The Book of Revelations -- the final segment of the New Testament -- is a particularly contentious and divisive section of the Bible; considerable ambiguity exists surrounding whether to interpret the scripture literally or metaphorically, and the episodes described often seem especially fantastical. Moreover, the author's rhetoric leaves room for multiple interpretations, resulting in the reader drawing unverifiable interpretations. Acknowledging the caveat that there is no available method for arriving at a conclusive meaning for the Book of Revelations, this essay nevertheless adopts the literal, pre-millennial viewpoint, which states that the second coming of Christ occurs before the millennium. There are multiple reasons for this stance, each of which will be further elucidated throughout this paper; first, there is no reason to believe that what was written by John the Apostle was written in vain; second, the use of what appears as metaphorical or symbolic language does not preclude a literal interpretation; third, it most strictly coheres with the devout obedience to God promulgated by the earlier books.
Interpretations of the millennium section of the Book of Revelations are categorized into three sections: premillennialism, which is described above; postmillennialism, which portends that the second coming of Christ occurs after the millennium, and amillennialism, which stipulates that the millennium narrative is a metaphor that is not to be interpreted literally. The Book of Revelations is alleged to have been written by John the Apostle, while he was living in exile toward the end of the first century A.D. A close reading of the context in which it was written and the actual language of the millennial segment (Revelation 20:1-6) reveals the efficacy of the premillennial viewpoint.
The Book of Revelations was written at a time of crisis, with war and other turmoil subsuming the land, necessitating the second-coming of Christ. It is believed that after rectifying the crimes that took place in Israel by the Church, Christ turned his attention to the spiritual opposition. Per the scripture, after his second coming Christ rules peacefully for a 'Golden Millennium' in which Satan is imprisoned and worldwide peace is enjoyed. Afterward, Satan is released and wreaks havoc and warfare throughout the land. Finally, Satan is destroyed and God delivers his judgment and the eternal state follows.
The millennium episode of the Book of Revelations (20:1-6) opens with the description "And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain" (20:1).
Almost certainly, the angel is a servant of Christ; the key symbolizes a transformative event about to take place, while the chain denotes the device used to keep Satan imprisoned. Instead of restricting itself to a specific geographic location, John takes care to establish geographical ambiguity that universalizes the meaning of the action, so that it is applicable not just to those in Israel. Meanwhile, the chain represents a device utilized for warfare and violence (which was prevalent at the time) but redirected toward exterminating violence. Passage 20:2-3, "He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent…and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until after the thousand years were ended" similarly manages to avoid any geographical specificity. For example, the exact location of the Abyss is never disclosed, lending credence to the believability of the passage and the universality of the book as a whole. By emphasizing that the impetus for locking Satan up was to keep him from deceiving the nations, John denotes how Satan did not exist as an actual body but rather as a force that compelled its followers toward dishonesty (the embodiment of Satan as a dragon -- a fictional species -- reinforces the figures allegorical, rather than physical, existence.) However, while Satan is not a physical being, this should not be used as the basis for claiming that everything written in the Book of Revelations is a metaphor and not to be firmly believed, as the amillenialists declare. Indeed, critics of the premillennial stance often emphasize the fantastical nature of the millennium passage; however, there is actually nothing thus far that is outrageous enough so as not to be discredited, provided that one subscribes to the doctrines explicated in the other areas of the New Testament.
As Chapter 20 continues, certain claims do arise that are mutually exclusive with regard to material from other Gospels. In 20:4, the author (John) says
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years had ended.)
This passage is one that is typically employed by those discredit premillennialism. This is largely because there also are other judgments surrounding Satan. However, the fact that Satan appears in several episodes within the Bible should not discredit his inclusion in the Book of Revelation. Rather, Satan exists as a spiritual (rather than corporeal) threat, one whose influence affects those residing in the physical world. The fact that the Abyss is never ascribed an actual location reinforces how Satan's existence is not physical but rather a spiritual force.
One additional area in which the Book of Revelations withholds specificity is through the meaning of the thrones. Most likely, they symbolize the chairs reserved for the members of the Christian Church who Christ overthrows with his arrival. The mentioning of "those who had been beheaded" is thus significant as it suggests those who had been beheaded by the malicious rule of the Christian Church. Instead of claiming that the rhetoric is too ambiguous to have any basis in truth, it is more accurate to examine which specific objects are likely referred to through such allegedly unclear diction.
To this end, it is important to acknowledge that the Book of Revelations was not written in a vacuum; the author wrote at a time before the novel, when a poetic form was the privileged rhetorical style. Indeed, the recurring use of the "I" pronoun throughout (immediately established in 20:1 with the statement "I saw an angel" suggests a poetic form that, while not endeavoring to fabricate events, nevertheless adopts a circuitous rhetorical style that can be misunderstood as fiction.) In his book The Days of Vengeance, David Chilton discredits the truth value of the Book of Revelations, claiming that the use of the personal pronoun in phrases such as "and I saw" (20:1) suggests that the narrator may be hallucinating or engaging in fictional storytelling.
However, while the Book of Revelations was intended to describe a set of events that took place, it was written prior to the more precise, journalistic prose characterizing modern-day expository writing. It is unfair to criticize the validity of the account described by John the Apostle since there is obviously no contemporary storytelling tradition with which to compare it. It is therefore best to accept the account on its terms, acknowledging that while it is possible that the account was fabricated, there is no way of proving such a claim.
The specification that Christ reined for one thousand years is also criticized by those subscribing to amillenialism as being an arbitrary figure that has no basis in truth; this is particularly the case since nowhere else in the Bible does it indicate that Christ ruled on Earth for a total of 1000 years. Certainly, there is no way of proving that the one thousand years is a correct total or one that is meant to be specific. However, it is not fair to denigrate the premillenial viewpoint on this basis, since elsewhere in the Book of Revelations the numbers do have specific importance. For example, the seven angels and trials in Chapter 21 have specific numeric importance.
The statement that "They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until after the thousand years had ended" (20:4-5) alludes to the unfolding of two separate resurrections, one for the righteous (particularly the Saints, who are endowed with eternal protection and good fortune) and one for the damned. This passage has also been met with dissent; for example, Riddlebarger argues that the eternal protection granted to the saints with Jesus' arrival does not conform to the later description in 20:7, in which Satan wreaks havoc on everyone, including these very saints: "If true, this millennial apostasy is to a second fall. Not even resurrected and glorified saints are safe from the future wrath of Satan and the unbelieving nations."