The Release of Satan (20:7-10)

Having seen the vindication of the martyrs, John now picks up where he left off in verse 3. At the end of the thousand years, Satan (no longer disguised as a dragon) is released from his prison to do what he did before: deceive the nations of the world (v. 8). This time he has no beasts or evil Babylon to help him. The nations he deceives are given little-known foreign names out of the biblical past, Gog and Magog (see Ezek 38—39). In Ezekiel's visions, "Gog, of the land of Magog" was an evil prince, "chief prince of Meshech and Tubal," while Magog was the land from which he came (Ezek 38:2). Here both words seem to denote lands or nations (compare the Jewish Sibylline Oracles 3.319, "Woe to you, land of Gog and Magog"; Charlesworth 1983:369).

Those who see no literal millennium in this passage regard Satan's deception of Gog and Magog as simply a retelling of the events leading up to the battle of Armageddon in chapters 16 and 19. They point to the similarity between verse 8 (to gather them for battle) and 16:14 ("to gather them for the battle") or 19:19 ("gathered together to make war"). But the absence of the beast and the false prophet is a crucial difference. To John it is not a case of the same story being told twice, but of history repeating itself. The repetition does not have the same immediacy for John or the reader that the conflict with the beast and the false prophet had. The obscure names Gog and Magog give the reader a sense of distance or remoteness, even unreality. As G. B. Caird once wrote, when Gog and Magog's armies are destroyed, John's "emotional attitude to them is very much that of a modern reader of science fiction, who can contemplate with equanimity the liquidation of Mars-men with a ray gun, because they do not belong to the ordered structure of human existence. Like the four earthly winds of an earlier vision (vii.1), they come from the four corners of the earth, the outlandish territory beyond the bounds of civilization" (Caird 1966:258).

The brief outbreak of evil at the end of the thousand years is John's way of saying that Satan's activity is not limited to the immediate threat to Christians from the Roman Empire in his own time. It can happen at any time and under a variety of circumstances. But the outcome is always the same. Satan is always defeated, whether thrown down from heaven (12:9), bound in the abyss (20:1-3) or thrown into the lake of fire (v. 10). Although the battle (v. 9) is not Armageddon, it is similar to it in one important respect. Like Armageddon, it is no real battle at all. When the armies marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves, the outcome was that fire came down from heaven and devoured them (v. 9). The city he loves (evidently Jerusalem) is protected again, and presumably the reign of the martyred saints continues (see 22:5, "and they will reign for ever and ever").

After the armies of the nations are destroyed, Satan himself is thrown into the lake of fire, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown (v. 10; see 19:20). Again John makes it clear that he is not just retelling the story of the defeat of the beast and false prophet at the battle of Armageddon. The beast and the false prophet are already in the lake of fire. This is another conflict a thousand years later, even though the result is the same. The powers of evil were introduced one by one: first the dragon (chap. 12), then the two beasts (chap. 13), then Babylon the prostitute (chaps. 14-16). Now they have disappeared one by one in reverse order: first Babylon (17:1—19:10), then the two beasts (19:11-21), finally the dragon, or Satan (20:1-10). The battles are over. The stage is now set for the creation of a new world.

So much for John's premillennial vision of the triumph of good over evil. Now what of the reality toward which it points? Are we to conclude that the reality we should expect today in connection with what we call Christ's second coming is also premillennial? Not all "premillennial" commentators have thought so. I. T. Beckwith, for example, wrote, "When once we apprehend the fact that the essential truth of prophecy, as distinguished from its form, is not the revelation of a chronological program in the world's history, we cease to find there the prediction of an eschatological era, however closely the apocalyptist himself may have associated form and substance" (1922:737). And according to Robert Mounce (1977:359), "John taught a literal millennium, but its essential meaning may be realized in something other than a temporal fulfillment."

In John's visions, the world goes on for a thousand more years after the coming of Christ, yet the prophet seems to know nothing of what that world will be like. His "millennium" simply provides a cushion of sorts between the demise of the Roman Empire, which threatened the Christian church in his own day, and the end of the world. This is appropriate because the Roman Empire did in fact pass from the scene many centuries ago, and yet world history continued, with ever new tyrannies and ever new threats to the people of God, from outside the church and from within. The church's conflict with the beast and false prophet and evil Babylon has become a precedent and a paradigm for conflicts with institutional authority in numberless times and places since the first century. If the story repeats itself once in Revelation 20 in the deception of Gog and Magog, it has repeated itself again and again in actual history.

In short, a careful reading of the book of Revelation from where we sit now, at the threshold of the third millennium, suggests an interpretation that is premillennial because that is what John saw in his visions, but not completely literal because Christ did not literally return and dead martyrs were not literally raised to life when the Roman Empire came to an end. What was future to John—the coming of Jesus to earth, the resurrection of the faithful, and the defeat of the powers of evil—is still future to us. We have no way of knowing what form the realization of these promises will take because the book of Revelation is a book of hope and encouragement, not a handbook of chronology or a blueprint for the future. We stand pretty much where John stood, and perhaps that is just as well. The "revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1) is a revelation of some, but by no means all, of what awaits us. Let the mystery be.