Saturday, January 29, 2011

Was Jesus an Amillennialist?

In Matthew 12, we see an account of an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan, and they claim that Jesus could cast out demons because of the Satanic power within Him. Jesus replies by telling them that Satan could not drive out demons because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. He then comes at the issue again: " can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house" (Matthew 12:29, NIV).

From the context, we understand that the "strong man" Jesus is referring to is Satan. Jesus says that the strong man's house can only be plundered after first tying up the strong man. Thus, it appears that Jesus is implying that Satan is (or will be) tied up so that His "house" (Earth) can be plundered. Jesus had just healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, so we may infer that the "possessions" that Jesus wants to "carry off" are human beings. We know from other passages that the people of the world are slaves to Satan until they are redeemed through Christ, so the fact that Jesus would refer to people as Satan's possessions shouldn't be too surprising to us. But what about this part about Satan being tied up? Isn't Satan "a roaring lion," roaming about to find someone to devour (see 1 Peter 5:8)?

We might be able to gain some perspective by looking at Revelation 12. Here, we read John's account of the activities in the spiritual realm surrounding Jesus's birth, resurrection, and beyond. Here is an excerpt about the battle in heaven after Jesus ascends to the Father in glory after His resurrection:
7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:7-9, NIV)
Notice that this story describes Satan and his followers as being hurled to the earth after a great defeat in a battle in heaven. We see a preview of this in the story of the seventy-two:
17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He [Jesus] replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. ["I saw Satan as lightning falling out of heaven" - Greek Interlinear.] 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20, NIV)
At this point, Satan and his forces had not been entirely defeated and hurled from heaven, since Jesus had not yet risen from the dead in victory (see Revelation 12). So what's going on here? I speculate that as God's kingdom began to advance through the working of the seventy-two (and through many others throughout history), there were spiritual battles being fought in heaven. As God's Kingdom advances, Satan's forces come closer to defeat. When Christ ultimately proved His victory over Satan by conquering the grave, then the battle in heaven could finally be completed, and Satan could be expelled.

We also see that when Satan is expelled from heaven, God's kingdom finally "arrives." Notice the pronouncement in heaven after Satan and his followers are finally defeated:
Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.” (Revelation 12:10-12, NIV)
If God's kingdom "arrived" when Satan was expelled from heaven, then Jesus would also have taken His place as King at that time. And if Jesus took His place as King after the resurrection/ascension, then others probably took their places of authority as well. We see that the "brothers and sisters" (who "did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death") also triumphed over Satan through Jesus's victory. Could this tie in with the passage in Revelation 20, where the martyrs for Christ "came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years"?

There is another passage in the Bible that talks about Satan being bound and which also includes the notion of "a thousand years." Let's take a look:
1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. (Revelation 20:1-3, NIV)
A premillennialist interpretation of the above passage in Revelation is that after the Great Tribulation, Satan is thrown into a bottomless pit and trapped for 1,000 years without the ability to contact or influence people or governments on Earth. Thus, both heaven and earth would be Satan-free for 1,000 years. Premillennialists usually give an argument from Scripture that Satan cannot be bound now because we still see the effects of His reign and deception throughout the earth (c.f. 1 Peter 5:8). But, we just read in Matthew 12 that Jesus believed that Satan needed to be "tied up" so that we could steal lost souls for God's Kingdom. Since Jesus's objective was to win people to God's kingdom, and since He passed that objective onto His followers, it seems as though Jesus believed that Satan would be bound in the very near future (or was already in the process of being bound). Thus, the argument that Satan cannot be bound now because we see His influence in the world does not seem to hold up to Jesus's own expectations.

Let's consider an amillennialist interpretation of the Revelation passage above. Satan is expelled from heaven and locked in the "abyss" (literally, "the deep" -- the Greek word used here is also found in the Septuagint translation of the Creation account in Genesis, in which we are told that "darkness was over the surface of 'the deep' (or, the earth)"). He is bound for 1,000 years (where "1,000" could be symbolic of a long age of time), and then he is released at the end of the age to "deceive the nations" at the start of the Great Tribulation. So, practically, if amillennialism were true, Satan would presently be locked out of heaven, and His powers would be restricted to earth and its inhabitants. (Notice that the redeemed are not under Satan's power, because they are no longer slaves to Satan but to God!) In addition to Satan's being bound from heaven, Satan is also bound (or restricted) through the prayers and actions of the saints, enabling the saints to "carry off" his possessions (human souls). God's kingdom is here, and Jesus and the saints in heaven are reigning. Thus, when we pray that "God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we are literally praying that God's kingdom would take over the earth and that Satan would be defeated once and for all.

This idea leads nicely into the postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. From my understanding, it seems as though postmillennialists believe that God's kingdom will literally take over the whole Earth over the course of the thousand (literal or symbolic) years that Satan is bound. The prayer that "God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is accomplished person-by-person through the work of God's followers on earth! This is something new for me to consider! Generally, postmillenialists say that we don't know precisely when the millennium starts, since the millennium directly precedes Christ's second coming, and no one knows the day or the hour when Christ will return. This last point seems not to fit with the conjunction of Revelation 12 and Revelation 20, where it appears that the millennium begins when Satan is bound from heaven, which is directly after Christ ascends to heaven triumphant over death. Thus, it appears that the postmillennialism package doesn't seem to fit the Scriptural data considered in this article as well as amillennialism does.

From my considerations of the passages above, I have a new "millennialist" package to present for further inquiry. Satan was bound from heaven after the ascension of Christ and now roams the Earth (and will do so for "a thousand years," which simply means a long age of time), seeking to pour out his fury on the inhabitants of the earth. The saints (followers of Jesus) can literally "bind" Satan and steal his possessions (lost souls) because of the authority they have been given through Christ, who is now reigning as King. The saints in heaven (perhaps just those who are martyred for Christ) are currently reigning with Christ in heaven. God's kingdom will advance throughout the earth (in accordance with Jesus's command to "preach the Gospel to every creature"), but there will come a point when Satan is released to once again "deceive the nations." Thus, there will be a great apostasy at the end of the age, at which time Satan will lead his final rebellion against Jesus and His saints (at Jesus's second coming). Satan is ultimately defeated and expelled from Earth to the lake of fire. Then comes the judgement, where many will "rise from the dust, some to everlasting life, others to everlasting condemnation."

I would like to quickly interject a thought about the possible implications of Satan's being bound. We have read that Satan was hurled to the earth and "locked" out of heaven. But does this only mean that he no longer has access to a certain realm of space? Not necessarily. We read elsewhere in Scripture that man was created "a little lower than the angels." That means that Satan would be "a little higher" than mankind. But when Satan was defeated in the heavenly battle, we read in Revelation 12 that Satan and his angelic followers "lost their place in heaven." Could this mean that when Satan and his followers were hurled to earth, they lost their "rank" in creation? This would mean that Satan and his followers would no longer have the same sort of authority that they once had, and in a sense, they would be "bound" into submission to higher authorities. Consider that the saints (alive and dead) are granted heavenly authority from Christ. This would put them higher up in the ranks of authority than Satan and his angelic followers, since Satan and his followers had been "hurled" to an earthly rank. Thus, it is possible that by being "bound for a thousand years" on earth, Satan was not only confined to a realm of space, but that he was also bound in subjection to Christ-given authority because of his demotion to an "earthly" rank. It's something to think about.

In summary, it appears to me that Jesus may have been an amillennialist. Premillennialism and postmillennialism both seem to have trouble points for reconciling all of the passages of Scripture we considered above. I presented a new (to my knowledge) view, which I call "millennialism," that seems to account well for all of the Scriptural data that we've considered in this article. The millennialist view combines the following key views: the millennial reign of Christ beginning after His ascension (often associated with amillennialism), progressive binding of evil over time (often associated with postmillennialism), and a final apostasy (associated with premillennialism and amillennialism). I look forward to studying these topics in greater detail, and I hope you do, too!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Rachel. I really liked your discussion. You presented some interesting ideas. I don't think you can make a verdict on one illustration that Jesus used (He could have simply been demonstrating that his power came from God and not Satan, because he "plundered" a demon-"possessed" person, for instance), but it's definitely something to think about.