A Description and Early History of Millennial Views
A Description Of Three Millennial Views
During the history of the Church three major views have been held concerning the future Kingdom of God foretold in such passages as Daniel 2 and 7. Today those three views are called Premillennialism, Amillennialism and Postmillennialism. The names of these views all have the term “millennialism” (a form of the word “millennium”) in common with each other. They are using this common form as a synonym or substitute for the expression “the Kingdom of God.”
The prefix “pre” means before. Thus, Premillennialism is the view which states that Christ will return to earth before the Millennium or Kingdom of God. Christ will return in His Second Coming for the purpose of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, This kingdom will last for 1,000 years on this present earth (Rev. 20:1-7), and it will be a literal, political kingdom with Christ ruling worldwide as King together with the saints of God.
The word “millennium” was derived from the concept of 1,000 years. It is the combination of two Latin words: mille (1,000) and annum (year). In the early days of the Church the premillennial view was called chiliasm (derived from the Greek word meaning 1,000).
The prefix “a” means no. Thus, Amillennialism. is the view which states that there will be no literal, political Kingdom of God on this earth. The future Kingdom of God foretold in such passages as Daniel 2 and 7 is totally spiritual in nature. It consists either of the Church of this age or of Christ’s present rule from Heaven over the hearts of believing human beings or the future eternal state. When Christ returns to earth in His Second Coming, there will be a general resurrection of all the dead, a general judgment, the end of this present earth and the immediate beginning of the future eternal state.
The prefix “post” means after, Thus, Postmillennialism is the view which states that Christ will return to this earth after the Millennium or Kingdom of God. There will be a literal Kingdom of God on this earth, but it will not be established through the supernatural intervention of Christ into history at His Second Coming. Instead, it will be established through human efforts, such as man’s expanding knowledge, his new discoveries and inventions, his increasing ability to exercise dominion over nature and the expanding influence of the Church. The Church has the responsibility to help bring in the Kingdom. Christ’s Second Coming will occur at the close of the Millennium as the crowning event of that golden age.
The History Of The Millennial Views
During the history of the Church, views of the Millennium have gone through four stages of development. These will be examined m the chronological order of their appearance.
Numerous historians declare that Premillennialism (initially called chiliasm) was the first major millennial view of the Church and that it was the predominant view of orthodox believers from the first to the third centuries. A sampling of historians will be quoted as evidence for this declaration.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), the noted English historian who wrote the classic work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, stated the following:
The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in six days, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years. By the same analogy it was inferred, that this long period of labor and contention, which was now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection.
The assurance of such a Millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was preceptor to the son of Constantine. Though it might not be universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers; . . . .1
It should be noted that Gibbon had an unfriendly attitude toward Christianity; therefore, he was not biased in favor of Premillennialism. His comments have added significance in light of that fact.
J. C. L.Gieseler, Professor of Theology at the university in Gottingen, Germany, in the early nineteenth century, a highly acclaimed Church historian in his time and himself not a premillennialist, wrote the following when referring to some early Christian literature which was produced between 117 and 193 A.D.: “In all these works the belief in the Millennium is so evident, that no one can hesitate to consider it as universal in an age, when certainly such motives as it offered were not unnecessary to animate men to suffer for Christianity. “2
Henry C. Sheldon, Professor of Historical Theology at Boston University in the late nineteenth century, said that chiliasm “was entertained in the second century not only by Ebionites, and by writers who, like Cerinthus, mixed with their Gnosticism a large element of Judaism, but by many (veiy likely a majority) of those in the Catholic Church.”3 It should be noted that Sheldon used the term Catholic (which means universal) to refer to the entire organized Church. This was the sense of that term during the early centuries before the Roman Catholic system formed.
Philip Schaff, prominent German Reformed theologian and Church historian in America during the major part of the nineteenth century, stated the following concerning the early Church (100-325 A.D.) in his monumental eight volume History of the Christian Church:
The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius; ….4
Adolph Harnack, Lutheran theologian and Church historian in Germany during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and recognized authority on Ante-Nicene Church history (100-325 A.D.), wrote the following:
First in point of time came the faith in the nearness of Christ’s second advent and the establishing of His reign of glory on the earth. Indeed it appears so early that it might be questioned whether it ought not to be regarded as an essential part of the Christian religion.5
… it must be admitted that this expectation was a prominent feature in the earliest proclamation of the gospel, and materially contributed to its success. If the primitive churches had been under the necessity of framing a “Confession of Faith,” it would certainly have embraced those pictures by means of which the near future was distinctly realized.6
Harnack also stated that “In the anticipations of the future prevalent amongst the early Christians (c. 50-150) it is necessary to distinguish a fixed . . . element.” He indicated that the following items were included in that fixed element: “(1) the notion that a last terrible battle with the enemies of God was impending; (2) the faith in the speedy return of Christ; (3) the conviction that Christ will judge all men, and (4) will set up a kingdom of glory on earth.”7
Harnack declared that among other early Christian beliefs concerning the future “was the expectation that the future Kingdom of Christ on earth should have a fixed duration, — according to the most prevalent opinion, a duration of one thousand years. From this fact the whole ancient Christian eschatology was known in later times as ‘chiliasm,’….”8
Harnack claimed that in their eschatology the early Christians preserved the Jewish hopes for the future presented in ancient Jewish literature. 9
He also asserted that Justin Martyr, a prominent early Christian writer (100-165 A.D.) who had been saved out of pagan Greek philosophy, “speaks of chiliasm as a necessary part of complete orthodoxy, although he knows Christians who do not accept it.”10 Harnack made this significant observation: “That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias towards an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiastic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the second century.” 11
It should be noted that Harnack was strongly liberal in his theology; therefore, he was not biased in favor of Premillennialism. In light of this fact his cornments take on added significance.
Will Durant, the twentieth century historian who produced the multi-volume set entitled The Story of Civilization, wrote the following concerning Jesus Christ’s view of the Kingdom of God: “What did he mean by the Kingdom? A supernatural heaven? Apparently not, for the apostles and the early Christians unanimously expected an earthly Kingdom. This was the Jewish tradition that Christ inherited; and he taught his followers to pray to the Father, Thy Kingdom come, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”12 Durant further declared that “The apostles were apparently unanimous in believing that Christ would soon return to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.”13 Then he stated that “One faith united the scattered congregations: that Christ was the son of God, that he would return to establish his Kingdom on earth, and that all who believed in him would at the Last Judgment be rewarded with eternal bliss.” 14
This article has quoted just a few historians who have claimed that Premillennialism was the first and predominant millennial view of the Church. If space permitted, many others who have made the same claim could be cited. Research indicates that numerous such historians were not premillennialists themselves. In fact, many were opposed to the premillennial view personally. The fact that scholars who were not biased in favor of Premillennialism would assert that it was the first and predominant millennial view of the Church is quite significant. It indicates that they based their assertion upon evidence which they were convinced was too strong to be denied.
Much of the evidence which these historians use to substantiate their claim is found in the writings of early Church leaders. Some of these writings will be examined in the next article,
- Edward Gibbon, History of Christianity (New York: Peter Eckler Publishing Company, 1916), pp. 141-42.
- J. C. I. Gieseler, Text-Book of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I, trans. from the third German Edition by Francis Cunningham (Philadelphia; Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836), p. 100.
- Henry C. Sheldon, History of Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1886), p. 145.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973),
- Adolph Harnack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), XVI, 314.
- Ibid., ,XVI,315.
- Ibid., XVI, 316.
- Will Durant, Caesar And Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), pp. 564-65.
- Ibid., p. 575.
- Ibid., p. 603.