The Millennium in Church History
Having briefly surveyed the three main eschatological systems, I want to turn my attention to a study of Revelation 20 where the disagreements between those systems are focused.
However, before I move to addressing Revelation 20 specifically, it is important to lay a little preliminary background.
Let me begin by providing a brief overview of millennalism within Church history.
I think many Christians are unaware of how the millennium has been a source of strife, curiosity, and sensationalism throughout the 2,000 years of the Church. Millennialism, or millennarianism, is the belief that there will be an earthly reign of the messiah before the end of time [Danielou, 377]. The reign of the messiah was understood by the Jews to be the Kingdom of God coming upon the earth in which all the nations opposed to YHWH were brought under the subjection of His messiah and the world witnessed the triumph of God’s chosen people.
The early Jewish Christians developed this messianic concept further by building their millennarianism more precisely around John’s Book of Revelation and other non-canonical apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah. They refined the details of their perspective with the rise of the Antichrist before the coming of Jesus, and the Kingdom to come would be a thousand years in length.
That primitive form of premillennialism was known as chiliasm, after the Greek word chilia meaning 1,000. The chiliasts held to a more literal understanding of biblical prophecy concerning the apocalypse, and their beliefs persisted among many groups of orthodox and unorthodox Christians for a least the first three centuries of the early Church.
However, it was Origen of Alexandria, along with Clement, who first employed an allegorical method of interpreting the Bible which eventually challenged the chiliasm of early Christians. Origen’s hermeneutic was developed from a mixture of Christianity and the popular neo-Platonism of his day.
His study of Scripture was a form of syncretism, combining elements of biblical Christianity, pagan mysticism, and Greek philosophy [Erdmann, 159]. Origen considered all prophecy to be mysterious and unintelligible, and he was the first to express a real aversion to the literalistic approach to reading prophecy utilized by the chiliasts because he thought an earthly Kingdom of God for a thousand years to be carnal. Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic was a means to condemn chiliastic teaching, spiritualizing instead the passages of Scripture that if read literally would support a millennium [Erdmann, 161].
But, it was the North African church father, Aurelius Augustine, who had a lasting influence against chiliastic interpretations of prophecy. In his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine took the allegorical hermeneutic of Origen, and others from the Alexandrian school, and laid the foundation for the two eschatologies of amillennialism and postmillennialism. He saw the thousand years of Revelation 20 as symbolic of the church age. The first resurrection, he believed, was the spiritual re-birth of Christians into the Church. The second resurrection he took as literal, however, when all the righteous and wicked will be raised and judged at the Great White Throne.
Augustine thought the thousand years could possible by understood in a couple of ways.
First is the idea of a “1,000” being symbolic of the fullness of time of some perfect era. He reasoned that the number 100 is sometimes used as being equivalent of totality. A thousand is 100 cubed, meaning perfect totality or completeness.
A second way Augustine said we could understand the thousand years was the whole period of time from Christ’s ascension to the end of time. Utilizing the creation week analogy in which the 6 days of creation in Genesis 1 equals 6 thousand years of human history, the church age would be the last day, as it were, of God’s calendar before the 7th day of eternal rest. Though Augustine favored the 6 days of world history view of the millennium, most of his supporters following in the centuries after he wrote who believed his scheme merely see the 1,000 years as symbolic of the indefinite time for the church age. Still, the build up to the turn of the millennium in the late 990s A.D. saw many groups of sensationalists basing their predictions upon Augustine’s work claiming the end of the world after the year 999 A.D.
Millennarianism as a concept has always had its sensational supporters. The Crusaders, for example, originally a reaction against encroaching Moslem armies pushing into Europe, saw their sworn duty to free Jerusalem, the city of Christ and the capitol of the Kingdom of God, from infidels who had overtaken it.
One of the most notorious incidents involving millennial fervor was the Munster rebellion. In Feburary 1534, a group of radical Anabaptist led by a baker named John Matthys, and a tailor named Jan Bockelson of Leiden, successfully took over Munster, Germany, and claimed the city was the “New Jerusalem.”
For 18 months the Anabaptist radicals held the city. They implemented polygamy among the citizens and enacted a form of communism in which everyone shared each others’ possessions. Matthys was killed during an attack led by the expelled bishop, Franz Waldeck. That left Jan Bockelson in charge and he installed himself as king and declared himself the successor to king David. In June of 1535, the city fell after being besieged and Bockelson and his more prominent followers were tortured and executed. Their bodies hung in cages for several centuries from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.
Date setters have also been a prominent feature of millenniarianism. William Miller, a Baptist preacher in the early 1800s of America, was convinced Christ would return on October 22, 1843. He based this conviction upon his reading of Daniel 8:14, but rather than seeing Daniel’s 2,300 days as just normal days of 24-hours, he believed they represented calendar years. Those “days” would be accomplished in the year 1843. Of course the year 1843 came and went with out anything happening, and Miller was exposed as a false teacher. His prophetic views, though, heavily influenced a young Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, whose family had followed Miller and his predictions.
Along with the Millerites, there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have made at least three major predictions of Christ’s return, 1914, 1925, and 1975, and even Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, claimed he would live until his 85th birthday before Christ returned. Smith died at age 38 in a shoot out at a jail in Illinois.
The main feature with the good number of these millennial groups is their literal hermeneutic when interpreting Revelation 20. In fact, many who reject a literal understanding of Revelation 20 cite those examples of excessive sensationalism as one of the reasons a literal approach to interpreting the millennium should be rejected. Added to that is the fact many of the millennial groups who have sprung up during various points in Church history are wildly unorthodox and in many cases, heretical and pseudo-Christian in their theology.
But a literal interpretation of Revelation 20 must not be rejected because eccentric cults have utilized a literal hermeneutic to promote their eschatological heresies. What needs to be determined is whether prophecy itself should be understood with a literal hermeneutic and if that hermeneutic best handles the exegesis of Revelation 20 specifically. I say it does and will hope to demonstrate that in my posts to come.
Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. (Christian Focus: Great Britain, 2005).
Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, ed. and trans. by John A. Baker. (Westminster Press, 1977).
Martin Erdmann, The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church. (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, OR, 2005).