and Greco-Roman Notions of Hades
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
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
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. ). 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
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
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..
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
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. 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
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. 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. 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.
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 ). 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. 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.
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
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.
(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
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.
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
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, iv, 2,
3. Pilate departed
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIX, v-iv.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, x, 8-12.
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
Others holding that two millennia are contemplated by
the text include Thom.
 Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation Past & Present (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 69.
 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.
 Cleanthus, Hymn to Zeus in Fr. Stoic. I, 527-cf. 537.
 De Sacrific. Ab. et Cain; cf. De Somniis, I 182; De Opif. Mundi, 13; De Cherub., 125; Quis rerum divin. haeres sit, 205-06.
 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.
 Plato, Republic, Bk. X, 315-320; Ben. Jowett ed.
 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.
Virgil, Aeneid, Bk. VI, 734-769; C. Day Lewis ed
(1952, Hogarth Press,
The Works of Voltaire,
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