The 20th chapter of Revelation sketches a brief outline of God's plan for human beings. It briefly answers the question people have asked through the centuries, "What happens to the dead who lived and died through the millennia?"
"Righteous Dead" Reign With Christ
Revelation 20 portrays "the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus" (verse 4). This is symbolic of the "saints." These are the virtuous individuals willing to obey God at any cost. They often suffer extreme persecution and sometimes death for their beliefs. They comprise the Church or spiritual nation of God (I Peter 2:9). Revelation 20:1-6 pictures the reward of the saints. They are seen ruling with the Messiah for 1,000 years or a millennium of time. John sees thrones for the saints "and judgment was committed to them" (Rev. 20:4). They are said to be "blessed and holy." The saints are now immortal — "over such the second death has no power." The Apocalypse tells us they will be "priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6). To be a priest, one must be a priest to someone. To "reign" presupposes one must have subjects over which to rule or teach. To "have judgment" means these individuals must make decisions about situations that affect others. Where and over whom do the saints carry out these functions? We have seen that Christ is coming to earth to govern the nations and kingdoms of the world (Zechariah 14:9). The saints made immortal will rule with him (Daniel 7:22, 27). The Hebrew prophets speak of this as the time when the Messiah rules the inhabitants of earth with justice, mercy and truth. (See Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 35:1-10 for details.) The conclusion is that the immortal saints will reign on earth for 1,000 years. They will govern and guide humans to whom salvation is universally made available.
A Satanic Interlude
God's government will rule this earth for 1,000 years. The sorrows of this world today will soon seem like a dead and distant past. Then God will allow Satan to be loosed. Once again, the devil will be permitted to delude humans into rejecting God. The devil "will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle whose number is as the sand of the sea" (Rev. 20:8). The expression, "four corners of the earth," points out the universal nature of this deception (Isaiah 11:12; Ezekiel 7:2; Rev. 7:1). It would take a little time for Satan to do his evil work of persuasion. Revelation does not explain either how he accomplishes his nefarious task or the exact circumstances of this worldwide rebellion. Revelation does tell us that Satan will collect a vast army called "Gog and Magog." They symbolize the population centers of the world that unite for an assault on God's government. They eventually sweep across the earth and surround "the camp of the saints and the beloved city" (Rev. 20:9). This would refer to Jerusalem and God's people living at peace in the Holy Land. Satan fails again. His human soldiers who failed to grasp the meaning of salvation, are vaporized. The Apocalypse tells us, "Fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them" (Rev. 20:9). The devil's gathering of "Gog and Magog" is an eerie replay — 1,000 years later — of the final battles at Christ's return. The original war during the Messiah's coming is described in Zechariah 14. Christ then exterminated the vast army besieging Jerusalem. Satan's human army is likewise destroyed at the end of the Millennium. Immediately after God annihilates this enormous horde, "The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone" (Rev. 20:10). From this point on, Satan and his demons are forever isolated from God and the resurrected saints.
The Dead Come to life
Satan's last rebellion also sets the stage for one of the great dramatic events of the ages — "The Great White Throne Judgment." God's ultimate aim and design for the majority of the human race is about to be fulfilled. John writes: "I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it.... And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (Rev. 20:11-12). What could this strange vision mean? John here sees a symbolic picture that tells us what happens to the billions who have died throughout the ages without having a knowledge of salvation. These are individuals not counted among the righteous dead at the start of the Millennium. Revelation here introduces us to the rest of the dead who lived throughout human history — those who died without ever having been a part of God's spiritual people. John's vision represents them as having been resurrected to mortal life. These individuals are to live again and be judged by their works. Things written in "the books" are the basis of judging the spiritual works of this great standing host. Their final judgment is based on the way of life revealed in "the books" of the Bible. If these individuals must yet be judged, they cannot be immortal beings nor can they be "lost" spiritually. They must be those resurrected to physical life and living through a period or time of judgment or judging. That is, they now have — for the first time — the opportunity to demonstrate through another lifetime that they, indeed, will trust and follow their God. They, too, can have their names written in that other book — the book of life. It is a register of all the names of the righteous (Rev. 3:5; Hebrews 12:23). Once all those who ever lived have had their opportunity for salvation, God's present phase of his plan is over. There will have been some individuals who refused to obey God. The spirit of God had enlightened their minds but they sinned willfully, nonetheless (Hebrews 6:4-6). Their choice was to follow Satan's way. They cannot be given life everlasting. The last two verses of Revelation 20 summarize their fate. John sees in vision all the dead in the sea, in death and hades (the grave) coming forth to life. "And they were judged, each one according to his works" (Rev. 20:13). Their end is both sad and horrifying: "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (verses 14-15). Such antagonistic humans are burnt up and cease to exist (Malachi 4:3). Jesus said: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). This "hell" is the fire of Revelation 20:15 — the soul — destroying lake of fire.
God's people — his faithful servants — made immortal, will rule with Christ for 1,000 years on earth.
God's purpose with man is now complete. The lake of fire that destroys the unrepentant wicked sweeps around the earth. The apostle Peter wrote, "The heavens and the earth which now exist are kept in store by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men" (II Peter 3:7). Peter tells us that this fiery destruction will purge the earth of man's works: "The heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up" (verse 10). But that isn't the end of the story of Revelation. We must now consider something called the "new heavens and new earth." That's the subject of the next chapter.