Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism
by Charles E. Hill
Chiliasm is the ancient name for what today is known as premillennialism, the belief that when Jesus Christ returns he will not execute the last judgment at once, but will first set up on earth a temporary kingdom, where resurrected saints will rule with him over non-resurrected subjects for a thousand years of peace and righteousness.1 To say that the Church “rejected chiliasm” may sound bizarre today, when premillennialism is the best known eschatology in Evangelicalism. Having attached itself to funda-mentalism, chiliasm in its dispensationalist form has been vigorously preached in pulpits, taught in Bible colleges and seminaries, and successfully promoted to the masses through study Bibles, books, pamphlets, charts, and a host of radio and television ministries. To many Christians today, premillennialism is the very mark of Christian orthodoxy. But there was a period of well over a “millennium” (over half of the Church’s history), from at least the early fifth century until the sixteenth, when chiliasm was dormant and practically non-existent. Even through the Reformation and much of the post-Refor-mation period, advocates of chiliasm were usually found among fringe groups like the Münsterites. The Augsburg Confession went out of its way to condemn chiliasm (Art. XVII, “Of Christ’s Return to Judgment”), and John Calvin criticized “the chiliasts, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years” (Institutes 3.25.5). It was not until the nineteenth century that chiliasm made a respectable comeback, as a favorite doctrine of Christian teachers who were promoting revival in the face of the deadening effects of encroaching liberalism.
But how are we to view the Church’s earliest period up until the first decisive rejection of chiliasm in the Church? By most accounts this was the heyday of chiliastic belief in the Church. Many modern apologists for premillennialism allege that before the time of Augustine chiliasm was the dominant, if not the “universal” eschatology of the Church, preserving the faith of the apostles.2 Some form of chiliasm was certainly defended by such notable names as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century and Tertullian of Carthage in the third. How and why then did this view finally fall into disrepute?
The answer given by modern premillennial apologists usually suggests that premillennialism was overcome for illegitimate reasons. They cite the rise of an unbiblical and dangerous allegorical hermeneutic (by such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen) which took a sad toll on sound biblical exegesis. They explain that the prophetic excesses of the Montanists gave chiliasm a bad name. They note that the peace of Constantine led the Church to the false belief that the millennium had already arrived. And, finally, they suggest that the authoritative repudiation of chiliasm by Augustine, who formerly had held such a belief, “put the nails in the coffin” of premillennialism.
But are these the real factors?
The hermeneutical question is indeed an important one, but to put the debate in terms of literal against allegorical is overly simplistic. Both sides used literal exegesis and both used allegorical exegesis when they deemed it best. For example, despite Origen’s intentional use of the allegorical method, his essential critique of chiliasm had real theological and traditional motivations. These motivations were not his alone but belonged to large segments of the Church. The early Montanists, it turns out, were not chiliasts and were never criticized for being so.3 Tertullian, who became a Montanist, did not get his chiliasm from them, but from Irenaeus. There is no evidence that chiliasm was hurt by any association with Montanism. By the time Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, a non-chiliastic eschatology was surely the norm in most places, and in many it had been so ever since Christianity had arrived there. Many signs thus tell us that even without the aid of Augustine, chiliasm was probably in its death-throes by the time he wrote the last books of The City of God in a.d. 42026.
So why did the Church reject chiliasm? As with most historical questions, the answers are complex and have social as well as hermeneutical and theological aspects. It would take a long time to compare and evaluate the exegesis of individual biblical passages by a number of given authors. One common criticism, however, can serve as a convenient organizer for what are probably the most important factors in chiliasm’s demise. That common criticism, known from Origen to the Augsburg Confession and beyond, is that chiliasm is a “Jewish” error.4 This criticism is open to grave misunderstanding today if one views it as part of the Church’s shameful legacy of anti-Semitism. But this is not what lay at the base of such criticism of chiliasm as “Jewish.” Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his apostles. “Salvation is of the Jews,” Jesus said, and all the Church fathers knew and agreed with this. There is no embarrassment at all in something being “Jewish” and the ancient and honorable tradition of the Jews, in monotheism, morals, and the safeguarding of Holy Scripture, is something Christian leaders always prized.
Another modern misunderstanding of this criticism must also be avoided. Certain current forms of premillennialism, particularly dispensationalism, might seem “Jewish” to some because they promise that the kingdom of God will be restored to ethnic Jews as the just fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Abraham and his descendants. But this was not the case with ancient Christian chiliasm. The New Testament’s revelation of the Church as the true Israel and heir of all the promises of God in Christ was too well-established and too deeply ingrained in the early Christian consciousness for such a view to have been viable. Ancient Church chiliasts like Irenaeus did indeed argue that some of God’s promises to Israel had to be fulfilled literally in a kingdom on earth, but they recognized that the humble recipients of this kingdom would be spiritual Israel, all who confessed Jesus as God’s Messiah, regardless of their national or ethnic origin.5 Ancient chiliasm was not criticized because it “favored” the Jews as having a distinct, blessed future apart from Gentile Christians.
What then did critics mean by calling chiliasm “Jewish”? Their use of the label meant “non-Christian Jewish,” or even, “anti-Christian Jewish.” These early critics believed that chiliasm represented an approach to biblical religion that was sub-Christian, essentially failing to reckon with the full redemptive implications of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. They saw it as an under-realized, a not-fully-Christian, eschatology. We can outline at least three aspects of this criticism.
Its Sources Were Non-Christian Jewish Sources
First, critics of chiliasm point out that Christian chiliasts got their chiliasm not so much from the apostles as from non-Christian Jewish sources.6Irenaeus cites a tradition from a book written by Papias of Hierapolis about the millennial kingdom.7 The tradition purports to reproduce Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom as related through the Apostle John to those who remembered the latter’s teaching. It is the famous report about each grapevine in the kingdom having ten thousand branches, each branch ten thousand twigs, each twig ten thousand shoots, each shoot ten thousand clusters, and each cluster ten thousand grapes, etc., with talking grapes, each one anxious that the saints would bless the Lord through it.8 As it turns out, this account seems to be a development of a tradition recorded in the Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch in its account of the Messiah’s earthly kingdom (Ch. 29).
Some scholars note that the chiliasm of Justin, though it derives the number 1,000 from Revelation 20, springs more from a certain approach to Old Testament exegesis (particularly on Is. 65:17-25) than from the eschatology of Revelation.9 And this approach is in basic agreement with that of Trypho, his Jewish interlocutor. This is in keeping with the role chiliasm plays in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, where it functions as part of an apologetic which sought to claim everything Jewish for Christianity. The issue of the fulfillment of the prophets’ predictions of glory for Israel was very much a part of the atmosphere of the discussion between these representatives of Christianity and Judaism, for their encounter took place not long after the failed attempt by Bar Cochba to take Jerusalem back from the Romans (a.d. 13235).
Chiliasm Was “Jewish” in its View of the Saints’ Afterlife
Second, we now know that early chiliast and non-chiliast Christian eschatologies had to do with more than an expectation of a temporary, earthly kingdom, or lack thereof. They encompassed other beliefs about eschatology. It may seem curious to us today, but the ancient Christian chiliasts defended a view of the afterlife in which the souls of the righteous did not go immediately to God’s presence in heaven at the time of death, but went instead to a subterranean Hades. Here souls, in refreshment and joyful contemplation, waited for the resurrection and the earthly kingdom before they could enter the presence of God.10 The only ones exempted from Hades were men like Enoch and Elijah who, it was thought, had not experienced death but had been translated alive to paradise. This view of the afterlife on the part of the chiliasts Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Lactantius was connected directly to their chiliasm. We know this both from the coexistence of these beliefs in Jewish sources (2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Ps. Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, and some rabbinic traditions) and from the internal connection between the doctrines drawn by Irenaeus.11
Yet most of the Church (and at times even the chiliasts themselves in spite of themselves) knew and treasured the New Testament hope of an immediate enjoyment of the presence of God in heaven with Christ at death (Luke 23:42-43; John 14:2-4; 17:24; Phil. 1:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; Heb. 12:22-24; 2 Pet. 1:11; Rev. 6:9-11; 14:1-5; 15:2; 18:20; 19:14). But this aspect of the Christian eschatology, this “hope of heaven” made possible only by the completed work of Jesus the Messiah and his own ascension to heaven, shattered the mold of Jewish chiliastic eschatology. Such a vision belonged to a non-chiliast (what we would today call amillennial) understanding of the return of Christ. This vision essentially saw the millennium of Revelation 20 as pertaining to the present age, wherein the righteous dead are alive in Christ and are now participating with their King and High Priest in the priestly kingdom in heaven (Rev. 20:4-6).12 In the new light of this fully Christian expectation, a return to an earthly existence, where sin and bodily desires still persisted and a final war (as in Rev. 20:8-10) still loomed, could only be a retrogression in redemptive history.13
We can observe then two competing patterns of Christian eschatology from the second century on: one chiliastic, which expects an intermediate kingdom on earth before the last judgment and says that the souls of the saints after death await that earthly kingdom in the refreshing underworldly vaults of Hades; the other which teaches instead that departed Christians have a blessed abode with Christ in heaven, in the presence of God, as they await the return of Christ to earth, the resurrection and judgment of all, and the new heaven and new earth.
Why did the chiliastic view of the afterlife appeal to some of the most prominent defenders of Christianity? As noted, for Justin, it functioned as a way of claiming all the Jewish inheritance for Christians. Did the prophets promise a kingdom of peace, bounty, and righteousness as the Jews insisted it did? Then these prophecies could be claimed for Christianity, for Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. But by the time of Irenaeus (later in the second century) there was another motivation. Orthodox believers were battling Marcionism, Valentinianism, and various other gnosticisms, which were devastating portions of the Church. All these heterodoxies rejected any notion of the salvation of the physical body through resurrection and any notion of a restored creation, since they all claimed that the material creation was inherently evil (or at least destined for annihilation), because it was not the creation of the highest God. They also claimed that their adherents would mount up to the highest heaven (beyond the orthodox) at death.14Both aspects of eschatology were designed to “do the orthodox one better.” Chiliasm provided an ideal response for Irenaeus, for it emphasized the goodness of the material creation as the good product of a benevolent God. It also refuted the inflated afterlife boasts of the heretics about direct ascension to the highest God as soon as they died. The true believer instead would follow the course of the Lord and remain in Hades until his soul was reunited with his body at the resurrection.15
But despite its usefulness in helping to claim the mantle of Judaism and in fending off matter-denying Gnosticism, chiliasm was at odds with aspects of the Church’s hope handed down from the apostles and made so clear in the New Testament writings. As such, the chiliastic eschatology could not survive intact. Tertullian, after embracing chiliasm, tried some minor modifications. Even as a chiliast he remained more open to understanding the “earthly” prophecies of the Old Testament in a more “spiritualized” way.16 He also argued that some Christians–but only those who literally suffered martyrdom–could be spared a stay in Hades and could inhabit the heavenly paradise before the resurrection.17 But even Tertullian’s admirer Cyprian could not accept this ameliorated form of chiliasm, and comforted his congregations in the face of a raging plague with the Christian hope of the heavenly kingdom when they died.18 With Lactantius in the early fourth century we see a determined attempt to revive a more “genuine” form of chiliasm.19 But by the fourth century these views could not stand long among educated clergy. The Christian hope of union and fellowship with Christ after death was too strong for the chiliastic eschatology to flourish ever again in its original form. The work of Tyconius, Jerome, and Augustine at the end of the fourth century and in the early fifth simply put the exclamation point on the inevitable.
Chiliasm’s Old Testament Hermeneutic Led to the Crucifixion
Finally, the chiliastic alternative on the intermediate state of the Christian soul between death and the resurrection was a problem which in itself could have led to chiliasm’s demise. But there was another problem which, when clearly exposed, had the potential of being downright scandalous. It was recognized by Origen and has been seen by non-chiliasts down to the present day.20 It is the realization that the “literal,” nationalistic interpretation of the prophets was the standard that Jesus, in the eyes of his opponents, did not live up to, and therefore was the basis of their rejection of his messiahship. One of the prophecies that Irenaeus had insisted will be literally fulfilled in the kingdom on earth was Is. 11:6-7, which speaks of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, etc. Origen specifically mentions this passage as among those which the Jews misinterpret: “and having seen none of these events literally happening during the advent of him whom we believe to be Christ they did not accept our Lord Jesus, but crucified him on the ground that he had wrongly called himself Christ.”21 This “Jewish” approach to the Old Testament prophecies and its role in the Jewish rejection of Jesus was recognized even by Tertullian and was no doubt one of his motivations for taking a more “spiritualized” approach to those prophecies than Irenaeus had done.22
Why did the Church reject chiliasm? Essentially because chiliasm was judged not to be a fully Christian phenomenon. We have organized three faults of chiliasm around the theme of its so-called “Jewish” character. These faults include its sources; holding out an attenuated hope of blessing for the Christian after death, for it was based in a pre-Christian system which as yet lacked a Savior who had raised humanity to heaven; and clinging to an interpretation of Old Testament prophecies which did not comport with the Christian approach but which could be used to justify the crucifixion. Instead the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah had effected a momentous change which Jewish chiliasm was not well-adapted to accommodate.
But it was not these “faults” alone that fatally injured chiliasm. It might have lasted longer if there had not always existed in the Church another, more fully “Christian,” eschatology sustaining the Church throughout the whole period. That eschatology, revealed in the New Testament writings, proclaimed Jesus Christ’s present reign over all things from heaven, where his saints were “with him” (Luke 23:42-43; John 14:2-4; 17:24; Phil. 1:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:6-8). It saw the culmination of that reign not in a future, limited, and provisional kingdom on earth where perfection mingled once again with imperfection, but rather in the full arrival of the perfect (Rom. 8:21; 1 Cor. 13:10) and the replacement of the present heaven and earth with a heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22). Evidence of this eschatology runs throughout the postNew Testament period, from Clement of Rome to Augustine.
Modern premillennialism, in its several forms, has indeed undergone certain transmutations from its ancient ancestor, some of which are improvements, some arguably not. It may be possible to develop a premillennialism which obviates the worst of chiliasm’s pitfalls in antiquity. But the more challenging question will always be whether any form of chiliasm can ever be shown to be the view of the New Testament writers.
This article was originally posted in Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1996, p. 16. Dr. Charles E. Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is the author of several books including "Who Wrote the Gospels," "The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church." and "Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity" (Oxford, 1992).