The Apocalypse—To Be Feared or Hoped For?
“Apocalypse is today not merely a biblical depiction but it has become a very real possibility.”—Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former secretary-general of the United Nations.
THAT use of the word “apocalypse” by a leading world figure reflects the way most people understand it and see it used in film and book titles, magazine articles, and newspaper reports. It conjures up visions of a cosmic cataclysm. But what does the word “apocalypse” really mean? And more important still, what is the message contained in the Bible book named Apocalypse, or Revelation?
The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek term that means “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” What was unveiled, or revealed, in the Biblical Revelation? Was it exclusively a message of doom, a harbinger of annihilation with no survivors? Asked what he thought of the Apocalypse, historian Jean Delumeau, member of the Institut de France, declared: “It is a book of comfort and hope. People have dramatized its contents by focusing on its catastrophic episodes.”
Early Church and the Apocalypse
How did the early “Christians” view the Apocalypse and the hope it sets forth of the Thousand Year Reign (Millennium) of Christ over the earth? The same historian stated: “Christians of the first few centuries appear to me, by and large, to have adopted millennialism. . . . Among Christians of the early centuries who believed in the Millennium were notably Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, . . . Saint Justin, born in Palestine, who suffered martyrdom in Rome about 165, Saint Irenæus, bishop of Lyons, who died in 202, Tertullian, who died in 222, and . . . the great writer Lactantius.”
Concerning Papias, who reportedly suffered martyrdom in Pergamum in 161 or 165 C.E., The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, a disciple of St. John, appeared as an advocate of millenarianism. He claimed to have received his doctrine from contemporaries of the Apostles, and Irenæus narrates that other ‘Presbyteri’, who had seen and heard the disciple John, learned from him the belief in millenarianism as part of the Lord’s doctrine. According to Eusebius . . . Papias in his book asserted that the resurrection of the dead would be followed by one thousand years of a visible, glorious earthly kingdom of Christ.”
What does this tell us about the effect that the book Apocalypse, or Revelation, had on the early believers? Did it inspire fear or hope? Interestingly, historians call the primitive Christians chiliasts, from the Greek words khiʹli·a eʹte (thousand years). Yes, many of them were known for being believers in the Thousand Year Reign of Christ, which would usher in paradise conditions on earth. The only place in the Bible where the millennial hope is specifically mentioned is the Apocalypse, or Revelation. (Re 20:1-7) So, far from frightening believers, the Apocalypse gave them a wonderful hope. In his book The Early Church and the World, Oxford professor of church history Cecil Cadoux writes: “Chiliastic views, though eventually rejected, were widely held in the Church for a considerable period, being taught by some of the most highly respected authors.”
Why the Apocalypse Hope Was Rejected
Since it is an irrefutable historic fact that many, if not most, of the early Christians hoped in the Millennial Reign of Christ over a paradise earth, how did it occur that such “chiliastic views” were “eventually rejected”? Some justifiable criticism came about because, as scholar Robert Mounce pointed out, “unfortunately, many chiliasts allowed their imaginations to run riot and read into the thousand-year period all manner of materialistic and sensuous extremes.” But these extremist views could have been corrected without rejecting the true hope of the Millennium.
Surprising indeed were the means used to suppress millennialism by its adversaries. The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique says of Roman churchman Caius (end of second century, beginning of third) that “in order to conquer millennialism, he unequivocally denied the authenticity of the Apocalypse [Revelation] and of the Gospel of St. John.” This Dictionnaire further states that Dionysius, third-century bishop of Alexandria, wrote a treatise against millennialism that “in order to prevent those who adhered to this opinion from basing their belief on the Apocalypse of Saint John, did not hesitate to deny its authenticity.” Such virulent opposition to the hope of millennial blessings on earth evinces a subtle influence that was at work among theologians at that time.
In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Professor Norman Cohn writes: “The third century saw the first attempt to discredit millenarianism, when Origen, perhaps the most influential of all the theologians of the ancient Church, began to present the Kingdom as an event which would take place not in space or time but only in the souls of believers.” Relying on Greek philosophy rather than on the Bible, Origen diluted the wonderful hope of earthly blessings under the Messianic Kingdom into an incomprehensible “event . . . in the souls of believers.” Catholic author Léon Gry wrote: “The predominant influence of Greek philosophy . . . gradually brought about the downfall of Chiliastic ideas.”
“The Church Has Lost Its Message of Hope”
Augustine was undoubtedly the Church Father who did the most to fuse Greek philosophy with what was by his time only a semblance of Christianity. Initially an ardent advocate of millenarianism, he eventually rejected any idea of a future Millennial Reign of Christ over the earth. He gave Revelation chapter 20 an allegorical twist.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Augustine finally held to the conviction that there will be no millennium. . . . The first resurrection, of which this chapter treats, he tells us, refers to the spiritual rebirth in baptism; the sabbath of one thousand years after the six thousand years of history, is the whole of eternal life.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Augustine’s allegorical millennialism became the official doctrine of the church . . . The Protestant Reformers of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions . . . remained firmly attached to the views of Augustine.” Thus, the members of Christendom’s churches were deprived of the millennial hope.
Moreover, according to Swiss theologian Frédéric de Rougemont, “by repudiating his initial faith in the thousand-year reign, [Augustine] caused incalculable damage to the Church. With the immense authority of his name, he sanctioned an error that deprived [the Church] of its earthly ideal.” German theologian Adolf Harnack concurred that the rejection of belief in the Millennium deprived the common people of “the religion they understood,” replacing “the old faith and the old hopes” with “a faith they could not understand.” Today’s empty churches in many lands are eloquent proof that people need a faith and a hope they can understand.
In his book Highlights of the Book of Revelation, Bible scholar George Beasley-Murray wrote: “Largely owing to the immense influence of Augustine on the one hand and the espousal of millenarianism by the sects on the other, Catholics and Protestants have united in rejecting it. When asked what alternative hope they have for man in this world the official answer is: None at all. The world will be destroyed at the advent of Christ to give place to an eternal heaven and hell in which history will be forgotten. . . . The church has lost its message of hope.”
The Wonderful Apocalypse Hope Is Still Alive!
For their part, Jehovah’s Witnesses are convinced that the wonderful promises in connection with the Millennium will be fulfilled. Interviewed on a French television program on the theme “Year 2000: Fear of the Apocalypse,” French historian Jean Delumeau stated: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are following exactly the line of millenarianism, for they say that soon . . . we will enter—admittedly, through cataclysms—a period of 1,000 years of happiness.”
This is just what the apostle John saw in a vision and described in his book Apocalypse, or Revelation. He wrote: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: ‘Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his peoples. And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.’”—Revelation 21:1, 3, 4.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are engaged in a worldwide Bible educational work to enable as many people as possible to embrace this hope. They will be happy to help you to learn more about it.
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Papias claimed to have received the Millennium doctrine directly from contemporaries of the apostles
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Tertullian believed in Christ’s Millennial Reign
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
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“By repudiating his initial faith in the thousand-year reign, [Augustine] caused incalculable damage to the Church”
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The Paradise earth promised in the Apocalypse is something to be eagerly hoped for