Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

 

THE MILLENNIAL REIGN

 

In Revelation 20:1ff. John describes a vision in which he saw certain events associated with a millennium or period of one thousand years. That this is a difficult passage is indicated by the great divergence of opinion concerning its interpretation. Yet despite the problems it presents, and although this is the only place in Scripture where this period of a thousand years is mentioned, it has frequently been treated as a key to the understanding of other prophetic passages, particularly in the Old Testament, or as a foundation on which elaborate eschatological superstructures have been built. But before we enter into a discussion of the passage and its meaning let us set down what the text says:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. And I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or on their hands. They lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Rev. 20:1-10).

The verses that follow depict the judgment of the dead before the great white throne and the consignment of all whose names were not found written in the book of life to the same destruction as had been meted out to the Devil (20:11-15). Then comes the vision of the everlasting bliss of the new heaven and the new earth (21:1ff.).

The major division of opinion concerning the interpretation of the passage we have quoted is between those who maintain that the return of Christ will take place before the reign of a thousand years (the premillennial view) and those who hold that it will take place after the reign of a thousand years (the postmillennial view). It should he mentioned also that in Jewish expectation there was the anticipation of a final golden age which would be the seventh or sabbath day of human history, lasting a thousand years (though the estimates of the length of its duration did in fact vary), and in which Gentile domination would be put down and the messianic kingdom established with a resplendent Jerusalem as its capital and the magnificence of the temple and its priesthood restored. To return to Christian interpretations, the postmillennial viewpoint envisages the millennium as a period at the end of this present age when the Christian church will flourish and the Gospel be widely accepted — in other words, a golden age in which Christ will reign through his church now dominant after centuries of suffering and ignominy. This viewpoint, one must say, seems to underestimate the achievements of divine power and the conquests of divine grace in the history of the church (admittedly weak in itself), and also to overlook the witness of the New Testament that the latter part of this age will see not a decrease but an intensification of the power of evil in the world, which, however, will in no way imply a defeat for the church or for the purposes of God. Furthermore, if a season of supremacy for the church must intervene before the return of Christ, this would seem to nullify the emphasis placed, as we have seen, by Christ and his apostles on the imminence of his return and the importance of being constantly watchful lest it should find us careless and unprepared.

Another perspective, which might also be classified as postmillennial but which is now commonly designated amillennial (inaccurately, because it does not dismiss the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 as nonexistent), is that of those who, understanding the number 1,000 to have a symbolical force, interpret the millennium as virtually synonymous with this present age between the two comings of Christ, or, more precisely, between the coronation of the ascended Saviour and his return in glory. This position we believe to be most in accord with the perspective of the New Testament, as we shall endeavor shortly to demonstrate.

According to what may be called the classic premillennial view, the second coming of Christ will see the resurrection of the saints and their participation in the kingdom which he will then establish on earth and which will endure for a thousand years. At the end of this period there will come the last paroxysm of Satan and his armies, and their total defeat will be followed by final judgment and the renewal of creation. There were some who conceived the delights of the millennium in a manner that was carnal rather than spiritual. The first-century heretic Cerinthus, for example, against whose teachings the writings of the apostle John were intended as an antidote, described it as a period of fleshly desires and pleasures, and especially of marriage festivals (see Eusebius, Church History iii. 28); and early in the second century Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, propounded the fanciful notion that the millennial vegetation would be so exuberant that each vine would have ten thousand branches, each branch ten thousand twigs, each twig ten thousand. shoots, each shoot ten thousand clusters, each cluster ten thousand grapes, and that each grape would yield twenty-five measures of wine (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies v. 33)!

That judgments differed from early times over the interpretation of the “thousand years” is evident from a statement made by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points,” he wrote, “are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare”; but in the same place he asserts that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith and are true Christians think otherwise” (Dialogue with Trypho 80f.). The clearest declaration of premillennial doctrine (though not necessarily the most orthodox) that survives from the early centuries comes from the pen of Lactantius, writing in the first decades of the fourth century:

Peace once secured, and all evil overthrown, the righteous and victorious prince will execute judgment on the living and the dead over all the earth; to the living righteous he will assign all nations for servitude, but the dead he will raise to eternal life, and will himself reign with them on earth and found a holy city. This kingdom of the saints will last a thousand years. During that same time the light of the stars will be magnified and the sun’s brightness be increased and the light of the moon no longer suffer diminution. Then will come down from God showers of blessing, both morning and evening, while the earth will yield her fruits without toil on the part of mankind. Honey will drip from the rocks, fountains of milk and wine gush forth, wild beasts laying aside their ferocity — will grow gentle, the wolf wandering harmless amid the flocks, the calf feeding with the lion, the dove consorting with the hawk, the snake losing its venom; no creature will then live by blood. For God will bestow on all creatures innocent food in abundance. But at the close of the thousand years, when the prince of the demons is unchained, the nations will renew warfare with the righteous and an innumerable multitude will come to storm the city of the saints. In that hour shall the last judgment of God be executed upon the nations. . . . For a brief while the righteous will lie hidden underground, until the nations come to perdition; then, after three days, they will issue forth and behold the plains covered with dead bodies. There will be an earthquake; mountains will be riven and the valleys sink into the depths. . . . After this God will renew the world and change the righteous into angelic shapes, that, being clothed with the garment of immortality, they may serve God for ever. And this will be the Kingdom of God, and of that kingdom there shall be no end (Epitome of the Divine Institutes 72).


 Author

 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God,  and Confirmation in the Church Today.


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