Millennium

Millennium is not a biblical term and is not found a single time in the Old or New Testament.  Derived from the Latin word for ‘one thousand’ millennium is shorthand to describe the 1000 year resurrection in chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation, where it is mentioned five times in seven verses.

 

The Book of Revelation has fascinated Christians since the day it was written and has spawned vast libraries of interpretations and commentaries. No other book of the Bible has engendered such dissension and confusion.  

 

The Early Church believed that the 1000 year resurrection should be interpreted as a literal, future event.  They were called millennialists or chiliasts (from the Greek word for 1000).  Church father Papias (70-155 AD), who was born while some of the apostles were still alive, had been taught there will be a 1000 year resurrection of the dead.  Justin Martyr (110-165) was adamant that ‘I and all others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem...’   Irenaeus (120-202), Bishop of Lyons, wrote about a literal resurrection, as did Lactantius (260-330).

 

The Early Church recognized parallels between the story of Eden, in the first book of the Bible, and the millennium in the final book of the Bible.  In Eden, two individuals lived in paradise in communion with God until they were subject to temptation.  Adam and Eve were obliged to choose between faith and rebellion.  During the future millennium, innumerable millions of resurrected individuals will live in restored to paradise in communion with God until they are subject to temptation. At the end of the 1000 years Satan will be released and the resurrected humans will be obliged to choose between faith and rebellion.  The stories are bookends, introducing and concluding the full span of human history.

 

The millennium offered a compelling explanation for the world we know, which is subject to death, evil and suffering.  Most people will die in this world without fully understanding lessons to be drawn from it. Perhaps they died too young or began thinking too late. Perhaps they were mentally or spiritually damaged. Perhaps they did not have sufficient information to exercise their freewill. The millennium made perfect sense as a divinely appointed remedy for the unfinished business of this world.

 

Most importantly, the millennium provided a time and place for the entire human race to know Jesus Christ and accept or reject him as their personal Saviour. The 1000 year resurrection will conclude with a final battle between the righteous and rebellious (20:7-10).  Then the book of life will be opened, the dead will judged, and death will be thrown into the lake of fire (20:11-15). Only after all of this is complete, a New Heaven and Earth are created for those who have chosen to love God and their neighbours. (Revelation 21 and 22)

 

Augustine based his entire religion on Eden and Original Sin. He denied a millennial resurrection because his theology of Mass Conversion required damnation and salvation to be resolved in this life. Augustine could not terrify Pagans into submission without insisting that every sinner who died unbaptized, including innocent babies, would be condemned to eternal torment. Augustine had no place for a millennial resurrection that would allow individuals to exercise their freewill.   For Augustine, the millennium was symbolic of rebirth after receiving baptism in this world.  No future resurrection was to be expected. This theology is known as a-millennialsm. 

 

Augustine replaced the function of the millennium with Purgatory, which would allow baptized Christians who died in a state of grace to complete the unfinished business of this world in preparation for admission to the perfection of heaven. Augustine could not account for the multitudes of individuals who lived and died without an opportunity to be saved from the curse of Original Sin.

 

Augustine’s idea about the 1000 year resurrection as described in chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation are, appropriately, elaborated in chapter 20 of his book The City of God.  Section seven states, ‘For the Apostle John says, “And I saw an angel come down from heaven. . . . Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” On the strength of this passage some have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily…  And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion.’ (emphasis added)  

 

Just as Augustine had once believed in freewill, he had once held the orthodox opinion that the 1000 year resurrection should be interpreted literally. However, as he built up his Gospel of Wrath, such beliefs were inimical. All references to a 1000 year resurrection had to be reinterpreted as symbolism and allegory.  So in section nine Augustine writes, ‘Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him, though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter… The Church, then, begins its reign with Christ now in the living and in the dead.’

 

Stanley J Grenz, in The Millennial Maze (p 44) writes, ‘By the time of Augustine’s death, the nonmillennarian theology of Alexandria and Rome had engulfed the millennialism of Antioch and Ephesus. As a result, the Council of Ephesus A.D. 431 condemned as a superstition the belief in a literal, future thousand-year reign on the earth.’  Grenz has accepted as fact an old legend about the elimination of literal belief in a future resurrection. There is no evidence that Council of Ephesus actually issued such a decree but the persistence of the Council of Ephesus story reflects what we know about Augustine’s beliefs and influence on subsequent theology. Most of the pre-Augustinian books proclaiming millennial beliefs were altered or destroyed to conform to the new orthodoxy. Fortunately a few have survived.

 

The Catholic Church was never fully satisfied with Augustine’s theology and continued to puzzle over the Biblical millennium.  However, true millenarians, who believed in a literal, future resurrection, were pushed to the fringes of Christianity.   The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George Smith, 1952, p 1140) notes that ‘man’s hope of a millennium’ is a form of ‘religious dreaming’ that has ‘always been the faith of certain pious people.’  The official Catholic position is that ‘It is not easy to contradict people and prove them to be wrong if they profess a hope in some mighty triumph of Christ here on earth before the final consummation of all things. Such an occurrence is not excluded, is not impossible, it is not at all certain that there may not be a prolonged period of triumphant Christianity before the end.’ But this is not what orthodox Catholics believe or teach. Catholicism cannot explain how or why non –Catholics will be ‘saved’.  Divine justice is merely another mystery than must be taken on faith. 

 

The Protestant Reformation revived Augustinian theology. Luther and Calvin taught divine predestination rather than human freedom of will. God alone decided who would be saved, justified and sanctified. A millennial resurrection made no sense to them. Calvin had few words to say about the millennium in his massive tome Institutes of the Christian Religion. In Book III, chapter 25 he discusses the resurrection and insists that there will be a single resurrection, which will be eternal. Calvin mocks the Chiliasts ‘who limited the reign of Christ to 1000 years. This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation.’  Calvin adds that the 1000 year resurrection described in Revelation 20 refers ‘only to the various troubles which await the militant Church in this world.’  For Calvin, too, the resurrection is an allegory for contemporary history. Reformation theology does not base ‘salvation’ on freewill and personal choice. There is no need for a time and place for all to hear the Gospel message. Depraved sinners will always eject the gospel. Only an elect few can be saved because God forces them to believe.

 

Luther and Calvin went further than Augustine in making double predestination the cornerstone of their theology. If God was fully in command of history, the triumph of Christianity was guaranteed. Therefore the 1,000 year ‘millennium’ was a symbol for the Church’s triumphant victory over Satan and sin.  Protestants came to believe they were predestined to win the entire human race for Christ and restore the world to the perfection of Eden. Then Jesus will return at the end of the symbolic millennium to bless the righteous and condemn the unrighteous. This Calvinist theology came to be known as post-millennialism, because Jesus returned at the end of the 1000 years.

 

Throughout the Reformation, a minority of Christians continued to believe in a literal, future resurrection of the dead.  One sub-group came to be known as pre-millennialists. Early Church millennialists believed that the resurrection would occur in the distant future, after the end of this world. It would be a time of peace and learning.  The 1000 years would conclude with the release of Satan, a world-wide rebellion, then the second coming of Jesus, victorious over Satan and sin. Protestant pre-millennialists believe that the second coming is imminent - it might literally occur today – and that non-Christians will be destroyed when Jesus establishes his kingdom on Earth for Christian saints.

 

The first sign of trouble with this new pre-millennialism was when they began to prophecy exact dates and warn their neighbours that ‘the end is nigh!’  The German Johann Heinrich Alsted predicted that predicted that the millennium would begin in 1694 with Satan cast into the bottomless pit.  A more famous prediction was William Miller’s claim that the apocalyptic second coming would occur in 1844.  He began prophesying the end of the world in 1831 and media attention grew as the fatal date approached.  The initial doom’s day was March 31, 1844.   When the date passed without catastrophe, most of Miller’s followers accepted that an honest miscalculation had been made, and they trusted their leader when he assured that the end of the world would occur on April 18. A second failure did not discredit the Miller movement. An absolutely infallible date was set for October 22. Many Americans became caught up in ‘end of the world’ hysteria as the ‘seven month message’ was preached near and far. The Great Disappointment at the failure of Jesus to return as promised cause great anger, disillusionment and scepticism. Miller’s bold promises and abject failure discredited pre-millennialism for a generation.

 

The next great prophet of the ‘end of days’ was Charles Taze Russel, founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russell was a student of Nelson H. Barbour who had predicted the Second Coming of Jesus in 1874.  When the prediction failed, Barbour and his followers simply decided that the Second Coming had happened as predicted but had been ‘invisible’.  The visible ‘day of wrath’ was predicted for 1914. After Barbour’s death Russell continued to prophesy that battle of Armageddon would occur in 1914.

 

The end of the world did not occur in 1914, so Russell modified his prediction somewhat by quoting Matthew 24:34. "Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur." Therefore, the end of the world would occur at the latest in 1984 (a generation being calculated as three score years and ten.)  When the end of the world had not happened by 1984 the Jehovah’s Witnesses admitted that ‘generation’ need not be limited to 70 years.  Some people live to be 80, 90, 100 and more.  The term ‘generation’ was obligingly imprecise and Jehovah’s witnesses stopped predicting precise dates for the end of the world.

 

The year 1914 did not bring the world Armageddon but by happily for pre-millenarians it provided the next best thing – the Great War, which plunged the entire planet into a lethal conflict and was followed by the global plague of the Spanish flu. The Russian revolution of 1917 launched the Cold War and the Arms Race. The Stockmarket Crash of 1929 triggered the financial crisis of the 1930s, which pushed the world into a Second World War that killed countless millions in Europe and Asia. One of the most appalling acts of barbarity was the Nazi Holocaust which led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. 

 

Between 1914 and 1948, a world of Empire and optimism was swept away. The triumphant plans of post-millennial Christians were dashed into a million pieces. Russia and China adopted godless communism. The Middle East and Africa threw off of the colonial yoke; Islam extended its sphere of influence. Europe and even America became increasingly secular and multicultural. The unstoppable match of Christianity was in full retreat.

 

The new era of pessimism was tailor-made for pre-millennialism. The restoration of a Jewish nation in the Biblical Holy Land made it possible to interpret biblical prophecies literally for the first time in 1900 years.  The creation of Israel was a sure sign that the end of the world was nigh. End of the world predictions began to find eager ears. The leading proponents of pre-millennialism have been quick to interpret the anti-Christ and the various demonic ‘beasts’ of the Book of Revelation as their current bugbears and enemies.

 

Pre-millennialism has repeatedly been wrong in its prediction of end-times dates. As recently as 2011 Harold Camping (Family Radio) created an international media frenzy by predicting that the world would end on May 21 and, when that failed, on October 21.  These failed predictions have not persuaded pre-millennialists that it is not there dates that are wrong, but their theology.

 

Catholics and Calvinists continue to denounce pre-millennialism as wrong-headed, simple-minded and unscriptural. There is no reason to believe that at some arbitrary moment in time God will bring judgement upon the world.  Will infants be judged as ‘good’ or ‘evil’?  What about teenagers? The list of arbitrary judgments is long.  If freewill is an essential factor in salvation, pre-millennialism is an inadequate theology.

 

The Early Church was neither a-millennial, post-millennial nor pre-millennial. It was simply millennial. It believed that a future 1,000 year resurrection would provide a time and place for the unfinished business of this world. It is hard to be categorical about what the Early Church believed, because Augustine had so many of their writings destroyed. One thing is certain: the Early Church had no knowledge of Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath, with its denial of freewill and policies of state imposed mass conversion. The Early Church did not interpret scripture through an Augustinian lens of original sin and predestination. The Early Church saw the millennium as a pre-ordained (not predestined) time and place for children, death-bed converts, Old Testament saints, Pagans, doubters and backsliders to exercise of freewill to accept or reject Christ as saviour.

 

Modern Charismatic pre-millennialists disagree with all of this. They are uncertain what purpose the millennium serves or who will be resurrected or why. They are not certain how Jesus can return triumphantly to destroy his enemies and establish his perfect kingdom at the beginning while Satan is schedule to return 1000 years later to lead multitudes intro rebellion. Pre-millennialists are not certain why Armageddon must be fought all over again after Jesus has personally ruled the world in peace for 1000 years. But they are in perfect agreement with Augustine, Luther and Calvin that this life is the only opportunity to be saved, that there will be no ‘second chances’ after death, and that the millennium has nothing to do with salvation.

 

When Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth became a best-seller in 1970, he could write that ‘Many so-called Christian leaders today do not believe that Jesus Christ will literally and physically make a personal return to the earth. Some teach that Christ returns spiritually when people accept him. Others teach that Jesus may return some day but that it is irrelevant to study or talk about it.’ (p 159) Christianity has shifted dramatically in the decades since those words were written. Large numbers of Charismatics and Evangelicals have embraced a pre-millennial theology that anticipates imminent Armageddon triggered by the Second Coming.  Hal Lindsay predicted, in elaborate detail (including a map of troop movements on p 144), how World War III would be provoked by the Communist Russian Bloc which would attack Israel with a deadly nuclear rain.  Where would the armies of Satan be destroyed at the triumphant return of Christ? On the vast, blood-drenched plains of Armageddon. (pp 151-155)

 

A more recent description of the end of the world is found in Tim Lahaye’s Revelation Unveiled.  Lahaye is better known as the co-author of the Left Behind series of books and movies which have introduced millions of Christians to pre-millennial scenarios of imminent apocalypse.  By the time Revelation Unveiled was written, the Soviet Union had imploded and was no longer the leading villain. However, a new evil empire was rising in the East, and so China became the prophesied villain. ‘China is already moving in the political direction that will make it possible for her to do what (the Book of) Revelation indicates she will during the Tribulation: march over the Euphrates River to the Battle of Armageddon.’ (p 256)

 

These pre-millennial visions of imminent Armageddon are dismissed as ‘puerile’ misinterpretations of scripture by Protestant Calvinists (post-millennialists) and as ‘religious dreaming’ by Catholics (a-millennialists). 

 

The Early Church saw a clear purpose for the millennium.  Catholics saw no purpose for a mass resurrection because they had replaced it with puragatory.   Calvinists saw no purpose for a mass resurrection because they had replaced it with predestination.   What purpose do Charismatics see for the millennium?   Every book by premillennialists devotes 95% (or more) of its pages to Armageddon and that battles that occur before the 1000 years begin.   The 1000 year resurrection, which ends with Satan’s return, in a perfect parallel with Eden, are skimmed over as incidental.   Hal Lindsay devotes a single page to the 1000 year resurrection; no interpretation or explanation are offered. Lahaye offers a brief, narrow account that involves a few select people. 

 

No modern millennial writer has recognized the vast scope and purpose of the millennium that was understood by the Early Church.  No subsequent theology has been able to explain how salvation can be a free choice between good and evil, can include people from every different time and place in history (including the multitudes of children who died in infancy) and can demonstrate both the love of God (to provide freedom from sin for those who choose good over evil) and the justice of God (by separating those who choose evil.)

 

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