Revelation chapter 20 is a sort of theological rail station through which various sorts of interpretive trains pass. Each train travels from a different Scripture tradition and espouses a view of the end times which attempts to find its home in this passage. Six times in this passage St. John refers to a “thousand years” or a ‘millennium.’ During this period Satan will be bound so that he can no longer lead the nations astray (20:3), before finally being released again at the end of the millennium (20:7). Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham notes that various Christian traditions about the millennium “owe very little—other than the term ‘millennium’—to the account of the thousand-year reign of the martyrs with Christ in Revelation 20.” The single function of this narrative is the vindication of the martyrs or those “who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus” (20:4).
Some early Christians were apparently influenced by one strand of Jewish traditions about a coming messianic age. It was believed that just as the world was created in seven days, so the entire history of the world would unfold in six millennia long ‘days’ (Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8) which would be followed by a seventh world Sabbath, or final millennium of paradise on earth. Some of the early Church fathers interpreted this metaphor literally and anticipated a literal future millennium. This type of speculation was later corrected by the Church, which has “rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism” (CCC 676).
Following this day-equals-a-thousand-years schema, various pre-modern dating’s of the beginning of world where proposed which should have resulted in the Lord’s return in the year 500, the year 800, or the year 2000 (or perhaps in the latest dating 2048).
When this type of schema was imposed on Revelation 20, it was thought that Christ would come back to reign over an earthly messianic kingdom and literally fulfill many Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of the Jewish people and the temple in Jerusalem. Christ will reign in Jerusalem for one-thousand years before the final judgment. We sometimes refer to this view as premillennial because it proposed that Christ will return before the millennium. This view also generally expects the world to get worse and worse until Christ returns.
The modern premillennial view, with some additional novel teachings, such as the idea of the ‘rapture,’ were created by the Anglo-Irish Bible teacher John Nelson Darby in the mid 1800’s and popularized in the early 1900’s by the Schofield Reference Bible. This is the view of the popular evangelical author Tim LaHaye who wrote the Left Behind series, and is also the type of thinking that has given birth to such diverse movements as the Seventh Day Adventist, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although this view, and its many cousins, claims to take biblical prophecy literally, it is highly selective about what it considers literal and many of its interpretations are far from self-evident.
Immediately prior to the 1800’s a popular view about the end times was postmillennialism. The Protestant religious revival of the Great Awakenings in early American history were fueled by this thinking. This view holds that the world will get better and better until Christ finally returns to begin the millennium. Our missionary actions in this world to bring about God’s reign and rule will hasten Christ’s return. The idea of the millennium in this view is not understood in a highly literal way. Two World Wars and a darkening world political situation have made this view less common.
The ancient view of the Church which offered an alternative to a literal interpretation of the millennium is called amillennialism. A number of early church fathers rejected literal interpretations of the millennium and read Revelation as a text of timeless truths about sin and vice. Some proposed that the millennium was an indefinite time representing the present age of the Church and that the ‘binding’ of Satan (Revelation 20:2) occurred through exorcisms and the presence of Christ in the world. Through his ministry Christ is able to bind the ‘strong man’ (Matthew 12:29; Luke 4:36). This view was popularized by St. Augustine who recommends it in his work City of God (XX.4-7). Setting aside popular works, the majority of modern Biblical commentators follow this view.
In this view the binding of Satan (Revelation 20:1-3) so that he “could no longer lead the nations astray” is occurring now in the age of the Church, so that the Gospel of the kingdom may reach all peoples. In John’s vision, Satan is bound with a chain, locked with a key and the entrance is sealed. The ancient serpent is restrained both with power and with authority (Matthew 28:18; Luke 9:11; 10:19). At the end of this age Satan will again be “released for a short time” (20:3) to cause a final deception and persecution of the Church (20:7). The Catechism warns,
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers . . . in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist . . . (CCC 675).
Revelation 20:6 describes the ‘first resurrection’ of the martyrs will reign with Christ as his judges. We are not to see two literal resurrections, but must attribute this to John’s tendency to repeat events in recapitulation. St. Augustine interpreted this as metaphor of the type ‘resurrection’ which occurs in the soul through Baptism (Romans 6:3-4).
Although our eternal destiny is determined at the moment of our death in a particular judgment (CCC 1021), there is a Last Judgment (CCC 1038-1039) which is described in Revelation 20:11-15. There is a general resurrection of all the dead followed by a judgment of each person according to their deeds and relationship with Christ. The Catechism notes,
In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life (CCC 1039).
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.