Nine times out of ten, when people ask, "How do you interpret the book of Revelation?" what they mean is, "How do you interpret Revelation 20:1-10?" They want to know whether an approach is "premillennial," "amillennial" or "postmillennial," to use the jargon by which some evangelical institutions (and even individuals) define themselves. Although how we interpret these verses says little or nothing about how we interpret the book as a whole, our interpretation of them tends to become the litmus test by which our interpretation of the whole book is measured and classified.
The three terms come from the word millennium, meaning a period of a thousand years understood as a kind of utopia. Pre- and postmillennialism divide over the question of whether the second coming of Christ will take place before or after the thousand years mentioned repeatedly in this text (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Because there is a coming of sorts described in the previous chapter (when the rider on the white horse comes with his armies and destroys the forces of evil) and there is no discernible coming of Christ in chapters 20 or 21, it seems fairly clear on first reading that the coming is "premillennial" as far as John is concerned. The conqueror comes first (chap. 19), and the thousand years follow (chap. 20). But postmillennialism argues that what comes in chapter 19 is not Jesus personally, but simply the triumph of "the testimony of Jesus" in the world, so that the millennium of chapter 20 is the result of the church's efforts in proclaiming the Christian gospel. This leaves us with no actual "second coming" of Jesus anywhere in the book—this in spite of repeated promises that "I am coming soon." Instead, we move from the triumph of the gospel to the destruction of evil and "the new heavens and new earth" without Jesus ever coming at all.
The third position, "amillennialism," should mean there is no such thing as a "millennium." But this makes no sense of the text as it stands because John claims, not once but six times, that he saw (or became aware of) a thousand-year period. Therefore most amillennialists do not deny the notion of a millennium. They argue instead that John's "millennium" is just another name for the age in which we now live, in which Jesus reigns as Lord by virtue of his resurrection and ascension. According to this scenario Christ will return after, or at the end of, the present age. Consequently, this "amillennial" view is a variation of postmillennialism.
Where does all this leave us? Above all, it demands that we distinguish carefully between what John experienced long ago in his vision on Patmos and what the world will experience someday in the near or distant future. Within John's vision, there is little doubt that his perspective was premillennial. It is only when his visions are viewed as a scenario for the actual future of the world that differing interpretations come into play, often because a literal premillennial reading is judged (rightly or wrongly) to conflict with conclusions derived from other parts of the Bible. Because of this, it is wise to deal with the text first of all simply as John's vision before attempting to explore its possible bearing on how our world is actually going to end. Such an approach is "premillennial" because this is the framework in which John saw the vision. The second stage of interpretation—the text's implication for our own future—can be addressed only afterward, and much more briefly, because less can be said about it with certainty.
What are we to think of a vision in which the seer is conscious of the passing of one thousand years? We are way beyond "half an hour" here (8:1), and the other longer periods of time mentioned in the book ("three and a half days" in 11:9, 11; "five montes" in 9:5; "1,260 days" in 11:3 and 12:6; "42 montes" in 11:2, 13:5) are periods John is told about or infers from his visions, not periods he actually sees or experiences. But in this vision he is given a taste of time travel, in that he is fastforwarded and allowed to see what happens when the thousand years are finished (vv. 7-10).
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