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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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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