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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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(Chapter 20)

The interpretation of this chapter is largely determined by the view already taken of the preceding chapters. After the introductory letters to the seven churches, the vision of the final judgment has already appeared six times in the preceding chapters:

In the relation of the seals (Revelation 6:12-17).

In the relation of the trumpets, the judgment of the world city (Revelation 11:14-19).

In the harvest of the earth (Revelation 14:14-20).

At the pouring out of the vials of wrath (Revelation 16:12-20).

In the judgment of the harlot (Revelation 18:21-24).

In the judgment of the scarlet beast (Revelation 19:19-21).

From this, it should naturally be expected that the seventh and final presentation of the judgment should describe the overthrow of the devil himself; and that is exactly what is depicted in this chapter (Revelation 20:7-15).

There is only one judgment day visible in the entire Bible; and these seven views of it are all descriptive of one and the same event. Each of the seven sections of this prophecy (classified according to the judgment scenes) is a recapitulation in the chronological sense, all of the prophecies principally relating to the time between the two Advents of Christ.

Beginning back in Revelation 12:1, the three great enemies of Christ were introduced in successive visions: (1) the dragon, identified as Satan himself; (2) the sea-beast with seven heads and ten horns, identified as persecuting government; and (3) the land-beast, later identified as the harlot, and still later as the false prophet, identifiable throughout as false religion, first as paganism, then as apostate Christianity and the derivatives of it.

Significantly, in this prophecy, all three of these great enemies are vanquished in reverse order: the harlot (Revelation 18), the sea-beast (in his final form of the "ten kings," the eighth head) (Revelation 19), and the devil (Revelation 20). All of these enemies perish in the lake of fire simultaneously. And this is a good place to pay some particular attention to the "lake of fire."


Like practically everything else in Revelation, this is not literal, because the same terror is envisioned as a pool, or river of blood two hundred miles long (Revelation 14:20), the total silence and inactivity of being found "no more at all" (Revelation 18:21-24), and the innumerable dead bodies of the kings, captains, mighty men, small and great, etc., with the birds gorging themselves upon their flesh, as well as upon the flesh of animals (horses)! None of these figures is literal; yet, strangely enough, the "lake of fire" seems generally to be construed as a literal reality. Of course, it could be! But, as we have pointed out before in this series, the figures which are used to describe this reality, whatever it is, do not fit neatly into any patent description of it. Christ called it an "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 15:30), "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41), "hell, the unquenchable fire" (Mark 9:44), "hell, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). In this latter reference, Jesus seems to have referred to the valley of Hinnom, the New Testament Gehenna, which was the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It is clear enough that no imaginable visualization can include all these figures.

Therefore, we do not think it is profitable to offer any description of this terrible place of eternal punishment. The thought that overwhelms us is, "How utterly unspeakable and absolutely terrible must be a punishment which requires such metaphors to represent it!" Recognizing that this language does indeed seem to be metaphorical affords no relief. The reality is always greater than the symbol of it!

This chapter describes the overthrow of Satan in hell; but the harlot is not first destroyed, then the beast, then the devil; they all continue alive and operative until the last and all go down together. Nevertheless, this chapter relates particularly to Satan’s overthrow and to the nature and extent of his opposition to God throughout the whole Christian period. It is not a description of the church’s fortunes on earth, except as they are related to the overthrow of the devil. The "thousand years" mentioned six times in Revelation 20:1-7 relate to the limitations which God imposed upon Satan throughout the Christian age and have no reference at all to the so-called "millennium" of popular fancy. Due to the widespread false theories regarding this, we have included here a special study of it.


I. The history of the doctrine. The first millennarians were the heretics who troubled the church of Thessalonica with their theory that "the day of the Lord is just at hand" (2 Thessalonians 2:2); and the canonical 2 Thessalonians was dispatched by the apostle Paul for the express purpose of refuting them. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, the theory recurred in various forms a number of times. Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and other notables were premillennarians of varying degrees. Some of their speculations would put modern millennialists to shame:

The elders that saw John, the disciple of the Lord, state that they heard him say how the Lord used to teach in regard to those times (the millennium) and say: The days will come when vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and each branch ten thousand twigs, and each twig ten thousand shoots, and each shoot ten thousand clusters, and in every cluster ten thousand grapes; and every grape would yield twenty-five meters of wine!(F1)

As is so often true, one extreme begets another, and the wild millennial theories of the Ante-Nicene period were destroyed in the "spiritualized" speculations of Augustine and Origen. Origen invented the doctrine of purgatory, and Augustine came up with original sin and total hereditary depravity. Origen was of the third century and Augustine of the fourth; and, after the fourth century, premillennarianism became a dormant heresy, dormant, but not dead.

It sprang to life again in the 19th century, due to: (1) a revival of interest in studying the Scriptures; (2) the marvelous scientific advancements; and (3) the special activity of Satan which always appears with renewed preaching of the truth. This was the period that saw the epochal work of Stone, Kelly, Smith, Campbell, Scott, and many others. By the year 1843, the premillennarian prophet William Miller had over one million followers at a time when the total population of North America was only 16,000,000. He announced the end of the world in 1831, which was followed by an unusual meteorite shower on November 13, 1833. That display of "the falling stars" confirmed the faith of many in Miller, as did also a comet in 1844. After several recalculations, he finally set the date of the End for October 23, 1844.

Incredible numbers of people disposed of all earthly possessions and streamed out of Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities to the countryside to see the great event. Some wore white ascension robes; and one prominent Philadelphian in a white robe calmly stepped out of a third-story window to fly to heaven. Some tried to make it from high bridges. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a respectable citizen wearing turkey wings tried to make it from the top of an elm tree. Thousands crawled around on their knees with others on their backs in imitation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on an ass!

When the sun rose with the world still intact, Miller’s followers, with their robes damp and dirty, made their sorrowful return to homes and businesses, if fortunate enough to have either left. Old, weary, and tired, Miller checked and rechecked his calculations for several years and then died still wondering. It does seem that such a disaster would have given other "prophets" pause; but Uriah Smith, Charles T. Russell, and "Judge" Rutherford took up where Miller left off. The world would come to an end every few years. Sensational leaflets announcing that "millions now living will never die" were placed in every home in the United States announcing the end of the world in 1914, later "revised" to 1919. Finally, Rutherford decided that "it did end"! in 1914. His followers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, still preach that it did!(F2)

II. Complexity of the doctrine. Two separate systems of millennarianism are pre-millennarianism and post-millennarianism, as related to the coming of Christ. The "pre’s" believe Christ will come before the millennium, and the "post’s" believe the millennium will occur first. The "pre" type is more common. Here is an incomplete summary of what is taught:

1. At the start of the millennium, Christ will literally return to earth and personally take charge of all things for literally one thousand years.

2. He will reign from Jerusalem on the literal throne of David.

3. The righteous dead shall be raised with immortal bodies to help the Lord reign over people with normal bodies.

4. The Lord will personally convert the whole world, who, though they reject the gospel, will receive him.

5. After 1,000 years, the Lord will suddenly turn the devil loose, and the Great Tribulation will follow.

6. The righteous will be caught up (the Rapture) to escape all this.

7. There will be a series of judgments ranging from two to seven, depending on the form of the theory believed.

8. During the Great Tribulation, Enoch and Elijah, who never died, will return to earth, preach Christ, suffer martyrdom, and then be raised from the dead and go on preaching!

9. The Jews will all be converted and rally around Christ in Jerusalem. Rejecting the gospel, they will nevertheless accept Christ!

10. The church becomes a step-child, or a concubine, in all millennially related speculations. It will be totally swallowed up in the glories of the millennium.

11. Resurrections are as plentiful as judgments, depending on the shade of the heresy advocated.

12. Some even assert that the wicked dead will rise and be given a second chance to accept Christ.

These are only a few of the "stock in trade" speculations of millennarians, and are merely typical. In all probability, this summary does not accurately represent the views of any particular brand of it.

III. Present status of the heresy. Some form of this speculation is today the accepted doctrine of countless thousands. It is not confined to denominational groups, but cuts across all party lines and labels. Whole congregations of many Protestant churches have been swallowed by it. The widespread de-emphasis of the importance of Christ’s church stems, in part, from this heresy.

Many books and study systems, and even some Bibles (notably, Scofield) and countless preachers are busy spreading this false doctrine. Some churches have lost all denominational identity, except that of the millennial label. The error is widespread, active, aggressive, and endemic.

IV. Doctrinal refutation. As Milligan wrote, "Millennialism is liable to sundry very grave objections, some of which seem to me to be wholly unanswerable."(F3) "This whole scheme is in my judgment, and not in mine only, but in that of the vast majority of believing Bible students of all the ages, entirely untenable.(F4) "All of the creeds of the Christian church, ancient or modern, Catholic or Protestant, are amillennarian (non-millennarian). Chiliasm has not found recognition in any one of them."(F5) What are the objections?


1. It is based upon a literalism of Revelation 20:1-7, a passage which should be interpreted symbolically. It is ridiculous to suppose that the devil could be caught and tied with a literal chain and imprisoned in a pit with no bottom in it!

2. The literal return of Christ to earth could not add anything to him who already has "all authority" in heaven and upon earth (Matthew 28:18-20). Christ is already seated on the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1); bringing him back to earth and placing him in a literal throne in Jerusalem would be more than the equivalent of demoting a five-star general to the grade of private.

3. The physical and liberal return of Christ to earth would cancel and nullify all the benefits of his ascension. He said, "It is expedient for you that I go away; for, if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you" (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit could not operate if Christ were literally on earth. His return would mean the end of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

4. His physical, literal return would cancel and deny his office as the holy high priest of our sacred religion. "Now, if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all" (Hebrews 8:4).

5. When Christ comes again, he will give the kingdom back to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:22-24). The Second Advent will be the occasion when Christ ends his reign, not when he begins it.

6. Christ is now reigning on David’s throne (Acts 2:30-31). The only possible objection to this is that it places David’s throne in heaven; but that is exactly where the Old Testament says it would be (Psalms 89:35-37 KJV).

7. The whole system belittles the church, a view flatly contradicted by Ephesians 3:21; Acts 20:28, etc.

8. It denies the power of the gospel. The gospel cannot save people, especially the Jews, but Christ can! When Christ comes, it will not be to convert anybody, but to judge the ungodly sinners who rejected his gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

9. Such speculations deny the truth that "no man knoweth the day, nor the hour, of our Lord’s return" (Matthew 24:36). One may only marvel at the gullibility of people who trust some "prophet" who pretends that he knows.

10. The whole complex of multiple resurrections and judgments prevalent in all phases of this heresy is contrary to the plain words of the whole Bible. There is only one literal resurrection of the dead and only one judgment, repeatedly referred to by Christ as "the judgment." Scofield Bible fabricates multiple judgments; but this is a perversion of the sacred Scriptures.

11. The millennial heresies, whether "pre" or "post," deny the many New Testament passages (1 Corinthians 10:11; Acts 2:16-17, etc.) which designate the current era as "the last days."

12. The millennialists read into Revelation 20 an immense amount of material that does not belong there.(F6)

13. There is not a word in the entire Bible about any "Millennium," except as it is imported into the first seven verses of this chapter.

14. The many theories constructed on these verses are mutually contradictory and destructive of each other. There is no generally accepted or agreed upon theory of a millennium. Thoughtless and reckless indeed is the man who can devote his time, money, study, talent, and teaching to that which at best is an uncertain and illusive theory, and one that practically the entire company of Christian scholarship of all ages and shades of belief have found it utterly impossible to accept. In a word, the theory is absolutely preposterous and ridiculous.

We not only reject all millennial theories, but also the supportive interpretations which have been concocted in order to bolster them. Such things as the Great Tribulation, the Rapture, the Resurrection of the Martyrs in a separate resurrection, which have no proof at all in the New Testament, are among the concepts rejected.

Verse 1

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand.

An angel coming down out of heaven … This angel is not Christ; one nameless angel is all that Christ needed to dispatch Satan finally and irrevocably.

Having the key of the abyss … "In all the places where abyss is used (Revelation 9:1; Revelation 2:11; Revelation 11:7; Revelation 17:8, including Luke 8:31), the word signifies the present abode of Satan and his angels, not the place of their final punishment."(F7) In only one New Testament passage, does it mean anything different (Romans 10:7). The "key" here indicates that, "Power is given to this angel over Satan during the time of the world’s existence."(F8)

And a great chain, in his hand … The Greek text here is literally "upon his hand" (ASV margin), and this corresponds to the word of God being "upon the hand" of the angel in Revelation 10:2. Thus the chain is seen to be the word of God. Who can conceive of any other "chain" that would restrain and control the activity of Satan? One little word of Christ is enough to bind Satan for a thousand years. Hendriksen also identified this passage with 12:7-9, where another scene of Satan’s restraint is given.(F9) There also the period of binding is the entire Christian age; and this is the key to understanding the meaning of the 1,000 years in this passage. In that passage, the woman was protected from Satan a thousand, two hundred and three score days, the same period as the binding about to be related here, meaning in both cases the whole Christian age.

Verse 2

And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years,

Dragon … serpent … devil … and Satan … Note the fourfold name of the evil one. This ties in with the 12th chapter where this quadruple designation first occurs (Revelation 12:9), and where are also mentioned the 1,260 days. Neither the 1,000 years here nor the 1,260 days there should be literalized. Both refer to the same period of time, all the time between the two Advents of Christ.

And bound him for a thousand years … "This means during the entire gospel age."(F10) The effective binding of Satan took place in the events of the Incarnation. Satan had already been thrown out of heaven (Revelation 12:7-9); therefore, it is some more restricted phase of Satan’s binding that is revealed here.

The "binding" here is exactly that referred to in Matthew 12:29, where Jesus said, concerning his salvation of people, "How can one enter into the house of the strong man (Satan) and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?" Every saved person since Christ carne is proof of Satan’s being bound throughout the whole period of anybody’s being saved "in Christ." Not one soul could ever have been saved unless Satan had first been bound.

But people will say, "Well, if Satan is bound now, I would sure hate to see him loosed!" Maybe Christ knows Satan a lot better than people who talk like that. The world itself will probably not stand a month when Satan is finally loosed "a little while."

Just how is Satan bound? He is bound in that he cannot destroy the Bible; he cannot tempt a child of God more than he is able to bear; God makes a way of escape with every temptation, etc. See more on this in my Commentary on Matthew, p. 172. Pieters mentioned this interpretation as being favored by Morris, Lenski, Warfield, Masselink, Milligan, etc., adding that, "There is truth in it."(F11) We find any other view untenable. The period of Satan’s binding is coextensive in every particular with the times when people are being saved by obeying the gospel. Again, to paraphrase Christ’s question, "How could Christ save anyone at any time when Satan was not bound?" (Matthew 12:29).

Verse 3

and cast him into the abyss and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time.

Cast him into the abyss … shut it … sealed it … This merely stresses the effectiveness of the binding and restraint of the devil by divine power. The shutting and sealing are only the inert trappings of the metaphor.

Until the thousand years should be finished … The gospel age will finally close; and when the last person to accept the Son of God shall have done so, that age will end.

That he should deceive the nations no more … The contrast between the gospel age and the pre-Christian hardening of the Gentiles, as expounded by Paul in Romans 1, is in view here. Satan has never again achieved the complete mastery over the nations which characterized his domination of the pre-Christian Gentile world. This cannot mean that no individual will ever again be deceived by Satan; it merely means that the blessed knowledge of the truth shall always be available for those who truly desire and will receive it. This cannot deny that many shall be deceived because they reject the truth, not through being deceived, but with their eyes wide open, just like Adam sinned. Having rejected it through a moral decision against it, they will then receive the "strong delusion" of 2 Thessalonians 2:11.

After this, he must be loosed for a little time … Some respected scholars identify the "little time" here with the whole dispensation, the "loosing" being applied to Satan’s operations against the vast majority who reject the truth, and the "binding" being applied to the effectual restraint of Satan as far as the righteous are concerned. The time-periods, a little time, and a thousand years, are therefore qualitative and not relative. However, we believe that the "little time" mentioned here means literally a brief period, beginning at the point after which God shall have finally achieved the full salvation of the total number of the redeemed, and lasting only a relatively very short while. Satan will be "loosed" without any restraint whatever during that brief period. Due to all that is revealed of Satan’s nature in the Bible, it cannot be supposed that the race of man, or the whole world, would continue very long after such an eventuality. See more on this in CMY, pp. 129-134. We must point out that in such an interpretation we might indeed have fallen into the constant danger that assails all commentators on Revelation, that of literalism. That some things in the prophecy are literal is certain; but just which are, and which are not, cannot always be accurately judged. Our interpretation of this requires the construction of "little while" in a literal sense, contrary to the generally figurative nature of the whole prophecy. However, there are a number of other examples of the same necessity throughout Revelation. Summarizing our interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3, we have given the following meanings to the symbols:

The abyss is the present abode of Satan on the earth.

The key is the angel’s authority from God.

The chain is the word of God.

The dragon and serpent is Satan.

The 1,000 years is the gospel age.

Deceiving the nations no more means that the availability of the truth shall not fail from the earth.

The binding of Satan refers to the limitations imposed upon the devil regarding his hurting the righteous (Matthew 12:29).

The binding of Satan took place in the events of the Incarnation of Christ (Matthew 12:29).

The loosing of Satan "a little while" refers to the ravages of Satan when all men at least finally reject the truth.

Before going on, we shall notice some of the pertinent observations by various scholars on this famous passage:

The millennial theories are merely the revamping of the old Jewish dream that the Jews would dominate the whole world.(F12) The origin of millennialism is not Christian, but is to be found in certain Jewish beliefs about the Messianic age which were common after 100 B.C.(F13) This chapter describes not a millennium of the saints but the overthrow of Satan.(F14) The binding of Satan and the casting of him into the abyss mean that during the gospel age Satan is unable to prevent the extension of the church.(F15) This passage is parallel to 2 Thessalonians 1:8, indicating that the binding of Satan extends to the Second Advent.(F16) How long will this "little while" be? Merely long enough for Satan to gather his host and for the fire out of heaven to destroy them.(F17) John never thinks of Satan as having a free hand. Again and again, "is given" was used when he speaks of any authority to do evil.(F18) From these verses we must conclude that we are now in the millennium.(F19)

Perhaps the greatest single obstacle to seeing the 1,000 years as a figure of our own age is the consecutive or sequential view of the several sections of this prophecy. To be sure, if Revelation is interpreted as giving a consecutive, chronological series of events throughout history, the fact of our just having had a view of the final judgment at the end of Revelation 19, would then have to mean that this binding of Satan, etc., comes after the judgment. In our interpretation, Satan was cast into hell (the lake of fire) in Revelation 19:20; and that forces the understanding that the events of this chapter took place before that event. If not, will someone kindly explain to us how Satan got out of hell? This same problem exists in all the other sections of this prophecy concluded by visions of the final judgment; and, to us, this absolutely requires us to see not consecutive events in the prophecy, but repeated recapitulations in the seven sections.

Another great impediment to the acceptance of our interpretation of the millennium here was thus stated by Wilbur M. Smith:

If this war-ridden age of anarchy and atheistic communism is the Millennium, then the hopes created by the word of God must be abandoned.(F20)

No doubt, many others feel the same way; and we have the utmost sympathy for those who are "hung up" on dreams of a Utopia on earth, where all shall be peace and light for an incredibly beautiful Golden Age; but, if the people who are thus deluded, can bear to hear, there are no promises of any such thing in the New Testament. We must through "many tribulations" enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); we must "suffer with him" (Romans 8:17); all of the godly "shall suffer persecutions" (2 Timothy 3:12); all who follow Christ must "take up their cross daily" (Luke 9:23), etc. We could cite a hundred other such passages in the New Testament. Where did all this nonsense come from, anyway, that envisions that "Glorious Millennium" with the lemonade pools and the big rock candy mountain? People overwhelmed with such "hopes" did not get them out of the word of God, but out of the vain speculations of men. The very idea that for an entire, literal thousand years Christians shall be exempt from the sorrows, temptations, and tribulations of life is utterly foreign to the sacred Scriptures. The popular view of the millennium leaves out the essential quality of suffering in the Christian life. Back of the popular view of the millennium is a false, carnal view of salvation. The heresy eliminates tribulation by putting it in what they call the Great Tribulation and then rescuing the church from it by means of a so-called Rapture. The whole scheme is ingenious but absolutely wrong. There is no Great Tribulation in this prophecy, or anywhere else in the whole New Testament. There will be great tribulations, of course, many of them; and, in a real sense, the entire gospel age might be called "the great tribulation"; but no isolated event or series of events in history may be so designated.

People unconsciously tend to materialize the blessings in Christ. Some scholars even make the elevation of Constantine the Great to the throne of Rome the beginning of the millennium. Instead, it was the beginning of the inundation of the church by the world and one of the major steps toward the great apostasy and the onset of the Dark Ages. Yes, the elevation of Constantine was a great victory for Christians, but it did not mean that they were through with Satan; it heralded merely a change in Satan’s strategy.

Verse 4

And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

And I saw thrones, and they that sat upon them … This is another proleptic vision of the blessed state of the dead in Christ, introduced for the encouragement and support of suffering and persecuted Christians. It was by this device that this prophecy "strengthened the faith of those who were suffering persecutions by giving them a vision of the final triumph of Christ and of the blessedness of his followers."(F21) Some millennial theories place these thrones upon earth, but there is no more reason to do this than to suppose that the "twelve thrones" occupied by the apostles during "the times of the regeneration" (Matthew 19:28) are actually upon earth. In fact, those thrones are exactly like these.

And judgment was given unto them … It is wrong to think that this means only the martyrs received judgment and sat upon thrones. "The thrones are occupied by the living, reigning saints, who have either suffered martyrdom or refused to worship the beast."(F22) It is also easy to miss the meaning of "the judgment" that was given unto them. It means that God’s judgment was given in their favor, and not that the prerogative of judging other people was to be exercised by them. The New Testament makes it absolutely clear that that prerogative belongs to the Son of God alone (John 5:27). Another view is advocated by some who appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 for support; but that passage also is devoid of any thought that judgment will ever be the prerogative of Christians. Judgment belongs to the Son of God alone. For further discussion of Christians "judging," see in my Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, pp. 82-85.

And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded … Not these alone, but including these, is the thought. Even those who were beheaded are shown by this vision to have been favorably judged by the Lord and granted the right of glorification at the last day. "This assurance was of importance for the Christians of John’s day … even if they were called to yield up their lives, their sacrifice would issue in God’s vindication of them."(F23)

And such … "In the Greek, this is literally and those who, a second class of persons who had not necessarily been beheaded."(F24) This forbids limiting this passage to the martyrs.

Worshipped the beast … Glorious indeed as were the martyrs, God also loves those who are faithful throughout life, regardless of the time or manner of their death. One may only deplore the over-emphasis upon "the martyrs" by so many commentators, as if the blessed promise of a passage like this pertained only to martyrs.

And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years … Again, this is exactly the same promise Christ made to the Twelve (Matthew 19:28), where he defined the period as "the times of the regeneration," a reference to the whole Christian age; and it is absolutely imperative so to understand it here. Neither did any of the apostles, nor any of those in view here, actually live a thousand years; but what is taught is that the reign of Christians with Christ will be a perpetual phenomenon throughout the whole Christian age (the thousand years).

And the souls of them that had been beheaded … "John sees souls, not bodies."(F25) The reigning here is not that of people who have been bodily resurrected from the dead. The thrones also are not upon the earth, but in heaven where this vision is centered.

And how do they reign with Christ? They do this in the spiritual sense of their victory over sin and temptation, doubt, fear, suffering, and persecution.

And they lived … Ladd read this as meaning "They came to life again";(F26) but that is neither what this says nor what it means. It means that the righteous dead do not really die, in the sense of perish; they pass through death but continue to be "with the Lord." "Although they die, yet their souls will live and reign with Christ."(F27) "The selection of the term souls in this passage could not have been accidental, and it certainly indicates that the ’resurrection’ in this place is not that of bodies."(F28)

And they lived … is described in Revelation 20:5 as "the first resurrection." "This can only be referred to that first awakening from sin to the glorious life of the gospel."(F29) For more on the first resurrection, see under next verse.

Verse 5

The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection.

The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished … This is the passage upon which some fasten their interpretation of Revelation 20:4 as a literal resurrection; but there is ample Scriptural authority for words having both a figurative and a literal meaning in the same passage. Christ himself told us exactly what the first resurrection is:

The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live …

Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in their tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment (John 5:25-29).

An analogy of the above passage inevitably leads to the conclusion that the conversion of sinners by the gospel is the first resurrection. Significantly, this was recorded by John; and it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to believe that he here advanced some other conception of what the first resurrection is. Also, both the spiritual resurrection in conversion, and the literal resurrection at the last day are presented here, side by side, in the teaching of Jesus. Thus, there is no impediment to seeing the "first resurrection" here as spiritual and the second as literal. "There are few that would agree that the resurrection of the witnesses" (Revelation 11:11) was literal — the passages are parallel."(F30) "There is no reason for restricting resurrection to a literal meaning."(F31)

Therefore, we confidently affirm that the "first resurrection" here is a spiritual resurrection, having reference to the conversion of sinners through the preaching of the gospel. Some dispute this, because, they say, "the second death" has no power over them who had the first resurrection; but this is no better proof of the impossibility of apostasy than John 8:51-52. Impossibility of apostasy is not in either passage.

The rest of the dead … These are the rest of the "dead" humanity "in sin," the remainder of the total humanity dead in trespasses and sins. That portion of the dead race (in sin) who heard and obeyed the truth "live" (spiritually) in the first resurrection; but the rest of the "dead humanity" enjoyed no such resurrection; for them, following their physical death, "they lived not again until the judgment day," explained here as "till the thousand years were finished."

Many concur in this interpretation:

There is no adequate reason to assume that this first resurrection is physical.(F32) The first resurrection verily is first.(F33) These were sinners who will not experience a resurrection of any kind until the end of time.(F34) We tend to forget that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.(F35) The New Testament places the bodily resurrection of both saint and sinner at the same time (John 5:28-29); and until that passage is proved false, that point is settled.(F36) The rest of the dead means all those who died in unbelief.(F37)

The rest of the dead … They did not live, that is, they did not inherit eternal life through their obedience of the gospel. Thus the "souls" of verse 4 are the martyrs and others who like the rest of the dead "left their bodies on earth when they died."(F38) John tells us here that the wicked dead "did not live" until the thousand years were finished, at which time, all people, good and bad alike, will physically rise from the dead to face the final judgment.

Verse 6

Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection … This beatitude pertains to all who are "in Christ." Such persons already enjoy eternal life in the sense of possessing the promise of it, having the earnest of it, and participating in some of the joys of it.

They shall be priests of God and of Christ … Preeminently, throughout the whole New Testament, this status of Christians is established as their status at the present time, and in this dispensation, now! Therefore, the priesthood and the reigning of these saints is exactly the same as that of the Christians of all ages, showing that no special period of any kind whatever is meant by this "thousand years" in this passage. See my comment on 1 Peter 2:5, and also in my Commentary on James, pp. 191-199. "All the evidence we have is against the theory of the first resurrection being understood otherwise than as a spiritual resurrection that takes place when any sinner is converted to Christ."(F39)

And shall reign with him a thousand years … "This living and reigning must not be limited to the time after the death of those mentioned."(F40) All Christians are now living and reigning with Christ. Plummer paraphrased the thought here thus:

You Christians sit upon thrones and reign with Christ; yea, even those who suffered shameful death share that perfect safety and exaltation, though, in the eyes of the world, they were afflicted and degraded.(F41)

A thousand years … This is the whole period of the Christian dispensation, the same as the time and times and half a time, the same as the forty-two months, the same as the one thousand two hundred and threescore days. All these time-periods are exactly the same and refer to the entire period between the two Advents of Christ.

Verse 7

And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

Shall be loosed … We agree with those commentators who believe that the divine goal of redemption will be fully achieved, but that very near the end, faith shall practically vanish from the earth. "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Just as the old Israel fell away from God and officially and finally rejected even the Messiah himself, their apostasy will be fulfilled in the great antitype of the church, the new Israel, which will apparently do exactly the same thing. "When the final judgment is at hand, the powers of evil will again assemble and gather force."(F42) The loosing of Satan will occur at the time when more and more people have chosen wickedness and the true faith shall virtually have disappeared. With the relative number of the righteous greatly diminished, Satan’s powers over people will be vastly multiplied; and it appears from this that very near the end of time Satan will find himself with almost a free hand to work his will. If this should be the case, the situation would almost certainly issue in the destruction of humanity. It could be that, in this final outburst of evil, God will permit the human race to find out through terminal experience just what serving the devil really means. See the somewhat lengthy discussion of this in "The Mystery of Redemption," pp. 121-143, "When the final judgment is nigh, the power of evil will gather force again."(F43)

Verse 8

and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.

And shall come forth to deceive the nations … At the time indicated here, Satan will do exactly what he did in the pre-Christian world, that is, organize all mankind into one vast, sprawling, interlocking network of evil. This shows that Satan’s power to deceive was not altered by his imprisonment and limitation. Wherever and whenever people are willing to work the works of wickedness, Satan will promote and organize their activities. It was the word of God which broke his powerful stranglehold upon the ancient world; and when people turn away from the word of God, their old nemesis will again seize the whole world. Something resembling that terrible eventuality seems to be indicated here.

Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war … These names and symbols of all the enemies of God’s people, as their usage in Ezekiel surely indicates, do not represent any particular earthly states, but all the forces of wickedness. See Ezekiel 35—40. "Gog and Magog, in Jewish thought, carne to stand for everything that is against God."(F44)

Together to the war … This final "war" against God is exactly the parallel of the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16), another example of the parallelism in this prophecy, both being descriptions of the end, rather, times immediately prior to the final judgment. Earle pointed out that certain millennialists distinguish between these accounts, apply one before, the other after, the millennium; but they are parallel accounts of but one event. As Wilcock noted, "The invitation to the birds (Revelation 19:17) is also thought to be before the millennium; but in Ezekiel 39:17 ff, from whence the imagery is taken, their invitation was to "pick the bones’ of Gog."(F45) Again, this indicates parallelism in these recapitulations.

Satan will remain "completely bound," as far as the righteous are concerned, even to the very end;’ but, with the near disappearance of righteousness from the earth as the end approaches, there will nevertheless be, as far as the whole world is concerned, an effective "loosing of Satan." This is indicated in the next verse.

The number of whom is as the sand of the sea … At the time here indicated, the righteous of earth are an insignificant number; but the hosts of evil will be innumerable. But when Satan is loosed, the same thing will happen that always happens when Satan has a free hand. When the demons were permitted to enter the swine, remember what happened? A similar thing shall happen with humanity when Satan has a free hand. "Then shall come the end" (Matthew 24:14).

After the gospel work among the nations has been done, after the last soul that it can save has been saved, then the final moment has arrived for the settlement with all the monstrous anti-Christian opposition to God.(F46)

Verse 9

And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them.

And they went up over the breadth of the earth … All of the world will be swallowed up by the empire of evil; and their vicious hatred of the truth and of Christ will not rest as long as any souls, no matter how few, are true believers in Christ and his holy religion. Therefore, they will move to destroy utterly even the remnant of believers left. That is the picture when the judgment falls.

And encompassed the camp of the saints about … This has no reference whatever to some locale where Christians will be encamped, as in an army, and barricaded against evil. No! It just means that the devil will finally take it in hand to destroy, utterly and finally, the last vestiges of truth and righteousness upon the earth. Fire from heaven will be God’s answer to that decision on the part of Satan. Ladd, and many others, envision the literal Jerusalem as the earthly scene of this event;(F47) but there is no basis in the bible for such a notion.

And the beloved city … This symbolizes the true church of God, certainly not literal Jerusalem which crucified Christ and both earned and received the outpouring of the wrath of God upon her as a consequence. This racial thing about literal Jews that gets into millennial calculations is as unchristian and unreasonable as any nonsense ever advocated. Long ago, God thundered the edict from heaven that there is "NO DISTINCTION" between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:22; Romans 10:12), and the Christian is gullible indeed who allows himself to accept any theory of "distinction" regarding Jews, Gentiles, or any other races of mankind. It is just as Scriptural to suppose that God has separate plans for the Albanians, the Laps, the North American Indians, or the Japanese, as it is to imagine that racial Jews shall enter in any special manner into God’s plans for the future.

And fire came down from heaven and devoured them … Not much of a "war" was it? God spake, and it was done. God settled the full account with evil in a single fiery blast.

Verse 10

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

And the devil … was cast into the lake of fire … This is the hell of which Jesus so often spoke, and concerning which he revealed it is prepared, not for man, but for Satan and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Alas, men also shall suffer therein, but God never intended that it should be so. Christ spread wide his bleeding hands upon the Cross in order to prevent any man from ever suffering the punishment of the damned; but people who choose to ignore this must assume the full responsibility for the consequence of their failure.

Revelation has already clearly recounted how the beast and the false prophet were destroyed in the same lake of fire, but we are not at liberty to suppose these are three separate events. "The fact that John saw the beast destroyed before he saw Satan bound has nothing to do with the order in which these things actually happen."(F48) It is clear enough that the final judgment is the occasion when all of these things will occur. Read Matthew 25:31-46, which is the best possible commentary on what the apostle wrote here.

Shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Here is the doctrine of endless punishment, a teaching visible throughout the New Testament. "Whether the fire is construed literally or figuratively is immaterial: the lesson taught is intense and endless punishment; and no more impressive emblem could have been used."(F49) This clause positively identifies this scene as the final judgment, an event already depicted six times previously in this prophecy. See chapter introduction for a list of these.

Beginning back at Revelation 12:1, we witnessed in the vision the appearance of the dragon (Satan), the sea-beast (perverted government), and the land-beast (perverted religion); and then there came successive judgments in which these three were destroyed in reverse order, thus bringing to an end the period of the Christian age. All evil will ultimately fall before the will of God.

All that remains now is, "to show forth the surpassing glory of the saints in their eternal home, and thus to bring the book to a conclusion. This, therefore, is the theme of the remaining two chapters."(F50)

Verse 11

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

And I saw a great white throne … Is this God, or Christ? We should probably read it as Christ, to correspond with Matthew 25:31-46, and also with the truth that God has committed judgment unto the Son of man (John 5:22).

From whose face the earth and the heaven fled away … Note that very similar things were written in Revelation 6:14; Revelation 16:20; Revelation 18:21; Revelation 19:20, making it emphatic that this is the same occasion as the one in view in those passages also.

It is merely an idle quibble to dispute whether God, or Christ, is on the throne. Paul said, "God will judge" (Acts 17:31), and also that, "Christ will judge" (2 Timothy 4:1). "The unity of the Father and the Son is such that there is no difficulty in ascribing the action of one to the other."(F51)

The removal of earth and heaven at the final judgment are indicated here, and this harmonizes with the New Testament throughout. See 2 Peter 3:6-13; Matthew 5:17; Hebrews 12:27, etc. The destruction of the earth is an event scheduled for the occasion of the Second Advent of Christ.

Verse 12

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works.

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne … The general resurrection of all people is assumed to have already occurred at this point in the vision. The dead are there before the throne, standing and waiting for their sentence. The hour has struck which Jesus promised in John 5:28-29. There are no absentees; all are present. "This is the only bodily resurrection that the Scriptures know."(F52) The entirety of all people will be there, even the living, who will be "changed" for the occasion (1 Corinthians 15:51).

"And the books were opened"? What are these? We may not presume to give any complete answer, but the Scriptures do give some clues.


One of Alexander Campbell’s great sermons was based upon this text, the books he mentioned being:

I. The Book of Nature.

A. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalms 19).

B. "His everlasting power and divinity are perceived through the things that are made" (Romans 1:20).

C. "He left not himself without witness … he did good, gave rains and fruitful seasons, etc." (Acts 14:17).

D. But there is no such thing as forgiveness in nature. The book of nature does not reveal Christ.

II. The Book of Remembrance.

A. "A book of remembrance was written before him" (Malachi 3:16).

B. "Note it in a book that it may be for the time to come" (Isaiah 30:8-9).

C. "The Lord will bring to light the hidden things" (1 Corinthians 4:5).

D. "Nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest" (Luke 8:17; Romans 2:16). Note: There are some things that God will not remember (Jeremiah 31:31-35). What the record books contain is determined by what God decides to remember and what he decides to forget.(F53)

III. The Old Testament. The great, continuing witness of all ages is the Bible. The Old Testament continues to be the most impressive witness of the deity and Godhead of Christ in that it establishes his credentials historically for ages prior to the Incarnation.

A. "Search the Scriptures … for these are they that testify of me" (John 5:34).

B. "All things must needs be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44).

C. "And the Scriptures cannot be broken" (John 10:35).

D. "O, ye fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" (Luke 24:25, Matthew 22:29).

IV. The New Testament

A. "These sayings of mine" (Matthew 7:24; Matthew 7:26).

B. "Whatsoever I commanded you" (Matthew 28:18-20).

C. "My word shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:48).

D. "The word of the Lord (the gospel) endureth forever" (1 Pet. 1:35; Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 2:3; 2 Peter 3:2; John 6:68).

V. The Record of Every Man’s Works. All of the sacred writers make it clear that people shall be judged according to their works. Modern theology is very uncomfortable in the light of this truth; but the record of every person’s deeds will surely enter into the judgment which he shall receive.

A. Jesus taught this (John 5:29; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 6:46-49; Matthew 12:27, etc.).

B. Paul taught this (Romans 2:6 ff; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 6:1, etc.).

C. Peter taught this (Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 3:8-11; 2 Peter 1:10).

D. James taught this (Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20; Revelation 2:24; Revelation 2:26, etc.).

E. The apostle John taught this (1 John 2:4-5; 1 John 3:7-8; 1 John 3:22-24, etc.).

F. This prophecy teaches this (Revelation 2:5; Revelation 3:15; Revelation 20:13; Revelation 14:13, etc.).

VI. The Book of Life.

A. Philippians 4:3.

B. Revelation 3:15; Revelation 13:8.

C. Revelation 20:12; Revelation 20:15.

D. Revelation 21:27.

Verse 13

And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works.

The sea gave up the dead … Perhaps this is included "to show the universality of the resurrection."(F54) Some explain it otherwise, but this appears to be the best view of it. This general resurrection of all mankind is the only literal resurrection mentioned in the word of God; and the thought that both the wicked and the just shall rise simultaneously is too often expressed in Scripture for any student of the Bible to be deceived into believing that there are to be two resurrections separated by a thousand years, or seven resurrections, as in Scofield Bible, or any other "multiple" resurrections.

And death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them … "Hades" here means "the grave"; and "death and Hades" are therefore synonymous, being personified in this passage, as indicated by Revelation 20:14.

Verse 14

And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire.

And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire … "Death and Hades, though abstractions, are here personified." This still casts no light upon exactly what the lake of fire is; because no literal fire could burn up the grave, personified. The first resurrection is the rising to spiritual life in conversion to Christ, and the second resurrection is the final, physical resurrection of all who ever lived on earth. Ryrie thought that, "Only the wicked are raised here";(F55) but such a thought is nullified by the next verse: "Death is the last enemy that shall be destroyed, as in Paul’s theology" (1 Corinthians 15:26; 1 Corinthians 15:54),(F56) leaving no further obstacle to the eternal joy of the saints of God.

Cast into the lake of fire … "This is not annihilation, but separation forever from God and all good."(F57) Repugnant as this doctrine is for many, a believer may not deny it. There is nothing illogical about it. Let two prior facts be accepted, i.e., that the soul is imperishable, and that God cannot finally accommodate to evil, and the logical necessity of such a place as this is evident. The revelation of it should always be understood in the light of the truth that it was never meant for people (Matthew 25:41), and that Jesus our Lord suffered the agonies of the Cross for the one purpose of saving every man from it. Then, it is clear that the existence of it in no way denies the love and goodness of God.

Verse 15

And if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.

And if any was not found written in the book of life … The mention of the righteous in this shows that both the good and the evil participate in the resurrection of the final day, those whose names were written there, and those whose names were not written there. Otherwise, there could have been no reason for using "if" in this verse. Here it is evident that the New Testament contains no promise of any second chance after death.

In this series of commentaries, the book of life has often been mentioned; and here the absolute necessity of every man’s being inscribed in it in order to be saved is dogmatically stated. Therefore, out of regard to all men, we shall declare how one may so be written.

In Matthew 10:32, Jesus promised that all who confess him will themselves be confessed by Jesus in heaven "before God and the angels." In Matthew 16:16, is the record of the first man ever to confess Christ; and significantly, Jesus then and there upon that occasion, confessed that man, Peter, using exactly the same formula Peter had used in his confession of Christ. From this we have concluded that the writing of one’s name in the book of life occurs upon the occasion of his confessing Christ and being baptized into him. Certainly, Christians have their names written there during their sojourn as Christians upon the earth (Philippians 4:3); and it is most logical to believe that it is written at the very beginning of that Christian life. Once inscribed in the book of life, one’s name will remain there eternally, except in the case of his apostasy, in which event it will be "blotted out" (Revelation 3:5).

"This verse is a solemn reiteration of what has been asserted twice before in Revelation 20:12-13."(F58)

John, having carried his readers through seven successive periods, each culminating in the final judgment, his purpose must have been clear to all. He was giving in each vision a view of the church’s life between the two Advents, each scene being a recapitulation of one and the same chronological event.

1. In scene I, the church struggled against wars, famine and disease.

2. In scene II, the struggle was against natural disasters and false doctrine.

3. In scene III, there was the struggle against the dragon, the sea-beast and the land-beast.

4. In scene IV, the struggle with the harlot is given.

5. In scene V, the struggle with the harlot is given in greater detail.

6. In scene VI, the struggle with the scarlet beast in the phase of his ten horns, or the eighth head, is seen.

7. And in scene VII, the final victory over the devil himself is depicted.

This type of pageantry cannot indicate that consecutive historical events are depicted in order. All of the church’s enemies are in all of the visions. Although the focus changes, being first upon one, then upon another, etc., yet the dragon, the godless city, the sea-beast, the land-beast, the great harlot, the ten kings, the false prophet, etc., all continue to the end of time. No one of them is ever completely out of the total picture. Their operations are coextensive and simultaneous with the entire Christian dispensation; and all are thrown into the "lake of fire" at the same time "alive."

But despite all this, the victory is glorious and complete. John never allows us to forget it even for a moment. Almost every terrible scene is either begun, concluded or interrupted with a marvelous vision of the rejoicing saints in glory, these recurring scenes being injected proleptically to keep up the faith and the patience of the saved. In some ways, this is the most glorious book in the Bible.

All of the struggles having been recounted, John will devote the final two chapters to a discussion of heaven, the eternal home of the redeemed. There is absolutely nothing like these final two chapters in the entire record of human thought. The scholars, some of them, have vainly tried to find Revelation in pagan myth or folklore; but it is not there. Only the word of God could have given us this prophecy.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/revelation-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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