William Hendriksen on the thousand year reign
In order to arrive at a proper conception of Revelation 20:4-6, we must go back to the first century AD. Roman persecutions are raging. Martyrs are calmly laying their heads under the executioner’s sword. Paul had already done this; also James. Rather than say, “The Emperor is Lord”, or drop incense on the altar of a pagan priest as a token of worshipping the emperor, believers confess their Christ even in the midst of the flames and while they are thrown before the wild beasts in the Roman amphitheatres.
But Christ is not unmindful of His grievously afflicted disciples. He sustains them in order that they may remain faithful to the end. For that very reason He gives to His sorely-tried Church the vision of ‘the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus’ (Rev. 1:2,9; 6:9). He describes these souls — together with those of all departed Christians who had confessed their Lord upon earth — as reigning with Jesus in heaven. He says, in effect, ‘Here below: a few years of suffering: there, in that better land above, they live and reign with Christ a thousand years!’ What a comfort! Certainly, the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which is revealed to the souls of believers reigning with their exalted Lord in heaven!
Hendriksen’s notion that the prophecy is about the souls of “departed Christians” seems flawed. Instead, reigning with Christ is a privilege of the saints of every generation. John referred to their souls because he was depicting their spiritual condition, not because they were deceased.
Paul wrote: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:” [Ephesians 2:4-8]
What could he have meant by saying that the saints “sit together in heavenly places”? Clearly he implied that they reign with Christ.
The apostle Peter wrote: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” [1 Peter 2:9-10]
The saints are a “royal priesthood” now, in their present lives; Peter said nothing about this being post-mortem.
In connection with this ‘thousand year reign’ of verses 4-6 we shall answer three questions.
Where does it take place?
According to the passage which we are considering it takes place in three places.
- The thousand year reign occurs where the thrones are, for we read: ‘And I saw thrones and they sat upon them.’ Now, according to the entire book of Revelation, the throne of Christ and of His people is invariably in heaven (Rev. 1:4; 3:21; 4:2 ff.; etc.).
- The thousand year reign also occurs where the disembodied souls of the martyrs are, for we read: ‘And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.’ John sees souls, not bodies. He is thinking of souls without bodies, for we read: ‘of them that had been beheaded’. In this entire passage there is not a single word about a resurrection of bodies. The distinction between souls and body is even emphasized: ‘the souls of them that had been beheaded’. True, the term ‘souls’ at times means ‘people’ (e.g. Genesis 46:27). But in that case you can substitute the term ‘people’ for ‘souls’. Here in Revelation 20 you cannot do so. The souls reign during this entire present dispensation until Christ’s second coming. Afterwards, it is no longer the souls that reign, for then body and soul are together again. Then the saints reign, not for a limited though lengthy period — a thousand years — but ‘for ever and ever’ (22:5).
- The thousand year reign also occurs where Jesus lives, for we read ‘And they lived and reigned with Christ…’ The question is, where, according to the Apocalypse, is the place from which the exalted Mediator rules the universe? Where does Jesus live? Clearly, it is in heaven. It is in heaven that the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5). Revelation 12 clearly states that Christ was ‘caught up to God and to his throne…Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and ye that dwell therein’.
We may safely say, therefore, that the thousand year reign takes place in heaven.
The church is depicted in several ways, in the New Testament. She is a city, the New Jerusalem, and a temple in heaven, and a woman, the bride of the Lamb. The woman metaphor is further split in Revelation chapter 12; she is the woman in heaven who is clothed with the sun, wearing a crown of twelve stars, and the woman who flees to the wilderness. Also, there are two accounts of the woman in the wilderness; in verse 6 she flees to the wilderness, where she is nourished for 1,260 days. In verse 14, she flies to the wilderness, equipped with the two wings of a great eagle, that I suggest, represent an understanding of prophecy, and she is given a divine perspective, that contrasts with an earth-bound, human perspective.
In heaven she reigns with Christ, while on earth she is nourished in the wilderness.
In Revelation 20:9 the armies of deceived people come against the camp of the sainst, and the beloved city. The camp of the saints alludes to the wilderness experience. The beloved city alludes to the heavenly Jerusalem. Both metaphors apply to the church in the present age.
The next question that has to be answered is:
What is its character?
The nature of this reign may be summarized in four ways as follows.
- It is judging with Christ. The ransomed souls in heaven praise Christ for His righteous judgments. They constantly sing: ‘True and righteous are his judgments.’ These souls in glory are constantly pictured as taking part in all the activities of the Master: they sit down with Him in His throne (3:21); they stand with Him on Mount Zion (cf. 14:1); they sing before His throne (cf. 14:3; 15:3); they shall see His face (cf. Rev. 22:4; etc.).
- It is living with Christ: ‘they did live and did reign’ (see Rev. 7:9 ff). In heaven these souls respond in a perfect manner to a perfect environment. And what is life but that?
- It is a sharing of royal glory with Christ. These souls celebrate the Lamb’s, and thus their own, victory. With Him, they reign. All their prayers are answered; all their wishes are constantly fulfilled.
- It is ‘the first resurrection’. The first resurrection is the translation of the soul from this sinful earth to God’s holy heaven. It is followed at Christ’s second coming by the second resurrection when the body, too, will be glorified.
Unfortunately, Hendriksen’s views on the resurrection are confused. The first resurrection is the experience of being raised up, as a new creation, when one believes the gospel, and is baptized. Paul wrote: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6:4]
Paul also wrote: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] This is the first resurrection, which Hendriksen confounds with the state of departed believers who await a resurrection.
Our final question is:
Who participates in this reign?
The answer is simple and easy.
First of all, all the souls of the martyrs, ‘those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus’.
Secondly, all other believers who died in their faith, ‘such as worshipped not the beast’, etc.
The rest of the dead, that is, all other men who died, the unbelieving dead, lived not until the thousand years are finished. When that period is finished, then there is a change. Then they enter ‘the second death’. In other words, they receive everlasting punishment: not only as for the soul but now also for the body. The change is not for better but for the worse.
On the other hand, those who have part in the first resurrection are blessed and holy. Over them the second death has no power. Not only shall they reign with Christ, but they shall also worship God in Christ as priests throughout the thousand years (Rev. 1:6; 5:10).
The idea that “all other believers who died in their faith” reign with Christ is contrary to experience, and contrary to the Scripture. For example, Christians fighting on both sides of the conflict died in the two world wars of the past century. Were they reigning with Christ? Or did they worship the beast? The truth is, I think, these men were not reigning with Christ, nor were they fighting on behalf of Christ, but the beast represents the worldly governments which led them to their deaths.
Hendriksen’s idea that the fate of those who are deceived is to “receive everlasting punishment: not only as for the soul but now also for the body,” and his comment “The change is not for better but for the worse” are misguided. They discount, and contradict the promise in Revelation 21:4, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” If death has passed away, and there is no more sorrow and pain, how can there be people who suffer infernal punishment?