HISTORY OF MILLENNIALISM
by Lonnie Kent York
Time and history have a way of either obscuring or encumbering the facts which have affected current political, moral, social or religious opinions and practices. Often one generation will experience the upheaval of radical changes, then the next generation accepts, without reserve, those changes which have occurred through violent storms of protest. The voices of protest soon dim to faint cries against the wind, while the masses accept the change as the evidence of progress. Another generation grows to maturity imbibing the new as if it were the old, being unaware of the nature or scope of what they have so easily accepted as embedded truth. To them such opinions and practices have existed from the beginning. If they are challenged, their champions will arise to defend their practice. Such a defense will assume that the basis for their belief has always existed, therefore all should accept it without challenge. True historical facts fade into obscurity under such a defense. The error inherent in these new doctrines is thus embedded deeper into the consciousness of those who are unaware of the historical nature of their belief. Truth, then, remains only in the hearts of faithful seekers.
This premise applies to the various doctrines of millennialism. During our own generation the doctrine of Dispensational Premillennialism has become the norm for many charismatic religious groups and many major fundamental denominational churches. The more vocal and popular preachers of these groups have popularized their doctrine to the point that it seems as if every religious body that believes in Christ accepts a form of millennialism. Those who do not, are considered to be in the minority. Yet, historically, this has not been the situation. Actually, the present day millennial doctrines have their origin dating back less than two hundred years. The basis for such beliefs can be traced back to the time before Christ, and that to heathen religions. An examination of the history and development of millennialism will reveal that its roots spring forth from man, not God.
History alone should not be the sole method used to prove premillennialism to be in error. Historical facts and scripture, according to William Cox should be our method: “… let me hasten to say that we do not rest our case on the fact that these beliefs have been held by any man or group of men. The all important question is ‘What saith the scriptures?'”1 This statement was made with respect to amillennial views. We must, then, determine the scriptural status of millennial doctrines upon the evidence found within God’s word. Geerhardus Vos expands upon the impetus of this concept: “The question is, of course, a question of evidence, to be considered and settled on the basis of Scriptural testimony and of calm, sober, dogmatically-unprejudiced exegesis.”2 Yet, we cannot ignore the historical nature of these doctrines. Together, scripture and history will prove that such doctrines have their origin with man, not God.
According to Schaff, the belief of a period of a thousand years of peace from evil powers had its origin with the religion of Zoroastrianism. This religion began prior to the Babylonian captivity and was in vogue during the time of the captivity. Zoroastrians believe that they were the ones who first taught the concept of one all powerful god, and the coming of a redeemer to save the world from the evil powers that pervade upon the earth.
The Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament are filled with speculations of a time of universal peace, which would be ruled by the people of God. Only in these books do we find the doctrine of Chiliasm among God’s people. The Old Testament scriptures do not teach such a doctrine. If we consider the period in which these books were written, and the uninspired nature of these books, then this doctrine can be put into its proper place. It was a period of religious turmoil and persecutions by the enemies of God’s people. The influence of Zoroastrian chiliasm was evident, thus the climate was ripe for the hope that God would intervene, destroying the enemy, and ushering in a period of universal peace.
Vos does not agree that the entire scope of Judaism eschatology should rest upon the roots of paganism. He says that “so far back as the period of canonical prophetism we find the twofold representation, on the one hand that the final order of things will be called into being by the appearance of a Messianic King, and on the other hand that it will come through the appearance and interposition of God Himself, so that the two conceptions of a Messianic Kingdom and a Kingdom of God appear at this early stage side by side without any attempt at harmonizing, then it would seem, that in this ancient prophetic diversity, we have a fully adequate explanation of the origin of the two successive kingdoms, without having to go to Babylonia and Persia, or deriving the whole from Apocalyptic dissatisfaction with the world.”3 Vos does provide sufficient evidence of the pagan doctrines and their counterparts in the Apocryphal books. We cannot deny that some of these pagan influences did not find their way into uninspired writings.
Our Lord had to contend with these views. The Jews pressed the Lord for information regarding the Kingdom, which they believed would be a materialistic Kingdom. Even the disciples believed that the Lord would be victorious over His enemies and establish a physical kingdom. At the time of His ascension the apostles asked: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It would not be until the day of Pentecost that they would fully understand that the kingdom was spiritual, not carnal. Peter declared on that day that Christ was at God’s right hand and that He was the Messiah. The kingdom prophecies had been fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and ascension. “Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ …” (Acts 2:30-31).
Walvoord’s statement about the differences between historical premillennialism and its modern counterparts is the key which will unveil the true concept of the early church’s views on the return of Christ. History reveals that the views of the early church on the second coming of the Lord differ vastly from the views of modern Dispensational Premillennialism. Vos indicates that the point of departure lies in the “parousia” (the presence or second return of Christ). “The substance of the matter is that Chiliasm divides the eschatological future following upon the parousia into two distinct stages, the one of a temporary provisional, the other of an eternal, absolute character. The old traditional view of orthodox theology, and the current interpretation of Paul know of no such dualism in the eschatological prospect; they make the eternal state, strictly so called, begin with the return of the Lord.”5 In effect, Vos is stating that the early church viewed the chiliad as a time that would begin with the coming of Christ, which would usher in the eternal state of man, not a kingdom upon the earth.
The early church endured great persecutions, and the book of Revelation was written to comfort those early saints. Its message was that through Christ victory would come, even if Satan won a few battles. Their hope, then, was focused upon the victorious return of Christ and His victory over their present enemies. They believed that His coming, the parousia, would initiate the beginning of a new age of peace. The writings of the early saints during the first three centuries was towards this hope: the promised return of the victorious Christ. Some have interpreted these writings to imply a millennial period upon the earth, yet the majority of these writing are not specific on this point.
The impetus of this theology can be found in the hope for a better world. Their view of Revelation was that Christ would intervene, at the right moment, and bring about a change in world events. “… the essential apocalyptic message remained as the book taught the living hope of the immediate direct intervention of God to reverse history and to overcome evil with good. Such an outlook brought great comfort to believers who suffered from persecution by the forces of Imperial Rome. Expressed in a form that has been called historic premillennialism, this hope seems to have been the prevailing eschatology during the first three centuries of the Christian era, and is found in the works of Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Methodius, Commodianus, and Lactanitus.”6
Walvoord and other writers for premillennial views refer to statements made by Justin Martyr as proof that the early church believed in a millennial reign of Christ upon the earth. “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. … 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 there after the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.”7 Terry shows that this statement is contrary to the scriptures: “The old Chiliastic ideas of a restoration of all Israel at Jerusalem, and of Christ and his glorified saints literally sitting on thrones and reigning in visible material glory on the earth, are without warrant in this Scripture (Rev. 20:1-7, lky). Nothing is here said about Jerusalem, or the Jews, or the Gentiles.”8
There were opponents to this doctrine. From the pen of Paul until Augustine there were those who resisted the false doctrine of Chiliasm. It was not until a radical change in external circumstances and attitudes occurred that the doctrine of Chiliasm was finally consider a full heresy. This change occurred when Rome accepted Christianity. McClintock and Strong have an extensive statement regarding this change of attitude.
Notwithstanding the extensive spreading of the millenarian tenet, it would be a rash inference to assume that it was universal, or accepted as the creed of the Church. On this point Neander has good observations (Ch. Hist., Torrey’s transl., i. 651). The first decided opponent of whom we have a knowledge was Caius, the Roman presbyter, about the year 200. The crass from in which Chiliasm entered into the heresy of Montanism contributed materially to the strengthening of the antagonism to millenarian views. The Alexandrian school opposed them with energy, particularly Origen, with whose peculiar opinions it was inconsistent. … It was still common, however, in the time of Jerome, who himself was one of its opponents. But gradually the tenet which has so widely prevailed became obnoxious and proscribed. One great reason of this remarkable change of sentiments is to be found in the altered condition and prospects of the Church. Christians at first yearned for the reappearance of the Lord. Moreover, it was impossible for them to raise their faith and hopes so high as to expect the conquest of the Roman empire by the moral power of the cross, independently of the personal and supernatural interposition of Christ. But as the Gospel make progress, the possibility and probability of a peaceful victory of the Christian cause over all its adversaries, by the might of truth and of the Spirit, gained a lodgment in the convictions of good men.”9
John N. Darby is considered the father of Dispensational Premillennialism. His view on the second advent of Christ is what we know, today, as premillennialism. He divides the scheme of God’s redemption into various dispensations, or periods of time during which God tests man in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation from God. Darby believes that each dispensation has its own determinate system of salvation, which allows his future dispensations to possess a different scheme of redemption. His system of premillennialism consist of seven dispensations: innocency, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the kingdom.
The distinctly prophetic aspects Darby’s Dispensational teaching may be summarized briefly as follows:
- The millennium is the future period of human history during which Christ will reign personally and visibly with His saints on and over the earth for a thousand years.
- A visible coming of Christ will precede it.
- This coming will be in two stages, the rapture and the appearing, with a considerable interval of time between them, in which important events will take place.
- The rapture may take place at “any moment,” and will certainly precede the great tribulation.
- The rapture is the “blessed hope” of the Church.
- The Church is composed of those, and those only, who are saved between Pentecost and the rapture.
- The Church age is a mystery period (a parenthesis dispensation unknown to prophecy) lying between the 69th and 70th weeks of the prophecy of Daniel 9.
- Between the rapture and the appearing, the events of the last week of the prophecy of Dan. 9, of Matt. 24, and of Rev. 4-19 are to take place.
- After the rapture a Jewish remnant will take the place of the Church as God’s agent on earth for the conversion of Israel and the Gentiles.
Allis states that the “primary features of this movement were two in number. The one related to the Church. It was the result of the profound dissatisfaction felt at that time by many earnest Christians with the worldliness and temporal security of the Church of England and of many of the dissenting communions in the British Isles. The other had to do with prophecy; it represented a very Marked emphasis on the coming of the Lord as a present hope and immediate expectation.”10
Clarence B. Bass points out that the system of Dispensationalism revolves around its principle of interpretation. “The paradox of the system lies precisely at this point: one cannot logically accept the chronology of dispensationalism without also accepting its basic principle of interpretation – that God works under different principles with mankind in different dispensations.”11. This system of interpretation permits one to believe that God still favors the Jews and the promises to them under the Old Testament. This is contrary to the teaching of Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:28-29). Bass’s book is devoted to the teachings of Darby and a history of Dispensationalism. Bass at one time was a Dispensationalist, but through his study of the scriptures he left that doctrine. His book reflects one of the best sources of information regarding these doctrines.
The rapid growth of Dispensationalism in the United States can be attributed to two books: Jesus Is Coming by W. E. Blackstone, and the Scofield Reference Bible. Blackstone’s book was published in 1878. Many believe that the influence of Darby can be seen throughout this book. However, the greatest impact comes from Scofield’s work – The Scofield Reference Bible, which was first published in 1909 and revised in 1917. A modern revision of this Bible was completed in 1967. Allis, referring to this Bible, says: “This is the Bible of Dispensationalist, and has probably done as much to popularize the prophetic teachings of Darby and the Brethren as all other agencies put together.”12 Today the books written by Hal Lindsey and John Walvoord typify the present views of Dispensational Premillennialism.
About the same time that Darby was developing his doctrine of the dispensations, William Miller was at work in the United States with his own view of premillennialism. Miller believed that the year 1844 was significant in Bible prophecy. In this year the Lord was to return and establish His Kingdom upon the earth. This year came and went, but the Lord had not returned as Miller had predicted. He then returned to his former beliefs, but others took up his mantle with renewed prophetic visions. Today this group is known as Seventh-Day Adventist.
The early restorationist were considered post-millennialist. The Millennial Harbinger was begun in anticipation of this golden age. According to Wallace, Campbell thought that the “denominations were about to abandon party creeds and party names and that all believers in Christ would be united upon the Bible, and the Bible alone.”13 The central view of Alexander Campbell on the millennium is as follows: “Respecting the real millennium, we may observe the following things – 1, that the Scriptures afford us ground to believe that the church will arrive at a state of prosperity which it never has yet enjoyed. 2. That this will continue at least a thousand years, or a considerable space of time, in which the work of salvation may be fully accomplished in the utmost extent and glory of it. 3. This will be a state of great happiness and glory. The Jews shall be converted, genuine Christianity diffused throughout all nations, and Christ shall reign, by his spiritual presence, in a glorious manner.”14 Sometime around the turn of the century the post-millennial views began to change. Now, those who have benefited from the restoration movement no longer hold post-millennial views.
Amillennialism has been the predominate philosophy of the church from its inception. According to Louis Berkhof, “Some premillennialists have spoken of Amillennialism as a new view and as one of the most recent novelties, but this is certainly not in accord with the testimony of history. The name is indeed new, but the view to which it is applied is as old as Christianity. It had at least as many advocates as Chiliasm among the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries, supposed to have been the heyday of Chiliasm. It has ever since been the view most widely accepted, is the only view that is either expressed or implied in the great historical Confessions of the Church, and has always been the prevalent view in Reformed circles” 15
The amillennial view is that when Christ comes the second time, or the second advent, that this will be the end of this world. Christ will not set foot on this earth again, rather we shall all be gathered together with Him in the air (II Thess. 4:13-18). Paul states that at this time Christ will return the kingdom back to God who gave it (I Cor. 15:20-28).
William Cox, Amillennialism Today, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1975, p. 9
- Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, Eerdmans, p. 226
- Ibid, p. 232
- John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, Zondervan, 1973, p. 113-114
- Geerhardus Vos, Op. cit., p. 228
- Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary Of Theology, Baker, p. 714).
- M. Terry, a quote from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 484
- ibid, p. 485
- McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia Of Biblical, Theological, And Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol.VI, Baker, p. 265
- Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy And The Church, The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., p. 9
- Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications, Baker, 1960, p. 19
- Oswald T. Allis, op. cit., pp. 13-14
- Foy E. Wallace, Neal-Wallace Discussion On The Thousand Years Reign of Christ, Gospel Advocate, 1933, p 31
- Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 6, pp. 95-98, 1856
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 708