The Thousand Years
The 1,000 years of Revelation 20 — are they literal or symbolic?
The basic question posed here is whether or not Revelation 20 means what it says. After all, the chapter states six times that Jesus is going to reign for a thousand years (verses 2-7).
Since the First Coming prophecies meant what they said, why should we spiritualize the Second Coming prophecies? What would God have to say to convince us that His Son is going to reign on this earth for a thousand years? The only reason I can imagine why someone would spiritualize the thousand years of Revelation 20 is to sustain some pre-conceived notion about the nature of Jesus’ reign.
Thus, for example, if you are going to deny that Jesus will ever reign on this earth, then you have to spiritualize Revelation 20, as the Amillennialists have done. They argue that the reign of Jesus portrayed in Revelation 20 is going on now as he reigns over His Church. When Augustine developed this viewpoint in the Fourth Century, he did not have to spiritualize the thousand years. He could just argue that Jesus’ reign over the Church would last one thousand years, and then He would return. But when a thousand years came and went, the advocates of this theory started spiritualizing the thousand years, arguing that they were symbolic of an indefinite period of time!
One way some have attempted to justify this spiritualization is by pointing to Psalm 50:10 where it states that God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills.” They then ask, “Are there only a thousand hills?” Answering their own question, they proceed to assert, “Of course not! The term is used symbolically and therefore anytime you see a reference to a thousand years, you can be assured that it is symbolic in nature.”
That conclusion is unfounded because it violates one of the basic rules for the interpretation of all literature. That rule is that context determines the meaning. A term that is symbolic in one passage may be very literal in another. Let me give you an example. Let’s consider two sentences using the same term, “White House.”
- Yesterday I toured the White House.
- Today the White House announced that the President is going to Russia.
In the first sentence the term, White House, is used literally; in the second, it is symbolic.
The thousand years of Psalm 50:10 are clearly symbolic, but the context of Revelation 20 makes it equally clear that the thousand years mentioned there is literal.