Last week we looked at why 144,000 should be taken as a literal 144,000 (in response to Kevin DeYoung’s fivefold argument that it shouldn’t).
This week, as promised, I’d like to expand on why there is no reason to take the thousand years of the earthly reign of Christ in Revelation 20 as anything other than a literal millennium.
The reason this is important is that if the reign of Christ is a thousand years, then it obviously cannot be the period we are now in, as amillennialists claim, since the church age has already lasted two thousand years, and counting.
Reasons that I’ve encountered for why a thousand years in Revelation 20 is not a thousand years:
1. To God a thousand years is like one day and one day is like a thousand years.
This appeal to 2 Peter 3:8 is referenced as a possible argument in Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust 1958, reprinted 2000, pp. 714.
2. This is the only text in the Bible saying the kingdom will be a thousand years.
This reason is argued by William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, Baker 1939, pp. 11-64; and Anthony Hoekema, “Amellennialism,” in Meaning of the Millennium, pp. 156-59.
3. The term “a thousand” refers to any indefinite number.
This is closely related to the next reason…
4. The use of a thousand is a symbolic way of describing the perfect amount of time.
This quote is worth reading twice…
The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection, ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand the seer has said all he could say to our minds to convey the idea of absolute completeness.”
(Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” inBiblical Doctrines, Oxford University Press 1929, p. 654).
Reasons I take the thousand years of Revelation 20 to be literal:
1. The appeal to 2 Peter 3:8 (a thousand years is like a day to God) is a clearexegetical fallacy, called an “illegitimate totality transfer” where the context of one passage is transferred into another passage without regard for the passage being exegeted (see James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Languages London: Oxford University Press, 1961, p. 218). In other words, the context of 2 Peter 3:8 (that God’s perception of a literal thousand years is the same as God’s perception of a literal day) has no business undoing the plain meaning of the six cases in Revelation 20 where the literal thousand years is supplied in order to reveal a length of time for humans to anticipate.
And in any case, Peter’s point only makes sense if the thousand years has a numeric value of a thousand.
What would this argument imply about six days of creation, or three days in the grave? Peter clearly did not intend to communicate that when God reveals a time period we should disregard that revelation completely since God uses numbers differently than humans do.
2. One passage of God-breathed revelation is sufficient.
Even though it’s the only passage that mentions the duration of the kingdom, the period is repeated six times in that passage. Also, how many passages revealed that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem? One. (Micah 5:2). To take God at his word, you only need one place in God’s word where a detail is revealed.
3. There are biblical expressions for innumerable values and indefinite time.
For example, “Myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands” (Rev 5:11) and “a great multitude that no one could number” (Rev 7:9) and “A number than cannot be numbered for multitude” (Gen 16:10) and “more in number than the sand of the seas” (Jer 15:8). Nowhere in Scripture is the number “a thousand” supplied in order to represent an immeasurable amount or period of time.
Also, in 20:3, John calls the period in which Satan will be permitted to deceive the nations after his thousand year captivity a “short time” or a “little while.” This is how John reveals indefinite periods of time: with terms for indefinite periods of time.
4. Symbols are always symbolic of something.
You can’t say this number is a symbol so we have no idea what it means. Symbols represent realities, so the question is: if the thousand years is symbolic of something, then what is it representing?
We already dismissed the idea that it could mean a different period of time above, so what else could the referent be?
Warfield’s explanation above (perfect 7 + equally perfect 3, to the power of 3 = absolute perfection) is laughably arbitrary, and also completely unprecedented anywhere else in the Bible. John’s readers could not possibly be expected to interpret 1,000 years as referring to a period of time longer than 2,000 years that was considered the absolutely perfect amount of time.
If one assumes that Scripture was written to be understood (the hermeneutical principle of perspicuity), then the fact that there is no consensus as to what the thousand years refers to—if not a thousand literal years—is a strong argument that John was not intending to reveal something cryptic about the duration of the kingdom.
As I said last week, I am not opposed to interpreting numbers in a figurative way (forgive repentant sinners 70×7), but even in apocalyptic genres we hunt for alternative meanings only when the context gives a reason to do so.
Remember that of the 254 uses of numbers in Revelation, only two have a context that might demand a figurative interpretation (seven Spirits of God, and the mark of the Beast being 666, the sign of his name). The point of this week’s post is the same as last week’s: we need to be consistent in our hermeneutic, for the way we interpret these verses demonstrates our commitment to let Scripture speak for itself instead of imposing our systems upon it. If we never ignore the context in other passages, then we ought not ignore it in apocalyptic genres.
Because if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: context is king.
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