Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:1-3, ESV)
Revelation 20:1-3 is a favorite proof text for premillennialists. Proof text?! Hateful words indeed. But it puzzles me that our eschatological disputes should so quickly (and by that I mean initially) jump to such a small portion of text in an extremely difficult book only a few chapters away from the absolute end of Scripture. And this text, it is claimed, settles the matter of a proper millennial view.
If you could not tell, I do not find this understanding of the text overly persuasive. No doubt sophisticated premillennialists (and there are many) do an excellent job of thrusting this text upon us. One preacher I heard used the beautiful imagery of the little garden snake in Eden of Genesis growing in power throughout the biblical storyline only to be met again now in the End of Revelation as a great dragon. Indeed, the text even identifies this great dragon with the ancient serpent we met at the beginning of the story just a page or two inside the covers of our bibles. Who is this dragon? Who is this serpent? In case you missed it, we are clearly told who this dragon is. It is the devil. It is Satan.
For all of his ferocity, Satan cannot resist defeat at the hands of an angel who comes down from the place of true power and authority, heaven, with the biggest pit and chain at his disposal we have ever seen. Satan is seized, and more. The text tells us Satan is bound. Satan is cast into the pit. Satan is shut up. Satan is sealed inside. The emphasis certainly rests upon the defeat of Satan in terms of power. Satan is defanged.
What power is put to an end by the angel’s actions? The power of Satan over the nations is put to an end. In what does Satan’s power over the nations consist? The power of Satan is found in the fork of his reptilian tongue. He is a liar, and the father of lies. (John 8:44) Here he is said to have deceived the nations. But no more shall he do so. Satan is bound.
Well, for a thousand years anyway. After the thousand years are over, Satan will be released again. He must be released, but only for a little while.
The concept of a ‘thousand years’ is significant. That much is granted. Whether or not this thousand years is to be understood as a literal thousand year period or just a really long time is up for debate amongst premillennialists, but that issue is of no concern for our present purposes. The real sticky question to be asked and answered is when the account described takes place. Premillennialists want to say that this passage in Revelation is clearly describing something that has not happened yet. After all, the devil is at work in the world. (1 Peter 5:8) He has not yet been bound. He will be bound for a thousand years. The thousand years described in the text – a millennium – refers to a period of time in the future. And so, if we are to believe this passage today, we must believe that we are alive during a period of time prior to the millennium. We are premillennial in our eschatological view on the millennium.
So they say.
Let me suggest that we not go running off to the Revelation passage and claiming victory for the premillennial position just yet. I have at least six reasons for suggesting that using the Revelation text as our starting point for eschatological discussion, or even just using it as our major text on the timing of the millennium, is problematic.
First, Revelation 20:1-3 consists of just three verses. Three verses. Don’t get me wrong – we must take every sentence, every word, every letter of Scripture into account regardless of the doctrine discussed – but it’s risky to build such a massive doctrinal structure, especially an eschatological one, upon so few verses.
Second, why should anyone believe the debate over millennial doctrine should take place here? If the premillennialists are not after something resembling a home court advantage, some of us think they are, and would much prefer not to play this game away (from the entirety of the preceding counsel of God, that is). Granting the importance of this text as it appears in a premillennial system of thought is conceding too much to the premillennialist. This particular text is extremely important to the eschatological debate over millennial views. But it is not the most important.
Third, why hop to the end of everything? Interpreting all of what Scripture says through such a skinny microscope at the end of everything else seems almost completely backward. Why not start from the beginning, and work from there through the progression of revelation, until we reach the final fleck at the end of Revelation? Shouldn’t our eschatology take everything into account, watching our eschatological hope unfold through the story of our Lord Jesus Christ starting in the beginning?
Fourth, note well what I stated in the previous point. The aforementioned approach seems almost completely backward. The only reason the approach is not completely backward is that it can, in theory, pick out the Christological aspects of the book of Revelation and apply them as a hermeneutical grid looking back at what came before in progressive revelation. In fact, that is precisely how I would suggest we should interpret Scripture. (John 5:39-40, Luke 24:25-27) But premillennialists tend to skip over the importance of Christological aspects of the text before us, biblically, exegetically, and systematically. Boy, them is fightin’ words! Bear with me.
Fifth, the textual emphasis on the binding of Satan certainly paints a clear picture of the removal of Satan’s power from the world, but it is a mistake to automatically take the imagery of the binding of Satan literally. Why? Well, read Revelation. Even the staunchest Dispensationlist variety of premillennialist cannot, and does not, take the whole of Revelation literally. And it’s a good thing too. We have an apocalyptic text here, and should understand it in accord with the features of that particular genre of literature. We can all agree that Satan’s power in the world is in some sense restricted, and should agree that whatever sense his power is restricted, it is complete…at least until he is ‘released.’
Sixth, this passage is a difficult one, and should not be used, as I have already mentioned for different reasons in previous points, as a text through which we interpret the whole of eschatology. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture, yes. But we must interpret the less clear in light of the clear. In this instance, this particular text is not the most clear. Plenty of other eschatological texts set forth throughout Scripture help us to properly understand what is going on in this particular passage. Indeed, I do not believe this stuff about the binding of Satan is just coming at us all of a sudden out of the blue and seemingly disconnected from the balance of Scripture. Rather, the passage in question encapsulates a number of biblical and systematic themes of Scripture foundational to the Christian faith. (Think of this point as analogous to the fact that Revelation is not the Dispensationalist’s playground of disconnectedness, but a revelation of Jesus Christ wherein he shines the brightest of all in comparison to every previous book of Scripture.) We will return to that point in a moment.
My premillenial pal has a little smirk on his face. Fair enough. Not every premillennialist subscribes to the errors explained above. Again, that’s fair. If the shoe fits then wear it. If not, consider the list of hermeneutical principles I have tried to outline above as at least decent points regarding the popular premillennial treatment of the passage in question. At least ponder the points I have made. Do they seem at all reasonable? Do they cast any doubt upon your approach to the passage in question? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I am not done yet.
Let’s return to the serpent in the garden. We now know that this is Satan. We see him deceive the woman. (Genesis 3:1-7, 2 Corinthians 11:3) From there on out, he will also deceive the nations. Oh, it is true that God chooses the one nation of Israel as his beloved Son. (Exodus 4:22, Deuteronomy 7:7) So Israel is the seed of the woman. (Genesis 3:15) Ultimately, Israel is Christ. (Isaiah 53, Exodus 4:22, Matthew 3:17, Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:15) The other nations are not chosen. They are not the beloved Son. They remain in darkness. They are pagan. They are the seed of the serpent. They are the ‘children’ of Satan.
God is not going to leave it like that. God will bless the nations through his chosen people. (Genesis 12:3, Genesis 22:15-18) What does that mean? It means that the gospel was preached to Abraham. It means that the nations – the Gentiles – will be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:8) But that has not happened at this point in the biblical narrative. Oh sure, there are hints of the gospel inclusion of the pagan nations by faith all over the Old Testament (wherever we see non-Jewish people joining the nation of Israel…and it happens a lot). But the gospel inclusion of the Gentiles by justification by faith does not happen on a large scale until the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, arrives on the scene in the New Testament. That is when we see the religious authorities of the nation of Israel turned against Christ, and the nations welcomed in through him, as they are throughout the remainder of the New Testament. If you do not understand that, then you do not understand the biblical narrative.
Yeah, it turns out that the seed of the woman prophesied all the way back there towards the beginning of the story in Genesis 3 is Jesus Christ. Satan surely bruises the heel of Christ. Christ crushes the head of Satan. When? Well, let me ask you this: at what point in the text of the New Testament does Satan ever defeat Jesus? What was that? Never? Right!
Satan works his hardest to have Jesus murdered as an infant, just as he had worked so hard many, many years before to murder Israel as an infant. (Exodus 1:22, Matthew 2:16-18) Both times he fails. At least back then he had Pharaoh and his people under his sway. At least back then, foolish Pharaoh followed his father, the serpent, as representative of the pagan nations. So did the Egyptians. The God-fearing Hebrew midwives had to act as the heroines. (Exodus 1:15-21) But this time the heroes are Gentile representatives of the nations and God-fearing Christ-seekers. (Matthew 2:7-12) The expansion of the kingdom of God to the nations has begun in the advent of Christ.
You know the rest of the story, don’t you? Just as Satan tempts the Son of God, Israel, in the wilderness for forty years, so also Satan tempts the Son of God, Jesus, in the wilderness for forty days. Where the nation of Israel failed, the man Israel succeeds. Jesus wins, and Satan is defeated. Why, Satan continues to lose, doesn’t he? If we are to believe that Satan is at all ascending in power as the biblical narrative continues after the advent of Christ, we must be shown some reason for believing it. Instead, we find the thematic downfall of Satan and ascension of Christ as we skim through the pages of the New Testament. Seventy-two followers of Christ realize the kingdom of Satan is now powerless against them, and Jesus explains the reason for it is that Satan has fallen from the place of authority he once held. (Luke 10:17-18) Satan has descended, losing his power, while Jesus has begun to ascend, obtaining through historical increments his rightful place of authority in condescending to his creation. Jesus possesses the authority now. This authority grants the seventy-two power to crush the serpentine enemy. (Luke 10:19-20) The ministry of Jesus is the inauguration of his multi-ethnic kingdom in the midst of a world once held under the satanic sway of the devil. The ministry of Jesus is the justice and hope of the nations, the Gentiles. (Matthew 12:18-21) We need not guess when the kingdom of Christ arrives, nor the time that Satan is bound, for Jesus tells us plainly that the kingdom of God is in a position to plunder the house of Satan only after that strong man is bound. (Matthew 12:28-29, Luke 11:20-22) Satan once deceived the nations. No more. The uncircumcised, nations, Gentiles are made alive through the work of Christ on the cross, which disarmed, shamed, and triumphed over the rulers and authorities which once stood against them. (Colossians 2:13-15) The seed of the serpent struck the heel of the seed of the woman, but the seed of the woman crushed the head of the serpent.
Much more could be said. This much should suffice. Now we are in a position to return to our passage in Revelation. Let’s look at that text again.
These three verses are, in fact, very important. They summarize what has been going on in the biblical narrative this whole time. The text is certainly relevant to eschatology. It does have something to say with respect to the place of the millennium in redemptive history. We have not arbitrarily jumped to this text. Sure, many other texts could be discussed that fall in between where we left off in the story above and the place where that story ends in this particular passage. But this post is already too long. We are ready to look at the Revelation passage. We have not left Christ out of the picture in our story thus far. Rather, he appears as the point of the whole thing. The language of the binding of Satan is no longer unfamiliar to us, as we hear it from the lips of Christ in his confession that he is in the process of disarming the rulers of this world, binding the strong man Satan and plundering his house through the gospel inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. The binding of Satan appears to refer to the dismantling of his authority over the nations. Satan is falling from power. Jesus is rising to power. Scripture paints a clear eschatological picture for us if we are willing to hear the whole story. This story is the clear message of Scripture which sheds light upon the less clear passage in Revelation. A premillennial interpretation of the passage in question is a mere spoiler. It tells us nothing about the wonderful story that came before it. It’s a strange, disconnected fact carrying no eschatological punch. We are left wondering about the point of the story, and the point of the text in question.
The passage in Revelation does not exist in a hermeneutical vacuum. It does not float in a biblical-theological void. Everything in Revelation is part of a story that began in Genesis. The passage in question is no exception. So, what is it about?
The angel is a messenger of Christ, administering the arrest of Satan. Satan is bound for a long time, to be sure, for a ‘millennium.’ We should understand this period of time to fall in between the period that includes the advent and ministry of Christ in his perfect life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and the period that includes the ‘release’ of Satan at the end. We need to understand the purpose of the binding of Satan. The text is clear as to why Satan is bound. Satan is bound “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” Well now, when did Satan deceive the nations? In the Old Testament you say? That’s right. And when did Satan lose his sway over the nations? What’s that? Satan’s deception of the nations came to an end in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples after him. That’s right! And the gospel continues to go out to the nations, because Jesus now possesses all authority! (Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:8) Satan is bound. He no longer deceives the nations. We are in the millennium now. So preach the gospel to the nations!
The authority and power of Satan is an authority and power to deceive the nations. It’s now over. Scripture is clear that Satan is bound in that very respect. You will notice that the binding of Satan does not entail his complete inactivity in the world. The reason or purpose behind his being bound is so that he shall no longer deceive the nations. And in that he is certainly bound. He does not deceive the nations as he once did. The nations belong to our Lord now. The Gentiles are his people, not Satan’s. Satan is defeated through the work of Christ.
You have systematic concerns, and rightfully so. We should view this text not only from biblical and exegetical perspectives, but from a systematic perspective as well. With all due respect, I do not see how the initial premillennial argument from this passage in Revelation does that, but all is forgiven. Let’s continue to address the systematic concerns with which we are left in this text.
First, you will ask, “Satan is not really defeated, is he? Jesus must return and consummate history. Then Satan will be completely defeated and we will reign with the Lord forever.” Perhaps you have a point. However, in order to maintain this point, you will have to say that nothing really changed at the advent of Christ. Nothing changed in his entire ministry. The cross was essentially ineffectual in its effect with respect to Satan. That is a tough pill to swallow. And it provides no basis upon which the gospel goes forth to the nations. No, there was certainly a change that entered the world through Jesus Christ. The benefits of the work of Christ are not fully realized. They will not be until the return of Christ. I grant you that. But I do not, and cannot grant that there is no already aspect to biblical eschatology. The kingdom of God most certainly is already here, though it is also not yet here. The reality of that truth has its ill effect upon Satan.
Second, you say the literal millennial reign of Christ on earth with his saints just makes good sense. After that reign, Satan has one final rebellion before he is put down for good. What do other views do with that? A number of points are important in the response to your question. The absolute absence of Satan during a literal millennial reign on earth does not actually make sense if we are to believe that anyone is deceived during that time. In other words, how does one account for unbelievers who exist on earth during the time of Christ’s physical reign in the world during the millennial kingdom? Who deceives them if Satan is out to lunch? Surely they are deceived, right? They don’t believe in Christ, after all. And you appear to be taking the deception of the nations to refer to everyone, down to individuals. You also have the problem of explaining how and why, if Satan is so literally, physically, thoroughly bound he gets out for a final romp. What was emphasized in a literal understanding of the binding of Satan must now be de-emphasized in explaining his release. And if the majority of the world is saved, as is the case on premillennial eschatological schemes, then how is Satan’s release at all effective anyway? Where are all of the unbelievers he will lead in a final rebellion against the citizens of the kingdom of God? (The amillennial view is potentially plagued by a similar problem, since history has never given way to a predominantly Christian or predominantly non-Christian population, and so the ‘rebellion’ does not look any different from the rest of history, but a progressive millennial view solves this difficulty by positing a mostly Christian world which nevertheless contains a significant number of non-Christians within its spherical borders.)
Third, what of the activity of Satan in the world? Well, what activity do you want to grant to him? He no longer deceives the nations now as he once did, because the gospel is going out to the nations even as I write this piece. And that is the only activity we really need to talk about anyway with respect to the text in question, since that is the specific activity mentioned with regard to the binding of Satan.
Fourth, if the ‘binding’ of Satan is essentially the same thing as the ‘crushing’ of the serpent’s head, and if this binding and crushing are tied to the ministry of Christ, including his work on the cross, then we must say that the work of Christ is in some sense ineffectual or incomplete since Satan is then released, right? At first glance, this argument appears very strong. The defeat of Satan is tied to the ministry of Jesus. Surely the cross is a done deal, and the end of the ministry of Satan in the world. But not so fast! Satan is not finally bound. He is released. What does this mean for the cross work of Christ? That it was not enough to end the ministry of Satan? And if the cross was not enough, then what is? Here we need to shift in our understanding of what it means for Satan to be released. It’s not a literal, physical binding of Satan. So also it’s not a literal, physical release of Satan in some sort of rebellion as described above. No, the binding of Satan involves his no longer deceiving the nations. The release of Satan must then mean that Satan is free to deceive the nations once again. Now, when does this happen? Well, after the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:24) You see, the Gentiles, or nations, were deceived in the Old Testament. They were not the people of God. They did not have the truth. They did not believe. They were deceived. But now that Jesus has come into the world, the gospel has gone out to Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus Christ has come to the Gentiles. He has torn down what divides the two groups, and made them one in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-16) Yet one day, God’s work in the Gentiles will be complete, they will have come into the fold in their fullness, and then shall come an infilling of the Jews as well. (Romans 11:25-27) When the completeness of the Gentiles as the people of God has come about, Satan is, in that sense, released to deceive those remaining, unsaved Gentiles once more. The release of Satan does not make the cross of Christ of no effect. Rather, the cross of Christ is effectual even to the salvation of the final Gentile who will come into the faith, and to the salvation of God’s original chosen ethnic people, the Jews.
So there’s my take on this thing. What do you think? The garden snake of Genesis has not grown in power. He deceived the woman and deceived her, and he continued to deceive the nations until the time of Christ. Satan never gained any power. He was unable to keep himself from losing it. The already aspect of eschatology applies to Satan as equally as it does to everything else, even though we eagerly await the not yet of his final defeat at the consummation of redemptive history. The binding of Satan happens in the ministry of Christ, and has its effects throughout this period of the reign of Christ in and through his Church. Satan is released, not because the cross is of no effect, but because it has had its full effect. We are in the millennium now, then, which means something very different for the amillennialist or postmillennialist than what it does for the premillennialist.
Though I took enough liberty to have some fun in this post, I am no expert, and am open to correction. However, I find the general approach above to be very persuasive, even given the possibility for error with respect to particular details of which I am currently unaware.