Rev. 20:1-15; Psalm 85:10-11; Isaiah 66:24
Revelation 20 leads us not only into the vivid climax of the Apocalypse, but into two heated debates among those who name Christ.
The chapter describes the subduing, the final hurrah, and the total demise of Satan (with those who adhere to him), the living rule of the saints, and the final judgment in which Hades and death are obliterated. As these elements are described in vision, St. John uses two expressions that are sources of contention—first, “the thousand years” or “millennium;” second, “forever” or “unto ages of ages.”
Here is the passage:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that serpent of old, 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, so that he might no longer deceive the nations, until the thousand years were accomplished. After that he must be loosed for a little while.
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge had been given. Also I saw the souls of those beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for 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 that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the 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 sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night unto ages of ages.
Then I saw a great white throne and the One who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that one was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:1-15)
We see immediately that there are two general time periods in view here—the thousand years, and the Great Age after this, if indeed that can be described in terms of time. John sees them both in vision, and describes the events pertaining to each with vivid touches. Sometimes he uses the past, sometimes the present, and sometimes the future tense, but these tenses are not always helpful in determining the sequence of events. For example, in describing the final battle led by Satan, he begins in the future tense (“this will happen,”) and then switches to the past tense, as though he is narrating a story that he has seen before his eyes.
Many early Christian writers who commented upon the thousand years in this chapter tended to read the time-frame as literal, and in this were no doubt influenced by the general ancient culture, both Jewish and Gentile, that spoke about millennial ages. However, by the time that the Nicene creed was being consolidated, this literal view of Revelation was displaced by an understanding that the “millennium” was not in the future, but a vivid description of the present time. It depicted the present reign of saints with Christ, brought about by His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Jesus had “bound the strong man” Satan, and elevated humanity to His side. For example, in Mark 3:24-27, Jesus suggests that Satan’s forces are, because of Jesus’ own presence, in revolt: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.” Jesus, then, came to bind the “strong man,” and to rescue those imprisoned in Satan’s house. A similar triumph is celebrated by Jesus when the Seventy return from their ministry, and he tells them “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).
Noting that a literal “millennium” is nowhere presented in the rest of Scripture, and reading Scripture by Scripture, those who see the rule of the saints as a present reality rely upon Jesus’ words regarding the binding of Satan, who no longer can deceive those outside of Israel, since many Gentiles are coming to join God’s family. These will not receive the mark of the beast, nor join in the rebellion of Satan and his terrible two henchmen. Representative of this churchly view of the millennium is St. Andrew of Caesarea, who says, concerning literal views of the millennium, “the Church has accepted none of these” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, section 21, chapter 63:11). Instead, the “destruction of the devil…had taken place during the Master’s passion, in which he who appeared to be strong, having bound us as his spoils” was “condemned to the abyss” (20; 60:35-36), so that “the one thousand years, therefore, is the time from ….the Incarnation of the Lord” (20;60:43). Though those who framed the Creed had particular other heresies in mind when they declared “Christ’s kingdom shall have no end,” the idea of a literal limited 1000-year reign seems also to be proscribed by this statement of the Creed. The Church knows of two comings of Christ, not three; it celebrates the unending dominion of the LORD, not a two-step rule, temporarily interrupted by a time of tribulation. This has been, unfortunately, forgotten by millennialist Christians down through the ages who continue to panic whenever a certain time-frame (the year 1000 or 2000, for example) is looming.
Instead, we understand from the Church that the rule of the saints with Christ has begun, since the Enemy is being restrained. The Church, prompted by the Holy Spirit, can preach with strength, and the evidence of Christ’s victory is seen whenever anyone comes to baptism and chrismation. Our unfortunate friends who are caught up in “pre-millennial” debates regarding the length of the tribulation, the timing of the rapture, and intricate timelines may be released from this humanly concocted debate, and rejoice that Christ truly reigns, though not yet in the fullness that will come when He returns. The fear that accompanies many dispensationalist interpretations of the Scriptures can be put aside, and replaced by a steady reliance on the Lion who is also a Lamb, and who calls us to witness as royal children, even in times of tribulation. Those few who still cling to “post-millennial” pride (which was in vogue before the two world wars), and think that they can catalyze the second coming of Christ by preaching to the nations can also accept relief, knowing that the battle is not theirs, but belongs to the LORD. Of course, we will tell the good news, and pray for the salvation of all around us! But not with panic, as though by our very effort we could force Christ’s hand to come back to us. For He remains with us by the Holy Spirit, and His times are known to himself. Meanwhile, we abide in an “already-but-not-yet” situation, where Christ reigns, but we have not yet experienced Him in all fulness. Indeed, “the little while” of Satan’s influence may not refer to an actual time period, but to the limited power which the enemy sometimes has upon those claimed by Christ. To use the language of St. John’s vision, we have, in baptism, experienced the “first death” and “first resurrection” and so need not fear what is to come. By the way, anyone interested in a brief description of the three approaches to this issue—premillennial, postmillennial, and a-millennial (the Church’s position)—may find it clearly summarized in the brief book The Message of Revelation by Michael Wilcock. Though not Orthodox, he clearly has imbibed the Church’s teaching on this subject, and others.
The second debate that we encounter in this chapter concerns what happens as a result of the judgment before the “great white throne.” This divine throne suggests not simply the rule of the King but also His judgment seat, for all creation flees away from the One who is reality in Himself. In particular, Satan, the beast, and his prophet are cast into a place prepared for them, the lake of fire. This time-period in the lake of fire is, to read the text in its original, “unto ages of ages.” They are joined, in John’s vision, by those whose name is not written in the book of life. Recently Orthodox, and others outside of our family, have been startled by the insistence of some note-worthies, including both Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, and David Bentley Hart, that this time of infernal imprisonment is only temporary. Depending upon certain interpretations of fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, the Gregories, the later Isaac of Ninevah and others, the claim is made that universalism (the doctrine that all will be saved), whether open or reserved, was a well-accepted position in ancient times, and thus can be entertained by the faithful today. This is not the place to engage in close analysis of the passages so often visited to support outright universalism: I only comment that not every reader of these ancients has found the doctrine articulated clearly here, not even in Isaac. Moreover, to find this teaching in a few fathers is not to discover a consensus.
David Bentley Hart goes a step further by leaning upon one of the meanings of Greek words such as aiōn, aiōnios, which can, in some contexts, be translated “an age” or “of an age.” That is, the imprisonment is not eternal, but “for an age.” It is helpful to notice that standard lexicons, which offer comparative uses of these words from the classical and Christian world, give these translations in the third or fourth place, offering “eternity” and “eternal” as the first readings. It is even more telling that, in the book of Revelation, neither simply the noun nor the adjective are used, but the more complex phrase “unto aions of aions.” Indeed, in most places, this phrase is used to describe God’s eternal qualities of life, reign, and power. Surely we do not want to circumscribe the eternal life of the Lamb as only for a certain time, however long? Surely God’s reign is not only “for an age” or even for “prolonged ages”?
The very complexity of the phrase “unto ages of ages” suggests eternity, and is mostly used to describe God and the final, unending joy of His people in the book of Revelation. It is in contrast with the thousand years, which describes Christ’s rule (and ours) in the present age. After this present age is an eternity in God’s direct presence. But it is this phrase, “unto ages of ages,” that is also used here, in chapter 20, of the punishment of the beast and the prophet, and it was this phrase that was used in chapter 19 of the smoke that ascends from the burning Babylon. For our generous-minded generation, this rankles. Must we think of hell and punishment as everlasting? And, if so, how can we square this with a heaven and restored earth in which God is “all in all”? Here we stand on the threshold of great mystery: how can we who are time-bound understand the end of all things? First, we must keep it firmly in mind that God’s justice is not opposed to God’s love. This final scene of reckoning says both that folks will be judged “by what they have done” and also by the appearance of their names “in the book of Life”—a register written on the basis of what Christ has done for us. Here, ineffably, in John’s critical vision, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Psalm 85: 10-11). The Lion and the Lamb are united here, and human beings are called into that unity.
I find it comforting that, though St. John’s vision puts before us the precept that “those whose names are not written” will find an apt home with Lucifer and his captains, there is no description of their actual torment or eternal sojourn in that place. Only the unholy trinity is described explicitly as forever (“unto ages of ages”) tormented. It is also comforting that “death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire, suggesting that these destroyers will be removed forever from our experience. These visionary pictures give permission, it would seem, for us to hope (and of course, to pray) for the salvation of anyone that we know. (Hans von Balthazar is very good on this.) To hope, but never to declare the final salvation of everyone! To say that we know that in the end the abyss will be unpeopled, empty, is to go beyond what we have been taught, and to forget that Jesus approved Isaiah’s words regarding the “worm not dying” and the “fire not quenching” (Mark 9:48 cf. Isaiah 66:24). To say, as some have, that these are merely warnings, and will never come to pass, is to deprive the warnings of their strength. We may hope that in the end all will repent, but must never “give the lie” to the prophets by declaring it. To do this would not be to “offer very good news” (as some have said) but to go beyond what we can know, and to assume that we may offer a gospel more compassionate than that given by Jesus himself.
I have worked out, in musing about this problem of eternal punishment, eight guidelines or boundaries within which I try to work, and hope that these may be of some help to you, my friends:
- We can’t say that God’s will may ultimately be thwarted.
- We cannot deny that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
- We cannot view the salvation accomplished by Christ as automatic in such a way that it violates human integrity or choice.
- We can’t say that salvation depends upon us in a foundational sense.
- We cannot say that human acceptance of God’s loving offer is unnecessary.
- We can’t claim to know that someone is damned.
- We can’t say that the effect of Christ’s righteousness on humanity is less powerful than Adam’s sin.
- We can’t assert that the doctrine of Hell is only “heuristic”—that it is only a warning.
All of these negative boundaries I have drawn from the Scriptures, and worked through as I contemplated The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. They are, I believe, the markers retained also by the fathers as they considered these deep questions, and they ought not to be transgressed, not even in our most imaginative or generous moments. They remind us of the God who has made Himself known to us, His creation of us in His own image, and His desire for our rescue and transformation.
So, too, do these images presented to us by St. John the visionary. In this chapter of Revelation, hard though it is to read, we are presented with the God who is mighty to save—to save from sin and death, and to save for Himself. His judgment and His mercy are not at war, but are effective among those whom He has called to lay down our weapons, and to receive His life. All that is deadly will be destroyed; all that can be redeemed will be brought to life. His power and His love are eternal; and in this age, we are called to suffer and to reign with Him.