(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Millennium, A short history of the

I have Ben Witherington’s short book Revelation and the End Times to hand, so I will take the opportunity provided by his discussion of the millennium to outline what seems to me a more coherent, historically grounded understanding of this mystifying thousand year period.

Witherington argues that most early Christian writers—that is, pre-Christendom writers—understood the millennium to refer to a reign of Christ on the earth, beginning with the second coming, “prior to the end, prior to the final judgment and the new heaven and the new earth”. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430), however, saw matters differently, and the millennium came to be understood as the present age of the church before the return of Christ (93). This has been the dominant view ever since, but Witherington thinks it is wrong, for two reasons.

First, John tells us that during the millennium “Satan will be confined so that he cannot deceive the nations” (Rev. 20:1-3), but elsewhere in the New Testament Satan is described as a “roaring lion capable of deceiving even Christians and destroying others” (1 Pet. 5:8). But this is not a problem if the millennium begins after the writing of the New Testament.

Secondly, Witherington argues that both John and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 “distinguish the resurrection of believers from the resurrection of everyone else”. What happens at Christ’s return—that is, at the parousia—is that dead Christians are raised in order to reign with Christ on earth, “with a special place given to the martyrs”. But according to Revelation 20:4 it is the martyrs who are raised to participate in the thousand year reign of Christ. It is possible that “who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands” refers to a second group along with the martyrs, but we are still within the narrative setting of the conflict between the early church and imperial paganism.

I think that 1 Corinthians 15:23 has a similar scenario in view: at the parousia—at the moment of deliverance, vindication and victory over paganism—those “of Christ” are raised in order to share in the triumph. Paul makes the same point in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, except that here the distinction between the living and the dead is to the fore: his argument is that not only the living but also those who have fallen asleep in Christ will share in the vindication of the Son of man and the inauguration of the kingdom—the reign of Christ and the saints over the nations. There is no reason to suppose that in these passages Paul is talking about all Christians throughout all time: the eschatological narrative determines the scope of the argument.

They were both right

So I think that the early church was right to expect the millennium to follow the “coming” or parousia of Jesus, and that Eusebius and Augustine were also right to suppose that they were now living in the millennium. The turning point was the victory of Christ over the gods of the ancient world, represented by the conversion of Constantine, the ending of persecution, and the empire-wide confession of Jesus as Lord.

In parenthesis, I imagine that end-time charts like this one must give a lot of recovering dispensationalists the willies—and aren’t we all recovering dispensationalists to some degree? So I apologize to anyone who is offended by this, but I still find a simple diagram helpful. There is nothing morally or psychologically or theologically or historically wrong with the argument that apocalyptic forms were used in the New Testament to speak about a foreseeable and realistic future, which is what the diagram is about.

Whose future was it anyway?

The “eschatological scenario” that Witherington outlines at least takes into account the significance of the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (95). But then we still have an unnecessarily complicated futurist timeline: the building up of the church, the preaching of the gospel to all nations, the parousia of Christ, the salvation of “all Israel”, the resurrection of believers to inherit the kingdom, the millennium, the resurrection of unbelievers, the final judgment on Satan and the lost, and the appearing of the new heaven and new earth.

I think it makes much better sense, both exegetically and historically, to recognize that much of this timeline is also worked out in the period leading up to divine judgment on pagan Rome: the preaching of the gospel to all nations, the possibility that “all Israel” might be saved (it didn’t happen), the parousia of Christ, the resurrection of the martyrs to reign with Christ, the vindication of the suffering church, and the confinement of the satanic force (the prowling lion) that had inspired Rome’s antipathy. The thousand year period began at this point—immediately after the decisive overthrow of Rome. It will end at the end, when the kingdom will be delivered back to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24), when earth and sky will flee away from the presence of God and a new world will be born (Rev. 20:11).


In keeping with your three horizons, what passages speak to the third one?

1 Cor 15, Revelation 20, …?

I don’t understand (but would love to!) how these can be pushed into the distant future.

Revelation 20 is followed by Revelation 21, which seems to me to be a clear discussion of the church’s victory in the world, portrayed as a “New Jerusalem” to replace the one being destroyed. That seems to tie in the time-frame pretty tight.

1Cor 15:53-57 seems to tie resurrection in to victory over the Law, which would seem to constrain the time-frame as well.

How do you understand these connections, and/or what other passages support the third horizon?

Micah, I accept that the relation between the old world that we have in Revelation 20 and the new world that appears in chapter 21 could be understood in different ways. But there are elements that suggest to me a quite radical ontological disjunction: the old heaven and earth flee away before the presence of God seated for judgment; and death and evil are finally destroyed in the lake of fire. This seems to me to point to something beyond the victory of the church “in the world”, though there are also some curious continuities, such as the healing of the nations (22:2).

In Romans 8:21 the hope is expressed that ultimately creation will be delivered from its “bondage to corruption”.

I am less sure about 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 because here the argument about death and resurrection is linked to the inheritance of the kingdom. Inheritance of the kingdom is a parousia event—it is the kingdom promised to the suffering saints of the Most High, etc. This would mean that death is defeated specifically for the martyr community—for those who reign with Christ through to the moment when he hands back the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-26), for the dead who are raised at the trumpet in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16, and for the martyrs who share in the “first resurrection” in Revelation 20:4.

I might be coming around to your way of thinking. A couple of notes:

I would take the New Jerusalem discourse to be outside the main flow of the chronology. The New Jerusalem clearly already exists during the millennium (“the holy city”), and even during Paul’s life (Galatians 4).

I think the “new heavens and new earth” are covenantal language.

I have a hard time pinning much on Romans 8’s redemption of creation narrative, as that seems to be focused on watching for the vindication of the people of God.

But I am reading 1 Cor 15 in your framework now. Paul lists the three “orders”, and there must be three because Christ is supposed to stop his reigning at the “end”, but Hebrews 2 and Ephesians 1 talk about Christ reigning past the parousia, into the “age to come”. Thus there must be three markers here:

1) Christ declared to rule in his resurrection and ascension,
2) Christ making his rule known in his parousia (the “age to come”),
3) and Christ finishing his rule at the end.

As for the latter part of 1 Cor 15, it ties together “inheriting the kingdom”, victory over death, and victory over the law. So this does seem to be tied in to the fall of Jerusalem. And it does seem to be talking about the abolition of death, something seemingly belonging to “the end”. But given the context, he is probably actually just addressing the victory of Christians over death, a feat that would be accomplished for them at the parousia.

But this leads to other questions. Daniel 12:1-2 talks about national trouble for Israel, and the connected resurrection of both the good and the bad. This seems like it belongs to the “end”, yet Daniel seems to connect it to the historical fall of Jerusalem. (Or to be academically correct, this seems like the interpretation of it that the first Christians would have made).

More broadly, there seems to be ambiguity in the New Testament over which resurrection (1st or 2nd) involves both good and bad people rising.

I would take the New Jerusalem discourse to be outside the main flow of the chronology. The New Jerusalem clearly already exists during the millennium (“the holy city”), and even during Paul’s life (Galatians 4).

I may have missed your point here, but it seems to me that the New Jerusalem in heaven is the place where the resurrected martyrs reside until the new heavens and new earth, at which point the city descends so that God and the Lamb are in the midst of this new creation.

I have a hard time pinning much on Romans 8’s redemption of creation narrative, as that seems to be focused on watching for the vindication of the people of God.

Agreed, the focus is on the vindication of the people of God, but I suggest that in Paul’s mind personified creation looked forward to the vindication of the sons of God because it saw in this glorious event a foretaste of its own eventual transformation.

I think Daniel 12:1-2 describes a resurrection of good and bad Jews in connection with an unprecedented political-religious crisis, not of humanity more generally. For whatever reason, the New Testament envisages a resurrection of the faithful in Christ only at the parousia. There is a resurrection of all the dead prior to the new creation, but here there is no sense of continuation of life: the wicked are destroyed.

I may have missed your point here, but it seems to me that the New Jerusalem in heaven is the place where the resurrected martyrs reside until the new heavens and new earth, at which point the city descends so that God and the Lamb are in the midst of this new creation.

I agree, I’m just questioning the time of the descent. Galatians 4 seems to set up a contrast between the two Jerusalems, and implies that the inheritance is obtained upon the casting out of the old Jerusalem. Thus, we should expect to see the New Jerusalem descending at the fall of Jerusalem, not later.

Further, the Revelation narrative even seems to imply this. The only event that really happens in the millennium is that Gog and Magog surround the “camp of God’s people, the city he loves”. This should be the New Jerusalem community, and is obviously seen as being “on earth” during this time period.

Because of this, it looks to me like the New Jerusalem descriptions are jumping back to look at the historic victory of the people of God, while the millennial descriptions do stretch forward into the indefinite future.


What you just described is very close to the classical J. S. Russell view in “The Parousia” (a free PDF all over the Internet) and Duncan McKenzie’s book “The Anti-Christ and the Second Coming”. They both posit a post-Parousia “Millennium” with a future Great White Throne Judgment. There are some slight differences, but I think you’d appreciate the similarities.

Yes, agreed.

I would put much more emphasis on the historical and literary reasons for thinking that the parousia texts in different ways describe events that were to take place within the foreseeable future of the New Testament writers. I am less concerned with the fulfilment of the prophecy than with the perspective of the prophets.

I would also differentiate between the two historical horizons of judgment on Israel and judgment on Rome. The perspective of Jesus and the early Jewish disciples overlaps somewhat with the persective of Paul and the churches of the oikoumenē, but they are not identical. Old Testament imagery and language of judgment, deliverance and vindication are used in different ways, depending on the context. Jesus’ parousia was not quite the same as Paul’s parousia.

Andrew, I agree with your verdict on premillennialism (return of Christ before a future millennium), but then the larger ‘middle ground’ interpreters of Revelation 20 do also. There are two respects in which your chart might need correction, or at least, in which it is open to question.

The first is in the suggestion of a unique 1st century resurrection of the martyrs. Whichever way you look at it, this interpretation is inferred rather than anywhere explicitly stated, except, it seems in Revelation 20:5. Since such a resurrection has far reaching implications, is there another way of understanding “first resurrection”? John 5:24-29 (the context of the whole passage being resurrection - eg 5:21) suggests that resurrection encompasses new life given to those hearing and believing in the word of Jesus before death - verses 24-25, as well as those being raised after physical death - verse 29. This is the ‘two part’ resurrection, elsewhere described in Ephesians 2:6 and Colossians 3:3 as a resurrection ahead of physical resurrection. This bears on the meaning of “the first resurrection” of Revelation 20:5, to understand which, we have to know who is being “raised”, and how and when, in Revelation 20:4.

A careful reading of Revelation 20:4 suggests there are three groups of people in view. This is confused by there being only one introductory “I saw” - eidon, though translators have added another “I saw” in an attempt to make things clearer. In fact, the word “and” - kai separates three groups: those seated on the thrones, all who had been martyred, and all other faithful saints, both those alive in heaven and those living on earth. In contrast to “the rest of the dead”, whether or not they experienced martyrdom, they “came to life”, or better “they lived” - esezan (the word is not anazao, meaning “lived again”, or “came back to life”, or “lived again”). The sentence “The rest of the dead did not live until the 1000 years were ended” - 20:5a, is a parenthesis. The thought of 20:4 is completed in 20:5b - “This is the first resurrection”. All those who live and reign with Christ for the 1000 years as described have experienced the first resurrection, in that they “lived” - esezan, ahead of physical resurrection of the body.

The 1000 years of Satan’s defeat - Revelation 20:2, is a period of time, but also, perhaps more importantly, a metaphor of the triumph of Jesus. Where and when was this triumph accomplished?

The leads to the second point to do with your chart which is open to question: the absence of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the cross as the event which marked the beginning of the millennium, rather than judgement against Jerusalem/Rome alone. The language of the “binding” of Satan in Revelation 20:2 is echoed in Matthew 12:28-29, which describes Jesus’s defeat of the kingdom of Satan as evidenced in demon expulsion. The defeat of those powers is suggested in his Isaianic manifesto - Luke 4:18 (release of the prisoners). It is also suggested in his triumph over the “powers and authorities” on the cross - Colossians 2:15. These are the powers described elsewhere as energising apostate Judaism and Roman paganism - Galatians 4:8-9, Ephesians 3:10, 6:12 etc. The “freedom for the prisoners”, which Jesus demonstrated in many forms in his earthly ministry, was much more than a literal unlocking of prison doors, though unjust imprisonment was no doubt encompassed in his proclamation. The pivotal event around which this freedom turned, as reflected in the emphasis of all four gospels and the repeated emphasis of the letters, was the cross.

So, I’m once again, paradoxically, with you and yet not with you, to the extent that I’m seeing a very different story from the one which you see. Revelation 20:5b has a unique place in your argument as the only, apparently, explicit reference to a 1st century resurrection, though I recognise that your larger argument does not depend on it. It sounds to me as if Ben Witherington falls into the abyss of Revelation interpretation which better interpretations place a seal over.