Light for the Last Days

History of Church views on the Millennium.

The pre-millennial view was the expectation of the early church, as is testified by a number of sources. Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), author of ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, stated, ‘The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. … It was inferred that this long period of labour and contention would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of 1000 years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection. Though it might not be universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers.’ Gibbon was a historian trying to uncover the facts and was not sympathetic to Christianity, so his comments do not come with any bias of his own belief.

In his writing ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, Justin Martyr, who lived from approximately 100 to 165 AD, stated, ‘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 adorned, and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare. … 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 one thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general and in short the eternal resurrection and judgement of all men would take place.’ Justin’s use of the phrase ‘right minded Christians on all points’ indicates that this view of the Millennium was the prevailing one in his day. He also gives as his authority the Apostle John who was ‘with us’ (i.e. known to him).

This view began to lose influence in the third century of the Christian era with the teachings of the Greek theologian Origen who adopted an allegorical method of interpreting the prophets. In other words he taught that instead of speaking about a time when Jesus would literally rule the earth from Jerusalem and swords would be beaten into ploughshares, the prophecies indicate a spiritual kingdom in which Jesus would reign from heaven in the hearts of believers and there would be peace in their relationships with each other.

Augustine (354-430), also rejected the idea of a literal reign of the Messiah on the earth. In his book ‘City of God’ he wrote that the abyss into which Satan is cast in the Millennium (Revelation 20.1-3) is not a literal location. Instead he said, ‘By the abyss is meant the countless multitude of the wicked whose hearts are unfathomably deep in malignity against the Church of God.’ He said that the binding of Satan in the abyss ‘means his being unable to seduce the church.’ He was convinced that this binding of Satan in the abyss is a reality in this present Church age.

This teaching tied in with the Roman Catholic view of the Church ruling and reigning for Jesus in this age and the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth enforcing His will (i.e. ‘binding’ or preventing the influence of evil). Unfortunately far from Satan being ‘unable to seduce the church’, he ended up running the professing church as Romanism suppressed the true Gospel and real Christians were persecuted, along with the Jewish people.

With the Reformation there came a renewed interest in studying the Bible, but end time prophecy was not high on the agenda of the Reformers. Many of them tended to take on board the Roman Catholic view that the Millennium should be applied to the spiritual reign of Christ in the Church, not a future event to take place after His second coming. That is why today belief in the literal Millennium remains a minority view among Christians.

What will happen does not depend on what we believe, but on what God decrees. He is not going to let Satan have the last word in the affairs of this planet by making the reign of Antichrist and the Great Tribulation the end of the world. Rather He will show through the glorious thousand year reign of the Messiah just how wonderful life on this planet can be when God, not Satan and human sin, are in control. This prelude to the eternal state (Revelation 21-22) is something to look forward to as the days of this age become darker and the forces of evil become stronger.

Tony Pearce

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