Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Does Revelation 20:4 Teach an Intermediate State Reign of the Saints in Heaven?

by Michael J. Vlach

Some who hold to amillennialism believe Revelation 20:4 is describing an intermediate state reign of the saints in heaven. Sam Storms, who holds this view, has even claimed that such a perspective of Revelation 20:4 is “obvious” (Kingdom Come, 457) and can be shown “beyond reasonable doubt” (458). Since “obvious” and “beyond reasonable doubt” are strong claims and if true, strongly tilt the evidence to an amillennial perspective, I want to address this issue of Revelation 20:4.

Here I examine the position that Revelation 20:4 refers to an intermediate state reign of the saints from heaven. I will argue that it does not and that there is doubt about this view. In order to do this we must first quote this passage:

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4).

This great verse, which comes after discussion of the return of Jesus (Rev. 19:11ff.) and the binding of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3), describes souls, who had been beheaded for their testimony of Jesus, coming to life and reigning for a thousand years.

For some adherents of amillennialism this reign of the saints for a thousand years is occurring in heaven now between the two comings of Jesus. Thus, Revelation 20:4 describes a heavenly intermediate state reign of Jesus’ saints now. This scene does not await a future fulfillment in an earthly kingdom as posited by premillennialists because it is occurring in the present.

Sam Storms makes a robust case for this heavenly intermediate state reign position in his book, Kingdom Come, relying on similarities between Revelation 20:4 and what came earlier in Revelation 6:9-11. Revelation 6:9-11 states:

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.

Storms points out that both Revelation 6:9 and Revelation 20:4 have striking similarities that indicate they are describing the same event:

--“And I saw” is found in both passages.
--“the souls of those who had been slain/beheaded” is found in both passages.
--“because of the word of God” is found in both passages.
-- “because of the testimony” for Jesus is found in both passages.

As a result of studying these similarities Storms states: “That John is talking about the intermediate state in Revelation 20:4-6 seems obvious once the parallel with Revelation 6:9-11 is noted.” (Storms, Kingdom Come, 457). G. K. Beale, who also holds the intermediate state view, says, “The parallel with 6:9 suggests strongly that the scene here is also picturing deceased saints reigning in heaven, not on earth.” (G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 436). Storms is so confident of his view that he can deem it “beyond reasonable doubt”: “That John is describing the same scene, namely, that of the blessedness of the intermediate state, seems beyond reasonable doubt” (458). As these quotes show there is high confidence by some that Revelation 20:4 is describing a heavenly intermediate state scene.

Evaluating the Intermediate State View

As I examine this intermediate state view I think there are three beliefs that must be true for this understanding to be accurate. I will mention these three although my intent is to focus mostly on the third belief which deals with the connection between Revelation 20:4 and Revelation 6:9-11.

First, this intermediate state view must separate the timing of the reign of the saints mentioned in Revelation 20:4 from Jesus’ coming reign mentioned in Revelation 19:11ff. Most adherents of the various millennial views acknowledge that Revelation 19:11ff. describes Jesus’ second coming to earth. Yet Revelation 19:15a says that when Jesus returns He will rule the nations with a rod of iron at His second coming—“From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron.” Yet according to the intermediate state view, the reign of the saints mentioned in Revelation 20:4 must be operating in this age. If Revelation 19:15 is describing a reign of Jesus at His return then it seems odd that Jesus’ saints would be reigning in this age before His return.

Second, this intermediate state view must understand ezesan, translated, “came to life” in 20:4, in a way that does not involve physical resurrection. Storms says, “In spite of having lost their physical lives, they are raised to life together with Christ in the intermediate state (as disembodied souls) where they rule and reign with the Lord for the duration of the present church age” (Storms, 466). Yet ezesan refers to physical resurrection in Revelation 20:5, something almost universally acknowledged. But for the intermediate state view to be correct, the reference to “came to life” in 20:4 must not be physical resurrection since it allegedly describes the saints in heaven before the return of Jesus and physical resurrection. So for this view to be right the same term must be used in two different way in Revelation 20:4-5.

Third, for the intermediate state view to be correct Revelation 20:4 must be describing not only the same people as Revelation 6:9-11 does, but it must also describe similar circumstances in heaven. Storms rightly points out that all Christian scholars, including premillennialists, agree that Revelation 6:9-11 describes a heavenly, intermediate state scene, but in order for the intermediate state view to be correct, Revelation 20:4 must also be describing a heavenly scene.

Time and space does not allow a full discussion of the first two points above, which I think are difficult for advocates of the intermediate state view to prove. One can read how various scholars defend this view, but I think it is difficult to separate Jesus’ coming reign over the nations as a result of His second coming, as described in Revelation 19:15, from the reign of His saints mentioned in Revelation 20:4. The Bible presents the reign of the Messiah and the reign of the saints as occurring at the same time (see Matt. 19:28). Also, it is very difficult to maintain that ezesan (“came to life”) is used in two different ways in the same context—first life in the intermediate state in 20:4 and then physical resurrection in 20:5. So even before we get to the third point, the intermediate state view is in trouble in my opinion, and certainly not obvious.

But again my main focus is on the claim that the similarities of Revelation 6:9-11 and 20:4 show beyond reasonable doubt that Revelation 20:4 is describing the intermediate state in heaven.

To start, I agree with Storms that the people described in 20:4 are the same people spoken of in 6:9-11. Revelation 6:9 and Revelation 20:4a describe the same group—those who gave their lives for Jesus. This is not disputed and to establish this proves nothing for the intermediate state view.

But I dispute the idea that the existence of the same people (martyrs) in both passages means that these people are having the same experience at the same time. We cannot just look at how Revelation 20:4a and Revelation 6:9 compare. These clearly show the same group of martyrs. But we must also look at how Revelation 20:4b and Revelation 6:10-11 compare to each other. When we do this we see that there are major differences in the circumstances described:

Revelation 6:10-11: The saints in heaven are crying out for justice upon the earth.
Revelation 20:4b: The saints are experiencing justice because of thrones and reigning.

Revelation 6:10-11: Saints rest until full number of martyrs is completed.
Revelation 20:4b: Saints come to life and reign.

Revelation 6:10-11: Time period involves resting for a little while
Revelation 20:4b: Time period involves reigning for a thousand years.

So while there are similarities between Revelation 6:9 and Revelation 20:4a, there also are significant differences. There is a difference between saints in heaven crying out for justice upon the earth (6:9-11) and a satisfying reign of the saints taking place (20:4). Commenting on Storms’ listing of similarities between Revelation 20:4 and Revelation 6:9, Waymeyer states, “But the problem with this argument is that similarities listed by Storms merely prove that both visions refer to the same group of individuals, not that both visions describe the same experience of those individuals.” (Waymeyer, Amillennialism and the Age to Come, 241). Waymeyer is right. We must give equal justice to the people described and the experiences of these people in the two passages.

The key to understanding how Revelation 20:4 and 6:9-11 relate to each other is not by stopping with Revelation 20:4a and Revelation 6:9. The student should also compare Revelation 20:4b with Revelation 6:10-11 to get the fuller picture. To focus only on the former is to commit the fallacy of appealing to selective evidence which involves looking at part of the evidence and not all of the relevant evidence. In response to Storms’ argument Waymeyer observes, “If Storms wants to demonstrate that Revelation 6:9-11 and 20:4 describe the same experience of these martyrs in the intermediate state, he must show clear parallels between Revelation 6:10-11 and 20:4b. But these are the very parts of the passages he ignores in his comparison” (Waymeyer, 241).

As I harmonize the two passages I think a reasonable interpretation is that there is a group of martyrs in heaven in 6:9-11 who are longing for justice upon the earth. They want to know when this will occur and they were told to a wait for a while until other Christians are killed. Then with Revelation 20:4 these martyrs find satisfaction as they reign upon the earth, in the same realm in which they were persecuted.

Revelation 6:9-11 describes a longing hope, while Revelation 20:4 describes this hope satisfied. So we have the same people in 6:9-11 and 20:4 but the circumstances change. The scene of Revelation 6:9-11 anticipates the coming scene of Revelation 20:4. The key to this transition is the return and reign of Jesus the Messiah (Rev. 19:11ff.). This causes the saints to go from waiting for justice to reigning in the realm of their persecution.

Is the Earth in View in Revelation 20:4?

Perhaps at this point some might object, “But the earth is not mentioned in Revelation 20:4.” But there are several strong reasons to connect “earth” to Revelation 20:4.

First, Revelation 5:10 already stated that the destiny of the saints will involve a reign upon the “earth”: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” The people who were purchased with Jesus’ blood (5:9) are destined for reigning on the earth. Revelation 20:4 is the fulfillment of this expectation.

Second, the hope of the martyrs in Revelation 6:10-11 was for vengeance upon the “earth.” This connects the martyrs with the earth. When the saints cry out for vengeance they are told to wait, not reign. Also, they are not told to forget the earth because they are already reigning. Instead, their plea for justice upon the earth is satisfied when they reign upon the earth with the reigning Messiah (Rev. 19:15; 20:4). Also, if the reign of the saints is not on earth, according to 20:4, then the hope for vengeance upon the earth goes unanswered. This is so because if the saints remain in heaven, their enemies on earth are still acting wickedly with no retribution. Remember that in Revelation 6:10-11 the hope of the saints was vengeance on earth. But if the saints are reigning from heaven with Jesus now this means their hope for vengeance on the earth goes unanswered. The saints in 6:10-11 do not see vengeance happening at that time.

Third, Revelation 19:11ff. describes the return of Jesus to earth to rule the nations of the earth (19:15). So an earthly reign is found just a few verses before Revelation 20:4. I understand amillennialists don’t believe the events of Revelation 20 chronologically follow the second coming of Jesus in Revelation 19, but the near context speaks of Jesus’ return to earth to reign over the nations. The close connection between Revelation 19:15 and 20:4 is significant. The argument that Revelation 20:4 has nothing to do with the earth when a few verses earlier Jesus is said to rule the nations is not a good one in my opinion.

Fourth, Revelation 20:8-9 reveals that when the thousand-year reign is over, the “nations” “in the four corners of the earth” come against “the beloved city,” [i.e. Jerusalem]. Again, “earth” is in the context of Revelation 20.

In sum, to say that since the word “earth” is not found in Revelation 20:4 there is no earthly reign in 20:4 does not make much sense.

Summary of the Two Positions

Below is a summary of the two positions regarding Revelation 6:9-11 and 20:4 discussed above side by side:

Amillennial Intermediate State View
Subjects: Martyrs in both passages
Location: Heaven in both passages
Timing: The period between Jesus’ two comings
Experience: Rest and Reigning in heaven

Premillennial View
Subjects: Martyrs in both passages
Location: Heaven in Revelation 6:9-11; earth in Revelation 20:4
Timing: The Tribulation Period shortly before Jesus’s second coming in Revelation 6:9-11; after Jesus’ second coming in Revelation 20:4
Experience: Rest and waiting for justice on the earth from heaven in Revelation 6:9-11; reigning on the earth after Jesus’ second coming in Revelation 20:4.


Part of the reason I did this post was because I thought the confidence level of some for the intermediate state view of Revelation 20:4 was too high. I do not think the intermediate state position of Revelation 20:4 is “obvious” or has been proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” The view that Revelation 20:4 is describing a future reign of the saints on the earth is more likely in my opinion. 

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  1. Is this new material, or is it part of one of your published works?

  2. As a believer, does holding one view (amil vs premil) over the other have any practical implications for me after I die? An important question for older believers approaching the doorway to eternity.

  3. Seems the main difference for the intermediate state is whether the saints in heaven are anticipating a coming earthly kingdom rule or viewing themselves as reigning from heaven with no expectation of an earthly kingdom reign.