theonomy” for the doctrine of Christian Reconstruction. “Theonomy” means ‘law of God’ with reference specifically to the civil and judicial laws of Old Testament Israel. Christian judges likely will sentence Sabbath-breakers to be stoned to death according to the Old Testament law of Numbers 15:32-36.
The First Resurrection
Basic to this postmillennial explanation of the reign of the saints with Christ is its interpretation of the “first resurrection,” in Revelation 20:5, 6, as regeneration. Postmillennialism denies that the first resurrection is the translation of the souls of elect believers into heavenly life and glory at the moment of death. It is essential to the postmillennial explanation of the reign of the saints, as to its understanding of the millennium, that the first resurrection be interpreted as regeneration. For only then can the reign of the saints take place on the earth. If the first resurrection is, in fact, the translation of the souls of believers at death, the reign of the saints of Revelation 20:4-6 occurs in heaven as part of the communion of the saints, in their souls, with the reigning Christ at the right hand of God. And this would mean the collapse of the entire postmillennial conception of a coming “golden age” for the church in history, at least on the basis of Revelation 20.
Kik, therefore, calls the interpretation of the “first resurrection,” in verse five, as the spiritual regeneration of God’s people in this world the “key” to a right understanding of the millennium of Revelation 20.6
Postmillennial, Christian Reconstructionist (to be redundant) David Chilton does not greatly exaggerate when he judges that he can dispose of amillennialism by refuting its interpretation of the first resurrection as the translation of believers into heaven in their soul at death.
We can dispose of the amillennial position right away, by pointing out the obvious: this is a resurrection, a rising again from the dead. Dying and going to heaven is wonderful, but, for all its benefits, it is not a resurrection. This passage cannot be a description of the state of disembodied saints in heaven.7
With regard to John’s seeing “souls” reigning with Christ, postmillennialists point out that “souls” can refer to ‘persons,’ or to ‘lives.’ Here, they say, the reference is to regenerated persons reigning on earth in both a body and a soul, especially during the time of the “golden age.”
This postmillennial interpretation of the reigning of the saints, as seen by the apostle in Revelation 20:4-6, is exposed as false by the conclusive testimony of the passage that the reign of the saints follows their death—their physical death. It is not, therefore, a reign on this earth, but a reign in heaven. The conclusive testimony is not only that John sees “souls,” in distinction from “men,” or “believers,” or “saints,” that is, men and women living earthly life in the body, although this deliberate mention of “souls” is significant. Earlier, referring to the same persons in virtually the same language, John located “the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” “under the altar” (Rev. 6:9). He distinguished these souls (and their abode in heaven) from their brothers who still must be killed, as the saints in heaven had been, by the wicked who “dwell on the earth” (Rev. 6:10, 11).
But the conclusive testimony is that John sees “souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus.” These persons, who have been killed by the anti-christian world-power for their faithful confession of Jesus Christ, lived and reigned with Christ. Souls of those who have been beheaded do not exercise earthly dominion in history.
That the souls who reign with Christ are the saints who have been taken up to heaven at death is confirmed by the mention of the “second death” in verse six. The second death is hell, as verse fourteen establishes: “The lake of fire [is] the second death.” The first death is physical death. Corresponding to these two forms of death are two forms of resurrection, or deliverance from death. The second is the resurrection of the body into immortality. The first is the translation of the soul of the believer at the moment of physical death.
Contrary to the emphatic, but ungrounded, denial of the postmillennialists, the deliverance of the believer in his soul at death is indeed resurrection. The soul of the regenerated Christian in earthly life is corrupted by sin as much as is his body. Besides, his soul is earthy—completely adapted to living earthly life in this world and completely unsuited to living heavenly life in the other world, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. In addition, as corrupted by sin (as corrupted as is the body) and as guilty of all kinds of transgressions of thought, will, and passions, the soul of the believer is fully deserving of the punishment of eternal death at the moment of its separation from the body in death. That Christ perfectly purifies the soul of depravity, transforms it so that it is now fit to live heavenly life, and takes the soul into the eternal life of heaven at the moment of the believer’s death is resurrection—real life for the believer out of real death.
The Intermediate State
Revelation 20:4-6 describes the “intermediate state” of elect believers.8
So clearly does the passage speak of the intermediate state that Benjamin B. Warfield, postmillennialist though he was, acknowledged that Revelation 20:4-6 teaches the intermediate state, and may not, therefore, be appealed to by postmillennialism on behalf of a reign of the church on earth. Recognizing that the “souls of them that had been beheaded” are “disembodied souls,” Warfield concluded, concerning the millennium of Revelation 20, particularly verses four through six:
The picture that is brought before us here is, in fine, the picture of the “intermediate state”—of the saints of God gathered in heaven away from the confused noise and garments bathed in blood that characterize the war upon earth in order that they may securely await the end. The thousand years, thus, is the whole of this present dispensation, which again is placed before us in its entirety, but looked at now relatively not to what is passing on earth but to what is enjoyed “in Paradise.”9
He added: “The millennium of the Apocalypse is the blessedness of the saints who have gone away from the body to be at home with the Lord.”10
The Earthly Victory of Christ
Most postmillennialists, however, differ with Warfield. In the light of their exegesis of Revelation 20, particularly the binding of Satan and the reign with Christ of believing members of the church, as sketched above, most postmillennialists view the millennium as the history of this present age destined to climax in the future in a long period of time during which the church will enjoy almost total earthly victory over her enemies.
The church shall have dominion over land and sea/earth’s remotest regions shall her empire be/they that wilds inhabit shall their off’rings bring/kings shall render tribute/nations kiss her ring.
This earthly victory of His church will be Christ’s supreme triumph, according to postmillennialism, and the full and final glory of His kingdom. In jarring conflict with this giddy prospect of Christ’s victory in history is the sobering conclusion of the vision of Revelation 20 concerning the thousand years. “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations…and they…compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city” (vv. 7-9).
How does postmillennialism explain this overthrow of the dominion of Christ and His church at the end of the millennium and history? And how does postmillennialism harmonize this worldwide revolt against Christ’s kingship at the end with postmillennialism’s conviction that Christ must have an earthly triumph in history? Does not this revolt represent, for postmillennialism, the defeat of Christ—the decisive defeat of Christ?
1. Standard Bearer 85, no. 15 (May 1, 2009): 343-346; no. 19 (August 2009): 448-450.
2. R.J. Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Postmillennialism (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1977), 2.
3. Martin G. Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter, 1998): 202, 194. The emphasis is Selbrede’s.
4. J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 196.
5 Standard Bearer 86, no. 2 (October 15, 2009): 34, 35.
6. Kik, Eschatology of Victory, 179.
7. David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Tyler, Texas: Reconstruction Press, 1985), 196. The emphasis is Chilton’s.
8. See my treatment of the intermediate state, with specific reference to Revelation 20:4-6, in previous articles in this series: Standard Bearer 80, no. 9 (February 1, 2004): 210-213; 82, no. 3 (November 1, 2005): 64-67; 82, no. 10 (February 15, 2006): 225-228; 82, no. 20 (September 1, 2006): 465-468; 85, no. 3 (November 1, 2008): 57-60; 85, no. 6 (December 15, 2008): 132-134.
9. Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 649. Warfield found evidence for a future “golden age” elsewhere in Scripture, especially the Old Testament prophecies and Revelation 19:11-21.
10. Ibid., 662.