When it comes to eschatology, the doctrine of the end times, Bible-believing Christians hold differing views about the thousand years referred to in Revelation 20:1-9. In order to handle the material in chapter 20, we must come to conclusions regarding the nature and timing of the thousand years, which is mentioned six times in verses 1-9. Since premillennialism has been the most popular evangelical approach in recent years, we will begin with this understanding of the millennium.
The premillennial view of verses 1-2 holds that Satan is bound for a thousand literal years after the second coming of Jesus Christ. Thus, Christ’s return is premillennial. According to the premillennial view, Revelation chapters 17-20 follow a chronological progression. Another argument employed by some premillennialists holds that the number one thousand must be interpreted as a literal period of history and that this precludes us from assigning it to the church age, which has already lasted much longer than a thousand years. A third argument concerns the language about Satan’s binding in verses 1-2. According to some premillennialists this passage requires a complete termination of Satan’s activity in the sphere of the earth. Based on these arguments – the chronology of Revelation 19 and 20, the literal view of the number one thousand, and the absolute binding of Satan – premillennialists look for a golden age on earth that follows the return of Christ.
The most powerful critique of premillennialism is made today by those holding the amillennial position, who teach instead that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is a symbolic description of the entire church age. This assessment begins by denying that Revelation 20 should be understood as following chronologically from chapter 19. Instead, it understands these visions as recapitulating the history of the spiritual opposition to Christ.
Revelation 19 shows the judgment of spiritual opposition to Christ. Revelation 19 shows the judgment of the enemies of Christ who were introduced in the symbolic histories of chapters 12-14. In reverse order from their appearance, the harlot Babylon is first considered, and her judgment takes place to make way for the marriage feast of the Lamb, which occurs in the return of Christ (Rev. 19:6-10). Then the career of the beast and his false prophet is summarized, and they are destroyed by Jesus, returning on His white horse (19:11-21). At this point there is one more enemy to be defeated, the dragon Satan, and chapter 20 reveals his defeat and final judgment in the return of Jesus. These visions therefore follow one another not chronologically, but topically: the judgment of Babylon, then the beasts, and finally Satan.
Next, consider whether the thousand years of Revelation 20 should be viewed as a literal period. We have noted all through Revelation that these visions beg to be interpreted symbolically, not literally. This is true of numbers, such as seven, ten, and a thousand, just as it is true of features in this passage as the angel’s chain and the image of Satan as a dragon. Satan is by nature an angelic spirit who could not be bound by a physical chain, however stout. If the chain and the dragon imagery of these verses is manifestly symbolic, it makes little sense that the number one thousand is literal. The symbolic meaning of this number is not difficult to discern, since a thousand years represents a long but definite span of time. Moreover, noting that a thousand is a perfect cube of the number ten, we see that this number represents perfect completeness. Thus, the millennium is a long but definite time in which the work of the gospel is completed.
The most important premillennial (and postmillennial) argument pertains to the actual binding of Satan in verses 1-3. Their view states that this binding cannot describe the situation of the entire church age. Both hold that this binding must be understood as an action that completely curtails the actions of Satan which plainly is not yet the case. This is why postmillennialists ascribe the thousand years to a golden age of total victory at the end of the church age, rather than the entire church age itself. Amillennialists reply that this binding of Satan in fact describes the entire age of the gospel with great accuracy, showing the spiritual results of Christ’s first coming with His conquering death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The key to understanding the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church in this age is the binding of Satan as a result of Christ’s saving work.
Christians today may not realize how much of a revolution resulted from the first coming of Jesus. When one asks how Satan can be described as being bound during our present age, there are two answers. The first answer notes that verse 3 specifies the particular effect of Satan’s binding: “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” This verse does not state that Satan is bound in every way, or that he is physically kept in a chained cell, but it symbolizes that he is bound in the particular way of no longer being able to prevent belief in Jesus.
A second way to see that this binding of Satan depicts the church age is to note how this vision echoes the language used elsewhere of Satan’s defeat in Christ’s first coming. Consider Matthew 12:29, where Jesus spoke of Satan in this same way. The word for bind is the same here as in Revelation 20:2 and the plundering of Satan’s house undoubtedly refers to the salvation of sinners through the gospel. There are many other New Testament passages that use similarly forceful language in describing the victory of Christ’s first coming. All this language unmistakably speaks of the stripping of Satan’s power by Christ’s death and resurrection and the granting of authority to Jesus in His ascension so that His gospel may go forth through the church.
In light of this overwhelming biblical evidence, a careful study of the binding of Satan reveals the thousand years as symbolically depicting the church age of gospel expansion. This argues for the amillenial view, as opposed to premillennialism, which ascribes this situation to an earthly reign after Christ’s coming, and also the postmillennial view, which sees Satan as bound only at the end of the church age.
The vision of Revelation 20 begins with John seeing “an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon” (vv. 1-2). In chapter 9, we saw the Abyss as the dwelling place of evil spirits, which, in that case, was opened by an angel to allow calamities on the earth (9:1-5). Now, Satan is symbolically locked in the Abyss. The angel brings a chain that Satan cannot break, with a key that locks the dungeon, so that the devil is thrown in, shut in, and sealed in (20:3). This vision shows the complete and sovereign control that is being exercised over Satan. God’s plan for salvation must be fulfilled, and to this end, God’s spiritual enemy is placed under wraps.
The binding of Satan is not permanent, however, since after the thousand years “he must be released for a little while” (v. 3). This statement also confirms to the general New Testament teaching and confirms that the thousand years describes the church age. Paul wrote that before Christ’s return “the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2 Thess. 2:3). This describes the beast whom the dragon was seen calling out of the sea in Revelation 13:1, who wages a worldwide persecution of Christians and gathers the nations for the last battle. Paul is clear that this final time of great tribulation, characterized by Satan’s “wicked deception” (2 Thess. 2:10), occurs at the end of the gospel age, just before Christ’s return. This corresponds to the “little while” after the thousand years when Satan is released so as to deceive the nations briefly before the final battle.
From this perspective, Christians look back on history, knowing that in Christ’s first coming He defeated the devil and limited his authority. We look to the future and know that “for a little while” Satan will return to deceive the nations and persecute the church. What is most important now is our awareness of the current situation, when Satan is bound “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended” (v. 3). This defines our great opportunity in this life, our great calling as the church of Christ in the world, and our glorious privilege in service to the strong Savior who has defeated and bound our dreaded enemy. This was precisely Jesus’ emphasis as He commissioned His disciples before ascending into heaven (Matt. 28:18-20). As Jesus put it at the end of John’s gospel “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
Revelation 20:1-3 Study Questions:
What happens to Satan in verses 1-3?
We must not forget that Satan was initially a member of the heavenly council. Though he has fallen from his position, he may still, by God’s permission, play a role. Satan’s job was always to “accuse” where accusation was due to make sure that all wrongdoing was exposed. In what ways has Satan abused and distorted this role?
In what specific ways does Satan try to lead us astray?