Fire falling from the sky. A massive tsunami. A desolate city. These are the images we most often associate with the end of the world. Whatever comes to mind for you, no doubt it has been shaped in large part by literature, art, and of course, Hollywood. Humans have a morbid curiosity about the apocalypse, as well as a tendency to explore its themes in our stories, songs, and art.
For the average person, it’s usually more fun to watch an apocalyptic movie than to read the source material. Having said that, I have an uneasy feeling that movies like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 hit closer to home now than they did upon their first release. The COVID-19 lockdowns may have you feeling like you’ve lived through your own personal apocalypse. It might come as a surprise to you, then, to discover that one of the important end-time scenes in the book of Revelation doesn’t involve any of the above ideas—but a pit, a chain, and the devil himself.
Revelation 20:1–6 describes what scholars call the millennium or the 1,000 years, and it’s bookended by two dramatic scenes. At the close of Revelation 19, we see the triumph of Jesus over the beast and the kings of the earth. After the millennium, in the latter part of Revelation 20, the devil makes his final stand and is subsequently defeated and cast (along with his followers) into the lake of fire. These two scenes have been much of the inspiration for Armageddon in our modern imagination, but in between these events sits the oft-overlooked millennium. Today, we’re going to dive into that section of Revelation 20 and discover how it can unlock a new way to think about the apocalypse.
Verses 1 and 2 say, “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”
Right off the bat, we’re confronted with some striking imagery: an angel holding the key to the abyss who locks up the devil for 1,000 years. What does it all mean?
The good news is that this moment described in verses 1 through 6 marks the end of the devil’s reign on earth. I’ve found it helpful to frame this scene in the context of one of the most fundamental forces in the universe: freedom.
I’ve been asked many times by well-meaning people, “Why does God allow evil?” Their implied question is, “After all, if He was truly loving, wouldn’t He intervene and put an end to suffering once and for all?”
Though it sounds nice initially, the answer to this implied question is simply no because true love necessitates freedom. Freedom is, of course, a double-edged sword. The freedom God gives you and me must also extend to those who choose to abuse it. The power to only do good, with the threat of divine intervention looming over us if we slip up, is not true freedom. It might be a bitter pill for us to swallow, but the fact remains that though freedom risks the possibility of abuse, love must also honor that freedom, regardless of the consequences.
For all of human history, the powers ofdarkness have posed an existential threat to humanity. From Eden to the Tower of Babel to Babylon, their mode of operation has remained the same. The devil and his fallen angelic host have tempted humans to seize power for themselves, with little regard for those at the bottom, ultimately seeking to redefine good and evil. In their pride, humans believed themselves to be the masters of their own destiny (Genesis 3:4–7) when, in reality, the dark powers behind the scenes (Ephesians 6:12) have been calling the shots the whole time.
For thousands of years, the devil and his forces have had a never-ending supply of humans to tempt and torment, but after the triumphal victory of Jesus (Revelation 19), they are suddenly alone. The image here echoes the promise given to Isaiah thousands of years ago: “In that day the Lord will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below. They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon; they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days” (Isaiah 24:21, 22). Though evil is allowed to persist for a time, eventually, it will be permanently restrained.
But this bad news for the devil is good news for Jesus’ faithful followers.
Revelation 20:4 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 came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
At the very moment that the enemy loses his power, those who have, for the sake of the good news, lost their lives (the Greek term is broader than “beheaded,” probably just meaning “executed”) are elevated to be rulers alongside the Messiah.1 They suffered because of Jesus, in the same way as Jesus, and will, in turn, be glorified just as Jesus was (see Philippians 2:5–11).
But they don’t merely receive exaltation and the responsibility to “judge” because of their self-sacrifice; there is deep restoration happening in this scene, and we’re all invited. It’s bringing us back to where it all started: to the Garden of Eden and to vocation.
When we think of Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden, many of us assume it points to the role of the gardener or caretaker. However, true restoration takes us beyond this idea. For example: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’ ” (Genesis 1:26).
The psalmist, reflecting on the splendor of creation, writes, “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Psalm 8:5, 6).
When we consider these passages, we begin to see God’s original intent for the human race. We were not created, as ancient Mesopotamians assumed, to be servants to the gods. Nor are we, as some modern thinkers believe, the result of a cosmic accident. To view humanity through the lens of the biblical narrative is to see us as intentionally created by God—formed in His image—a God who has generously shared His glory and honor with us (to quote the psalmist) so that we could be His corulers over creation.
Humanity’s job was not to simply weed gardens or plant trees. We are mirror images of our Creator, and our vocation as a species is to reflect His majesty, creativity, and love. We were created to rule and reign alongside God Himself, and during the millennium, God restores the status and vocation of His redeemed sons and daughters. Those who have held on to Jesus and who have lived their lives as “new creation” people, even to the point of death, are restored to rulership alongside Jesus. Scholars have theorized that during these 1,000 years, glorified humans will be given time to explore God’s plan of salvation and see how God has dealt with humanity during the new creation project. During this time, God is vindicated, and His plan is confirmed to have been good, just, and compassionate.
Ultimately, the millennium invites you and me into the story of God’s redemption. It is a story where personal choice matters. Freedom is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, but as the saying goes, “Freedom isn’t free.” Our choices matter and will have consequences far into the future. The good news is this: If you choose to trust Jesus, you can know that evil will be dealt with once and for all. The future has already been written. Jesus has won, and death will not get the final say.
1. This group is probably the same one mentioned in Revelation 6:9–11 and Revelation 14:13.
Jesse Herford is a pastor and associate editor for the Australia and New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times®.