Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 21 November 2008; Revised 12 December 2015
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Works by early church fathers are available online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library and Early Christian Writings.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
A significant area in which interpreters disagree about the Second Coming of Yeshua (Jesus) concerns the thousand years or millennium in Revelation Chapter Twenty. This subject has historically been such a matter of discussion and debate that three "camps" have developed. The key questions for all interpreters have to do with whether there will be a millennium, how long the millennium will last, where the millennium will occur, when the millennium will occur in relation to other eschatological events, and what moral, social, and political conditions will characterize the millennium. For some interpreters this period is symbolic, for others historical; for others possibly present and for others definitely future.
During the second and third three centuries chiliasm, based on the Greek word for "thousand" (now called premillennialism), was the dominant viewpoint among the church fathers. Chiliasm rested on two important pillars. First, the Second Coming and the resurrection would not occur until six thousand years of earth history had been completed. (See The Epistle of Barnabas, 15; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, 27:3; Julius Africanus, Five Books of Chronography, 1; Commodianus, Instructions, 80; Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 7:14; Hippolytus, On Daniel, 1:4.) This assumption was based on the statement of 2 Peter 3:8, "But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."
Peter’s words are set in the context of explaining the seeming delay of the Lord’s coming and thus the patristic writers interpreted Peter’s words as meaning that just as there were six days of creation so there would be a thousand years for each creation day, and then the Day of the Lord would usher in the seventh or Sabbath millennium. Buttressed by the application of 2 Peter 3:8 to history, the prophecy of a literal millennial reign of Yeshua on the earth became the second pillar.
Resting on these pillars the fathers believed they were living in the sixth millennium and fully expected Yeshua to come back in their lifetime. Hippolytus and Julius Africanus (both in the third century) asserted that the First Advent of Yeshua completed 5500 years from Creation, but were not perturbed with the thought that Messiah’s coming might not occur for a few more centuries. Lactantius (early 4th century) noted that those who studied chronologies had produced varying estimates of the number of years since creation, but he didn’t think more than two hundred years remained until the Lord’s coming (The Divine Institutes, 7:25).
The chiliast viewpoint was advocated by Papias, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Lactantius, Tertullian and the author of the Epistle of Barnabas. Methodius, Bishop of Olympus, one of the principal opponents of Origen at the beginning of the third century, upheld chiliasm in his Symposion (Book 9, 1:5). In the second half of the fourth century, the last of the church fathers to defend chiliasm was Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea. His writings on this subject have been lost; but Basil of Caesarea (Epistle 263:4), Epiphanius (Heresies, 70:36) and Jerome (On Isaiah, 18) testify to his having been a chiliast. Jerome also adds that many Christians of that time shared the same belief; but after that, chiliasm found no outspoken champion among the theologians of the Greek Church.
With very few exceptions these church fathers interpreted the millennium as a future 1,000-year period of peace and prosperity, which begins after Yeshua returns and establishes His Kingdom on the earth with His capital in Jerusalem. Justin Martyr (110-165) offers an example of the view of these early church chiliasts on the millennial reign of Yeshua,
"But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, (as) the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare. …We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ is connected with this subject. And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place." (Dialogue With Trypho the Jew, 80, 81)
Among the chiliasts there was much speculation as to the nature of Messiah’s kingdom during the millennium. Points of discussion included whether or not the earthly Jerusalem would be rebuilt, whether Yeshua would reign from earthly Jerusalem or the heavenly Jerusalem, whether the Jews would participate in Messiah’s kingdom and whether the lifestyle would be prosperous and pleasurable. Tertullian (145-220) favored Messiah’s reign headquartered in the divinely built Jerusalem let down from heaven (Against Marcion, Book 3, 25), but Justin Martyr favored the earthly rebuilt Jerusalem being the seat of Messiah’s throne. Papias (A.D. 70-155) anticipated an incredible reproductive ability of the new earth, saying,
"The days will come in which vines shall grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine." (Exposition on the Oracles of the Lord, 4)
Irenaeus (ca. 140-202) agreeing with Papias predicted the enjoyment of bountiful harvests of grain and grape (Against Heresies, Book 5, 33). He also took literally the prophecy of Isaiah 65:25 that promises a harmonious relationship between animals and man and restoration of the diet of Eden. However, Cerinthus, the first-century heretic, went a step further and depicted a millennium of enjoying all the carnal pleasures denied in this present life, for which he was appropriately and harshly criticized (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, 38).
The next viewpoint to develop on the millennium is called amillennialism, which originated, at least as a fully articulated system, in the fourth century. In his monumental treatise The City of God Augustine advocated a symbolic interpretation of Revelation, ridiculed the "six-thousand-year" view of history as "fanciful" and declared the Christian Church to be the Kingdom of God on earth, replacing Israel in God's plans and affections, and therefore the millennium corresponds to the present church age (20:7).
For amillenarians the thousand-year period in Revelation 20 became only a figurative term for the period between the first and second advent of Yeshua. The binding of Satan refers to Messiah’s victory over evil accomplished on the cross and the "first resurrection" represents the creation of spiritual life in the believer. Satan will be loosed for a brief time at the end of the present church age, but the wicked will be destroyed at the Second Coming symbolized by the fire from heaven in 20:9, which will be followed by the general resurrection, great white throne judgment, the new creation and the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. Victorinus, who wrote in the same century, accepted the amillenarian view of the church age, but held to the six-thousand-year view of history (ad. loc., 20:3).
The foundation for the kingdom theology of amillennialism had actually been laid by chiliasts in that theologians as early as Justin Martyr began engaging in anti-Jewish rhetoric. For him and other church fathers Israel had forfeited her covenant privileges by rejecting Yeshua as their Messiah and those benefits had been transferred to the (mostly Gentile) Church. The Church was the new Israel. If this was the case, then what happened to ethnic Israel was no longer of any consequence in God’s plan and the return of the Jews to their homeland was not even considered as possible, let alone necessary. Condescending attitudes, inflammatory rhetoric and prejudicial pronouncements against Jews, beginning early in the second century, were used by the Church to justify and then enforce institutional discrimination and even persecution of Jews. (See Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham, Chapter Seven, for the sordid history of anti-Judaism.)
Amillennialism remained dominant for a thousand years and still has many advocates in the modern era, although not all adherents necessarily subscribe to a strictly spiritual interpretation of Revelation as advocated by the church fathers. Amillenarians like Luther and Calvin followed the historicist method of interpretation and some modern amillenarians may take either the preterist or futurist approach to interpreting Revelation (Gregg 459). The distinguishing belief of amillenarians is that there is no literal thousand-year reign of Yeshua on the earth before or after His Second Coming.
Premillennialism has its roots in chiliasm, and as such believes that Messiah’s second coming occurs before the millennium. Many premillennialists take a mostly literal approach, and expect a period of one thousand years of Messiah's reign on the earth. At the end of this time, Satan's brief period of freedom will put humanity to one final test before the final judgment. Afterwards with all evil banished Messiah will commence his eternal reign. In contrast there are also many premillenarians who do not take the duration of the millennium literally, treating the term in Revelation 20 as merely symbolic of a long period.
A variation of the amillenarian position is the postmillenarian view, which holds that the world will come under God’s rule either by worldwide revival and evangelism or by instituting Christian ideals and values through Christian government, or both. Once this societal change occurs then the personal return of Yeshua will follow. Daniel Whitby (1638-1725) is often credited with founding the postmillenarian school of thought (Gregg 461) and many great evangelical leaders, such as Jonathan Edwards, have ascribed to the view (Gregg 28).
Modern postmillennialism has found a home in Christian Reconstructionism with R.J. Rushdoony as its chief intellectual leader. Christian Reconstruction teaches that God's Law will eventually be the norm in most of the world as the influence of Christianity steadily grows. God will send a spirit of repentance and revival to the world on a scale never seen before and Yeshua will triumph over His enemies by the power of His Word and His Spirit before coming to judge the world. They also do not believe that the millennium will last exactly 1,000 years, but that it will last for a long, but indefinite period of time.
While postmillennialism is advocated by sincere Christians, its assumptions are optimistic in the extreme and amount to wishful thinking. Like amillennialism and the more spiritual form of premillennialism, postmillennialism does not take Scriptural prophecy literally and thereby fails to convince.
The Teaching of Scripture
This writer believes in accepting the straightforward narrative of Revelation, which is entirely consistent with Yeshua’ teaching of the future found in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24). There are some good reasons for taking literally the length of the millennium and its occurrence after the Second Coming.
First, the reference to a thousand years occurs six times in seven verses of Revelation 20. Such repetition can only be a Divine insistence that attention be paid to the words. There is no evidence that the term "thousand years" was a colloquial expression in the first century for "a long time." The verses cited by advocates to support the symbolic view (Ps 90:4; 2Pet 3:8) actually treat "thousand years" in a literal sense; otherwise the contrast loses its force.
Second, Revelation 20 is the only place in Scripture that speaks of an intermediate reign of Yeshua lasting a thousand years on the earth. Although the apostolic writings describe the future Kingdom of God primarily as an eternal reign, Paul hints at an intermediate period of reigning in 1 Corinthians 15:25f, "For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death." Paul’s prophecy supports the Revelation account of the millennial reign by asserting that the Messiah’s reign occurs before the eternal kingdom commences and continues until His enemies, including death, have been completely conquered. Revelation speaks of death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire after the millennium reign concludes (20:14). Thus, the intermediate reign is completed with the abolition of death.
Third, in Revelation 22:5 the people of God reign with Yeshua forever, which reinforces the necessity of taking the previous time reference of the millennial reign literally. If "a thousand years" were symbolic of eternity, then how long would "forever" be? The word "thousand" must mean a specific time period for the narrative of an eternal kingdom to make any sense.
Fourth, in terms of sequence of events the millennium follows the Second Coming and the resurrection of the righteous as the Revelation narrative in chapter nineteen and twenty makes abundantly clear. If there is no actual millennium then there is no actual resurrection from the dead and the other blessings God promised His faithful servants are likewise meaningless.
Finally, Scripture demonstrates that the Lord has always planned in a specific manner. God told Noah how long he would have to build the ark before the global flood came (Gen 6:3). God told Abraham how long Israel would be in Egypt (Gen 15:13). God told Israel how long they would be in captivity to Babylon (Jer 25:11). God told Daniel how long it would be before Messiah would come (Dan 9:24-25). All these predictions were literally fulfilled. So, when God says that the righteous will reign with Yeshua on the earth for a thousand years after he returns, the reader can safely take his word at face value.
Gregg: Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.
Victorinus: Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau (d. 303 A.D.), Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John.
Copyright © 2008-2015 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.