Studies in Eschatology [14]

revelationRevelation 20: Recapitulation or Sequential?

With this post I come specifically to the text of Revelation 20:1-10, the source of the main disagreement between the various millennial positions. Even more to the point is whether this passage is referring to a future millennium or is it describing the conditions present now during the age of the Church. If we can determine how in which way we are to understand Revelation 20, we can then narrow our focus down to determine which eschatological position best explains the exegetical data.

Just as a brief reminder, both amillennialism and postmillennialism approach Revelation 20 with an Augustinian hermeneutic, though the system may be redefined as historic redemptive or typological. Whatever the case, amillennialists and postmillennialists, though they may draw different conclusions as to how the events of the millennium play out, believe Revelation 20 is basically describing conditions now during the Church age.

Both groups would argue that the book of Revelation is prophetic-apocalyptic literature filled with much symbolism. The exegete should not expect to take anything in the book with a wooden literalism. That is especially true of the 1,000 years mentioned in Revelation 20. Additionally, the concept of the 1,000 years is only found here in this portion of Scripture, indicating even more that Revelation 20 should not be taken literally in the sense of real, calendar years. The exegesis of Revelation 20 is then interpreted to accommodate those presuppositions.

Contrasted with the idea that Revelation 20 is describing conditions now during the Church age is the futurist position of premillennialism. That system understands the chapter as describing a future time during which Christ will return to destroy the enemies of God and His people and establish a millennial kingdom where righteousness dwells over all the earth. The premillennialists draw that conclusion because they interpret the prophecy of Revelation with the historical-grammatical exegesis recovered by the reformers during the age of the Reformation that reads prophetic passages more literally.

Now, with those basic things in mind, as we come to chapter 20 we want to consider the exegesis of the passage. When all things considered, does the passage affirm the hermeneutics employed by amillennialists and postmillennialists when they interpret the chapter, or does the exegesis favor the more literal approach of premillennialism that sees this passage as future?

It’s my position that the hermeneutic utilized by amillennialists and postmillennialists must be abandoned as it is fraught with much philosophical baggage that mishandles the biblical exegesis. Instead of using a typological style method, the biblical student should approach the Revelation with the historical-grammatical approach, recognizing the symbolism of the book, but interpreting it with a normal understanding of language.

Moreover, the book is heavily dependent upon previous prophecy like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, and like Revelation, those books contain symbolic language, but a symbolism providing description of historical realities. Daniel for instance uses symbolic language to describe such historical events as the fall of Babylon, the coming of Alexander the Great, and the rise of the Roman empire. The language of Revelation describes similar historical realities, and should be interpreted as explaining something real, not just being symbolic for the sake of being symbolic and using colorful metaphors.

As we survey chapter 20, there are five important questions I believe divide the amillennial/postmillennial positions from the premillennial position, and these I will consider in turn.

1) Is the chronology of Revelation 19 to 20 recapitulative or sequential?
2) Is the binding of Satan present or future?
3) Is the first Resurrection spiritual or physical?
4) Is the duration of the 1,000 years symbolic or literal?
5) Is the locale of the 1,000 years in heaven or on earth?

It is my contention that when we consider those points in light of the exegetical data of Revelation, they will not sustain an amillennial nor postmillennial perspective.

Let me begin with the first, Is the chapters of Revelation 19 to 20 recapitulative or sequential?

Recapitulative may be a new word for some, so let me define it. Recapitulation is “to repeat in concise form,” so the idea with recapitulation is that the events described in Revelation 20 do not follow in sequence after Revelation 19. In fact, many amillennialists and postmillenialists believe the entire Revelation of John is a series of prophetic visions meant to provide details of the Church age. Most interpreters believe there are 7 visions (sticking with the number “7” symbolism of John) and each vision returns the reader to the beginning of the Church age to either provide new revelation or fill in the details of a previous visions.

In that outline, Revelation 19 describes how the Church age will end with Jesus returning with victory over God’s enemies who had been persecuting His people. Chapter 20, [and this is key], rather than describing events that follow immediately after those described in chapter 19, instead returns the reader back to the beginning of the Church age.

Chapter 20 is believed to be returning back to Christ’s victory over Satan at the cross and Resurrection (the concept of Satan being “bound”), and unfolds how the saints are resurrected spiritually to reign with Christ presently now as the Church triumphantly goes forth across the earth proclaiming the gospel and bringing nations to Christ. Only at the end of the Church age is Satan loosed for a little while to deceive the nations who attempt one final assault against God and His people, what is described with a bit more detail at the end of chapter 19.

Hence chapter 20 precedes chapter 19 in order of events, and chapter 19:11-21 runs concurrently with chapter 20:7-10. They are passages explaining parallel events, not passages describing sequential, chronological events following after each other.

However, when we consider the book of Revelation as a whole, is John meaning to convey the idea of recapitulation? Especially chapters 19 and 20?

There are many vigorous defenders of recapitulation. R. Fowler White and Cornelius Venema, for example, have both written capable defenses of recapitulation between chapters 19 and 20. Yet, in spite of their work, I agree with commentator Robert Thomas that when all things are considered, the concept of recapitulation does not rest upon the exegesis of the book, but rather is concluded because of philosophical pre-commitments utilized when interpreting Revelation [Thomas 404]. This in a way is the Achilles Heel of non-futuristic, non-premillennial systems. If it can be demonstrated clearly that Revelation 20 follows Revelation 19 sequentially, those systems really have no foundation upon which to rest their arguments.

So how is Revelation 20 sequential to Revelation 19? Let me consider three points.

First, we can say the context demands it. Revelation chapters 19 and 20 are part of a larger whole of the book that tracks with a series of important events which follow after one another. Matt Waymeyer explains it this way, “The context and flow of Revelation 12-20 point to a chronological relationship in which the events of chapter 20 follow those of chapter 19” [Waymeyer, 62]. He goes on to outline the chronological relationship as,

  • Satan being cast down to earth and beginning his work to deceive the whole world (Rev. 12:9).
  • Satan enlisting the beast and the false prophet to accomplish his task of deception (Rev. 13:1-18; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).
  • The unholy trinity is successful in their attempts to deceive and are defeated by Christ at His return who conquers them and casts them into the lake of fire in a series of visions. (Rev. 19:11-20:10).
  • By the end of chapter 19, only two of the three of the unholy trinity – the beast and false prophet – has been defeated. Chapter 20 then continues the thought of judgment of those three, by binding the head of the group, Satan, in the abyss [ibid, 62-63].

It is clear that there is no logical, grammatical break between the events ending chapter 19 and those continued into chapter 20. On the contrary, there is unity of thought, especially between the judgment upon the three members of the unholy trinity – Satan, the beast, and the false prophet. It disrupts the flow of thought to suggest the beast and false prophet are cast into the lake of fire, while leaving the doom of Satan unresolved by claiming chapter 20:1-4 is returning the reader back the beginning of the Church’s ministry after the great commission. The fate of the devil is answered, however, when chapters 19-20 are treated as sequential.

John’s use of “and I saw” (kai eidon) in 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1 indicates a series of visions happening right after one another; a progression of chronological thought. D.E. Aune argues that the phrase “and I saw” does three things: It introduces a new vision, a major scene within a vision, and focuses on a new or significant figure or action that occurs within a continuing vision narrative [Aune, 338]. Some amillennialists will argue the phrase, while providing a visional chronicle, is not providing an historical chronicle. In other words, they believe the vision is in chronological order, but not necessarily the history of events [Sullivan, 5]. I would point out such an argument assumes a commitment to the Augustine/historical Reformed hermeneutic and is not derived from the exegesis itself.

The purpose clause of Revelation 20:3, “any longer” (eti) strongly brings one to the conclusion that the events of chapter 20 follow closely behind those of chapter 19. “Any longer” indicates an interruption of something already taking place. In this case, the deception of the nations by Satan as outlined in Revelation 12-19. I will go into more detail about this purpose clause in my next post to this series, but the binding of Satan is the very thing providing the use of “any longer.”

And then Revelation 20:10 states how Satan will be cast into the lake of fire where the beast and the false prophet are also. These two individuals were judged and thrown into the lake of fire at the end of chapter 19. The only way the words of 20:10 can make any exegetical sense is if chapter 20 follows sequentially after chapter 19.

The next post will continue my exegetical examination by considering the “binding of Satan.”


D.E. Aune, Revelation 1-5. (Nelson: Nashville TN, 1997).

Craig Blaising, “Premillennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond. ed. Darrel Bock. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1999).

Charles Powell, Progression Versus Recapitulation in Revelation 20:1-6: Some Overlooked Arguments. On-line paper.

Steve Sullivan, Premillennialism and an Exegesis of Revelation 20. On-line paper.

Robert Thomas, Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary. (Moody: Chicago IL, 1995).

Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate. (Kress Christian Publications: The Woodlands TX, 2004).

R. Fowler White, “Making Sense of Rev 20:1-10? Harold Hoehner Versus Recapitulation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37 (December 1994).


6 thoughts on “Studies in Eschatology [14]

  1. Pingback: Studies in Eschatology | hipandthigh

  2. Some issues I had
    1. The question of whether Revelation as a whole is recapitulative in structure is essentially different than the question of whether chapt 19 and 20 are recapitulative. That is, it is possible that Rev as a whole is recapitulative but 19 and 20 are not; it is also possible that Rev as a whole is not recapitulative but Rev 19 and 20 are. Yet you seem to address these two issues as if they are essentially the same.

    2. You say that the context demands that they are chronological, however the evidence you provide in support doesn’t provide a sufficient logical basis for that claim. For one, it relies on picking out particular details, arranging them in chronological order and then demanding that the larger structure must therefore conform to this. Yet, the details that supposedly reveal this chronological structure could be equally true in a recapitulative narrative. That is, if a narrative was recapitulative, it would be quite possible to pull out details from each “cycle” that conform to a chronology.

    Additionally, this sort of proof also lends itself to cherrypicking. It ignores all the details which might fit better in a recapitulative. It is not sufficient to show a chronological progression among *some* details since this progression can logically appear in an overall recapitulative structure. To prove an overall chronological structure, one would have to demonstrate that all the details are consistently chronological. Unless this daunting task can be done (and I sincerely doubt it can be), it is an serious overreach to claim the context *demands* a chronological reading.

    Let me just give one example (of several) which causes some serious problems for a chronological reading. In Rev 6:13, the starts of the sky fall to the earth. Then in Rev 8:12,it seems that the starts are still in the sky since a third are made not to shine. And that is just one example of many. Now, these examples by themselves don’t prove recapitulation, nor do they do disprove a chronological structure – but they do make it impossible to say that the context *demands* a chronological reading. The claim doesn’t hold up logically or exegeticaly.

    3. “It is clear that there is no logical, grammatical break between the events ending chapter 19 and those continued into chapter 20.”

    Clear or not, this neither proves chronology nor disproves recapitulation. There is nothing essential in a recapitulative narrative which demands a logical or grammatical break of this sort. – particularly in a literature where literal is so easily and regularly blended with figurative language. Now, if ALL we had to provide details for the end times chronology came from Rev, then the chronological position would probably have the decidedly upper hand. We would have nothing to compare it against and thus could only go with what made the most sense to the reader. However, we DO have other sources for understanding end time chronology. They however, strongly suggest a non-chronological reading of Rev. is the best. Just two examples,
    a) 1 Cor 15 has a pretty specific chronology, yet no room is left in it for a literal 1000 year reign between the Second Advent and the New Heaven and Earth.
    b) Matt 24:29 gives some specific details about events in the heavenly bodies which occur at the Second Advent. In Rev these events are repeated almost identically, yet they occur in chap 6. This strongly suggests that a chronological reading of Rev is inconsistent with what Jesus said about His return.

    Now, while these sorts of examples are not conclusive proof, they do raise an important point to consider. Where our favored reading of Revelation does not line up well with other parts of NT teachings on eschatology, which should we seek to conform the other to in our understanding. Or to put it another way – can we derive a sufficient eschatology from the first 26 books of the NT such that Rev is merely in support of the other books, or is Rev to be taken as a revelation of things which can be found nowhere else in the NT? If every other teaching consistently speaks of this age and the age to come, is it more reasonable to expect that Rev will do the same or that it will introduce an age after the to come – particularly when there is a reasonable alternate reading which retains the them of this age and the age to come?

    Regardless of how one answers the question, any defense of a chronological reading of Rev has to take into account that such a position ends up positing theories which cannot be found anywhere else and often contradict what would otherwise seem quite clear elsewhere in Scripture. Yes, the recapitulative reading of Rev often has to propose “creative’ theories for how to approach parts of Revelation (though the chronological reading is not immune to this either – see again the issue about the stars being made dark after they have already fallen), but the chronological reading must do the same for NT passages outside of Rev. Why would the latter approach be preferred to the former?

    4. “John’s use of “and I saw” (kai eidon) in 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1 indicates a series of visions happening right after one another; a progression of chronological thought. ”

    At this point you seem to make a claim with no supporting evidence. Yep, the phrase indicates a series of visions, There is nothing about the phrase however which requires that these visions are showing chronological events. The phrase indicates simply and solely that John saw this, then he saw this, then he saw this. IF they are chronological, showing they are has nothing at all to do with this phrase. There is nothing in the word on the grammar which requires that what the visions reveals are chronological in nature. BOTH sides must already be committed to a particular view before they can make any claims about how this phrase is used.

    5. “The purpose clause of Revelation 20:3, “any longer” (eti) strongly brings one to the conclusion that the events of chapter 20 follow closely behind those of chapter 19. “Any longer” indicates an interruption of something already taking place.”

    This is a case of begging the question. It requires an interruption of something already taking place *only if one already presumes a chronological reading*!! How do you know it requires an interruption? Because 19 and 20 are chronological. How do you know they are chronological? Because otherwise it would require an interruption.

    However, if Rev 20 is the start of new recapitulation, then there is no interruption at all – this could refer to an events from 2000 years ago and Satan would still have been “deceiving the nations” before that time.

    And its not as if this sort of chronological leap doesn’t happen elsewhere in Rev. The transition from chap 11 to chap 12 is a classic example. With no warning at all, we go from a description of the 7th trumpet where the Kingdom is being proclaimed, to a description of the fall of Satan and the birth of Christ. There is no contextual indication that the shift is being made. In fact, it appears at first glance that 12:1 is following immediately on the heals of the 7th trumpet. It is only the fact that details are given which are so clearly in reference to earlier events that we can figure that chap 12 is not chronological with chap 11. Yet then there is somehow a reason to logically demand that chap 20 be chronological with 19. On what basis can you a insist that Rev 20 is not a break from chap 19 like chap 12 is a break from chap 11? Again, it begs the question.

    6. “The only way the words of 20:10 can make any exegetical sense is if chapter 20 follows sequentially after chapter 19.”

    …Or if the first part of chap 20 is telescoping back in time from the events of the end of chap 19 (that is, similar to what happens at the start of chap 12). In which case, all that is required for it to make exegetical (and logical) sense is if -> vs 10 of chap 20 <- follows the events of Rev 19. There is no exegetical or logical inconsistency in taking this position. It's not as if it requires something unique in how the visions of Rev are given.

  3. Pingback: Recapitulation Revisited | hipandthigh

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