Without a doubt, Revelation is one of the most puzzling chapters in all of the Bible. There is little chance that every question can be adequately answered in such an abbreviated commentary, but I will do my best to give a general understanding of this very puzzling chapter.
Revelation 20:1-6 (The Binding of Satan; the 1,000 Year Reign of Christ)
In this section we are told two things: (1) Satan is bound and thrown into the Abyss for 1,000 years; and (2) The martyred saints come to life and reign with Christ for 1,000 years. There are a few literary connections we can make with other things in Revelation. First of all, in chapter 9, at the sounding of the 5th trumpet, a “fallen star” comes down out of Heaven with a key and opens up the Abyss. Here, another angel comes down out of Heaven in order to bind Satan, throw him into the Abyss, and shut the Abyss.
Second, the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus (19:4) is a clear reference to the martyred souls under the altar in 6:9-11, as well as 14:13; 17:6; and 18:24. Thirdly, echoes of 1:5-6; 2:11; 2:26-28, and 3:21 can be seen here as well.
But here is where things get confusing. First of all, why the 1,000 years? Why does Christ (and the resurrected dead in Christ) reign for only 1,000 years? Why is Satan released again after the 1,000 years? Are they a literal 1,000 years? What is going on here? There are no sure answers to these questions. What follows, though, is what I think is the most plausible explanation.
1,000 Year Reign of Christ
So, why 1,000 years? This gets us into the question of millennialism, of which there are basically four general views: Historical Premillenialism, Dispensationalist Premillenialism, Posmillenialism, and Amillenialism. Instead of going into a full-fledged discussion of each one, I will just provide the following chart. Instead, I will talk about what some of the prevailing Jewish apocalyptic views concerning God’s kingdom were during the time of John.
One idea saw history as a repeating of the seven days of creation, each day representing 1,000 years. The six days of divine work were followed by God’s Sabbath rest—so the six “days” of human history will be followed by a Sabbath of the Messiah’s kingdom, which in turn would give place to an “eighth day” without end—the timeless age of the eternal kingdom. Hence, many viewed history this way: 2,000 years from creation to Moses; 2,000 years from Moses to the Messiah; 2,000 years of the Messiah’s kingdom; followed by 1,000 years of Sabbath for the world.
But for John, there was probably more to it that just this. He obviously used Ezekiel 36-48 as a pattern for his writing about the coming kingdom of God in Revelation 20-22. Ezekiel 36-37 describe a “resurrection” of Israel and the restoration of the nation to its land under the rule of a new David. After an unspecified period, the rebellion of Gog and Magog occurs (38-49), followed by the promise of a new Jerusalem with a new temple in the bliss of an untroubled kingdom (40-48). It is very possible, therefore, that John was telling the seven churches to re-interpret this prophecy of Ezekiel in light of the saving work of Christ. The true Israel (i.e. followers of Christ) would one day be resurrected to reign with Christ. John simply took the unspecified time in Ezekiel’s prophecy and labeled it as the 1,000 years of popular apocalyptic thought of the time to emphasize the idea of the new creation, and that the time would be a Sabbath rest for God’s people.
That might be a bit confusing, so let me try to sum up. John clearly believed that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, that the promised Kingdom of God had finally come to mankind, and that the New Messianic Age had broken into the old age of sin and death. But John also realized that the Kingdom was not fully consummated yet: it had come, but it wasn’t yet completed. Like the invasion at Normandy in WWII, the vital victory had been achieved, but there still was a “mop up operation” that had to be done to complete the ultimate victory.
Hence, the current time of suffering and tribulation of Christians was seen as that kind of “mop up operation.” The Kingdom of God had come, and through the suffering of the followers of Christ, the Kingdom was gaining control over Satan’s kingdom (much like how the Allies slowly took back France from the Nazis after Normandy). Once the mop up operation was complete, once “the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed…had been completed (Rev. 6:11), that would signal then defeat of the beast, the binding of Satan, and the ushering in of God’s Sabbath rest for creation.
Pretty simple, eh? It actually makes sense, if you think about it. (You can chew on how I Corinthians 15:20-28 relates to this as well, if you’re up for it!). Anyway, given this explanation as to what the 1,000 years is, the next question is, “Who gets raised in this ‘first resurrection’?” Is it just those who have been martyred, or is it the whole Church? The implication is that those who have died in Christ will be raised to rule with all the believers in Christ. Verse 4 says that John saw (a)those who had been given authority to judge (see 2:26-28; 3:21—this implies all believers), and (b) those who had died in Christ. The result is that the whole Church reigns with Christ during this “1,000 year Sabbath Rest/Reign of Christ.” The rest of the dead, therefore, does not refer to the rest of the Christian dead, but to the rest of the dead, outside of Christ. Those who have taken part in the first resurrection (the dead who have been raised and the living who will be transformed—I Cor. 15:50-57), therefore, have nothing to fear from the second death, for death will no longer have power over them, just as it had no power over the resurrected Christ.
Revelation 20:7-10 (Actually, a bit like Genesis 1-3!)
But why is Satan released again? A simple answer is this: it is very likely that Genesis taught John (as well as Ezekiel) something about the paradise of God. In Genesis, in the first paradise, the serpent was allowed to tempt man in order to expose the nature of man’s heart. In Genesis 3, man clearly failed the test. In God’s new creation, therefore, Satan will be allowed once more to test man, in order to expose the nature of man’s heart. The first time resulted in exile from the Garden of Eden; the second time results in the entrance into the New Jerusalem, a return to the Garden, and the ultimate defeat of the dragon.
Revelation 20:11-14 (The Great White Throne and the Lake of Fire)
After Satan’s defeat, the “rest of the dead” are raised up to judgment. Here, we see a “great white throne”—this should remind us of the first thing John saw in Heaven, back in 4:2. The point is quite simple: these dead, who have not been raised to new life in Christ, are judged according to what they had done, because they refused the grace offered to them through what Christ had done. The Lake of Fire, the second death, the eternal judgment for Death itself, still has power over them.
One should note that the reference to “Death and Hades” being thrown into the Lake of Fire relates to I Cor. 15:20-57. With the resurrection power of eternal life in Christ, the power of Death is dead, and to quote John Donne, “Death, thou shalt die.”
Finally, there has always been a question and debate whether or not unbelievers will be “tortured in hell-fire” for eternity. I wrote a post or two on this very topic last year. I’d encourage you to read them.