The parenthetical statement at the beginning of v. 5, “(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended),” is probably the biggest hurdle facing a clear understanding of the resurrection and millennium from a purely preterist perspective. It is interesting to note that the earliest extant manuscript of Revelation 20:5 entirely omits this phrase, an omission that carried over into roughly half of the manuscripts dating from the fourth to the thirteenth century (ℵ 2030 2053 2062 MajK syrp).
At first glance v. 4 seems to imply that “the first resurrection” was just a resurrection of Christian martyrs as they are the only ones who “came to life.” A resurrection of just beheaded saints a thousand years before a general resurrection is a problem for every view of eschatology.
The idea that the first resurrection is a resurrection of both the righteous and wicked may be implied in v. 4: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.” If only beheaded Christians or even just the saints in general participate in the first resurrection, why are “thrones” set up with those “given authority to judge”? Assuming these thrones are not set up so that the saints themselves might judge, the fact that there are thrones for judgment could imply that this is the general resurrection mentioned in Matthew 25:31-46. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus sits on a throne in judgment at His coming and separates the sheep (the righteous) from the goats (the wicked). Summing-up the results of this judgment v. 46 reads, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Notice that it is only the righteous who “came to life” (Rev 20:4) as it is only the righteous who have “eternal life” (Mt 25:46).
Though both the righteous and wicked may take part in the first resurrection, it is only the righteous who inherit life. The idea that it is only the righteous who come to life at the resurrection is an ancient Jewish belief. Josephus says that the Pharisees “believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them,” and that there is reward or judgment based on one’s actions in life. But only the righteous “shall have the power to revive and live again” at the resurrection.13 The same idea is repeatedly implied throughout Revelation 20.
The fact that at the first resurrection only the righteous “came to life” in Revelation 20:4 is exactly what you would expect in the general resurrection of the righteous and wicked. The reason only the righteous come to life at the general resurrection is because as stated in the following verse, “The second death has no power over” “those who share in the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:6). As it is only the saints “whose name[s] are found written in the book of life” (Rev 20:15) and it is only the saints who are given access to the “spring of the water of life” (Rev 21:6; 22:1) and “the tree of life” (Rev 22:2) in the New Jerusalem after the Great White Throne of Judgment (see Do the Wicked Come to Life at the Resurrection?). Conversely, the wicked are sentenced to “the second death” (Rev 20:14) at the resurrection. Thus the fact that martyrs are said to come to life at the first resurrection is fully consistent with a description of the general resurrection given the fact that it is only the saints, not the wicked, who inherit the gift of life.
What about v. 5: “(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended)”? In this verse we see what appears to be another resurrection event never-before explicitly mentioned in the Bible one thousand years after the much-anticipated first resurrection. If Revelation 20:5a was present in the autograph, the first resurrection must be the general resurrection of the righteous and wicked during which the wicked are sentenced to “the second death” (Rev 20:14). (See A Rebuttal of the Forty-Year Millennium.) Throughout the New Testament the general resurrection of the righteous and wicked is described in such a way as to convey the impression of a singular event in which both the righteous and wicked are judged together and at the same time. The general resurrection is never stated to be divided in half and separated by a millennium. Since the saints inherit eternal life at the first resurrection, the rest of the dead who come to life in v. 5 may refer to the wicked who were sentenced to the second death during this thousand-year interim (see Hell is NOT Eternal According to the Original Languages of the Bible). Perhaps this parenthetical statement implies another general resurrection 1000 years after the first? I believe the idea of a future resurrection is a source of hope to those alive today and all others who outlived the Great White Throne of Judgment. Many who encounter fulfilled eschatology are tempted to ask, “If all is fulfilled, what now?” I believe this parenthetical statement in v. 5 may address this question.
2 Peter 3:8 reads, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” In this verse, Peter tries to comfort his audience by reminding them that to an infinite God a thousand years is like a day and thus to be patient in waiting for Christ to return. But to get a good sense of what the phrase “a day is like a thousand years” more fully connotes we must look at its source:
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. (Psalm 90:3-6.)
There is more to Psalm 90:3-6 than just a sense that time is different from the perspective of an eternal God. In the context of Psalm 90:3-6 there is a connection between a day and a thousand years where the day and night cycle of a single day seems to symbolize a thousand-year cycle of death and resurrection like that implied in Revelation 20:5: “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” In Revelation 20 we see what appears to be a thousand years separating two distinct resurrection events. Remember that the seven churches addressed in Revelation were comprised of Greeks and Jews. Though this idea is foreign to modern Christianity reading Revelation 2000 years after its original composition, the idea of a literal thousand-year life and afterlife cycle was not foreign to the Jews and Greeks of the seven Churches addressed by John in the beginning of Revelation:
There is a tradition in the house of Elias, that the righteous, whom the holy blessed God shall raise from the dead, shall not return again to the dust, but for the space of a thousand years, in which the holy blessed God shall renew the world, they shall have wings like the wings of eagles, and shall fly above the waters. (Sanhedrin, fol. 92.)
In the above text we see that the “righteous” “whom the holy blessed God” raises “from the dead” “return again to the dust” after “a thousand years.” Here we see a Jewish tradition alleging that the resurrection is a thousand-year long event. We see this same tradition of a thousand-year cycle of death and the afterlife in Greek religion (i.e. Plato and Virgil). Echoing the Jewish tradition cited above, the Greeks also believed the dead who went to Hades were confined there for a thousand years. (Republic of Plato, Book X) These shared Jewish and Greek ideas concerning a cycle of death and the resurrection/afterlife spanning one thousand years found in Revelation 20:5, Sanhedrin, fol. 92 and the Republic of Plato may also be implied in Psalm 90:3-6.
Psalm 90:4 says, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day.” This notion that a thousand-year resurrection cycle is symbolized as a single 24-hour day is subtly implied in the surrounding verses. Psalm 90:5-6 reads, “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.” (Psalm 90:3-6.) In vs. 5 and 6 people are likened to grass which “springs up new” in “the morning” signifying the birth of an individual. Then in the evening the grass is “dry and withered” like a withered old man in the twilight of life. Here we see the light of day clearly symbolizes life followed by the darkness of night signifying death. This springing up of grass in the morning denotes the beginning of life and the withering of the grass in the evening represents the death of the individual who then sleeps the “sleep of death” (v. 5). To sleep or be asleep is a euphemism for death in the Bible (Job 14:12; Mt 9:24; Jn 11:11-12; 1 Th. 4:15). And, of course, people sleep at night. The idea that night represents the state of death is clearly implied in Job 10:19-22 where death is described as “the land of deepest night.” The fact that Psalm 90:4 says, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day” thus seems to imply that the total stretch of time in which someone lives and dies before the resurrection which is symbolized by grass springing to life in the morning and dying at night is a thousand-year period. And if this thousand-year-long resurrection cycle is correct, then it is not surprising that Revelation 20 would mention two resurrection events separated by a thousand years. The existence of this thousand-year resurrection cycle sheds light on how “the rest of the dead” (i.e. the wicked) who having been sentenced to the “second death” after the judgment (Rev 20:14-15) at the first resurrection are said to “come to life [after] the thousand years were ended.” (See How Can Papias’ View of the Resurrection be Reconciled with Preterism? , The Reference to a Second Resurrection of the Rest of the Dead in V. 5 is Not Found in the Earliest Manuscripts (ℵ 2030 2053 2062 MajK syrp and Hell is NOT Eternal According to the Original Languages of the Bible.)
Why only the Martyrs are said to be Raised to Life at the First Resurrection Rather than All of the Saints.
Above I explained how the first resurrection of vs. 4-5 may be the general resurrection and at that time it is only the righteous who come to life, not the wicked. But if that is true, why is it that only Christian martyrs are specifically named as having come to life at this time? Why are not all the saints said to come to life? All the saints are said to come to life at the first century resurrection elsewhere in the Bible, but only the martyrs are highlighted in Revelation 20:4-5 because the Book of Revelation from beginning to end is about the vindication of the martyrs. And because the martyrs are the primary focus of Revelation, it is their resurrection that is brought to the reader’s attention. The resurrection of the martyrs together with the sentencing of their enemies to the second death is the climax of this vindication.
Throughout Revelation we see repeated mention of the saints being killed (Revelation 6:9-11; 7:9-14; 11:7; 12:17; 13:7, 14-15; 16:4-6; 17:6; 18:3, 24). The reason Revelation repeatedly highlights the killing of the martyrs and their subsequent resurrection in Revelation 20 is because the plagues of Revelation are God’s punishment for the deaths of the martyrs. Recall that in Revelation 6:9-11 the martyrs pray to God for justice asking, “How long, Sovereign Lord. . . until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then in Revelation 8:4-5 the “prayers of God’s people [i.e. the martyrs’ prayers for vengeance in Revelation 6:9-11], went up before God from the angel’s hand.” “Then the angel took the censer, filled” with these prayers and “hurled it on the earth” and instantly thereafter Revelation’s plagues began. Here we see that the plagues of Revelation were all the direct result of God answering the martyrs’ prayers for vengeance. Revelation 18:20 and 19:2 confirm this notion that God’s punishments in Revelation were enacted to avenge the killing of the saints: “Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her [Babylon] with the judgment she imposed on you (Revelation 18:20).” “He has avenged on her [Babylon] the blood of his servants (Revelation 19:2)” [Emphasis mine.]
Having shown how the plagues of Revelation were God’s punishment for the murders of His people, we can now get a sense of why only martyrs might be named in the first resurrection in spite of the fact that the first resurrection might be the general resurrection of the righteous and wicked. The reason only the martyrs are specifically named as having come to life at the first resurrection might not be because all the dead saints of the past were not also raised at the time. Only martyrs are named at the first resurrection perhaps because the plagues of Revelation and all the tribulations of the wicked throughout are all God’s answer to the prayers of the martyrs for vengeance (Revelation 6:9-11; 8:4-5; 18:20; 19:2). In other words, the purpose of the plagues of Revelation was God avenging the deaths of the martyrs. This means if the Jews and Romans did not kill the saints, there would be no Book of Revelation at all! The fundamental theme of the Book of Revelation as a whole from beginning to end is all about avenging the deaths of God’s people. In light of the fact that martyr vindication is the crux of Revelation, is it surprising that the first resurrection (i.e. the general resurrection) just mentions the resurrection of these same martyrs to which every single plague of Revelation was enacted to avenge?1
- The 144,000 are also mentioned in Revelation but these saints did not take part in the first resurrection for the simple reason that they were still alive at the time having been sealed and kept safe (Revelation 7:1-8; 12:13-16) throughout the Jewish War. Remember the first resurrection is the resurrection of the dead, the 144,000 were not dead at that time. Historians record the fact that Christians of Jerusalem fled to Pella at the start of the war (Eusebius The History of the Church 3.5) and subsequently returned after the war was over (Epiphanius On Weights and Measures 15). These first century saints who did not take part in the first resurrection mentioned in Revelation 20:4-5 were raised immediately after death as implied in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (see 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13: Preterism, the Rapture and the Resurrection).