What happens after the Millennium, Jesus Christ's 1,000-year reign over mankind? This is when a truly astounding part of God's great plan comes to pass!
We have seen that Jesus Christ, assisted by His faithful servants, will transform the world after His return to earth. But, even after this 1,000-year reign of peace and prosperity, much important work lies ahead.
Jesus spoke of a time when the people of all nations would gather before Him. Why? So He can "separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats" (Matthew:25:32).
Notice the nature and result of this separation: "Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'" (verses 33-34). "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'...These will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (verse 41, 46).
How will this happen? Who will be involved in this judgment? Notice how Jesus Christ will perform the process of separating the wicked from the righteous. At the beginning of His reign He begins to judge between the nations, teaching them to turn from evil to righteousness (Isaiah:2:4).
Satan released for a short time
Also, the apostle John in Revelation describes his vision of the transition to Christ's reign in which he saw that an angel "seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil, or Satan, and chained him up ... till the thousand years were ended." However, this is not the end of Satan's role in human affairs, because "after that he must be let loose for a little while" (Revelation:20:2-3, REB).
Notice what happens at the end of the Millennium: "When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be let loose from his prison, and he will come out to seduce the nations in the four quarters of the earth. He will muster them for war, the hosts of Gog and Magog, countless as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the land and laid siege to the camp of God's people and the city He loves. But fire came down on them from heaven and consumed them. Their seducer, the Devil, was flung into the lake of fire and sulfur ..." (verses 7-10, REB).
Why would God release Satan to again seduce people after the wonderful 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ? Though no specific explanation is given, a logical reason for this turn of events seems evident.
During the Millennium people will have the choice of only one way of life—the way Christ teaches them. Many generations will grow up without ever being exposed to any other way of life.
From the beginning, however, God has always allowed people to choose between good and evil (Deuteronomy:30:19). It would be a mistake to believe that no one born during the Millennium would ever choose the ways of Satan if the opportunity were available.
We can see from the events described in Revelation 20 that God will make that choice available to many people who will live during that 1,000-year era. It is also reasonable to believe that some of them will respond to Satan's intrigue and choose his selfish, rebellious ways over the cooperative and loving ways of God.
Sufficient numbers of people will make this choice to form a sizable army. "They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them" (Revelation:20:9, NIV).
God has always tested His people to see what is in their hearts (Deuteronomy:8:2; 1 Thessalonians:2:4; Hebrews:11:17). We should not assume that those living during the Millennium will be treated differently. This will be a test that at least some of them will have to face. No doubt all who live during that 1,000 years will have the opportunity to see whether they will be faithful to God and His ways. The only example revealed to us, however, is that God will release Satan for a time.
Once this test is over, Satan will never again be allowed to deceive anyone.
The general resurrection of the dead
Now the greatest judgment of all must begin. As we read earlier, at Jesus Christ's return only His faithful saints will be resurrected. Prophecy reveals that "the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation:20:5). Another resurrection will take place after the Millennium!
The enormity of this event is difficult to convey, and its significance is hard to imagine. What is to happen to the unsaved billions of people who have ever lived? What is this time of judgment all about?
Now is the time for all other people— all those who lived from Adam's time up to the generation living into the Millennium at Christ's return—to learn the truth of God and enjoy the same opportunity for salvation given to those whom God called during the Millennium. They will all be raised from the dead with a marvelous opportunity to know God for the first time!
First, notice the description and setting of this resurrection: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it ..." (verse 11).
John, in vision, then witnessed an astounding sight: "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" (verse 12).
This is the resurrection of the "rest of the dead" mentioned earlier. In his vision John saw them stand before God's throne.
What does this mean? We must let the Bible explain itself. But first we need to understand the implication of certain critical words and expressions.
The word judgment does not have to imply a condemnation to death. It can just as well refer to an acquittal, the determination that a person should not be punished. Judgment is simply a process to decide who deserves a punishment or reward and who does not. The judgment described in Revelation 20 is just that—a separation of the wicked and the righteous. Some will be punished, but many more will have their names entered into the Book of Life.
What are the criteria for this judgment? Two factors are involved. These people are judged "by the things which were written in the books" and "according to their works" (verse 12). The Greek word translated "books," biblion, apparently refers here to the books in the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. Those in this resurrection are judged by the biblical criteria for righteousness.
Now, what "works" of theirs must be judged? This is important to understand.
The reason these people did not appear in the first resurrection is that they were not among the firstfruits who were first called, taught the truth of God and then judged to be worthy of eternal life in that earlier resurrection. God did not choose to call them to salvation in the previous age of man, when Peter spoke of conversion in terms of "as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts:2:39). Contrary to popular belief, today is not the only day of salvation: "Now is ... a day of salvation" (2 Corinthians:6:2, Young's Literal Translation).
In many cases these people's past works would count against them. But other passages in the Bible explain that they will not be judged on past performance alone. They will be resurrected and given opportunity and time to repent and demonstrate their willingness to obey God. After all, most of these billions of resurrected men, women and children will have never known the true God or even heard of Jesus Christ and the Bible.
People from all human eras resurrected
Notice that Jesus says the people of His generation will rise in this resurrection along with people from other ages and other nations: "The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew:12:42).
Jesus stated that "the queen of the South"—better known as the queen of Sheba, who lived in Solomon's time almost 1,000 years earlier—will be resurrected to life again with those who heard Christ preach in His day!
"And you, Capernaum, ... if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day ... It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew:11:23-24). Here Jesus said that those who had lived in Sodom—who were destroyed for their notorious depravity almost 2,000 years earlier—will be more willing to accept and obey Christ "in the day of judgment" than Jesus' own contemporaries.
This will be a truly remarkable time when people of all eras and nations are brought back to life to learn God's truth for the first time. Contrary to the common religious belief that people who have never heard of Christ are condemned to hell or purgatory at death, the Bible reveals that all will have the opportunity to choose whether they will learn God's way, repent and receive God's gift of eternal life.
Details of this great resurrection
What will happen when these people come back to life for this time of judgment? The prophet Ezekiel gives us the answer. In a vision he sees a huge valley full of dried bones, all that remained of many long-dead people (Ezekiel:37:1-2). He is told, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel . They indeed say, 'Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!'" (verse 11).
Like most people, they probably believed that when a sinner dies all hope is lost for him. Through Ezekiel's dramatic vision, God corrects that false idea.
Here is what God reveals concerning this great mass of people who died without repentance: "'Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and ... you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,' says the LORD" (verses 12-14).
The purpose of this resurrection is to make God's Spirit available to these people so they can live, not to condemn or destroy them. Remember that "God our Savior ... desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy:2:3-4).
This resurrection will make God's fervent desire possible. It will open the door so all people who have ever lived can be taught the truth and receive the opportunity to repent so they, too, can be saved.
This means that the judgment of that day will take time, enough time for people to change their lives, sufficient time for them to show clear evidence of repentance and prove themselves faithful to God.
Of course, patience is God's nature. He is also merciful. That is why Peter tells us, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter:3:9). In His master plan of salvation, God has scheduled a time and opportunity for repentance for everyone.
God's judgment is complete
Any time of judgment involves decisions. At the end of this judgment period God will separate the last of the wicked from the righteous and destroy the wicked forever: "And they were judged, each one according to his works. 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" (Revelation:20:13-15).
Unlike those raised to immortality in the first resurrection (verse 6; 1 Corinthians:15:50-53), the people in this resurrection are restored initially to physical, fleshly existence (Ezekiel:37:4-10). They are mortal, given temporary life with an opportunity to repent and choose God's way of life. Those in this resurrection who choose that way and ultimately remain faithful to Him will be given immortal spirit life in God's family, joining those in the first resurrection.
Some, however, will still refuse to repent and submit to God. They are subject to "the second death." Notice who will suffer this fate in the lake of fire: "The cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation:21:8).
This second death will be complete destruction from which no resurrection is possible. As Jesus Himself explained, all who do not repent will perish (Luke:13:2-5). The prophet Malachi explained the finality of this destruction: "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the Lord of hosts, 'that will leave them neither root nor branch'" (Malachi:4:1).
Even in this, God is merciful. Rather than allowing some to live on in a life of sin and rebellion that will bring only sorrow and anguish to themselves and those around them, God will simply remove any source of potential suffering. Those who willingly refuse to repent and choose eternal life will be utterly destroyed, reduced to nothing but ashes (verse 3). This is a far more merciful and loving fate than that represented by the common misconception of the unrepentant tortured forever in an ever-burning hell. (To better understand this biblical truth, be sure to download or request our free booklets What Happens After Death? and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? )
A new heaven and a new earth
John's vision does not end with the lake of fire. He writes of what follows: "Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Revelation:21:1).
The last two chapters of the book of Revelation present the vision the apostle John received of a marvelous renewal of heaven and earth. Who will inherit this "new heaven and new earth"? John quotes God giving the answer: "He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son" (verse 7).
These "children of God,...heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Romans:8:17), will become like Jesus Christ is today (1 John:3:1-2) as co-owners of the wonderfully renewed heaven and earth.
As the apostle Paul explained, "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans:8:18) when we "inherit all things."
This promised inheritance is made possible through Jesus Christ, "for whom are all things and by whom are all things," who plays a central role "in bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews:2:10).
Paul comments on the nature of the glory we are destined to inherit: "The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars yet another; and one star differs from another in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians:15:41-44, REB).
The new heaven and new earth will be populated with the children of God who are miraculously changed into immortal spirit beings (verses 51-54).
The eternal family of God
The next thing John sees in his vision is a city, New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven as a gift from God. The city is described as "a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation:21:2), a description that emphasizes the relationship of its inhabitants. It represents the eternal household or community of the children of God. The husband, or bridegroom, is Jesus Christ (Matthew:25:1), who is "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans:8:29).
God the Father Himself dwells among them: "And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God" (Revelation:21:3). This community is God's family.
Residents of this city are the true "Israel of God" (Galatians:6:16). "Also she had a great and high wall with twelve gates, and twelve angels at the gates, and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel" (Revelation:21:12).
In other words, they are the spiritual descendants of Abraham,"the father of all those who believe" (Romans:4:11; compare Galatians:3:29). For "by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance ... He dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews:11:8-10).
The huge dimensions of the city indicate the awesome success Jesus Christ will have in bringing the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived to repentance and salvation. "The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs [1,500 miles, or 2,500 kilometers]. Its length, breadth, and height are equal" (Revelation:21:16).
God reveals here that the number of people who will come to repentance and receive eternal life will be like the stars in the heavens and the sand on the seashore—beyond the natural ability of any human being to count them. This is the blessing God promised to Abraham (Genesis:22:17).
The vision the apostle John received of this magnificent city provides us with a visual illustration of the family God is creating. God dwells in the midst of this city of His immortal, spirit children.
The biblical account of man begins in the Garden of Eden at the head of four rivers. In the midst of that garden God placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis:2:8-15). Satan, the great deceiver, first persuaded Eve to sin, then Adam joined her. As a result of their rebellion against God's instruction, Adam and Eve chose to partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—a deadly mixture that has brought suffering and anguish to mankind ever since (Genesis:3:1-6).
The final chapter in the account of human destiny closes with a description of another garden. It surrounds the throne of God from which a river flows with the "water of life."
"And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life" (Revelation:22:1-2).
The fruit in this paradise is good. "And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him" (verse 3). All sorrow and suffering will be gone forever (Revelation:21:4).
You can know the future
At the outset we posed a question: Must we remain ignorant of our future? Now we can see that God provides us a clear picture of our destiny. But the decision is ours. We must choose whether we will turn from the ways of Satan and this present evil world (represented in the Garden of Eden by the tree of knowledge of good and evil) to the righteous ways of God (pictured by the tree of life).
How awesome it is to know the tremendous future God has planned for us! And with that comes the responsibility to choose Him and His ways and to remain committed, considering Jesus' words in Revelation:22:6-7 as He closes the vision of the new heaven and the new earth: "These words are faithful and true...Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."