11.9. The Millennial Kingdom in the Early Church

Some have tried to malign premillennialism by suggesting that it is a relatively novel development of recent times—that it is not a view which finds support among the early Church. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in the earliest church, prior to the time of Augustine and Roman Catholicism, premillennialism was the dominant view of the Church. While we do not determine the truth of doctrine from the views of Church Fathers, it can be helpful to study their views to see how different areas of doctrine developed or what caused them to die away or change. In the case of belief in a literal, earthly kingdom, it is particularly interesting to see that the earliest Fathers for which we have record—even those who were only a generation or two away from our beloved John whose book we are studying—held to the same basic view premillennialists espouse. They interpreted God’s promises literally and understood a coming kingdom of God on earth which did not correspond with the Church age. The premillennial view was the first view of the Church:

The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius; while Caius, Origen, Dionysius the Great, Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustine) opposed it. . . . It distinguishes, moreover, two resurrections, one before and another after the millennium, and makes the millennial reign of Christ only a prelude to his eternal reign in heaven, from which it is separated by a short interregnum of Satan. The millennium is expected to come not as the legitimate result of a historical process but as a sudden supernatural revelation. The advocates of this theory appeal to the certain promises of the Lord, but particularly to the hieroglyphic passage of the Apocalypse, which teaches a millennial reign of Christ upon this earth after the first resurrection and before the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. In connection with this the general expectation prevailed that the return of the Lord was near, though uncertain and unascertainable as to its day and hour, so that believers may be always ready for it. This hope, through the whole age of persecution, was a copious fountain of encouragement and comfort under the pains of that martyrdom which sowed in blood the seed of a bountiful harvest for the church.1

The most explicit reference in Scripture to the thousand-year millennial reign of Christ is found in Revelation Rev. 20:1+. It is a significant fact that the early adherents of premillennialism (or chiliasm, as it was first called), either had direct contact with John, the longest living apostle, or with his most famous disciple Polycarp. . . . Papias (ca. 60-130), one of the earliest premillennialists, has been called by some the “father of millenarianism.” Irenaeus affirmed that Papias was “the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp.” Papias furnished the earliest extra-biblical witness to the millennial doctrine taught by the Apocalypse.2

The premillennial fathers of the ante-Nicene age included church leaders who were contemporary with and in some cases instructed by the apostles and those who were in turn their disciples . . . In this group are: Clement (fl. ca. 90-100), bishop of Rome; Papias (ca. 60-ca. 130/155), bishop of Hierapolis; Polycarp (ca. 70-155/160), bishop of Smyrna; and Ignatius (d. ca. 98/117), bishop of Antioch. . . . Premillennialists of the second century included the apologist Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165); the polemicists Irenaeus (ca. 120-ca. 202), bishop of Lyons, and his disciple Hippolytus (d. ca. 236), presbyter and teacher in Rome; and from the African school, Tertullian (150-225), apologist, moralist, and theologian.3

Dr. Whitby (Treatise on Tradition) gives us the following often-quoted statement: “The doctrine of the Millennium, or the reign of the saints on earth for a thousand years, is now rejected by all Roman Catholics, and by the greatest part of Protestants; and yet it passed among the best Christians, for two hundred and fifty years, for a tradition apostolical; and, as such, is delivered by many Fathers of the second and third century, who speak of it as the tradition of our Lord and His apostles, and of all the ancients who lived before them; who tell us the very words in which it was delivered, the Scriptures which were then so interpreted; and say that it was held by all Christians that were exactly orthodox. It was received not only in the Eastern parts of the Church, by Papias (in Phrygia), Justin (in Palestine), but by Irenaeus (in Gaul), Nepos (in Egypt), Apollinaris, Methodius (in the West and South), Cyprian, Victorinus (in Germany), by Tertullian (in Africa), Lactantius (in Italy), and Severus, and by the Council of Nice” (about A.D. 323).4

George E. Ladd (Crucial Questions About The Kingdom of God [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1952] 23) forcefully concludes, “With one exception [Caius] there is no Church Father before Origen who opposed the millenarian interpretation, and there is no one before Augustine whose extant writings offer a different interpretation of Rev. Rev. 20:1-15+ than that of a future earthly kingdom consonant with the natural interpretation of language.”5

All three of these fathers of the Western church, Cyprian, Hippolytus, and Victorinus, subscribed to the millenarian doctrine.6

Among those who can be cited [in support of chiliasm in the third century] are Cyprian (200-258), Commodian (200-270), Nepos (230-280), Coracion (230-280), Victorinus (240-303), Methodius (250-311), and Lactantius (240-330).7

Alas, the solid foundation of literal interpretation was about to suffer a devastating setback in the wedding of Church and state. With The Rise of Allegorical Interpretation and the accommodation of Christianity by the state, belief in a literal kingdom on earth faded into the long night of unsound interpretation which was to last over a thousand years—all the way to the Reformation. The worldly success of the Church as it came into power did not jibe with an expectation of future Tribulation or the need to await the physical presence of the King to inaugurate the kingdom. The idea arose that the “rod of iron” which was to be Messiah’s rule (Rev. Rev. 2:27+; Rev. 19:15+; Rev. 20:4+) was to be found in the rule of the Church in this present age. Two powerful forces, allegorical interpretation and the state Church, combined to produce a steady decline in the ranks of literal interpreters:

The papacy is a false anticipation of the kingdom during the Church-historical period. “When Christianity became a worldly power under Constantine, the hope of the future was weakened by the joy over present success” [Bengel]. Becoming a harlot, the Church ceased to be a bride going to meet her Bridegroom; thus millennial hopes disappeared.8

With the rising popularity of the allegorical method, belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ reached a crossroads in the middle of the third century. The Egyptian bishop Coracion, Neops’s successor, buckled under pressure from Alexandria and abandoned the premillennialism of his mentor . . . And Hippolytus, the pupil of Irenaeus, wavered in his stance as well. . . . By the time the literal method of interpretation reached its apex in the school at Antioch, premillennialism was virtually dead. Even though literalism naturally leads to a belief in premillennialism and the Antiochene school emphasized that interpretive approach to Scripture, the doctrine was not resurrected or advanced by Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350-428), Chrysostom (354-407), or Theodoret (386-458), the school’s three most prominent teachers.9

In summary, millenarianism remained a normative doctrine during the first four centuries of the Christian era. It was not overthrown until Augustine brought together the concepts of the Church and the kingdom of Christ in such a way as to almost equivocate the two. However, two important factors had already set the stage for the transformation of the eschatological hope of a messianic kingdom into an ecclesiastical theocracy. Since the time of Justin, the prospect of an earthly messianic kingdom had become an altogether Christian hope, to the exclusion of ethnic Israel’s eschatological hope. The other factor was the widespread use made of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. [emphasis added]10

It was only in the era of the Reformation (A.D. 1500s), when the darkness of allegorical interpretation began to be shaken off, that the dawn began in a return to a literal understanding of the Scriptures. Even then, sound interpretation was mainly applied to areas of doctrine other than eschatology. The study of “last things” had to wait several hundred more years before the same consistency of interpretation was extended to the study of prophecy. Below, we offer a sampling of the testimony of the early Church concerning a belief in a literal, earthly Millennial Kingdom to come. Their writings clearly establish the expectation of a Kingdom on earth at Christ’s return as the earliest view of the Church and one which we would do well to embrace since it reflects a plain reading of the text.

The Millennial Voice of the Early Church
FatherDate (A.D.)Millennial View
Barnabas1st cent. “Among the Apostolic Fathers Barnabas is the first and the only one who expressly teaches a pre-millennial reign of Christ on earth. He considers the Mosaic history of the creation a type of six ages of labor for the world, each lasting a thousand years, and of a millennium of rest; since with God ‘one day is as a thousand years.’ The millennial Sabbath on earth will be followed by an eighth and eternal day in a new world, of which the Lord’s Day (called by Barnabas ‘the eighth day’) is the type.”11 While the seventh millennial day theory is not taught in Scripture, it is significant that the basic understanding of this early writing is that of a literal thousand-year reign on earth at the end of the age.12
Hippolytus c.170-c.23613 “In common with Justin and Irenaeus, Hippolytus entertains millenarian hopes, which he grounds on Rev. Rev. 20:1+.”14
Irenaeus c.130-c.20015 “Irenaeus wrote the following concerning the blessings of the future Kingdom of God foretold in the Scriptures: ‘The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth: as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times.’ ”16 “Irenaeus stated in even stronger terms than Justin that the premillennial doctrine was ‘traditional orthodoxy.’ He spoke of ‘certain orthodox person’ whose opinions were ‘derived from heretical sources,’ and asserted that ‘they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom.’ ”17 “Irenaeus, on the strength of tradition from St. John and his disciples, taught that after the destruction of the Roman empire, and the brief raging of antichrist (lasting three and a half years or 1260 days), Christ will visibly appear, will bind Satan, will reign at the rebuilt city of Jerusalem with the little band of faithful confessors and the host of risen martyrs over the nations of the earth, and will celebrate the millennial sabbath of preparation for the eternal glory of heaven; then, after a temporary liberation of Satan, follows the final victory, the general resurrection, the judgment of the world, and the consummation in the new heavens and the new earth.”18
Jerome331-42019 Jerome was opposed to a literal, earthly kingdom: “The saints will in no wise have an earthly kingdom, but only a celestial one; thus must cease the fable of one thousand years.”20 Even so, Jerome admitted the premillennial view was held by many: “The evidence in favor of the general perpetuation of the doctrine is strengthened by the concessions of those who were among the first and most bitter opposers. Thus e.g. Jerome (Com. on Jes., 19:10), says: ‘that he durst not condemn the (Millennial) doctrine, because many ecclesiastical persons and martyrs affirm the same.’ ”21
Justin Martyr c.100-16522 “But I and whoever are at all points right-minded Christians know that there will be a resurrection of the dead a thousand years in Jerusalem which will then be built, adorned, enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare. And further, a certain man among us by the name of John predicted by revelation that was made to him that those who believe in our Christ would spend a thousand years in Jerusalem and thereafter the general of us. . . the eternal resurrection and judgement of all men would likewise take place.”23
Lactantius240-c.32024 “Lactantius wrote. . . ‘At the end of the six thousanth year, all evil be abolished from the earth, and that justice reign for a thousand years, and that there be tranquility and rest from the labors which the world is now enduring for so long. . . When He shall have destroyed injustice and made the great judgment and restored to life those who were just from the beginning, He will stay among men for a thousand years and will rule them with a just dominion. . . Then those who will be living in bodies will not die, but will generate an infinite multitude during those same thousand years, . . .Those who will be raised from the dead will be in charge of the living as judges. . . . At this same time, also, the prince of demons who is the contriver of all eviles [sic] will be found in chains, and he will be in custody for the thousand years.’ ”25
Papias c.60-c.13026 “[Papias] has recorded other accounts as having come to him from unwritten tradition, certain strange parables of the Lord and teachings of his and some other statements of a more mythical character. . . . Among other things he says that there will be a period of a thousand years after the resurrection of the dead when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth. These ideas, I suppose, he got through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not realizing that the things recorded in figurative language were spoken by them mystically—Eusebius, Church History 3:39.”27
Tertullian c.160-c.22028 “In a work which he wrote before his association with Montanism, Tertullian stated, ‘But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years.’ Then he wrote ‘After its thousand years are over. . .there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgments.’ ”29 “Tertullian was an enthusiastic Chiliast, and pointed not only to the Apocalypse, but also to the predictions of the Montanist prophets. But the Montanists substituted Pepuza in Phrygia for Jerusalem, as the centre of Christ’s reign, and ran into fanatical excesses, which brought chiliasm into discredit, and resulted in its condemnation by several synods in Asia Minor.”30
Victorinusdied c.30431 “Victorinus held firmly by the chiliastic interpretation of Rev. Rev. 20:1+.”32 “After Tertullian, and independently of Montanism, chiliasm was taught by Commodian towards the close of the third century, Lactantius, and Victorinus of Petau, at the beginning of the fourth.”33


Notes

1 Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997, 1916), 2.XII.158.

2 Larry V. Crutchfield, “Revelation in the New Testament,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 24.

3 Larry V. Crutchfield, “Millennial Views of the Church Fathers,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 256.

4 George H. N. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1978, 1884), 1:482-483.

5 James F. Stitzinger, “The Rapture in Twenty Centuries of Biblical Interpretation,” in Richard L. Mayhue, ed., The Master’s Seminary Journal, vol. 13 no. 2 (Sun Valley, CA: The Master’s Seminary, Fall 2002), 153n19.

6 Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 27.

7 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), 123.

8 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 20:5.

9 Crutchfield, “Millennial Views of the Church Fathers,” 258.

10 Ronald E. Diprose, Israel and the Church: The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theology (Rome, Italy: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000), 159.

11 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2.XII.158.

12 “The tradition was based on : (1) the six days of creation followed by a seventh day of rest (Gen. Gen. 2:1); (2) the Sabbath rest concept found in Hebrews (see Heb. Heb. 3:11; Heb. 4:1, Heb. 4:3, Heb. 4:5, Heb. 4:8-9, Heb. 4:11); and (3) the belief that in biblical chronology a day could represent a thousand years (2Pe. 2Pe. 3:8; Ps. Ps. 90:4). Many of the fathers understood these passages to teach by analogy and in prophetic symbolism that the world would endure for a period of six thousand years (represented by six days of Creation) and would then experience a seventh day of rest (represented by seventh day of rest following Creation). . . . While the year-day tradition was held by Jews and others before the church age, the Epistle of Barnabas (composed ca. A.D. 70/117-138) marked the beginning of the year-day tradition in Christian literature.”—Larry V. Crutchfield, “Millennial Year-Day Tradition,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 265.

13 Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986).

14 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 1906), cciv.

15 John D. Woodbridge, ed., Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago, IL: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 43.

16 Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990), 122.

17 Couch, A Bible Handbook to Revelation, 24.

18 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2.XII.158.

19 [Woodbridge, Great Leaders of the Christian Church, 77]. The opposition of Jerome correlates to his relatively later date in history, when allegorical interpretation was gaining dominance.

20 Jerome in Robert E. Lerner, “The Medieval Return to the Thousand-Year Sabbath,” in Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn, eds., The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, pp. 38-50, cited in [Thomas Ice and Timothy J. Demy, The Return (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 58].

21 Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:484.

22 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History.

23 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 1.LXXX.239.

24 Britannica CD 99 Multimedia Edition, s.v. “Lactantius.”

25 Showers, There Really Is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology, 124-126.

26 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History.

27 J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 315.

28 Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History.

29 Showers, There Really Is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology, 124.

30 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2.XII.158.

31 Ibid., 1.XII.83.

32 Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, ccv.

33 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2.XII.148.