The Millenium: What the early church believed, part 1 of 4

Perhaps it is true that for the majority of the life of the church the belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ has been the minority view, if non-existent for a major period of time. So lets clear some smoke. When I grew up I remember my parents vaguely talking about end times and Jesus coming back and we should be ready when he does. I didn’t want to be caught doing anything bad, what would happen if Jesus came back right then? I’d have to explain to him why I was doing this or that and he would point at me and scold me saying, “You should’ve known I was going to be back at any moment. Shame on you.” The return of my Lord and Savior was connected with emotions of fear and shame. I’ve since come to rejoice at the thought of my Lord’s return and to spend time in prayerful expectation. This I have learned from a dedicated reading of Scripture, and the church fathers. Ok, but what about all the talk of a millenium? Are we living in that time now, or is it to come and to last for a specific amount of time? Is this really that important? Is it a matter of orthodoxy?

The following four parts will explore the question of the millenium through the eyes of the early church fathers. No, not every single father included a chapter on the millenium within their various treatises, but enough spoke of it as to give us a clear picture of what they preached and believed. I will not systematically run through every father, and I have limited my scope to the second-century as this reveals most decisively (in my opinion) the view which the apostles taught. Besides the New Testament and the post-apostolic writings, the second-century church reveals a church still intimately connected to the apostolic teaching and the ministry of Christ himself. The following entries will attempt to convey those statements and beliefs so that we may obtain a view of what our early fathers in the faith believed and professed as their future hope.

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In the midst of persecution, the advancement of Gnostic teachings and the over spiritualization of Christian beliefs, the post-apostolic fathers advocated a premillennial view of Christ’s return and the coming heavenly kingdom and hence became the dominant belief of the second century church. The hope of the early church maintained an emphasis on the physical substance of life. While bodily resurrection was often the main topic in regards to eschatology, the early church fathers espoused a clear, however subtle, hope of a physical millennial kingdom upon the second coming of Christ. Church fathers including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian all defended a physical millennium as part of their theology and defense for the Christian faith.

This defense was strategically mounted against Gnostic philosophies, which interwove Christian thought and practice with various other forms of mysticism and religion, as well as those who sought to tarnish the name of Christ and those who believed in him. In light of these various issues, Christian thinkers and writers of the time wished to defend a view of Christianity that was directly opposed to the thinking of the Gnostics and groups like them. While these topics are not new for the broader discussion of Christian thought and theology, I will argue that historic premillennialism stems from a reactionary response to contemporary issues of the second century church yet does not invalidate its existence as the premiere eschatological viewpoint of the early church.

Defining Terms and People

Moving forward, it is appropriate for us to spend a brief amount of time defining a few key terms and the writers to whom we will access. In regards to our discussion of premillennialism, the reader will understand the term to mean a one thousand year period proceeding after the earthly return of Christ. To be a premillennialist is to affirm that Christ will return and usher in an earthly kingdom of one thousand years before the final judgment. This is how second century Christian writers understood Christ’s return. The term millenarianism is seen often in theological literature, and this we will understand to be a general belief in some form of future expectation of social, religious and or political change. Premillennialism is a subcategory of millenarian discussion.

Another term worth discussing is the title historic premillennialism. One might wonder; what differentiates historic from modern day premillennialism? According to Hans Schwarz, it is helpful to distinguish historic premillennialism from dispensational premillennialism.[1] The reason he does, so, I believe, is simply to draw a distinction from nuanced views found within dispensational thought apart from a bare belief in a premillennial return of Christ and subsequent theocratic rule on earth. This being said, the basic premillennial language of both views is hardly dissimilar enough to make such a drastic distinction, but let the reader understand his reasoning for doing so.[2] In the final evaluation, historic premillennialism is the view Christ’s return will come just prior to an earthly millennium as he “will exercise rule over the nations for a thousand years in the last stage of human history.”[3]

The two fathers from to whom we will focus our attention are Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons. While we will bookend our discussion with two other writers, Justin and Irenaeus comprise the main body of thought representative of the second century church. There certainly are other writers from which we can spend much time analyzing, however for the purpose of this essay, I have decided to choose the two which seem to me to comprise the mass of second century thought, theology and eschatology.[4]

Book Ends

The scope of this paper focuses directly on the main authors of the second century in regards to their expressed premillennial views of Christ’s return, however, it is important for us to book end this essay with two early church figures. In doing so, we can center in on two specific authors as well as establish their influencers and influenced thinkers. The Epistle of Barnabas, a pseudepigraphic work, will be our first bookend and Tertullian and his writings will be our second. These two sources provide us with a progressive picture from where the early church has come and to where it will go. It is important to keep in mind that the usage of these two figures opens up a small window of ambiguity as both representatives can be dated within the second century themselves, however, they are more emblematic of the previous and following centuries.

Epistle of Barnabas

While dating Barnabas is somewhat problematic, for this short summary we will assume an early second century date.[5] With this in mind, let us briefly analyze the eschatological views of Barnabas as it relates to the scope of this essay. It is clear that the author has a concept of the “Kingdom of God” as a future reality.[6] He continues to speak of a day which is “near when all things will perish, along with the wicked one.”[7] Similarly, Barnabas speaks of the new covenant, and how Jesus has “given us the first fruits of the taste of what is yet to be.”[8] While these passages speak to a future event, it is not explicitly made clear that they refer to a future millennial reign with Christ. Millennial language, however, is present within the writings of Barnabas.

Barnabas, in a round-about way, concludes a future millennium in which the Son will reign. This comes by means of a peculiar exegetical strategy. Taking a highly literal approach, Barnabas read the Genesis 2 creation account and observes the six days of creation and the one day of rest. Barnabas, being versed in Jewish scripture, lifts Psalm 90:4 quite literally off the page and applies this verse to the creation account of Genesis. In doing so, he concludes that the earth is in a six thousand year period of creation, awaiting a final day or millennium in which “his Son…will put an end to the age…(and) indeed rest on the seventh day.”[9] Those who follow him will do the same. While this method is insufficient in which to establish a clear eschatological viewpoint, Barnabas is our first early church writing in which we see an intentional establishment of a (pre)millennial view.

Tertullian

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220), provides us with our second bookend towards our discussion of the premillennial second century church. Tertullian wrote much of his early work as an apologist for the Christian faith, only later to move towards the Montanist sect of Christianity.[10] In his writing, resurrection language against Marcion and the Gnostics comes forth as a prominent theme. He emphasizes the reality of the flesh in the risen body against those who deny the materiality of the resurrected body.[11] His strength is in arguing for the resurrection and he spends a great deal of energy solidifying this view against Marcion and those who fall under his teachings. While this is true, Tertullian also espouses a clear hope of a coming millennium.

In his same work, Adversus Marcionem or Against Marcion, Tertullian provides his reader with a clear expectation of a coming return of Christ prior to a millennial kingdom. In book three, chapter twenty-four, Tertullian establishes a clear conception of an earthly millennial kingdom. Here is the confession of Tertullian:

But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem…Of the heavenly kingdom this is the process: After its thousand years are over, within which period is completed the resurrection of the saints, who rise sooner or later according to their deserts, there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgment.

He continues to describe the prophecies of the Old Testament which show the blessings of the kingdom for God’s people. He affirms the realities of the earthly and heavenly gifts in regards to the coming of God’s kingdom. In saying these things, he concludes the chapter with a challenge to Marcion: “Can it be that your Christ promises a kingdom of heaven, without having a heaven; as He displayed Himself man, without having flesh? O what a phantom from first to last! O hollow pretence of a mighty promise!”[12] Clearly, Tertullian is an appropriate boundary in which we are now able to wedge between our discussion regarding the premillennial second century church. Now that our bookends have been placed on the shelf, let us reach into the middle of the shelf and pull out the two writers for whom our picture of historic premillennialism is clearly established.

In my next entry I will move forward with a focus on Justin Martyr and his writings. We will then move to another prominent second-century father, Irenaeus of Lyons. Please come back and continue this journey with me as we understand the millennium through the eyes of the early church fathers.


[1] See Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000), pp. 331-337.

[2] While Schwarz is helpful in this discussion, his overall analysis of premillenialism and dispensational premillennialism in particular is condescending and pedantic. I appreciate the contribution he has made in this study, however, it is unfortunate to read this work and encounter such a tone regarding a legitimate eschatological view. Again, I refer the reader to pp. 331-337, especially to p. 333.

[3] Ibid., 331.

[4] For more reading on other church fathers contributing and writing during the second century, see Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[5] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostalic Fathers, Vol. II (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 6-7, for a small discussion regarding date and location of Barnabas, argued from references within the text.

[6] Ibid., 81; taking note of the future tense δοξασθησεται, meaning “will be glorified.”

[7] Idid., 83.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] See Eric Osborn, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp.9-11 regarding the movement of Tertullian’s writing style and subject material.

[11] See ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Vol. VII, Tertullianus Against Marcion (Edingurgh: T&T Clark, 1868), pp.412-424.

[12] Ibid., 173-174.

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