The millennial reign of Christ depicted in Revelation 20:1-6 is one of the most contested passages in the Bible. Is it describing a future event, or one which has already begun? Is it describing an event which happens on earth, or one which takes place in heaven? In this piece, I will make the case that we can situate the millennium in history by paying attention to the various themes in the passage and how they are used throughout the book.
Echoes from Earlier
Many of the key themes mentioned in 20:1-6 are brought up earlier in the book. The fourfold title given to Satan (“the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan”) is first used in 12:9. This relates the binding and imprisonment of Satan in this chapter to his overthrow in chapter 12. The language is symbolic in both cases and represents the loss of power and authority that Satan experiences through the resurrection of Christ and the testimony of the righteous (12:10-11).
The “thrones” in 20:4 are the same thrones from chapter 4, which depicts a heavenly courtroom scene. The martyrs who “come to life” are first mentioned in 6:9-11 situated underneath the heavenly altar. Both the thrones and the martyrs are situated in heaven rather than on earth, which suggests that the millennial reign depicted in 20:4-6 also takes place in heaven, although it symbolises realities on earth.
The various blessings promised to the martyrs in 20:6 are first mentioned earlier in the book. Freedom from the “second death” is first mentioned in 2:11 as a blessing promised to the church in Smyrna. The language of becoming “priests of God” who “reign” over the earth with him is first raised in 5:10 as a blessing of the righteous. The language of reigning “over the earth” suggests that although the scene in 20:4-6 is a heavenly one, it has implications for what happens on earth.
Armies of Heaven
If we are to situate this vision correctly in history, we need to understand how it relates to the vision which comes immediately before, in 19:11-21. This vision at the end of chapter 19 is often taken to represent the second coming of Christ and the final victory over evil. However, the vision makes better sense as a symbolic depiction of the reign of Christ and the saints in history.
First of all, there is the reference to Jesus “striking down the nations” and ruling over them “with a rod of iron” (19:15). The language is taken directly from Psalm 2:8-9, which is describing the present reign of Christ at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 5:5). This mitigates against understanding the passage in an exclusively future sense.
Second, there is the final defeat of the beast and the false prophet at the end of the chapter (19:20). The beast, first depicted in 13:1-10, is a combination of the four beasts of Daniel 7:1-8, representing Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. At the time when Revelation was written, Rome was the only one of these empires which was still around. The false prophet introduced in 13:11-18 represents the emperor cult, since the emperor personified the might of Rome.
When was Rome and its emperor cult defeated? The best fit for this historically is the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. From this point onwards, worship of the emperor was disbanded and Rome’s status as an oppressive and persecuting regime towards Christians came to an end. It was then only a matter of time until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire under Theodosius I in 380 AD.
Vindication of the Martyrs
All of this served as a vindication of those who had been persecuted and killed by Rome for several hundred years whilst Christianity was outlawed. Those who refused to worship the emperor were vindicated in the conversion of Constantine and the defeat of paganism within the Roman empire. This same reality is represented by the visions in 19:11-21 and 20:1-6, from two different angles. Both concern a victory of Christ and the saints over historical forces of evil.
But of course, this isn’t the end of the story. Just as the martyrs symbolically “came to life” through being vindicated in the victory of Christianity over the empire, so too will the “rest of the dead” (the wicked) one day be vindicated over the righteous in a final rebellion of sorts. But this uprising will be temporary and be swiftly overthrown by the final judgement and return of Christ (20:7-10). On that day, death and evil will be overcome forever (20:14) and there will be no more sadness or suffering for those who know the Lord.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”