Previous article in this series: March 15, 2010, p. 276.

The Postmillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20 (cont.)

In the past, the majority of postmillennialists explainedRevelation 20:7-9 as teaching that the millennium will be followed by a final apostasy from the gospel and law of Christ and by a worldwide rebellion against the kingdom of Christ. Towards the very end of history, Satan will be loosed to deceive the nations and marshal them against the church. Among those who taught this final apostasy were the Presbyterian J. Marcellus Kik and the Christian Reconstructionist Gary North.¹ Kik’s interpretation of the passage is representative: “For the thousand-year period he [Satan] was bound. He could no longer deceive the nations…. At the end of the millennium period he is again to be released to deceive the nations. That will be a woeful day for the world.”²

Recently, prominent postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists Rousas J. Rushdoony and Martin G. Selbrede have rejected the teaching of a final apostasy as pessimistic. According to Selbrede, the millennium of Revelation 20 (which he understands as the glorious reign of the church over all her enemies in a “golden age”) will climax in the salvation of every living human. To such a world, Christ will return. No worldwide rebellion against the kingdom of Christ will intervene between themillennium and the coming of Christ. Selbrede calls his doctrine of the last things “eschatological universalism” and praises it as a teaching of “unbounded optimism.” He acknowledges that he is dependent for both the teaching and its name upon the noted Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield.

The Optimistic Interpretation of 
Revelation 20:7-9

Optimistic though this rejection of a final apostasy and rebellion may be, it still must reckon with 
Revelation 20:7-9: “And when the thousand years [the millennium] are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth…to gather them together to battle…[against] the camp of the saints…and the beloved city.” Even optimism must be “bounded” by the word of God.

Selbrede, the contemporary Christian Reconstruction postmillennialist, relies entirely on Warfield’s exegesis of the crucial passage on a final apostasy.³ Warfield’s explanation is a denial that the “little season” of Satan’s loosing (Rev. 20:3) follows the thousand years in history. Rather, the “little season” is contemporaneous with the thousand years. While the saints are living and reigning with Christ in heaven, Satan is constantly opposing the church on earth. According to Warfield, the binding of Satan for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2) refers to his inability to trouble the saints in heaven. The loosing of Satan for a little season refers to his warfare against the church on earth (during much of the same time that he is bound with regard to the saints in heaven). In Warfield’s explanation of the binding and loosing of Satan, time is not in view. It is a mistake to think in terms of before and after, as though Satan is bound before the millennium and loosed after it.

The chaining of Satan is not in the event a preliminary transaction, on which the security of the saints follows: nor is the loosing of Satan a subsequent transaction, on which the security of the saints ceases. The saints rather escape entirely beyond the reach of Satan when they ascend to their Lord and take their seats on His throne by His side…. But while the saints abide in their security Satan, though thus “bound” relatively to them, is loosed relatively to the world—and that is what is meant by the statement in verse 3c that “he must be loosed for a little time.” …We must here look on the time-element…as belonging wholly to the symbol and read in the interpretation space-elements in its place.4

Although Warfield does not make this explicit, his explanation of Revelation 20:7-9 includes that gradually Satan’s assault on the church during the “little season” (which for Warfield is the entire present age up to the beginning of the “golden age”) will weaken as the gospel converts more and more members of the nations, Gog and Magog. Then will be realized the “golden age,” which will culminate in the conversion of every living human (Warfield’s and Selbrede’s “eschatological universalism”). Finally, Christ will return to a “converted earth.”

Evidently, the “golden age” with its eschatological universalism must be inserted into Revelation 20 between verse nine and verse ten. The falling of fire from heaven upon the enemies of the church in verse nine cannot refer to the second coming of Christ, for according to Warfield and Selbrede no enemy of Christ remains at His coming. But the casting of the devil into the lake of fire in verse ten must occur at Christ’s second coming. The “golden age” of postmillennialism must, therefore, be found between verse nine and verse ten.

This is the exegesis of Revelation 20:7-9 that Selbrede recommends to his postmillennial comrades, who hitherto have been afflicted with the dread malady of pessimism inasmuch as they have allowed the passage to convince them of a final apostasy. Selbrede’s recommendation of Warfield’s exegesis of the passage comes with a high cost to postmillennialism. The cost is giving up Revelation 20 as proof of postmillennialism’s “golden age.” As I pointed out earlier in this series on the last things, Warfield demonstrated that the millennium of Revelation 20 refers to the intermediate state. The living and reigning of the saints with Christ take place in heaven, not on the earth. According to Warfield, there is nothing of a “golden age” on earth in the whole of Revelation 20(Warfield finds the “golden age” of postmillennialism elsewhere in Revelation).5 It is very much to be doubted that postmillennialism is willing, or can stand, to pay this cost, even in order to rid itself of the incubus of a final apostasy.

Erroneous Interpretation

Warfield’s interpretation of the loosing of Satan, in
Revelation 20:7-9, is erroneous. It is so egregiously erroneous as to betray that Warfield’s exegesis is driven by his postmillennial theology. A loosing of Satan towards the end of history resulting in a worldwide rebellion against the kingdom of Christ contradicts the dearest tenet of postmillennialism, namely, that history must come to a close with an earthly, visible, and complete victory of the Messianic kingdom. Therefore, the loosing of Satan must be explained away, regardless that the explanation violently conflicts with the plain language of the text and regardless that the explanation is burdened with insoluble difficulties regarding other elements of the passage, as Warfield himself admits.

The truth is that the loosing of Satan from his chain and prison follows the thousand years during which he had been bound: “When the thousand years are expired (Rev. 20:7).” “When” is a particle of time. The words “are expired” translate the Greek verb that means “were ended,” or “were brought to [their] end.” It is the same word used of the ending of the thousand-year period in verse three of Revelation 20 and there translated, “should be fulfilled”: “that he [Satan] should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled.” The thought is that Christ has a purpose with the binding of Satan for a thousand years. This purpose is the gathering of the elect church out of the nations by the preaching of the gospel. This purpose would be impossible of realization, if Satan were not bound and thus prevented from deceiving the nations under Antichrist. Only when Christ’s goal, or end, with the thousand years has been reached, in the salvation of the entire church, will He loose Satan for a little season, to do his damnedest.

The element of time is very definitely in the passage, both grammatically and with regard to the doctrine.

That the loosing of Satan follows the millennium in time is clearly taught also in verse three. Satan is bound for a thousand years “that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled[that is, ended, in the sense of having been brought to their appointed goal]: and after that he must be loosed a little season.” Time is everywhere in the text. Time is prominent. Time is of the text’s essence. Satan is bound at the beginning of the thousand years. During the long period of the thousand years, Satan remains bound. Only when the thousand years have ended is he loosed: “after that.” And he is loosed “a little season [of time].”

In opposition to Warfield’s assertion that the little season of Satan’s loosing is the same period of time as the thousand years during which he is bound, verse three sharply distinguishes the time of Satan’s binding from the time of his loosing. A thousand years is a long time. It is the time from Christ’s ascension until shortly before His coming again. In contrast, the time of Satan’s loosing is very brief: “a little season” (literally: “a little time“; time is in the passage literally). And this will be a great comfort to the church that must suffer the consequences of Satan’s loosing.

If further evidence of the falsity of Warfield’s (and Selbrede’s) interpretation of the loosing of Satan were required, it would be that this interpretation forces Warfield to explain the “nations” mentioned in verse three as the elect church in heaven. According to Warfield, the binding of Satan refers strictly to his inability to trouble the saints in heaven in the intermediate state. When verse three, then, teaches that Satan is bound “that he should deceive the nations no more,” the meaning must be that he is bound so that he will not deceive the elect in heaven. Warfield recognizes his problem: “The only real difficulty lies in the word ‘nations’ [in v. 3]. Should we not expect ‘saints’ instead—for is it not merely with reference to the saints that Satan is supposed to be bound?”6 Half-heartedly, Warfield suggests as the solution to his problem that “nations” in verse three “may include Christians also.”7 But he quickly admits that his attempt to explain “nations” in verse three is unsatisfactory. “It cannot be pretended that a real solution of its [‘nations’ in v. 3] difficulties has been offered in any case; it remains a dark spot in an otherwise lucid paragraph and must be left for subsequent study to explain.”8

Apart from the usage of the word “nations” elsewhere in the book of Revelation, the word “nations” is used in verse eight of Revelation 20 to refer to masses of ungodly men and women on the earth. The “nations,” identified as Gog and Magog, are the reprobate, ungodly enemies of the true church, whom Satan unites in the little season of his loosing to attack the church. The “nations” of verse three are the ungodly in the world whom Satan cannot deceive during the thousand years, but whom he does deceive during his little season after the thousand years. The “nations” in verse three are the same as the “nations” in verse eight. They are not the elect, believing church, much less the elect in heaven. They are the reprobate wicked, who are always susceptible to Satan’s influence. One thing, and one thing only, prevents them from being deceived during the thousand years, and this is Christ’s binding of Satan so that he cannot deceive them before Christ has accomplished His great purpose of gathering His church.

Warfield’s interpretation of the loosing of Satan, let it be noted, completely distorts the prophecy of Revelation 20:7-9. The passage teaches a loosing of Satan towards the end of history that culminates in an all-out, worldwide attack on the church of Jesus Christ. The church will finally be delivered from this attack and from her ancient foe by a wonder. Fire will come down from God in heaven to devour the hordes of ungodly that assail the church. At that time, Satan will summarily be cast into hell. And then the final judgment will sit (Rev. 20:10ff.).

What is the explanation of the passage by Warfield (and presumably by the Christian Reconstructionist Selbrede)? Satan’s attack on the church throughout this present age concludes with the total conversion of the nations, Gog and Magog, that had been attacking the church. Gog and Magog will be saved, to the last man or woman. The camp of the saints and the beloved city will go up on the breadth of the earth, compass the nations that are on the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, about, and successfully evangelize them so that every human then living will be saved. Then will follow a long period of earthly dominion by the saved human race, the “golden age.” Where Satan will be during this “golden age,” and what he will be up to, we are not told. To this “converted earth,” Christ will one day return.

Revelation 20:7-9 is turned on its head.

1 See the previous installment in this series on the doctrine of the last things.

2 J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 246.

3 See Martin G. Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter, 1998), 187, 188.

4 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 655, 656.

5 See David J. Engelsma, “The Millennium (2),” Standard Bearer 85, no. 15 (May 1, 2009): 345.

6 Warfield, Biblical Doctrines, 656, 657.

7 Ibid., 657.

8 Ibid.