What and When Is the Millennium?
The word "millennium," although not found in the Bible, has become a common term in Christianity. Verses 2-7 of Revelation 20 mention the words "thousand years" six times. The word "millennium" comes from the Latin "mille anni" found in the Latin Vulgate of Revelation 20 and means "thousand years." Thus, the thousand years spoken of in Revelation 20 has come to be called the millennium. From these few verses in Revelation has come a controversy among Christians that has lasted for, well, millennia. There are three basic views concerning the millennium, which also happen to be views as to what will happen when Jesus Christ returns: premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. There is also another view, full preterism, that says the return of Christ has already occurred and we are living in the aftermath. In this article, I will state what each of these positions believes, and then I will briefly point out which of these positions I believe is best supported by the Bible.
Premillennialism holds that Jesus will establish a physical kingdom over which He will reign on the earth for a thousand years. This millennium separates a "first" resurrection from a "second" resurrection. These resurrections are both bodily resurrections. Satan will be bound at the beginning of the thousand years and loosed to incite a rebellion near the end. Christ will put down the insurgents. The final judgment comes immediately after the "second" resurrection. After this, is the creation of a new heaven and earth.
There are two kinds of premillennialism, historic and dispensational. I won't get into the differences concerning the so-called "secret rapture," the two-stage Second Coming, and so forth. But I will point out that dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israel will be saved as a distinct group from the church and that God must still fulfill His promises to national Israel. Thus, they assert that Jesus will again have a special relationship with national Israel, will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and that He will reinstitute the animal sacrifices. Historic premillennialists do not believe this about Israel, but they do believe that, upon His return, Jesus will establish a visible kingdom of God on the earth.
Postmillennialists believe that a period of worldwide peace and righteousness brought about by Christian evangelism, the eventual universal acceptance of the Gospel, and—according to some views—the uniting of the church with the state to hold dominion over the populace precedes the return of Jesus Christ to earth. This, to them, is the millennium, although they disagree over whether the thousand years is literal or symbolic. Postmillennialists also disagree over whether the millennium begins abruptly or gradually. Some who believe in a gradual beginning think that the millennium has already begun.
According to postmillennialism, the triumph of the Gospel over unbelief is the binding of Satan. At the end of the millennium, Satan will be released. This results in the great tribulation and the rebellion, culminating in the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ in judgment, the resurrection, Christ's delivering up the kingdom to the Father, and the creation of a new heaven and earth.
It is interesting to note that, although premillennialism and postmillennialism are very different in many ways, they are similar in one respect. They both believe that the kingdom of God during the millennium is a physical kingdom.
Amillennialism literally means "no millennialism," but this is really a misnomer. Amillennialists believe that the millennium has already begun. They are also called nuncmillennialists, which literally means "now millennialists." Amillennialists differ over whether the millennium began with Jesus' death on the cross, His resurrection (this seems to be the most common view), when He ascended to heaven, Pentecost, or AD 70. Some merely say it began with Christ's first coming (not specifically stating at what point during His first coming). But they agree that we should understand the millennium spiritually and not as a physical, one-thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth. By His victory, Christ has bound Satan so "that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:3). Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, is now reigning from heaven through His people. The thousand years of Revelation 20 is a metaphor of the present age. Near the end of this age, Satan will be released so that he again deceives the nations. At the end of this age, Jesus will return and there will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust and a final judgment followed by the new heavens and new earth.
There are a number of variations or gradations of preterism. Full preterism, disparagingly called hyper-preterism, teaches that the end of the Old Covenant and beginning of the New Covenant, Jesus' second coming, the resurrection from the dead (which they believe to be a spiritual resurrection, although some believe that once in heaven the spirits are given bodies), the overthrow of Satan, the judgment, and the new heavens and new earth all occurred in AD 70 with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Full preterists also believe that the millennium ended in AD 70; that is, they claim that the millennium was from AD 30 to AD 70.
Although there are differences of opinion among partial preterists, in general they believe that many of the above events occurred in (or by) AD 70 (or, some would say, during Nero's persecutions of Christians), but the second coming of Christ is still a future event. His return will bring the resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and new earth.
What the Bible Says
The bodily resurrections of the just and the unjust are not separated by one thousand years: Revelation 20:4-6 are the verses premillennialists cite to try to prove their claim of two, bodily resurrections separated by a thousand years.
I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as didn't worship the beast nor his image, and didn't receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand. They lived, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead didn't live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years.
But this is not the only pertinent Scripture. We must let the Bible interpret itself. In John 5:25 we read, "Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God's voice; and those who hear will live" (John 5:25). In this verse, Jesus tells us of "the dead" becoming alive. This is a resurrection. But Jesus doesn't say these people are in graves or tombs. Notice some key points about this verse. Jesus says "the hour comes, and now is." It is hard to mistake the meaning of "now." Jesus was speaking of a resurrection of the here and now, and yet Jesus also says, "the hour comes." So this is a resurrection present in Jesus' time and continuing into the future. Notice something else that is important. Jesus says, "the dead will hear the Son of God's voice; and those who hear will live." Who will live? Only those who hear. Jesus would have no reason to say this if all heard and all lived. Only a portion will hear and live.
Now read just a few verses away of Jesus speaking of another resurrection: "Don't marvel at this, for the hour comes, in which all that are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come out; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29). The reason I say this is another resurrection is because it has significant differences from the one in verse 25. Jesus does not say this resurrection is now. He only says that "the hour comes." This is a resurrection of the future. Further, Jesus specifies that this resurrection concerns "all that are in the tombs." He doesn't just use the word "dead" as in verse 25. These people are clearly physically dead and in their tombs. Most importantly, Jesus says that all who are in the tombs "will hear his voice." He doesn't say, "those who hear" as in verse 25. He says, "all that are in the tombs will hear." In this same hour, all will hear and all will come out of their tombs. And this "all" includes those who, according to the different Greek verbs Jesus used, "made good" and those who "practiced evil." The former will receive life and the latter will receive judgment or condemnation.
The resurrection in verses 28 and 29 is what is called the general resurrection. Contrary to what the premillennialists say, this resurrection occurs at one time, and it is of the just and the unjust. This agrees with Paul, who declares, "that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24:15). There will be one bodily resurrection for both groups.
So, what is the resurrection in John 5:25? It is the resurrection every true Christian has already received. Jesus said "You must be born anew" (John 3:7). This is a resurrection. If you have trouble believing me, read this: "But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:4-6). Yes, our sins killed us. We were spiritually dead, as are most people on the face of the earth. But God made us alive; He "raised us up" with Christ. That is a resurrection. It is a spiritual resurrection, but it is a resurrection all the same, and it is the resurrection Jesus is speaking of in John 5:25. Bear in mind that this passage also tells us that we now "sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." This will become important as we look at Revelation 20.
Let's look at a couple of other Scriptures to drive home the point. "For our citizenship is in heaven, from where we also wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20). And, "If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:1-3).
So, there are indeed two resurrections for God's elect. One is spiritual. It occurs when we are born again and given new life in Christ and we are made to "sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." This may boggle the mind a bit, but it is true. The other resurrection is a physical one when everyone, the just and the unjust, will be raised bodily and either rewarded or condemned.
Now, let's look again at Revelation 20. As you read Revelation 20:4, you will see that John said he saw "the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus." John does not say he saw the people or the bodies, but the souls. This isn't the first time John has seen such souls. In Revelation 6:9-11, he says, "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been killed for the Word of God, and for the testimony of the Lamb which they had. They cried with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, Master, the holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?' A long white robe was given to each of them. They were told that they should rest yet for a while, until their fellow servants and their brothers, who would also be killed even as they were, should complete their course." These are dead martyrs whose souls—not resurrected bodies—are at this time in heaven.
Among commentators who agree that what this verse pictures are not the bodily resurrected saints in some future millennium but the souls of the saints right now, some say only martyrs are in view. But others point out that Revelation 20:4 goes on to say, "and such as didn't worship the beast nor his image, and didn't receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand. They lived, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." In other words, this verse may be depicting the souls of all of the saints—those physically dead and those physically alive—living and reigning with Christ in heaven. Does this seem too astounding? Don't forget Ephesians 2:4-6: "But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."
Read Romans 8:30: "Whom he predestined, those he also called. Whom he called, those he also justified. Whom he justified, those he also glorified." "Glorified" is not in the future tense. This is an example of what theologians call "now, not yet." Our glorification and reigning with Christ is a reality right now, although a fuller realization of this still awaits us. But one of the pities of premillennialism is that while its adherents are waiting to reign in a future millennium, they are missing the heavenly reign the Bible says we have right now. The ekklēsia (often incorrectly translated "church") is God's assembly, not just an assembling. It is the assembly, the legislature of the kingdom of God, and, "Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:18-20). (For more information about the ekklēsia, see "Ekklēsia or Church, Does It Matter?")
So, Revelation 20:4 represents the spiritual resurrection of regeneration, being born again and reigning with Christ right now. Verse 5 goes on to explain. "The rest of the dead didn't live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection." The first sentence is an inserted thought, a parenthetical statement. This is about something that will happen later, and John will begin to elaborate on it in a few verses. The second sentence is a label for verse 4. What John showed us in verse 4, the present reign of the born again, spiritually resurrected saints is the first resurrection. In verse 6, John further states: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years" (Revelation 20:6). And, indeed, we are right now a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
After this, in Revelation 20, we see what happens after the millennial period with the release of Satan and the rebellion he will lead. But I want to come down to verses 11-15. Here we see what John alluded to in verse 5. This is the general, bodily resurrection that has not yet happened. It is the only general, bodily resurrection. It is immediately accompanied by judgment, and, as verse 15 says, "If anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire."
So, there are not two, physical, bodily resurrections separated by one-thousand years. There is only one such resurrection, and it is at the time of the judgment. But there is the first resurrection that is a spiritual resurrection of God's saints when they are born again and begin to reign with Christ in heaven.