Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Augustine on Revelation 20: A Root of Amillennialism

Revelation 20 is one of the key passages in debates about differing views of the millennium. It is often thought that the amillennial view is of relatively recent origin, but in fact it is rooted in the early Christian centuries, especially in the interpretation of the chapter offered by Augustine. His study of Revelation 20, set out in Book 20 of his great work The City of God, offers useful resources for an amillennial approach to the passage. 

Are you Premill, Postmill or Amill? Few subjects have a greater capacity to generate controversy among Christians than eschatology, especially when the subject of the millennium is involved. Indeed, for many evangelicals it is one’s view of the millennium that is the litmus test for “soundness” regarding an understanding of large tracts of Scripture, in particular the prophetic books. Most Fundamentalists are committed to a premillennial position, according to which Christ returns to earth and reigns over an earthly king-dom before the end comes. A large number hold to the Dispensational version of this view. Many of the Reformed have held to a postmillennial position which places the return of Christ after a period of a thousand years, during which the gospel is the overwhelmingly dominant force on earth. Although this view still has significant support, a growing number of Reformed believers are committed to an amillennial position, which views the millennium as something other than an earthly kingdom to be expected at the end of time. Many Christians are simply confused.

It may be tempting to conclude that there is no hope of developing greater agreement on eschatology among those equally committed to the supreme authority of the Bible. If that commitment is sincere, however, profound differences of biblical interpretation should stimulate more careful and more thorough exegesis of the relevant biblical texts, always with the prayerful hope that greater unanimity may be attained. In this enterprise the insights of the great theologians and biblical scholars of the past must not be neglected. This is especially necessary in a day when the new is auto-matically assumed to be superior to the old. Whilst we must never be captive to the past, we must profit from the wisdom of earlier generations of God’s servants.

With regard to eschatology, one of the most significant early contributions to the subject was made by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In this, as in so many theological matters, Augustine (354-430) was a towering figure. Amid the diversity of views in the Patristic period, Augustine developed an understanding of the biblical material which proved to be a root of what has come to be termed Amillennialism. Key elements of this view were formulated in Augustine’s greatest work, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, written between 413 and 427, in response to the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths in August 410.

Rather than try to summarise Augustine’s full contribution to eschatology in the City of God, embracing as it does a philosophy of history and an examination of relations between Church and State, as well as his famous and controversial understanding of the “two cities”, we will focus on Augustine’s exegesis of a crucial New Testament passage, Rev 20, which he considers in City of God Book 20, chapters 7 to 17. This will highlight such central eschatological themes as the nature of the resurrection, the millennium, final judgment and the new creation.

Eschatology in the Early Church

To provide context for Augustine’s views, we must (briefly) note the main lines of thinking about eschatology among his predecessors in the Early Church. In doing so we should bear in mind the warnings of J N D Kelly against views which minimise the conviction of the first generations of Christians that they were already living in the age of the Messiah and which argue that they quickly turned attention to an entirely future coming of the Kingdom. He argues that “the primitive conviction of enjoying already the benefits of the age to come was kept vividly before the believer’s consciousness”. [1]

Nevertheless, as Kelly recognises, the element of hope was crucial to Christian faith in the New Testament and, as Gregg Allison notes, “This hope continued to characterize the church during its first few centuries of growth”. [2] We could not imagine the early Church without its longing for the return of Christ and the glorious new creation which he would usher in. Thus Irenaeus includes among the fundamentals of the faith, the regula fidei, the Lord’s “[future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father”, when he will “execute just judgment towards all” and may “in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory”. [3]

Given the possibility, and at times the fact, of violent persecution faced by Christians in the early centuries, much attention was given to the dramatic visions of books like Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament which depict both the sufferings and deliverance of the people of God. Persecution is summed up in the figure of Antichrist, the “Deceiver of the World” as the Didache describes him, one who “will work such wickedness as there has never been since the beginning”. [4] Hence the exhortation to Christians, “Be watchful over your life; never let your lamps go out or your loins be ungirt, but keep yourselves always in readiness”. [5]

The Christian’s hope of a resurrection in glory is of course central to eschatology, based as it is on the resurrection of Christ. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, written around 96, Clement of Rome writes,

Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which he has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. [6]

The role of Christ as forerunner and pattern of Christians’ resurrection is a common theme in the early centuries. To take but one example, Ignatius writes to the Trallians,

[Christ] was also verily raised up again from the dead, for His Father raised Him; and in Jesus Christ will His Father similarly raise us who believe in Him, since apart from Him there is no true life for us. [7] 

It is no surprise that such a crucial doctrine should soon come under sustained attack. Thus, as Ronald Heine notes, “The subject of the resurrection became a storm center in the second century in the debate between orthodox Christians and gnostics”. [8] On the orthodox side the key defenders of the doctrine of bodily resurrection were Irenaeus and Tertullian. Their gnostic opponents denigrated the material in comparison to the spiritual, recasting core Christian doctrines in the light of this fundamental commitment. In their view the material creation was the work of an inferior deity, the idea of God taking human flesh was unthinkable and bodily resurrection highly undesirable. As Heine describes their outlook,

The goal of gnosticism was to free the spiritual element in human beings from its imprisonment in the fleshly body. People who were aware of the essentially useless and corrupt nature of flesh and lived only for the spiritual were said to be experiencing resurrection already. [9]

In response, orthodox theologians insisted on God’s having created the material realm, and originally “very good”, and on the bodily nature of resurrection. Thus they argued that salvation involves the whole person, body as well as soul, and that the God who created man’s body at the beginning is able to bring about a bodily resurrection. Irenaeus argues, for example, that if God was able out of nothing to create man’s material body and constitute him a rational creature, God is likewise able to raise the body to life at the general resurrection:

For He who in the beginning caused him to have being who as yet was not, just when He pleased, shall much more reinstate again those who had a former existence, when it is His will [that they should inherit] the life granted by Him. [10] 

In the view of Irenaeus the most convincing proof of bodily resurrection is the incarnation in which the Word assumed flesh in order to save it. [11]

In similar fashion Tertullian defends the doctrine of bodily resurrection. He argues, for example, that body and soul are both involved in human actions, the soul motivating action and the body carrying it out, and so both must be raised in order to received appropriate reward or punishment. Whilst the soul is first to suffer in Hades, “still it is waiting for the flesh in order that it may through the flesh also compensate for its deeds, inasmuch as it laid upon the flesh the execution of its own thoughts”. [12] In his exposition of 1 Cor 15:21 in the fifth book of The Five Books Against Marcion Tertullian draws on the profound comparisons and contrasts between Adam and Christ; commenting on Paul’s words, “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection”, he writes,

But if we are all so made alive in Christ, as we die in Adam, it follows of necessity that we are made alive in Christ as a bodily substance. The similarity, indeed, is not complete, unless our revival in Christ concurs in identity of substance with our mortality in Adam. [13]

We might note at this point the dissenting voice of Origen who held to the resurrection of the “body” but was reluctant to speak of the “flesh” being resurrected. Origen wished to defend Christian truth against pagan detractors such as Celsus and eschewed what he perceived as the crude literalism of a resurrection of the flesh. For Origen, pre-existing souls put on a fleshly body suitable for the life in this world which they enter, and at the resurrection they will put on a different kind of body suited to heavenly life, a body that in some sense is put on over the present body: “it assumes another [body] in addition to the former, which is needed as a better covering, suited to the purer ethereal regions of heaven”. [14] The resurrection body is of a different kind from the physical body suited for the present life.

Another important aspect of the eschatology of the early Church is a fairly widespread belief that after the resurrection of believers at the return of Christ, he will reign for a thousand years over an earthly kingdom centred on Jerusalem. This was thought to be the “millennium” mentioned in Rev 20, a key text for all millennial views, including that of Augustine. Thus Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho writes of “a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ” who prophesied

that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem and that thereafter the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all people would likewise take place. [15]

In the same vein Tertullian writes,

But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us on the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely built city of Jerusalem “let down from heaven”… [16]

This “premillennial” view places the return of Christ before the millennium and argues for an earthly reign by Christ centred on Jerusalem. It proved to be very influential in the early centuries and some of the Fathers could wax very eloquent regarding conditions on earth during the millennium. Thus Irenaeus, for example, writes of the creation, “renovated and set free”, becoming abundantly fertile and fruitful almost beyond imagination. He quotes the Lord as teaching:

The days will come, in which vines will grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. [17]

All other crops would be similarly abundant and all the animals would live in harmony with each other.

By no means everyone was convinced about this premillennial reading of eschatology. Theologians from the Alexandrian tradition, especially Origen, rejected such a literalistic understanding of Rev 20 and associated texts. In view of Origen’s understanding of the resurrection body noted above this is not surprising. In De Principiis he attacks those who avoid hard thinking and are “disciples of the letter alone” who, in indulging their bodily desires,

are of the opinion that the fulfilment of the promises of the future are to be looked for in bodily pleasure and luxury; and therefore they especially desire to have again, after the resurrection, such bodily structures as may never be without the power of eating, and drinking, and performing all the functions of flesh and blood. [18]

Christians may certainly hope for the fulfilment of God’s promises, not in eating physical bread but rather in eating “the bread of life, which may nourish the soul with the food of truth and wisdom”. [19]

Although it has often been suggested that the premillennial approach to eschatology was the predominant view in the early centuries of the Christian Church, this has been vigorously challenged by Charles Hill in his book Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. [20] His search in this study, he indicates, is for an early, orthodox (non-Gnostic) “non-chiliasm”. [21] He recognises that there are difficulties in assessing the influence of chiliasm since many early Christian authors are silent on the subject and, he claims, some usually cited as chiliastic are in fact ambiguous in their position. Although we do not have scope in this article to examine Hill’s study in detail, we might note that for him the crucial test to apply to determine an author’s chiliastic outlook is what view of the intermediate state is held. Non-chiliasts in general held that at death the soul passed immediately into the presence of God, whilst chiliasts usually envisaged an intermediate period of unconsciousness. As Hill expresses it,

[We] may in one sense resolve the matter into the question whether the regnum caelorum, the kingdom of heaven, (understood as the interim reign of Christ), would have as its capital the terrestrial or the celestial Jerusalem. [22]

After careful study of a wide range of evidence, Hill concludes that in fact, contrary to much received wisdom, non-chiliast views in the early Christian centuries were “quickly and widely diffused”. [23] This was the case even in Syria-Palestine with its strong undercurrent of nationalist-political Jewish chiliasm. Hill sees the first traces of chiliasm in Asia Minor among writers such as Papias, Justin Martyr and, especially, Irenaeus, yet even in Asia Minor chiliasm was not the dominant view. There were competing patterns of eschatological teaching in the early centuries, but there was, for example, an early non-chiliastic interpretation of Rev 20, and, Hill concludes, “A solidly entrenched and conservative, non-chiliastic eschatology was present in the Church to rival chiliasm from beginning to end.” [24]

Augustine on Revelation 20 

Augustine’s amillennial eschatology, which shapes his exegesis of Rev 20, is not entirely his own creation. It is evident from Augustine’s writings that he drew significantly on the work of a theologian named Tyconius, whose writings are lost apart from the use made of them by Augustine. Tyconius, a fourth-century African Donatist theologian, wrote a work on biblical interpretation entitled The Book of Rules, which set out seven rules that exerted a powerful influence on subsequent biblical interpretation. Indeed, Gregg Allison points out that Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine presents “a modified summary of The Book of Rules”. [25] It was Tyconius’ contention that biblical prophecies will be fulfilled spiritually, not physically and materially as the premillennialists held. In relation to Rev 20 “Tyconius focused on a spiritual millennium corresponding to the current church period”. [26]

Initially Augustine was attracted to the premillennial position: “I also entertained this notion at one time”. [27] He came to feel repulsed, however, by the crass materialism of “the most unrestrained material feasts” said to be enjoyed by the saints, together with quantities of drink “that will also exceed the limits even of incredibility”. [28] Augustine became convinced that the spiritual interpretation of prophecy was the correct approach and, rather than refute the premillennial view of those he termed “Chiliasts” and “Millennarians” in detail, he chose to set out the positive position which he believed to be sound. In City of God 20.7-17 he expounds Rev 20:

Chapter 7:  The two resurrections and the millennium. The descriptions of John in the Apocalypse, and their interpretation.

The background to Augustine’s understanding of the two resurrections mentioned in Rev 20 is his consideration of Jesus’ words in John 5:25-29, set out in chapter 6. As Augustine notes, Jesus speaks of a present resurrection: “…I am telling you that a time is coming, in fact has already come, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live…” (v. 25). Clearly, Augustine argues, this is not the resurrection of the body but of the soul, and the dead who are delivered are dead in soul. It is only in v. 28 that Jesus comes to refer to the resurrection of the body. Those who have shared in the first (spiritual) resurrection will be spared condemnation and the “second death”.

In chapter 7 Augustine uses John 5 to exegete Rev 20:1-6. He notes how some Christians have misunderstood John and have concluded that the “first resurrection” of v. 5 is a bodily resurrection. He links this to their excitement over the mention of a period of a thousand years in v. 2. Drawing on Peter’s reference to one day being to God as a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8), they believed that the six days of creation provided the pattern for the 6000 years of human history and that the subsequent millennium would be “a kind of seventh day of Sabbath rest for the final thousand years, with the saints rising again, obviously to celebrate this Sabbath”. [29]

Indeed, in the final chapter of the book Augustine states that “We ourselves shall become that seventh day” [30] and, as Michael J Scanlon comments in this connection, “the future is the Christian’s favourite tense”. [31] Nevertheless, Augustine vigorously rejects the view of the “Chiliasts” because of its crassly materialistic understanding of the blessings of the millennium. As noted previously, Augustine admits that he was once attracted to such views, but now rejects them.

The thousand years relate, according to Rev 20:1-3, to the imprisonment of Satan in “the bottomless pit” (or the Abyss). Augustine offers two possible interpretations of this period. One possibility is that the thousand years indicate the sixth millennium, “the sixth day”, which, according to the scheme discussed above, precedes the eternal Sabbath, “the seventh day”, and of which, says Augustine, “the latter stretches are now passing”. [32] The second possibility is that the thousand years are intended

to stand for the whole period of this world’s history, signifying the entirety of time by a perfect number. [33]

The perfect number is, of course, 1000, the cube of 10. In chapter 5 of Book 20 Augustine considered some significant numbers in Scripture and notes here how 100 is sometimes used to signify totality, as in Christ’s statement that those who have left all to follow him will “receive a hundredfold in this world” (Matt 19:29, Augustine’s quotation). He goes on, “If this is so, how much more does 1000 represent totality, being the square of 10 converted into a solid figure”. [34] Augustine does not draw a specific conclusion from this discussion of the thousand years assigned to the devil’s confinement.

As far as the confinement is concerned, the “abyss” in Augustine’s view “symbolises the innumerable multitude of the impious, in whose hearts there is a great depth of malignity against the Church of God”. A barrier is set by the angel which the devil is unable to pass, whilst the “sealing” to which John refers suggests to Augustine “that God wished it to be kept secret who belongs to the Devil’s party, and who does not”. [35] This, he believes, is why in this world it is uncertain who of those standing firm will later fall and who among the fallen will rise again.

This binding of the devil means that he is no longer able to lead astray “the nations of which the Church is made up, nations whom he led astray and held in his grip before they were a Church”. [36] Augustine recognises that the devil does lead nations astray, though God ensures that individuals within them are not led astray into final condemnation. He does insist, however, that God has chosen certain nations to make up his Church. Quoting Eph 1:4, which in context does not appear to refer to nations, Augustine asserts that “God chose those nations before the foundation of the world” [37] and though they once were led astray by the devil, his binding now means that he cannot lead them astray.

Chapter 8: The binding and unloosing of the devil.

In chapter 8 Augustine turns to consider the release of the devil described in Rev 20:3. He asserts that this does not indicate that the devil, having been prevented by his binding from leading the Church astray, will subsequently be able to lead it astray: “he will never seduce that Church which was predestined and chosen before the foundation of the world”. [38] He believes in this regard it is important to note that there will still be a Church on earth when the time for the devil’s loosing comes. He finds support for this assertion in Rev 20:9-10, where reference is made to the Church’s enemies surrounding “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” just before the final judgment. The Church will not be absent when the devil is released nor will he succeed in annihilating it.

Augustine therefore argues,

the Devil is bound throughout the whole period embraced by the Apocalypse, that is, from the first coming of Christ to the end of the world, which will be Christ’s second coming… [39]

During that time the devil is allowed to attack the Church but “he is not permitted to exert his whole power of temptation either by force or by guile to seduce men to his side by violent compulsion or fraudulent delusion”. [40] He will be unloosed against those who cannot be conquered, namely the Church, in order that his full malignity and “the endurance of the Holy City” [41] will be clearly seen. Though he has been cast out of the hearts of the saints, he is allowed for three and a half years to assault outwardly “so that the City of God may behold how powerful a foe it has overcome to the immense glory of its Redeemer, its Helper, its Deliverer”. [42]

In Augustine’s view the binding of the devil began as the Church was spreading beyond Judaea, continues now and will last until the end of the age. This is evidenced by the conversion of sinners, the property of the “strong man” of Matt 12 being carried off. What may then be said of the unloosing of the strong man who has been bound? Augustine first suggests that this will mean that during the three and a half years “no one will join the people of Christ”, [43] although some will fall away from the Church. The latter, Augustine is sure, “will not be people belonging to the predestined number of the sons of God”. [44] The elect remain secure.

Augustine then wonders about “the little ones”. Surely during the time of the devil’s final onslaught children will be born to believers? If they are, how could it be thought that none of them will be brought to the “washing of rebirth” (quoting Titus 3:5), for Augustine the sacrament of baptism by which they will be saved? This leads him to a different view from that which he expressed previously: he accepts that even during the time the devil is unloosed new members will be added to the Church. There will be those who receive baptism and there will be those who come to believe for the first time who will have victory over “the strong man” even though he is no longer bound. God’s grace will still be at work: there will be those

who will then, with the help of God’s grace, and by the study of the Scriptures… become more resolute to believe what they did not believe before, and strong enough to overcome the devil, even when unloosed. [45]

Chapter 9: The nature of the kingdom of the saints, lasting a thousand years; and its difference from the eternal kingdom.

The saints, says Augustine, reign with Christ during the whole of the thousand-year binding of the devil, the period beginning with the first coming of Christ. It is not possible that this is the kingdom mentioned in Matt 25:34 (“inherit the kingdom prepared…”), which depicts Christ speaking at the end of the world. So, argues Augustine,

even now, although in some other and far inferior way, his saints must be reigning with him, the saints to whom he says, “See, I am always with you, right up to the end of the world”. [46]

It is the Church, according to Augustine, that is in this sense called Christ’s kingdom. It is from this imperfect kingdom, the Church, that the reaping angels will gather the tares at the end of the world (Matt 13:39ff). The tares are collected “from this kingdom, which is the Church in this world”. [47]

Developing this thought, Augustine refers to Matt 5:19 where both the man who does not keep Christ’s commandments and the man who does keep them are said to be in the kingdom of heaven. Alongside this statement must be placed Jesus’ teaching in verse 20 to the effect that only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, something that is possible only for those who obey the commandments, will enter the kingdom. Augustine holds both of these texts together by understanding the kingdom in two senses, one which includes both the keeper and the breaker of the commandments, and another which required obedience for entry. His conclusion is,

Thus where both are to be found we have the Church as it now is; but where only one kind will be found, there is the Church where it will be, when no evil person will be included. [48]

Even now the saints reign with Christ, but the tares in the Church do not.

Augustine goes on to link these truths with the “first resurrection” referred to in Rev 20. John tells his readers, “I saw thrones, and those who sat on them, and judgment was given” (v. 4, Augustine’s translation). These thrones he interprets as “the seats of the authorities by whom the Church is now governed, and those sitting on them as the authorities themselves”. [49] Their reign, Augustine believes, consists in the binding and loosing described in Matt 18:18. It is not only the living who reign with Christ however. The souls of the martyrs, according to Rev 20:4, also share in this reign.

As Augustine puts it, “the souls of the pious dead are not separated from the Church, which is even now the kingdom of Christ”. [50] Augustine sees this belief reflected in such ecclesiastical practices as commemorating the pious dead at the altar when the Lord’s Supper is observed or when in time of danger baptism is sought for fear of dying unbaptised (and so separated from the dead in Christ). Thus the pious dead share in the reign of Christ during the thousand years. Augustine does note that “this reign after death belongs especially to those who struggled on truth’s behalf even to death”, [51] but is unwilling to exclude any of the dead in Christ and argues that John is using the part (martyrs) to refer to the whole (all dead saints).

The “rest” who do not come to life until the thousand years are ended (Rev 20:5) are those who do not believe in Christ and so do not share in the first (spiritual) resurrection. At the last day they will be raised to face judgment, not to enter into life. At this “second” resurrection the unsaved will pass body and soul into the “second death”. Had they participated in the first resurrection they would have escaped the second death.

Chapter 10: The notion that resurrection has reference only to the body, not to the soul.

In defending his view of the “first resurrection” Augustine must address opponents who argue that the concept of “resurrection” refers only to the bodily aspect of human nature. Their logic (insofar as it may be termed “logic”) is that only what can fall can rise again and since bodies fall when they die there can be a resurrection only of bodies. Leaving aside the manifest weaknesses of this type of argument, although he was no doubt aware of them, Augustine makes his appeal to the clear teaching of Scripture, where the language of “resurrection” is used frequently of what is clearly a spiritual, not a bodily, experience.

Augustine quotes, for example, Col 3:1-2, which in his rendering says, “If you have risen with Christ, show a taste for the higher wisdom”. Undoubtedly, Augustine argues, the Apostle “was surely addressing those who had risen again in the ‘inner man’, not the outer”. [52] He reinforces his case by appeal to Paul’s exhortation to Christians to “walk in a new way of life” just as Christ rose again from the dead (Rom 6:4) and to the summons, “Awake, you sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). In all of these examples the resurrection in view is spiritual.

Even the argument that only what falls can rise may be answered from Scripture. Along with a quotation from Ecclesiasticus Augustine offers Rom 14:4, “in relation to his own Master he stands or falls” and 1 Cor 10:12, “Anyone who thinks he is standing firm should beware in case he may fall”. He concludes, “For the fall that we should beware of is, I imagine, the fall of the soul, not that of the body”. [53] There is no biblical obstacle, in Augustine’s view, that the “first resurrection” is spiritual.

Chapter 11: Gog and Magog, the agents of the devil’s persecution towards the end of the world.

The figures of Gog and Magog mentioned in Rev 20:8, and in Ezek 38-39, have exercised the ingenuity of exegetes and stirred the imaginations of Bible readers for the entire history of the Church. It is noteworthy that suggested interpretations have often focused on identification in terms of geography and have reflected the interpreter’s circumstances to a remarkable degree. Thus the view of such a widely influential twentieth-century Dispensational writer as Hal Lindsey that Gog refers to the USSR, and that Israel’s next war would be with Russia, clearly reflects the Cold War situation of the 1960s and 1970s. [54] As with all such theories, geopolitical changes soon leave them looking foolish.

Augustine will have no truck with such approaches which seem to have reared their heads even in his day. When Satan is released at the end of the thousand years, John says that he “will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle” (Rev 20:8). According to Augustine, this event is not to be thought of in terms of some circumscribed geographical area:

This, in fact, will be the last persecution, when the last judgment is imminent, and this persecution will be suffered throughout the whole world by the holy Church, the universal City of Christ being persecuted by the universal city of the Devil, each at the height of its power on earth. [55]

Thus Gog and Magog are not to be understood as designations for barbarian tribes “outside Roman sway” but rather they exist all over the world, “at the four corners of the earth” as John says. Despite some wildly inaccurate etymologising of his own (not unusual in Augustine), he concludes that the names designate all the nations deceived by the devil.

We should also note that “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” of Rev 20:9 is not, in Augustine’s opinion, one specific location, certainly not Jerusalem as many Dispensationalists believe. Rather, says Augustine, “these are simply the Church of Christ spread all over the world”. [56] He continues,

It follows that wherever the Church is at that time, and it will be among all the nations… there the camp of the saints will be and there God’s beloved City. [57]

At the end of history, this City will face the full fury of the devil and the nations under his sway.

Chapter 12: The fire that consumed Gog and Magog: and the fire of the last punishment.

The outcome of this cataclysmic confrontation between the two cities is not in doubt. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the enemies of “the beloved city” according to Rev 20:9. Augustine stresses that this is not the fire of final, eternal punishment. John will speak of this in later verses. This fire from heaven is, rather, “the firmness of the saints which will keep them from giving way to those who rage against them and from carrying out the wishes of these opponents”. [58] The enemies will be tormented by the blazing zeal of the saints whose “firmness” originates in the “firmament” of heaven. The zeal of the saints will be the fire that consumes their enemies.

Almost as an afterthought Augustine suggests an alternative explanation of the fire: it may refer to the destruction of the persecutors of the Church when Christ returns, the killing of the Antichrist by the breath of his mouth, spoken of in 2 Thess 2:8. Either way, this fiery destruction is not the final punishment of evildoers, of that Augustine is sure.

Chapter 13: The relation of the persecution of Antichrist to the thousand years.

Is Satan’s brief, intensive attack on the Church to be viewed as taking place during or after the “thousand years”? That is the question to which Augustine now turns. On the one hand, he argues, if the release of the devil described in Rev 20:7 falls within the thousand year reign of the saints with Christ, then their reign lasts longer than the devil’s binding. Yet the saints must surely reign with Christ even in the final persecution, “in fact, especially at that time, when they will overcome all its great evils, at a time when the Devil is no longer bound, and so can persecute them with all his might”. [59] How could the reign of the saints and the binding of the devil last for a thousand years if he is released three and a half years before the end of the saints’ reign?

On the other hand, if the devil is released after the thousand years, the conclusion would have to be drawn that the saints do not reign with Christ during the final, terrible persecution. Such a conclusion is unacceptable to Augustine. Indeed, by the same token those who perished during the times of persecution in the course of the thousand years could not, in Augustine’s view, be considered to reign with Christ. He concludes, “Now this, to be sure, is utterly absurd, a conclusion to be repudiated at all costs”. [60] If any Christian may be thought to reign with Christ it is surely the martyr who gave his life for the cause of Christ.

Augustine offers two possible solutions to the problem, both preserving the reality of the reign of the saints with Christ. It may be that in each case the thousand years is not so much a precise number of years as it is a designation for the “particular totality” of years allotted to each, though the exact figure differs for the saints and for the Devil. The other possibility is that the Devil’s three and a half years of freedom is so short that it need not be taken into account when speaking of the thousand years. In either case the saints reign with Christ even in the darkest hours of suffering and persecution.

Chapter 14: The condemnation of the devil and his followers; and a summary account of the resurrection of the body and the final judgment.

The persecution of the holy City is for a strictly limited time. God’s judgment will be executed on all his enemies. The One sitting on the great white throne will be the Judge, according to Rev 20:11. Augustine interprets John’s state-ment that heaven and earth fell from the One on the throne as indicating the end of the present universe, after the last judgment, and the ushering in of the new. He is careful to stress the nature of this change: “For it is by a transformation of the physical universe, not by its annihilation, that this world will pass away”. [61]

As the judgment unfolds, books are opened (Rev 20:12). These Augustine takes to be the Scriptures, setting out the divine law given to men for his obedience. Reference is then made to “another book” that is opened to enable judgment to be passed on all men. This, according to Augustine, is “the book of every man’s life, [which] was to show which of these command-ments each man had fulfilled or failed to fulfil”. [62]

Augustine muses about the nature of this book of each man’s life. If it were a material volume, what size would it have to be to contain accounts of the lives of all men? How long would it take to read all its contents? Perhaps we should suppose that there is an angel assigned to each period who will read the account of that individual’s life: one book for each person. Augustine’s favoured explanation recognises that John refers to a single book:

Consequently, we must understand this to mean a kind of divine power which will ensure that all the actions, good or bad, of ever individual will be recalled to mind and presented to the mind’s view with miraculous speed, so that each man’s knowledge will accuse or excuse his conscience. [63]

All the dead will give account, as John indicates by his references to the sea, Death and Hades giving up their dead (Rev 20:13).

Chapter 15: The meaning of the dead given up by the sea, and by Death and Hades.

Expounding John’s words regarding those who are judged in some more detail, Augustine first suggests that the dead given up by the sea are those, both good and evil, who belong to the present age (“the sea”) and who will be alive and in the body when the Lord returns. Thus John’s reference “means that this age gave up all who belonged to it, because they had not yet died”. [64]

Those who have died before the Lord’s return are embraced by the terms Death and Hades, which also give up their dead. Although the distinction is not made in the Greek text of Rev 20, Augustine speaks of Death and Hades “giving back” their dead whilst the sea “gives up” its dead.

How are Death and Hades to be distinguished? Augustine suggests that “Death” embraces the good, and “Hades” the wicked. The saved experience death but are spared the punishment of hell, whilst the wicked must endure both. At this point Augustine refers to the position of those holy people who lived before the coming of Christ: Old Testament saints. They, he says,

dwelt in regions far removed from the torments of the ungodly, but still in the nether world, until Christ’s blood and his descent into those regions should rescue them from that place. [65]

All the redeemed now await the full enjoyment of the blessings purchased by the sacrifice of Christ.

The lake of fire awaits “those whose names were not found in the book of life”. As Augustine notes, this “book” is not an aid to the divine memory, to ensure that no mistakes are made. Rather the book is a symbolic reference to predestination, the decree of God which determines those to whom eternal life will be given. “The fact is that his foreknowledge of them, which is infallible, is itself the book of life in which they are written, that is, they are known beforehand”. [66] The sovereign action of God is thus the crucial factor determining the eternal destiny of all human beings. Augustine maintains the emphasis on God’s sovereign election and grace that is such a central theme especially in his anti-Pelagian writings. As Matthew Levering notes, for Augustine “the key issue at stake in predestination arguments is the radical gift-character of salvation as an intimate participation in God”. [67] At the consummation of human history, God’s electing grace is triumphant.

Chapter 16: The new heaven and the new earth.

Whilst at first sight Rev 20 does not deal directly with the new creation, Augustine, as noted earlier, sees a reference to this transformation in John’s statement in verse 11 that from the presence of One seated on the great white throne “earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them”. After the devil and all who are absent from the book of life have been flung into the lake of fire,

then the form of this world will pass away in a blazing up of the fires of the world, just as the Deluge was caused by the overflowing of the waters of the world. [68]

The world will be transformed by this conflagration, not annihilated, and the result will be a home fitted for resurrected saints. Augustine’s description is worth quoting:

Thus in that blazing up, as I call it, of the fires of the world, the qualities of the corruptible elements which are appropriate for our corruptible bodies will utterly perish in the burning, and our substance itself will acquire the qualities which will be suited, by a miraculous transformation, to our immortal bodies, with the obvious purpose of furnishing the world, now renewed for the better, with a fitting population of human beings, renewed for the better even in their flesh. [69]

Augustine wonders whether the fact that “there is no longer any sea” indicates that the heat of the burning will dry up the sea or perhaps it too will be changed for the better. It may, he concludes, be the sea in a metaphorical sense, “For from that time the rough weather and the storms of this age will cease to exist, and ‘the sea’ is used as an allegory of this stormy age”. [70]

Thus the scene is set for the vision of the New Jerusalem of Rev 21 which Augustine examines in chapter 17. He has, nevertheless, reached the consummation of the divine work of grace and the beloved City is triumph-ant. As Henry Chadwick notes,

Augustine offers much more hope to the individual than to the institutions of human society, peculiarly liable to be vehicles of group egotism. [71]

There will, nevertheless, be a pure and blessed society filling the new creation to the glory of God throughout eternity.


It is perhaps surprising that the standard expositions of Augustine’s theology give scant attention to his exposition of Rev 20. Often the writer’s interest is more taken by Augustine’s views of history and politics than by his eschatology. [72] Even a study devoted specifically to The City of God, such as the commentary on Augustine’s work by J H S Burleigh [73] devotes only a couple of pages to the section on Rev 20. Interests generally lie elsewhere.

There has, in contrast, been some acknowledgement of Augustine’s role in the development of amillennial eschatology, and in particular an amillennial understanding of Rev 20. The acknowledgement is, however, limited. In his classic work The Bible and the Future A A Hoekema mentions Augustine’s views several times, although at one point he does not seem to reflect Augustine’s understanding of the present reign of the saints as embracing all the saints living and dead, and later dissents from Augustine’s inclusion of the living in the thousand-year reign. [74] Cornelis Venema notes Augustine’s contribution to the decline of premillennialism in the early Church and also comments that “Augustine gave impetus to the amillennialist contention that the millennium does not follow chronologically the early history of the New Testament church”. [75] Most disappointing is the very recent volume by Sam Storms in which Augustine is mentioned twice, once to mention that he is claimed by some postmillennialists and again at the very end of chapter 17 where he quotes Augustine’s confession with regard to the Antichrist, that he does not know what Paul means. [76]

Augustine’s careful exegesis of Rev 20, whether we agree or disagree with it in detail, deserves much better treatment. He is certainly one of the roots of an amillennial eschatology and he still offers valuable exegetical and theological resources for the twenty-first century Church.