Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Thoughts on Theosis: An Intermezzo

Note: During a group discussion regarding Christian sanctification within the context of the book of Hebrews in Sunday school, a relatively new term – “theosis” – was thrown out. As the concept of theosis is more complex than it seems, I have reserved my judgment and deferred my sentence concerning this. But here and now, I shall proffer you a brief treatment of the subject in the following article.

The concept of theosis (θέωσις) is originally an Eastern Orthodox doctrine, and because it is often misunderstood, it is generally frowned upon by scholars from the western tradition. Within Orthodoxy, the terms “deification,” “divinization” and “theosis” are commonly interchangeable, and mean the same thing. Orthodoxy would argue that this is an early patristic doctrine, clearly enunciated by certain early church fathers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Anastasius of Sinai. In fact, Athanasius memorably condensed the entire concept of theosis into an aphorism, “[God] was made man so that we might be made God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 54.3).
We now turn to the definition of theosis within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. According to Reuschling, “Theōsis is a theological concept denoting the goal of salvation to be union with God made possible through a process of deification, or becoming like God or being made divine.”[1]

Here we encounter the elusive phrase “goal of salvation.” Is this “salvation” justification, or is it “salvation” as in sanctification and subsequently glorification? It seems difficult to tease out a distinction between justification and sanctification with the terse phrase.

We ought to ask ourselves, “Are we united to God at justification, or are we being justified by a process of deification?” Furthermore, how are we united with God? The Western Church has no problem with the concept of Christians being “in Christ” or united with Christ at the new birth. As Paul wrote in the epistle to the Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses … In him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (ESV, Ephesians 1:7–14).
Perusing the Westminster Larger Catechism question 69:

Q. 69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A. The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him. (emphasis mine)

It becomes apparent that the Reformed tradition likewise propounds the concept of “union with Christ,” the details of which goes beyond the scope of this brief discourse. But the notion of theosis is more than that. It means that we are being made more divine, hence the term “divinization.”
We must inquire, “Does theosis involve a confounding of ontology between Creator and creature, or some form of absorption into the being of God?” What does Orthodoxy mean when they say that Christians are being deified? The Orthodox Study Bible describes theosis as follows:

“This does not mean we become divine by nature. If we participated in God’s essence, the distinction between God and man would be abolished. What this does mean is that we participate in God’s energy, described by a number of terms in scripture such as glory, love, virtue, and power. We are to become like God by His grace, and truly be His adopted children, but never become like God by nature. … When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Blood and Body of Christ, we partake of the grace of God—His strength, His righteousness, His love—and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.”[2]
In other words, theosis in Orthodoxy does not mean that man become gods in any ontological sense. Rather, it refers to a process whereby Christians via the participation in God’s “energies,” acquire godly characteristics such as “love, virtue and power,” thereby experiencing communion with God and eventually gaining immortality. These can be identified as what evangelicals describe as sanctification and glorification.

Theosis is a central tenet of Eastern Orthodoxy. This doctrine permeates all of Orthodoxy’s teachings on salvation. This terminology has traditionally been repulsive to the Western Church as it may be misconstrued as the assimilation of man’s essence with God’s essence, thereby confounding foundational doctrines such as divine simplicity and the Creator-creature distinction. This is partially due to the fact that the Western Church has never distinguished God’s essence from His energies.
Bartos elucidates, “Yet Eastern theology says very clearly that “becoming god” does not mean an identification with God’s divine nature (essence) but rather something experienced by adoption, by grace, and by imitation. Generally, the theology of the Orthodox Church understands deification as “the religious ideal of Orthodoxy,” and “the central dogma of Orthodoxy.’”[3]

Problems with Theosis
Would I therefore be correct to say that the concept of theosis is innocuously palatable for Reformed theology? Not quite.

Contrariwise, there seems to be some apparently insurmountable difficulties between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism concerning the concept of theosis. Kärkkäinen agrees, “According to the typical textbook wisdom, the main dividing issue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans is the differing interpretation of the doctrine of justification by faith, and the issue between Western and Eastern churches is the irreconcilable breach between understanding salvation in terms of justification and theosis, respectively. Historically, especially Eastern and Western traditions have been considered to be diametrically opposed to each other.”[4]
Allow us to look at these differences in some details. The most serious of these is the lack of emphasis on the distinction between justification and sanctification within Orthodoxy’s doctrine of salvation and theosis. As Fairbairn rightly observes that, “Orthodoxy’s emphasis on deification or sanctification to the virtual exclusion of justification creates serious problems for Western evangelicals.”[5]

The paramount evangelical doctrine of forensic justification of the believer by faith alone arguably distinguishes heterodoxy from mainstream evangelicalism. For Evangelicals, justification is already accomplished for the believer, and is not a status that the believer is in a process of acquiring. In A.D. 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem was convened, which issued the Confession of Dositheus directed against Calvinism and her teachings. The confession clearly repudiated the Protestant formulation of sola fide in Article XIII, which states that, “Man is justified, not by faith alone, but also by works.” It becomes evident why Orthodoxy’s doctrinal formulation on salvation deliberately avoids a distinction between justification and sanctification, with a de-emphasis on forensic justification. What the Eastern Orthodox Church needs to cogitate upon is the doctrine of justification.
Fairbairn is correct when he states that, “Orthodoxy’s failure to distinguish adequately between justification and sanctification and its lack of emphasis on the former is related to its understanding of grace. We have noticed that Eastern Christendom regards grace as the energies of God which are communicated to people and which deify them.”[6]

Eastern Orthodoxy’s understanding of “grace” is a good example of how theology proper (doctrine of God) affects and permeates all of one’s systematic theology, including soteriology. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there is a distinction between God’s essence and energies. The concept of God’s energies is foreign to the Western Church. Therefore, when Orthodoxy preaches that, in theosis, man becomes more divine, it refers to the infusion of God’s energies into man, and not His essence.
So according to Orthodoxy, grace is God’s energy that is continually infused into the believer as a process, which results in man’s eventual divinization. But Protestantism teaches that God’s grace is His unmerited favour in a salvific sense, which is understood as a one-time legal declaration of the sinner as justified. Fairbairn astutely laments that, “The lack of emphasis in Orthodox theology on this aspect of grace contributes to the Eastern failure to stress the nature of salvation as a free gift. This in turn leads to a failure to distinguish between justification as God’s free acceptance of unworthy sinners when we begin to believe, and sanctification as the process of becoming righteous, a process which involves human effort. While the emphasis on the process of deification itself is appropriate, the lack of stress on the event which begins that process results in a significantly distorted view of Christian life.”[7]

Michael Horton highlights an essential dissimilarity between Eastern and Western theology proper, “Crucial to Orthodoxy is the distinction between God’s essence and energies. The West has traditionally acknowledged only uncreated essence (God) and created essence (creatures), so that union with God would mean union with God’s essence. Yet for the East, there is only union with the energies—which are God, but in God’s activity rather than in God’s being. This marks the crucial difference between pagan Greek henōsis (absorption into deity) and theōsis.”[8]
In other words, “Western theology operates with two categories: whatever is not created is divine. The Eastern church added a third category: divine energies.”[9] This difference in the understanding of God’s essence and energies led to a cautious rejection of theosis by the Western Church. But the recent resurgence in interest in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis has led to a re-interpretation of Luther’s understanding of deification. Indeed, the dialogue between Finnish-Lutheran and Russian Orthodoxy has culminated in an influential document on the doctrine of salvation entitled, “Salvation as Justification and Deification.” “The New Interpretation of Luther’s theology, as advanced by the so-called Mannermaa school at the University of Helsinki, has challenged the prevailing German Old School approach,” notes Finnish theologian Kärkkäinen.[10]

But such misinterpretation of Luther’s deification theory is nothing new. The “new interpretation” that justification is deification by the Mannermaa school bears an uncanny resemblance to Osiander’s error. Historically, “Andreas Osiander (1498–1552) thought that he was merely extending Luther’s logic when he argued that, in Christ, the believer participates in the deity of God.”[11]
The errors of Osiander have been thoroughly refuted by Philip Melanchthon, Matthias Flacius and John Calvin. According to Calvin, “[Osiander’s] view that Christ is our righteousness solely by his divine nature, whereby he imparts to us “essential righteousness,” was regarded as invalidating the Reformation doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice in the agony of the cross.”[12]

He continues, “That gentleman [Osiander] had conceived something bordering on Manichaeism, in his desire to transfuse the essence of God into men. … He says that we are one with Christ. We agree. But we deny that Christ’s essence is mixed with our own. Then we say that this principle is wrongly applied to these deceptions of his: that Christ is our righteousness because he is God eternal, the source of righteousness, and the very righteousness of God. … Although he [Osiander] may make the excuse that by the term “essential righteousness” he means nothing else but to meet the opinion that we are considered righteous for Christ’s sake, yet he has clearly expressed himself as not content with that righteousness which has been acquired for us by Christ’s obedience and sacrificial death, but pretends that we are substantially righteous in God by the infusion both of his essence and of his quality.”[13]
Similar to Eastern Orthodoxy’s teaching on theosis, Osiander alleges “that we are not justified by the grace of the Mediator alone, nor is righteousness simply or completely offered to us in his person, but that we are made partakers in God’s righteousness when God is united to us in essence.”[14]

Hence, the teaching that righteousness is infused denies the Reformation’s clarion call for forensic justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. Similar to Orthodoxy’s salvation by theosis, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer as a single, particular occurrence is repudiated by Osiander. He asserts “that to be justified is not only to be reconciled to God through free pardon but also to be made righteous, and righteousness is not a free imputation but the holiness and uprightness that the essence of God, dwelling in us, inspires.”[15]
Michael Bird justly conclude that, “Calvin’s Christology will not actually allow God’s essential life to be communicated to believers (and rightly so, to avoid the error of Andreas Osiander that we share in God’s essential righteousness in justification).”[16]

He perceives that, “For Calvin, the believer participates only in the human nature of Christ. Moreover, since there can be no interpenetration of the natures in Christ, participation in the human nature of Christ cannot result in a participation in the divine nature. The upshot is that one simply cannot find the ontological purchase needed for a deification theory in Calvin’s Christology. In my mind, Calvin is at best an advocate of a soft form of deification (i.e., participation), but not in the fully orbed Eastern sense.”[17]

For those who understand salvation as a deification process or theosis, the primary message from Protestantism is that Christ has purchased believers with His blood, and through His lifelong obedience in the fulfilment of the Law and His Passion, His perfect righteousness is imputed to believers by faith alone, and in Him alone. Thus, God pronounces believers righteous in Christ, and justified, not via a process of divinization or infusion of grace, but by forensic justification as a legal declaration.

Lastly, it would be prudent for us to give heed to McGowan’s advice that “there are certain key theological affirmations which must be maintained. First, the Creator-creature distinction; second, the ontological difference between God’s being and human being; and third, the doctrine of the two distinct natures of Christ under the one Person of the Logos. The affirmation of these doctrines will distinguish Reformed theology from various forms of deification theology.”[18]


[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, “The Means and End in 2 Peter 1:3–11: The Theological and Moral Significance of Theōsis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 2 (2014): 276.
[2] The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World (Nashville: Nelson, 2008), 1691–92.
[3] Emil Bartos, Deification in Eastern Orthodox Theology (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 7.
[4] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 219–220.
[5] Don Fairbairn, “Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Themelios 23, no. 3 (1998): 47.
[6] Ibid., 49.
[7] Ibid., 50.
[8] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 245.
[9] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 328.
[10] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” 220.
[11] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” 244.
[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 3.11.5, 730.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 731.
[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.6, 731.
[16] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 578.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Andrew McGowan, “Colossians 3: Deification, Theosis, Participation, or Union with Christ?,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 170.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Reign of Souls


“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 witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).”

As we begin our exposition of Revelation 20:4-6, we recall that a period of “a thousand years” was described in 20:1-3. Although it is possible to interpret the “thousand years” of 20:4-6 as being distinct from the millennium mentioned in verses 1-3, there are no compelling reasons within the context of the passage to do so. The majority of exegetes, if not all expositors today, agree that the “thousand years” in 20:4-6 is the same millennium described in 20:1-3. Hoeksema concurs,

“It is evident that “a thousand years” refers to the same period during the whole new dispensation as that in which the devil is bound with respect to Gog and Magog.”[1]

This “thousand years” period spans the entire New Testament era, from the First Advent of Christ to just before the Second Coming of our Savior.
The Thrones

The first three verses of Revelation 20 describe a scene on earth, whereby the abyss is the spiritual realm in which the devil and his minions operate. But where is the location of the scene in 20:4-6? When we read verse 4, we notice that there are thrones mentioned in John’s vision. The term “throne” is doubtlessly symbolical, and it is unlikely that in 20:4, John is referring to literal sets of chair for people to sit upon. “There can be little doubt that the portrayal of beings sitting on “thrones” is not intended to express the literal idea of people sitting on actual pieces of furniture and ruling from there. This is, rather, a figurative way of saying that they reign over a kingdom.”[2] The imagery of souls sitting upon thrones signifies the reign of these souls.

Where is the domain of this reign? The location of the thrones will assist us in determining the exact locale of John’s vision. G. K. Beale elucidates that the word “throne” usually refers to a heavenly scene. He writes,

“The heavenly location of the thrones in 20:4 is apparent from the observation that forty-two of the forty-six occurrences of “throne(s)” (θρόνος) elsewhere in the book clearly locate the thrones in heaven. The remaining three uses refer either to Satan’s or the beast’s throne, which is likewise not earthly but located in a spiritual dimension. The “thrones” in Dan. 7:9 also appear to be in heaven (cf. Dan. 7:10-13).”[3]

E. Müller adds that, since the thrones of the enemies of God are located on Earth elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, it is very likely that these thrones of the saints are located in Heaven.[4]

The Souls

Within the context of verse 4, John sees in his vision “the souls of them that were beheaded.” Premillennialists interpret this phrase as describing resurrected saints in glorified bodies, who are seated upon thrones and reigning with Christ in the earthly millennium.[5]

They argue that the expression - “the souls of them that were beheaded” - is a figure of speech called synecdoche, by which a part is put for the whole. For example, we say that there are a hundred sails, meaning a hundred ships. Occasionally, the Scripture does use the word “souls” to represent persons. “Thus all the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt were threescore and ten (Gen. 46:27). In the ark a few, that is, eight souls were saved (1 Pet. 3:20). On the day of Pentecost about three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). There were in all two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul in the ship (Acts 27:37). Hence the chiliast argues that we must interpret the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” in the same figurative sense as referring to resurrected persons.”[6]

But there are serious problems with this premillennial interpretation. Hoeksema argues, “The first objection is that whenever synecdoche is employed, whether in our daily language, in secular literature, or in Holy Writ, uniformly a numeral is used in connection with it.”[7] This is very clear when we peruse the examples provided above (i.e. Gen. 46:27; 1 Pet. 3:20; Acts 2:41, 27:37). Eight souls, and not simply “souls,” were saved on Noah’s ark. There were two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul aboard the ship. Scripture always uses a numerical qualifier to accompany the word “souls” whenever it is used as a synecdoche.

The word “soul” (ψυχή), therefore, is not used as a synecdoche in 20:4, and does not refer to living bodies. Beale explains that,

“Though “soul” (ψυχή) can be a substitute for “living body” (8:9; 12:11; 16:3; cf. 18:13), here its combination with “beheaded” is best suited to indicate a distinction between soul and body, as the almost identical combination “soul of those who were slain” clearly indicates. If such a distinction of soul and body is not held, an awkward picture emerges: “bodies of beheaded people.’”[8]

Consequently, based upon word usage and context, “soul” does not refer to physically living saints sitting upon thrones. Besides, “the noncorporeal sense of “soul” is suggested further by its close connection with thrones that are in heaven, not on earth.”[9]

Understood collectively, the thrones and the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” likely describe a heavenly scene, and not an earthly millennium. This fact alone is devastating to the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, which requires this passage to describe the millennial reign of saints on earth.

The Saints

In his vision, John saw “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years (Rev. 20:4).” Who exactly are these souls? In order for us to understand verse 4 fully, as well as the identity of these souls who reigned with Christ, we must look at the immediate context of this passage, particularly verses 5-6. It is written in verse 5 that “the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished,” and that the “rest of the dead” will participate in the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” It is evident that the “rest of the dead” are unbelievers who shall be “cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15)” at the final judgment of Christ.

Therefore, John is clearly describing the souls of saints in verse 4. According to verse 6, those that participate in the “first resurrection” shall not be harmed by the “second death.” By implication and simple deduction, the “souls” mentioned in verse 4 should encompass all the saints, that is, the Church invisible.[10]

Stephen Smalley notes that “the prophet-seer does not specify the identity of those who are ‘seated on thrones’; nor are the subjects in any part of this scene mentioned by name. But their character and activity make it plain that John is referring broadly to the faithful saints of God. They are the ones who are involved in judgement, and suffer for Christ, and who worship Him rather than the beast; these are also priests of God, who rise and reign with Christ for a thousand years and more.”[11]

Smalley proceeds to argue that “they are ‘souls’ (τὰς ψυχὰς, tas psychas) who had been martyred for their Christian testimony, and existed therefore in that spiritual state which obtains between death and the final resurrection (verse 4a); and, second, they are faithful witnesses who have testified loyally to Christ, and continue to do so, without being called to seal their faithfulness with martyrdom (verse 4b; cf. 13.11-12).”[12]

Beale concurs that the souls in 20:4 refer to the souls of saints who have died, “some through martyrdom and others of natural causes, though maintaining their faith to the end (cf. 14:13: “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”).”[13] He adds that “it is possible that only literal martyrs are spoken of in 20:4, but, if so, they might be portrayed as representative figures for the whole of the church.”[14] The case, therefore, is strong that the “souls” described in 20:4 represent or refer specifically to the souls of the saints.

Charles Alexander emphasizes the fact that the true Church is a suffering Church. Indeed, it can rightly be called a martyr Church. He writes:

“But the Church as a whole is a martyr Church. Some in recent times have yielded up their lives to cruel death, in faithfulness to Christ, but most of the Lord’s people have been permitted throughout the ages to end their days in peace. Yet what is common to all true believers is that they bear their witness in a world which is hostile to Christ and at enmity with God.”[15]

The martyr Church - the souls of the faithful - will be protected from the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” They will reign with Christ for a thousand years in their intermediate state, before the final resurrection of the bodies.

The Reign

It is described in both verses 4 and 6 that the disembodied souls of the saints shall reign with Christ for a thousand years. This reigning with Christ reinforces the point that the vision is not located on earth, but in heaven where Christ is. Hendricksen elaborates further,

“The thousand year reign also occurs where Jesus lives, for we read ‘And they lived and reigned with Christ. . . .’ The question is, where, according to the Apocalypse, is the place from which the exalted Mediator rules the universe? Where does Jesus live? Clearly, it is in heaven. It is in heaven that the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5). Revelation 12 clearly states that Christ was ‘caught up to God and to his throne. . . Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and ye that dwell therein’. We may safely say, therefore, that the thousand year reign takes place in heaven.”[16]

According to Premillennialism, this reign lasts for a millennium on earth, and spans the entire period during which Satan is bound. It, however, does not last “for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5).” The amillennialist contends that, if these souls are to be physically resurrected at Christ’s Parousia and to be given glorified bodies as Premillennialists claim, they will reign not only for a thousand years, but for all eternity (Rev. 22:5) from the New Jerusalem. In the new, heavenly Jerusalem (21:2), there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), no more death (Rev. 21:4; 1 Cor. 15:53-55), and no more night (Rev. 22:5).

Revelation 20:4, therefore, describes the reign of souls in their intermediate state with Christ, and not the reign of resurrected saints during the alleged Davidic Kingdom on earth. However, this does not settle the millennial issue. The nature of the resurrection (in 20:1-6) lies at the very heart of the millennial controversy. There will be no resolution concerning the millennial debate unless exegetes can agree upon the meaning of the “first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6).”


Note concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references

[1] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 560.
[2] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 995-996.
[3] Ibid., 999.
[4] See E. Müller, “Microstructural Analysis of Revelation 20,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 37: 233.
[5] For example, see Stephen Khoo, The Book of Revelation (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 99-100. These are printed course notes used in Far Eastern Bible College. Rev Stephen Khoo is the pastor of Bethel Bible Presbyterian Church in Australia.
[6] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 561.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 998.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999-1000. Beale writes, “Of course, if only literal martyrs are the focus in v 4, then “the rest of the dead” in v 5 includes believing together with unbelieving dead who are to be resurrected subsequently. The problem with this is that v 6 says that those partaking of the first resurrection of v 4 will not be hurt by the “second death,” and 20:14-15 does not limit the promise only to martyrs or a segment of believers but applies it to all of God’s people who trust him throughout their lives.” See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[11] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 505-506.
[12] Ibid., 506.
[13] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 503.
[16] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Binding of Satan

“And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season (Rev. 20:1-3).”

We discussed previously that in the interpretation of John’s Apocalypse, the exegete must not ignore the visionary and symbolic meaning of the apostle’s writings. The apocalyptic genre of Revelation demands that, in order to understand John’s vision in Revelation 20:1-6 properly, the exegete must interpret the highly symbolical meaning of the apostle’s visions with the light given in the rest of Scripture, as well as by comparing the usage of similar symbols in other visions within the Book of Revelation.

Dispensational Premillennialists, such as Reverend Charles Seet of Life Bible Presbyterian Church in Singapore, often charge Amillennialists with not adhering to a literalistic hermeneutics in their interpretation of Revelation. Criticizing the non-premillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-3, Seet writes:

“The angel mentioned in 20:1 is Christ Himself [according to the non-premillennial understanding]. His coming down from heaven is interpreted as His incarnation into this world. His act of binding Satan and casting him into the bottomless pit mentioned in 20:2-3, is interpreted as His death on the cross which removed Satan’s power over believers. . . . As you can see, those who do not interpret this passage literally, take quite a lot of liberties with the text, making it mean things that are not natural to the plain sense of the text. The plain meaning of the text is therefore ignored in favour of a hidden, cryptic message, which only those who are qualified can understand.”[1]

Seet’s paper “Premillennialism,” especially his aforementioned comments, fails to do justice to the principles behind Reformed hermeneutics, and the amillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-3. Most contemporary amillennial interpreters do not understand the angel in 20:1 as depicting Christ. They neither perceive the binding of Satan as a restriction of his powers over believers, nor do they prefer a “hidden, cryptic message” which only the cognoscenti can decode.

Non-premillennial interpreters recognize the symbolic usage of many terms in Revelation, the meaning of which goes beyond the linguistic and referential levels of communication. In Revelation 20:1-3, “John sees an angel coming down out of heaven. He has a key with which he is going to lock the abyss (cf. 9:1, 11). This abyss is a deep hole provided with a shaft (9:1), and with a lid. This lid can be unlocked (9:2), locked (20:3), and even sealed (20:3). Bear in mind, however, that all this is symbolism.”[2]

The absurdity of consistent literalism in the understanding of such a passage is apparent. John is not conveying the notion that an angel with a literal key, which fits into a keyhole, will open a literal “bottomless pit” on Earth. There can be no doubt that the apostle is not referring to an abyss with a literal lid, which can be locked and unlocked.

The angel, the dragon, the chain, the key and the abyss all have symbolical meanings, and such terms should not be understood literally. The identity of the serpent is given for us in the text of Revelation 20:2, which describes “the dragon, that old serpent” as “the Devil, and Satan.” It is unmistakable that the term “dragon” does not refer to a literal dragon or dinosaur, and that the word “serpent” does not represent a literal viper or cobra. This serves to emphasize the fact that terms used in John’s visions contain symbolical connotations, and such words must be carefully interpreted against the backdrop of previous visions where similar symbols were used. Crass literalism will only mutilate the intended meaning of the text.

The Angel

Although some postmillennial interpreters have attempted to understand the descending angel (Revelation 20:1) as representing Christ,[3] amillennial exegetes such as Beale have, in view of the usage of “angel” in other visions recorded in the Book of Revelation, interpreted the meaning of “angel” differently. Beale writes:

“In striking similarity to 20:1, both 6:8 and 9:1-2 portray good angels (the fourth living creature and the fifth trumpet angel) as Christ’s intermediaries executing his authority over demonic beings in the realm of the dead.”[4]

On account of the visions in Revelation 6:8 and 9:1-2 which describe angels exercising Christ’s authority over death, Hades and even demonic powers, Beale identifies the angel in 20:1 as Christ’s intermediary. Beale explains that “Christ’s sovereignty over the sphere of the dead is . . . amplified in [Revelation] ch. 6, where his opening of the fourth seal is a depiction of his ultimate authority during the age between his first and second comings over the subordinate Satanic powers of “death and Hades” (6:8). Likewise, “the key of the shaft of the abyss” in ch. 9 represents God’s ultimate authority over demonic powers dwelling in the realm of death (9: 1-2), whose deceiving powers are limited by God so that they cannot affect those who “have the seal of God” (9:4).”[5]

The angel in 20:1 has “the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.” The key to the abyss or bottomless pit is likely to be similar to the “keys of hell and of death” mentioned in Revelation 1:18. By virtue of His resurrection, Christ now exercises sovereignty over death itself, including the realm of the dead and Hades. Considering the symbolic connotation of this “key of the bottomless pit,” the context of the vision suggests that the descending “angel” is an angelic intermediary of Christ executing His authority over the demonic realm, the sphere of the dead and Hades.

The Abyss

The devil was bound with a great chain and cast into the abyss - a bottomless pit - according to Revelation 20:1-3. It is apparent that the word “abyss” does not refer to a specific geographical location on earth, and the great chain is not a titanium shackle used to bind gargantuan creatures. As a correct understanding of these symbols is necessary for the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3, it behooves us to examine carefully the meaning of these terms within the context of John’s vision. Charles Alexander reminds us that “Satan is bound by no material ‘chain’ nor is he sealed in any celestial prison. There is no geography in the eternal world, no pits, no bottomless abysses, nothing like this in a sphere where all is spiritual. Prisons and pits are earthly terms used to denote restriction, restraint, limitation of powers, the frustration and confinement of evil.”[6]

It is clear that the devil was not cast out of a physical place in some distant land, and subsequently thrown into an actual bottomless ditch on earth. In conjunction with the usage of the word “abyss” in Revelation 9, the abyss is likely to be symbolic of death and Hades. “It is wrong to picture the devil being “cast out of the earth” in some spatial sense, so that he is no longer present on earth. This would be to take “abyss” in an overly literalistic manner. Rather, like “heaven” throughout the Apocalypse, it represents a spiritual dimension existing alongside and in the midst of the earthly, not above it or below.”[7]

The aforementioned understanding is particularly important when we realize that premillennial interpreters insist upon a more literal reading of the word “abyss.” Some even argue that Satan cannot be prowling around like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8) if he is indeed bound with chains in the abyss. Nevertheless, we ought to recognize that the abyss refers to a spiritual reality rather than a spatial location, and in so doing, avoid literalistic misinterpretations.

According to Beale, “the abyss is one of the various metaphors representing the spiritual sphere in which the devil and his accomplices operate. [Revelation] 9:1-11 portrays an angelic being (probably the devil) using “the key of the shaft of the abyss,” opening the abyss, and releasing demonic creatures so that they torment unbelievers on earth.”[8] If we were to understand the abyss as the sphere wherein the devil and his minions operate, the binding of Satan within the abyss does not necessitate the removal of the devil from amongst the earthly dimensions, or the total cessation of satanic activities within the realm of humans.

The One Thousand Years

There are good reasons for understanding the one “thousand years” of Revelation 20:1-6 figuratively. Primarily, numbers are often used symbolically in the Book of Revelation; inter alia, the physical dimensions of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21:9-27 serve as an example.[9]

Amillennialist Anthony Hoekema observes that “since the number ten signifies completeness, and since a thousand is ten to the third power, we may think of the expression “a thousand years” as standing for a complete period, a very long period of indeterminate length.”[10] Reformed exegetes, including amillennialists and postmillennialists, generally accept the non-literal understanding of the thousand years in Revelation 20:1-6.

It is notable that the premillennial interpreter, George Eldon Ladd, makes a similar remark:

“It is difficult to understand the thousand years for which he was bound with strict literalness in view of the obvious symbolic use of numbers in the Revelation. A thousand equals the third power of ten – an ideal time. While we need not take it literally, the thousand years does appear to represent a real period of time, however long or short it may be.”[11]

We remember that Revelation chapters 20 to 22 constitute the last of the seven sections of John’s apocalypse.[12] Considering the evidence for recapitulation discussed in the previous chapter, we understand that Revelation 20:1 does not follow Revelation 19:21 chronologically. The twentieth chapter of Revelation brings us back to the beginning of the New Testament epoch, which follows the First Advent of Christ. With the incarnation of Christ begins the defeat, or the binding, of Satan. The one thousand years indicates an indeterminate period of time between Christ’s First and Second Advent. We shall discuss the meaning of “the binding of Satan” later in this chapter, which will further elucidate the meaning of the thousand years.

There is also clear contextual evidence to support a non-literal understanding of the one thousand years. John’s figurative usage of many words such as serpent, chain and abyss in the immediate context points toward a symbolical interpretation of the one thousand years in Revelation 20:1-6.

In Revelation 2:10, we read of certain saints having to suffer tribulation for ten days.  There is a suggestion that the temporal suffering of the saints for a duration of ten days, which is obviously a figurative number signifying a complete or ideal period of time, will bring with it the reward of millennial glory in the intermediate state and the afterlife. Here we have another example of the usage of the number ten and its multiples in the symbolical representation of completeness. Meredith Kline explains its theological significance:

“There is also the intriguing possibility of a relationship between the numerical symbols of the ten days of tribulation (2:10) and the thousand years of reigning (20:4, 6). The intensifying of ten to a thousand together with the lengthening of days to years might then suggest that the present momentary tribulation works a far greater glory to be experienced even in the intermediate state as the immediate issue of martyrdom.”[13]

The concept of reward with the enduring of temporal, and a comparatively short duration of, suffering is found in Peter’s exhortation,

“Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. . . . Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. (1 Peter 1:6-7, 4:12-13).”

Indeed, the tribulation period of ten days (Rev. 2:10) is dwarfed by the duration of the millennial reign. We must conclude that both the number ten and its multiple, one thousand, are symbolic representations of periods of time, and that the exact duration of these periods cannot be confined to the numerical values themselves.

The Binding of Satan

While it is now apparent that the thousand years begin with the binding of Satan, we must begin to unravel the meaning inherent in John’s vision as a whole. David Aune points out that “the use of chains to bind Satan and his host is an apocalyptic motif.”[14] While this motif signifies a certain restriction of demonic activity, there is much debate as to the extent of such a restriction. Furthermore, the understanding of what the chain connotes has to be studied against the entire motif, that is, the meaning of the binding of Satan.

Amillennialists understand that the millennium is the present gospel age, and not a future reality. It is neither an earthly Messianic kingdom ushered in by the Parousia of Christ as taught by premillennialists, nor a golden age established with the preaching of the gospel according to Postmillennialism. The millennium, properly understood, is a spiritual reality enjoyed by saints in the present age.[15]

The debate regarding the meaning of the binding of Satan concerns the presence of evil in the present gospel age. If, indeed, the millennium is what Amillennialists perceive it to be - a present reality - how do we explain the presence of satanic activity in the world today? Does the binding of Satan mean a complete cessation of satanic or evil activity on earth? Grant Osborne rightly observes that “the primary debate here is the extent to which this binding of Satan with respect to the nations is intended. Is this a total or a partial cessation of demonic activity? This is at the heart of the premillennial-amillennial debate.”[16]

Premillennialists often criticize Amillennialists for interpreting the binding of Satan as a present reality, but such criticisms are usually unjustified. Harold Hoehner, the professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes:

“However, to say that Satan is bound in the present age contradicts several NT passages. In the time of Christ, even after Luke 10:18, Satan entered Judas in connection with his betrayal of Jesus (Luke 22:3; John 13:27), and he tried to control Peter (Luke 22:31). Christians are warned to be on the alert, for the devil is prowling like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8). This activity is seen when Ananias’s heart was filled with Satan (Acts 5:3). Satan is the one who blinds unbelievers to the gospel (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26). Satan also hindered Paul from going to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:18). Furthermore, Christians are alerted to Satan’s temptations (1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14). It seems that Satan has not been bound since Christ’s first advent.”[17]

Before proceeding to a detailed study of the meaning of the binding of Satan, it suffices now to look at a general amillennial understanding of this motif. There is New Testament evidence that Satan was in some sense bound with the First Advent of Christ.[18]

With the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, Satan no longer possesses the same power and authority he once had. According to Revelation 20:3, Satan is bound so “that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.” The obvious purpose of this binding is that, he should no longer deceive the heathen nations by preventing the spread of the gospel until the millennium has transpired. There is no indication within the text of 20:1-6 that the devil is bound such that he cannot perform any of his mischief. Hendricksen, using an interesting analogy of a dog tied with a chain, elucidates further:

“A dog securely bound with a long and heavy chain can do great damage within the circle of his imprisonment. Outside that circle, however, the animal can do no damage and can hurt no-one. Thus also Revelation 20:1-3 teaches us that Satan’s power is curbed and his influence curtailed with respect to one definite sphere of activity: ‘that he should deceive the nations no more’. The devil can do much, indeed, during this present period of one thousand years.  But there is one thing which, during this period, he cannot do. With respect to this one thing he is definitely and securely bound. He cannot destroy the Church as a mighty missionary organization heralding the gospel to all the nations. He cannot do that until the thousand years are finished.”[19]

Literalists allege that Satan cannot be bound in this present gospel age on account of the demonic activity and evil so prevalent in the world today. But the question is this, “Should we interpret the vision of John in Revelation 20:1-3 in a strictly literal sense, or should we acknowledge the symbolical elements inherent in John’s visions, and attempt to understand the visions using the analogy of faith?” Revelation 20:1-3, understood with a literalistic hermeneutic, would convey to us the message that an angel descends from heaven with a literal key, which he subsequently uses to open a bottomless hole in the ground. He then binds the devil with a literal chain, and casts him into the abyss. Having been bound, the devil struggles in vain within the confinement of the thick, strong chain. Complete with horns and fangs, the devil sneers at the angel as he knows that he must be released after the literal one thousand years are over. But for now, he cannot communicate directly with the nations of the world so as to deceive them with his lies. According to literalists, the devil is so tightly bound that he cannot wriggle himself free from those huge chains, and harm the nations with his horns and fangs. But Amillennialists contend that this vision cannot be understood literally.

The binding of Satan is an apocalyptic motif which conveys to the readers a spiritual reality rather than a physical, reality. Taking 20:1-3 literally, Satan is indeed bound with huge strong chains which may completely restrict his physical movements and prevent him from prowling around like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8). John, however, is not trying to inform his readers that the devil is merely a brobdingnagian creature restricted with titanium chains for a thousand years. The vision is a symbolic picture of a present spiritual reality, and it means much more than having the devil trapped in a hole on planet earth, totally incapable of any wickedness. Milton Terry explains:

“This symbolic picture of the binding of Satan has been greatly misapprehended by supposing it to imply the cessation of all evil among men. It is too readily assumed that if Satan be shut up and sealed in the abyss the angels of Satan and wicked men can have no more place in the world - a most unauthorized assumption. The passage presents only one phase of the triumph of Christ over all his enemies. The final defeat of the devil is described in verse 10, and the Messiah’s triumph over the last enemy, Death and Hades, is told in verses 13 and 14. Hence it is of the first importance to a correct interpretation of these closely related visions to note that they constitute a series of victories which run through the entire period called symbolically a thousand years.”[20]

Indeed, with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, His victory over the devil is already sealed, and is an ongoing spiritual reality via the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom.

As discussed previously, the abyss should not be understood as a literal bottomless hole in the ground. It is the spiritual sphere wherein the devil and his minions function, and it exists alongside and amidst the realm of human activity. Alexander elaborates that “the bottomless pit is a term describing the condition of restraint laid upon Satan as a consequence of his overthrow at Calvary. Satan can at one and the same time be in prison and at large; bound with a great chain, yet fearsomely active.”[21]

The abyss, or the sphere of the demonic, is no longer under the jurisdiction of the devil. Christ declares, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death (Rev. 1:18).” With His death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus now reigns over the sphere of demons. The devil is thus bound, and this “restraint of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection. If so, the binding, expulsion, and fall of Satan can be seen in other NT passages that affirm with the same terms (“bind,” “cast,” etc.) that the decisive defeat of the devil occurred at Christ’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 10:17-19; John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). More precisely, the binding was probably inaugurated during Christ’s ministry, which is more the focus of texts such as Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; and Luke 10:17-19.”[22]

Satan Bound with the First Advent of Christ

Is there New Testament evidence to suggest that the devil is bound with the First Advent of Christ? We recall reading in the Gospel of Matthew that the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons with the power of Satan. Our Lord answered them, “Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house (Matt. 12:29).”

The Greek word used by John in Revelation 20:2 translated as “bound,” is the same word used here by Matthew (δέω) for “bind.” In Matthew 12:29, Jesus was explaining to the Pharisees that since the kingdom of God had arrived, demons were being cast out, and the gospel was being preached to all the nations. Satan’s grip over the pagan nations was broken with the coming of God’s kingdom. The devil can no longer prevent these nations from learning about the truth of God’s Word. Blomberg writes:

“One cannot attack a well-protected home without first rendering the guard powerless. So, too, Jesus must first bind Satan before he can plunder (carry off or rob, from the same verb stem as “lay hold of” in 11:12) his house, i.e., cast out his demons. The exorcisms demonstrate that God in Christ is decisively defeating the devil. . . . Satan is in his death throes. His last flurry of activity, to change the metaphor, is like that of a chicken (or perhaps better a snake!) with its head cut off.”[23]

In Luke 10:17-18, when the seventy disciples returned from their mission trip, Jesus exclaimed to them that he “beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” This, of course, does not mean that Jesus saw the literal fall of Satan from heaven onto the ground of planet Earth. Jesus was saying that, with the missionary activities and preaching of the disciples, Satan’s kingdom was being dealt a severe blow. A restriction of the devil’s power or a binding of Satan’s influence over the pagan nations had taken place. Robert Stein notes that “in the exorcisms of the seventy(-two), Jesus saw Satan’s defeat resulting from his coming.”[24]

Satan’s fall or binding, in this case, is associated with the preaching of the seventy disciples. Charles Alexander adds that those words of Jesus were “spoken prophetically in anticipation of the worldwide spread of the gospel after Christ’s ascension to the right hand of power. Before the preaching of the Word, Satan would be cast down from his long heathen reign over the gentile world. Heaven is often used as a symbol of power, and Satan is always falling from heaven wherever the irresistible Word of God is proclaimed.”[25]

In John 12:31-32, Jesus proclaims, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Here, we observe that the verb “cast out” (ἐκβάλλω) is derived from the root word translated “cast” (βάλλω) in Revelation 20:3, “And cast him into the bottomless pit.” With the casting out of Satan, and the lifting up of Christ as He hangs on the cross, all nations indiscriminately will be drawn to the saving grace of God. The gospel is now no longer limited to the Jewish nation, but also preached to all the nations in the world.

As Kistemaker writes in his commentary:

“Since Jesus’ ascension, Satan has been unable to stop the advance of the gospel of salvation. He has been bound and is without authority, while the nations of the world around the globe have received the glad gospel tidings. The Son of God has taken possession of these nations (Ps. 2:7-8) and has deprived Satan of leading them astray during this gospel age. Christ is drawing to himself people from all these nations, and out of them God’s elect will be saved and drawn into his kingdom. These nations receive the light of the world (John 8:12) and are no longer living in darkness and deceit. Satan is unable to check the mission outreach of the church, for he cannot prevent the nations from knowing the Lord.”[26]

The binding of Satan in the Gospels (Matt. 12:26-29; Mark 3:26-27), as well as Christ’s teaching on the fall of Satan as lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18), is consistent with the interpretation that Revelation 20:1-3 signifies the restraint and progressive defeat of the devil in the gospel age. Although Satan is bound, he is still able to harm humans, including members of the Church. However, he can never prevent the spread of the gospel light to the pagan nations of the world.

The Meaning of the Binding of Satan

In the Old Testament times, the nation of Israel was to be the light to its pagan neighbors. But Israel failed miserably when it succumbed to the religions of the heathen nations. Instead of witnessing to the world, Israel became like the world. The pagan nations did not know the truth of God’s revelation, except for the occasional person, family or city. These gentile nations were, generally speaking, under the deception of Satan prior to the First Advent of Christ. However, with the ministry of our Lord Jesus, the kingdom of God is being ushered in. Finally, with the cross and empty tomb, death and resurrection, Christ strikes a decisive victory over Satan. Nothing can prevent the Church from spreading the gospel to the pagan nations, and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).”

Paul writes, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it (Col. 2:14-15).” Christ’s resurrection sealed the defeat of Satan, and the empty tomb guarantees the ultimate end of the devil. This binding of Satan is a progressive activity whereby the preaching of the gospel extends the kingdom of God on earth (Matt. 28:19). Revelation 20:1-3 depicts the restraint of the devil, and how he is prevented from obstructing the progress of the gospel.

Furthermore, when Rev. 20:3 is understood in the context of events described in 20:7-9, there is also a sense whereby Satan is bound so that he cannot deceive the heathen nations to war against the saints in the battle of Armageddon. Hoeksema argues that, “If we take these two passages [Rev. 20:3 and 20:8] in connection with each other, it may be regarded as established, in the first place, that the binding of Satan is limited to certain nations which are called Gog and Magog; and, secondly, that his confinement prevents him from deceiving those nations; and, in the third place, that the deception which by his imprisonment, or the restraint that is put upon him, he is prevented from realizing is (sic) what would otherwise cause these nations to gather for battle against the camp of the saints and the beloved city.”[27]

We have studied earlier in chapter 11 that the battle of Armageddon, which marks the end of the millennium, is described not only in John’s apocalypse (Rev. 19:11-21; 20:7-10), but also in Ezekiel 38-39.[28] According to Aune, “the names Gog and Magog, derived from Ezek 38-39, are generic names for nations hostile to Israel who will unsuccessfully attempt to annihilate the people of God. Yet they will be decisively defeated by rain, hail, fire, and brimstone from heaven (Ezek 38:22).”[29] In the context of Ezekiel 38-39, “Israel here is to be taken, in harmony with all Scripture, in the New Testament sense of the word. The vision of the restored Israel of which Ezekiel 38 and 39 speak has been realized in the church of the new dispensation.”[30] Therefore, we are to understand “Israel” as referring to true, spiritual Israel (the Church) in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic visions. Furthermore, both Hoeksema and Beale identify the hordes in Rev. 20:8 as “antagonistic peoples throughout the earth,” the heathen nations that rebel against God.[31] Beale further reasons that, “the “camp of the saints” is equated with “the beloved city,” which further identifies the oppressed community of 20:9 as the church.”[32] This reflects the understanding that the “oppressed community” in Rev. 20:9 refers to nominal Christendom in its widest sense.

We read in Rev. 20:7-9 that Satan, marshalling the armies of the heathen nations, makes a final attempt at defeating the people of God. But “fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them (Rev. 20:9).” All these events will happen in the eschatological future. In the meantime, Satan is bound by a divine decree, so that he is prevented from accomplishing his diabolical aims. While he is bound, Satan can no longer deceive God’s people en masse, and hinder them from witnessing to the nations. This does not mean that Satan cannot harm the Church, or that the Church is no longer persecuted by the world. Likewise, during the entire period whereby Satan is bound, the devil is unable to deceive the heathen nations to attack “the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city (Rev. 20:9),” or to prevent them from hearing the gospel of grace. This period begins with the First Advent of Christ, and “according to [Revelation] 20:7-9, the end point of the binding occurs immediately before Christ’s final coming.”[33]

In view of this amillennial interpretation of the binding of Satan, the chain (Rev. 20:1) can be understood as “the holy decrees of God.”[34] Alexander considers that “the chain, like the binding, is a figure denoting the restrictive decree of God as in the case of the divine control over the rolling sea: ‘Hitherto shalt thou come and no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.’ Job 38:11.”[35]

As Calvinists, Reformed interpreters ultimately believe that God has decreed the victory of the Church, the salvation of the elect, and the eventual destruction of Satan. Therefore, the chain in Revelation 20:1 can signify the binding of Satan according to God’s decrees. This harmonizes well with the understanding of the binding of Satan as an apocalyptic motif, which symbolizes the restraining of the devil.


The binding of Satan occurs between the First and Second Advent of Christ, during the gospel age. This is harmonious with the understanding that the millennium of Revelation 20:1-6 does not follow Revelation 19 chronologically. We have discussed the evidence for recapitulation previously, and have seen that chapters 20 to 22 form the last of the seven sections of the book of Revelation. Therefore, Revelation 20 brings us back to the beginning of the gospel age.

The amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3 is also consistent with 2 Thessalonians 2:6-12, “where Satan is said to be “already at work” in a mysterious way, but nevertheless restrained. Immediately before Christ’s final coming the restraint will be removed so that Satan will unleash “false wonders and . . . all deception,” and then he will be judged along with his followers.”[36]

We read in Revelation 20:3 that Satan must be loosed “a little season” at the end of the thousand years. This is when he will “go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle (Rev. 20:8)” against the “camp of the saints.”

Prior to the Parousia of Christ, there will be a time of great deception according to Revelation 20:3, 7-8. Beale writes,

“But at the end of the age, directly preceding Christ’s return, Satan will again be allowed, for “a little time,” to stop the preaching of the gospel and to draw the curtain of delusion over the nations, especially with the goal of mounting a devastating attack against the people of God, as he did before in Eden, against Israel, and at the cross against Jesus, the true Israel (cf. the use of Ps. 2:1-2 in Acts 4:25-28 and Ps. 2:9 in Rev. 12:5). A lethal attack must be launched against the corporate body of Christ, as earlier against the individual Christ (see further on 11:3-12, esp. 11:1-2, 9).”[37]

In summary, the binding of Satan in Revelation 20:1-3 refers to the curtailment of the devil’s power so that he can neither prevent the preaching of the gospel to the heathen nations, nor deceive these nations into attacking the church of Christ on earth. Meanwhile, the elect of God are progressively received into the fold of the Church.

The binding of Satan is, without a doubt, an encouraging certainty for all believers. It ensures that the preaching of the gospel by the Church will be unhindered. Alexander reminds us that “there is a formidable difference between Satan’s activity before and after Calvary. No more is Satan permitted ‘to deceive the nations’ as once he did. He no longer has power to hold the nations fast in the darkness of paganism and ignorance. Instead of the Word of God being confined to one nation on earth, the small nation of Israel, the boundaries of divine grace have been pushed back so that the whole wide world has come under the power and the preaching of the gospel.”[38] Thus, this understanding of the binding of Satan should spur the Church on to labor for the gospel.

The kingdom of God is presently extended via the triumphant Church. Christians ought to derive confidence from the fact that Satan is bound, and that the gospel will ultimately bring salvation to all the elect. The powers of darkness can never prevail, for the devil is already defeated at the cross of Calvary. The final destruction of the devil is decreed (Rev. 20:10), and the Parousia of Christ will bring the sufferings of the saints to an end.

Note concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references

[1] Seet, “Premillennialism,” 99.
[2] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 185.
[3] For example, see David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 499; J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 194.
[4] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 984.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Charles D. Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood (Trelawnyd, Wales: K & M Books, 2001), 494.
[7] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 987.
[8] Ibid., 987-988.
[9] See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 58-64. Also see pp. 1017-1021, where Beale makes a detailed argument for the figurative interpretation of the one thousand years.
[10] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 227.
[11] George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1972), 262.
[12] See Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 16-50.
[13] Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 373-374.
[14] David E. Aune, Revelation 17-22: Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1081.
[15] The millennial reign will be discussed further in later posts.
[16] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 2002), 702.
[17] Harold W. Hoehner, “Evidence from Revelation 20,” in The Coming Millennial Kingdom: A Case for Premillennial Interpretation, eds. Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1997), 250. Also see Quek, DAY FIVE: Revelation 19-22, 147-148.
[18] We shall discuss this further in the later portions of this blog post.
[19] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 190.
[20] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ in the Canonical Scriptures (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1898; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 449.
[21] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 497.
[22] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 985.
[23] Craig Blomberg, The New American Commentary Volume 22: Matthew (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 203.
[24] Robert H. Stein, The New American Commentary Volume 24: Luke (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1992), 310.
[25] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 498.
[26] Kistemaker, Exposition of the Book of Revelation, 535-536.
[27] Herman Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, 2d ed., ed. Homer C. Hoeksema (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000), 642.
[28] See the previous blog post on recapitulation.
[29] Aune, Revelation 17-22, 1104.
[30] Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh, 642.
[31] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1024. Also see Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh, 642-643. Hoeksema perceptively identifies Gog and Magog with the heathen nations of the world. He writes, “Around it [i.e. the camp of the saints], on the four quarters of the earth, that is, outside of the pale of history, are nations which remain pagan. Although also from them the elect are gathered into the church, as nations they remain distinctly heathen. Gog and Magog, therefore, are heathen nations in distinction from nominal Christendom.” Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh, 643.
[32] Ibid., 1027.
[33] Ibid., 985.
[34] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 495.
[35] Ibid., 497.
[36] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 989.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 499.