Millennial Kingdom – Early Church Fathers
Many great historians and churchmen can be cited in affirming the early dominance of Premillennialism. Among them is the celebrated church historian Philip Schaff. He penned this oft-quoted passage:
“The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm or millenarianism, 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” History of the Christian Church Vol 11, p. 614 Philip Schaff.
Barnabas’ epistle contains this common early church millennial belief:
“Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years.” Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. Ye perceive how He speaks . . . I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world.” The Epistle of Barnabas. Chapter 15, p. 146-147
Barnabas got it right both with the age of the earth and that Jesus will rule and reign on this earth for a thousand years and only then the White Throne Judgement followed by a new heaven and new earth.
Justin Martyr was an overtly premillennial ante-Nicene church father
Justin gave his most famous statement on the Millennium: “For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth] and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians . . . But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” Dialogue with Trypho LXXX, p.239
Irenaeus and Tertullian
Two of the greatest ante-Nicene fathers were Irenaeus and Tertullian (AD 160-230). Irenaeus grew up in Asia Minor and was discipled by Polycarp, who knew the Apostle John.
Irenaeus had a very extensive view of Bible prophecy in his last five chapters of Against Heresies, which were suppressed throughout the Middle Ages by anti-premillennialists and rediscovered in 1571. The restoration of a more literal interpretation and reading of the early church fathers by many post-reformationists led to a revival of premillennialism in the early 1600s. Irenaeus’ writings played a key role because of their clear premillennial statements. “John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the first ‘resurrection of the just,’ and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth,” he says, “and what the prophets have prophesied concerning it harmonize [with his vision].” Again, Irenaeus declares, “But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom.”
Tertullian, who gave us the Latin word “Trinity” was also a strong premillennialist. He makes his premillennialism clear when he says the following: “But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, ‘letdown from heaven,’ which the apostle also calls ‘our mother from above;’ and, while declaring that our citizenship is in heaven, he predicts of it that it is really a city in heaven.’’ This both Ezekiel had knowledge of, and the Apostle John beheld.”
Another outstanding premillennialist of the early church was Lactantius (AD 250-330) of North Africa. He wrote an important defence of Christianity that was the first systematic expression of Christianity called The Divine Institutes, which included a section on prophecy. Lactantius said: “But when the thousand years shall be completed, the world shall he renewed by God, and the heavens shall be folded together, and the earth shall be changed, and God shall transform men into the similitude of angels, and they shall be white as snow; and they shall always be employed in the sight of the Almighty, and shall make offerings to their Lord, and serve Him for ever.”
The death of Lactantius in AD 325 marked the end of Premillennialism as a commonly held belief in the church until after the Reformation of the 16th century. No doubt there were some saints that read the Scriptures and believed what they said about the Messianic Age, though their teachings on the matter are few.
Early as the year 170, a church party in Asia Minor—the so-called Alogi—rejected the whole body of apocalyptic writings and denounced the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) as a book of fables. Most groups are not so honest in their rejection of the plain reading of Scripture. Others claim to view Revelation and other prophetic writings in the Bible as inspired by God. However, the normal meanings of these prophecies are often obfuscated or ignored in favour of uncovering some hidden meaning. These secret meanings are often so foreign to the text that the original audience would never have arrived at them.
Origen and Allegory:
The method of interpreting Scripture in this way is known as the allegorical hermeneutic. It was first promoted and largely developed by Origen at the turn of the third century. Origen (185–254 AD) was steeped in Greek philosophy, a perspective that greatly influenced his approach to understanding Scripture. This necessitated a militancy against Premillennialism. Greek Philosophy typically viewed matter as being flawed, or even evil, while the nonphysical part of reality was good. Only a nonphysical and purely spiritual kingdom was acceptable to Origen and those in agreement with his Alexandrian theology. Origen provided no unified alternative to the many prophecies on the future earthly reign of the Messiah as a system. Instead, various passages on the matter were each relegated to having vague “spiritual” meanings, if they were addressed at all.
It is difficult to overestimate the level of influence Origen and his allegorical hermeneutic had in shaping much of the Christian world’s approach to Scripture. One of his students, Dionysius, strongly opposed the promotion of Premillennialism through exegesis by the Egyptian church bishop Nepos. On what followed, German Lutheran Theologian, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) recounted: “Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over “Jewish” chiliasm would never be secure so long as the Apocalypse of John passed for apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena (those considered authoritative) of the canon . . . During the 4th century, it was removed from the Greek canon, and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of . . . late in the Middle Ages, (God ensured) the Book of Revelation did recover its authority; however, the church was by that time so hopelessly entangled by a magical cultus as to be incapable of fresh developments.” Harnack’s explanation reveals that Dionysius was also motivated by a distaste for Judaism.
Theologian Renald Showers elaborated on the influence of antisemitism of the time. “Gentiles who professed to be Christians increasingly called Jews “Christ-killers” and developed a strong bias against anything Jewish. Because the premillennial belief in the earthly, political Kingdom rule of Messiah in the future was the same hope which had motivated the Jews for centuries, that belief was increasingly “stigmatized as ‘Jewish’ and consequently ‘heretical’” by eastern Gentile Christians.”
Some of the same people who claimed to worship a Jew as God in the flesh and hold up the Scriptures that were written by Jews (cf. Rom 3:1–2), were at the same time eager to separate themselves from what was Jewish. What absurdity! Unfortunately, this attitude is still commonplace in much of the Christian world to various degrees today.
Showers listed three other primary reasons for the rejection of Premillennialism in the early church. First, the Montanists, a sect of Christians often deemed as heretical, happened to include Chiliasm among their doctrines. Premillennialism predated Montanism and was established orthodox eschatology, but still unfairly suffered from the guilt by association fallacy. Second, some believers feared that the Romans would increase their persecution of the church if it was taught that Jesus would return and destroy their empire. Third, a few were concerned that the focus on the return of Jesus to reign on the earth diverted attention away from the daily work of the church.
None of these reasons are based upon the responsible exegesis of Scripture. The veracity of any doctrine must be determined by Scripture alone.
Augustine was the bishop of Hippo, living from AD 354 to 430. He remains a much-praised theologian, particularly within Catholic Christian circles. Augustine serves as the cardinal figure in the turning away from Premillennialism. He once held to the doctrine before formulating the first truly developed alternative.
In The City of God, the bishop wrote on his transition: “There should follow on the completion of six thousand years, as of six days, a kind of seventh-day Sabbath in the succeeding thousand years; and that it is for this purpose the saints rise, viz., to celebrate this Sabbath. 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. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can only be believed by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians.” Augustine refuted an argument never put forward by his opponents, a straw man fallacy. Premillennialists, whether in the early centuries or now, did and do believe that the joys in the Millennium are spiritual. They are, however, not only spiritual. And these blessings are certainly contingent upon God’s presence. Augustine insulted Premillennialists for anticipating the enjoyment of food and drink. This is an unfair characterization. Such an expectation is not based on carnal desire, but on the plain reading of several prophetic passages, including Isaiah 25:6 and Matthew 26:29.
Augustine’s influence was so dominant that Amillennialism went largely unchallenged until well into the Reformation. On why Premillennialism did not make an immediate return at that time, John MacArthur explained: The Reformers had it right on most issues. But they never got around to eschatology. They never got around to applying their formidable skills. You cannot fight the war on every front. And at the time of the Reformation, they were fighting the war where the battle raged the hottest and that was over the gospel and over the nature of Christ and over salvation by grace through faith and over the authority of Scripture. They were fighting the massive Roman system. And being occupied on those fronts, they never really got to the front of eschatology. This does not mean that the Reformers held to no eschatological position at all. It means that their high view of God’s word over the traditions of men was not seriously applied to what was a lower priority. This resulted in a lingering Amillennialism.
It is rather difficult to find more than a few pages in a row from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that lack a reference to Augustine. Such was the level of influence Augustine held over the reformer. Calvin even followed Augustine in mischaracterizing the beliefs of the chiliasts or early premillennialists. If these fathers really believed that the reign of Christ would come to an end after the Millennium then they deserved to be mocked. Of course, this is not what the chiliasts believed, nor is it even a remotely accurate description of Premillennialism in general. The reign of Jesus does not end with the Millennium. He will remain King on the new earth for all eternity.
Joseph Mede (1586–1639)
Mede is one of the most fascinating figures from the twilight of the Reformation. He was not only a widely influential church scholar but also a naturalist and Egyptologist. Mede was well-schooled in biblical languages, subjects he lectured on at Christ’s College of the University of Cambridge. Mede broke with his contemporaries in returning to the literal interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures. His book, The Key of the Revelation, was a clarion call for a return to Premillennialism. Mede was certain that the thousand years of the millennium . . . represented the future reign of the saints with Christ . . . Mede Identified the millennium with the future seventh trumpet and the day of judgment, both of which, he argued, would last one thousand years. It was a systematic repudiation of the Reformer’s Augustinianism.
Mede was a harbinger; after him came the flood. William Twisse, Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, wrote a preface to the 1643 English translation of The Key of Revelation. In it, he rebuked Augustine for relinquishing the doctrine of Christ’s Kingdom on earth and praised Mede for returning to it. Isaac Newton, arguably the most prolific scientist in history, acknowledged Mede as the greatest influence on his interpretation of biblical prophecy. The list of church leaders and Bible scholars following Mede in becoming premillennialists continues at some length.
In the late 17th century, the Unitarian Daniel Whitby (1638–1726) developed a new alternative to both Premillennialism and Amillennialism: Postmillennialism. Just as the name suggests, Postmillennialism is the belief that Jesus will return after the thousand years of Revelation.
For Whitby, the Millennium, whether literal or figurative for a long period, is a golden age where Christianity has conquered the unbelieving world. During this time most, if not all, people will become saved and biblical values will flourish.
With the escalating persecution of Christians in our time which fits with Biblical prophecy it is hard to understand how Christians can hold to this view.
Charles Spurgeon wrote: “Paul does not paint the future with rose-colour: he is no smooth-tongued prophet of a golden age, into which this dull earth may be imagined to be glowing. There are sanguine brethren who are looking forward to everything growing better and better and better, until, at last, this present age ripens into a millennium. They will not be able to sustain their hopes, for Scripture gives them no solid basis to rest upon. We who believe that there will be no millennial reign without the King, and who expect no rule of righteousness except from the appearing of the righteous Lord, are nearer the mark. Apart from the Second Advent of our Lord, the world is more likely to sink into pandemonium than to rise into a millennium. A divine interposition seems to me the hope set before us in Scripture, and, indeed, to be the only hope adequate to the occasion.”
Like Mede, Twisse, Newton, Spurgeon, and Matthew Bryce Ervin, I am confident that the Bible teaches the following: Jesus returns first to rapture and meet the Saints in the air and take them to heaven, at the same time God pours out His wrath on unrepentant earth with the Trumpet and Bowl judgements. We are not given the time-period, but we know from Scripture that at the fifth trumpet judgement, demonic beings were allowed to torment people for five months. Personally, I think the time-period will be one year and ten days the same time God poured out His wrath upon the earth in Noah’s day. This means the Saints will be in heaven for that time before they return with Jesus to defeat the Antichrist at the battle of Armageddon and to set up Jesus’ Millennial Kingdom.
- Papias as quoted in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, II vol., (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1926) Vol 1. p.297
- Papias, Fragments chapter 6.
- Irenaeus Against Heresies book 5, chapter 22, paragraphs 3-4.
- The Epistle of Barrettes, chapter 15.
- Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 80
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue, chapter 81.
- Wilder B. Watlis, “Reflections on the History of Premillennial Thought,” in A. Laird Harris. Smee-Hiva Quek & Robert Vannoy, editors, Interpretation & History: Essays in honour of Allen A. MacRae, (Singapore: Christian Life Publishers. 1986), p.228
- Jeffrey K. Joe. Heaven Upon Earth, Joseph Mede (1586-1638) and the Legacy of Millenarianism, (Dordrecht, Holland’ Springer), 2006, pp. 110-113
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 36, paragraph 3.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 5 chapter 30, paragraph 4.
- Tertullian, Against Marcion, book 3 chapter 25.
- Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, book 7, chapter 26