Revelation 20 - Literal or Symbolic - Interpretation?

Question
Is Revelation 20 suppose to be interpreted literally or symbolically? What about the 1000 years?
Answer
There are many views of the millennium, or thousand-year period (Rev. 20:1-6). The three most prominent are Pre-Millennialism (Pre-Mill); Post-Millennialism (Post-Mill); and Amillennialism (A-Mill). In general, Pre-Millennialism believes the millennium begins after the Second Coming of Christ. In Post-Mill (meaning, "after the millennium"), the assertion made is that the millennium occurs toward the end of the church age. In the A-Mill, view we assert that the millennium was: (1) inaugurated in Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension; (2) continues through the church age; and (3) then is consummated at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Those in the Pre-Mill camp normally look at Revelation and take it literally. However, can a chain literally hold the Devil? (Rev. 20:1). What kind of lock or seal is John referring too? Of course, we should also ask what is a Dragon as well? Is this to be literally interpreted too? Apparently not, as the Apostle John also refers to him as "that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan" (Rev. 20:2). In other words, John sees the Dragon as the serpent in the Garden (Gen. 3:1), who is the equivalent of the Devil or Satan. So, John himself says he is using the word symbolically. Since this is the case, then shouldn't 1,000 years be interpreted symbolically too?

The book of Revelation contains multiple visions. Since this is the case, the Apocalypse uses a lot of symbolism. For instance:

In Revelation 1:14-15 speaking about Christ, it mentions his hair is like white wool, like snow; eyes like a flame of fire and; feet like burnished bronze, etc.? Are we to take this literally?

In Revelation 2:1, it mentions seven stars and seven golden lampstands. What do these mean? How does one hold a star, much less seven, in his hand?

In Revelation 3:1, who are the seven spirits of God? What does it mean to be hot, cold, or lukewarm (Rev. 3:15)?

In Revelation 4:1, it mentions "a door" in Heaven? Is this a literal door? Does everyone need to turn a door knob to come and go from Heaven? The one who sits on the throne has the appearance of jasper and carnelian (Rev. 4:3)? Is God just a combination of jewels?

In Revelation 5:5, it mentions elders, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Root of David, which need to be interpreted.

In Revelation 6:1, who are four living creatures who talk? What or who do the four horses refer too (Rev. 6:2, 4, 5, 8)? Are there going to be literal horses racing across the heavens?

In Revelation 7:1, it mentions the four winds of the earth? Who are the 144,000 (Rev. 7:4-8)? Who is the Lamb (Rev. 7:9)?

In Revelation 8:6, what do the seven trumpets mean? What is the star named Wormwood (Rev. 8:11)?

In Revelation 9:1, what is the bottomless pit? How can literal locusts sting like a scorpion (Rev. 9:3)? What is the seal of God (Rev. 9:4).?

In Revelation 10:1, what does it mean to be wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over one's head, and a face like the sun, and legs like pillars of fire?

In Revelation 11:4, what do the two olive trees mean? Who or what is the Beast (Rev. 11:7)?

In Revelation 12:1, are we supposed to interpret, "a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" literally?

In Revelation 13:1, who or what is the Beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads? What is a Dragon (Rev. 13:4)?

In Revelation 14:14, does Christ literally sit on a cloud? Does Jesus literally have a sickle (Rev. 14:5)?

In Revelation 15:2, what is a sea of glass mingled with fire? What is the song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3)? Do we write songs to glorify literal Lambs?

In Revelation 16:1, are the bowls literally ceramic type bowls? What is throne of the Beast (Rev. 16:10)? What are unclean spirits like frogs (Rev. 16:13)?

In Revelation 17:1, who is the Great Prostitute? What does wilderness mean (Rev. 17:3)? How does someone get drunk with blood (Rev. 17:6)?

In Revelation 18:3, how do nations drink the wine of the passion of Babylon's sexual immorality? How do kings commit immorality with a city? How can sins be "heaped high as heaven" (Rev. 18:5)?

In Revelation 19:11 does Heaven literally open and close? Does Christ literally have eyes like a flame of fire (Rev. 19:12)? Does a sword literally come from Christ's mouth (Rev. 19:15)?

In Revelation 20, chain is said to hold the Devil (Rev. 20:1), 1,000 years (Rev. 20:2, 3, 4, 6, 7), and four corners of the earth (Rev. 20:8).

In Revelation 21:2, how can a city be a Bride? How does a Lamb have a Bride (Rev. 21:9)?

In Revelation 22:2, what is the tree of life? How can it have twelve kinds of fruit on it? How can one tree be on either side of the river? Is this literal fruit? Will everyone in Heaven have marks in their foreheads (Rev. 22:4)?

While the list above is not by any means exhaustive, every chapter of the book of Revelation contains symbolism; this includes Revelation 20. So, one applying literal interpretation methods will necessarily misinterpret the entire book.

1,000 years should also be interpreted symbolically. There are many reasons for this: (1) the figurative use of numbers in the Apocalypse (Rev. 5:11; 7:4-9; 9:16; 14:1; 21:16); (2) the figurative use of other terms (chain, abyss, dragon, serpent, locked, sealed, etc.) in Revelation 20; (3) the figurative use of 1000 in the Old Testament (Deut. 1:1-11; 7:9; 32:30; Josh. 23:10; Job 9:3; 33:23; Pss. 50:10; 68:17; 84:10; Eccl. 6:6; Song 4:4; Isa. 7:23; Isa. 30:17; and especially 1 Chron. 16:15-17 = Psa. 105:8-10, where God's "covenant forever" and "everlasting covenant" are equated with "the word which He commanded to a thousand generations"). See Greg Beale in The Book of Revelation (The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans).

Related Questions:

Other reasons Amillennialism is correct?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).