The Millennium—What Is It?
How has it been viewed? Can we expect it in the future?
“A time during which man’s yearnings for peace, freedom from evil, and the rule of righteousness upon earth are finally realized through the power of God.”
THAT is how the Encyclopædia Britannica describes the Bible teaching of the “1,000-year period, known as the millennium.”
Do you not agree that we would like such a description to become a reality? Certainly we would like to enjoy ‘peace, freedom from evil and righteousness upon earth.’ But is that prospect part of your belief concerning the millennium?
For many persons it is not, for they know little or nothing about the millennium. That is true even of millions who have attended church, because many religions leave the subject virtually unmentioned. It is almost as if it is something that God included in the Bible but that is no longer of interest or importance.
Yet, as we have seen, God’s Word links the millennium with a description of his wiping away sorrow, tears and death. So we have good reason to want to understand what Jehovah God says and means regarding the millennium. Our future and that of our family may well be involved.
You can open your Bible to Revelation chapter 20 to find the most of what the Bible says about the thousand-year reign of Christ. The apostle John shares with us what he was privileged to see:
“I saw an angel coming down out of heaven with the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he seized the dragon, the original serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. And he hurled him into the abyss and shut it and sealed it over him, that he might not mislead the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. . . .
“And I saw thrones, and there were those who sat down on them. . . . Yes, I saw the souls of those executed with the ax for the witness they bore to Jesus. . . . And they came to life and ruled as kings with Christ for a thousand years. . . .
“Now as soon as the thousand years have been ended, Satan will be let loose out of his prison, and he will go out to mislead those nations in the four corners of the earth. . . . But fire came down out of heaven and devoured them. And the Devil who was misleading them was hurled into the lake of fire. . . .
“And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. . . . Furthermore, whoever was not found written in the book of life was hurled into the lake of fire [the second death].”—Rev. 20:1-15.
So, according to the Bible, the millennium is a period when Satan will not be free to mislead humans, the dead will be raised and judged, and mankind will be ruled righteously by Jesus Christ and his joint heirs.
You may rightly wonder, though, why so little is heard about this in the churches or in religious circles. The fact is that if you inquired, you would find that some religions hold that the millennium is not a literal 1,000-year period during which Christ will rule. Another common teaching is that the millennium is but a symbol of Christ’s reign starting almost 2,000 years ago and still continuing. Just what are you to believe? We can be greatly helped in understanding this important matter by considering what the apostle John and his fellow apostles believed and also what developed after Jesus’ faithful apostles died by the end of the first century.
KINGDOM TRUTHS TWISTED
When we today read the Bible, it is easy to appreciate that the heavenly kingdom of God was one of the principal things that Jesus taught his disciples. In fact, he commenced with the message: “Repent, you people, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Matt. 4:17; John 18:36) He told his apostles that he had to die but would be resurrected and that he would prepare a place for them in heaven. (Matt. 16:21; Luke 22:28-30; John 14:2, 3) At first, the apostles did not understand him, for they imagined that the Kingdom would be established on earth. (John 20:9; Acts 1:6, 7) But after they received holy spirit, they realized that the Kingdom would be in heaven. Thus, the apostle Paul wrote: “As for us, our citizenship exists in the heavens.” To attain heavenly life, they would have to die and be resurrected as spirit creatures, for “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom.”—Phil. 3:20; 1 Cor. 15:50.
However, these clear Biblical truths became clouded over after the death of Jesus’ apostles. How did that happen? Paul said: “After my going away . . . men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) Yes, during the first century the apostles exercised a restraining influence that helped to keep Christian doctrine pure. But after they all died an apostasy set in. (2 Thess. 2:3-8; 1 Tim. 4:1-4) This had a definite influence on what was taught regarding the millennium. We are not in the dark about this, for surviving second- and third-century writings help us to trace what occurred.
SECTARIAN VIEWS OF THE MILLENNIUM
In the century after the death of the apostle John, the view developed that for the millennium Christ would rule on earth, perhaps from rebuilt Jerusalem. Historian J. Mosheim suggests that this idea may have come from a merging of the Christian hope of “our Saviour’s kingdom of heaven” with a prevailing Jewish hope of “an earthly kingdom of the Messiah.” The sect of the Montanists sprang up in Asia Minor, teaching that Jesus would reign there from Phrygia. They, and others, taught that many fantastic things were going to happen when Christ and his joint heirs were ruling on earth during the millennium. For example, such rulers supposedly would enjoy sensual pleasures of all sorts, including those between the sexes. And they would have material bodies ‘more excellent and ethereal than ours.’ Such extreme views came to be thought of as typical of those believing in the millennium. As a result, ‘the whole doctrine of the millennium lost its reputation,’ reports Dr. A. Neander.
A second view developed that added to the confusion. According to it, the “thousand years” were merely symbolic. Probably the most influential teacher in this regard was Catholic theologian Augustine. The Encyclopædia Britannica tells us:
“After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine, a former bon vivant, consistently favoured a world-denying and ascetic style of life. In fact, his disillusionment with worldly values was more thorough than that of the millenarians [or Chiliasts], for he rejected as carnal any expectations of a renewed and purified world that the believers could expect to enjoy.”
The New Catholic Encyclopedia reports that Augustine “advanced the theory that the millennium had actually begun with Christ’s nativity.” The fact that you may not have heard much about the millennium likely is related to this development, for the Catholic Church now holds that the “1,000 year reign of Jesus [is] a symbol for the entire life span of the Church . . . The chaining of Satan during this same period signifies that the influence of Satan has been notably reduced.”
These conflicting sectarian views have contributed to the discouraging of interest in the millennium. But since our own future may be involved, let us examine these two views about the millennium and determine what we should believe based on God’s Word the Bible.
WHERE AND WHEN?
Many churches teach that Christ will return in the flesh, even as in the second century the idea developed that Jesus and his associate king-priests would reign in the flesh on earth during the millennium. However, Jesus himself said: “A little longer and the world will behold me no more, but you [for whom he was going to prepare a place in heaven] will behold me, because I live and you will live.” (John 14:2, 3, 18, 19) Hence, Jesus indicated that he would reign in heaven. Is that what we are to understand when we read Revelation chapter 20? Yes, for the Bible does not contradict itself.
Arguing against a millennial reign in the flesh on earth, Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics explains:
In this account [Revelation 20] the new feature is the 1000 years’ reign of the martyrs with Christ, . . . This reign is not said to be on earth, nor is the first resurrection said to be a bodily one . . . If the martyrs restored to life are the saints dwelling in Jerusalem who are attacked by Gog and Magog, it is curious that Christ (with whom they reign) does not attack those enemies. Their destruction comes from heaven.”—Vol. V, p. 387.
That agrees, does it not, with what we already saw from the Bible about Jesus and his joint heirs reigning in the heavenly kingdom? The Bible does not say that such “partakers of the heavenly calling” will ever, even for the 1,000 years, receive human bodies. (Heb. 3:1) Instead, it clearly shows that spirit-anointed Christians will be “raised up a spiritual body,” as was Jesus Christ, in order to enter into heaven itself.—1 Cor. 15:42-49; Heb. 9:24.
Since those inheriting the Kingdom go to heaven, all the sectarian fantasies about Jesus and the “saints” ruling in the flesh from earthly Jerusalem or Phrygia and indulging in the sensual pleasures of the flesh simply are unfounded.
Such views appear to be a distorting of two teachings that the Bible does present: (1) The Kingdom is a heavenly government composed of Jesus, the apostles and others raised to heaven in the “first resurrection.” (Rev. 20:6) (2) Under that heavenly government the earth, cleansed of wicked ones, will be restored to peaceful paradise conditions to be enjoyed by God’s human servants.—Luke 23:43; Rev. 19:11–20:3; 22:1, 2, 17.
You can see that the second of those developments has not yet occurred. That would suggest, would it not, that the millennium is yet future?
As we have noted, some say that the millennium is not an actual period of 1,000 years, but is just a long, indefinite period that may have started centuries ago. Can that be correct? It is true that certain numbers or time periods in the book of Revelation are figurative, for the message of the book was presented in many “signs.” (Rev. 1:1, 4; 2:10) However, is there reason to believe that the “thousand years” is not a symbol?
In Revelation chapter seven the apostle makes a contrast between the set number who reign with Christ (144,000) and the indefinitely larger number who survive the “great tribulation.” How does John do so? He terms the latter group the “great crowd, which no man was able to number.” (Rev. 7:4, 9) Later on, he refers again to the definite number, “the hundred and forty-four thousand.” (Rev. 14:3) Similarly, in Revelation 20:8, John says that the indefinitely large number of persons rebelling at the end of the millennium “is as the sand of the sea.” Nor does the apostle John, in Revelation chapter 20, employ the plural “thousands,” which is sometimes used elsewhere to indicate a large and perhaps indefinite number. (Rev. 5:11; Dan. 7:10; 1 Sam. 18:7; Ps. 68:17; 119:72) So there seems to be no good reason to conclude that the expression “thousand years” of Re chapter 20 refers to a long but indefinite period. Rather, John uses the term in a way that indicates a period of set length—“the thousand years.”—Rev. 20:6.
Can we be sure, though, of the length of that fixed period? Viewing Revelation as dealing with the Jews around the end of the first century, J. J. Wettstein claimed that the millennium was the 50 years from Emperor Domitian’s death (96 C.E.) to the Jewish war during Hadrian’s reign. Another idea was that a day stood for a year. According to this view, with 360 days in a lunar year, the millennium would be 360,000 years long (360 x 1,000). As to such interpretations, Professor A. T. Robertson wrote: “All sorts of theories are proposed, none of which fully satisfy one.”
The most direct approach is to accept John’s words for what they actually say—1,000 years. Many have seen in this an appropriate reign for Jesus Christ, whom the Bible calls the “Lord of the sabbath.” (Matt. 12:8) It would be like a sabbath rest day after some 6,000 years during which human imperfection dominated the earthly scene.—2 Pet. 3:8.
John himself shows that the millennium follows Christ’s successful war against all his earthly enemies. (Rev. 19:11-21) Since that has not yet occurred, we can be sure that the millennium is yet to come. The fulfillment of Bible prophecy in our time gives evidence that soon Christ will war against and destroy God’s earthly enemies, as described by Jesus’ own prophetic words.—Matt. 24:3-22.
All the Biblical and historical evidence indicating that we are in the last days of this wicked system of things gives us a firm basis for expecting the millennium of peace to begin in the near future. (2 Tim. 3:1-5) What will the earth then be like?