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).