July 23rd, 2017

It’s most important to know what I need to do.

 Revelation 20:1-15


Yellow jackets!

As I mentioned last week, Linda and I returned a week ago Friday after being away most of the previous four weeks. A few people thought I said we went on vacation for four weeks, but I assure you going to denominational meetings is not my idea of vacation.

Because of all the rain and heat you all had while we were away, I returned to some rather large weeds in our mulch. One of them looked like a corn stalk, 24” high. So I not only mowed the lawn the day we got back, I started yanking those weeds. In doing so, I disturbed a nest of yellow jackets that had been making themselves quite comfortable in my absence. I suffered some rather painful stings on my back and legs.

This particular week of ministry didn’t allow any time to deal with yellow jackets until this past Friday. I don’t know much about yellow jackets – how they’re different from wasps or hornets, for example, or why they like digging caves in people’s mulch. I don’t know why they need to fly around if they’re not making honey. I turned to my friend Todd Byrd, who pretty much knows about everything agricultural. He knows how yellow jackets burrow, what time they get tucked in bed at night, what time they set their little yellow jacket alarm clocks, and the exact aisle at Lowe’s where I can find their poison.

I still don’t know much about yellow jackets. But I learned from Todd what I needed to do. After 9:00 at night or before 7:30 in the morning, I needed to turn their bottomless pit into a lake of Spectracide foam. This I did Friday night (and again Saturday morning for good measure) and finished pulling weeds last night without incident.

It was important to know what I know and what I don’t (and didn’t need to) know. It was most important to know what I needed to do.

What I know

In our study of Revelation, we come today to the next-to-last sermon. We will deal with the millennium and hell, two topics about which it’s important to know what I know and what I don’t, and what I can do. Let’s start with what I know about Revelation 20. I know what the chapter actually says. I’ve divided it into four paragraphs.

Abyss (1-3). An angel appears with a key and a chain. The angel chains Satan and locks him in the abyss for a thousand years. The word “abyss” is the word for the bottom of the sea combined with the negative. Imagine how deep the ocean is – that’s a scary place in and of itself. But what if there’s no bottom at all? In Jewish thought, the Abyss is where demons live. Presumably they can usually come and go, but for a thousand years the devil is confined there to keep him from deceiving the nations.

Government (4-6). During the aforementioned thousand years, those and only those who had died as martyrs because they did not worship the beast during the great tribulation come to life and reign with Christ for these thousand years while the devil is locked in the Abyss. They are blessed as priests and co-rulers with Christ. They died once but the second death has no power over them. The focus on these verses is on where the devil is (out of sight) and on the reign of the martyrs.

Damnation (7-9). After the thousand years, Satan in released to deceive the nations. He gathers innumerable warriors from across the globe to surround the city God loves, presumably Jerusalem. But his army is destroyed in a fire from heaven. He then joins the beast and the false prophet in the lake of burning sulfur, to be tormented day and night for ever and ever. If the word “damnation” is ever appropriate, it is here.

Judgment (10-15). God appears seated on a great white throne, and this is the end of heaven and earth as we know them (11). The connection between this part of the chapter and the millennium section has to do with what’s referred to as the second death and the first resurrection, implying there is a second resurrection and a first death. Everyone dies once – physically. There is a second death that results from being judged by one’s deeds, and this lands those not in the book of life in the lake of fire with the devil (15). We’re not told in this chapter what happens to those who are in the book of life. We will come back to them next week in our final sermon on Revelation.

What I don’t know

So let me lay out what I don’t know after reading Revelation 20. In other words, what are (to me at least) some rather obvious questions without obvious answers.

How does a bottomless pit have a door and a lock, and to what is the devil chained? This is obviously Revelation symbolism, but I have a hard time with the imagery.

During the millennium, who are the people on earth that the martyrs are ruling? The idea seems to be that there is a central government by Christ and the martyrs in Jerusalem, but the rest of the nations continue to exist. Are these people all believers? Do they live for a thousand years, or do they keep living and dying and having babies? Does the church exist during this time? Are there still people coming to faith? Are there other religions being practiced other than faith in Jesus?

Why does the devil get a second chance after this glorious millennium? What’s the purpose of releasing him for a short time, allowing him to deceive again?

What does the end of the chapter tell us about the state or condition or location of people after they die the first time and before the judgment? Especially with believers – aren’t they supposed to be with Jesus immediately? Here it looks like they stay dead until they are resurrected before the great white throne.

How does this chapter fit with lots of other Scriptures that seem to cover similar topics? There’s much in the Old Testament, for example, about God’s promises to Israel in terms of their future kingdom. Is Revelation 20 about God keeping those promises to Israel to restore their glory and even their temple? If so, why doesn’t John connect those dots? How about other texts related to judgment and hell and God’s wrath? How does all this connect? I’m not sure.

About Revelation 20, it’s okay – even necessary – to say, “I don’t know.”

What I know

Let’s get back to what I know. I’m not the only person with questions. For about two millennia people have read this chapter and come to all sorts of different conclusions.

Let’s start with that thousand-year period, otherwise known as the millennium. I know there are three major views about the millennium, and one of them has two variations. In 1999, as we drew close to Y2K, I preached a sermon outlining the four views along with the history of each. I decided not to do that today. If you email me, I will be happy to send you a print copy of that sermon. Instead, I will call these three views Pessimism, Optimism, and Is-ism.[1]

Pessimism is the view that Revelation teaches the world is bad and getting worse. The devil is gaining more and more control, and the only way for that to be reversed is for Jesus to come back in person and triumph over evil. According to Revelation 20, he’ll have to stamp out evil not once but twice. Even after Jesus comes back and rules for 1000 years, he’ll let the devil out of the Abyss again, and once again, the whole world will be deceived. So as long as there is earth, there will be actual or potential dominance by Satan. The Pessimist view generally sees the 1000 years as a literal time period between the second coming of Christ and the final judgment.

Optimism is the view that Jesus has put the church on the earth for the purpose of changing the world. In this view of Revelation 20 the “1000” is symbolic of a long period of time that precedes the second coming of Jesus. We in the church are part of God’s great plan to transform the world by the Gospel – to spread Jesus’ name to the ends of the earth and to slowly have all societies – if not necessarily all individuals – come under the rule of Christ and his people. This was a rather popular view in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a lot of spiritual and economic progress was being made in the world.

Is-ism is a term I coined. There’s no millennium of peace, in this view. Revelation 20 is symbolic – not only the number of years, but the reign of Christ and his martyrs. Right now Satan is bound by the ongoing work of the church, which is Christ ruling through his people. The final battle in Revelation 20 is simply a review of the great tribulation already described in detail in previous chapters.

The second subject covered in Revelation 20 is the “lake of fire,” also hotly debated in the church. Most interpreters connect this to the word “hell.”

I know there are also three main views about hell. The first is eternal conscious punishment not only for the devil and his angels, but for all who do not trust Christ in this life.  Think Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s not necessarily a literal fire or torture chamber – that idea has lost a lot of favor. Hell is eternal separation from God.

The second view is universalism. It takes a number of forms, of course, but the bottom line is a loving God would never send souls to a place of eternal, conscious torment. He’ll find a way to draw everyone in.

The third view lies somewhere in between the first two. Let’s call it hell-light. This includes the idea that suffering on earth is hell, or that hell is just death – unbelievers cease to exist while believers live forever. Or maybe people get sent so a place of correction or waiting – purgatory for all who don’t believe at first – and then they get one or more second chances. The devil’s in hell forever, but others can get out.

I do know that Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people take very different positions, sometimes passionately, on how to read Revelation 20 about hell and the millennium.

What I don’t know

I’m not done with what I don’t know. I don’t know is how people can come across so arrogant about these matters. I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant for me to say that with Bible in hand I am fairly sure I can create doubts about any of the three common views about the millennium and the three views about hell.

The problem with both topics is that what this chapter says is somewhat limited. Whatever your theory is about a coming millennium or about final judgment, you’re not going to be able to argue it from this text alone. You’re going to need to bring in lots of other Scripture texts. What’s wrong with that? Well, it all depends on which Scripture texts you bring in. On the hell question, for example, the argument usually rides on the attributes of God. But which attributes? His love and patience or his holiness and wrath?

Several years ago a pastor named Rob Bell who, until then, was quite popular with evangelicals, published a book titled Love Wins, arguing rather forcefully in favor of universalism. The book begins with Bell’s strong reaction to someone who said: “Reality check, Gandhi’s in hell.” Bell responds, “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”

The problem, as I wrote in a blog post about Bell’s book, is that his response is equally arrogant when he concludes nobody winds up in hell forever. I wrote, “Really? Rob Bell knows this for sure? We have confirmation of this? And he wrote a book to let the rest of us know?” Bell quotes lots of Scripture in his book, but I think he overlooks a lot of Scripture too – not just Revelation 20.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how much Jesus had to say about hell. People argue over whether he meant the same thing as the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20, but I would definitely say Jesus was no universalist. Furthermore, in Matthew 25 he parallels the phrases “eternal life” and “eternal punishment.” He even used hell as a fear factor to motivate genuine faith. Paul, it seems to me, is surprisingly less direct in many of his letters on the subject of hell, and never uses the actual word. Some of his writings seem even to support universalism, but he does have one very clear passage about those who do not know God and obey the gospel being “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 2:9)

If you’re looking for a more humble approach, I liked the book Pastor Paul loaned me this week, Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. What I appreciate is not only the biblical wrestling (Scripture on all sides) but the personal side of Chan’s struggle. He talks about his grandmother, who wasn’t a believer, and about many friends who don’t know Christ. If you can believe in hell without being tortured by the idea, you don’t have God’s heart. If you want anyone to go to hell, even your worst enemy, you don’t have God’s heart. Paul tells Timothy that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Someone else who offers fresh wisdom and differing perspectives within the orthodox Christian umbrella, even a half century after he died, is C. S. Lewis. For example, he strongly believes hell is self-chosen. “The doors of hell are locked on the inside,” he wrote in The Problem of Pain. In The Great Divorce, he said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” For some, that helps.

So again, what I don’t know is how Christians can be so sure about every detail in their thinking about hell – or the millennium. Some can be downright hateful in their difference on subjects, and willfully indifferent about the impact of their words on the church and the world. If you think you have a blanket theory that totally resolves all the issues raised by Revelation 20, I’d like to hear it. I’m arguing for a little humility and respect for those who disagree.

What I know

So let me close with one more section on what I do know from Revelation 20.

First, I know Satan is under God’s control. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “The devil is God’s devil.” John is careful to note that the devil is only on the loose when God says he’s on the loose. I don’t understand much of what God allows the devil to do, and I really don’t understand why he’s set free again after the 1000 years in Revelation 20. But the whole passage reinforces the sovereignty of God, and that’s comforting to me. Nothing and no one, not even Satan, acts outside of God’s sovereignty.

Second, I know not everyone goes to heaven. If my belief about the future of the earth or the final judgment and eternity decreases my motivation for evangelism and missions, I missed the heart of Jesus, of Paul, and of John in Revelation. If there’s a second chance after death, no Scripture clearly states that either. If there’s a way to live forever without accepting Jesus in this life, the Bible certainly doesn’t make it very clear. One of my mentors, Robertson McQuilkin, used the illustration of a security guard on the tenth floor of a burning building. If he knows where the fire escape is, it’s immoral for him to make his own way out and just hope others can find another way. He should point everyone to the one way he knows.

Third, I know God will do the right thing. If I don’t know that, in what sense am I a believer? I will not question him, nor will you, at the great white throne judgment or in eternity. Whatever he does with people who haven’t heard, or sincere people who follow other faiths, or children, or aborted and miscarried babies, or the mentally ill, or whoever else you have questions about – whatever he does will be just and loving and true to his character. Francis Chan points to Psalm 115:3, which says that God does “whatever he pleases.” I have to “let God be God,” he says, no matter what I believe about the future or about hell.

Finally, I know what I need to do: share Jesus. As with the yellow jackets, I don’t need to know everything. I just need to know what to do. My job is not to do God’s job or even to anticipate God’s job. I should not be giving out false hope about the future or heaven and hell without clear biblical warrant. But if I run around holding placards about the end of the world or telling people who’s going to hell and who isn’t, I’m not following the example of Jesus or Paul or the early church. My only task is to lovingly point people to Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.

[1] The technical terms are Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism, in that order.

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