The Millennial Kingdom

Scripture References

In Revelation chapter 20, we see repeated references to a period of time that lasts for a thousand years. The distinguishing features of this period are as follows:

  • Christ has returned and he reigns on earth (Rev 19:11-16).
  • Antichrist, the False Prophet, and their followers are destroyed (Rev 19:20-21).
  • Satan is bound in a prison where he no longer deceives the nations (Rev 20:1-3).
  • Resurrected saints will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev 20:4).
  • Afterwards, Satan is released to lead one more rebellion against God (Rev 20:7-8)
  • Satan’s rebellion is devoured by fire (Rev 20:9)
  • Satan is destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev 20:10)
  • The eternal kingdom with a new heaven and earth begins (Rev 21:1)

This thousand-year period is commonly called the millennial kingdom.

Are the Thousand Years Literal or Figurative?

I believe it is best to understand the thousand years literally.

Many commentators disagree, saying that the thousand years just means “an unspecific long time”. They often support this view by comparing it to other passages where numeric values are not meant to be interpreted literally. Below are some examples in scripture where numbers are used in a non-literal way. However, I’ve also presented my reasons believing that these non-literal examples are not representative of the thousand years of the millennial kingdom.

Example 1: Forgive seventy times seven times

In Matt 18:22, Jesus said “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”.

Why it is non literal: Almost all Christians accept that Jesus did not literally mean to forgive 70×7 or 490 times. Having a limit of 490 seems absurd, and so is the idea that anyone should keep count for such a number for each person they forgive. More importantly, we are taught to emulate God in the matter of forgiveness, and He certainly forgives us beyond 490 times.

Why it doesn’t apply: There is an important difference between the seventy times seven passage in Matthew 18 and the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20. Specifically, the thousand years is clearly presented as a period of time that will expire because it goes on to describe things that will happen after the thousand years are over (e.g. Rev 20:3, Rev 20:7). In contrast, Jesus did not say what we should do after we have forgiven seventy times seven times, because our attitude of forgiveness is not intended to expire.

Since there is no reason to think that a literal thousand years is impossible or impractical, it is best to interpret it literally.

Example 2: A thousand years is like a day

In 2 Pet 3:8, we read “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”.

Why it is non literal: Peter’s reference to a thousand years in this verse doesn’t even make sense if taken literally. A more verbose restatement of this passage might read as follows: “A thousand years to a man is like a single day to the Lord, and a single day to a man is like a thousand years to the Lord”. The only clear conclusion to be drawn from this verse is that the passing of time as we see it has no bearing on how God sees it. No period of time is too long to for God to endure, nor is any period of time too short for God to know all that happens within it.

Why it doesn’t apply: The key point about the 2 Pet 3:8 verse is that the context demands a non-literal interpretation. However, in Revelation 20 there is no such contextual demand for a non-literal interpretation. In fact, there is not even a hint that the literal interpretation should be rejected.

Also, 2 Pet 3:8 is instructing us about the nature of God. The “thousand years” mentioned in that verse is hypothetical, and so it does not refer to any specific period of actual time. In contrast, the “thousand years” mentioned in Revelation 20 is the specific period of time on earth that (1) follows the return of Christ, and (2) precedes the new heaven and new earth. Effectively, it is an account of historical events that haven’t happened yet. This makes it very different from the usage in 2 Pet 3:8. Just because a term is used figuratively in one context, it doesn’t mean we may assume that it’s figurative in a completely different context.

Example 3: A thousand generations

In Deut 7:9, we read “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations”.

Why it is non literal: This is God’s statement of faithfulness to his chosen people Israel. The point of this statement is certainly not to admit that His faithfulness will end after counting 1000 generations! Besides, the literal interpretation is completely impractical since it doesn’t describe a point where God begins counting generations, and generations cannot even be counted in any unique way because they can be traced along many different lines. It should be evident that in this context, a thousand is so large that we should recognize it as a rhetorical device meaning “countless”.

Why it doesn’t apply: For the same reasons as the previous two examples. Specifically, Deut 7:9 doesn’t speak about what happens after the the thousandth generation (because generations aren’t really being counted), whereas the millennial kingdom does describe what happens after the thousand years. Also Deut 7:9 make no practical sense if taken literally, whereas a literal thousand years of the millennial kingdom poses no problems at all.

There are rules of sound Biblical interpretation that tell us whether to interpret a passage literally or figuratively. We must stick to those rules and apply them fairly to each individual instance.

The Setting for the Millennial Kingdom

Taking a literal interpretation of the thousand year period described at the beginning of chapter 20, it is only natural to assume that it must follow shortly after the visible return of Christ which was described near the end of chapter 19. Therefore, the setting for the millennial kingdom appears to be a world ravaged by the bowls of God’s wrath. The oceans will be dead (Rev 16:3), fresh water will be ruined (Rev 16:4), and cities will have collapsed (Rev 16:19). The Antichrist, the False prophet, their armies, and their followers will have been killed, as described at the conclusion of chapter 19:

Rev 19:19-21 – And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh.

At this point in time following the bowl judgments, mankind will be a scarce. Isaiah described this period of time as follows (Isa 13:11-12): “Thus I will punish the world for its evil And the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud And abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold And mankind than the gold of Ophir.”

Speculation: It seems reasonable to suppose that before the millennial kingdom begins, Christ will restore the damaged earth to a livable and even beautiful place to live. If so, then this “restoration period” between Christ’s return and the millennial kingdom may explain the “45-day gap” implied near the end of Daniel’s prophecy:

Dan 12:11-12 – 11 From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days!

As explained in Revelation Overview, the 1290 days encompasses the 1260 days of great tribulation plus 30 days for the bowl judgments. But then Daniel announces that blessing awaits all those who remain 1335 days, which is 45 days after the bowl judgments. This would make perfect sense if the millennial kingdom begins after a 45-day time of restoration, because the millennial kingdom will be a time of blessing for all who enter into it.

Who will Christ and his Resurrected Saints Reign Over?

Initially, only redeemed people shall be in the millennial kingdom. As discussed above, when the bowl judgments are over, Christ shall reign on earth, and those who had rejected the salvation that He offered will have been killed in His wrath.

Where do the redeemed people come from? People who had been redeemed before or during the great tribulation will either have been raptured before the bowl events (as explained in The Rapture) or they will have been resurrected from the dead just prior to the rapture (1 Thes 4:15-16). These redeemed people will be in their imperishable and glorified form (1 Cor 15:51-53), and scripture describes them as those who reign with Christ. As such, they should not be considered to be the among the people who are reigned over in the millennial kingdom.

The people who are reigned over will redeemed, yet still in the corruptible and mortal flesh. This is indicated by the fact that the world will be repopulated over the course of those thousand years, and then afterwards many of those people will rebel against God and be killed in judgment. In contrast, people with imperishable and glorified bodies will not reproduce (Matt 22:30), nor will they rebel against God, nor can they be killed.

From this, we should conclude that there must be redeemed, but not yet glorified people who enter into the millennial kingdom. Considering the state of things following the conclusion of the bowl judgments, there is one such group of people that remains on earth, poised to enter the millennial kingdom of Christ: The nation Israel.

Recall that during the great tribulation, a remnant of Israel will be divinely protected by God. When the bowl judgments begin, Israel will not be raptured along with the Christians, but they will remain on earth during the bowl judgments. We can say this because the sixth bowl event (Rev 16:13-16) describes the assembly of armies at Armageddon to fight against Israel, and we know that the Lord will return to fight for Israel (Zech 12:8-10).

This idea that Israel will occupy the millennial kingdom receives support from Isaiah chapter 11, which describes a time of wondrous peace during the reign of the Messiah (“root of Jesse“), even among the wild animals (e.g. Isa 11:1, 4, 6, 7, 8). Many commentators believe this is an Old Testament description of the millennial kingdom. Significantly, it associates this time with the restoration of the remnant of Israel, Isa 11:11-12 “11Then it will happen on that day that the Lord Will again recover the second time with His hand The remnant of His people, who will remain, From Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, And from the islands of the sea. 12And He will lift up a standard for the nations And assemble the banished ones of Israel, And will gather the dispersed of Judah From the four corners of the earth“.

Quite naturally, the millennial kingdom shall be the restored kingdom of Israel. In that day, the Jews shall joyously return to their king and savior, Jesus Christ, who shall reign on the throne of David. Hos 3:4-5: 4For the sons of Israel will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols. 5Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days.

It is possible that people other than Jews will also be among the group being protected by God. It is part of Israel’s law to accommodate foreigners in their midst (Lev 19:34, Num 9:14), and so other nations may be represented in the millennial kingdom as well.

What is the Purpose of the Millennial Kingdom?

There is no verse that plainly states the purpose of the millennial kingdom. However, I believe it is helpful to make some observations to see how the millennial kingdom fits within the broader overview of Biblical history.

We observe that there are (or shall be) three periods that end with God’s wrath. Each of these periods results in the righteous being separated from the unrighteous.

  1. The Post-Creation period — This began at creation, and ended when God nearly destroyed all of humanity with the flood, as recorded in Genesis chapters 7-8. God spared some with an ark.
  2. The Grace period — This began after the flood, and shall end when God nearly destroys all of the remaining humanity on earth by the end of the bowl judgments, which conclude with Christ’s visible return in wrath. God will spare some with the protection of Israel and with the rapture.
  3. The Millennial Kingdom period — This shall begin shortly after the bowl events, and shall end one thousand years later when God destroys the final rebellion with fire (Rev 20:9). God will spare those who don’t rebel.

Note that each of these periods are marked by distinctly different relationships between God, Satan, and people:

  1. The Post-Creation period — Mankind is corrupted and very much under Satan’s influence. They have no law, and they have no covenant promise obligating God to spare them. In this environment, man is openly rebellious against God.
  2. The Grace period — Mankind is still corrupted and exposed to Satan’s influence. However, they have been given the law by which they can know good from evil, and they are given a covenant relationship with God, which spares them from God’s wrath. They are provided an opportunity to return to God despite their sin, through the work of a promised Savior.
  3. The Millennial Kingdom period — Mankind (those not yet glorified) is still in the corruptible flesh. However, they are initially all redeemed and for the first time they are no longer under Satan’s influence. Their knowledge of what is good and evil is perfected as the Son of God himself reigns on earth as king.

Even though the millennial kingdom starts with redeemed people, and even though Satan will not be allowed to deceive anyone, man himself is still corrupt. Consequently, there will be yet another rebellion against God, and another separation made between the righteous and the wicked.

What this demonstrates is that each person has a free will of their own with which they can make their own choice about their relationship with God.

Therefore, the purpose of the millennial kingdom is as follows:

  1. To give people ample time to gain a true knowledge of God without any sort of deception, and
  2. Allow people with this true knowledge to choose whether to worship God or rebel against God.

In this regard, people of the millennial kingdom will be in the same position as the angelic host prior to the original fall of Satan. From Ezekiel 28, we see that Satan was at one time a holy angel among the cherubim. He had perfect knowledge of God and there was no one to deceive him. However, Satan by his own will chose to rebel against God, and other angels rebelled with him. Since they rebelled despite perfect knowledge, there was no recourse by which they could be redeemed.

The millennial kingdom will be much the same, except it will be people instead of angels. Those who choose to rebel despite perfect knowledge shall have no further offer of salvation.

After a period of a thousand years under Christ’s reign, God decrees that each person shall make their choice. How does God do that? He releases Satan one last time, and allows Satan to tempt each person into rebellion. Satan will probably convince people that their rebellion can succeed. God actually uses Satan to cause their rebelliousness to be openly exposed!

Those who choose to rebel will be justly destroyed by God the King. After this, all remaining faithful people shall receive their imperishable bodies and enter into the eternal kingdom of God, as described in Revelation 21.

This downfall of mankind after the millennial kingdom will be similar to the downfall of man in Garden of Eden. In both cases, Satan deceives people into rebelling against God. However, there is an important difference: The people of the millennial kingdom will already have the knowledge of good and evil. That is, they may be deceived into thinking that their rebellion will succeed, but they will not be deceived about the fact that they are openly rebelling against God. Because of this, there will be no ark in which they may escape the coming wrath, nor will there be a promise of another savior (Heb 6:4-6, Heb 10:26).

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