Though I am personally convinced that evidence for the binding of the devil referred to in Revelation 20 is provided by Matthew 12:29 (Mark 3:27, cf. Isa. 49:24-26), Luke 10:18, 13:16, John 12:31f. and is arguably buttressed by 2 Thessalonians 2:6f. (which alludes to restraining), Hebrews 2:4,14, 6:5, 9:28, 1 John 3:8; Revelation 1:6, 3:7f., 3:20, 5:10, and 12: 10f. (cf. 1:18; Mt. 16:19; 28:18; Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 2:15; 4:3; Rev. 15:2f.), many are so conscious of the clear signs of evil in the world that they cannot believe it. It seems to me, however, that this disbelief rests on basic misunderstanding. As a consequence, they reject what is usually referred to as the ‘amillennial’ view of Revelation 20, often associated nowadays with Reformed theology, in favour of a premillennial view which projects the devil’s binding to a literal thousand years in the future here on earth.
According to this scenario, Jesus returns to earth in the flesh and rules with a rod of iron. During this period the powers of the devil are strictly limited and only at the end of the millennium is he finally released from his bondage to wreak brief havoc before being finally destroyed by being cast into the lake of fire (20:10). One of the most obvious problems with this view is the fact that sin and the devil appear at all. Apart from Hebrews 2:14 and 1 John 3:8 referred to above regarding the present time, it immediately prompts the question of the nature of Christ’s rule and of his sovereignty during the millennium itself. There are of course many other major difficulties associated with premillennialism (* One such problem is: How can the saints recover their flesh which decomposed or saw corruption, Acts 2:29; 13:36, when they died in order to live for 1,000 years on the earth? Clearly they can no more re-enter their mothers’ wombs, cf. John 3:4, than they can the Garden of Eden, Gen. 3:22-24, since they have died and experienced corruption.), so, assuming that they are insuperable and that the ‘amillennial’ view referred to above is in fact the true view, what else can be said in its favour?
The sort of argument used by amillennialists based on texts in the rest of the NT may appear farfetched to those attracted to premillennialism not least since it seems to deny the obvious presence of evil in a world where the devil, far from being bound, is plainly rampant. It is, however, the sort of argument that is used elsewhere in Scripture, as we shall see.
Already but Not Yet
First, it needs to be recognised that many problems of interpretation arise from the fact that we exist in a situation which reflects the dying of the old and the coming of the new. More specifically, we live in a time of overlap between the ages (cf. Eph. 1:21, etc.), between the fading of the old covenant and the consummation of the new, in the already and the not yet. To express the issue otherwise, those who have believed in Christ are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:15; Gal. 5:18). They are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). They have already got eternal life and one foot in heaven, so to speak (cf. Eph. 2:6). Does that mean that the law has been abolished and has ceased to exist? No, says Jesus: though I have fulfilled it, it will nonetheless remain to the end of the world (Mt. 5:17f.). No, says Paul, my Jewish compatriots who have not accepted Christ, are still under the law. They have failed to see that the glory of Moses (Heb. 3:3) is on the wane (2 Cor. 3:7,11, cf. Heb. 8:13) and in the process of giving way to Christ. As a result, there is a veil over their eyes which will remain until they embrace Christ (2 Cor. 3:14-16, cf. Rom. 11:27). Nonetheless, Paul is vehement in his affirmation that he and all believers in Christ are not under law but under grace (1 Cor. 9:19-23). As those whom Christ has set free from the law they should, Paul says, stand fast and refuse to submit again to the yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1, cf. Acts 15:10). Having been released from bondage to law and sin through faith in the truth, they are, according to Jesus, free (John 8:31f.,36). So far as the Gentiles are concerned, they have been delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Son of God (Col. 1:13, cf. 2 Thes. 2:13). It should be noted, however, that that transfer has been effected only in believers.
Justification By Faith
Our freedom in Christ is summed up in the doctrine of justification by faith. Since justification is a declaratory fact, I cannot be partly justified. I am either justified or not at all. On the assumption that my faith is genuine, I am justified, acquitted and declared righteous by God himself. What I am now pre-empts final judgement (Rom. 8:1). Having said this there is still an element of tension in my life. Why? Though I really believe I am even now righteous in God’s sight, I know that in myself I am still not righteous. I still sin and fall short even as a Christian (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Like Luther I know I am at once “simul justus et pecccator” (righteous and a sinner at the same time). In spite of that, if I confess my sin, Jesus is faithful and just in forgiving it and cleansing me of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-10). So I am free after all and by no means overwhelmed by the devil. Though in one sense saved (cf. 1 John 5:13), I still remain to be fully saved. And my salvation in justification, regeneration (adoption) and sanctification still remains to be consummated in glorification. I am assured however it will be, and not for nothing did the apostle write that those whom God predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom. 8:30).
So what the NT appears to be saying is that for Christians the old covenant has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We are no longer under the law of Moses (Rom. 6:15) but under the far more radical law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21), as the Sermon on the Mount indicates. Like the devil, however, Jews, like Muslims, who are bound by the law try to impose their standards even on Christians (Acts 15:1,5; Col. 2:16-23, etc.). But for believers both the devil and the law with its ministry of death are defeated foes whose influence has been drastically curbed. They cannot prevent the spread of the gospel and of Christianity in general (John 12:32, cf. Rev. 3:8; 5:9f.). It is only through weakness and lack of faith that Christians can be temporarily overcome.
Married to Christ
Here an illustration used by Paul is helpful. He points out that while under the law a married woman is bound to her husband (as unbelieving sinners are bound by the devil to do his will), once the husband dies the law is abolished. Thus the widow is released from the law and free to marry again without being tarnished by the stigma of adultery. And so it is with Christians. For us, the law has been superseded and the devil defeated. Now married to Christ, we are free, guiltless and led by the Spirit of God who will keep us by faith to the end (1 Pet. 1:5). For us the devil is permanently bound. Though he may frighten us as he goes around like a roaring lion (1 Pet. 5:8), he is nonetheless on a leash (cf. Rev. 20:1-3). In the book of Revelation all he does is by divine permission (e.g. 13:5,7,14f.) and, even in the time of tribulation prior to the end of history, while he may kill, he cannot conquer (John 10:28, cf. Rev. 11:7-12). On the other hand, he still holds the unbelieving world in thrall (1 John 5:19). But just as Jews bound by the law can be released through faith in Christ, so can an unbelieving world be liberated from slavery to the devil (Rom. 6:16f.; 2 Cor. 3:3-6; 2 Pet. 2:19).
Crucified With Christ
The same sort of argument is also used elsewhere in Scripture. For example, Paul tells us that our old self which was dominated by the flesh has been crucified with Christ so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:6, cf. Gal. 2:20; 5:24). My problem here is that though I am a believer I find that while I have renounced my past life in the flesh, it, that is, my flesh, seems nonetheless very much alive! Though I may not habitually give way to sin (cf. 1 John 3:9), fleshly temptation in one form or another appears to be as strong as ever. For all that, I am consoled by the fact that Jesus was subject to temptation throughout his life in the flesh (cf. Mt. 4:1-11). However, the wonder of his experience is that he conquered and remained without sin (Heb. 4:15). Had he not done so he could not have effected atonement as a sacrifice without blemish. In the event, my position is that in identifying with him by faith I have in principle crucified both the flesh and the world in which I live (Gal. 5:24; 6:14) and, given the Holy Spirit, I am not only not liable to sin as I once was (cf. 1 John 3:9, etc.) but able to overcome it in a way that I was not before when I was under its sway.
Baptised into Christ
To express the issue alternatively, in Romans 6:1-11 Paul insists that those baptised into Christ have been baptised into his death and walk in newness of life. By that he does not mean that we no longer sin – a travesty of the truth and his own teaching — yet he has no hesitation in saying that we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (cf. Gal. 5:16f.). Clearly, his imperative rests on his affirmative.
Such is the apostle’s conviction that the decisive battle has been won and salvation effected that he can use the ‘prophetic past’ in Romans 8:30 (cf. 8:31ff.) and maintain elsewhere not only that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20, cf. Col. 3:1-5) but that we already sit with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). It is all a question of seeing things alternatively from the divine and human vantage points. Assuming the genuineness of my faith and that my regeneration involves eternal life which by definition cannot fail, I shall persevere to the end. From my point of view, however, the battle or the race still has to be won. I still have to persevere and conquer as Jesus did (Rev. 3:21). And this I shall surely do by the grace of God (1 Pet. 1:5). Though many deny it, this is the point that the author of Hebrews is underscoring. Far from suggesting that the truly regenerate can fall away (cf. Heb. 6:9; 10:39), as logical an absurdity as the Augustinian idea that Adam was created immortal, fell into sin and became mortal, he is insisting that we must continue the struggle through faith as the OT saints did (see Heb. 11). We persevere by persevering and that, by the grace of God (1 Pet. 1:5), to the end.
More Than Conqueror
So, just as Revelation 20 insists in no uncertain terms that the devil is now in the present bound, so despite all appearances my flesh is dead (Rom. 7:5f.). Far from being mastered by it, I am now led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:12f.; Gal. 5:16f.) and am more than conqueror (8:31ff.). While my victory may presently be far from complete (cf. Phil. 3:12), for sanctification is on-going (though even it can in one sense be regarded as definitive, Heb.10:14), it is nonetheless real. What is more, were I to die in Christ right now, it would be seen as such.
The Intercession of Christ and of the Spirit
But it might be said, since I am still weak and vulnerable to temptation and sin, how can I be sure that the devil, who is stronger than I, will not defeat me. The answer to this lies in the nature of our salvation. Not only has Jesus died for us but he ever lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25). In his high priestly prayer Jesus prays not that we should be taken out of the world but that we should be kept from the evil one (John 17:15). So long as I trust in him I am guaranteed his help and protection. At this point we do well to remember Peter, the so-called first pope. Jesus had to put him in his place on one occasion by telling him that he was under the influence of Satan (Mt. 16:23). On another occasion Jesus said that Satan had begged earnestly to have him and sift him like wheat but that he had prayed for him (Luke 22:32. Actually the Greek shows that Satan’s concern here was not just with Peter but also with all Christians, cf. NIV). We too can rely on the intercession of Christ which we are led to believe is all-prevailing (Rom. 8:34) and that Satan is bound by it. Having died for us Jesus has not left us as orphans but has sent his Spirit into the world to intercede for us too (Rom. 8:26f.).
I conclude therefore that the devil really is bound as Jesus said he was. While prior to the coming of Christ the devil exercised universal sway and even men of faith like Abraham were classed as ‘ungodly’ as opposed to being regenerate (Rom. 4:5), now his powers are strictly limited. He has been bound by the stronger than he and his goods have been and continue to be plundered (Mt. 12:29f.). Despite his serious opposition, the devil cannot prevail.
Chapter 20 is not the only place in the book of Revelation where it is implied that the devil is bound during the here and now. In chapter 11 we have the picture of the two witnesses (see 11:3). These Christian witnesses in the guise of Elijah and Moses (11:6) have power to testify and the devil cannot stop them till they have finished their testimony and are killed (cf. John the Baptist, Jesus himself and Paul, all of whom are said to have finished their course before or at their death, Acts 13:25; Luke 13:32; Acts 20:24, etc.). Is not this the picture that Paul paints regarding the end times in his Thessalonian letters? Towards the end hearts will grow cold, the faith will be rejected, persecution will be rampant and the Man of Sin will arise. But the full number of both Gentiles and Jews will be saved (Rom.11:25f., cf. Rev. 6:11). And when that occurs, the harvest will be complete. When most of what the earth produces is thorns and thistles, that is, godless men and women (cf. 2 Sam. 23:6, etc.), it will be cursed and burnt (Heb. 6:7f., cf. Gen. 6:11-13). And out of the conflagration, the few believers that are left will be plucked like brands from the burning (Amos 4:11; Jude 23, cf. 1 Cor. 15:51ff.).
More of the Already and Not Yet
We might add other references which suggest the completion of what has been begun, the already but not yet (cf. 2 Cor. 8:6,11; Phil. 1:6). For example in 2 Timothy 1:10 Paul says that Jesus has abolished death and brought life and incorruption to light. This we firmly believe. But its reality has still to be fully revealed to us in what is still a world of death. The same comment can be made regarding Hebrews 2:14 where we are told that Jesus has destroyed him who has the power of death. But though we may feel that this is so, we take it on trust and live by faith not sight. Again in Colossians 2:15 Paul tells us that Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them. Again, we believe that the battle has in principle been won, but the victory remains to be finally consummated and celebrated.
(Cf. the presence of God, salvation, new birth, etc., now but still to be consummated.)
The Devil Not Completely Disabled
It may be asked why the devil has not been permanently incapacitated during the church age (which I believe is the millennium referred to in Rev. 20) as he will be when he is finally cast into the lake of fire? The answer surely lies in the nature of the plan of salvation. God clearly has in mind to save a far greater number of men and women than a short period of history with a minimal number of generations would allow. His intention under the gospel of Christ and in the power of the Spirit (i.e. under the new covenant) is still to bring to repentance and faith those created in his image in a far more effective way than he did under the law (2 Pet. 3:9; Heb. 2:8f.; 11:39f.; Rom. 11:25; Rev. 6:11). And though the devil holds the whole world under his spell, he can do nothing to prevent God’s purpose with regard to the children of God from being fulfilled (1 John 5:19). As we saw above when referring to Revelation 11 and the two witnesses, Paul says that even in death he will be rescued (2 Tim. 4:18). It is the book of Revelation in particular that indicates that what the devil does is by permission. Dragon though he may be, his activities are severely curbed (Rev. 20:2) and while he is permitted to exercise authority over many throughout the world (Rev. 13:7f.), it is nonetheless true that “a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” will eventually cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:9f.).
A Kingdom of Priests
But there is another point of basic importance that must not be missed and that is that the book of Revelation itself talks not simply of the devil being bound but of Christians ruling under Christ. Just as the Israelites in the OT were a kingdom of priests who testified, albeit inadequately, to the world of their day, so Christians constitute a kingdom of priests during the Christian era (1:6). In 5:10 it is said that we reign on the earth (cf. Mt. 5:16)! If this is so, then the devil is bound. Just as we ourselves have been called out of darkness into light, we now exercise our priestly royal role by calling others in our turn (1 Pet. 2:9,12). According to Paul our evangelistic function is to turn people from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18, cf. Col. 1:13; 1 Thes. 1:9). If the devil had not been bound this would be an impossible task, as Jesus makes plain in Matthew 12:25-29.
There is yet something else – the witness of Christian history. From very small beginnings in an obscure part of the Romans Empire, Christianity has turned the world upside down. Despite all its apparent failures, it is undeniable that the missionary drive and enterprise of the church has achieved wonders. Even in more recent times, we do well to recall the names of William Carey, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, Henry Martyn, Adoniram Judson, C.T.Studd, the Cambridge Seven and a multitude of others.
Again, the reader might ask him or herself the question posed by a book by James Kennedy “What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?” (cf. “How Christianity Changed the World” by Alvin J. Schmidt). It provides much food for thought. I have no doubt that despite what is happening in the world today that God is sovereign and the devil bound just as Jesus predicted. The overspill or by-product of the gospel in humanitarianism, philanthropy, education, hospital care, civilised living, science and the rest is in my view immense and undeniable. Even if the river of evangelism were to dry up over night, its success to date is irrefutable. The devil’s domain has suffered permanent violence.
Finally, perhaps the major reason why many refuse to accept the clear gospel teaching on the binding of the devil arises from failure to understand that it relates in essence to deception. In Genesis 3 the devil is presented as the arch-deceiver of Adam and Eve. In John 8:44, Jesus says he is the father of lies. It is therefore not surprising that in Revelation 20:3 it is said that he is bound so that he might not deceive the nations any longer. Jesus apparently underscores this notion when he refers in Mark 13:22 to the false Christs and false prophets who would lead astray, if it were possible, the elect. The implication of this again is that the devil’s power is limited. The undeniable truth is that though many throughout the world are under the sovereignty of God being deceived by the devil (cf. 2 Thes. 2:10-12), many are not. They cling to Christ as their Saviour, hear his voice (John 10:27) and repel the wiles of the devil by means of the whole armour of God including the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (Eph. 6:11,16f.). As mentioned above, Jesus said it is acceptance of the truth that makes us free, and the devil is unable to prevent the truth from being proclaimed and believed (John 18:37). We can be sure then that so long as there are converts in the world, the devil is bound. People who turn from darkness to light are released from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18, cf. John 1:9-13; Col. 1:13).
Jesus claimed to have overcome the world (which must mean his total environment, John 16:33; 17:4f.; Rom. 8:35ff.; 1Heb. 2:9; Rev. 3:21; 5:5,12f., etc.) and that the devil found nothing in him (John 14:30). This can only mean that the world, the flesh and the devil are defeated foes whose end will be finally manifested when the plan of salvation is complete and the intended harvest gathered in (cf. Heb. 2:10). The need for the devil to be specially bound during a so-called thousand-year millennium in the future is redundant. When Jesus comes again it will not be to deal with sin but to rescue his own (Heb. 9:28) and present them as his adopted bride before his Father (2 Cor. 4:14; Eph. 1:4f.; 5:27; Jude 24).