Norm Geisler, in Systematic Theology, vol. 4, Church, Last Things, asserts that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 must refer to a literal, future period of time that lasts a thousand years. “A historical-grammatical reading of this passage informs us that there will be a literal Millennium, during which Satan is bound, beginning with the raising of the saved and ending with the raising of the lost.”
Geisler offers several reasons why the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 should be taken as a literal, future period of time. First, the word thousand is mentioned several times in Revelation 20. “Facts mentioned only once in the Bible are true; the future messianic kingdom is said to be a thousand years long six times in Revelation 20:1-7.” Surely, the repetition of this time period undermines the non-literal position. Second, Geisler admits that the word thousand is sometimes used symbolically in the Bible. “However, of its hundred-plus occurrences in the biblical text, only a handful are non-literal, and even these are mostly hyperbole (not allegorical).”
Third, Geisler reasons that “other numbers in Revelation are used literally; for example, 1,260 days (12:6) is a literal three and one-half years (Dan. 12:7, 11).” Given that other numbers are used literally in the book, the argument for symbolism is weakened. Fourth, even “symbols refer to something literal, as indicated by John’s literal interpretation of symbolic usage (e.g., 1:20).” One must always be careful in taking symbolism too far, because ultimately every symbol stands for something real and literal. There is the sign (the symbol) and there is the thing signified (the literal object). The less clearly the sign points to the thing signified, the greater chance for interpretational error. In our human experience, most signs relate very directly and obviously to the things they signify. The term “thousand years” is more likely to refer to a literal thousand-year period of time than to refer to perfection or completeness. The onus must be on the symbolic interpreter to provide strong evidence for his view.
Fifth, a literal interpretation accords with Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 that “Christ’s earthly reign would be a long period of time with an end.” Sixth and finally, “Literal numbers can have symbolic significance – Israel was tested for forty years in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4), and while there is a symbolic meaning to this time of wandering, it is also true that they literally wandered for about forty years. Relatedly, thousand can symbolize a long period and still be literally true.”
John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, in , add that the sequence of events surrounding the “thousand years” also indicate a literal, future time period. “The fact that it is mentioned six times and is clearly described as a period of time before which and after which events take place lead to the conclusion that it means a literal thousand-year period.” Specifically they contend that the reference to Satan being bound for a thousand years is an important clue. According to Walvoord and Zuck, “Throughout the Scriptures Satan is said to exert great power not only against the world but also against Christians (Acts 5:3; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Tim. 1:20).” It seems difficult to argue that Satan’s influence today is somehow curtailed or restrained. The clinching verse which demonstrates that Satan was certainly attacking believers in the first century, after Christ’s death and resurrection, is 1 Peter 5:8. “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” If Satan is indeed not bound, then it seems difficult to understand the “thousand years” as occurring today.
With both amillennialists and premillennialists claiming to use the historical-grammatical hermeneutical method, and with both groups arriving at widely divergent conclusions, there is another group of people that we should consult about Revelation 20. In general, the closer in time Person A is to Person B, the more accurately will Person A interpret the writings of Person B, all other things being equal. Augustine wrote about the book of Revelation about three centuries after it was written by the apostle John. As mentioned before, Augustine’s position on the Apocalypse has dominated the church since he wrote about it in The City of God. There are church fathers, however, who lived closer to the time of John and who wrote about Revelation.
The earliest known interpretation of the thousand years of Revelation came from a bishop named Papias, who was a contemporary of the apostles in the first century. Eusebius, the great church historian of the fourth century, wrote about Papias in his seminal work, The Church History. Eusebius quotes Papias from his Sayings of the Lord Interpreted, which is no longer extant. Papias claims to have heard directly from those who sat under the teaching of several of the apostles. “And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the elders, I asked about their words: what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples . . . . For I did not think that information from books would help me as much as the word of a living, surviving voice.”
Papias’ views on the book of Revelation would indeed be important because of his close proximity to the source of the book, John (who is mentioned above). According to Eusebius, Papias believed that “after the resurrection of the dead there will be a thousand-year period when the kingdom of Christ will be established on this earth in material form.” Eusebius also maintained that Papias’ views on the thousand years were highly regarded by some subsequent church fathers because of his proximity to the disciples. Lest anyone think that Eusebius was biased in favor of Papias’ interpretation, Eusebius had this to say about Papias: “I suppose that he got these notions by misunderstanding the apostolic accounts, not realizing that they had used mystic and symbolic language. For he was a man of very limited intelligence, as is clear from his books.” We can be confident that Eusebius’ “respect” for Papias did not color his interpretation of Papias’ writings, for Eusebius was an amillennialist even before Augustine. With all due respect to Eusebius’ estimation of Papias’ intelligence, Papias is one of the earliest, if not earliest, sources we have interpreting Revelation 20, and he was a premillennialist.
In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr, one of the most renowned early apologists of the Christian faith, wrote about the book of Revelation. He is the first to explicitly mention the Revelation in his Dialogue with Trypho. “And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.” Justin Martyr was certainly a premillennialist and believed that the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 was to be taken literally as the future, messianic kingdom on earth.
Later in the second century the church father, Irenaeus, made “frequent and substantive use of the Revelation, especially in book 5 of Against Heresies, where he extensively discourses upon the thousand-year reign of Christ upon the earth.” Speaking of the predicted, messianic, thousand-year kingdom, Irenaeus related the following:
The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth: as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times.
Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Papias, the earliest commentators on the book of Revelation, all believed that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 should be taken as a literal, thousand-year, earthly kingdom of Christ. It cannot be argued, based upon this evidence, that the premillennial view is proven, but it does lend significant credibility to the view. If the earliest hearers and interpreters of the text understood it to be literal, surely the later amillennialists have a more difficult position to argue. How is it that these, the earliest commentators in the church, were all wrong?