The word millennium does not occur in Scripture. It is a word made up of the Latin words ‘milli’ meaning ‘thousand’ and ‘annum’ meaning ‘a year.’ Thus, it means: ‘a period of one thousand years’ and a period of one thousand years is found in Scripture: “…and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). The millennium begins with the resurrection of the saved (the first resurrection), at the second coming of Christ. The millennium ends with the resurrection of the wicked (the second resurrection).
Literal or Spiritual?
Jesus taught spiritually and since the Book of Revelation is given to us by Jesus, through His servant the angels, we ought to understand the Book of Revelation spiritually. Therefore, in spite of this spiritual principle, why do we understand the millennium literally? To be consistent ought we not understand the millennium spiritually? There are two reasons why, in the case of the millennium, we ought to understand it literally.
Firstly, we need to understand the import of the statement by the angel concerning the end of the 2300-year prophecy: “…that there should be time no longer” (Rev. 10:6). Ellen White explains what this means:
This time, which the angel declares with a solemn oath, is not the end of this world’s history, neither of probationary time, but of prophetic time, which should precede the advent of our Lord. That is, the people will not have another message upon definite time. After this period of time, reaching from 1842 to 1844, there can be no definite tracing of the prophetic time. The longest reckoning reaches to the autumn of 1844. Ellen White, SDA Bible Commentary, vol.7, p. 971.
In this passage Ellen White is warning against the use of time prophecies from 1844 onward. She is saying that there will be no more prophetic messages based on time periods, and no more fulfillments of prophecies on pre-determined dates. But she is also saying that the there is no more ‘prophetic time.’ In other words, she is saying, that there is nothing more in Revelation that applies to the year day principle. For all intents and purposes the year day principle is over. Not because it is not a valid principle, but because there is nothing to apply it to anymore. Therefore, we do not apply the year-day principle to the 1000 years. Therefore, if the year-day principle is not applicable, the 1000 years must be literal.
Secondly, “they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Christ and His people are together again. The spiritual presence of God has been replaced with the literal presence of God. During the age of the Holy Spirit, we had to ‘spiritually discern’. The kingdom was a spiritual kingdom etc. Now that Christ has come, the kingdom is no longer spiritual, but literal. Therefore, we understand literally – the 1000 years are therefore 1000 literal years. There is a third reason why the 1000 years are literal – the millennial Sabbath.
The Millennial Sabbath
A third reason for the literal understanding of the millennium, is because of the Sabbath system that God ordained for life on the earth. God completed the creation of the earth in six days and He rested on the seventh. As a result, and as a commemoration, God has built in a system of Sabbath rests based on the original six plus one model. The Israelites were supposed to observe the weekly seven-day cycle (Ex. 16:23, 20:8-11). But they were also supposed to observe the seven-year cycle (see Lev. 25:1-7) And the seven times seven-year cycle (the Jubilee, see Lev. 25:8-17). God also promised, that if the people did not keep the covenant He made with them, then He would uproot them from the land and the land would enjoy the sabbath rest that it was entitled to (see Lev. 26:34, 35). In large measure the Israelites/Jews kept the seven-day cycle, but the other sequences of seven were largely ignored. Therefore, God’s people were condemned for their unfaithfulness and Jerimiah prophesied that they would be removed from the land (see Jer. 25:11, 12; 29:10; 43:10). And as a consequence, the land would enjoy its God ordained rest for seventy years. This is why the Babylonian king is called God’s servant (see Jer. 25:9; 27:6), because God ordains him to fulfil His will, in removing the people and giving the land its rest:
Therefore, he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand… To fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years. 2 Chron. 36:17, 21.
If we accept the notion that the creation of the world took place approximately 6000 years ago, then it is possible, that the millennium in heaven, is the antitypical fulfilment of the entire earth enjoying its Sabbath rest, according to the example of God insisting on the land of Israel keeping its allotted years of Sabbath rest. Just as God removed the people so that the land could enjoy its rest, in Jeremiah’s time, so too, does God remove the people of the whole earth, at the end of time, so that the earth has an equivalent rest of allocated time – in this case 1000 years.
This notion of Sabbath rest for the people of God and the earth at large, would appear to be supported by the counsel of Paul to the Hebrews:
But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief: Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. Heb. 3:17-19 – 4:1-11.
The context of this passage, is referring to the generation who refused to go into the Promised Land, because of unbelief. By refusing to go in, they rejected the ‘rest’ that God had planned for them. The Promised Land is a symbol of Heaven. The journey from Egypt (the land of sin) to the Promised Land is a type for the journey of God’s Kingdom and the journey that every individual Christian must take. The antitypical fulfilment is God’s people entering Heaven. In both cases God has promised His people ‘rest.’ Therefore, it is not unreasonable to understand that the millennium in Heaven is the Sabbath rest that God gives His people and the earth – before His people return from Heaven to inhabit it again – just as the Jews returned from Babylon to inhabit the land again after its 70 years of rest.
When does the Millennium begin?
Jesus spoke about two resurrections: “… they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn. 5:28,29). Because Jesus mentions both resurrections in the same sentence, it is easy to assume that both resurrections occur at the same time. But this is a false assumption. In keeping with the repeat and enlarge principle, John was given more details about the two resurrections by Jesus in his visions recorded in the Book of Revelation. John was shown that the righteous are resurrected at the beginning of the millennium and the wicked are resurrected at the end of the millennium:
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. Rev. 20:4-6.
John says that he first saw the saints that had been martyred in the battle against the beast. But then he says “and they lived.” In other words, he saw them alive again: “…and they reigned with Christ a thousand years.” He then says that the rest of the dead did not live again until the end of the thousand years. He then refers back to the resurrection of the saints and calls it the first resurrection. Therefore, we can know with certainty that the millennium begins with the first resurrection, and ends with the resurrection of the wicked, which is the second resurrection.
The Second Coming of Christ
Paul was shown the same sequence of events. He was shown the first resurrection within the context of the second coming of Christ.
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 1 Thess. 4:16.
Thus, it is clearly taught that before anyone else is resurrected and before any other mortal receives immortality – the dead in Christ are resurrected first. The first resurrection and the second coming of Christ, therefore occur at the same time. And since we already know that the millennium begins with the first resurrection, it must therefore also begin at the second coming of Christ.
Home with Jesus
The Bible tells the same stories in different ways. Jesus taught the same sequence of events during His last words to His disciples, before His crucifixion. He sought to comfort and assure them before this severe test of their faith, with these words:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. Jn. 14:1-3.
Jesus consistently spoke of the Father being in heaven (see Matt. 6:9). Jesus has left His disciples with some ‘spiritual discernment’ to do. If they reasoned correctly they would have to conclude, that if Jesus was coming back to take them to the Father, then Jesus must be taking them to heaven. This conclusion is confirmed later in repeat and enlarge fashion, in the writings of Paul. When Jesus comes back He does not even set foot upon the earth:
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 1 Thess. 4:16. [cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-53].
Both the resurrected saints and those who are alive at the second coming meet the Lord in the air. From there they must proceed to the Father’s house because John saw them there, celebrating the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 19:1-9).
The Destruction of the Wicked ‘Empties’ the Earth
After the saints are evacuated to heaven the earth is empty – because the wicked have been destroyed in the total destruction that desolates the earth. Revelation records earthquakes and upheavals that are so powerful that islands sink and mountains are uprooted, there are unquenchable fires and huge hail stones falling on the earth. Those who manage to survive the physical devastation are killed by the glory that encompasses the arrival of Christ.
To the wicked the presence of Christ is like a burning fire. Scripture says that: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Even God’s angels are accompanied by fire (see Ps. 104:4). And when the Holy Spirit manifests God’s power, He also comes with fire (see Acts 2:3; 7:30). The wicked cannot survive in the presence of God because the fire destroys them:
A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his enemies – Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him. Ps. 97:3; 50:3; cf. Isa. 30:27, 30; 66:15,16.
These prophecies and events find their antitypical fulfillment at the second coming of Christ when Christ’s presence destroys the wicked. It is also a repeat and enlargement of how God has dealt with unrepentant sinners in Old Testament times, in the literal land of Israel (and neighboring lands). [See Isa chap. 24; 26:21; 34:1-4; 66:15,16; Jer. chap. 25; 4:23-28].
One of these prophecies speaks about the coming of the Lord being so glorious that the sun and the moon would be ‘ashamed’ – unable to be seen against the brightness of His presence (see Isa. 24:23). Therefore, the glory and the fire are so bright, powerful and painful, that sinful mankind cannot endure it, and they call on the mountains and the rocks to: “Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16). But even then, they will find no refuge and the ‘consuming fire’ destroys them and leaves the earth empty and void:
At the coming of Christ the wicked are blotted from the face of the whole earth – consumed with the spirit of His mouth and destroyed by the brightness of His glory. Christ takes His people to the city of God, and the earth is emptied of its inhabitants…The whole earth appears like a desolate wilderness. The ruins of cities and villages destroyed by the earthquake, uprooted trees, ragged rocks thrown out by the sea or torn out of the earth itself, are scattered over its surface, while vast caverns mark the spot where the mountains have been rent from their foundations. Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 567.
The Executive Judgment
Paul was exasperated at the infantile attitude of the Corinthian church members, because they were fighting amongst themselves and taking each other to court, therefore, he wrote to them the following: “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? – Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3). This judgment of the world and angels, in which the resurrected saints assist, takes place during the millennium:
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. Rev. 20:4.
What is the purpose of this judgment? The saints are all in heaven and the wicked are all dead. It would appear that the fate of all that have ever lived has already been decided. But there is one thing that has yet to be determined. Jesus said that the wicked/unrighteous would receive different degrees of punishment:
And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. Lu. 12:47, 48.
In the world, there is a saying, “The punishment must fit the crime.” This is another way of expressing the biblical principle, “You reap what you sow.” In the earthly judicial system, there is almost always a delay between judgment and sentencing. When someone is declared guilty at the end of a trial, the judge often announces that sentencing will take place at a later date. This is because the judge wants to reflect on the case and consider any mitigating circumstances before announcing the sentence. The same applies to the executive judgment. The guilty verdict has already been determined, because they are not part of the first resurrection. However, the next part of the judgment process needs to be carried out – the sentencing – because the punishment must fit the crime.
Sentencing in the earthly judicial system is always a hot topic. When crime is increasing (and it always seems to be), the public demands ‘justice.’ The public perception is that those in authority are ‘soft’ on crime. Those who have been victims of crime, and the public in general, are always demanding a harsher sentencing regime, ‘life should mean life’ etc. If sentencing is such a hot topic on earth, we can be assured it is also a hot topic in heaven. The purpose of the 1000-year long judgment in heaven is to take the ‘heat’ out of the topic. The saints are involved in heaven, because they were involved on earth. All of them have been victims of crimes committed against them on earth. They are in heaven as representatives of ‘victims rights’ and they have a role to play in the judgment process. The end of which will be proven to be fair, equitable and just. Because God is fair, equitable and just: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5).
The Second Resurrection
When Jesus returns, He gives a ‘shout’ and the righteous dead are raised from the graves – this is the first resurrection. There is a second resurrection of the wicked. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the destruction and desolation of the earth, resulting in the dead being held captive in the ‘pit’ (death). After which they will be released:
Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof… The land shall be utterly emptied… And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited. Isa. 24: 1, 3, 22.
The prisoners who are gathered together are the wicked. They are gathered together in the ‘pit’ which is the desolated earth (or graves in the desolated earth). And Isaiah goes on to say, that after ‘many days’ they will be ‘visited.’ The many days are the 1000 years and the visitation is the second resurrection:
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. Rev. 20:4, 5.
Here we are told that the first resurrection involves those who refused the mark of the beast and lost their lives. The second resurrection involves the ‘rest of the dead’ who ‘lived not again until the thousand years were finished. It is at the end of the 1000-years that the ‘visitation’ spoken of by Isaiah occurs. The visitation is the second resurrection. It is this ‘visitation’ that brings the millennium to an end.
The 1000 years in heaven, are a Sabbath rest for the people of God. It is during these 1000 years, that God’s people are able to enjoy the rewards for their faithfulness and the sacrifices they made for Jesus. They are able to explore the Kingdom of God, and investigate its mysteries. Questions about their former lives can now be asked and understood. Questions about family and friends can be settled. Questions about God’s love and God’s justice are also settled during the executive judgment, that they participate in. At the end of the 1000 years, the last stages of the science of salvation will be completed – the New Jerusalem will descend on the earth and the wicked will be resurrected to hear the result of the executive judgment, after which they will be annihilated never to return.