Prof. Engelsma is profess
or emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: May 1, 2009, p. 343.
Reformed Amillennialism (conclusion)
As the previous article in this series demonstrated, the millennium, or thousand-year period, of Revelation 20 is a symbolical description of the present gospel-age, from the Ascension of Christ to a time shortly before the return of Christ and the end of all things. During this time, Satan is restrained, or “bound,” by Christ so that he cannot unite the nations in the kingdom of Antichrist, and the martyred saints are raised in their soul at death to heavenly life and glory by Christ. At the end of the millennium, shortly before His second coming to the earth, Christ releases Satan so that the dark lord is able finally to achieve his purpose of uniting the nations in the worldwide kingdom of Antichrist. Then Satan launches his final, and greatest, assault against the church—the “great tribulation.”Revelation 20, thus understood, gives important instruction concerning eschatology. First, throughout the present age (which in its entirety is the “last days”) the risen and ascended Christ Jesus is the sovereign Lord over all. Even Satan and the development of man’s rebellion against God are strictly subject to the will of Christ and completely governed by His power. Christ binds and releases Satan at His pleasure.
Revelation 20 reminds the reader of the book of the truth that the book impressed upon him in the opening chapter. The truly awesome figure in the book, as in the history of the end that the book reveals, is not the dragon or the beast, but the “one like unto the Son of man” (Rev. 1:13), the exalted Jesus Christ. The believer, who is assured by the gospel that he need not fear the awesome Christ (Rev. 1:17), is fearless of all others, including Satan and the Antichrist.
Second, Christ is Lord over Satan throughout this age “to the church,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:22. The purpose of Christ’s binding of Satan for a thousand years is His gathering of the church by the preaching of the gospel and, thus, the extension of His worldwide kingdom. During the millennium, despite Satan’s fulmination, the gospel runs its victorious course in all the nations of the world, gathering the universal church out of all nations and races (Acts 1:8; Rev. 6:1, 2). Often, this happens under the protection of the governments of the nations. The saving of the church would be impossible if Satan were not bound, or if he were loosed prematurely.
Third, it is gross error on the part especially of the postmillennialists to speak of the “millennial glories” of the church in the world, on the basis of Revelation 20. As we will observe more carefully when we come to examine postmillennial eschatology, by “millennial glories” the postmillennialists mean great numbers of converts, perhaps a majority of the human race alive at the time; earthly peace; earthly prosperity; and earthly power, during a literal period of one thousand years in the future, prior to the return of Christ.
Apart from the fact that the millennium of Revelation 20 is symbolic, Revelation 20 gives absolutely no ground for expectations of such a “golden age” for the church in the world prior to the coming of Christ. The living and reigning of the saints with Christ for a thousand years take place in heaven, not on the earth. It is souls, and then souls that had been beheaded, who live and reign with Christ (v. 4). In addition, the binding of Satan with regard to his work in the world is limited to one activity: the deceiving of the nations (v. 3). He is not restrained from blinding much of mankind with false religion; from working apostasy; from raising up heretics; from causing schisms; from filling the world with lawlessness; or from troubling the saints by the power of sin in their depraved nature.
If any chapter of the Bible contradicts postmillennialism’s notion of coming “millennial glories,” it is Revelation 20. The nations are in a perpetual state of readiness to be deceived by Satan, whenever he should be released. Saints are always being persecuted and killed for Christ’s sake, so that they are received up into heaven as martyrs. And towards the end of history Satan will be loosed to unite the nations in the kingdom of Antichrist, which will make war on the kingdom of Christ, the true church.
If we are of a mind to describe the fulfillment of such Old Testament prophecies of the coming peace, prosperity, and power of the church as Isaiah 2:1-4, Isaiah 11, and Isaiah 65 as the “millennial glories” of the church in the world, the reference is to the spiritual blessedness of the church. Despite her unrelenting warfare with Satan, sin, the world of the ungodly, and the false church, the true church has peace with God through the forgiveness of sins. Regardless that few of her members are rich and that all of them are pilgrims on the earth, the church is wealthy with God, His fellowship, and the blessings of His salvation. Even though numerically the church is always the remnant, the “little flock,” without any human power, the church is strong through Christ to battle victoriously the gates of hell, preaching the gospel, confessing the faith, defending the truth, and persevering in holiness of life to the end.
The New Testament authoritatively finds the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s prophecies of the coming glory of the Messianic kingdom, the church, in the spiritual salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. The prophecy of Isaiah 65:17 of “new heavens and a new earth” for His “elect” (Is. 65:9) is fulfilled in the new (spiritual) world of the renewed creation in the Day of Christ (Rev. 21:1) and in the spiritual renewal of the elect already now (II Cor. 5:17).¹
Fourth, Revelation 20, rightly understood, gives greatencouragement to the saints to fight on behalf of Christ against His enemies, as well as comfort regarding all our suffering in this battle, in the truth of the intermediate state. The truth of the intermediate state, particularly its encouragement of the disciples of Christ in the world, is one of the main emphases of the chapter. The ultimate suffering of Christ’s servants in the war between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan—a cruel death at the hands of the persecuting foe—becomes at once the means of translation (in the soul) into the supreme bliss—living and reigning in conscious union with Christ. It is not so with regard to the very worst that the enemy can do to believers and their children that defeat is followed by a compensatory reward. Rather, defeat is swallowed up in victory.
This encouragement gives the members of the church in the world firm resolve to serve Christ faithfully. It steels them for the increasingly fierce battle.
Fifth, the church is taught to expect the end of the millennium of Satan’s binding in history. With the end of the millennium will come the greatest marshaling of the hosts of darkness and the greatest struggle of the host of light that history has even seen. History approaches its conclusion with the fullest development of the wickedness that began in heaven with the revolt of Lucifer and that began on earth with the revolution of Adam. This is in keeping with the nature of the entire present age as struggle, warfare, and persecution for the church, as forcefully taught by the book of Revelation.
The church at the beginning of the twenty-first century is forewarned. She must prepare herself. Shortly, the millennium expires; Satan is released; he deceives the nations; under that malignant, determined enemy of the Christ whom we confess the whole world makes war against the kingdom of Christ.
At the same time that wickedness develops fully, there will be a mighty work of grace in those who are privileged to carry the banner of the name of Christ in those days. Some will be preserved in the truth, without any compromising of sound doctrine, in the midst of deception and apostasy. Some will keep their garments unspotted from the filth of the world in the midst of debauchery and lawlessness. Some will confess, “Christ is Lord,” in the teeth of the world’s confession that man is lord and god. Some will love not their lives unto the death (Rev. 12:11).
And history will end, shortly, with the defeat of Satan and his world-kingdom and with the victory of Christ and His kingdom, but by a wonder: “fire came down from heaven, and devoured them” (Rev. 20:9); “And I saw a great white throne, and him [Jesus Christ] that sat on it” (Rev. 20:11).
Much as those doctrines lean on the chapter, Revelation 20 gives no support to those doctrines of the last things that expect an earthly kingdom of Christ during a literal millennium in history and that exempt the church from the coming great tribulation.
¹ See my explanation of Isaiah 65:17ff., in opposition to the postmillennial interpretation of this and similar Old Testament prophecies on behalf of their teaching of earthly “millennial glories” for the church in a coming “golden age,” in Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, CA: The Reformed Witness, 2001), 90-115.