What is the Millennium of Revelation 20?

An examination of popular interpretations of the thousand year reign of Christ.

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The Thousand Years

Revelation 20 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

Referring to the wildly speculative interpretations commentators have offered for the book of Revelation, G. K. Chesterton quipped, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creatures so wild as one of his commentators.” [1]  Adding to Chesterton’s observations, “James Orr, lecturing at the end of the nineteenth century, observed that various areas of Christian doctrine had received special attention and development at different periods in the history of the church,” but suggested “the one remaining undeveloped topic of theology” which is the “peculiar interest of the modern age is eschatology.” [2]  It appears that at no point in history has the church been more theologically enamored with eschatology (the study of the “last things”) than in recent years.

Use over time of the word 'eschatology' per Google.

Use over time of the word ‘eschatology’ per Google.

In recognition of the growing fascination of the day, this post will enter the eschatological discussion by focusing on the narrow topic of the millennial reign of Christ introduced in Revelation chapter 20.  One of the most hotly debated topics in eschatology, several systems have been developed for interpreting the historical placement and theological significance of the millennium.  This post will assess the four major views for interpreting Revelation 20:1-6 (dispensational premillennialism, historical premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism).

Underlying the divergent views of the millennium are the differing hermeneutical principles employed by the interpreters.  Commentators primarily disagree on the approach to reading the book of Revelation in three main ways.  The first point of difference occurs when determining how to read prophetic Scripture in light of history.  Differing views of Scripture in light of history see prophecy as applying specifically to the past (predominantly prior to 70 A. D.), as applying to history through the ages, as applying specifically to the future, or as eclectically applying to general recurring patterns of all history past, present, and future.  Interpreters further differ when deciding whether apocalyptic literature is to be read literally or symbolically.  The symbolic approach sees Revelation as communicating information at three levels:  a visionary level (what John actually saw), a symbolic level (what the items in John’s visions connote biblically beyond the specific historical reference), and a historical level (the particular historical identification). [3]  Juxtaposed to this hermeneutical approach are those from the dispensational tradition, who, in an attempt to maintain a conservative orthodox reading of Scripture, demand that interpretations be strictly literal.   This has led commentators to further disagree as to whether John’s visions are to be read literally, in a linear chronological sequence (as an “ordered and progressive unfolding”), [4] or as multiple related recapitulations that symbolically offer kaleidoscopic depictions of the same set of events. [5]  The outcomes of the application of these underlying hermeneutical principles will be shown in the examinations of each system below.

Positions

Dispensational Premillennialism

Developed in England by John Nelson Darby, dispensational theology was popularized around the turn of the nineteenth century, and is arguably an instigating factor in the modern infatuation with eschatology.  The first tenet of dispensationalism is the belief the Bible must be interpreted literally. [6] As a clear proponent of dispensational premillennialism, Herman A. Hoyt claims, “The literal method of approach to the teaching of the pre-millennial, dispensational doctrine of the kingdom is absolutely basic.” [7]  John F. Walvoord says, “The pre-millennial interpretation offers the only literal fulfillment for the hundreds of verses of prophetic testimony.” [8]  Taking seriously the concept of progressive revelation, dispensationalists see God as revealing more truth as time progresses, and therefore see the majority of the prophesies of Revelation as taking place in the future. This literal futuristic interpretation of Revelation 20 manifests as the millennium being “more than merely a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth.”  The dispensational millennium is “the restoration of national Israel to its favored place in God’s program and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.” [9]  Being that dispensationalists (unlike non-dispensationalists) hold a strong distinction between God’s promises to ethnic Israel and to the church, in dispensationalism the millennium is the time when unfulfilled prophecies are clearly fulfilled and national Israel returns to prominence.  Saucy explains,

The unity of the historical kingdom program, however, must be interpreted in such a way as to allow for the natural understanding of all the biblical prophecies.  These promises portray a restoration of the nation of Israel to the promised land and a central position for that nation in the final period of the mediatorial kingdom.  Contrary to non-dispensationalism, the term Israel is not finally applied to all God’s people irrespective of nationality.[10]

Understanding this view depends on an appreciation of classical dispensationalism’s affirmation of “two coexisting eternal realms of salvation, one heavenly and one earthly.”  Early dispensationalists drew on a “spiritual vision model of heaven as the final destiny for Christian believers . . . by postulating two coexisting forms of ultimate salvation – one eternal in heaven for the church and one everlasting on the new earth for Israel.” [11]

Chronologically, dispensational premillennialists see Revelation 20 occurring immediately after the seven year tribulation. Unmistakably inaugurated by Christ’s second coming, the millennium will be a literal one thousand year period in which Satan is bound (Rev 20:2-3) and Christ establishes His earthly reign from the throne of David.  Dispensationalists interpret both resurrections in Revelation 20:4-6 as physical in nature. The first resurrection in verse four is limited to believers who will reign on earth with Christ during the millennium, and the second resurrection in verse 6 encompasses all non-believers who are resurrected after the millennium to face final judgment.  Dispensationalism has the positive aspects of being thoroughly biblical, conservative, and consistent.

Historical Premillennialism

Like dispensational premillennialism, historical premillennialism sees Revelation chapter 20 as chronologically following chapter 19.  In the premillennial view, following the great tribulation (which is not necessarily seven literal years), Christ ushers in the millennium by inaugurating a period of absolute peace and justice in which Satan will be bound and Christ will reign bodily on earth among men.  The historical view sees the two resurrections of Revelation 20:4-6 similarly to dispensationalism.  In the first resurrection believers will be physically resurrected to reign with Christ in the millennium, while non-believers will not be resurrected until final judgment – after the second resurrection at the end of the millennium.  While sharing these similarities with dispensationalists, the historical premillennialists take a less literal approach to apocalyptic Scripture, seeing the literal hermeneutic as misunderstanding the deeper meaning of the texts.  Historical premillennialism’s most notable modern proponent, George Eldon Ladd, exerted considerable effort in arguing against the dispensational reading saying, “The literal hermeneutic does not work. . . . Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament to find their deeper meaning. . . . I do not see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that the New Testament applies Old Testament prophecies to the New Testament church and in so doing identifies the church as spiritual Israel.” [12]  Along with amillennialism and postmillennialism, historical premillennialism rejects the dispensational separation of Israel and the New Testament Church on the grounds that numerous passages such as Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3 make clear that Paul saw the Church comprised of Jew and Gentile as God’s new covenant people and heir to the promises made to national Israel.  Ladd clarifies, “The fact is that the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.” [13]  Historical premillennialists therefore do not necessarily assert that the millennium is a literal one thousand years, nor do they interpret the millennium to be the fulfillment of a literal restoration of national Israel.  Where dispensationalism “follows the futurist method of interpretation almost exclusively, historical premillennialism . . . combines the futurist and preterist views, holding that the book necessarily had a message for John’s own age and that it represents the consummation of redemptive history.” [14]  Historical premillennialism has the benefit of the being the most natural and straightforward reading of the Bible, and aligns well with the collective New Testament mentions of resurrection, which seem to consistently refer to bodily resurrection.

Postmillennialism

Having fallen out of popularity following the great world wars of the twentieth century, postmillennialism (while not widely held today) has had significant influence at different times in the history of the church, and even “has at times been the dominant position.” [15]  While postmillennialism shares many commonalities with the other positions, in the postmillennial view “the doctrine of the millennium is based not upon Revelation 20 but upon other portions of Scripture.” [16] For the postmillennialist, the millennium is symbolic in nature, and is qualitative rather than quantitative. [17]  The most distinctive characteristics of postmillennialism are the view that the new creation began after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D., the kingdom of God is now being extended in the new earth by the preaching of the gospel, and the world is now being increasingly Christianized in anticipation of the return of Christ.  Unique to postmillennialism is the optimistic outlook regarding the conditions leading up to Christ’s return.  Where the other positions agree that conditions will worsen as the age draws to a close, postmillennialists believe that the world is becoming more Christianized, and therefore features of the kingdom of God (such as peace and justice) are increasing as Christ’s return draws closer.  Unlike the premillennialist’s view of Christ’s future earthly kingdom, the postmillennial view sees the kingdom of God primarily existing as a present reality in the hearts of believers.  The kingdom is not something to be introduced cataclysmically at a future time, but is already progressively under way. [18]   “Postmillennialism expects the vast majority of the world’s population to convert to Christ as a consequence of the Spirit-blessed proclamation of the gospel. . . . Thus, the postmillennialist’s hope-filled expectation is rooted in creational reality.” [19]  Further, as more people submit themselves to the Lord’s will, postmillennialism expects a long period of earthly peace termed the millennium. [20]   This millennium is a golden age of spiritual prosperity during the present church age, which is not a literal one thousand years, and has no clear point of beginning but arrives by degrees. [21]  At the end of the millennium there will occur an apostasy and an increase in evil, the millennium will end with the bodily return of Christ, at which point large numbers of Jews will be converted and enter the church, and Christ’s return will be immediately followed by the resurrection and judgment of all. [22]  Postmillennialism, while not commonly affirmed today, does well to keep the Spirit of optimism and drive to carry out the Great Commission at its core.

Amillennialism

endtimeschartamillennial

While amillennialism agrees with postmillennialism that the millennium is not a literal thousand-year earthly reign following Christ’s return, amillennialism holds important distinctions from the postmillennial view.  Anthony Hoekema helpfully clarifies that ‘amillennial’ is an unfortunate name for the position because the amillennialist does not assert that there is no millennium, but rather that the millennium described in Revelation 20:1-6 is a realized millennium. [23] Summarily communicating the essence of the amillennial position, Greg Beale states, “The millennium is inaugurated during the church age by God’s curtailment of Satan’s ability to deceive the nations and to annihilate the church and by the resurrection of believer’s souls to heaven to reign there with Christ.” [24]  Unlike other positions, amillennialists interpret Revelation 20:4 “as describing the present reign of the souls of deceased believers with Christ in heaven,” and understand verses 1-3 as the binding of Satan “during the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ.” [25]  Unlike the postmillennial position, amillennialism views the great tribulation, apostasy, and the Antichrist as future events, meaning that the amillennialist does not share the postmillennialist’s optimistic certainty of “a worldwide growth of righteousness that will extend to every area of society.” [26]  Additionally, amillennialism agrees with the non-dispensational views that the millennium does not necessarily include the restoration of political Israel.

In agreement with other non-dispensationalists, amillennial scholar Greg Beale says, “Literal interpreters . . . too often neglect the visionary and symbolic levels of communication by collapsing them into the referential historical level.” [27]  Expounding further the amillennial hermeneutic, Beale says the only hope for obtaining clarity is to interpret Revelation 20 “in the light of its immediate context, then in the light of the closest parallels elsewhere in the book, and finally in the light of other parallels in the NT and OT.” [28]  Amillennial interpreters arrive at their understanding of the millennium by recognizing that Revelation is written in seven sections of parallel recapitulations, each symbolically offering nuanced kaleidoscopic views of the “church and the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of his second.” [29]  This system of interpretation is known as recapitulation theory or progressive parallelism. [30]  Reading Revelation in such a way reveals that 20:7-10, 19:17-21, and 16:12-16 all recount the same battle.  This insight, among others, reveals that “the events of 20:1-6 (the millennium) refer to events prior in time to the last battle (Armageddon) of 19:11-21, thus indicating that the millennium itself is to be identified with the church age.” [31]  The premillennial position views 20:1-6 as immediately following 19:11-21 (in historical sequence) on the basis of the Greek word ‘kai’ (located at the beginning of 20:1) being taken to mean ‘and’ in the chronological sense.  The ESV has taken the interpretive initiative to render the ‘kai’ in Revelation 20:1 as ‘then.’  Beale, however, argues that “often in Revelation ‘kai’ functions as a transitional word simply indicating another vision and not necessarily chronological sequence. . . . Only three out of thirty-five occurrences of ‘kai’ in 19:11-21 clearly indicate sequence in historical time,while the remainder serve as visionary linking devices.” [32]

Further helpful for recognizing the relation of the millennium to the present church age is to note that in Revelation 20:2-3 Satan is said to be seized and bound for a thousand years so that he might not deceive the ‘ethne’ until the thousand years are ended.  ‘Ethne,’ in Revelation 20, is typically translated as ‘nations,’ but ‘ethne’ is more often translated as ‘gentiles’ throughout the New Testament.  The amillennial understanding of Revelation 20 becomes clear if ‘ethne’ is rendered as ‘gentiles’ rather than ‘nations.’  Such a translation then reads that Satan is bound in the church age so that the gentiles (all of the non-Israeli inhabitants of earth) will no longer be deceived by Satan.  Hoekema explains, ”In the Old Testament, . . . the people of Israel were the recipients of God’s special revelation, so that they knew God’s truth about themselves . . . and salvation,” but “the other nations of the world, did not know that truth. . . . These nations were deceived by Satan.” [33] This picture becomes clearer when Revelation 20:2-3 is held alongside the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) in which Christ commands His disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the ‘ethne.’  Again, in this passage ‘ethne’ is typically translated as ‘nations,’ but again the reference is more specifically to ‘gentiles’ (all non-Israeli inhabitants of the earth).  It is significant that Revelation 20:2 speaks to the binding of Satan because Jesus made a similar remark in Matthew 12:29.  While speaking of His coming to save those held captive by Satan, Christ asked, “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man?”  The same word – ‘deo’ – is used in both Revelation 20:2 and Matthew 12:29 to describe the binding of Satan. Hoekema again provides insight positing that “this does not imply that Satan can do no harm whatever while he is bound.  It means only what John says here:  While Satan is bound he cannot deceive the nations in such a way to keep them from learning the truth of God,” and “he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel. . . . It is precisely because the kingdom of God has come that the gospel can now be preached to all the gentiles (see Matt 13:24-30, 47-50).” [34] In similar fashion, Paul makes reference to the restraint of Satan’s attempts to deceive the world when he writes, “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time” (2 Thess 2:6).  In Revelation 20:3, John says the angel cast (‘ebalen’) Satan into the abyss.  Similar to the binding of Satan in 20:2, Jesus speaks to the casting out of Satan in John 12:31-32 saying, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out.  But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”  In this case, the verb translated ‘cast out’ is ‘ekballo,’ and is derived from the same root as the word ‘ebalen’ used to describe the casting out of Satan in Revelation 20:3. [35]  It stands to reason that what is being communicated is that the work of Christ (in the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven on earth) has dealt Satan a heavy blow, binding and casting him out of the way, so that the gospel call of Jesus Christ can be made known to unbelieving gentiles the world over.

The Amillennial interpretation attempts to do more faithful exegesis of the New Testament (being more cognizant of the original Greek and less dependent on interpretations derived from modern English Bible translations).  Amillennialism is canonically coherent, and can be seen to offer great encouragement to believers both to take the gospel to the non-believing nations, and to be confident that the kingdom will move forward even in the face of persecution.

Conclusion

When weighing the four views (and the hermeneutical principles employed by each against a canonical biblical theology) it appears that the two views that best align with the biblical metanarrative are historical premillennialism and amillennialism.  Based on the exegesis of Revelation 20 (and its corresponding cross references) the amillennial view seems to provide the most satisfactory explanation of the available evidence.  It remains, however, that eschatology is an open-handed issue which can be debated and disagreed upon, and should never be the basis for division of fellowship.  It should be readily acknowledged that Scripture underdetermines the issue of the millennium, and it cannot be expected that all people will arrive at identical conclusions.  The Christian is called to be charitable, and the millennium “is a [topic] where equally evangelical scholars who accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God should be able to disagree without the accusation ‘liberal,’ [36] or heretic.  The end of the matter is that we must always remember that all Scripture is given with the intent that Christ would be exalted; that non-believers would be brought to know Him; that believers would be encouraged to endure for the sake of being made like Him; and that, regardless of differing views of the millennium, believers would foremost remember that “the end is not an event but a person.” [37]

[1]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York:  John Lane Co., 1908), 29.

[2]Millard J. Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology:  Making Sense of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1998), 11.

[3]G. K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Revelation:  A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 421.

[4]Herman A. Hoyt, “Dispensational Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 63.

[5]G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York and Evanston:  Harper & Row, 1966), 13.

[6]Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1965), 86-89.

[7]Hoyt, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” 67.

[8]John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, Ohio:  Dunham, 1959), 114.

[9]Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology, 119.

[10]Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism:  The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 28-29.

[11]Craig A. Blaising, “Premillennialism” in Stanley N. Gundry and Darrell L. Bock (ed.) Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1999), 182-183.

[12]George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 23.

[13]Ibid, 20.

[14]Ibid, 98.

[15]Ibid, 55.

[16]Ibid, 69.

[17]Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 1991), 28.

[18]James H. Snowden, The Coming of the Lord:  Will it be Premillennial? (New York:  MacMillan, 1919), 64-66.

[19]Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Postmillennialism” in Stanley N. Gundry and Darrell L. Bock (ed.) Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing, 1999), 22-23.

[20]Snowden, The Coming of the Lord, 257-63.

[21]Boettner, The Millennium, 14.

[22]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York:  Scribner, Armstrong, & Co., 1873), 3:792-800, 832.

[23]J. E. Adams, The Time is at Hand, (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 7-11.

[24] Beale, Revelation, 420.

[25]Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 174.

[26]W. J. Grier, “Christian Hope and the Millennium” (Christianity Today:  October 13, 1958), 19.

[27]Beale, Revelation, 421.

[28]Ibid, 420.

[29]Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) The Meaning of the Millennium:  Four Views (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1977), 156-157.

[30]William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House, 1939), 11-64.

[31]Beale, Revelation, 422-423.

[32]Ibid, 422.

[33]Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” 161.

[34]Ibid, 162-63.

[35]Ibid, 163.

[36]Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” 20.

[37]G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York and Evanston:  Harper & Row, 1966), 13.

*Embedded eschatological timelines are not original works of my own, but have been selected based on their being the best available representations of the points this paper stresses.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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Moral Judgment and Personal Prejudice in Bernie (2011)

Life Sentencing, life hermeneutics, and the inescapable influence of life experience.

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***SPOILER ALERT –  This is a film analysis examining the spiritual implications of events in the movie and will give away the conclusion.***

Bernie, a 2011 black comedy crime drama, is a spin on documentary reenactment that centers on a middle-aged town hero (Jack Black), and his relationship with his popularly loathed companion, the widowed senior Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  A vast divergence from his typical performances, Black earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Leading Actor for his portrayal of Bernie Tiede, after whom the film is named.  Bernie strikes a shockingly brilliant balance between director Richard Linklater’s consistent socio-philosophical depth and Black’s humorous musical whimsy.  The opening lines of the movie, which read, “What you’re fixin’ to see is real,” [1] are as ironic as humorous in their overt tip of the cap to the story’s East Texas setting. The movie is indeed based on a true story, a screenplay adaptation from a 1999 Texas Monthly article titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth. [2]  The story’s subject matter, however, is so odd that it demands investigation to be believed.  The film is edited in such a way that documentary style interviews (given by nearly sixty authentic townspeople) are woven between scripted elements, allowing the story to unfold to the narration of a Greek chorus of town gossips.  This narration, by the authentic witnesses of the real-life events, allows the audience to watch the story unfold from the unique perspective of those who were intimately involved in the events that took place in Carthage, Texas in 1996.

The film’s main character is an assistant funeral director who exudes Christian virtue in generosity, love, and kindness for others.  He pours himself out in his neighbors’ service not merely in their lifetimes, but takes extraordinary care of them, and their families, even after their passing.  The audience is told that Bernie was a “very charismatic man, a loving person, and he had the ability to make the world seem kind.”  Bernie “just made you feel real good about yourself.”  Scenes are shown in which Bernie comforts the surviving as they mourn the loss of loved ones, and he is shown leading worship as the music director of the local congregation.  Bernie is a man who leads hymns, preaches, takes the Little League team for ice cream, and assists friends in filing their income taxes.  All knowledge the audience gains of Bernie is constructed by authentic accounts of his public image, and Bernie’s private actions and thought-life are left unexamined in respect for the real Bernie Tiede.  This effectively places the audience behind the eyes of the citizens of Carthage.  By all public accounts Bernie seems to carry himself as a man who (in love for Christ and genuine care for others) gives himself away sacrificially.  An interviewee asserts, “He was about the most popular man in Carthage,” and another says that “if the people of Carthage were to make a list of those people that they thought would get to heaven . . . Bernie would be right at the top of the list.”

In stark contrast, the film introduces Bernie’s counterpart and companion, the recently widowed senior wife of a Texas oil tycoon, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent.  She is said to have been “a mean, old, hateful [expletive].” By every account she is portrayed as contemptible, despised not merely by the collective townspeople, but also by her own family.  One woman summarizes the town’s dismissive disdain of Mrs. Nugent saying, “There are people in town . . . that would have shot her for five dollars.”  Mrs. Nugent first becomes a focus of Bernie’s attention when he begins visiting her (as he did many other widows) to comfort her after the loss of her husband.  Bernie quickly becomes Mrs. Nugent’s only friend, bringing her back into fellowship at the church and travelling the world with her, and their budding friendship grows into an inseparable and toxically co-dependent pairing.  The question of romance is dismissed by the town’s majority perception that Bernie is a celibate homosexual.  With Bernie’s jovial influence Mrs. Nugent’s demeanor and attitude begin improving, and the two appear to be flourishing together.  During this same time, Mrs. Nugent adds Bernie to her bank accounts, makes him sole heir of her will, and grants him power of attorney over her estate.  These events set in motion a crescendo that builds into the “event of the season in Carthage.”

*The following video contains obscene language not suitable for all viewers.

Cut ahead two years, and the honeymoon phase of the relationship has clearly passed.  The dynamic of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent’s relationship has shifted drastically.  Marjorie is now depicted as having taken ownership of Bernie, manipulating him into a glorified servant.  Mrs. Nugent has returned to her former contemptibility, and Bernie has become a personal whipping boy.  Bernie waits on Mrs. Nugent hand and foot while enduring her constant denigration and possible psychological abuse.  “She was demanding, condescending, or even conniving; and she had intentionally put him in a dependent position.  She was jealous of his time, envious of his community status, and overly generous to him so as to make him stick around.”  This unhealthy relationship dynamic climaxes in a scene in which Mrs. Nugent throws a temper tantrum likened to that of a three year-old child, during which she locks the electronic driveway gate so that Bernie cannot leave the property in his car.  As the bars close, the visual depiction of Bernie’s imprisonment tangibly illustrates his fully grown despair. “Basically it was like Bernie had become her property.”

*The following video contains obscene language not suitable for all viewers.

In Mrs. Nugent’s final denial of Bernie’s dignity, she very unsympathetically declines to attend an important dress rehearsal for a play in which he is cast.  This becomes the last straw for Bernie, who seems to have come to the end of his psychological rope.  Thus, the stage is set for the town hero to become the story’s very unusual antihero.

In the next scene, Bernie shoots the 81 year-old woman four times in the back with a .22 caliber armadillo rifle.  He then proceeds to store Mrs. Nugent’s body in her deep freeze to preserve it for “a proper burial.”  The next time Bernie appears he is cast in an eerie celebration of his new found freedom.  Bernie is shown, head thrown back, legs kicking up and down as he sings and dances a musical number for the local play.   Here, in one of the director’s only veiled attempts to cast questions on Bernie’s motives, Linklater shows Bernie performing “Seventy-Six Trombones” as Harold Hill in the Music Man. This is more than slightly significant, as Music Man’s main character is a gifted con-man who rolls in from out of town, and through much false presentation, charm, and manipulation comes to compel the personal investment of the town’s people.  When he is exposed as a fraud, Hill is saved only by the towns’ markedly skewed perception of the hope and transformation he has brought to the town.  It is necessary at this point to question just how much similarity Bernie Tiede holds to Harold Hill.

For the next nine months, the disappearance of Marjorie Nugent draws little concern as Bernie tells those concerned that she has moved into a nursing home.  “The only person looking for her was her stockbroker.”  During those nine months Bernie went on to disperse Mrs. Nugent’s wealth throughout the town, sewing into everything form local businesses, students’ tuition, children’s playground equipment, and the church building campaign.  While Bernie had given a ridiculous amount of Mrs. Nugent’s fortune away, the film gives no indication that he had spent it on himself.  Whether these were purely acts of generosity, attempts at penance, or efforts to buy the peoples’ favor, Bernie’s motives are left to the viewers’ interpretation. Eventually, Mrs. Nugent’s stockbroker, who was not getting his regular commissions on her trades, stirs up the family and local authorities and a search ensues.  Upon the discovery of Marjorie Nugent’s body, Bernie makes a full confession.

The town of Carthage’s unexpected response is where the plot gets interesting.  “From the day that deep freeze was opened, you haven’t been able to find anyone in town saying, ‘Poor Mrs. Nugent,’” said city councilman Olin Joffrion, a respected Carthage insurance agent.  People here are saying, ‘Poor Bernie.’” [3]  In a reaction too bizarre for fiction, the people of the town unanimously side with the killer.  Some could not believe he had it in him to kill a person.  Others flatly refused to believe, even given the evidence.  Summarizing the way in which the town processed the news, one man says, “I don’t claim to know what Bernie did or did not do.  I figure that’s between him and God Almighty.  And the way I figure it, that’s where it should stay.”  In the weeks following, it becomes abundantly evident that, despite his confession, there is not a potential juror in town willing to convict Bernie of his crime.  By the movie’s account, this was a first.  “Trials are generally moved when the defendant can’t get a fair trial locally,” Bernie’s defendant says.  “Now that’s usually because the crime is so egregious, and so well known, that everybody in the community has already convicted the . . . accused.  But in all the years I’ve been doing this for a living I have never heard of the state seeking a change of venue because the defendant was so well liked that they couldn’t get a conviction.”

Enter District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey).  Knowing he cannot get a conviction in Carthage, Buck convinces the state to move the trial 47.7 miles down the road from Carthage to San Augustine County, the “Squirrel hunting capital of the world.” A Carthage resident explains that the jury would now be comprised of a bunch of “cousin counting rednecks,” with “more tattoos than teeth . . . without a brain in the whole dozen of them.”  Buck, the multiple term District Attorney, upholder of justice, and defender of order, becomes the town villain.

At the trial of Bernie Tiede, Linklater’s audience now becomes unquestionably aware that Bernie is recapitulating a crime story riddled with philosophical questions and social implications.  To this point Bernie has been portrayed (through the eyewitness accounts of Carthaginians) in a unified positive light.  Playing on the emotions of the “cousin counting rednecks,” Danny Buck brings before the San Augustine jury the deep freeze, pictures of the dead Mrs. Nugent, and her crying relatives.  Buck proceeds to forge an image of Bernie as a first-class-flying, uppity snob, who used Mrs. Nugent as the means to fund his expensive tastes.  Bernie was a Ritz Carlton living, Les Miserables watching, fancy word using, white wine drinking lover of extravagance.  Bernie was “a liar, a coward, and a back shooter,” who shot a little old lady in the back . . . four times.  Buck depicts Bernie as an inhuman, evil, con artist . . . a monster.  Danny Buck had created two different worlds and painted Bernie as being of a world to which members of the jury could not relate.  Bernie becomes dehumanized.  Given this perspective, the jury unanimously convicts Bernie of capital murder, and sentences him to life with parole in 50 years (a conviction and sentencing typically reserved for premeditated and other more egregious acts than that which Bernie committed).

Where in Carthage, “Bernie became the town’s Robin Hood” (a character in a historic story that holds its own set of debatable ethical implications), Danny Buck convinced the people of San Augustine that Bernie was not an angel, but instead an “angel of death.”  What the film captures is one group of people, with a specific set of influences, who cannot bring themselves to the exercise of reasonable justice.  Another group of people, given a different set of influences, issues a sentence that unjustly exceeds the circumstances of the case.  Where the truth of the matter, and appropriate justice, likely falls somewhere between the two positions, both groups exhibit grossly perverted judgments (which are heavily influenced by their specific experiences) and show themselves incapable of mustering objective responses.  The reality is that there is an objective truth to be known.  Relative “truth” is a crime in itself, and this crime has victims of its own.  Many people suffer from the inability of others to see truth, and likewise when others take as dogma that which is false.

In the end, Bernie is a film that poses more questions than it answers.  “If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it is difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.” [4]   What is more broadly evident, however, is that Bernie is a microcosmic demonstration of the way in which societies’ worldviews drastically shape their interpretations, ethics, judgments, and their subsequent outcomes.  Bernie raises questions about the way in which social context, personal relationships, and emotions impact the way in which people rightly or wrongly interpret reality.  This movie is a commentary on life hermeneutics, the method (or unconscious lack thereof) by which people interpret the events of the piece of history in which they live.  Further, people without a firm grasp on truth and morality are prepared to excuse blatant wrongdoing, or to condemn right-doing, based on grounds that lack any coherence with truth.  This film illustrates that without objectivity, the “truth” becomes whatever people say it is.  This translates into people being what others say they are, and justice being what the collective says it is.  Like Bernie, the truth is silenced, sentenced, and ruled upon; branded anew by perverted perspectives.

Bernie Tiede

This inability to escape the influence of circumstances has innumerable applications.  A person cannot interpret anything apart from accessing his worldview in order to formulate his construct of reality, and his worldview is formed by the influences and circumstances of his life experience.  Beyond the failure of justice demonstrated in the case of Bernie Tiede, this issue has direct application to the way in which people make moral decisions.  A person’s individual bias and conditioning has a very significant impact on the way in which he interprets the Bible as well as other literature.  In some way, these biases inform the way in which people interact with every thought.  The ultimate question becomes, “Is it possible to set aside bias in order to interpret information in such a way as to essentially get to the truth, despite bias always remaining technically present?  Or are people always inevitably predisposed to perverted interpretations?”  Will there be no ability to attain perfect truth or perfect justice this side of eternity?  For the Christian, perfect truth is found in Christ and His Word, and the Christian’s desire is to have his mind transformed by the Word’s renewing power.  The Christian’s hope is in Christ’s promise that “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  The Christian’s hope is for the renewing of our minds that we might be able to see more clearly what is right and good.  The only answer that Bernie offers is that knowing what is right and good certainly won’t be the case for those who make interpretations and judgments according to the status quo.  An uninformed foundation, uncritical analysis, and lack of diligence in the pursuit of truth results in real victims and drastic consequences.

[1]All quotes are taken from the film unless otherwise noted.

[2]Skip Hollandsworth. “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” Texas Monthly (January 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4]Brody, Richard. “Bernie in the Heart of Texas,” The New Yorker (April 26, 2012).

***I would like to add that this post is not an endorsement of the obscene language or unrighteous themes of the movie, Bernie, nor is it an endorsement of the movie as a moral guide. Rather, this post is an attempt to shine the light of Biblical Truth among movie fans that might otherwise not hear the hope and truth of the Christian worldview.*** 

If you enjoyed this film analysis, you may also enjoy my other film analyses (and the ongoing dialogue) of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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Communion is for Believers Only

Today I was asked why a pastor would tell the congregation that only believers could partake in communion and further instruct anyone who has not submitted their life to Christ to let the plate pass. Here is how the scripture instructs we are to share in Holy Communion.

The Eucharist/Communion…the eating of the bread (the body) and the drinking of the wine (the blood) of Christ is something that is very special and very sacred to believers. It is a pastor’s responsibility to clarify that eating this bread and drinking this wine is a solid personal proclamation of a person’s belief in Christ’s death, resurrection, and return. 1 Corinthians 11 (verse 27) says that anyone coming to the table to take communion without showing proper respect to the body of Christ and making a proper examination of themselves before God, in turn eat and drink the Lord’s discipline upon themselves. Anyone who would like to either declare or reaffirm their faith by eating this bread and drinking this wine is welcome, and everyone should use this sacrament as a time to reflect on the atoning work of The Lord, and to confirm their personal commitment to Jesus Christ. A church serving communion without this explanation may be liable for the negligence of the uninformed non-believers, but non-believers who receive the warning and do not heed this instruction own responsibility for their own actions.