by John Ellis
After moving to the Orlando area, one of my family’s first priorities was finding a church family with whom to worship and serve our Creator and King in the power of the Holy Spirit. During our search, we visited a few local churches that, on paper (their statement of faith), seemed to be in accord with our theological distinctives. While not necessarily the most important theological distinctive, eschatology matters. Quite a bit, in fact. It reveals things about your hermeneutic, Christology, the Church, and the Christian’s ethical role in the here and now. And so, while not at the very top our list of priorities, I read with much interest the section in each church’s statement of faith often titled something like “Of the World to Come.”
Since that section is usually near the very bottom of statements of faith, I pretty much knew what I was going to find based on what came before (if I even got that far). Owing to the fact that my wife and I are amillennial and credobaptists, our church options are fairly limited in most communities. Orlando is no different. This meant combing through church websites and reading dozens of statements of faith.
Churches that are framed by a dispensationalist hermeneutic or that are Arminian in their soteriology (at least Arminian leaning) reveal themselves fairly early in their statement of faith. Which, to be clear, I applaud; I appreciate and compliment churches that are willing to be up front about what they believe. All that added up to my family having a fairly limited selection of churches to visit and pray about. And, almost all of those churches had a statement of faith with an eschatology that was ambiguous in a way that led me to believe (correctly, I might add) that while the pastor is reformed(ish, at least, in some instances), the congregation has historically not been and is currently a mix of those who hold to dispensationalism and those who hold to some level of covenant theology/reformed.
At one Wednesday evening service, the pastor of the church we were visiting was teaching about different eschatological positions. Going through postmillennialism, amillennialism, and premillennialism (which he correctly separated into classical premil and the better-known Left Behind styled premil that is steered by pretribulationism). Postmil was up first. Based on the many questions and comments from the congregation, I could tell that for many of those in attendance, anything other than pretribulationism had been foreign to them prior that evening. This mimics my own experience. Until I went to college, having grown up with a father who was also a hard-core Scofield-styled dispensationalist pastor, I had no idea there were any eschatological positions other than pretrib.
During the section on amillennialism, the pastor commented on Revelation 20:1-3, specifically the part in verses 2 and 3 that mention the binding of Satan. After telling the congregation that amillennialists believe that those verses symbolically refer to Jesus’ victory over Satan, sin, and death that was accomplished during the incarnation, specifically at the cross and Resurrection, the sanctuary was filled with audible gasps of horror from the congregation. Those gasps of horror were quickly followed by a barrage of forceful denunciations of such a “heresy.”
My wife and I didn’t take it personally, but the overwhelmingly negative responses to what we believe the Bible teaches about eschatology helped us realize that our search for a new church family was not finished.
Well, apropos of nothing, actually, apropos of everything, that Wednesday evening came briefly to mind during my study of Hebrews 2 this morning. More importantly, my understanding of what John is communicating in Revelation 20 in relation to Hebrews 2 came to mind.
The medium of writing helps me organize my thoughts, besides the fact that I enjoy writing. So, what follows is not an academic treatise on neither Hebrews 2 nor Revelation 20:1-3 (I’m not an academic, I don’t even have a college degree, so it couldn’t be an academic treatise even if that were my goal). Nor is it a robust explanation and defense of amillennialism. It’s simply me thinking out loud. If you find it helpful and edifying, praise God. If not, well, that’s fine, and praise God, too. However, if what I write stokes your curiosity and causes you to want to learn more, I recommend Kingdom Come by Sam Storms, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse by Stephen S. Smalley, The Bible and the Future by Anthony Hoekma, A Case for Amillennialism by Kim Riddlebarger, and even Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond edited by Darrell Bock and Stanley Gundry (this latter book allows you to compare each position alongside each other). There are many other resources, of course, but those are some of the books I found most helpful while praying and thinking through eschatology.
So, Hebrews 2:14-15.
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
As a storyteller, one of the many things I love about the Bible is the narrative parallelism. For example, the Bible begins in a Garden and ends in a City built around a Garden; good stories tend to end where they begin (think both Hamlet and Crime and Punishment). In between the beginning and the end of the Bible is the Story of how God redeems His people back to Himself. And in that Story are beautiful parallels that often rely on intricate imagery to reveal what God did, is doing, and will do in order to save His people from their sins. A couple of examples: The Egyptian enslavement, exodus, wilderness journey, and entrance into the Promised Land is a mini-version of the larger Story, revealing and foreshadowing Jesus and the gospel. Another example can be found in the temptation and subsequent imprisonment of Joseph. In that story, we see a parallel to the Fall (a positive parallel that contrasts Adam and Eve’s willful succumbing to temptation) that points to Jesus – obedience brings life for God’s people, even though the protagonist suffers for his obedience. Parallels abound in the Bible, and I love ‘em! As someone once said, I think it might have been Tolkien, we know the Bible is true because of its immense beauty and artistry.
Before weaving Hebrews 2:14-15 into the larger Story, though, I want to provide a brief overview of the amillennial position, the position I believe best interprets the Biblical data. Again, as noted above, this will not be a full-throated defense of amillennialism. I’m providing it as a means to help fill in gaps for those readers who may not be familiar with amillennialism. This also means, I believe, that it will be necessary to ever-so-briefly interact with dispensationalism, even though my better sense warns me that I’m stepping into a minefield.
When the Apostle John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sat down to write Revelation, the fledgling Church was entering very turbulent times. Thomas Schreiner explains, “John wrote Revelation to churches facing persecution and being tempted to compromise with Roman imperial power and cave in to the social pressures of pagan society.” It’s hard to miss the parallels to what 21st century Christians are facing, making Revelation just as relevant now as during the 1st century. Dr. Schreiner goes on to provide details motivating John to write Revelation:
[John] calls upon these churches to stay faithful until the end, reminding them that God and Christ are sovereign over the evil they face. Believers should rejoice, despite persecution and discrimination from opponents, for they can be assured a place in the heavenly city since they are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. If they endure until the end, they will enjoy God and the Lamb forever. Ultimately, God will vindicate those who are his. Furthermore, God reigns over history, and his reign is expressed in his judgments unleashed on the earth. Those judgments will culminate in a final judgment, where the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire and the righteous will enter the new Jerusalem. God’s name will be honored and praised forever for vindicating the righteous and punishing the wicked.
Amen and amen, right?
Unfortunately, the approach to studying, teaching, and even preaching Revelation found in many evangelical churches mutes the great comforts and promises found in the book; focusing, instead, on sifting the prophetic tea leaves in attempts to interpret contemporary world events. For many Christians, Revelation induces stress and anxiety; the very opposite of John’s objective for penning the book. As respectfully, tentatively, and graciously as I can, I’d like to lay the blame for this at the feet of dispensationalism (as I write, I feel like I’m teetering on the edges of several rabbit holes).
While eschatology isn’t technically the most important aspect of the hermeneutical system called dispensationalism, it has become the tail that wags the hermeneutical dog for many pastors and lay Christians. Belief in the Left Behind-styled pre-tribulation rapture is a test of faith for many. I know this to be true on a personal level. For some dispensationalists, failing to believe in a pretribulation rapture may reveal that you are not a true Believer. At best, those who use a dispensational hermeneutic accuse covenant theology (the hermeneutic that largely shapes my reading and studying of God’s Word, by the way) of spiritualizing the Bible. An odd word choice, I’ve always thought, but “spiritualizing” is cast opposite “literal.”
In his book Understanding Dispensationalism, Vern Poythress provides a helpful analysis of both the word “literal” and dispensationalism’s misappropriation of it. Before he explicates the debate, he first writes, “nearly all the problems associated with the dispensationalist-nondispensationalist conflict are buried beneath the question of literal interpretation.”
As he writes, providing quotes and examples, Poythress asserts that dispensationalism irons the meaning of literal into an almost one-size-fits-all usage, what he terms “flat interpretation.” He then goes on to demonstrate that dispensationalists, especially in the vein of Ryrie, have a tendency to apply a flat interpretation too liberally across the Bible while conflating literal with synonym. This creates major interpretative problems when dealing with texts like Revelation. Ironically, as Dr. Schreiner points out, dispensationalists approach to Revelation “is arbitrary and inconsistent. It is arbitrary inasmuch as the interpretation changes as history marches on … It is inconsistent inasmuch as the claim to take the book ‘literally’ is contradicted by their own symbolic interpretations. No one actually follows a literalistic hermeneutic in reading the book.”
As anyone who has read it knows, Revelation is chock full of weird, wonderful, yet often disturbing events and characters. Growing up, every single time I heard Revelation taught or preached, much of the time was spent attempting to decipher those weird, wonderful, yet often disturbing events and characters in a manner that corresponded to current events. For example, I heard many times that fighter jets, nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, and a host of other modern phenomena are seen in John’s writing. It was explained that as a citizen of the 1st century, the Apostle John didn’t know what he was seeing and tried as best as he could to explain those things in terms that he understood.
A couple of things, and tiptoeing around the edge of another rabbit hole, as a kid who doubted the existence of God, it wasn’t difficult for me to see the potential problems with that explanation. For starters, and assuming for the sake of argument that the overall thesis of those teachers and preachers is correct, what if John’s vision(s) take place in 3043 AD, for example? If that’s the case, then there’s no way for us who are living over 1,000 years prior to the events described to know the specifics of what John is trying to describe. I think it’s safe to assume that the things we believe are the epoch of innovation will be viewed by those living in 3043 with as much chronological snobbery as we view much of the phenomena and innovations of the 1st century. Secondly, and more importantly, if John was divinely inspired while writing Revelation (to be clear, I believe he was), wouldn’t he be able to describe his vision(s) in a way that clearly communicates to all generations God’s intended message? And, of course, John does just that; see the quote above from Dr. Schreiner providing a faith-affirming explanation of John’s objectives.
I submit that the way many, if not most, dispensationalists read, understand, and teach Revelation takes a beautiful book intended to glorify God while calling His people to a greater faith intended to fuel perseverance and drags it into the dry and dusty realm of human-centered interpretations that confuse, tempt people to despair, and that tragically obscures the gospel message of the book.
Anyway, and now that I’ve alienated all of my dispensationalist friends and family, among the books of the Bible, Revelation is the book most characterized by symbolic language. That’s a fact. Furthermore, according to theologian Stephen S. Smalley, “The scene in Rev. 19-20 consists of seven visions, and includes apocalyptic and eschatological material the character of which is at its most intense. Clearly it’s imagery, including that of the millennium, cannot be interpreted literally.”
In other words, the section of Revelation that speaks of the millennium and binding Satan is charged with more imagery and symbolic language than any other section in the book of the Bible that contains the most imagery and symbolic language of any book of the Bible. Attempting to apply a literal hermeneutic to Revelation 20, in the sense that dispensationalists mean and use “literal,” is a pathway that leads to many interpretive missteps.
So, what do I believe?
Well, the millennium mentioned in Rev. 20:2 was inaugurated by the First Advent – the totality of the Incarnation. We are currently living in the time metaphorically described as “a thousand years” by John.
Briefly, I do not believe that Revelation 20 is describing events that chronologically follow chapter 19. In agreement with Sam Storms, I believe that chapter 20 “takes us back again to the beginning of the New Testament era and recapitulates the entire present age (that is to say, it describes the same period in different but complimentary terms) [emphasis kept].” Using “complimentary terms,” the reader can see the parallel between the battle described in chapter 19 and chapter 20. And those “complimentary terms” are highly symbolic. With his use of “a thousand,” John was relying on a common ancient colloquialism that simply indicates “a very long time.”
Within that framework, the binding of Satan is best understood to refer to Christ’s victory on the cross. And this finally brings me back to Hebrews 2:14-15.
Leading into Hebrews 2, chapter 1 is perhaps the most robust defense in the Bible of Jesus’ divinity. Using Old Testament passages, the writer beautifully displays Jesus as the divine Prophet, Priest, and King. The evidence? Well, Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God (1:3),” meaning he shares the divine glory with the Father. Jesus is “the exact imprint of his nature (1:3).” And, Jesus performs the actions and works that only God can perform, as seen in the last half of verse 3 that says, “and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
There is much more that could be said about the Christology of Hebrews 1, and I encourage you to study it, but what’s important for now is that chapter 1 sets up the exhortation in chapter 2 – the “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” found in 2:1. Jesus is God, and as God, it is incumbent upon us to listen to and to heed his gospel message. Chapter 2 then pivots into Christ’s incarnation; an act of obedience(s) that results in his becoming, “the heir of all things and the Savior of his people.”
Much of Hebrews 2 is a defense not only for Jesus’ humanity but also the reason why it was necessary for the Savior to not only be divine but human as well. And the accomplishments of the Incarnate Christ are summed up in verses 14 and 15: He destroyed the one who has power over death, that is the devil. And Jesus delivered all those who are his from their slavery to sin and the condemnation of death brought by sin.
Note that the writer of Hebrews is not reinventing the Christological wheel. Reading Hebrews in light of the entire Bible reveals that Hebrews 2:14-15 fits seamlessly in the whole Story. Think of how Paul describes Jesus as the second Adam. While Romans 5 does a masterful job of laying out the theology of federal headship as it relates to the first Adam and Jesus, in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 Paul calls Jesus the “last Adam.”
Think back to the beginning of the Story. God created Adam and Eve to glorify Him through their faithful and obedient service to Him as His vice-regents on earth. Faced with temptation, they sinned, and all creation was plunged under the Curse as a result. Mercifully, in His great love, God already had a plan in place to save His people from the slavery of sin and death and place them back into right relationship with Him. Genesis 3;15 provides the readers of the Bible the first glimpse of God’s plan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
As the Story progresses, more and more of the details of God’s plan are revealed. As mentioned above, we begin to get a clearer picture when Joseph’s obedience lands him in prison but ultimately results in the salvation of Israel – God’s people. In the warrior-king David, the reader is confronted with our need to be saved from our enemies. Like the cowering Israelite army, we are impotent in the face of our enemy – sin and death. We, too, need a champion, a warrior-king to subdue the enemy and “bruise his head.” Remember, David cut off Goliath’s head. And throughout the Old Testament, as the Psalms and prophets explicitly testify, it’s revealed that we are to expect something unexpected – a divine Prophet, Priest, and King who will subdue the enemies of God’s people through his selfless act of obedience, even at great cost to himself. It’s all there. Read the Bible. Don’t just study it, read it like you would a novel.
Reading it that way will help open up how when Jesus shows up on the scene, the literary tone shifts. The Old Testament ends in darkness. After Genesis 3, the next few chapters drum the incessant beat “and he died.” The supposed heroes of the OT are quickly revealed to not be the obedient One we’re waiting for to crush the head of the serpent. Even the warrior-king David who saved God’s people by defeating Serpent-Satan’s warrior Goliath proves to be a self-serving, faithless redeemer (by way of contrast, read Ruth and notice how the sexually charged language of chapter 3 is meant to cause the reader to ask the question will Boaz prove to be a faithful redeemer or a faithless redeemer? Thankfully, he passes the test, pointing ahead to Jesus the Faithful Redeemer of all God’s people). As the OT closes, the temple has been rebuilt, but the remnant are painfully aware that it is not Solomon’s Temple, much less the promised eschatological Temple we read about in Ezekiel. In Ezra 3:12 we read, “old men who had seen the first house wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of the house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy.” They knew that they had yet to enter God’s promised rest. But, like a light breaking through the darkness, the New Testament quietly delivers the eternity-shattering news, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1).” It’s not an accident that the genealogy starts off by going backwards.
And the rest is history, as they say.
Jesus accomplishes what the first Adam failed to do. In doing so, through his obedience even to death, Jesus “destroy[ed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14).”
Jesus has defeated Satan. Full stop. Not partially. D-Day analogies do not work (sorry, pastor friends). It’s over. Jesus is sitting on the throne while God’s will is accomplished and those whom the Father has given the Son are saved. And according to the writer of Hebrews, that glorious truth should spurn us to greater faith in this present age as we persevere, pushing on, “run[nning]with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).”
The ways in which dispensationalists interpret the battle passages in Revelation undermine the writer of Hebrew’s exhortation to faith and perseverance. They reveal that Manicheanism has infected their worldview on some level. This notion that a literal battle is necessary to finish the defeat of Serpent-Satan and his forces drags the Creator down to the level of the created. Even when one of the combatant armies is severely overmatched, literal battles still contain tension. Serpent-Satan can offer zero resistance to the will of the Trinity.
This is why when reading Hebrews 2:14-15 my mind went to Revelation 20. This is how the Story of the Bible is written. Rolling parallelism that tells and retells the Story of God’s saving His people back to Himself. The divinely inspired writer of Hebrew’s contention that Jesus destroyed the devil finds a companion retelling in the Apostle John’s divinely inspired words in Revelation that tell us of the binding of Satan for a thousand years. If Jesus destroyed the devil, why would it need to be done again? And if he didn’t defeat the devil, then the writer of Hebrews was wrong, and we have another problem altogether.
Furthermore, the amillennial understanding of Revelation 20 runs parallel with the writer of Hebrews’ exhortation to faith and perseverance. Jesus defeated Serpent-Satan at the cross. The devil is bound. This means that Serpent-Satan can’t undermine, on any level, God’s plan for His people. The preaching of the gospel will accomplish God’s purposes and plans. Knowing that causes God’s people to serve faithfully and joyfully, even in the face of persecution and hard providences. The devil cannot touch us because Jesus has already defeated him.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. To my dispensationalist brothers and sisters in Christ: not that you need permission, but feel free to lambast me in the comment section. Offer your refutations, charges of straw men and special pleading, and point out that I have had zero seminary training and should not write about such matters in such an ill-informed and cavalier manner. Let me have it. All of it. Just know, though, that I will not be responding. It’s not personal, it’s just that I find arguments/discussions in comment sections an exercise in futility. If you want to come over to my house and socially distance on my back patio, I’ll be more than happy to discuss this with you over beers. Of course, since you are a dispensationalist, I’m also assuming that you most likely don’t drink beer. Your loss. But I promise you that after King Jesus returns, you and I will laugh over this while we enjoy a glass or two of wine (real wine) in the new and better Jerusalem.
 If you read my post on systemic racism, you’ll understand why churches in the official Reformed Baptist/1689 LBC orbit are generally not viable options for us. There is an RB church very close to our house, but that church actively promotes James White and Alpha and Omega Ministries.
 That wasn’t the sole reason, or even main reason. But it was a contributing factor into continuing our search for a church family.
 Thomas Schreiner, “Revelation” Expository Commentary: Hebrews – Revelation ed. Ian Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 527.
 Schreiner, “Revelation”, 527.
 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalism, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 78.
 Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalism, 83.
 Schreiner, “Revelation”, 530.
 Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 502.
 Sam Storms, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2013), 428.
 Not to mention that according to dispensationalists, the promises – renewal in the land, Temple, king on David’s throne, etc. – promised to Israelites in the Old Testament must be literally fulfilled because the OT readers understood them literally (spoiler – they did not, but that’s one of those rabbit holes) doesn’t make any sense if a thousand is taken to literally mean a thousand years, as in the millennium. The promises in the OT explicitly say forever, not just a thousand years. If the millennium were true, at the end of it, the Israelites could rightfully complain, “Wait a minute, we were promised rest in the land with the Temple and sacrifices for all eternity. Are you now saying we only get a thousand years?”
 Peter T. O’Brian, The Letter to the Hebrews The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 92.
 I believe more and more that an individual’s presupposition about the Bible’s unity is the main drive behind hermeneutical approaches. For example, it’s hard for me to fathom why my dispensationalist brothers and sisters don’t see what I see. Most likely, they feel the same way about me. For my part, I believe that the Bible is one book – one Story with a single plot. After I became a Christian, I struggled with reading and studying the Bible because the only hermeneutic I knew was dispensationalism. As a professional storyteller (an actor), everything I knew about how stories work and how to interpret stories rebelled against what I believed was the correct approach to studying the Bible. After being a Christian for about three years, I was introduced to covenant theology. From that point on, reading and studying the Bible became a joy for me and not a chore.