The Duration of the Thousand Years: Literal or Figurative?
I come to my last comments on my study of Revelation 20.
My series of posts on the subject has argued that the exegesis of Revelation 20 cannot sustain the Reformed, Covenantalist hermeneutic utilized by amillennialists and postmillennialists who interpret the vision to be describing the state of the Christian Church being presently experienced.
Much to the contrary, the exegesis makes Revelation 20 a prophecy regarding the future. That after Christ’s coming to vanquish the armies of the beast as described in chapter 19, Satan will be literally bound and his influence removed from the earth, and Christ will establish a physical kingdom that will last 1,000 chronological, calendar years.
The question still needing to be explored is whether the duration of those 1,000 years described in chapter 20 are truly literal calendar years or are they meant to be taken symbolically as an expression of a long period of time?
Those who employ a Reformed Covenantalist hermeneutic when interpreting Revelation 20 believe the 1,000 years should be symbolic. The primary reason being is that they start with the presupposition that because Revelation is filled with much symbolic language, then the overall interpretation of the book should be symbolic.
Revelation is also considered apocalyptic literature and apocalyptic literature must always be interpreted symbolically. In fact, the true, “literal” sense of the book is to interpret the numbers and images symbolically. Moreover, the use of 1,000 years to describe the length of the messianic kingdom is only mentioned here in Revelation 20. That is an important detail, because in both the OT and NT, the kingdom is described as being everlasting, or eternal. A thousand years, though a long time in human history, is still not even close to being “everlasting.”
Hence, the only conclusion an interpreter can make is that the 1,000 years are not real, calendar years, but are meant to describe a long, indefinite period representing a complete and ideal time. In this case, the reign of Christ over the Church in the world.
Amillennialists and postmillennialists both interpret the 1,000 years in a similar fashion. The one difference between the groups, however, is that amillennialists see the time being the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ, whereas most postmillennialists refer to the years as a period of time beginning sometime way after the first coming, but before the second coming [Waymeyer, 99].
Theologians who have spiritualized the years have developed clever ways of trying to understand their meaning. Some suggest the number “1,000” is the cube of ten, which is the sum of 7 plus 3. The number “10” signifies completeness, and 1,000 is ten to the third power [Hoekema, 227]. Others, like David Chilton, believe the 1,000 years are a hyperbolic expression meant to express a long period of time. Similar to the expression, “I’ve told you a million times!” Obviously, a person hasn’t told the person a literal “million times,” but rather means they have told the person many, many times. In like manner, the 1,000 years are meant to convey that there were many, many years between the first and second coming [Chilton, 507].
There is biblical precedence for understanding the years in this fashion. For example, when Psalm 50:10 says of God, He owns the cattle on a 1,000 hills, it is obvious there are more than 1,000 hills in the world, so it cannot be literal. Rather, the idea speaks to God’s absolute dominion over all the world. The 1,000 years as recorded in Revelation 20 is to be understood similarly and not as literal calendar years.
Interestingly, though Augustine popularized the understanding of Revelation 20 as describing the church age, he saw the 1,000 years as being real years and expected Christ to return at the first of the 10th century. That didn’t happen and his interpretation of Revelation was re-worked to understand the years as symbolic.
In spite of the myriad of commentaries written attempting to spiritualize the 1,000 years, none of the conclusions are truly satisfying as representing the best way to read Revelation 20. Instead, I believe the best understanding of the texts is that these years as real calendar years describing a future, messianic age with Christ ruling over the earth. Let me add three reasons to my already long list outlined in my previous posts on this subject:
The use of numbers in the book of Revelation. Steve Sullivan notes that the vast majority of the numbers used in the book of Revelation are conventional. In other words, the numbers are meant to convey true measurements, mathematical operations, and other calculations. That clearly implies the bulk of them are not symbolic, but real.
In the book of Revelation there are 24 elders, 42 months, 7 seals, trumpets, and bowls, 3 1/2 years, 5 months, and fractional uses of counting parts of the earth and populations destroyed in specific judgments [Sullivan, 38]. Nothing in those particular contexts suggests a symbolic use of numerical values. John spoke, for example, to one of the 24 elders, indicating there are 24 individual elders. The same can be said about the 42 months or the 7 churches or the 10 kings. If those numbers are real, actual numerical values, why can’t we say the same about the 1,000 years?
The specificity of “a thousand years.” Revelation 20:3 records how Satan will be bound for 1,000 years, but at the end of the verse John writes, But after these things he must be released for a little while. Some translations read “a short time.” John’s use of a specific time designation, 1,000 years, is a sharp contrast to the indefinite phrase “a little while.” That is an important point to note, because if John had meant to convey the idea of “a long while” when speaking of Satan being bound, he could have very well described Satan’s captivity with such indefinite language.
In fact, Charles Feinberg points out that the Greek language knows well how to express the indefinite period of “a long time” or “a long while.” In Matthew 25:19, for instance, when Jesus taught the parable of the talents, he uses the phrase polun chronon, which means “a long time” [Waymeyer, 50]. Yet John does not contrast two indefinite periods of time, a “long while” with a “short while.” Rather, he states a specific time designation of time, 1,000 years, and contrasts it with an indefinite short period of time. That implies clearly a specified length of real time is in view here.
The characteristics of symbolic language. Contrary to the thinking of most biblical students, symbolic language is meant to clarify divine revelation, not make it mysterious and unknowable. The thousand years in Revelation 20 does not contain two important characteristics of symbolic language: some degree of absurdity when taken literally and some degree of clarity when taken symbolically.
For example of what I mean, consider Isaiah 55:12 where the prophet proclaims how the trees in the fields will clap their hands. Taken literally, there is a degree of absurdity: trees are not like human beings and do not possess arms nor have hands they can clap. We’re not talking about Ents here. Taken symbolically, however, there is clarity of interpretation: The image is meant to express how Israel’s return from captivity will be a time of great rejoicing [Waymeyer, 51].
If the 1,000 years are meant to convey a symbolic period of time, the use of 1,000 doesn’t contain those two characteristics. There is nothing absurd about Christ’s reign over the world being 1,000 calender years in length, nor is there any true clarity if we take the 1,000 years as being symbolic for “a long period of time.” If anything, interpreting John’s millennium symbolically adds interpretative confusion to the text.
David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of Revelation. (Dominion Press: Forth Worth, TX, 1987)
Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and The Future. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapid, MI, 1979).
Steve Sullivan, Premillennialism and an Exegesis of Revelation 20. On-line paper.
Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate. (Kress Christian Publications: The Woodlands TX, 2004).