Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Friday, November 27, 2009

Studies in Eschatology [16]

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 this subject has argued that the exegesis of Revelation 20 cannot sustain the Augustinian 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 of Revelation 20 makes this to be 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 these 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 Augustine's 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 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 being literal 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 being 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 these 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. This 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 these 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 millennium symbolically adds interpretative confusion to the text.


With this post I wrap up my basic overview of eschatology. But, I am not finished yet. I have receive many friendly, but disagreeing emails this past year while I have been posting these articles. My detractors have offered a lot of good objections. One individual pointedly argued that my position of premillennialism unravels when we consider other eschatological NT texts like in 1 Corinthians 15 and the two books of Thessalonians. Additionally, I have been directed to consider Sam Storms paper against premillennialism located HERE that is touted as being the single most concise "slam" (as one of my detractor described it) against a premillennial position.

So. My attention will now be turned to answering these objections and offering a defense of what I consider to be biblical premillennialism.


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).



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on Fred, 1000 years is just a way of saying a really long time. So 2000 years later, 1000 years is just a way of saying a really long time. Amills should really take the time to think that one out.

Bill: I am rich, I have 2 million dollars.

John: Wow, that is amazing, you are rich. Why, that is like having 1 million dollars.

Bill: Um, riiiiiight.

8:08 AM, November 29, 2009  
Blogger mikey said...

Well you have finished a well written and clear outline supporting your position. While I find the pre-mil Dispensational understanding of eschatology to be the most ridiculous I commend you for keeping to the text and not getting all crazy.
How can there be a future thousand years when the world ends at our Lords return?
Why would He need to sit on a throne in Jerusalem when He is already sitting on David's throne?
Where do the people that rebel against Him come from if death the last enemy was destroyed at the resurrection of the just?

4:57 PM, November 30, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

As I noted in my concluding remarks, I have much more coming. So keep your eyes out.

In the meantime:

How can there be a future thousand years when the world ends at our Lords return?

Where does it say the "world" ends? The scriptures indicate that this particular "age" ends. The millennium is the beginning of the eternal state.

Why would He need to sit on a throne in Jerusalem when He is already sitting on David's throne?

Because the physical reign over the earth is the consummation of all those promises.

Where do the people that rebel against Him come from if death the last enemy was destroyed at the resurrection of the just?

They are the ones left after the destruction of the beast and his armies. Zechariah 14:16 directly makes reference of this.

Those are just short responses. Believe me, there are quite a number of folks who have emailed me off and on offering their objections to my series. I hope to address a lot of them.


5:49 PM, November 30, 2009  
Blogger Penn Tomassetti said...

I have found these posts to be extremely helpful, and I agree with your position. I also linked to these posts on my blog.

You said,
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.

I don't see how this proves that the 1,000 years must be literal. John did not have to state the 1,000 years using indefinite terms, if it was intended as a symbolic number, just to stay consistent with the phrase "for a short while." Your other points on this, making it clear that the 1,000 years must be literal, were great. I just thought this one was not so strong. I still agree that the context suggests a literal interpretation of that period of time, as well as so many passages in the Old Testament that prophesy of that period in vivid detail, like Zechariah 14:16, as you pointed out.

Thank you for these studies!

7:20 AM, December 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I can understand your point. But, it, along with this particular post, is part of a much larger argument for Revelation 20 that is reflected from my position in previous articles on the subject.

I will say that I think there is more validity to this point than what you are giving it credit. That being, why would John describe one aspect of his vision with literal numbers, the "1,000" years, and then use non-literal descriptions to describe the devil being released, "for a little while." To suggest the 1,000 years is meant to be symbolic for a period of time is a bit of a stretch when another perfectly good phrase in Greek would have easily sufficed given the overall point John was trying to make with his Revelation.

None the less, I appreciate the input. Granted, it is not the first argument I run to to defend my view.


8:54 AM, December 04, 2009  
Blogger Siarlys Jenkins said...

When the Apocryphal texts were being removed from the Roman Catholic Bible (72 books), to canonize the Bible now recognized by most Protestants (83 books), as distinct from the Coptic Bible (83 books), Martin Luther argued that Revelations is not prophetic, and should be removed along with the Old Testament Apocrypha. He may have been right.

7:57 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Huh? What are the 83 books you have in mind as a protestant Bible? This is not how the Bible was canonized, by the way. Pretty much all the books of the NT were recognized as canonical with in the century following the close of the apostolic age. This council idea is pure hogwash.

As to Luther's comments about Revelation, where did you find such a statement?

1:20 PM, December 08, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Siarlys Jenkins


@Fred Butler

You may need to update your avatar to one of Calvin pulling his hair out by the roots. Maybe a little photoshopping of the one you have now would do the trick? ;-)

4:07 PM, December 08, 2009  
Blogger mikey said...

This is a late comment for sure but I just noticed the picture you chose with the lion and the lamb. That seems to be a popular saying and idea which is not in scripture..

11:02 AM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Actually, according to Isaiah 65, its a wolf and a lamb, but there weren't any pictures I could find with wolves and lambs lying together.

11:07 AM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Penn Tomassetti said...


Thanks for your reply to my comment. I'm getting back to this a little late, since I've been following links from the posts and comments at Dan Philip's blog concerning dispensationalism, and that led me back here again.

I see your point about how it fits into the entire argument.


4:44 PM, March 17, 2010  

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