CONTEMPT FOR “MILLENNIALISM”
Many people today have become lukewarm “Christians,” more interested in the here and now than in the fulfillment of the Christian hope. One reason is that Christendom’s churches have distorted that hope. They speak with contempt of sincere Christians who place their hope in the millennium or 1,000-year reign of Christ. For example, the very highly respected and voluminous French Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique defines “millennialism” as follows: “False belief professed by those who were awaiting a temporal reign of the Messiah, the length of which was sometimes considered by them to be a thousand years. . . . Since the fifth century, millennialism has no longer been spoken of, or very rarely, by a few cranky sects.”
Yet, while speaking contemptuously of those who believe in the 1,000-year reign of the Messiah, this authoritative Catholic work admits that millennialism was spoken of before the fifth century. In other words, the millennial hope was lost sight of during the fifth century. Why? Does history confirm what the Bible itself reveals, namely, that the early Christians believed in the 1,000-year reign of Christ? And if so, how were millions of Catholics and Protestants robbed of the millennial hope? Let us see what reputable reference works and history books reveal in answer to these questions.
TESTIMONY FROM “CHURCH FATHERS”
Catholic reference works recognize that many of the earliest “Church fathers” believed in and taught the 1,000-year reign of Christ, or millennium. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Later among Catholics, Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, a disciple of St. John [the apostle], appeared as an advocate of ‘millenarianism.’ He claimed to have received his doctrine from contemporaries of the Apostles, and Irenæus narrates that other ‘Presbyteri’ [elders], who had seen and heard the disciple John, learned from him the belief in millenarianism as part of the Lord’s doctrine. . . .
“Millenarian ideas are found by most commentators in the Epistle of St. Barnabas [early second century] . . . St. Irenæus of Lyons, a native of Asia Minor, influenced by the companions of St. Polycarp, adopted millenarian ideas, discussing and defending them in his work against the Gnostics . . . St. Justin of Rome, the martyr, opposes to the Jews in his Dialogue with Tryphon (ch. 80-81) the tenet of a millennium . . . A witness for the continued belief in millenarianism in the province of Asia is St. Melito, Bishop of Sardes in the second century. . . .
“. . . Tertullian, the protagonist of Montanism, expounds the doctrine . . . that at the end of time the great kingdom of promise, the new Jerusalem, would be established and last for the space of one thousand years. All these millenarian authors appeal to various passages in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, to a few passages in the Letters of St. Paul and to the Apocalypse [Revelation] of St. John.”—Italics ours.
WHO ARE TRULY “APOSTOLIC”
Now one of the main arguments of the Roman Catholic Church in favor of its superiority over the Protestant churches, and also over Jehovah’s Witnesses, is its claim to be the sole guardian of Christian tradition as handed down from the time of the apostles. As A Catholic Dictionary puts it: “The Roman Church is Apostolic, because her doctrine is the faith once revealed to the Apostles, which faith she guards and explains, without adding to it or taking from it.”—Italics ours.
Yet the men quoted by The Catholic Encyclopedia as teaching the millennial hope are recognized by the Catholic Church itself as being among the earliest “Church fathers.” Two of them (Polycarp and Papias) are said to have seen and heard the apostle John and to have met disciples who knew Christ himself and other apostles. All the others quoted are second-century or early third-century “Fathers” or “Doctors,” and they all believed in the 1,000-year reign of Christ.
The very authoritative Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique goes so far as to say that contemporaries of Papias who were even more “intelligent” and “shrewd” than he was “shared his belief in the thousand-year reign and considered this belief to be one of the essential dogmas of the Christian faith.” This same Catholic reference work says of Justin Martyr that although he knew that some of his contemporaries did not share his views on the millennium, he considered that on this matter he was the “guardian of the more completely orthodox doctrine.” Referring to Irenaeus, this dictionary states: “For him, millennialism is a part of traditional teachings. . . . Saint Irenæus appears to think that one cannot give a correct explanation of the Scriptures without millennialism.”—Volume X, columns 1761, 1762 (Italics ours).
So who is closer to the true apostolic teaching and tradition, the Roman Catholic Church that slightingly calls those who still believe in the 1,000-year reign of Christ a ‘cranky sect’—or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who cherish the millennial hope? How did it come about that this hope was dropped from Catholic dogma?
APOSTASY DISTORTS THE CHRISTIAN HOPE
In the previous article we have seen that through the apostasy that took place in the latter centuries before the Common Era the Jews replaced their hope in the resurrection with the pagan belief in the inherent immortality of the soul and transformed their original Messianic hope into a political hope. Similarly, the apostasy that was foretold to occur among Christians (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 John 2:18, 19) brought about a distortion of the millennial hope.
Jewish scholar Hugh J. Schonfield states: “Christian shifting away from the hope of the terrestrial Kingdom of God did not prevail until the second century.” “Despite pleas for constancy, loyalty and endurance, many more Christians were disillusioned and either left the Church or followed those teachers who offered less earth-bound interpretations of the nature of Christianity.”
Concerning this “shifting away” from the hope of paradise restored on earth by means of the heavenly Messianic kingdom or government, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states (Vol. 2, under “Paradise”): “In the further course of church history many extra-biblical motifs, pictures and ideas were absorbed into the conception of paradise. . . . The speculations in the church concerning paradise and the conceptions of popular piety are also linked with the fact that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul came in to take the place of NT [New Testament] eschatology with its hope of the resurrection of the dead and the new creation (Rev. 21 f.), so that the soul receives judgment after death and attains to paradise now thought of as other-worldly.”—Italics ours.
Thus, with the infiltration of the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul apostate Christians transferred paradise from earth to heaven and abandoned the original millennial hope. Confirming this, The Encyclopædia Britannica (1977) admits: “The influence of Greek thought upon Christian theology undermined the millenarian world view.”
NEOPLATONISM REPLACES THE MILLENNIAL HOPE
The millennial hope was, therefore, a victim of the apostasy. Its enemies stopped at nothing to combat it. Listing the adversaries of millennialism, the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique says of Roman priest 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 same authoritative Catholic reference work also reveals that “Saint” Dionysius, third-century bishop of Alexandria, wrote a treatise against millennialism, and, “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.”
We further learn in that 15-volume Catholic dictionary that third-century “Church Father” Origen condemned those who believed in the earthly blessings of the millennium because they “interpret the Scriptures like the Jews.” Why else was Origen so opposed to millennialism? The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us: “In view of the Neo-Platonism on which his doctrines were founded . . . , he [Origen] could not side with the millenarians.” Sharing Plato’s belief in the inherent immortality of the soul, Origen was obliged to transfer the earthly blessings of the 1,000-year Messianic reign to the spiritual sphere.
AUGUSTINE DECIDES THAT “THERE WILL BE NO MILLENNIUM”
But the man who gave the coup de grace to the millennial hope for Catholics and even Protestants was doubtless “Saint” Augustine, described by The Encyclopædia Britannica as “the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity” and “the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy.” Augustine came out energetically against the original hope of paradise restored on earth during the 1,000-year reign of Christ. To quote The Catholic Encyclopedia: “St. Augustine finally held to the conviction that there will be no millennium. . . . the great Doctor . . . gives us an allegorical explanation of Chap. 20 of the Apocalypse. 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 . . . This explanation of the illustrious Doctor was adopted by succeeding Western theologians, and millenarianism in its earlier shape no longer received support.”
Not only have Catholics thus been robbed of the original, Scriptural millennial hope, but so have Protestants. The 1977 Britannica Macropædia reveals: “Augustine’s allegorical millennialism became the official doctrine of the church, and apocalypticism [expectation of the ultimate destruction of evil and triumph of good] went underground. . . . The Protestant Reformers of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions were not apocalypticists but remained firmly attached to the views of Augustine.”
Catholic and Protestant theologians mistakenly apply to all the righteous the heavenly hope held out in the Bible to a limited number of Christians called to rule with Christ as kings, priests and judges. (Rev. 20:4-6; Luke 22:28-30) These theologians offer their “faithful” a vague hope of “eternal felicity” in heaven. God’s purpose to have his will “done in earth, as it is in heaven” is totally absent from their expectations. (Matt. 6:10, Authorized Version) Yet the Bible offers the wonderful hope of eternal life, not only in heaven for a chosen few but also on earth for countless others. This twofold hope, closely related to Christ’s 1,000-year reign or millennium, will be discussed more fully in the two following articles.
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Tertullian believed that the kingdom of promise would be established and last for 1,000 years
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Origen shared Plato’s belief in an immortal soul, denying the 1,000-year reign over earth
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Augustine fused Greek philosophy with Bible teachings and held that there will be no millennium
Christians and the Millennial Hope
“Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.’—Matt. 6:10.
1. (a) How does Christendom speak of the millennial hope? (b) Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses not disturbed by this?
THE Roman Catholic Church and, indeed, most of the large, well-established Protestant religions never mention the millennial hope to churchgoers. They speak disdainfully of that hope as “millennialism,” and of those who share it as “millenarians.” But Jehovah’s Witnesses are not ashamed of this belief, for irrefutable historical facts show that the millennial hope was shared by the early Christians.
EARLY CHRISTIANS WERE CALLED “MILLENARIANS”
2. What do two encyclopedias state concerning belief in the millennium among the early Christians?
2 Referring to Christians who believe in the 1,000-year reign of Christ, the Encyclopedia Americana states: “Those who hold such views are called millenarians or chiliasts, and their tenet chiliasm (Gr. chilioi, 1,000). It is admitted on all sides that these views were, if not general, at least very common in the ancient church.” The French Encyclopædia Universalis informs us: “In Western Christendom millennialism was very active in Judeo-Christianity during the first three centuries. . . . Millennialism was very deep-rooted during the first centuries of Christianity.”
3, 4. (a) What indications are there that Christians did not have to await the Revelation before cherishing millennial hopes? (b) What may some claim about the millennial hope?
3 There is evidence that the hopes connected with the 1,000-year reign of Christ were shared by Christians even before the apostle John received the Revelation at the end of the first century C.E. By reading the Jewish prophets, they had received foregleams of the wonderful millennial hope given by Christ in Revelation, chapters 20 and 21. Interestingly, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1966 edition) confirms this, stating: “Among early Christians the idea of millenarianism . . . was derived chiefly from Jewish eschatological expectations [expectations concerning the ultimate destiny of mankind and the world].” On this same point the 30-volume New Encyclopædia Britannica (1977) has this to say: “In the Book of Revelation the assimilation of Jewish apocalypticism [expectation of the ultimate destruction of evil and triumph of good] to Christianity was completed. . . . During the first hundred years of Christian history [33-133 C.E.], this form of millenarianism, or chiliasm (from the Greek word for 1,000), was commonly taught and accepted within the church.”—Italics ours.
4 Some may retort: ‘Perhaps, but the millennial hope for these early Christians did not concern the earth. It was a heavenly hope.’ Yet, what do the historical facts and the Bible show? Let us see.
PARADISE ON EARTH STILL HOPED FOR
5, 6. According to various authorities, what views did first-century Christians hold?
5 There is an abundance of evidence that the early Christians never imagined that all the prophecies and promises in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the restoration of paradise on earth had been canceled out by the coming of Messiah or Christ. The Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique itself admits: “The origins of millennialism reach back beyond the Christian era. The belief in an earthly reign of the Messiah had its beginning in the hopes of Israel.”
6 In A History of Christianity, historian Kenneth Scott Latourette says of the early Christians who were hoping for the second coming of Christ: “Many held to the view that before the final end of history and the full accomplishment of God’s purpose in the perfect doing of His will, a hope which was common to all Christians, Christ would return, set up his kingdom on earth and reign for a thousand years. . . . The conception of an age or ages of a thousand years duration was not confined to Christians, but was also to be found in Judaism.”
7. What indicates that the early Christians did not confuse paradise with heaven?
7 Thus, there is cumulative evidence that the early Christians were “millenarians,” insofar as that name was applied to those who were hoping for the 1,000-year reign of Christ the Messiah. Jesus had revealed that he would rule from heaven, but he did not annul the original Messianic hope of the Jews, the restoration of paradise on earth during that millennium. Interestingly, the Catholic Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible admits that “in Jewish writings, as in early Christian literature, the word paradise is not usually synonymous with heaven.”—Italics ours.
CHRIST DID NOT ANNUL THE MILLENNIAL HOPE
8. (a) Of what was Jesus’ coming a guarantee? (b) How do the Scriptures show that paradise will be restored on earth?
8 In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) Or, as Today’s English Version renders the last sentence: “I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true.” Since Jesus came to make the teachings of the prophets come true, his coming was a guarantee that their prophecies concerning the restoration of paradise on earth would be fulfilled. Here are just a few: Psalms 37:11, 29; 72:1-8,16-19; 115:16; Isaiah 9:6, 7; 11:1-10; 45:18; Daniel 2:34, 35, 44, 45; 7:13, 14.
9. How does the Model Prayer link the Kingdom with the millennial hope?
9 Also in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus showed quite clearly that the earth is due to play a part in the outworking of the divine will or purpose. He taught his followers to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matt. 6:9, 10) He linked the accomplishment of God’s will on earth with the coming of God’s kingdom, which is none other than the Messianic kingdom. Hence, the Lord’s Prayer, repeated literally millions of times by Catholics and Protestants throughout the centuries, is, in fact, among other things, a prayer for the fulfillment of the Messianic promises tied in with the millennial hope.
THE MILLENNIAL HOPE FULLY REVEALED
10. (a) When and how did Jesus fully reveal the millennial hope? (b) What heartwarming details did he provide?
10 A quarter of a century after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. (which put an end to Jewish hopes of national deliverance by a political Messiah) Jesus, the true Messiah, fully revealed the true millennial hope. In his record of the Revelation that he received from God through Jesus Christ, the apostle John wrote:
“And 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 I saw thrones, and there were those who sat down on them, and power of judging was given them. . . . Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.
“And 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 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.’”—Rev. 20:1-6, Re 21:1-4.
A “SACRED SECRET” EXPLAINED
11. How did the millennial hope revealed by Jesus correspond with the original Messianic hope of the Jews?
11 Can you not see the resemblance between this description of the millennial reign of Christ and the original Messianic hope of the Jews, “the hope of an ideal Messianic future . . . the golden age of paradisiacal bliss . . . a world of perfect peace and harmony among all creatures . . . ‘new heavens and a new earth,’” to requote The Jewish Encyclopedia?*
12, 13. What shows that Jesus’ disciples were still expecting an earthly reign of the Messiah?
12 However, undeniably, there were important details concerning the Messianic kingdom that the Jews did not understand and that even the 12 apostles and other early disciples of Christ had difficulty in comprehending. Shortly after giving his Sermon on the Mount, in which he taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to take place on earth, as in heaven, Jesus said to his disciples: “To you the sacred secret of the kingdom of God has been given, but to those outside all things occur in illustrations.”—Mark 4:11.
13 Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus taught his disciples many things concerning the Messianic kingdom. In fact, even after his death and right up to the time he ascended to his heavenly Father he continued telling them “the things about the kingdom of God.” Yet, in spite of this, the very last question they put to him was: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”, thereby revealing that they were still expecting the Messiah to restore the fleshly kingdom of Israel. (Acts 1:3, 6) They were right in thinking that the Messianic kingdom concerned rulership, government, but they mistakenly thought that Messiah would reign on earth and that his government would be purely Jewish.
14. (a) What enabled Christ’s disciples to break free from their mistaken hope? (b) What important features of the “sacred secret” did the early Christians gradually come to understand?
14 Only after the outpouring of the holy spirit at Pentecost did Christ’s disciples break free from the concept of a nationalistic Messianic kingdom and come to comprehend new and important features of “the sacred secret of the kingdom of God.” One aspect of that “sacred secret” was that the Messiah would be a heavenly king and that his government would be located in heaven. (John 18:36; Acts 2:32-36; 1 Tim. 3:16) Other features of that “sacred secret”—truths new and revolutionary for faithful Jewish minds molded by the Scriptures and not by Greek philosophy—were that a limited number of humans would be chosen as “holy ones” to become associates with the Messiah in his kingdom, that these would reign with him in heaven, and that they would be chosen not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles or non-Jews.—Dan. 7:13, 14, 27; Luke 12:32; 22:28-30; John 14:1-3; Eph. 3:3-6; Col. 1:26, 27.
A REVOLUTIONARY NEW HOPE
15. Why was the very idea of going to heaven revolutionary for the faithful Jewish remnant?
15 All of this was something quite new. As we have already seen in the article “Origin of the Millennial Hope,” the Jews’ original Messianic hope was an earthly hope, and it was only under the influence of false religious traditions and philosophy that, very late in their history, some of them came to believe in an immortal soul. The faithful Jewish remnant that stuck to the inspired Hebrew Scriptures and accepted Jesus as the true Messiah certainly did not believe in inherent immortality. So for these the idea of a Messiah ruling the earth from heaven and of themselves becoming corulers with him in heaven was all the more revolutionary.
16. What did Peter write about this revolutionary new hope?
16 In a letter to early Christians who had received this very special call to become priests and kings with the heavenly Messiah, the apostle Peter wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for according to his great mercy he gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance. It is reserved in the heavens for you . . . But you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood.’”—1 Pet. 1:3, 4; 2:9.
17. How did Paul show that the call to life in heaven was something new?
17 The apostle Paul also wrote about this exceptional call to heavenly life, saying: “He saved us and called us with a holy calling . . . now it has been made clearly evident through the manifestation of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has abolished death but has shed light upon life and incorruption.” (2 Tim. 1:9, 10) If life in heaven had been the hope of the faithful remnant among the Jews, why did Christ have to “shed light” on this “holy calling” to incorruption? No, this call to heavenly life was clearly something quite new for these early Christians chosen from among the Jews and the Gentiles.
THE HEAVENLY HOPE FOR A LIMITED NUMBER OF “CHOSEN ONES”
18, 19. Explain how Paul’s second letter to Timothy and Peter’s first letter indicate that not all those who hope to live forever will be kings and priests with Christ in heaven. (Rev. 5:9, 10)
18 But do all those who accept Christ and hope to live forever receive this “holy calling” to incorruptible life in the heavens? Indicating that this special calling is meant for a limited number of ‘elect’ (Authorized Version) or “chosen ones,” Paul adds: “On this account I go on enduring all things for the sake of the chosen ones, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in union with Christ Jesus along with everlasting glory. Faithful is the saying: Certainly if we died together, we shall also live together; if we go on enduring, we shall also rule together as kings.”—2 Tim. 2:10-12.
19 If all who are saved are called to “everlasting glory” in order to “rule together as kings” with Christ Jesus, over whom are they due to rule? And if all are to become “a royal priesthood,” on behalf of whom are they to act as royal priests?
20. How do Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans show that the number of spiritual Israelites is limited?
20 Consider the following: In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says of Christians chosen from among Jews and non-Jews who have been “baptized into Christ” that they “are really Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise,” and he calls them “the Israel of God.” (Gal. 3:26-29; 6:16) And in his letter to the Romans, the same apostle speaks of the “sacred secret” of non-Jews being called by God because of the “lack of faith” of many Jews, adding—and this is a key passage—“until the full number [“complete number,” TEV] of people of the nations has come in.” He explains that “in this manner,” that is, by Gentiles being called to fill out the required number, “all Israel will be saved.” Obviously this refers to spiritual Israel, the “ones chosen” from among Jews and non-Jews who are “really ‘Israel’” or “truly Israel.”—Rom. 11:7, 17-26; 9:6 (The New English Bible); Ro 2:28, 29.
21. (a) How many spiritual Israelites are there? (b) What scripture proves that they are not chosen from among the angels?
21 Since non-Jews would receive this “holy calling” only until the “full number” was reached of those making up “the Israel of God,” logically the number of such spiritual Israelites is limited. Well, what is that number? Look up Revelation 7:1-8. There a definite limit is set on the number of Christians who are “sealed” to become a part of spiritual Israel. That this limited number is not chosen from among the angels is proved by Revelation 14:1-4, where this same number is said to be “bought from the earth,” “bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.”
22. For the 144,000, of what kind is their Bible-based hope?
22 For these 144,000 spirit-begotten, anointed Christians their Bible-based hope is a heavenly hope. After having part in “the first resurrection,” they “will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.”—Rev. 20:6.