Are the Thousand Years in Revelation 20 Literal?

The question regarding the last years of earth’s history is, in a sense, very similar to that regarding earth’s first days: what do numbers and units of time in the Bible actually mean?  Are they merely figurative or are they to be taken literally? The interpretation of the days in Genesis 1 and the meaning of the thousand years in Revelation 20 are related due to the use of numbers and measurements of time in the Bible.

In Revelation 20 verses 2-7, six times we are told that Satan will be bound and that Christ will reign for a thousand years.  Understanding this to be a literal period of one thousand years or an allegory of an indefinite period of time has been an issue that has, generally speaking, created two camps of believers.  When we look at the ancient interpretations of both the creation account and Revelation 20, we will see that before the time of Augustine (354 to 430 A.D) both were interpreted literally.  Those holding to a literal interpretation are historically called millenialists (although today they are called premillenialists) and believe that the Great Tribulation will occur before Jesus returns to set up His kingdom for a literal period of a thousand years in which He will reign physically from Jerusalem.  Justin Martyr, a church father from the early second century A.D. declared emphatically in his Dialogue with Trypho,

But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.  (The FathersDialogue with Trypho Chapter 80)

Clearly, Justin Martyr took the literal interpretation rather than a figurative or typological approach as Augustine, who is the father of the amillenial position, would later do. [i] The amillenialists purport that the thousand years in Revelation should be taken figuratively and that, in fact, there will not be an actual, literal, physical reign of Christ nor a binding of Satan for a literal, thousand years.  Again, we are faced with the question of whose view is right.  Is it really a matter of theological preference as to which view one holds?  Or is there some key to unlock this enigma?  Rather than looking to the Church Fathers for validation, let’s first look at the passage and allow Scripture to interpret itself.  I believe that we will find that, as with Genesis 1, only one of the two approaches is acceptable.

There are in essence two words that we need to study in order to determine the duration of time in Revelation 20.  We will first of all look at years to appreciate how the word is used in the Bible.  Once we have recognized what is the normal meaning, we will explore what writers meant when stating one thousand.  Does the number have just a simple meaning of thousand?  Or if as the amillenialists state, should it be understood as an indefinite period of time similar to the days of creation as purported by evolution supporters?

Years in the Bible

The word year (ete ἔτη) appears a total of 29 times in the New Testament.  In every occurrence the meaning of year (or years) is simply that of a real, literal period of a year whenever a number precedes it.  For example, we read in Mark 5:25, “Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years.”  The text treats this as a real number of real years — and why shouldn’t it?  What else could years mean?  In Luke, we read of the prophetess Anna, “and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years…” (Luke 2:37).  In John 2:20, the Jewish leaders reply to Jesus’ claim, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”  Furthermore, in Acts 13:20 we read, “After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.”  In all of the examples, the word years (ete ἔτη) is referring to a real (specific) amount of time and is used in its literal sense.  The 450 years of the time of the judges is considered to be a real amount of time.  The fact is that year, when preceded by a cardinal number, is never used in any other way.  Years always refers to what we understand to be a year – that is, the completion of twelve months (with the exception of an occasional 13th month added every several years to balance out the Jewish calendar), once around the sun.  Similarly to day in the Old Testament, which when preceded by a cardinal number means only a real day, so too when the words years and years are preceded by a cardinal number, they always and only signify a definite period of time.

The Number Thousand

Since year (and years) has only a literal and absolute meaning when preceded by a cardinal number, our next undertaking is to try to correctly understand “thousand.”  Is there something in the word which would lead us to conclude that thousand could mean something other than its literal and plain meaning?

Thousand (chilia χίλια) occurs in the New Testament eleven times, six of those being in the twentieth chapter of Revelation.  Twice it occurs in 2 Peter 3:8, “…that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”  The other three occurrences are in the book of Revelation as well.  The number of verses with which we can compare the word thousand in the New Testament in order to correctly determine the meaning is somewhat limited since six of the eleven examples occur in Revelation 20.  Thus, we need to turn to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew in approximately 270 B.C.

The word thousand appears 504 times in the Septuagint where it is translated from the Hebrew word אלף elef, which simply means thousand.  It never refers to any kind of imaginary number, nor does it signify an indefinite quantity.  The Septuagint merely translates that word literally and carries the same meaning.  There are cases where a text will say thousands in the plural and of course, that by definition is indefinite.  But whenever a text refers to one thousand it is speaking in a literal sense.

So, you might ask, why doesn’t the word one appear before the word thousand?  Quite simply, Greek does not require the word “one” to appear before thousand for it to be understood that it means one thousand.  Many languages are parallel to Greek in this respect.  For example, in Hebrew, there is no need to say one before thousand.  In fact, it is impossible to say that and to do so would sound very foreign; so too in Greek.  When it is only one thousand, then no other word is necessary to qualify the number.  Only when it is two thousand plus does a number come in front of it.

The Definite Article

The phrase thousand years appears six times in the passage of Revelation 20:2-7.

He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while. And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.  Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison.  (emphasis mine)

Three times in the passage the author, John, states “…bound him [Satan] for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:2); “…And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4); and “…and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).  In all three of these passages, the literal rendering of the text is that Satan is bound and the saints reign one thousand years (one is included in the word thousand in Greek).  The other three occurrences “…till the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:3); “again until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:5); and “…when the thousand years have expired…” (Revelation 20:7) all refer to a specific time indicated by the use of the definite article the.  The word the is a limiter or a definer.  It tells us that something specific is indicated.  Therefore, the time frame is not something undefined but in fact it is very defined.  “The thousand years…” reinforces the fact that a literal amount of time is indicated since it points back to “a thousand years” already mentioned in verse 2.

Summary of Years

In conclusion, we have seen that years and numbers (just like days) in both the Old and New Testaments are taken as literal.  Years always refers to a literal amount of time.  Year, when used with a number, is never used to refer to anything more than once around the sun.  When the writer wished to indicate a longer period, then the exact number of years was mentioned.  We also saw that the number thousand is treated just like the other numbers in both Testaments.  The references to years in the New Testament are numerous and all of them are treated as real years, including the one of 450 years.  Furthermore, the Greek word chilia χίλια, meaning “one thousand,” is used hundreds of times in the Greek Septuagint and every time has a simple meaning of a literal number, that is one thousand!  And finally, we noted that the grammar in Revelation, by the use of the definite article, limits the use of what one thousand can mean.  It is not an indefinite period of time, but rather is very definite.

Thus we are left with the conclusion that the thousand years of Revelation should be understood to mean precisely that – one thousand, literal years.  Having used Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see that any other interpretation is both inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible and grammatically unsound.

[i] Augustine formulated this eschatology primarily in response to the Donatists’s drunken feasts in their “cult of the dead” ceremonies honoring the martyred brothers.  Augustine also reacted to the millenialists’ anticipation as the year 500 approached since they thought that to be the culmination of the 6000 years since creation. (Anderson 2002: 4)