Amillennarians believe that Revelation 20:4-6 gives us a final biblical depiction of the Intermediate State. At the moment of their death the spirits of the saints who have persevered in the faith enter Heaven, where they come to the fullness and perfection of eternal life. The Holy Spirit identifies this special coming to life as “the first resurrection” because it is analogous to, and guarantees, a second resurrection (of the body) at the Lord’s return at the end of the age. Herein lies a great a hope for all Christians, a hope that will encourage and enable them to persevere in their difficult pilgrimage through the wilderness of this present world.
4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat upon them; and authority to judge had been given to them. And I saw the souls of those who were beheaded because of their testimony concerning Jesus, and because of the word of God. And I saw those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead or on their hand. And they all came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years had come to an end.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection: Over these the second death holds no sway, but they will be priests of God and of Christ; and they will reign with him (throughout) the 1,000 years. — Revelation 20:4-6
BY AND LARGE, amillennial interpreters agree that in Revelation 20 the Holy Spirit, for a sixth and final time, has used Old and New Testament imagery to symbolize the Era of Gospel Proclamation: the bloc of time between Christ’s first and second advents.
Accordingly, this chapter also speaks of certain key eschatological events that will occur in that era. In particular, the first of its four sections speaks of the binding and imprisonment of Satan at the beginning of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). The second speaks of the First Resurrection and the blessings of those who reign with Christ throughout the 1,000 years. Correspondingly, it also speaks of the Second Death of persons who did not attain the First Resurrection or the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). The third section speaks of the Last Battle and the judgment of Satan, set to occur at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:7-10). The fourth and final section speaks of the Judgment of all mankind at the Great White Throne, which also occurs at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:11-15).
In this essay I want to focus on the second section of Revelation 20, found in verses 4-6. Of the four, this is certainly the most difficult and controversial, and therefore merits special consideration. I will begin by offering my own amillennial interpretation, after which I will interact with premillennial views and defend mine at greater length.
An Amillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6
John has opened the chapter by giving us a revelation of the binding and imprisonment of Satan, both of which will last for 1000 years. Here the Spirit is using the number 1000 symbolically: it is a sign, signifying the entire era of Gospel Proclamation (Rev. 1:1). This era began when Jesus Christ—through his atoning death, resurrection, session, and ensuing heavenly reign—bound (i.e., restrained) Satan from deceiving the nations any longer (John 12, 2 Thess. 2, Rev. 12). Henceforth, Satan can no longer deceive God’s worldwide elect in such a way as to keep them in his thrall, and prevent them from coming to Christ. Similarly, he cannot (yet) deceive the multitude of unregenerate persons in such a way as to gather them together for the Last Battle against Christ and the Church (Rev. 20:7-10). Here we are told that this era will last a long time (1000), but only long enough for the triune God (3) to complete (10) the ingathering of his people (10 x 10 x 10). Once that is accomplished, the end will come (Matt. 24:14).
Having opened the chapter in this way, the Holy Spirit now addresses a question that will naturally arise in the minds of every believer. One thousand years speaks of a long time. What will happen to the saints who die during that season? Our text supplies the answer. The amillennial interpretation is as follows:
Those whom John sees seated on thrones are souls: the souls of the saints who remained faithful to Christ throughout their portion of the Era of Proclamation, died, and entered Heaven (v. 4). In partial fulfillment of Daniel 7:9, at the moment of their death authority to judge was given to them; that is, God authorized them to participate with Christ in the Judgment (v. 4).
Some of these saints died as martyrs, but all were loyal to the Word of God (v. 4). All refused to worship the Beast (i.e., the self-deifying, anti-Christian State); all refused to worship the image of the Beast (i.e., to participate in the religious cultus of the anti-Christian State) (v. 4); and all refused to take the mark of the Beast upon their forehead or their hand (i.e., to identify themselves, in thought and deed, as loyal followers of the Beast).
As a result of their covenant loyalty to the Lord, these saints “came to life and reigned with Christ during the 1,000 years” (v. 4). That is, at the moment of their death God raised their souls to spiritual perfection for life in Heaven with Christ throughout the (remainder of the) Intermediate State. The Holy Spirit identifies this spiritual coming to life as “the first resurrection”. Later on, at the end of the 1,000 years, this spiritual coming to life will be followed by a physical coming to life; the first (spiritual) resurrection will be consummated by a second (bodily) resurrection that will equip the saints for the fullness of human life in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 5).
In speaking of these things, and by way of a warning to all, the Holy Spirit also mentions here the destiny of unbelievers. They too will “come to life,” but only at the end of the 1,000 years, when their souls, previously in Hades, are joined to resurrection bodies and then subjected to “the second death,” which is the Lake of Fire (vv. 5, 14).
Our passage concludes with John identifying three blessings that God has prepared for the saints who attain the first resurrection.
First, the second death now holds no sway [lit. has no authority] over them.