Home > Christ's kingdom, The 1,000 years > B. B. Warfield on the Millennium

B. B. Warfield on the Millennium

December 23, 2011

Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. He discussed his views on the thousand years of Revelation 20 in a lecture entitled The Millennium and the Apocalypse. [1] Warfield quoted Klieforth’s comment: “because the so-called millennium is included in its compass, it has been more than any other part of the book tortured by tendency-exposition into a variety of divergent senses.” [2] He observed: [3]

Nothing, indeed, seems to have been more common in all ages of the Church than to frame an eschatological scheme from this passage, imperfectly understood, and then to impose this scheme on the rest of the Scripture vi et armis.

Warfield’s millennium

Warfield wrote: [4]

What now is this thousand-year peace? It is certainly not what we have come traditionally to understand by the “millennium,” as is made evident by many considerations, and sufficiently so by this one: that those who participate in it are spoken of as mere “souls” (ver. 4)–“the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the Word of God.” It is not disembodied souls who are to constitute the Church during its state of highest development on earth, when the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. Neither is it disembodied souls who are thought of as constituting the kingdom which Christ is intending to set up in the earth after His advent, that they may rule with Him over the nations. And when we have said this, we are surely following hard on the pathway that leads to a true understanding of the vision. The vision, in one word, is a vision of the peace of those who have died in the Lord; and its message to us is embodied in the words of xiv. 13: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth”–of which passage the present is indeed only an expansion.

Warfield’s idea that the “souls” that John saw were disembodied has led to confusion. He evidently interpreted “soul” as the pagan Greeks did, that is, as an “immortal soul,” that remains conscious after death. But John did not say he saw disembodied souls; rather, I think John saw the “souls” of the saints in the sense of their “hearts and minds,” not “immortal souls.” Today we might speak of putting our “soul” into a project, or a performance, which implies sincerity, feeling, devotion, or dedication. There is a category of popular music called “soul music;” it contrasts with “elevator music.” The “souls” of those who were beheaded in John’s prophecy does not mean their dead bodies, or the so-called “immortal souls” of martyrs; it means their minds and hearts; they were not disembodied souls, as Warfield’s words subtly imply.

Warfield continued: [5]

The picture that is brought before us here is, in fine, the picture of the “intermediate state”–of the saints of God gathered in heaven away from the confused noise and garments bathed in blood that characterize the war upon earth, in order that they securely await the end. The thousand years, thus, is the whole of this present dispensation, which again is placed before us in its entirety, but looked at now relatively not what is passing on earth but to what is enjoyed “in Paradise.” For, this period between the advents is, on earth, a broken time–three and a half years, a “little time” (ver. 3)–which, amid turmoil and trouble, the saints are encouraged to look upon as of short duration, soon to be over. To the saints in bliss it is, on the contrary, a long and blessed period passing slowly and peacefully by, while they reign with Christ and enjoy the blessedness of holy communion with Him–“a thousand years.”

As noted by Warfield, John’s symbol for the whole of the Christian dispensation is three and a half years, not a thousand years. To say both refer to the inter-advent period is confusing, and Warfield is the one confused, not John. The prophetic symbol of three and a half years represents a relatively lengthy period, and John uses a much larger number, a thousand years, to represent the time span of the lives of individual saints, who are figuratively “beheaded,” meaning they submit to and yield to Christ as their Lord. Warfield himself admits this is the meaning of “beheaded.” He wrote: “The saints themselves, moreover, we are informed, have not attained their exultation and blessedness save through tribulation. They have all passed through the stress of this beast-beset life–have all been ‘beheaded’ for the testimony of Jesus.” [6]

To say that Satan is bound for saints who have died in Christ seems redundant. Yet that is how Warfield interpreted John’s words on the binding of Satan. Warfield wrote: [7]

The “binding of Satan” is therefore in reality not for a season but with reference to a sphere; and his “loosing” again is not after a period but in another sphere: it is not subsequence but exteriority that is suggested. There is, indeed, no literal “binding of Satan” to be thought of at all: what happens, happens not to Satan but to the saints, and is only represented as happening to Satan for the purposes of the symbolical picture. What actually happens is that the saints described are removed from the sphere of Satan’s assaults. The saints described are free from all access of Satan–he is bound with respect to them: outside of their charmed circle his horrid work goes on. This is indicated, indeed, in the very employment of the two symbols “a thousand years” and “a little time.” A “thousand years” is the symbol of heavenly completeness and blessedness; the “little time” of earthly turmoil and evil. Those in the “thousand years” are safe from enduring his attacks. And therefore he, though with respect to those in the thousand years bound, is not destroyed; and the vision accordingly requires to close with an account of his complete destruction, and of course this also must needs be presented in the narrative form of a release of Satan, the gathering of his hosts and their destruction from above.

Some of Warfield’s comments above resemble the idea employed in Discrete Millennialism, except that in Discrete Millennialism, Satan is bound in the present lives of saints who are alive and reign with Christ, and have his Spirit in them. It is not about Satan being bound when they die. It seems meaningless to claim Satan is bound for Saints who are deceased.

Souls under the altar

Warfield wrote: [8]

We are told that the seer saw “thrones, and those that sat upon them, and judgment was given to them.” Our Lord, we will remember, is uniformly represented as having been given a Messianic kingship in reward for His redemptive death, in order that He might carry out His mediatorial work to the end. Those who, being His, go away from the body and home to the Lord, are accordingly conceived by the seer as ascending the throne with Him to share His kingship–not forever, however, but for a thousand years, i.e., for the Messianic period. Then, when the last enemy has been conquered and He restores the kingdom to the Father, their co-reign with Him ceases, because His Messianic kingdom itself ceases. These reigning saints, now, are described as “souls”–a term which carries us back irresistably to vi. 9, where we read of “the souls of them that had been slain for the Word of God resting underneath the altar,” a passage of which the present is an expanded version.

John’s depiction of the souls of martyrs waiting under the altar in the 5th seal, Revelation 6:9, seems to contradict the idea that they are actually alive and reign with Christ as Warfield asserted.

Warfield wrote: [9]

To say that “the second death” has no power over the saints of whom he is here speaking is to say at once that they have already been subjected to the “first death,” which can mean only that they have suffered bodily death, and they are “saved souls” with their life hidden with Christ in God. That is to say, they are the blessed dead–the dwellers in the “intermediate state.”

In the above statement, Warfield seems to contradict Paul’s assertion that Christ only has immortality; “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.” [1 Timothy 6:16]

The chaining of Satan

Warfield wrote: [10]

The chaining of Satan is not in the event a preliminary transaction, on which the security of the saints follows: nor is the loosing of Satan a subsequent transaction, on which the security of the saints ceases. The saints rather escape entirely beyond the reach of Satan when they ascend to their Lord and take their seats on His throne by His side, and there they abide nevermore subject to his assaults. This is indeed suggested in the issue (ver. 9b), where the destruction of Satan is compassed by a fire from heaven and not through the medium of a battle with the saints. But while the saints abide in their security Satan, though thus “bound” relatively to them, is loosed relatively to the world–and that is what is meant by the statement in ver. 3c that “he must be loosed for a little time”–which is the symbol of the inter-advental period, in the world; and not less in vers. 7-10.

Here, Warfield equates the time Satan is loosed to the inter-advent period, which is the same time that he says the deceased saints reign with Christ.  So for Warfield, the time when Satan is bound corresponds to the time when he is loosed!

Warfield wrote: “Now it is quite certain that the number 1000 represents in Bible symbolism absolute perfection and completeness; and that the symbolism of the Bible includes also the use of a period of time in order to express the idea of greatness, in connection with thoroughness and completeness,” [11] but he ignored several Scriptures that mention a thousand years, which may have suggested an interpretation different to the one he proposed.

A dark spot

Warfield struggled to explain why John referred to the nations being deceived no more while Satan was bound, in verse 3, since in his view, the binding of Satan applied only to deceased saints reigning in heaven. He considered this problem “a dark spot in an otherwise lucid paragraph,” and said that its explanation would have to wait for further study. He wrote, referring to Revelation 20:3, [12]

The only real difficulty lies in the word “nations.” Should we not expect “saints” instead–for is it not merely with reference to the saints that Satan is supposed to be bound? And is not the word “nations” the standing denomination in the Apocalypse of precisely the anti-Christian hosts? The only solution that readily suggests itself turns on the supposition that the word “nations” may be used here is its wide inclusive sense, and not of “those without” in contrast with God’s people. The term “world” occurs in this double sense, and there seems no reason why “nations” should not also, especially since it is continually understood that the “nations” include God’s people in the making (xxii. 2). Possibly little more is intended to be conveyed by the phrase in verse 3 than “to bring out and express that aspect of Satan by which he is specially distinguished in the Apocalypse”–that is to say, to declare simply that “Satan the deceiver” was bound: and what is more than this belongs to the drapery of the symbolism. In ver. 8 it appears to have a slightly different turn given it. There is a special propriety in its suggesting in this context “those without” indeed, but those without not so much the circle of Christ’s people in general as Christ’s people as gathered into the secure haven of the intermediate state. In a word, it seems that we may understand the “nations” here, not of the anti-Christian world in contrast with the Christian, but of the world on earth in contrast with the saints gathered in Paradise. As such the “nations” may include Christians also, but Christians not yet departed to their security–nay their monarchy–with the Lord. If these suggestions be allowed, something will certainly be gained towards a suitable interpretation of the clause. But it cannot be pretended that a real solution of its difficulties has been offered in any case; it remains a dark spot in an otherwise lucid paragraph and must be left for subsequent study to explain.

Warfield concluded: “The millennium of the Apocalypse is the blessedness of the saints who have gone away from the body to be at home with the Lord.” [13]

In Discrete Millennialism, the binding of Satan applies to individuals who are alive, those who are figuratively “beheaded.” This relates to the nations not being deceived, because the Church is the “light of the word.” The Gospel that is preached by the enlightened saints is not a distorted one; it is free of the relics of pagan philosophy and superstition.

References

1. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. The Millennium and the Apocalypse. Princeton Theological Review. vol. 2 no. 4, 1904. 599-617.

2. Ibid., p. 599.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 604.

5. Ibid., p. 604-605.

6.  Ibid., p. 603-604.

7. Ibid., p. 605-606.

8. Ibid., p. 606.

9. Ibid., p. 607.

10. Ibid., p. 609-610.

11. Ibid., p. 608.

12. Ibid., p. 610-611.

13. Ibid., p. 615.

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