part of the what is truth? series

A literal one-thousand-year reign of Jesus on His throne. There are many that believe Jesus’ return is for just that – a literal one-thousand-year reign (millennium) on earth. It is widely taught and even passed down as “church doctrine.” It is a teaching that comes from primarily one verse – Revelation 20:6. To be sure, this verse states that “they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years1.” However, let’s consider its context and consider other uses in Scripture that may help us understand this important question.

how Scripture answers "Will there be a literal one-thousand-year reign?"

There is no reason to believe there will be a literal one-thousand-year reign on earth since there is no other place in scripture where “a thousand years” (or anything like it) is used literally2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16. We see “thousand” used figuratively in books of history2,7,14,16, poetry3,4,8,10,13, New Testament epistles12,15, other books of prophecy6,9 including in other places in Revelation itself5.

In Revelation, we are reading “one-thousand-years” within the broader prophetic and highly figurative vision of John. By the time we get to the passage of Scripture that promoters of this “literal one-thousand-year reign” doctrine stake their claim on1, Scripture has well established a figurative use for “a thousand years”2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16 (just as it’s used secularly; check out the ‘Further Study’). Indeed, without the clouding lens of a presupposed doctrine that requires a certain interpretation – namely that Jesus will return to earth to reign one-thousand-years – the Revelation 20 text1 is simply communicating to the reader a very long (everlasting2,3,4,7,11,12) and triumphal (complete2,3,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16) reign of Christ and the Saints at the judgment.

While considering this question, it is interesting to think of how humans have used ‘one thousand’ or ‘thousands’ more generally:

  • In colloquial speech such as, “A picture is worth a thousand words” or “Never in a thousand years.” Obviously figurative to mean a whole lot (of words) or completeness (never, ever).
  • In 17th-century poetry as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “I could live a thousand years and I wouldn’t be as ready to die as I am now.” (Act 3, Scene 1) as well as Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe and his play, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus: “The face that launched a thousand ships” referring to Helen of Troy. Both of these are used to mean much the same figuratively.
  • In Chinese culture going back to 110 BC where the term “Ten thousand years” was “as an expression used to wish long life to the emperor….The significance of ‘ten thousand’ in this context is that ‘ten thousand’ in Chinese and many other East Asian languages represents the largest discrete unit in the counting system, in a manner analogous to ‘thousand’ in English.” Incidentally, it is still used to mean “long life.”
  • In pop-culture movies and smash-hit cable series where its figurative use is consistent:
    • The Gladiator: Commodus to his dying father Marcus Aurelius, “I searched the faces of the gods for ways to please you, to make you proud. One kind word, one full hug while you pressed me to your chest and held me tight, would’ve been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years. What is in me that you hate so much?”
    • Game of Thrones: Dany to Jon Snow at the waterfall, “We could stay a thousand years. No one would find us.” (HBO, Season 8, Episode 1) In fact, the musical composer for Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi, wrote a song from this scene/line entitled, “Stay a Thousand Years”. His rationale: “I felt like it made their love eternal. It makes their relationship forever.”

From these secular cases (and others), there are numerous reasons to conclude the Revelation 20 use case to be figurative as well. Honestly, we don’t even give the universally accepted figurative use of “a thousand years” a passing thought, do we? Would we attempt to argue a literal length of time for any of the above examples?

the answer above is built on and footnoted with the following scripture-blocks

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