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- This is an overview of both Christian and non-Christian Millennialism. For specific variants, see Premillennialism, Amillennialism, or Postmillennialism.
Millennialism (from millennium, Latin for "thousand years"), or chiliasm in Greek, is a belief held by some Christian denominations that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which "Christ will reign" for 1000 years prior to the final judgment and future eternal state (the "World to Come" of the New Heavens and New Earth). This belief is derived primarily from the Book of Revelation 20:1–6. Millennialism as such is a specific form of Millenarianism.
Among Christians who hold this belief, this is not the "end of the world", but rather the penultimate age, the age just prior to the end of Satan's worldwide system in anticipation of a New Heavens and a New Earth under Jehovah's (i.e., God's) kingdom reign (Rev. 21:1). Some believe that between the millennium proper and the end of the world there will be a brief period in which a final battle with Satan will take place. After this follows the Last Judgment.
Similarities to millennialism are found in Zoroastrianism. It held that there were successive thousand-year periods, each of which will end in a cataclysm of heresy and destruction, until the final destruction of evil and of the spirit of evil by a triumphant king of peace at the end of the final millennial age (supposed by some to be the year 2000). "Then Saoshyant makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur" (Zand-i Vohuman Yasht 3:62).
Various other social and political movements, both religious and secular, have also been linked to millennialist metaphors by scholars.
Early church and premillennialism (chiliasm)
If millenarian beliefs have fallen into disfavor in mainstream Christian theology today, this was not the case during the Early Christian centuries. At least during the first four centuries, millennialism was a well-known doctrine in both East and West. Tertullian, Commodian, Lactantius, Methodius, and Apollinaris of Laodicea all advocated premillennial doctrine. In addition, according to religious scholar the Rev. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee the following is true, "Justin's 'Occasional Chiliasm' sui generis which was strongly anti-pretribulationistic was followed possibly by Pothinus in A.D. 175 and more probably (around 185) by Irenaeus – although Justin Martyr, discussing his own premillennial beliefs in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Chapter 110, observed that they were not necessary to Christians:
- I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise."
Melito of Sardis is frequently listed as a second century proponent of premillennialism. The support usually given for the supposition is that Jerome [Comm. on Ezek. 36 ] and Gennadius [De Dogm. Eccl., Ch. 52] both affirm that he was a decided millenarian.”
- And 6,000 years must needs be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day "on which God rested from all His works." For the Sabbath is the type and emblem of the future kingdom of the saints, when they "shall reign with Christ," when He comes from heaven, as John says in his Apocalypse: for "a day with the Lord is as a thousand years." Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6, 000 years must be fulfilled (Hippolytus. On the HexaËmeron, Or Six Days' Work. From Fragments from Commentaries on Various Books of Scripture).
Around 220, there were some similar influences on Tertullian though only with very important and extremely optimistic (if not perhaps even postmillennial modifications and implications). On the other hand, 'Christian Chiliastic' ideas were indeed advocated in 240 by Commodian; in 250 by the Egyptian Bishop Nepos in his Refutation of Allegorists; in 260 by the almost unknown Coracion; and in 310 by Lactantius.
The first known opponent of Christian chiliasm was Marcion, in the 2nd century, who most Christians feel was an early heretic. The Catholic Encyclopedia noted that in the 2nd century proponents of "Gnosticism rejected millenarianism".
Chiliasm was, however, according to the interpretation of non-chiliasts, condemned as a heresy in the 4th century by the Church, which included the phrase whose Kingdom shall have no end in the Nicene Creed in order to rule out the idea of a Kingdom of God which would last for only 1000 literal years. Despite some writers' belief in millennialism, it was a decided minority view, as expressed in the nearly universal condemnation of the doctrine over a gradual period of time, beginning with Augustine of Hippo.
Millennialism is strongly rejected as a heresy by the Orthodox Church. In AD 230, the Synod of Iconium declared that baptisms performed by the Montanist sect were invalid. The Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 381 supported the Synod of Iconium and further declared millennialism to be a heresy.
Reformation and beyond
Christian views on the future order of events diversified after the Protestant reformation (c.1517). In particular, new emphasis was placed on the passages in the Book of Revelation which seemed to say that Satan would be locked away for 1000 years, but then released on the world in a final battle (Rev. 20:1–6). Previous Catholic and Orthodox theologians had no clear or consensus view on what this actually meant (only the concept of an end of the world coming unexpected, "like a thief in a night", and the concept of "the antichrist" were almost universally held). Millennialist theories try to explain what this "1000 years of Satan in chains" would be like.
Various types of millennialism exist with regard to Christian eschatology, especially within Protestantism, such as Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. The first two refer to different views of the relationship between the "millennial Kingdom" and Christ's second coming. Premillennialism sees Christ's second advent as preceding the millennium, thereby separating the second coming from the final judgment. In this view, "Christ's reign" will be physical. Postmillennialism sees Christ's second coming as subsequent to the millennium and consequent with the final judgment. In this view "Christ's reign" (during the millennium) will be spiritual in and through the church. Amillennialism basically denies a future literal 1000 year kingdom and sees the church age metaphorically described in Rev. 20:1–6 in which "Christ's reign" is current in and through the church.
The Catholic Church now strongly condemns millennialism as the following shows:
- The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism. (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Imprimatur Potest +Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Doubleday, NY 1995, p. 194).
A millennium is a period of one thousand years, and, in particular, Christ's thousand-year rule on this earth, either directly preceding or immediately following the Second Coming (and the Day of Judgment).
The millennium reverses the previous period of evil and suffering; it rewards the virtuous for their courage while punishing the evil-doers, with a clear separation of saints and sinners. The vision of a thousand-year period of bliss for the faithful, to be enjoyed here on earth ("heaven on earth"), exerted an irresistible power. Although the picture of life in the millennial era is almost willfully obscure and hardly more appealing than that of, say, the Golden Age, what has made the millennium much more powerful than the Golden Age or Paradise myths are the activities of the sects and movements that it has inspired. Throughout the ages, hundreds of sects were convinced that the millennium was imminent, about to begin in the very near future, with precise dates given on many occasions.
Premillennial sects look for signs of Christ's imminent return. Other chiliast sects, such as the prophetic Anabaptist followers of Thomas Müntzer, have believed that the millennium had already begun, with only their own members having realized this fact. Consequently, they have attempted to live out their own vision of millennial life, radically overturning the beliefs and practices of the surrounding society. In doing so, they offered a model of the good life and expressed their hope that soon the rest of the world would follow and live like they did.
The early Christian concept had ramifications far beyond strictly religious concern during the centuries to come, as it was blended and enhanced with ideas of utopia.
In the wake of early millennial thinking, the Three Ages philosophy (Drei-Reiche-Lehre) developed (see Three Eras). The Italian monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (died 1202) claimed that all of human history was a succession of three ages:
- the Age of the Father (the Old Testament)
- the Age of the Son (the New Testament)
- the Age of the Holy Spirit (the age begun when Christ ascended into heaven, leaving the Paraclete, the third person of the Holy Trinity, to guide)
It was believed that the Age of the Holy Spirit would begin at around 1260, and that from then on all believers would be living as monks, mystically transfigured and full of praise for God, for a thousand years until Judgment Day would put an end to the history of our planet.
In the Modern Era, some of the concepts of millennial thinking have found their way into various secular ideas, usually in the form of a belief that a certain historical event will fundamentally change human society (or has already done so). For example, the French Revolution seemed to many to be ushering in the millennial age of reason. Also, the philosophies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) carried strong millennial overtones. As late as 1970, Yale law teacher Charles A. Reich coined the term "Consciousness III" in his best seller The Greening of America, in which he spoke of a new age ushered in by the hippie generation. However, these secular theories generally have little or nothing to do with the original millennial thinking, or with each other.
There is a not dissimilar belief in Judaism. Time is split into 3 periods (1) The world started in year 1 (= 3761 BC), the epoch. For almost two thousand years there was nothing, most people were idolatrous and God's presence was not seen in the world. (2) In 1812 BC, 1948 in Jewish years, Abraham was born. The birth of the first forefather heralded two thousand years of Godliness. This is the period of the Bible, the first and second temples in Jerusalem etc. (3) In 70 AD the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and after the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews were barred from Jerusalem except for the day of Tisha B'av. This started a further two thousand years of non-Godliness. Some Jews believe that the Messiah must come before the end of this period, or by about 2270 AD.
In brief, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Christ will rule from heaven for 1,000 years as king over the earth, assisted by 144,000 holy ones. The principal purpose of this millennial reign is to resolve the question of who legitimately deserves to be sovereign of the Earth and of the universe. It also serves to finally accomplish the Creator's original purpose of an Earth populated by a peaceful, satisfied and loving human society, descendents from the first human couple Adam and Eve. This will happen after the destruction of the wicked at Armageddon.
Armageddon will be a decisive battle between two opposing forces: on one side, Christ Jesus together with the holy angels; in opposition, human governments and institutions (manipulated by wicked spirits) insistent on maintaining control over humanity. Unlike natural or manmade catastrophes, Christ and his angels will selectively destroy those humans deemed incorrigible. Planet Earth will be rid of greed, corruption, and all individuals and institutions who impenitently ruin the earth and impose misery on others. (Rev 16:16; 1 John 5:19; Matt 25:31–40)
Malevolent spiritual beings will be restrained and prevented from interfering in human affairs for the duration of Christ's reign. Free of untoward influences, the Witnesses see the 1,000 year reign as fulfillment of the Biblical promise of "New Heavens and a New Earth".
One aspect which differentiates Jehovah's Witnesses from other millennialists (such as Baptists, Church of God, Church of Christ, and other fundamentalist Christian groups) is the interpretation of 2 Peter 3:7, 13. Whereas the latter hold to a literal interpretation, namely that the planet Earth WILL be destroyed and replaced with another physical planet, Jehovah's Witnesses by contrast believe the language in 2 Peter 3:7 is figurative. Hence their understanding is that the literal planet Earth WILL NOT be destroyed but instead, the existing framework of human society, which includes greedy commerce, divisive religions and corrupt governments.
Christ's kingdom consists of those who govern (from heaven) and those who are governed (on earth). This government will accomplish in the comparatively short timespan of 1,000 years all the things human governments and institutions have promised (but failed to deliver) during thousands of years of rule, while experimenting every form of government imaginable. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, will be the 'head of state', or King officially designated by God. In turn, he will delegate authority to 144,000 select individuals, individually chosen by Jehovah from among humanity. Those chosen have already proven their complete allegiance to Jehovah God and to His legitimate right to govern. The first to be promised this privilege were the faithful apostles of Jesus Christ in the 1st century C.E. The rulers will be loving and fair, always intent on the common good of everyone.
On the earth, those who are kept safe through that 'great tribulation' (Matt 24:21; Rev 7:9) and the subsequent destruction of the world ruled by Satan the Devil will be ushered into a just, peaceful, and equitable earthwide society of humans. During the millennium, Christ will use his power to cure every sort of sickness (Rev 22:17), malady, and infirmity. Ultimately everyone who accepts living by Jehovah God's righteous standards (Exodus 20:1–17) will attain perfect health. Guided by the heavenly government, humans will work to progressively establish an earthwide paradise (Matt 19:27,28). Hunger and poverty will be completely eliminated (Rev 21:1–5).
Humans who died during all prior human history (but who were not deemed incorrigible) will be resurrected (or recreated) on the earth during the 1,000 years. These will have the opportunity to fully integrate into society (Isaiah 65:17).
At the culmination of the millennium, Christ will cede control of planet Earth to his Father Jehovah (1 Cor 15:28) and will himself acknowledge and accept Jehovah's right to rule (or sovereignty). The restraints on wicked spirit creatures will be removed and all humanity will face a test. With full understanding, each human must individually choose whether to accept or reject God's right to rule, his sovereignty. Those humans and (previously restrained) spirit creatures who reject rule by Jehovah God, showing themselves to be menaces to human society and the remainder of the universe, will be completely and permanently eliminated. For any of these who may have been resurrected, this will literally be a "second" death. Thereafter, obedient humankind will live forever on the earth and Jehovah God's original purpose for the earth will be accomplished. (Gen 1:28)
The most controversial interpretation of the Three Ages philosophy and of millennialism in general is Adolf Hitler's "Third Reich" ("Drittes Reich"), which in his vision would last for a thousand years to come ("Tausendjähriges Reich"), but which ultimately only lasted for 12 years (1933–1945).
The phrase "Third Reich", which eventually became a catchphrase that survived the Nazi regime, was originally coined by the German thinker Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who in 1923 published a book titled Das Dritte Reich. Looking back at German history, he distinguished two separate periods, and identified them with the ages of Joachim of Fiore:
- the Holy Roman Empire (beginning with Charlemagne in AD 800) – (the "First Reich") – The Age of the Father and
- the German Empire – under the Hohenzollern dynasty (1871–1918) (the "Second Reich") – The Age of the Son.
- the "Third Reich" – The Age of the Holy Ghost.
Although van den Bruck was unimpressed by Hitler when he met him in 1922 and did not join the Nazi Party, the phrase was nevertheless adopted by the Nazis to describe the totalitarian state they wanted to set up when they gained power, which they succeeded in doing in 1933. Later, however, the Nazi authorities banned the informal use of "Third Reich" throughout the German press in the summer of 1939, instructing it to use more official terms such as "German Reich", "Greater German Reich", and "National Socialist Germany" exclusively.
During the early part of the Third Reich many Germans also referred to Hitler as being the German Messiah, especially when he conducted the Nuremberg Rallies, which came to be held at a date somewhat before the Autumn Equinox in Nuremberg, Germany.
In a speech held on 27 November 1937, Hitler commented on his plans to have major parts of Berlin torn down and rebuilt:
- [...] einem tausendjährigen Volk mit tausendjähriger geschichtlicher und kultureller Vergangenheit für die vor ihm liegende unabsehbare Zukunft eine ebenbürtige tausendjährige Stadt zu bauen [...].
- [...] to build a millennial city adequate [in splendour] to a thousand year old people with a thousand year old historical and cultural past, for its never-ending [glorious] future [...]
After Adolf Hitler's unsuccessful attempt to implement a thousand-year-reign, the Vatican issued an official statement that millennial claims could not be safely taught and that the related scriptures in Revelation (also called the Apocalypse) should be understood spiritually. Catholic author Bernard LeFrois wrote:
- Millenium [sic]: Since the Holy Office decreed (July 21, 1944) that it cannot safely be taught that Christ at His Second Coming will reign visibly with only some of His saints (risen from the dead) for a period of time before the final and universal judgment, a spiritual millennium is seen in Apoc. 20:4–6. St. John gives a spiritual recapitulation of the activity of Satan, and the spiritual reign of the saints with Christ in heaven and in His Church on earth.
The Theosophist Alice A. Bailey taught that Christ (in her books she refers to the powerful spiritual being best known by Theosophists as Maitreya as The Christ or The World Teacher, not as Maitreya) would return “sometime after AD 2025”, and that this would be the New Age equivalent of the Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ. Alice A. Bailey stated that St. Germain (referred to by Alice A. Bailey in her books as The Master Rakoczi or The Master R.) is the manager of the executive council of the Christ. According to Alice A. Bailey, when Christ returns, he will stay the entire approximately 2,000 years period of the Age of Aquarius, and thus the New Age equivalent of the Millennial Age, when Maitreya will reign as the spiritual leader of Earth as the Messiah who will bring World Peace, will not be just a single millennium but will be the Aquarian bimillennium.
Millennial social movements are a specific form of Millenarianism that are based on some concept of a one thousand year cycle. Sometimes the two terms are used as synonyms, but this is not entirely accurate for a purist. Millennial social movements need not be religious, but they must have a vision of an apocalypse that can be utopian or dystopian.
- Theology Today, January 1996, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 464–476. On-line version here.
- The Works of Rev. Prof. Dr. F.N. Lee
- Dialogue with Trypho (Chapters 80–81)
- Taylor, Voice of the Church, P. 66; Peters, Theocratic Kingdom, 1:495; Walvoord, Millennial Kingdom, p. 120; et al.
- Richard Cunningham Shimeall, Christ's Second Coming: Is it Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial? (New York: John F. Trow, 1865), p. 67. See also, Taylor, p. 66; Peters, 1:495; Jesse Forest Silver, The Lord’s Return (New York, et al.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1914), p. 66; W. Chillingworth, The Works of W. Chillingworth, 12th ed. (London: B. Blake, 1836), p.714; et al.
- Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, p. 65
- Kirsch J.P. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon. Millennium and Millenarianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
- Luke 1:33 and Stuart Hall, Doctrine and Practice of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 171.
- Schmitz-Berning, Cornelia (2000). Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 10875 Berlin, pp. 159–160. (in German) 
- LeFrois, Bernard J. Eschatological Interpretation of the Apocalypse. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XIII, pp. 17–20; Cited in Culleton RG. The Reign of Antichrist, 1951. Reprint TAN Books, Rockford (IL), 1974, p. 9
- Bailey, Alice A. The Externalisation of the Hierarchy New York:1957 Lucis Publishing Co. Page 530
- Bailey, Alice A. The Reappearance of the Christ New York:1948 Lucis Publishing Co.
- Bailey, Alice A. The Externalisation of the Hierarchy New York: 1957 – Lucis Press (Compilation of earlier revelations by Alice A. Bailey) Page 508
- Barkun, Michael. Disaster and the Millennium (Yale University Press, 1974) (ISBN 0-300-01725-1)
- Case, Shirley J. The Millennial Hope, The University of Chicago Press, 1918.
- Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, (2nd ed. Yale U.P., 1970).
- Desroches, Henri, Dieux d'hommes. Dictionnaire des messianismes et millénarismes de l'ère chrétienne, The Hague: Mouton, 1969,
- Ellwood, Robert. "Nazism as a Millennialist Movement", in Catherine Wessinger (ed.), Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (Syracuse University Press, 2000). (ISBN 0-8156-2809-9 or ISBN 0-8156-0599-4)
- Fenn, Richard K. The End of Time: Religion, Ritual, and the Forging of the Soul (Pilgrim Press, 1997). (ISBN 0-8298-1206-7 or ISBN 0-281-04994-7)
- Kaplan, Jeffrey. Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse University Press, 1997). (ISBN 0-8156-2687-8 or ISBN 0-8156-0396-7)
- Landes, Richard. Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (2011)
- Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come: A study in Biblical Eschatology(Zondervan, 1958) ISBN 0-310-30890-9 and ISBN 978-0-310-30890-4.
- Redles, David. Hitler's Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York University Press, 2005). (ISBN 978-0-8147-7621-6 or ISBN 978-0-8147-7524-0)
- Stone, Jon R., ed. Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy (Routledge, 2000). (ISBN 0-415-92331-X)
- Wessinger, Catherine. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism (Oxford University Press, 2011) 768 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-530105-2 online review
- Wistrich, Robert. Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy (St. Martin’s Press, 1985). (ISBN 0-312-38819-5)