Imprisonment of Satan

SYNOPSISThe Devil is imprisoned in the “Abyss” until the appointed time when he deceives the nations to attack the saints – Revelation 20:1-3.

Artem Maltsev on Unsplash
The book of Revelation presents a portrait of Satan bound in the “Abyss” for a thousand years. Only after this period is he free “to gather the nations from the four corners of the earth” for a final assault against the “camp of the saints, the beloved city.” However, the Lamb remains in firm control throughout all these events.

The “ancient serpent” is imprisoned against his will and cannot gather the nations to attack the church until he is “released” by a higher authority; namely, the Lamb.  His “war” may appear to be about to succeed in annihilating the “camp of the saints”; however, God intervenes at the final moment to destroy the forces of the Drago and to cast him into the “Lake of fire.” Prior to this final assault, the Lamb and his victorious followers “reign” during the “thousand years.”

  • (Revelation 20:1-3) – “And I saw a messenger coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain upon his hand; and he laid hold of the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is Adversary and the Accuser, and bound him for a thousand years, — and cast him into the abyss, and fastened and sealed [it] over him, — that he might not deceive the nations any more until the thousand years should be ended: after these, must he be loosed for a short time.”

An angel descending having the key of the Abyss.” The “Abyss” is first mentioned in the description of the “fifth trumpet” when a “star from heaven was given the key of the Abyss.” With this key, the angel opened the “Abyss” to unleash an army of “locusts” upon the earth. Elsewhere, “stars” represent “messengers” or “angels” (Revelation 1:19-20, 9:1-4).

In Chapter 9, the “Abyss” has a “king” over it named Abaddon and Apollyon, meaning, “Destruction” and “Destroyer,” respectively. The evil forces of this “king” are released by this act to torment the “inhabitants of the earth,” those who do not have the “seal of God.” In contrast, in Revelation 20:1-3, an angel descends from heaven authorized to bind the Devil, not to release him or his evil forces. This locates the imprisonment of Satan in the Abyss BEFORE the events detailed in Chapter 9.

Dungeon Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash
Nathan Wright on Unsplash

A great chain in his hand,” presumably, one used to bind the Devil. This demonstrates that the imagery is not literal; a spiritual being cannot be held by a physical chain. The description also recalls the self-description of the one “like a son of man” who “lives and was dead, and is alive forevermore, and has the keys of hell and of death” - The same glorious figure who has the “the key of David, he that opens and none shuts, and shuts and none opens.” The angel in Chapter 20 descends at the command of Jesus to lock up the Devil (Revelation 1:18, 3:7).

The dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan.” The four names are verbal links to Chapter 12, the expulsion of the “Dragon,” when “the great dragon was cast down, the ancient serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan; he was cast down to the earth, and his angels were cast down with him” (Revelation 12:9).

The label “ancient serpent” recalls the story from Genesis when the “serpent” tempted Eve in Eden (Genesis 3:15 – “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shalt bruise his heel”).

In Revelation 12:9-13, the Dragon was “cast” (ballō) down to the “earth.” Likewise, in Chapter 20, Satan is “cast” (ballō) into the “Abyss.” He was expelled from heaven and lost his prosecutorial powers because of the exaltation of the messianic “son.” In the interpretation of this vision, the image of his expulsion is explained as the victory achieved by the “brethren” over the Devil “by the blood of the Lamb.” In other words, this victory was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Revelation 12:11).

He cast him into the Abyss…that he might not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years should be ended.” This is another link to Chapter 12 where the Dragon was called “the deceiver of the whole habitable earth (oikumené).” Note - Satan was not bound from all activities but, specifically, from “deceiving the nations.”

In Chapter 12, those who “tabernacle in heaven” rejoiced at the casting down of Satan; however, a heavenly voice declared “woe” to the “inhabitants of the earth,” for the Devil had arrived enraged, knowing that he had “but a short time.” Similarly, in Chapter 13, they who “tabernacle in heaven” were contrasted with the “inhabitants of the earth” that render homage to the “Beast,” the one who waged war against the “saints” (Revelation 12:12, 13:5-7).

Likewise, in Chapter 12, the descent of Satan to the earth resulted in his campaign to persecute the woman who gave birth to the messianic “son,” and to wage war against her “seed,” those who were keeping the “commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (cp. Revelation 6:9-11, 13:7, 14:10).

In other words, following his expulsion, the Devil persecuted the followers of the Lamb on the earth.  How this activity fits in with the description of him as the “deceiver of the whole habitable earth” is not explained in Chapter 12.

The Abyss.” Some English versions translate the term “bottomless pit.” As with the binding of Satan with a “great chain,” the term should not be interpreted literally as a bottomless hole somewhere in or under the earth.  A spirit can no more be held in a pit than he can be bound by a metal chain. Further, in the book of Revelation, the descriptions and things associated with the “Abyss” are fluid in their application.

In the “fifth trumpet,” the “star” from heaven used his key to unleash demonic forces that “ascended” from the “Abyss.”  In Chapter 11, the “Beast from the Abyss” “ascended” to wage war with the “Two Witnesses.” The same “Beast” was seen “ascending from the sea” to wage war with the “saints.”

Similarly, in Daniel 7:1-2four beasts ascended out of a chaotic sea. The “sea” represented the nations of the earth (in Daniel, the “beasts” ascend from the “sea” and the “earth”). Later, it is said of the “Beast from the sea” that it “was, and is not, and will ascend from the Abyss.” After its ascent, the “inhabitants of the earth” will “wonder” in amazement at its rise (Revelation 17:8).

Likewise, in Revelation 20:7-9, Satan is freed from the “Abyss” to deceive the nations to “ascend” over the whole earth in a final attempt to destroy the “saints.” Thus, the theme of something evil “ascending” from the Abyss/sea to attack the righteous company of the Redeemed is repeated throughout the book of Revelation.

Barth Bailey on Unsplash
Chaotic Sea - Barth Bailey on Unsplash

Elsewhere in the book, the “sea” is associated with evil and is connected to Babylon’s maritime trade that empowers her, and also is associated with the “inhabitants of the earth” (“Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea”). Later, the saints who have achieved victory over the “Beast” are seen “standing on a sea of glass mingled with fire.” (Revelation 8:8-9, 12:12, 15:2, 16:3, 18:17-21).

Deceive the nations of the earth.” In the latter to the Church at Thyatira, the “prophetess Jezebel” is an incarnation of the “Great Harlot” that attempts to deceive believers into engaging in idolatry (“to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols”). The “beast from the earth,” the “False Prophet,” deceives the “inhabitants of the earth” into giving their allegiance to the “Beast from the sea.” Likewise, the “Great Harlot” uses her “sorceries” to deceive “all the nations” (Revelation 13:11-18, 18:23).

So, also, at the end of the thousand years, Satan is released to “deceive the nations” to lead them in a final attempt to destroy the church. In view is not the Devil’s usual attempts to deceive men, but a specific effort to deceive humanity into following the Beast in its “war” against the saints (Revelation 20:8-10).

After this, he must be loosed for a short time.” That is, during a final period when Satan is free to deceive the nations into a final assault against the Lamb and his followers. Several themes are repeated from earlier chapters. Note, especially, the warnings of a coming “short period” during which Satan and his earthly servants will be released to persecute the saints:

  • (Revelation 3:10) – “Because you kept the word of my patience, I also will keep you from the hour of trial that is to come upon the whole habitable earth, to try the inhabitants of the earth.”
  • (Revelation 6:11) – “And there was given them to each one a white robe; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little time, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should be completed.”
  • (Revelation 9:14-15) – “Saying to the sixth angel which had the sixth trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year to slay the third part of men.”
  • (Revelation 12:12-14) – “Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he has but a short seasonAnd to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a season, seasons, and half a season from the face of the serpent.”
  • (Revelation 16:12-14) – “And the sixth poured out his bowl upon the great river, Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way might be prepared for the kings that come from the sunrising. And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, as it were frogs: for they are spirits of demons, working signs; which go forth unto the kings of the whole habitable earth to gather them together unto the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.”
  • (Revelation 17:10) – “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.”

A thousand years.” This is the only passage in the entire Bible that mentions a thousand-year period during which Satan is bound or the “saints” reign.  The numbers of the book of Revelation are figurative. Even “literal” numbers such as the “seven churches” have figurative applications. Furthermore, several numbers are multiples of smaller symbolic numbers, with some doubled and even cubed for effect. For example, the figure of 144,000 males from the twelve tribes of Israel is a multiple of 12 (12 x 12 x 1,000).

The only activity described taking place during this period is the “reign” of victorious saints with Christ “as priests,” those who were martyred for the “testimony of Jesus” and their refusal to give homage to the Beast. This should be borne in mind before reading other assumptions into the passage about what may occur during the so-called ‘Millennium’ (for example, the passage makes no mention of a Temple, Jerusalem, or Israel).

Elsewhere in Revelation, believers are constituted as a “kingdom of priests” in the present as a result of the shed blood of the Lamb. The victory of the saints during the thousand years is classified as the “first resurrection”; however, there is no mention a “second resurrection” or a “first death (Revelation 1:4-65:10, 12:11).

To participate in the “first resurrection” means a victorious saint will not taste of the “second death” (“Blessed and holy is he that participates in the first resurrection: over these the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years”). Thus, Chapter 20 juxtaposes the “first resurrection” with the “second death” - Saints who persevere and overcome escape from the “second death,” but not necessarily from physical death.

The description from verses 4-6 includes verbal links to the letter sent to the Church at Smyrna.  In it, Jesus declared himself the “first and the last, who was dead, and lived” (kai ezésen). Likewise, in Chapter 20, it is said that the reigning saints, “and lived” (kai ezésan). Just as Satan was cast into the Abyss/prison at the start of the thousand years, so he persecuted the believers in Smyrna and “cast some of them into prison.” This church suffered “tribulation ten days.” All members of the church that remained faithful “unto death” were not “hurt of the second death.” And the “second death” is identical to being cast into the “Lake of Fire,” not to physical death (Revelation 2:7-11, 20:14, 21:8).

In the book of Revelation, the "saints" reign with Jesus in their role as “priests” - The Servants of God mediate His testimony to the nations. Like that of the Lamb, their reign is paradoxical - They “reign” even while persevering through suffering, persecution, and -martyrdom (Revelation 1:4-6, 3:20-21, 5:5-7, 12:11).
The figure of a “thousand years” is a multiple of 10 and corresponds to the “tribulation of ten days” endured by the Church at Smyrna.

The thousand-year period during which overcoming saints reign with Jesus portrays the time between the coronation of the Lamb following his resurrection and the release of Satan for a final “short time.” During this final period, he is unleashed to deceive the nations to lead them in a final attempt to annihilate the church. In the interim, the Devil is still able to persecute the church and cause suffering in the world; however, he is not able to deceive the nations into committing this final assault until the designated time near the end of the age.

Note well - In Revelation 12:12-17, an enraged Devil attempted to destroy the woman clothed with the sun but was prevented from doing so by divine intervention, until a “season, seasons, and half of a season.” Only afterward, was he authorized to wage war against her “seed.” Likewise, in Revelation 13:7, the “Beast from the sea” was only able to launch its “war” against the “saints” after it was authorized to do so.

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