The bulk of the book of Revelation deals with two periods of time – all the way from the start of chapter 6 through to chapter 20 verse 6. By far the larger portion of scripture is devoted to the shorter period of time – 7 years of tribulation occupy 6:1-19:21. The much longer period of 1,000 years is covered in just 6 verses of chapter 20.
However, these two periods are vital keys to understanding Biblical prophecy. An unexpected character of the Bible has prominent place in many of these key passages where sequences of events are set in their time frame.
This is a study of Bible prophecy, not a study of Satan as such, but he is indeed the unexpected prominent figure in the Biblical revelation of these important matters.
To get the full New Testament context, the following passages should be read and carefully considered.
Ephesians 6:10-13 and 2:1-3. The key phrases are “according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience”.
Revelation 12:7-9 and 13. Key phrases “cast out… he was cast to the earth… cast to the earth”
Revelation 20:1-10. Key phrases a) v2 “bound him for a thousand years… he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished.” b) v3 “he must be released for a little while” and v7 “when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison”. c) v10 “The devil… was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone… and… will be tormented day and night forever and ever“.
In this study we will seek to establish that any normal reading must conclude a) these are real periods of time in the real world, and b) that they must occur in sequence, especially with reference to the messages concerning Satan. This has a very important bearing on the way in which the prophecies of Revelation should be understood and interpreted in the context of the whole of Scripture.
We will start very briefly in Ephesians. No-one doubts that this epistle is at the heart of doctrine concerning the church, and that it is still relevant for Christians today. What was true for Paul as he wrote continues to be true for Christians today. This includes the statement that Satan is the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience. This is as true today as the day in which Paul wrote the words. We still need the armour of God today, and we still wrestle against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).
Now we will leave Ephesians and return to it after looking at the passages in Revelation. We will look at the sections of Revelation in reverse order.
In Revelation 20:10, Satan’s final destiny is revealed. He will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where he will join the beast and the false prophet. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Although there is a definite start to this punishment, once started there will never be an end. It therefore seems appropriate to work back from this defined end point of Satan’s destiny.
From where is Satan cast? The previous verses answer this. In the period of time before being cast into the lake of fire, Satan is loose on the earth. He “will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth”. This happens after the oft mentioned thousand years, and lasts for a “little while” (Rev 20:3, 20:7-9). Once again there is a verb associated with a radical change in position of Satan. In order to deceive the nations in this way, he first needs to be “released”.
From where is Satan released? Again, the previous verses answer this question. He is released from the “bottomless pit” from where he is completely unable to deceive the nations. He remains in this position for the period described as 1,000 years. At the start of this period, Satan is bound and cast into this bottomless pit, which is evidently not the same punishment as the eternal fate of the lake of fire. This period is often referred to as the MILLENNIUM, which simply means a thousand years. Any doctrine by the name of “amillennialism” is nothing other than outright denial and defiance of the Bible.
From where is Satan bound and cast into the bottomless pit? For this we need to go back into chapters 6-19. Remember these are all said to take place during a period of 7 years. Once again we have passages that speak of dramatic changes in the position of Satan. These are in the references from chapter 12, in the middle of the section on the 7 years. In Revelation 12, Satan is on the earth (v9 and v13). He persecutes and he is enraged and he seeks to make war. He has great wrath because he knows then that his time is short. Revelation 12:14 says that he is on the earth for at least three and a half of the seven years. The whole seven years is a period of trouble and TRIBULATION for the earth, the last half at least often known as THE GREAT TRIBULATION.
At the start of this dramatic change in circumstances for Satan we note that once again he is referred to as being “cast” out or down, this time he is “cast to the earth”.
Therefore in Revelation we have the future of Satan revealed, and can work back in a chain from his eternal torment in the lake of fire.
There are various important implications to consider. Firstly, this is a sequence of events. Satan cannot possibly be in more than one of these positions at the same time. This means that all the other events associated with these periods of time must also take place in sequence. The periods of time do not merge or overlap, but have definite beginnings and endings. Satan cannot simultaneously be in the condition of being bound and of being released or loosed. He cannot simultaneously be on the earth and in the bottomless pit or the lake of fire. At some times he can be active in deceiving the nations, at others he is expressly stopped from deceiving the nations.
We also notice that the events at least including the “little while” after the 1,000 years take place on the earth. The existence of groups of people identified as nations is stressed. The nations here cannot be either the church or Israel, and must be kept distinct.
This revelation of the future of Satan covers the periods of time in the Bible identified as the tribulation and the millennium. The facts about Satan in their context prove that they must be sequential periods of time on the earth. They must either be exactly 7 years and 1,000 years in duration respectively, or the time periods must be symbolic of other equally specific lengths of time. Time in the Bible is never symbolic of any other entity. However, weeks sometimes refer to years, and a “day” can be an unspecified length of time rather than a literal period of 24 hours. When numbers of days and years are mentioned, they are normally literal unless it can be determined otherwise directly from the Bible text.
In the rest of the Bible there are many as yet unfulfilled prophecies. Revelation makes it clear that most of these must fit into either the period of the tribulation or the millennium. There are relatively few passages relating to the new heavens and the new earth or the eternal state of the very end of Revelation – they seem to be too far beyond current earthly comprehension or language for much to be revealed.
It must be concluded that the prophecies concerning the 7 years of tribulation are as yet unfulfilled. The events are of such magnitude and significance that once they have occurred they must become indelibly embedded in the history of the earth from the time of fulfilment onwards, down to every last detail that is revealed in the pages of the book of Revelation and elsewhere. All attempts to fit the seven years into any period of past history has only proved futile, and such attempts are a sure route to confusion over the meaning of Bible prophecy.
The brief passage in Revelation on the millennium should not come as a surprise to careful Bible students. The millennium follows the tribulation and must therefore also be unfulfilled at this time. It is like the final provision of a “time box” in which to place literally hundreds of Old and New Testament prophecies concerning the reign of the Messiah on the earth. There is no need for John to repeat them or add to the content of those prophecies. The specific, but very important, revelation he is uniquely given concerning the Messianic kingdom is its length of time and its place in the sequence of world events. We are also told that when Christ reigns there will be no place allowed on the earth for Satan to deceive. Again it must be emphasised that it is impossible for this period to overlap or merge with any period of revealed history where Satan is said to be actively involved in deceiving, which is his whole purpose of existence since he fell. All the passages associated with the earthly reign of the Messiah, the restoration of Israel to the head of the nations, the abundance of crops and removal of the curse on nature, the blessing of all nations, are to be literally fulfilled to the glory of Christ – on this earth and in real time. He is indeed to be glorified in every sphere in which He was rejected at His first coming. However, having being once tainted by sin, even such a restored earth could never be suitable for God’s ultimate purposes, hence the need beyond that for new heavens and new earth once Satan is finally cast away for ever.
Now we must take further notice of the verbs associated with the radical changes in Satan’s circumstances. We see that Satan himself is not in control of his own destiny. He is “cast” to the earth, he is “bound” and “cast” into the bottomless pit, he is “released” or loosed to deceive the nations, and he is finally “cast” into the lake of fire forever. These conditions are forcefully imposed upon him. When bound he cannot deceive, but when released he does have the power to deceive within limits that God sets.
Satan is held responsible for his works of deception. Therefore, when he is free within certain realms, he has the agency to decide how to deceive and agency in the implementation of his deceptions and his other malign works. There can be no responsibility without agency or ability to choose how to act and some degree of power in implementation. This is made clear in the opening chapters of Job and in key passages about the origins and fall of Satan such as Isaiah 14, where he sets himself up as God with his own series of “I will” statements. By deception he attempts to implement his designs of rebellion against God and attempts to usurp the place of Christ. However, while God does not directly cause this rebellion, God knows everything that Satan will do and is able to thwart Satan’s purposes behind the scenes while permitting Satan to wreak much apparent havoc across the cosmos. Satan does not have full knowledge of how God will act or full knowledge of the consequences of his own efforts.
Satan when bound is restricted, but when released is free to work out his own plans of deception and and at least to a degree to implement them, as he did with Job.
From early in the Bible, the message is clear that Christ the Messiah will have ultimate and complete victory over Satan. The promise is made at the occasion of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Victory was promised in the garden and was secured at the death and resurrection of Christ. However, the fruits of the victory are still being worked out in the real world and in real time. We can be very grateful for the prophetic revelations given to John and recorded for us in the vital book of Revelation.
So then, we must return to Ephesians and see how the teaching there fits in to the whole theme of the career of Satan as revealed in the Bible. We see that nowhere after Revelation 6 is Satan again referred to as the prince of the power of the air. He is either on the earth or he is bound in the bottomless pit or cast into the lake of fire. Therefore Ephesians 2 and 6 cannot be in force after half way through the seven years of tribulation at the latest. This is clear additional evidence to support the teaching that the church is not in view on the earth after at least chapter 12 of Revelation. After that time the words concerning Satan as “prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience” cannot properly be said to apply to him any longer. In other words, the Biblical evidence strongly indicates that the church age and the millennium do not overlap. Yet the millennium must be a real period of time on the earth when Satan is bound and Christ actually does reign. This confirms many Old and New Testament Messianic prophecies.
Indeed we can with great assurance pass on to a key subject concerning the true hope of the church. 1 Thessalonians promises that the church will not experience the coming day of wrath. This is not a reference to the final judgement – that would be superfluous because the cross has already once and for all rescued all believers from that final judgement. No, this day of wrath must the the time of tribulation on the earth that occupies so much of Revelation. Indeed, the church is already seen complete in the glory and blessing of heaven in chapters 4 and 5.
1 Thessalonians states that the imminent hope of all believers is to “meet the Lord in the air” at the occasion of the rapture, the catching up or calling away of the church from earth into heaven. We notice that this is an invasion by Christ Himself into what is currently the realm of Satan as prince of the power of the air. This is to be the next event in the career of Satan, signalling his being cast down to earth which is to take place during the tribulation. In this understanding of Scripture all the threads beautifully come together to paint a complete and coherent picture of the purposes of God. Supremely He has purposes for the glory of Christ. He has purposes for the Church. He also has purposes for Israel, for the nations and for the earth itself. Weaved into the revelation of these purposes is also the career and ultimate fate of Satan, the leader of the enemies of God and the great deceiver of mankind. I for one am looking forward to meeting the Lord in the air just as He has promised, knowing that it is another part of the seal of the fate of Satan in the great conflict of the ages.
There are many other Biblical reasons for understanding prophecy unfolding in this way, though studying the church and Israel in their proper contexts, and New and Old Testament prophecies of Christ the Messiah. However, the revelation of the career of Satan cements these periods of time into place in an unmistakable way for the reader of the Bible who simply believes that God says what He means and means what He says.