The key to the abyss – Revelation 20:1

Previously: The beast and his armies defeated – Revelation 19:17-21

The scripture

Rev. 20:1 – Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. (HCSB)

Sin spoils everything

“Sin spoils everything,” writes Chuck Swindoll. “It pollutes skies, encourages corporate greed, leads to physical and emotional illness, destroys marriages, prompts addictions, and inspires wars. Sin corrupts the legal system, corrodes governments, erodes economics, and promotes false religion. No area of society and culture has escaped its sinister influence. Just as sin destroys an individual’s life, so it decimates a community, country, and planet…. Yes, sin spoils everything … but one day Christ will redeem everything” (Insights on Revelation, p. 256).

The closing chapters of Revelation tell the story of how Christ sets things right. The Creator has come to earth as the Suffering Servant, giving His life as a ransom for lost people, conquering sin and death, and restoring spiritually dead men and women to life through an everlasting and unbreakable relationship with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

He returns to earth as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, as the King of kings and Lord of lords, destroying the wicked, rewarding the saints, and removing the curse of sin from the cosmos. He begins setting things right in Revelation 20 by dealing with the source of all that is wrong: “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan” (v. 2).

A key and a great chain

Verse 1 reads, “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand.” This isn’t the first time we see the key to the abyss in Revelation. In chapter 9 an angel – “a star that had fallen from heaven to earth” – is given the key to the shaft of the abyss.

While commentators disagree as to the identity of the “star” in chapter 9 – some see him as Satan, or a demon, an angel, a heretical Jewish or Christian leader, Islam’s prophet Muhammad, or even the star Wormwood of the third trumpet judgment – it seems clear that the angel in Rev. 20:1 is a powerful holy angel. (For more on the “star” of Revelation 9, see “The fifth trumpet: Rev. 9:1-12).

The angel from heaven carries two items with him: a key and a chain. They key unlocks the abyss, also known as the bottomless pit. The word “abyss” appears 10 times in scripture (HCSB), seven of these times in Revelation. A survey of these passages helps us understand that the abyss is not hell but a place of temporary confinement:

  • Ps. 140:10 – David implores God concerning wicked and violent men who pursue him: “Let them be thrown into the fire, into the abyss, never again to rise.” This, no doubt, is a reference to the abode of the dead and is similar to the Hebrew Sheol.
  • Luke 8:31 – The demons that are cast out of the man called Legion beg Jesus “not to banish them to the abyss.” This appears to be a place of confinement for demons but not hell (Gehenna), which is their ultimate destiny.
  • Rom. 10:7 – Paul’s use of “abyss,” as he quotes from Deut. 30:13, is similar to David’s in Ps. 140:10 to mean the abode of the dead.
  • Rev. 9:1, 2, 11 – The term “abyss” is employed here to mean a place where demonic “locusts” are confined and over which Abaddon rules.
  • Rev. 11:7 – One called “the beast that comes up out of the abyss” makes war with two witnesses and slays them. This could be a reference to the Antichrist, who some commentators say rises from the dead, and therefore comes up out of the abode of the dead, or it could be a demon that comes out of confinement in the abyss to kill God’s servants.
  • Rev. 17:8 – The same beast of Rev. 11:7 is described as coming up from the “abyss” and ultimately headed for “destruction.”
  • Rev. 20:1 – No doubt this is a place where some demons are imprisoned.

Chains of darkness

It’s also helpful to note 2 Peter 2:4, “God didn’t spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment.” Tartarus describes a subterranean place of confinement lower than hades. It is a place where demons are confined. Possibly, Tartarus and the abyss are the same place, or at least related.

So, when we read of the “abyss” it’s wise to consider the context. In some places, the word is used to describe the abode of the dead – similar to the Hebrew Sheol or the Greek Hades – and in other places, particularly in Revelation, it is used to depict a place, perhaps deep in the heart of the earth, where some demons and Satan are temporarily confined.

The “key” in scripture symbolizes authority. In Rev. 1:17-18 Jesus declares, “I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look – I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Since Jesus defeated Satan on the cross, it is quite likely He now holds the key to the abyss as well and grants the release of demons to bring judgment upon those who trample His blood beneath their feet (Rev. 9:1-12), in addition to the confinement of the great dragon (Rev. 20:1-3, 7).

The angel wields a “chain” with which he binds the dragon. Since Satan is not a physical creature, the chain obviously is not like one we would imagine, with thick metal links connected to shackles. The language John uses suggests some means God employs for restricting the movement of the one who at present roams the earth like a lion (1 Peter 5:8). The double binding of Satan – in chains and kept inside the abyss – ensures that despite his cunning and power, he will not escape, although later he is “released” for a short time (Rev. 20:7).

Finding themselves bound

It’s interesting to note the characters in scripture that find themselves bound. There are many, to be sure, but consider just a few:

  • After Delilah deceives him, Samson is taken captive by the Philistines, who gouge out his eyes, bind him in bronze shackles, and force him to grind grain in prison. Later, the Lord enables him to push out the middle pillars of the Philistine temple to their god Dagon, killing himself along with more than 3,000 Philistines (Judges 16).
  • After the Babylonians conquer Judah and destroy the temple, Judah’s King Zedekiah is forced to watch his sons and commanders slaughtered. His eyes are then put out and he is marched in bronze chains into captivity (Jeremiah 52).
  • Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes, a man of such strength that he breaks the chains and shackles used to restrain him. But Jesus casts out the demons that have kept him in spiritual bondage (Luke 8).
  • In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, a man that dishonors the king is bound hand and foot and cast into “outer darkness” (Matthew 22).
  • King Herod has Peter arrested and imprisoned, bound with two chains and placed between guards, but an angel of the Lord loosens the shackles and sets him free (Act. 12).
  • Paul and Silas are thrown into prison in Philippi with their feet secured in chains. The Lord sends an earthquake that loosens the prisoners’ chains, but they remain in the jail and lead the guard to faith in Christ.
  • Unbelievers are described as bound by Satan and taken captive by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26).
  • Never, however, is Satan seen as bound until Jesus foretells His triumph over Satan on the cross in Matthew 12: “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strongman? Then he can rob his house” (v. 29). Jesus today is “robbing” Satan’s house, plundering his goods by delivering sinners from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
  • And now, at last, in Revelation 20, Satan is shackled and imprisoned in the abyss.

Next: He seized the dragon – Revelation 20:2-3