Revelation 20 comes in the middle of the final set of visions that complete the book of Revelation. The first part of chapter 19 shows the great celebration of the Lamb’s marriage following the fall of Babylon the Great in chapter 18. Then comes the battle that’s not really a battle where the rider on the white horse (Jesus, crucified and resurrected) captures two of his main enemies, the Beast and the False Prophet, and dispatches them (without an actual battle) to the lake of fire.
The book concludes in chapters 21 and 22 with a vision of the New Jerusalem, the city of genuine peace and healing that has been in the background from the beginning of Revelation. Tears are wiped away never to return, and ceaseless celebration and praise of the Lamb and the One on the throne ensues.
In between, in chapter 20, come a series of difficult to understand visions that complete the judgment and destruction of the powers of evil (here the Dragon, the power behind Babylon, the Beast, and the False Prophet) and that portray the judgment of all of humanity and the final destruction of Death and Hades.
I will suggest that these visions (along with the rest of Revelation, actually) should not be read strictly in terms of chronology. One of the interpretive approaches that especially makes the visions in chapter 20 confusing is to assume that this chapter presents events that will happen in the future after everything else that we have seen—rather than seeing this chapter as a kind of recapitulation of some of the main themes from earlier in the book. That is, Revelation 20 is also best understood as a picture of present reality. And it presents a theology of judgment that is actually quite different that what is usually assumed to be characteristic of Revelation.
Chapter 19 concludes with a gruesome picture of the Rider “killing” the armies of the Beast and then the birds “gorging” themselves on the armies flesh. This vision is followed in 20:1 by one of John’s standard uses of “then I saw” that emphasizes both that there is a change of scene coming up and that there is continuity between what was just seen and what is coming next. But the “next” should not be understood in terms of historical chronology, rather simply as the order in which John is shown these various aspects of his present reality.
One of God’s angels enters the scene and takes the Dragon, identified as “the Devil and Satan,” and binds it and throws it into the pit which is locked and sealed. This imprisonment lasts for “a thousand years.” We know that the Dragon is the power behind the Beast and False Prophet, Babylon’s animating spirit. And we know that when the “battle” of the Beast and his armies against the Lamb actually happens, there is no battle. The enemies of the Lamb are simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire. So, it’s not surprising that the power behind the Beast also is simply captured. We may see the capturing of the Dragon as the reason why the Beast could be so easily defeated. Their power actually cannot stand in face of the Lamb.
That is, as with everything else that is mentioned beginning with 6:1, the fate of the Dragon must be seen in light of the victory already won, described in Revelation 5, by the faithful Lamb. The sense here is the Dragon’s lack of power echoes the picture in the Gospel of Mark of the “strong man” who is bound, easily, by the power of Jesus. Jesus’s power over demons points ahead to his power over the Dragon. The “thousand years” clearly is a symbolic number, though its precise meaning is unclear. Reading it in light of the rest of Revelation, probably the best interpretation is to see it as another symbol for the time we live in, historical time. It is equivalent to the 3 1/2 years, 42 months, and 1260 days that are the time of human existence on earth. This existence is marked by sin, suffering, and brokenness—as well as by faithfulness, healing, and celebration.
The purpose of this account of the Dragon’s binding is that “he would deceive the nations no more until the thousand years were ended” (20:3). This statement does not make sense if we take it literally. Precisely what characterizes the thousand years is that the Dragon is indeed deceiving the nations—that’s why it is a time of sin, suffering, and brokenness. Maybe the point, though, is not that this reference to the 1,000 years states precisely what will happen so much as giving the purpose of the binding. The Dragon is bound in order that it not deceive—but the trouble is, it doesn’t actually stay bound, even during the thousand years. When that time is up, we are told, “he must be let out for a little while.” The Dragon being “let out” might symbolize the sad reality that “the nations” have continued to give the Dragon power even while he is rendered powerless (“bound”) by Jesus’s revelation. But being “for a little while” is a reminder that the Dragon is not an inherent part of creation, can be resisted, and even rendered powerless when people don’t worship it.
The next paragraph, verses 4 through 6, contain more difficult to understand imagery. We are helped if we read these verses in light of the rest of Revelation and understand that here, too, we have a brief restatement of what has already been shown in previous chapters, but now with the special emphasis on the fate of the Dragon. This paragraph focuses on those who have resisted the Dragon and the Beast and how crucial their witness has been and will be.
These who “had not worshiped the Beast” are the same as “countless multitude who were given white robes” in chapter 7, the “two witnesses” of chapter 12, and the “144,000” of chapter 14. It’s mistake to take the imagery here too literally and assume that in some direct sense John has in mind two classes of saved people, the martyrs and everyone else. Rather, the point seems more to be simply to highlight how important the witness to the way of Jesus is in resisting the Dragon—for everyone. “Those who had been beheaded” is more a metaphor meant to inspire all kinds of resistance (certainly possibly including literal death), with the emphasis on the “testimony to Jesus and . . . the word of God” that leads to a refusal to “worship the Beast or its image.” This is John’s expectations of all his readers, not just a special class of martyrs.
John is challenging all his readers to be part of this multitude that “reigns with Christ” during this “thousand years”—that is, during historical time, this time we live in now of struggle and oppression (precisely the same as the earlier “3 1/2 years”). The point here is analogous to what we meant by the earlier references to worship amidst the times of struggle (see chapters 7 and 14, for example). “Reigning with Christ” is about witnessing to his way with power and effectiveness amidst the struggle. Followers of the Lamb are “reigning” when they remain faithful even amidst suffering and in face of the hostility of the Powers. In doing so, they are “priests” who mediate to the nations (including the “kings of the earth”) the message of the Lamb’s victory through persevering love.
The reference to “thrones” in 20:4, inhabited by those who “were given authority to judge” is a bit cryptic. We are sure who it is that is sitting on the thrones here. One point seems to be that the Dragon, who is the power behind emperors and kings of the earth those those whose “judgment” resulted in the “beheading” of those who witnessed to Jesus, is the one being judged here. That is, what happens here is a reversal; the judging that matters is a reversal of how “authority” works among the nations. It remains to be seen what the consequences of the judging will be. In this paragraph, though, it is clear that those who the Dragon’s minions judged to be worthy of execution are vindicated in the authentic judgment.
The third paragraph of chapter 20 repeats the account of 19:11-21 in almost every detail except here the role of the Dragon (“Satan” [v. 7], “the devil” [v.10]) is emphasized. The “battle” (that turns out not to be a battle) in chapter 19 comes at the end of the story of the Beast attempting to destroy the Lamb and the Lamb’s people—here it’s after the 1,000 years has ended. In chapter 19, “the kings of the earth with their armies” gather for battle in a continuation of the picture first mentioned in 16:14 (“the kings of the whole world [assembled] for battle on the great day of God the Almighty”)—here Satan gathers nations “from the four corners of the earth . . . for battle.”
Then, the key parallel is that there turns out not to be a battle. In chapter 19, the Beast and his False Prophet are simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire (19:20). Here, “the devil” (i.e., the Dragon) is who is captured and thrown into the lake of fire (20:10). That is, “the devil who deceived them”—the devil who deceived the nations and their kings to trust in his way and to oppose the way of the Lamb.
We have reason, because of the close parallels, to perceive in the account in chapter 20 the same dynamic of victory over the Powers that chapter 19 presents—the Lamb’s shed blood prior to the “battle” provides the only needed basis for victory. Going back to chapters 4 and 5, the faithfulness of the Lamb to the path of persevering love is in fact the most powerful force in the universe and provides the bases for fulfilling the purpose of human history. In the end, the final expression of the “Lamb’s war” is that the Dragon himself is captured and sent to the lake of fire to join the Beast and the False Prophet “forever and ever.”
The capture and destruction of the Dragon is crucial for what follows as Revelation comes to a close. The power that the Dragon wields is deception, that’s all. When the conflict actually comes to a head, the Dragon (like the Beast and the False Prophet) is simply captured, seemingly without a struggle and sent to its end. This is a powerful metaphor, John wants to know, for the source of the power that matters in our world. The power of truth, the power of the Lamb, trumps the seemingly all-powerful Dragon whose only actual power is the power to deceive.
Hence, the motif that defines the book as a whole—the revelation of Jesus Christ. How is the Dragon to be defeated? Through following the Lamb wherever he goes. Which is to say, the Dragon is defeated when people see that love is truthful and that domination and nationalism and materialism and fear and violence are not truthful. It’s a simple thing—simply learn to see what is for what it is.
The meaning of “Dragon” is not spelled out in Revelation. Is this meant to be seen as an actual personal being? Or is it more a personification of cultural dynamics that corrupt human beings by causing people to trust in empires and ideologies and institutions of injustice and brokenness for their ultimate reality? The “Dragon” another way of talking about dynamics that foster idolatry? When the Dragon is thrown in the lake of fire and tortured, is God punishing an actual personal being or is this rather a symbolic way of portraying the death of ideologies and values and spiritualities that foster alienation and death? Maybe what follows the end of the Dragon can help us discern how to answer these questions.
The next “then I saw” (20:11) reminds us that what follows presupposes what we have just seen. The “judgment” of 20:11-15 happens with the Dragon out of the picture; the great deceiver’s web of deceit has been broken. The “one on the throne” is great, “the earth and heaven fled from his presence” (20:11). We must remember, though, that the one on the throne is closely identified with the Lamb (see especially chapters 4 and 5). The fleeing away of earth and heaven is not to be understood as a response of terror to a violent and retributive judge.
The one on the throne operates throughout Revelation in harmony with the persevering love of the Lamb—it is that love that opens the great scroll of chapter 5 and that leads to the New Jerusalem. The “fleeing” here is not related to judgment as punitive justice but, most probably, to what is actually the healing of earth and heaven that involves the disappearance of the brokenness and alienation that had been fostered by the Dragon.
The use of the two books as the bases for judgment is an ingenious, if complicated, touch. Notice the first book, the one that contains record of human beings’ “works,” is not named. It is of secondary importance, in service to the second book, that is named: “the book of life.” The basic message is a reiteration of what we have been told earlier in Revelation. The default stance of God is to welcome everyone who wants to be there into God’s presence. Everyone is in the book of life unless they act in such a way as to lead the “blotting out” of their name (3:5). The first book, then, is not a list of good works that must be sufficient in order for one to overcome their default exclusion from paradise. Rather, it’s more likely that it tells of the active acts of hostility toward peace and justice that would lead to having one’s name “blotted out.”
Still, let’s remember that the main dynamic behind such acts of hostility was the Dragon’s deception. We surely best understand this final judgment as reflecting God’s awareness of the true status of human hearts once the deceiver’s deceptions have been taken away. The effect of this picture is to suggest a distinction between human agency freely expressed and the powerful influence of the fallen powers that try to separate us from God’s love (Romans 8). When the deceiver, the fueling energy behind the systems of domination, is taken away, people are freed to see God and the Lamb for who they truly are.
We also need to think of the notion of “judgment” here in light of the overall trajectory of the book. “Judgment” is a term that links with “justice.” We could say that the purpose of God’s judgment is to bring true justice to bear on the human condition. How do we understand God’s justice? I would suggest our starting point should be the notion that God’s justice has to do with God making things right—that is, God’s justice is about God bringing healing, reconciliation, the restoration of relationships.
Nonetheless, the picture here does leave open the possibility that even with the Deceiver out of the picture, some human beings may still truly be blotted out the book of life and doomed to join the Dragon and his minions in the lake of fire. I understand this possibility to mainly be a metaphorical way of emphasizing human freedom—we can choose against God. But will we?
We need to look at Revelation 21 before responding to that question. But let’s remember that the human beings throughout Revelation who surely are most likely to have their names blotted out are the kings of the earth.
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Ted, the dragon is bound by the faithful witness of Messiah Jesus, wouldn’t you agree? So the period of the binding starting with the life and death of Messiah Jesus and continues through our time today.
I see a much stronger message in this image than what you’ve written. Of course, deception remains the primary tool of the nations as they pursue to dominate their citizens and other nations. They have not yet been transformed, and so they continue to reach for their most reliable tools. And deception still works to a degree, but never in an enduring and morally legitimate way. The faithful witness of Messiah Jesus has shown a light on all the pretensions of the nations and exposed them all as self-serving and hypocritical. As a result, deception does not have staying power and the power that it creates quickly erodes and deconstructs.
This text from Rev. 20:3 is similar to the great text in Colossians 2:15 where the writer says that Messiah Jesus has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them”. Obviously, this too has not happened in an absolute sense (just as these past 2000 years have not been lacking in deception by governing powers). But it has happened and is happening in the sense that the moral high ground has been claimed for all time by Jesus and all other pretensions to legitimate power pale by comparison.
In my book, Water from Another Time, I write about this text from Rev. 20:3, its prominence in the teachings of Dutch Anabaptist writer Pieter Jansz Twisck, and its vital role in helping me comprehend life as a Jesus follower while living as a citizen within that greatest of all deceivers, the U.S.-led empire.
Speaking of which, we have witnessed in these recent days with regard to Syria another example of how short-lived is the legitimacy of the empire’s deceptions. Chris Hedges’ blog post of today (September 16, 2013) lays it out powerfully.
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Ted, so you wrote the commentary on this chapter two years ago? It fascinates me still.
There is something dynamic in this mix of the chaining of Satan, thrones, reigning/judging, martyrs and relief from Satan’s deceptions, something that is meant to be very encouraging and empowering for Jesus-followers in times of duress. You are right to say that the 1,000 years is our time and point out that the power of deception continues, but the text insists that the blood of the martyrs checks this power, limits it, undermines it, reigns over it. This suggests to me that Jesus did literally change the trajectory of history by the power of his sacrifice. There is always the temptation to think of this in all-or-nothing terms (and thus doubt that any change occurred), but the text does not make that mistake. The martyrs reign with Jesus during the current era of history; their witness is powerful enough to delegitimize the pretensions of empire and thereby accelerate its demise. Thanks be to God!
I think we must acknowledge that the text recognizes a special role for the martyrs within history. No, not “two classes of saved people,” but those who reign with Jesus and those who only benefit from that reign.