J. Webb Mealy
I want to make a big ask at the beginning of this article. I want to ask my readers to lay aside your natural prejudice against the new and unfamiliar, and give my presentation a hearing as though you had not yet decided on an eschatological model. Jesus has a parable about the psychology that goes along with repeatedly hearing the same doctrine repeated until it seems—merely because of the repetition—to be obviously the best:
No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’ (Lk. 5:39).
My view can be described in a few words as an eschatological model that incorporates the strongest elements of both amillennialism and premillennialism while avoiding the major pitfalls of each and solving the major exegetical and harmonistic problems of each. It’s a truism that no eschatological model can boast of having no “problem passages,” and new creation millennialism has a few like any other. But it is arguably a big step forward from the currently favored models. Amillennialist New Testament scholar Gregory Beale, when he was researching for his huge (1300 pages) Revelation commentary for the New International Greek Testament Commentary series, encountered my view and thought it was important enough to devote a twenty-page review article to figuring out what was wrong with it. Despite his criticisms, Beale commends the study for its “trenchant and detailed exegesis, including many outstanding exegetical insights,” and “an excellent programmatic method.” In the end, although he declines to convert from amillennialism (and from ECT) without further persuasion, he admits that the “prima facie arguments” I present for understanding Rev. 20:7-10 as a vision of the resurrection and final judgment of the unrepentant
provide a basis for Mealy’s view which gives it a viability which cannot henceforth be ignored by commentators. In fact, the prima facie nature of these two arguments could have the force of shifting the burden of proof to those disagreeing with Mealy’s position.
“Paradigm shifts” are hard to accept, but Mealy has proposed one with respect to the millennium of Revelation 20, and it deserves to be ranked among other millennial positions in the history of the interpretation of Revelation 20.
Ready to learn something new? Let’s dive in.
The First Century Jewish Context
First some general background. The New Testament teachings (and images) about the final disposition of the unrepentant have to be interpreted in relation to three major eschatological themes: (1) God’s universal judgment of the world, (2) the glorious coming of Messiah as the king of all the earth (what Christians typically call Jesus’ “second coming”), and (3) the resurrection of some or all of humanity. In Jesus’ day, no single consensus view existed among Jews as to when resurrection would happen for the unrepentant or even if they would be raised at all. The Sadducees, the party in political power in Israel, rejected all belief in life after death. The Pharisees believed in resurrection for the righteous, but may have been less unanimous as to whether the wicked would be resurrected. The Essenes believed in resurrection for the faithful but apparently not for the wicked. As to when resurrection will take place, the Pharisees believed that resurrection would take place for the righteous at the dawning of the glorious messianic age, but some may have believed that the faithful would be raised progressively through that age depending on their relative merits. The Pharisees did not, however, believe that the wicked would be resurrected at that time. The author of the well-known apocalyptic book 4 Ezra (2 Esdras), whose views don’t fit neatly into those of any known party, thought there would be a single resurrection of all people (including Messiah, who would die along with all the faithful at the end of the messianic age) after the end of the messianic age (see 4 Ezra/2 Esdras 7:22-44).
The New Testament Picture outside of Revelation
Some of Jesus’ teachings fall in line with the Pharisaic teaching that only the faithful will be selected for resurrection so that they can take part in the glorious age of Messiah’s kingdom, leaving the wicked unresurrected at that time (Lk. 14:14; 20:35). Paul seems to speak the same way in some places (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:21-24; and compare Phil. 3:11, where he uses the interesting word exanastasis, “out-resurrection,” from among the dead).
Other passages are ambiguous, such as Mt. 12:41-42 || Lk. 11:31-32, which imagines people arguing at “the judgment” about who deserves to take part in the dawning messianic kingdom. When Christians unfamiliar with the original biblical languages read these passages, they immediately assume that resurrection is being pictured, but there are no technical words for resurrection here, only the verb anistēmi, the ordinary word you would use to talk about standing up. In the Hebrew Bible, similarly ordinary verbs for standing up (e.g. ‘amad, natsab, qūm) regularly connote conflict, including specifically legal battle (e.g. Ps. 1:5 35:11 74:22 82:1, 8 94:16 109:4-7 , 31). Thus also the Greek verb anistēmi (to stand or rise up, used here in Mt. and Lk.) in the LXX and the NT many times has the connotation of coming forward to speak as a party, a judge, a witness in a court of law (e.g. Mk 14:57, 60; Acts 5:34; 13:16; cf. Mt. 12:41-42 || Lk. 11:31-32). So this “standing up in the judgment,” which refers to a specifically judicial eschatological context, is first and foremost the act of appearing in God’s court (cf. Dan. 7:9-10, 17-18, 23-27) to argue that if the ancient residents of Nineveh or Ethiopia don’t get to (be resurrected to) take part in the glorious age of Messiah’s kingdom, then neither should the towns in Israel that rejected Jesus. The possibility that resurrection is not in view here is supported by the fact that Jesus says in a similar saying that Capernaum “will go down to Hades” after being condemned at the coming judgment (see Mt. 11:22-23 || Lk. 10:14-15). This is an odd thing to say if they are to be imagined as having just come up out of Hades by being resurrected. The next stop for the resurrected unrepentant is presumably Gehenna in Jesus’ eschatological scheme, not Hades.
Acts 24:15, in which Paul affirms his hope “that there is going to be resurrection of both righteous and wicked” (Gr. anastasin mellein esesthai nekrōn dikaiōn te kai adikōn) can easily be taken as affirming a single universal resurrection. But given the fact that the Pharisee sect (of which Paul was a member) seems not to have believed that the wicked would be raised at the dawning of the glorious messianic age, this is equally readable as affirming the what of the matter rather than the when.
John 5:28-29 is somewhat harder to read as stating a what rather than a when.
Don’t be shocked by this—a moment is coming in which all those in the tombs will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and they are going to come out: those who have done the good things will come out for a resurrection of life, but those who have done the bad things will come out for a resurrection of judgment.
In my opinion this is the most awkward passage for a premillennial eschatological model. Nonetheless, if a reader knows, coming to these verses, that there will be resurrection for all but not on the same occasion, then Jesus can be understood the same way one would understand a high school principal speaking to the entire student body at the beginning of the school year and saying, “There will come a moment when all of you who are sitting here will walk out the door of this high school for the last time. Those who have done their best will walk out with a diploma, and those who have goofed around will walk out with nothing.”
So we see that the evidence from the NT outside of Revelation as to whether there will be a single general resurrection or two resurrections (one for the faithful and a later one for the unrepentant) is mixed rather than decisive. It’s therefore reasonable to come to Revelation with an open mind on this subject.
Basic Exegesis of Revelation 20
Revelation 20 begins with “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan,” being captured, chained, and imprisoned in chains in the abyss, with the abyss being shut (or locked) and sealed over him by an angel “for a thousand years” (20:2). The purpose of this imprisonment is “so that he will not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years are ended” (20:3). Serial readers of Revelation will know that this represents a second stage of defeat for the devil. In Revelation 12 the devil was seen being defeated in heaven, and thrown down to earth along with the rebellious angelic hosts loyal to him:
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Rev. 12:9)
Immediately after this defeat in heaven, we saw the devil marauding around the earth in a rage trying to kill the community of the faithful, and then we saw him recruiting “the beast” as his avatar to deceive all the nations on earth into worshiping him and into prosecuting a global—and successful—campaign to make war on all followers of Jesus Christ (12:12b–13:10). The period of the devil’s freedom on earth to deceive and manipulate the nations was said to be “short” (12:12b), and was in a few different ways quantified as three and a half years (12:6, 14), which turned out to correspond exactly to the period of the divinely permitted persecuting activity of the beast (13:5; cf. 11:2, 3). Thus as readers we were given to understand that when the beast’s career came to an end on the earth, so also would the devil’s freedom (“his time,” 12:12) come to an end on the earth.
At the end of the beast’s career he betrays his people, Babylon the Great, colluding with eastern kings to destroy her by fire (17:16-18; cf. 18:1–19:3). Finally, in concert with the devil and the “false prophet,” his spokesman, he prepares to “make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (17:14). The devil, the beast, and the false prophet plan to fight against Jesus by recruiting the leaders of all (surviving) nations:
And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (Rev. 16:13-14)
We finally see this battle in 19:11-21, when the beast and “the kings of the earth” gather to oppose Jesus as he comes in glory to take up his fully manifested kingship on the earth. We see the beast captured and incinerated in a pool of fire (recalling Dan. 7:11), and we see “the rest” (19:21) of those arrayed against Jesus “slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (19:21), whom we know to be Jesus. Who are “the rest”? We have just heard that they are “kings…captains…mighty men…all men, both free and slave, both small and great” (19:18).
The end of the beast’s short career on the earth has come, and with it the end of all rebellious humanity—every single unrepentant person from the bottom of the social ladder to the top. We now fully expect to witness the capture of Satan, and this is exactly what we do see. He too is captured, but unlike the beast and false prophet, who were incinerated on the spot, he is imprisoned in the underworld. There he joins all those whom Jesus has just slain. They all now subsist in Hades, the underworld prison of (unrepentant) humans who die as mortals, awaiting their release by Christ through resurrection (cf. 1:18; 6:8).
In Rev. 19:17–20:3 John is seeing the scene prophesied by Isaiah:
21On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.
23Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders. (Isa. 24:21-23)
As readers of Revelation, we know that the Lord’s coming in glory to manifest his kingdom fully and finally on the earth is also Jesus’ coming in glory to reign on the earth with his faithful ones as the Lord’s chosen Messiah (2:26-28; 3:21; 5:10). This glorious shared Parousia occasions “the judgment of the living and the dead.” The readers have already heard the heavenly elders say,
We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth. (11:14-15)
Now in Revelation 19 we’ve seen the devil (and presumably his angels) and all the unrepentant living judged and removed from the earth (19:17–20:3); next we expect to see the dead judged, because we know that the judgment of the living and the judgment of the dead both occur when God and Jesus come to make their glorious kingdom manifest on the earth. And this is what we next see:
4Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. 5They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.
6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (20:4-6)
This is a courtroom scene, a judgment scene. The matter to be decided concerns all of the dead: who is worthy to be resurrected and to receive the kingdom of the earth with Christ (cf. Dan. 7:9-10, 25-27; Lk. 20:35)? The expected answer is, all the faithful. But on the surface it looks as though the only ones chosen for resurrection are those who have been martyred by the beast or at least killed in some circumstance for their loyalty to Jesus or to the truth of God (20:4b). Is there room in this scene for non-martyrs (e.g. on the thrones, or in the phrase, “those who had not worshiped the beast…”)? Perhaps. But John’s vision seems to be just about as radical Jesus’ statement, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:27). At the very least, John’s way of narrating this scene seems intentionally to discourage Christians from hoping that they can survive the beast’s regime without facing martyrdom.
John says something striking about the fate of “the rest of the dead”: they did not come to life—that is, they were denied resurrection and were therefore sentenced to age-long incarceration in Hades—“until the thousand years were ended.” In Greek, this phrase is the exact same five-word phrase that John used in 20:3 to describe the length of the devil’s incarceration period during which he would be kept from deceiving the nations. We are therefore given to suspect that when the devil is released from the underworld, the unrepentant nations will also be released, by resurrection, and that when they are released by resurrection the unrepentant dead will fall under the devil’s deception all over again. Nonetheless, for the duration of the thousand years, the devil and rebellious humans languish together as prisoners in the underworld, and the devil no longer has the ability to impress, much less deceive, anyone (Isa. 24:21-22; cf. the dynamics in Isa. 14:3-19). Then, says John,
7When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they came up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them. (20:7-9)
John explains what he understands is going to happen next (vv. 7-8a), then he sees a vision of it happening (vv. 8b-9). The rebellious nations had been in the process of attacking the Lord Jesus and his faithful ones when he came in glory (17:13-14; 19:11-21), but they were all slain, removing them from the earth and sending them to the underworld along with the devil. Now they seem to be back again, deceived as before (20:3) into attacking the saints full force. They “come up” onto the earth from the abyss and form up to besiege the Beloved City. This time, rather than having success in their attack, as they did under the beast (13:7), they suffer instant and complete incineration in a deluge of fire before they can do anything to harm the saints. John’s vision is not only similar in general to Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 26:9b-11, but it is expressed in a way that verbally alludes to it:
9bFor when your judgments are in the earth,the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.10If favor is shown to the wicked,he does not learn righteousness;in the land of uprightness he deals corruptlyand does not see the majesty of the Lord.11O Lord, your hand is lifted up,but they do not see it.Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed.
Let the fire for your adversaries consume them. (Isa. 26:9b-11)
Note the context for this particular oracle. All of godless humanity, with the implicit exception of the faithful remnant, has broken the “everlasting covenant” and has perished along with the earth itself (Isa. 24:1-20). The rebellious angelic hosts, together with the leaders of rebellious humanity, have been captured and imprisoned in the underworld together for “many days,” anticipating a later final judgment (Isa. 24:21-22). The Lord has taken up his glorious reign on Zion, and has invited the faithful from all nations to his enthronement banquet; for them separation from God and death and crying are no more (Isa. 24:23–25:10a). Enemies have been thrown down and have been left swimming around in their own filth (Isa. 25:1-5, 10b-12; 26:5-6). Zion is now completely secure because God, its glorious King, is its protector (Isa. 26:1-4, 7-8).
Who, then, can these people be, who “learned righteousness” (Heb. lamad tsedeq) when the Lord came in glory as King and Judge of the nations (26:9b), but after all did not learn righteousness (Heb. bal-lamad tsedeq, 26:10)? And what is the favor that is shown to them that they are even able to set foot in “the land of uprightness” (26:10)? The answer, when we read Isa. 26:9-11 in parallel with Rev. 20:7-8 as John invites us to do, is they are the resurrected unrepentant, and the favor or mercy that they have been granted is the undeserved favor of resurrection.
John has laced a dozen or more allusions and intimate thematic connections to Isaiah 24–27 into Revelation 19–21. Yet John makes one little cross-reference to Ezekiel 38 in Rev. 20:8. He calls the nations that come up on the broad plain of the earth “Gog and Magog.” Just as in John and Isaiah’s visions, the wicked are allowed by God to show up in the context of the glorious Kingdom of God (and Messiah, Ezek. 37:22-28); as in John and Isaiah’s visions, they are self-deceived into thinking they can attack the community of the saints with impunity; just as in John and Isaiah’s visions, they have not the slightest chance to do harm before being removed by fire. Here is the Gog and Magog scene of Ezekiel 38 with 37:25-28, the immediately preceding verses, for context:
25They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. 26I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. 27My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.
38:1The word of the Lord came to me: 2“Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him.”…
8After many days you [Gog] will be mustered. In the latter years you will go against the land that is restored from war, the land whose people were gathered from many peoples upon the mountains of Israel, which had been a continual waste. Its people were brought out from the peoples and now dwell securely, all of them. 9You will advance, coming on like a storm. You will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you.
10“Thus says the Lord God: On that day, thoughts will come into your mind, and you will devise an evil scheme 11and say, ‘I will go up against the land of unwalled villages. I will fall upon the quiet people who dwell securely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having no bars or gates,’
14“Therefore, son of man, prophesy, and say to Gog, Thus says the Lord God: On that day when my people Israel are dwelling securely, will you not know it?…
18But on that day, the day that Gog shall come against the land of Israel, declares the Lord God, my wrath will be roused in my anger. 19For in my jealousy and in my blazing wrath I declare, On that day there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. 22With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples who are with him torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur.
It is important to notice that the oracle of Ezekiel 38 refers four times (see the bold phrases above) to the fact that this attack takes place at a time and under conditions when the faithful have long been living in peace and security in their land. Gog’s incursion must therefore be understood (as it was, indeed, unanimously understood by ancient rabbis), as taking place in context of the “everlasting covenant of peace” that attends the everlasting kingdom of Messiah that forms the immediate context (37:22-28; cf. Isa. 26:1-4; 27:2-3).
Notice that God says to Gog, “after many days you will be judged.” This phrase is made up of the same four Hebrew words (with two of the words, “days” and “many,” transposed) as the phrase that summarizes the prospect for the rebellious human and angelic forces imprisoned in the underworld in Isa. 24:22: “after many days they will be judged.” By naming the satanically deceived nations “Gog and Magog,” John is leaving us a hint that he understands Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 26:10-11, Ezekiel’s oracle in Ezek. 38:1-23, and his own vision in Rev. 20:7-10 as revealing the same thing: the resurrection and final, fiery destruction of the unrepentant. In Isaiah’s vision of the end of humanity in the current age, just as in Revelation 19 (cf. Rev. 6:12-17), there is no room for ordinary people surviving the total collapse of the planet (Isa. 24:17-20). Thus the identity that is closest at hand and most workable for those who are shown favor but who turn to attack the faithful in Isa. 26:10 is those imprisoned in the pit at the Lord’s coming in glory in Isa. 24:21-23.
This raises the question, what does it mean to say that those released from the prison of the pit are shown grace?
It is typical for Bible interpreters to assume that the reason for the resurrection of the unrepentant is for them to face judgment and punishment for their misdeeds in mortal life. The moment of their resurrection is not, under this assumption, a moment of grace and mercy, but a moment of justice without mercy. I have argued for the possibility that the judgment at Christ’s coming in glory decrees either resurrection or refusal of resurrection according to what people have done in their mortal lives (Lk. 14:14; 20:35; Phil. 3:11; Rev. 20:4-5). The obvious logical consequence for a created being that misuses the gift of life and/or abuses its fellow created beings is to be uncreated, removed from the community of creation. However, if God decrees a just and fair chastisement for misdeeds done in mortal life, and thereafter grants the chastised ones an opportunity to start again in resurrection, then resurrection is indeed an act of grace and unmerited favor. It is still “a resurrection of judgment,” in the sense that the resurrected ones will be judged, evaluated, on the basis of what they do with the undeserved gift of renewed life and agency. We see in Isa. 26:9-11 and Rev. 20:7-10 that the devil and the unrepentant judge themselves unworthy of life even more blatantly than in their former life. This is the last judgment, leading to the second death. There is no coming back from this death.
I see the device of recapitulation as a major literary feature of Revelation. This book calls itself “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1), and accordingly John is shown the glorious revelation of Jesus that we call “the second coming” many times, under many figures, and in many traditional prophetic idioms. Observing the principle of recapitulation at play, I understand that John has a second vision of the events of Rev. 20:4-10 in Rev. 20:11-15. First he sees the judgment according to works done in mortal life, which takes place at Jesus’ coming in glory:
11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Rev. 20:11-12)
Readers have already seen the creation dissolving and fleeing in the presence of the throne of God as he appears in judgment in 6:12-14 and again in 16:17-20. This is a third vision of the same appearance. Just as the living were judged according to their deeds as mortals in 6:12-14 and 16:17-20, so the dead are judged in the universal judgment according to their doings in mortal life. The consequence for unworthy behavior is implied to be that one’s name is not written in the Book of Life, which is to say, one is excluded from the citizen rolls of the New Jerusalem, the resurrected community of the faithful. John then sees another stage of the judgment:
13And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:13-15)
John now sees the dead, who had been removed from mortal life and/or excluded from the gift of resurrection at the judgment that attended Christ’s coming in glory (19:17-21; 20:4-5, 11-12), drawn up out of the realms of the dead by resurrection and judged “each according to their deeds” (20:13), and cast into the pool of fire. This is the same pool of fire that presumably resulted from the deluge of fire came down from heaven upon the resurrected unrepentant and consumed them in 20:9-10.
Why do we appear to have a second, condensed version of the final judgment and fiery destruction of the unrepentant here in 20:13-15? I submit that John is shown first the corporate judgment of the living at Christ’s coming in glory pictured in terms of conflict (19:17-21), then the individual judgment of the same people pictured in courtroom imagery (20:4-5, 11-12). Similarly, he is first shown the corporate judgment of the resurrected unrepentant as a conflict (20:7-10), then the judgment of the individual actors as a courtroom proceeding (20:13-15). The truth being revealed is that human beings are social and corporate to the depths of their being. We are designed to have our identity within and to function as organic community. That is why Paul calls the community of the faithful the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12, 15; 5:23), and why the community of the faithful is pictured as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:29-32; Rev. 19:7-8; 21:2, 9-10). This is also why the judgment of the living at Christ’s coming is pictured both in corporate and individual terms; correspondingly, the final judgment of the unrepentant dead takes place on both the corporate and the individual level; it is at once a confrontation in front of the Beloved City and a courtroom proceeding in front of God’s great white (or shining) throne.
Rev. 21:1-8; 21:9–22:5
New creation millennialism embraces recapitulation as a well-established option for interpreting the relationship between vision-scenes in Revelation. Thus it does not resist seeing the dissolution of the current heavens and earth and the destruction of all unrepentant humanity taking place at Christ’s (and his Father’s) coming in glory (Rev. 6:12-17; cf. 2 Pet. 3:7-13). Likewise, new creation millennialism acknowledges and embraces the many clear indications in Rev. 21:1-8 that this is yet another revelation of Christ’s and his Father’s coming in glory—this time with the Bride. This implies not only that the Beloved City of Rev. 20:9 is identical with the New Jerusalem, but also that that the resurrection of the unrepentant is to be understood as taking place on earth in the context of the new heavens and the new earth, which is to say, the new creation. Hence new creation millennialism.
Controversial but Well-Grounded Conclusions
I understand that new creation millennialism clashes with nearly everyone’s eschatological models. The only relevant question is, is it biblical? The answer is, it is 100% biblical, even down to the radical idea that resurrection is granted to the unrepentant as an act of grace, rather than strictly as a prelude to judging and punishing them for past misdeeds.
Let’s start with the assertion that the final judgment and destruction of the unrepentant occurs in the context of an attempted siege of the New Jerusalem in the setting of the new creation. Do you want 100% biblical? Coming up.
17See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. (Isa. 65:17-19)
22“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isa. 66:22-24)
This depiction of the last judgment of the wicked is well in line with the typical last judgment scene of the OT. Nearly always the final disposition of the enemies of God is pictured as a great battle in which the Lord defeats for the final time the enemies of the faithful. Christians are in the habit of jettisoning this imagery in favor of the idea of a final judgment that is abstracted from the creation, entirely focused on the individual, and more or less totally passive on the part of those being judged. New creation millennialism reconnects the OT picture of final judgment to the NT language and imagery of final judgment and explains why the courtroom imagery and the battle imagery are both necessary and relevant.
Now, finally, let’s confront the single most radical implication of new creation millennialism: the idea that the resurrection of those ultimately destined to be destroyed is an act of grace and mercy, rather than an act expressing God’s wrath. All that is needed in order to prove the claim that this concept is 100% biblical is for new creation millennialism to be given the same interpretative right as all proponents of conditional immortality claim when they interpret Jesus’ appeal to “Gehenna, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” by going to Isaiah’s prophecy and reading it in context (see Mk 9:48, citing Isa. 66:24). John, in Revelation, like Jesus, unmistakably points to a key prophecy of Isaiah about the final end of the unrepentant, and unless you read that in context you will not understand his prophecy.
1In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.
2In that day, “A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
3I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone punish it, I keep it night and day;
4I have no wrath. Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would march against them, I would burn them up together.
5Or let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me.” (Isa. 27:1-5)
In Rev. 20:1 John says an angel laid hold of “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan,” an explicit reference to Isa. 27:1. But because in context John does not refer to the final slaying of the devil at that point but only his long imprisonment along with the kings of the earth (Rev. 19:17–20:3 || Isa. 24:21-22), he effectively points ahead to the above passage as prophetic background to his own vision of the final end of the devil (20:7-10).
What is the mentality of the Lord towards those who might be contemplating attacking his beloved people, pictured here as his vineyard? The Lord’s self-confession is that he has no wrath towards them. He has no desire or intention to condemn or harm them—indeed, he fervently desires reconciliation and peace with them. The only thing that will get on his bad side is to try to do harm to his faithful ones—in which case you will go up in a ball of fire like so many tumbleweeds. This is the last encounter between the Lord and the enemies of his beloved, and it is, just as Isaiah characterizes it in 26:10, a moment of grace.
Theological and Exegetical Problems Solved
The new creation millennialism interpretative approach to Revelation 19–22, in addition to solving the thorniest problems of the amillennial and premillennial eschatological models, also solves a number of other problems both exegetical and theological. For example:
Last Penny Sayings
New creation millennialism makes sense of Jesus’ sayings that characterize the fate that the unrepentant will suffer at the judgment of the living and the dead as a very long imprisonment from which they can eventually expect to be released (cf. Mt. 5:25-26 || Lk. 12:57-59; Mt. 18:21-25). Such sayings, along with Mt. 25:41, 46 (cf. Isa. 24:21-22), refer in this model to the intermediate state of the unrepentant after they have been judged for their deeds as mortals (at Christ’s coming in glory, at the start of the thousand years) and before they have been resurrected.
The Breach Between OT and NT Pictures of Final Judgment
New creation millennialism re-unites and integrates the OT pictures of the final fate of the unrepentant with the two NT pictures of the resurrection and final judgment of the unrepentant (Rev. 20:7-10, 13-15). Isaiah 66 in this model becomes not just a context-less proof text for arguing that the unrepentant suffer death rather than ongoing torment, but a picture which (when read alongside Isa. 26:9b-11, 20-21; 27:1-5; 57:19-21; Rev. 20:7-10) explains the how and the why of their final annihilation: they attack the holy community of the resurrected faithful in the context of the new creation, proving themselves incorrigible and necessitating their annihilation.
Christ, Through Whom All Rise
New creation millennialism makes sense of Jesus’ and Paul’s statements that imply that in some sense resurrection, even in the case of the unrepentant, is a gift granted by the grace and life-power of Jesus, the Source of Life (Jn 5:25-29; Rom. 5:15-19; 1 Cor. 15:21-28; Rev. 1:18)
New and Unique Evidence for Conditional Immortality
New creation millennialism offers a weighty argument on the side of conditional immortality by observing that fire coming down from heaven and devouring those who attack the community of the faithful (Rev. 20:7-10; cf. Isa. 26:10-11; 27:1-5) is a picture of the same fate as the resurrected unrepentant being judged by their actions and being cast into the pool of fire (Rev. 20:13-15). This identification, together with John’s interpretation, “This is the second death, the pool of fire” (20:14), solidifies our understanding that the fate of the stubbornly unrepentant is to be slain with finality, expunged from the creation, annihilated.
God’s Love, Mercy, and Judgment
New creation millennialism, by responding to the biblical revelation that the resurrection of the unrepentant is a gift, the gift of a last (undeserved) chance to make peace with God and live in peace and harmony in God’s creation, makes it possible to understand that God truly loves his enemies—and not only in some threadbare sense of temporarily permitting them to exist. Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5:43-48) arises from God’s deepest character, which we are to imitate. Is this idea 100% biblical? It certainly is.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. (Ps. 145:8-9)
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Resources for Further Reading
Gregory K. Beale, “Review Article: J.W. Mealy After the Thousand Years,” EQ 66 (3, 1994), 229-49.
J. Webb Mealy, “A Brief Commentary on Isaiah 24–27” (12 pages, online). This commentary demonstrates that the way in which I see John interpreting Isaiah 24–27 in Revelation works on the passage’s own terms. It is available at my website: www.simplegospel.com/docs/Brief_Commentary_on_Isaiah_24-27_01.pdf.
— After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (JSNTSup, 70; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). This is a fully technical scholarly treatment of Revelation 19–21. Available as an e-book from Bloomsbury. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/after-the-thousand-years-9780567186591/
— The Bad Place: Or, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Hell, but were Afraid to Ask (draft, 162 pages). This is a shorter and more popular-level version of the argument that is made exhaustively in The End of the Unrepentant. It is available online at www.simplegospel.com/docs/TheBadPlace.pdf
— The End of the Unrepentant: A Study of the Biblical Themes of Fire and Being Consumed (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013). A thorough, but more accessible, study supporting the same conclusions as After the Thousand Years, taking into account all biblical passages about fire and being consumed.
— New Creation Millennialism (draft, 126 pages). This is a short scholarly monograph that contains the full exegetical presentation of which this piece for RH is a taster. It also contains powerful refutations of both historic/dispensational premillennialism and amillennialism. It includes a survey of ancient interpreters and modern scholars who have taken the new creation millennialism approach, and a very brief treatment of (partial) preterism. This monograph is available online at www.simplegospel.com/docs/NewCreationMillennialism.pdf.
— “Revelation is One: Revelation 20 and the Quest to Make the Scriptures Agree,” in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament (ed. B.E. Reynolds, B. Lugioyo, and K.J. Vanhoozer; WUNT 2.369; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 131-53. This article contains my rebuttal of Gregory Beale’s main criticisms of After the Thousand Years and a critique of Beale’s own amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 (as showcased in Beale’s The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999]). It is available online at www.simplegospel.com/docs/Revelation_is_One_Mealy_Offprint_2014.pdf.
- G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids & Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1999). ↑
- I first presented my view in the technical monograph After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20 (JSNTSup, 70; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992). You can read Beale’s review article online here: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1994-3_229.pdf. I respond to his critiques in the last section of my article, “Revelation is One: Revelation 20 and the Quest to Make the Scriptures Agree,” in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament (ed. B.E. Reynolds, B. Lugioyo, and K.J. Vanhoover; WUNT, II.369; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 131-53, viewable online at www.simplegospel.com/docs/Revelation_is_One_Mealy_Offprint_2014.pdf. ↑
- “Review Article: J.W. Mealy, After the Thousand Years,” EvQ 66:3 (1994), 229-49 (230). ↑
- Review, 248. ↑
- Review, 248. ↑
- Strong’s #G1815. ↑
- Strong’s #G450. ↑
- Strong’s #H5324; #H5975; #H6965. ↑
- The Greek noun hōra (Strong’s #G5610), “hour,” used in Jn 5:28-29, when it is not specifically used to quantify an hour’s length of time, functions very similarly to the way the word “moment” functions in this sentence. ↑
- I.e. all people, not just all males. ↑
- The distinction between “the abyss” and “Hades” is terminological rather than cosmological. People who die can be said to have gone to the abyss (Rom. 10:7; Rev. 11:7; 17:8) as well as Hades (Lk. 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14), but it is not conventional to speak of angelic or demonic beings going to Hades. ↑
- Heb. paqad, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6485&t=ESV ↑
- As in v. 21, the verb here is paqad. ↑
- See Mt. 16:27; Acts 10:42; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5; Rev. 22:12. ↑
- We are probably to understand that the all the faithful, living and dead, were with Jesus as he was judging the nations (cf. Rev. 2:26-27; 19:8, 14-15). ↑
- ESV has “marched,” but the Greek verb is anabainō, which means to come up or go up, not to march. This word is used in Revelation for people going up to heaven from the earth (4:1; 11:12), for smoke rising (8:4; 14:11; 19:3), for smoke coming up out of the underworld abyss (9:2), for the beast, who had a fatal wound that was healed, coming up out of the abyss in a real or counterfeit resurrection (11:7; 17:8), for the beast’s coming up out of the sea, which has the same symbolism of resurrection from the underworld (13:1), and for the second beast’s (the false prophet’s) coming up “out of the earth,” an image extremely suggestive of a real or false resurrection on his part as well (13:11). ↑
- We will later come to understand that the Beloved City is the Bride, the New Jerusalem (cf. 19:7-9; 21:1-3; 21:9–22:5). ↑
- Heb. chanan, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2603&t=ESV. This word could equally be translated as mercy, or grace, or even agape love. It is closely associated with the other key Hebrew words characterizing God’s love, chesed (Strong’s #H2617), and racham (Strong’s #H7355). See Exod. 33:19; Ps. 51:1; 77:9; 109:12; Isa. 27:11; 30:18; Mal. 1:9. ↑
- A better translation would be does wrong, or acts wickedly, Heb ‘aval, Strong’s #H5765 (cf. #H5766). ↑
- The Hebrew word tsava’, as in YHWH tsaba ↑
- See Isa. 24:8 || Rev. 18:22; Isa. 24:14-16a || Rev. 19:1-2; Isa. 24:21-22 || Rev. 19:19–20:3; Isa. 24:23 || Rev. 21:23; 22:5; Isa. 25:1-2 || Rev. 18:2, 21; 19:3; Isa. 25:7-8 || Rev. 21:1-4; Isa. 26:10-11 || Rev. 20:8-9; Isa. 26:19 || Rev. 20:4; Isa. 26:14 || Rev. 20:5; Isa. 26:20-21 || Rev. 20:8-9; Isa. 27:1 || Rev. 20:2, 10; Isa. 27:1-5 || Rev. 20:7-10. ↑
- See, e.g., Pes. K. 28. ↑
- Heb. paqad; ESV has “mustered,” implying that God will draw the hosts of Gog into “the land restored from war” (lit. “restored from the sword”). ↑
- In Isa. 24:22 it is ūmerov yamīm yippaqdū, and in Ezek. 38:8 it is mīyamīm rabbīm tippaqed. The four words are (1) the preposition min, meaning after in these cases; (2) the noun yōm, day, in the plural, (3) the adjective rab, many; and (4) the verb paqad, in Isaiah appearing in the niphal imperfect third person masculine plural and in Ezekiel appearing in the niphal imperfect second person masculine singular. The expression “many days” can refer to a period of a month or so all the way to thousands of years (for the long end of the spectrum, see Dan. 8:26; Hos. 3:4-5). ↑
- I regard all of the following visions as revelations of Jesus’ coming in glory in its various aspects: Rev. 6:12-17; 8:5; 11:15-19; 14:1-5; 14:14-16; 14:17-20; 16:17-21; 19:6-9; 19:11-21; 20:1-6; 20:11-12; 21:1-8; 21:9–22:5. ↑
- It is to be noted that John does not actually say that he sees earth and heaven flee from him who sits on the throne in 20:11. He says, “And I saw a throne, great and white/shining, and upon it sat he from whose face earth and heaven fled…” John is identifying the Enthroned One rather than narrating the fleeing of earth and heaven. ↑
- The Greek word limnē does not usually mean a lake, despite the usual English translation. It normally connotes a pool left after a downpour (Rev. 20:9, 10; cf. Ps. 107:35) or a pool in a river (Dan. 7:10-11) or an architecturally constructed pool (Song 7:4). The Sea of Galilee, called a thalassa (Strong’s #G2281) in the other gospels, is for some reason called a limnē (Strong’s #G3041) by Luke. ↑
- The Greek adjective leukos (Strong’s #G3022) doesn’t just mean white; it also means bright or shining. Astute readers of Revelation will realize when they come to read Revelation 21 that the Great White Throne is identical with the New Jerusalem. Just as “he who sat on the throne” was compared to a jasper stone in Rev. 4:3, the ancient lapidary equivalent of a diamond, so the light source (not the “brilliance”; Gr. phōstēr, Strong’s #G5458, means the light that shines on something, not the light that something gives off) of the New Jerusalem is said to be like a precious jasper in Rev. 21:11—after all, “she had the glory of God,” and “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (21:23). Not to mention the fact that in the age to come Jerusalem will be called “The Throne of the Lord” (Jer. 3:17; cf. Jer. 17:12). ↑
- Cf. Rev. 21:4. ↑
- With the partial exception of Daniel 7, which has both courtroom and battle imagery. That scene also seems not to present a “last” judgment because it speaks of the rest of the “beasts,” symbolic of ungodly empires, being given an extension of life “until a [certain] time and season” (Dan. 7:12). ↑
- See, e.g. in addition to Isa. 66:22-24, Ps. 110:5-6; Isa. 26:10-11, 20-21; 27:1-5; 34:1-10; Ezek. 38:1-17; 39:1-29; Joel 3:1-2, 9-16; Zeph. 3:8. ↑
- Or, more literally, “Would someone bring me thorns and briers to battle?” This can be read (and ESV translators have read it) as a request. I read it the way I read Jn 13:27, as saying “Do what you’re going to do.” ↑
- These are the final verses of the Isaiah Apocalypse (Isa. 24:1–27:5). ↑
- For this figure, see Isa. 3:14; 5:1-7; Jer. 12:10; Mt. 20:1-41; Mk 12:1-9; Lk. 20:9-16. ↑
- For reasons of brevity I will not go on here to explicate Isa. 57:19-21, which tells the same story about God’s loving mentality towards those who will never allow themselves to be reconciled. Please read it. ↑
- I cannot, without going on far too long, detail these problems here. Suffice it to say, in the case of amillennialism, that its choice to see Rev. 20:1-3 as a recapitulation of Rev. 12:3-12 both (1) breaks apart the integrated context (cf. Isa. 24:21-22) and (2) makes the long time of the devil’s complete impotence in relation to deceiving the nations so as to gather them together to attack the saints (Rev. 20:1-3) identical to the short time of the devil’s complete success in deceiving the nations into attacking the saints (Rev. 13:1-17). No greater contradiction can be posed than this. ↑
- Taking the word aiōnios (Strong’s #G166) as meaning “for an age” or “for a very long time” in Mt. 25:41, 46 creates a problem of its own, but it is more of a rhetorical/persuasive problem rather than an exegetical one. English Bible readers do not realize that aiōnios is with complete consistency in the OT used to translate ‘ōlam (Strong’s #H5769), and ‘ōlam not only means “for an age” on occasion, but also is clearly used for conditions that last a long time but are temporally bounded (e.g. Isa. 42:14; 57:11; 64:5; Jer. 17:4; Jon. 2:6). NT authors use aiōnios as OT authors use ‘ōlam. ↑