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CHRISTIAN MILLENNIAL EXPECTATION THROUGH THE CENTURIES by Professor L. Michael White
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The Millennium -- the very term, meaning a period of 1,000 years -- comes to us from the description in Revelation 20.1-10. The story tells of a final battle between the forces of God and Satan in which God will triumph.

20 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.

7 When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. 9 They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Interpretations of when this 1,000 year period will come have varied greatly in Christian history.

1. THE BACKGROUND

The idea of a 1,000-year kingdom is not found in any other Jewish or Christian apocalypse before Revelation. It enters later Christian tradition through Revelation and its interpreters. Other Jewish apocalypses do, however, seem to expect a long and glorious kingdom on earth, either of indefinite duration ('forever"), or of some significantly long, but finite duration. The idea of a coming earthly kingdom lay behind the apocalyptic fervor that fueled the First Revolt (66-70 CE). The post-70 CE Jewish apocalypse, IV Ezra, is probably closest in tone and in date to what we see in Revelation. It predicts a coming Messiah who will soon defeat the Romans and establish a new Kingdom of Israel on earth that will last for 400 years (IV Ezra 7.28).

It may well be that the number 1,000 comes originally from I Enoch, where it looks toward a coming age when the faithful once again live long peaceful lives like the patriarchs of Genesis who lived before Noah's flood. For the author of 1 Enoch these figures, such as Noah himself (who is said to have lived 950 years) or Methusaleh (969 years), reflected the "golden age" of humanity. Later apocalyptic tradition often depicted the coming messianic age as a return to that time, and the number 1,000 (rounded off for good measure) became an important symbol.

2. THE MILLENNIUM IN THE SECOND CENTURY

It is not entirely clear whether Revelation meant for the 1,000 years to be taken literally or figuratively. What is clear is that it depicted the time of evil and oppression which the Christians were then experiencing (described in chapter 11 as three-and-one-half years, or 42 months, or 1,260 days) would be a mere blink of an eye compared to the long and glorious rule of God that would ensue. Nonetheless, it appears that, taken literally, the author was predicting that the Roman Empire would fall before the year 100 CE and lead into the 1,000 years of peace. Needless to say, that did not happen. Even so, some Christians of the 2nd century, continued to look toward a literal fulfillment of these expectations in their own day.

Most notable among these thinkers was Justin Martyr, who was a Christian teacher and philosopher in Rome from ca. 144-164 CE. Writing in the years following the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE) he viewed that revolt as the "sure sign" that the end was just around the corner. He expected John's 1,000 years soon. The term usually given to this type of early literalism is called Chiliasm (from the Greek word chilia, meaning a thousand). Chiliasm refers to a stream within early Christianity that kept expecting John's predictions to come true "any time now." These ideas continued to resurface from time to time down to the fourth century and probably contributed to the suspicion in which the Book of Revelation was traditionally held.

The most infamous Chiliast interpreter of Revelation of the 2nd century was the "heretic" Montanus. Claiming to be a prophet, Montanus predicted that the New Jerusalem would descend on his hometown of Pepuza, in Phrygia (central Turkey) sometime around 170 CE. He also had two prophetesses, named Priscilla and Maximilla, who delivered other predictions about times and events. Montanus, like the author of Revelation, was a strident opponent of "worldliness," and called on Christians to live a strict life apart from Roman society. Finally, however, he was driven out of the church for his disruptive teachings, even though some persisted in his views for another century afterward all across the empire.

3. AUGUSTINE AND THE MEDIEVAL SYNTHESIS: TRADITIONAL POST-MILLENNIALISM

By the time that the Book of Revelation was included in the Latin Christian Bible (in 394 CE), it has also been given a different interpretation regarding the 1,000 years. The chief architect of both was St. Augustine (354-430 CE). Revelation's vision of a triumphant Christian kingdom on earth could be seen coming to reality as the emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religious activities in the same year. Augustine argued that the End it describes exists far off in the future, and that with the Church, Christians have already entered into God's earthly reign.

Like other images in revelation, the 1,000-year reign was not to be taken literally; it was a symbol of the "age" of the Christian Church. This view was further reinforced for Augustine and his age when the "eternal city" of Rome was sacked by the Goths in the year 410 CE. Now some of the triumphalism of earlier times was muted. Instead, Augustine wrote his City Of God as an exposition of this symbolic understanding of time, salvation, and Final Judgment. But while making Revelation safe for Christianity, Augustine and his brethren also ensured that it would be around for future generations to use and reinterpret as they saw fit.

This symbolic view of the 1,000 years has two key components. First, that the 1,000 is not to be taken literally, but figuratively, and that the millennial kingdom is already alive in the Christian Church. This means that all the events described in Revelation had already taken place, and only the Final Judgment was yet to come at the end of the figurative Millennium. But when that time was, no one could be sure, said Augustine. The latter of these elements became the dominant Christian view throughout the remaining centuries and still is. It is usually called "post-millennialism," i.e., that the Last Judgment occurs at the return of Christ after the 1,000 years is finished. Augustine's further insistance that this 1,000 years was not to be taken literally is often known as "a-millennialism," but for all intents and purposes it is a variant of the traditional "post-millennial" view, but without a literal 1,000 years.

Despite Augustine's insistance that these numbers were merely symbolic, many Christians have taken them literally in one way or another. The first clear indication of this came as the year 999 CE approached its end and many Christians expected the Final Judgment to commence then. Many others throughout the later Middle Ages used some vague notion that the 1,000 years was running out. They still held to a more-or-less literal post-millennialism. For example, Martin Luther, near the end of his life said that he didn't expect the world to last another 20 years. In his view the Reformation was part of the divine plan to cleanse the Church as it neared the end of the 1,000 years in preparation for its final judgment.

As more centuries passed, this timetable became increasingly hard to compute. By the year 1600 CE, for example, Protestant interpreters who expected a literal 1,000 years could not help but notice that this put the beginning of their Millennial Kingdom squarely in the period of the medieval Catholic Church. So, they began to recalibrate the time-tables, while still holding onto the traditional post-millennial scheme. This view became very prominent in both England and New England and led to a new round of "millennial" calculations. Many of these, such as the ones developed by Cotton Mather, sought refuge in other symbolic numbers, such as the mysterious 1,260 days of Revelation 11. Using a principle of interpretation (based on a reading of 2 Peter 3.8) that "one day equals one year," they could create new mathematical schemes that better fit both Christian history down to their own times. So Mather predicted that the end would come in 1696, then in 1736, and finally in 1716. When a giant earthquake hit Boston in 1728, he was sure that was it.

Mather's date-setting did not sit well with everyone, especially when it required constant revisions as each date passed. For Mather as well as others, 1716 was a grueling year of tense expectations and soul searching. enough was enough, said some, it was time to put such linking of prophecy and current events aside. But a new round of millennial preaching broke out within only a few years coinciding with the revivalist movement in new England known as the "great awakening." yet it would signal a shift in some of their interpretive assumptions.

The notion that an "awakening" of the hearts and souls of people was instrumental to the coming millennium was a key feature of this new movement. no figure was more central to its ideals than the minister of the congregational church of Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), whom Perry Miller called, "the greatest [American] artist of the apocalypse." By Edwards' day, the notion had already surfaced that the judgment day might not come until the year 2000 (when the world would be 6,000 years old, using Bishop Usher's date for creation). Edwards himself seems to have accepted this view, but he was interested in when and how the millennium would commence. By 1742, at the height of the revival, he concluded that it was the dawning or prelude to "that glorious work of God, so often foretold in scripture, which in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind." The key was progress, reform, renewal of society; these were to be signs that the millennial kingdom had arrived.

Edwards thus consolidated what was emerging as the new main stream of American Protestant millennial expectation -- what is usually called "postmillennialism." in this view, the Millennium was a time of the saints on earth which would lead to revival and renewal, at the end of which the elect would be snatched away to heaven just before the destruction of the world by a final conflagration. Moreover, this paradigm could reinterpret current events and calculations of history in variable ways, but it looked primarily to the notion of social progress as the eventual outcome and sign that the millennial kingdom was nigh. This idea would spark American consciousness in terms of social reform, such as the abolition of slavery, down to the Civil War and into the twentieth century.

4. THE RISE OF PRE-MILLENNIALISM

It was out of this period that a new scheme of millennial interpretation would emerge. In the regions of the westward expansion during the early decades of the 1800's, a new revivalism broke out. Called the "second great awakening" it resumed many of the goals of moral conversion and utopian idealism from the days of Jonathan Edwards. Camp meetings sprang up throughout the midwest. The region know as the "burned over" district of New York got its name from these revivalist activities. Firebrand preachers, such as Charles Grandison Finney, took the calls for reform very literally. Within another generation, they and their children would lead the charged, emotional battle over abolition of slavery. But the goal was the same, perfecting the Christian society of America as a millennial kingdom to prepare for the judgment day.

Out of this period would emerge some new interpretations of apocalyptic with a far more pessimistic outlook on the course of human events. known as "pre-millennialism," it would resurrect the expectation of an imminent second coming, but with a twist. One of the new interpretations of this period was that proposed by Joseph Smith (1805-1844), who grew up in Palmyra, New York. The result was the foundation of a new apocalyptic offshoot of Protestant Christianity. It took over many aspects of traditional apocalyptic expectation and thought, but there were also new elements. Hence the movement came to be known by the apocalyptic title, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but better known as the Mormons.

Another product of the revivalist spirit in the 'burned over district" of New York was a Baptist layman and farmer, William Miller (1782-1849). Originally from New England, he had strong belief in literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Having witnessed the battle of Plattsburgh during the war of 1812, he ascribed the victory to divine intervention. Then in 1818, after two years of intense bible study, he concluded that the second coming of Jesus would occur in 1843. An important shift led Miller to make this prediction. He now used a time-frame of 2,300 years (drawn from Daniel 8.14) to calculate the period from the post-exilic "purification" of the Temple down to the "end of the world." This meant that the 1,000 years of Revelation was yet to come. It was this shift that gave rise to pre-millennialism, the idea that the end of the world must come before the millennial kingdom on earth.

More than any other figure, it was John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) who put a new face on literalist pre-millennialism that lasts to this day. He did so through a new wrinkle in his system of prophecy interpretation, that, among other things, avoided Miller's downfall of date-setting. Darby's system, known as "Dispensationalism" derives from Miller and others its basic pre-millennial orientation and its distinctive understanding of the nature of prophecy. But it adds some new elements as well. One key was the peculiar idea of "prophecy" itself. Darby himself was from Ireland and served an Anglican priest in Dublin. After an accident in 1827, Darby went through a lengthy period of convalescence during which he had some sort of religious experience through reading the Bible. He emerged with a new sense of "prophecy." For Darby almost the entire Bible was somehow to be understood as prophetic or predictive of future events. Even Genesis was more than an account of the origins of the earth, it was a blueprint for time. Simultaneously, Darby had become disgruntled with the English churches for being too ritualistic. He eventually left to join a new sect, called "the Plymouth Brethren."

Notably, Darby preached that God divided time into a series of three epochs, which he called "dispensations." In each dispensation of history, Darby said, the means of salvation ordained by God was different. The first "dispensation" lasted from the day of creation to the death of Jesus. It was governed by prophecies delivered to Israel. The third (and last) would begin with "the Rapture" (another of Darby's key terms) that occurs just prior to the Millennium when Jesus will return again. Hence, the second is that of the present times, having begun with the resurrection (not the birth) of Jesus. Darby said far less about this second "dispensation" itself, as if time between the New Testament and the present hardly mattered. Thus, like Miller and others, Darby took the view that all the "prophecies" of the Book of Revelation (after the opening two chapters) and many others were yet to be fulfilled in human history. The "dispensation" of the church was not the Millennium, but rather one more stage of preparation for it.

Darby therefore refused to predict a date for the end of the world, but focused instead on the "signs" in Revelation and other scriptures, by which he calculated that one could tell that the clock was now winding down to the end. When these signs started appearing, Darby said, then there would be seven years of "tribulation" prior to the end of the world, which would be followed by Christ's return, defeat of Satan, and the inauguration of the 1,000-year reign on earth.

While other forms of pre-millennialism are still operative today, Darby's "dispensationalist" version has been by far the most influential and wide-spread among those American evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants who accept a literalist view of "Bible prophecy" for prediction of contemporary events. Among other Christian groups, including both Catholic and Protestants, some form of a-millennialism, i.e., the figurative (or non-literalist) type of post-millennialism, has remained the most common type of end-time expectation down to the present.

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