Revelation’s Millennia

and Greco-Roman Notions of Hades


Kurt Simmons


Revelation twenty is the most difficult chapter in the Bible to interpret. The symbol of the dragon's thousand-year binding and the martyrs' thousand-year reign have perplexed interpreters for generations.  However, the solution is not as difficult as one might expect.  God has provided clues to assist us in our interpretation, if only we will avail ourselves of them.  Read on, as we here loose the riddle of Revelation twenty.

Basic Imagery of Revelation Twenty and its Interpretation 

There are two separate one-thousand year periods in the imagery of Revelation twenty.  The first speaks to the binding of the dragon, the second to the reign of the martyred saints.  Here is the binding of the dragon:

And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the Bottomless Pit and a great chain in his hand.  And he laid hold on the Dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the Bottomless Pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. Rev. 20:1-3

Here is the reign of the martyred saints: 

And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the Beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.  But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.  This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. Rev. 20:4-6

The dragon is the world civil power (imperial Rome) opposing Christ and the church. The term rendered “dragon” is from the Greek drakon, i.e., a fabulous serpent.  The Septuagint uses the term to translate the Hebrew tannin - a land or sea monster, especially a serpent. The term is synonymous with leviathan. Typically, the dragon is portrayed as inhabiting oceans or waterways (Exek. 29:3; 32:2). Invariably it represents a wicked and despotic ruler, or tyrannical and oppressive civil power such as Pharaoh and Egypt or Babylon (Ps. 74:13, 14; Isa. 51:9; Jer. 51:34; Ezek. 29:3; 32:2). The bottomless pit is Hades Tartarus, the place of the wicked dead (cf. II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6).  Numerous examples of world civil powers being cast down to the pit exist in scripture; the imagery is not unique to Revelation. Typically, casting down to the pit speaks to national or military defeat.  Ezekiel describes the fall of Tyre thus: 

They shall bring thee down to the pit, and thou shalt die the deaths of them that are slain in the midst of the seas” Ezek. 28:8.

Concerning Assyria Ezekiel said: 

I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit. Ezek. 31:16

The Greek Septuagint renders this verse "At the sound of his fall the nations quaked, when I brought him down to Hades with them that go down to the pit." This clearly identifies the "pit" with Hades Tartarus, the intermediate place of the damned. Other nations described by Ezekiel as being cast down into the pit in the time of world judgment under the Assyrio-Babylonian invasions include Egypt, Elam, Meshec, Tubal, Edom, and Zidon (Ezek. 32:18, 22, 24, 26, 29, 30; cf. Isa. 14:9-23; 30:27-33).  The Greek in Revelation differs slightly from Ezekiel and is literally "the pit of the abyss" (frear thj abussou), but the meaning is identical and points to the Hadean realm of the damned. Hence, whatever interpretation of Revelation's imagery we adopt should be consistent with these Old Testament examples.  The better view is that the binding of the dragon in the pit points to the defeat of the persecuting power and its prevention from persecuting the church.  Loosing the dragon, points to the renewal of the civil power’s ability to persecute.   

Revelation also describes the persecutor of God’s people as “the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 11:7).  It is characteristic of beasts to devour men. The special characteristic of Revelation’s beast is that it devours the saints. The beast is the dragon's alter ego ("other I"); the dragon acts through the beast to persecute God's people.  While the beast is in the bottomless pit it is referred to as the beast that “was, and is not, and yet is” (Rev. 17:8).  That the beast “was and is not” speaks to the fact that it had ceased to persecute the saints (e.g.., the persecution ceased to exist).  However, this was merely temporary; the beast still exists (“yet is”) and “shall ascend out of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 17:8).  The period the beast is in the bottomless pit answers the binding of the dragon; ascending out of the bottomless pit answers the loosing of the dragon; both describe the same historical events under different symbols and characters; both assume former and latter persecutions.  Two persecutions are contemplated by this language, and two persecutions are portrayed in Revelation.  The binding of the dragon comes between these. 

The first persecution is of the Mother church in Revelation twelve.  This persecution began after the ascension of the man-child (Christ) who was “caught up to God, and to his throne” (Rev. 12:5).  The fact this persecution follows close upon the heels of the ascension of Christ fixes its time-frame, placing it at or near the beginning of the gospel.  We submit that it describes the persecution that arose over Stephen that St. Paul led or took part in.  This persecution lasted for forty-two months, or approximately A.D. 34-38.  It collapsed after receiving a triple strike to its most powerful actors: The departure of Pilate from Palestine, the removal of Caiaphas from the high priesthood, and the conversion of St. Paul, all within the space of little more than a year (e.g., A.D. 36-38).[1] We possess no information suggesting procurators following Pilate suffered or permitted the Jews to persecute the church.  Tiberius died about the very time Pilate left office, and Caligula became emperor.  The emperor Caligula made Agrippa I king over Philip’s tetrarchy. After Caligula’s death (A.D. 41), Claudius ascended the throne of the empire; Claudius augmented Agrippa’s kingdom, removing the procurator, making Agrippa sole authority in Judea.  Agrippa briefly renewed persecution of the church (Acts 12:1-19), but he died immediately thereafter (A.D. 44) and the kingdom was returned to a province under Roman procurators.[2] Returning Judea to a province restored Roman law and order and protection to the church in Judea by the religio licita. The religio licita (legally recognized religions), allowed national and ethnic groups to keep their local deities and religious observances. The Jews had been guaranteed the right to keep their own religion from the times of Julius Caesar.[3] Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism, equal in standing to the Pharasees, Saducees, and Esseans. Hence, Claudius' policy extending the religio licita to Christianity gave world-wide protection to the church from persecution at the hands of the Jews.  By returning Judea to a Roman province under a Roman governor, this protection was made sure in Palestine as well.

The collapse of the persecution under Caiaphas, Pilate, and Paul is represented under the symbolism of the earth swallowing the flood  of persecution flowing out of the dragon's mouth (Rev. 12:16). This evokes the image of Korah's rebellion when the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the rebels, who went down alive to the pit (Num. 16:30).  It is also referred to by the symbol of the mortal wound to the beast's head (Rev. 13:3).  The mortal blow sent the beast dead to Tartarus; but the wound would wondrously healed and the beast would rise up again, and the persecution revive (Rev. 17:8; cf 11:7).  Until the mortal wound was healed, the beast and dragon were bound in the pit.  This refers to the policy of Claudius Caesar who afforded the church the protection of law.  Claudius is “he who lets” and “what withholdeth” of II Thes. 2:6, 7. He is the "angel" of Revelation twenty, which bound the dragon (restrained Rome from persecuting the church).  When Claudius was taken out of the way by poison, Nero ascended the throne and was revealed as the “man of sin” and “son of perdition” who persecuted the church (II Thess. 2:3). The restraining power of Claudius answers to the binding of the dragon in the bottomless pit.  Loosing the dragon speaks to the persecution under Nero. 

The binding of the dragon begins and ends prior to the reign of the saints.  The reign of the saints depicts the souls of the martyrs who die under Nero and the beast. Their reign stretches from the persecution under Nero to the second coming and general resurrection (Rev. 20:5, 11-15).  Jesus said, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life…He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (Rev. 2:10, 11).  “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame and am sit down with my Father in his throne” (Rev. 3:21; emphasis added).  The martyrs have overcome; they have been faithful unto death and have given their lives in testimony under the beast. Hence, they live and reign in Paradise with Christ pending their eternal inheritance in heaven.  In chapter fourteen we read:  “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13).  Those mentioned in Rev. 14:13 are the same individuals portrayed in Rev. 20:4-6 as having won the martyr’s crown.  The Spirit pronounces a blessing upon them in martyrdom because they will be tenderly gathered by God into Paradise. Their deaths under the dragon, beast, and false prophet are not a defeat, but a victory.  They have overcome and are sit down with Christ in his throne (rev. 2:26, 27; 3:20, 21). Rev. 20:4-6 is a window into the blessed estate of the martyrs in Hades alluded to in Rev. 14:9-13 and nothing more.[4]

The Thousand Years 

Thus far the historical referents of Revelation twenty; what of the enigmatic “thousand years?”  The common symbol of a thousand years is often confused to mean that a single thousand-year period is contemplated by the text.  As we have seen, it is not.  There are two one-thousand year periods in Rev. 20:1-6.[5].  The common symbol arises from the fact that the binding of the dragon and reign of the saints both touch and concern Hades.  The dragon is cast down to Tartarus (the bottomless pit) and the saints reign in Paradise.  What is the significance of these thousand-year periods and how do they relate to Hades? 

One of the chief difficulties in interpreting the thousand-year periods is that, unlike virtually every other passage of Revelation, they have no Old Testament precedent.  It has been estimated that two-hundred-seventy-eight of Revelation’s four-hundred-four verses contain allusions to Old Testament sources.[6]  These allusions are our guide to interpretation; virtually every symbol in Revelation has an Old Testament precedent to guide us.  When wrestling with the symbols of Revelation we can almost invariably consult Old Testament sources to see how they were used.  Whether it be the beasts, the two witnesses, or the woman standing upon the moon clothed with the sun and crowned with twelve stars, we have Old Testament allusions at every turn that open these symbols for us.  This is equally true of the millennia and Hades/Sheol.

The fact that the thousand-year periods are tied to Hades is fairly easily discerned.  We have already seen that we possess numerous Old Testament references to the “pit.” Also, the fact that the martyrs are described as “souls” who have been beheaded is a clear indication that they are in the nether realm.  Because they are righteous dead, we know this means Paradise (Lk. 24:43; Acts 2:31; cf. Lk. 16:19-31; II Cor. 12:1-4). The longest any man has ever lived was nine-hundred-sixty-nine years (Gen. 5:27).  Hence, the thousand-year periods exceed the length of all earthly life.  Use of a thousand years to suggest the timelessness of the spirit-realm may be seen in Psalm 90:4, where the Psalmist speaks of God's eternal majesty compared with earthly existence: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night."  These scriptural factors and precedents compel that we see the thousand-year periods as alluding to the timeless nature of the spirit/Hadean realm.  However, there are extra-biblical sources that point with equal persuasiveness to the same conclusion.  We allude here to Greco-Roman notions about Hades.

Audience Relevance and the Millennia

The New Testament was not written in a vacuum.  It was written with a view to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and Greek and Latin speaking Gentiles replacing the Jews as the dominant ethnic group of the church (Matt. 8:5-12; cf. Matt. 3:7-12). The New Testament was written in Greek to peoples who largely thought and spoke in Greek and whose culture and mental associations drew from those sources.  When the New Testament uses Greek words, it is natural that the minds of Greek speaking peoples of the first century should run to Greek associations of those terms.  A good example of this is the term “logos” (word/wisdom/reason).  This term was employed hundreds of years before Christ by Heraclitus, Plato, and various Stoic philosophers.  For Plato, the logos was the divine wisdom and idea pre-existing creation’s material forms.[7]  Among the Stoics, the logos is an impersonal abstraction, an irresistible force which bears along the entire world and all creatures to a common end, an inevitable and holy law from which nothing can withdraw itself, and which every reasonable man should willingly follow.[8]  Greco-Roman culture was steeped in Stoic and Platonic philosophy; most Greek and Latin speaking peoples would have been thoroughly familiar with the term “logos” and its attendant associations.  Indeed, even among Jews use of the term was widely known.  Philo Judaeus, the Alexandrian Jew, wrote extensively about the logos, attempting to harmonize Platonic philosophy with the Jewish scriptures.  Philo represents the logos as the creative word of God, an intermediary between God and the world; through it God created the world and governs it; through it also men know God and pray to him.[9]

It is against this background that the apostle John, who also wrote Revelation, wrote in his gospel “in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (Jn. 1:1).  The average reader today knows little or nothing about Plato and the Stoics, and therefore fails to appreciate the cultural allusions behind John’s words.  Where our minds encounter strange, poetic allusions to the Word (logos), resulting in perplexity, uncertain what John is driving at, the Greek speaking reader of the first century would have made an immediate and automatic connection to Plato and the Stoics.  This does not mean that in using the term logos John is adapting or adopting Stoic or Platonic philosophy. To the contrary, his purpose is to indicate that, what Plato and the Stoics were grasping for but missed, God has manifested to man in the person of Jesus Christ.  The logos is God’s self declaration; just as the word is the verbal embodiment of the mind and Spirit of God, so Jesus is the logos made flesh – the fleshly embodiment of God’s mind and Spirit.  Paul makes a similar appeal to the Greek mind when, on Mar’s Hill, he invoked Greek poets to bring out an essential truth concerning the Godhead (Acts 17:28). It is an attempt to reach one’s audience by appealing to sources with which they are familiar and approve, without necessarily endorsing all that the source may advocate.  When we come to the millennia of Revelation twenty, the same sort of phenomenon is at play.  Like John’s use of the term logos, students and scholars today generally approach the millennia ignorant of first century cultural associations.  Whereas we are perplexed by the symbology of these thousand-year periods, the Greek speaking reader of the first century would have made immediate connection to Hades. 

Hades and Thousand-years among Ancient Peoples

An essential element of Greek belief about Hades and the afterlife is that the spirits of the dead dwelt in Hades a thousand years, after which they were reincarnated by being born anew into earthly life.[10]  Plato, in the tenth book of his Republic, reports the story of a soldier, thought to be dead, whose body was placed upon a funeral pyre, only to have him revive before being burnt.  The soldier told of descending to Hades where he encountered souls who were judged for the deeds done in life and sentenced, some to a heavenly realm of bliss, others to a lower region of torments. After a thousand years in their respective realms, these souls were then reincarnated into earthly life.  This thousand-year pilgrimage in the underworld was a major factor in Plato’s ethical instruction about virtuous living: 

Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil.  Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.[11]

Virgil also makes reference to the thousand-year period of the spirit in Hades in his epic poem “Aeneid,” the story of the legendary founding of Rome by Aeneas, a Trojan who escapes and survives Troy’s famous war with the Greeks.  Part of Aeneas’ labors before reaching Latium, Italy, was to descend to Hades and there receive a prophecy from his deceased father.  According to Virgil, the realm of the underworld was entered by an enormous cavern, whose mouth emitted poisonous vapors from its black throat.  The dead were then ferried across a river; some detained in Limbo, others permitted to precede to a fork in the road, one of which leads to Tartarus, the other to the happy fields of Elysium.  Tartarus, also called the Pit, is the place of the damned.  Peter uses the term Tartarus in reference to the “angels” (probably the sons of Seth) that sinned and were kept under chains of darkness, reserved unto judgment (II Pet. 2:4; cf. Jude 6; Gen. 6:1-4). Souls that do not go to Tartarus or Elysium, suffer punishments in Purgatory for sins committed during life.[12] Some are later released to wander about happily in Elysium.  Souls in both Elysium and Purgatory must complete a thousand years, after which they are born anew into earthly life.  The purpose of the thousand years is to remove all remembrance of one’s past earthly existence: 

Yes, not even when the last flicker of life has left us, does evil, or the ills that the flesh is heir to, quite relinquish our souls; it must be that many a taint grows deeply, mysteriously grained in their being from long contact with the body.  Therefore the dead are disciplined in purgatory, and pay the penalty of old evil: some hang, stretched to the blast of vacuum winds; for others, the stain of sin is washed away in a vast whirlpool or cauterized with fire.  Each of us finds in the next world his own level: a few of us are later released to wander at will through broad Elysium, the Happy Fields; until, in the fulness of time, the ages have purged that ingrown stain, and nothing is left but pure ethereal sentience and the spirit’s essential flame.  All these souls, when they have finished their thousand-year cycle, God send for, and they come in crowds to the river Lethe, so, you see, with memory washed out, they may revisit the earth above and begin to wish to be born again.[13]

(The river Lethe bears the souls to the surface where they are reborn to earthly life.)  Thus, we see that Greco-Roman conceptions of Hades involved separate thousand year periods for each soul, after which they were born into earthly anew.  Of course, the scriptures do not teach reincarnation.  However, Revelation was written to Greek speaking Gentiles in Asia Minor who would have immediately (and correctly) associated the millennia of Revelation twenty with Hades – The dragon symbolically bound in Tartarus for a “thousand years,” whence he is released to persecute anew the church, the martyrs in Paradise where they lived a “thousand years.”  The Greek speaking Christians of Gentile descent in Asia Minor faced a time of unparalleled persecution; many would be called upon to pay with their lives for their testimony of Jesus.  The familiar figure of the thousand-years doubtless was adapted to ensure they fully comprehended the meaning of the symbolism and its message of assurance as they faced the prospect of martyrdom.  They could die secure in the knowledge Christ had prepared for them a place of rest in Hades Paradise pending the general resurrection. The French skeptic Voltaire described this association aptly:

The belief in this reign of a thousand years was long prevalent among the Christians. This period was also in great credit among the Gentiles. The souls of the Egyptians returned to their bodies at the end of a thousand years; and, according to Virgil, the souls in purgatory were exorcised for the same space of time—et mille per annos.[14]


The millennia of Revelation twenty have draw from both Biblical and Greco-Roman associations concerning Hades.  The book of Revelation was addressed to Greek speaking residents of Asia minor who would have made an immediate connection between John’s imagery and traditional Greco-Roman belief about the underworld.  The purpose in this was to assist them in interpretation of the imagery and thus gain strength against the coming crisis. 

[1] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, iv, 2, 3.  Pilate departed Palestine by order of Vitellius, president of Syria, to answer charges in Rome before Tiberius in connection with the death of some Samaritans slain in an uprising.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIX, v-iv. 

[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, x, 8-12.

[4] Because, the focus of the present passage is upon the martyrs under Nero, the rest of the righteous are passed over.  However, in strictest terms it should be understood that from Abel forward were all the righteous dead were gathered into Paradise and therefore must be considered participants of the first resurrection. 

[5] Others holding that two millennia are contemplated by the text include Thom. Brighton,  Jos. Bengel, and John Wesley, among others.

[6] Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation Past & Present (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 69. 

[7] See generally, Plato’s work entitled “Timaeus.”  Actually, Plato doesn't speak of the logos per se, but is generally interpreted to have embraced the concept of the logos by neo-Platonists of later centuries.  The church fathers commonly attribute this meaning to him.

[8] Cleanthus, Hymn to Zeus in Fr. Stoic. I, 527-cf. 537.

[9] De Sacrific. Ab. et Cain; cf. De Somniis, I 182; De Opif. Mundi, 13; De Cherub., 125; Quis rerum divin. haeres sit, 205-06.

[10] Greeks did not believe in resurrection, but affirmed reincarnation. See Acts 17:32; Justin Martyr, Horatory to the Greeks, XXVII, Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 284.

[11] Plato, Republic, Bk. X, 315-320; Ben. Jowett ed.

[12] Justin Martyr, confusing Virgil’s account with Plato’s, equates Purgatory with Tartarus.  See Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, VIII, Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 165, where he attributes Virgil’s description of Rhadamanthus punishing the wicked to Plato.

[13] Virgil, Aeneid, Bk. VI, 734-769; C. Day Lewis ed (1952, Hogarth Press, London).

[14] The Works of Voltaire, Vol. III, sec. 1 (1764, Philosophical Dictionary, Part I).


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