How Should We Interpret Revelation 20?

The most important biblical passage describing the millennial, messianic kingdom is found in Revelation 20.  In fact, this passage is the only place in the Bible where the messianic kingdom is described as lasting one thousand years.

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain.  He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.  He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended.  After that, he must be set free for a short time. I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.  And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.  They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ 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 are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:1-6)

The period of one thousand years is mentioned five times in the verses above and once more in verse seven.  Both amillennialists and premillennialists agree that Revelation 20 is a central passage for understanding the eschaton, but they strongly disagree as to how these verses should be interpreted.  Both agree that the verses should be interpreted as the author, the apostle John, intended.  Both agree that symbolism is used in the book of Revelation, but they do not agree whether the thousand years is symbolic or literal.

The most direct and literal way to interpret Revelation 20 is to understand that it refers to a future period of one thousand years where Satan will be bound and those who followed Christ will come to life and reign with him.  This future millennium would begin after the events in the preceding chapters of Revelation took place.

However, there are certainly other ways to interpret the passage.  Perhaps the “thousand years” is merely symbolic of a long period of time.  Perhaps that long period of time is already inaugurated; Satan is already “bound” and Christ and his followers are already “reigning.”  Perhaps the “thousand years” does not refer to a long period of time, but to a perfect or complete period of time.  In that case, the “thousand years” is but a figure of speech.  John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, in , summarize the issue well: “It should be evident that one’s interpretation of Revelation 20 is an important decision that serves as a watershed for various approaches to prophetic Scripture.” All of these views have been taken by Christian theologians, scholars who claim to adhere to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic.