The Millenium: What the early church believed, part 3 of 4

In part two of our look at the millenium according to the early church, we summarized the view espoused by Justin Martyr. Though dedicated to Plantonism and other philosophical pursuits earlier in his life, Justin through a conversion experience came to know Christ and garnered a love of God’s Word. He began the process of defending the faith through his Apologies as well as a dialogue with a Jew named Trypho. We saw that Justin’s primary eschatological focus was bodily resurrection (a core tennet of the faith), yet this hope runs in tandem with the millennial expectation of a New Jerusalem upon the return of Christ. This belief is not systematically established as we might see similar modern views explained, but it is nonetheless present in his theology and is strong evidence for it’s overall belief within the early church. Though these claims are undeniable in Justin’s writings, it is Ireneaus of Lyons who most clearly indicates the eschatological views of the early church. In this third part of my series, we will take a closer look at the writings of Irenaeus and how they reveal a premillennial expectation of Christ’s return. Be sure to return soon with some concluding thoughts in my fourth and final installment of The Millenium: What the Early Church Believed.


Irenaeus Against the Heretics

Irenaeus of Lyons, according to Daley, “must be seen above all as a polemical response to the typical Gnostic understanding of God, the world and human salvation.”[1] He is seeking to set things right and expose the “unfruitful works of darkness.”[2] In his heralding text, Against Heresies, Irenaeus traces each contemporary Gnostic thought to its origins and attempts to expose each falsity found within. In doing this he gives a Christian response to the dualistic views of Gnostic teaching. He sets to establish the importance of material reality to the Christian faith, while not denying the spiritual, yet emphasizing that our faith is founded in the substance of life, namely, Christ.

He is primarily concerned with answering each Gnostic teaching with a counterpoint of Christian thought. In so doing, Irenaeus focuses heavily on the resurrection as well as a physical return of Christ and earthly kingdom to come. To set the stage for our look at Irenaeus’ millennial hope, let’s turn to the observations of Daley:

Central to Irenaeus’ hope is the resurrection of the body, which he expects at the time of Christ’s return. Hope in such a resurrection is an integral part of the Christian tradition of faith Irenaeus is concerned to protect…His argument is essentially a moral one: for adequate retribution to be possible, divine justice requires that both the just and the unjust should rise in “their own bodies” as well as “their own souls” (AH, 2.33.5).[3]

Irenaeus is directly answering the Gnostic challenge by stating it is the one Creator who will raise us as he raised Christ, as opposed to the lesser demi-urge in whom Gnostics claimed was responsible for our prison of flesh. In this regard, for the purpose of this essay, we will turn our focus to book five of Against Heresies.

Flesh and Blood

Once again, Irenaeus’ main focus is to establish a firm response to Gnostic thinking surrounding him in the mid-to-late second century. Book five of Against Heresies is the “apologia for the material reality of the resurrection of the body.”[4] It is the capstone for his response regarding the Gnostics. Irenaeus narrows in on biblical prophecies regarding the physical re-establishment of Israel.[5] He proceeds to discuss the New Jerusalem with the new heaven and the new earth, highlighting the promise of the material reality of such an existence.[6] Again, in response to the Gnostics, Irenaeus emphasizes the substance stating “since men are real, their transformation must also be real, since they will not go into non-being but on the contrary will progress in being.”[7] This foundation is important for Irenaeus’ concluding statements in Against Heresies.

In emphasizing the physical reality of the future kingdom, Irenaeus transitions into how long one can expect that kingdom to last. Emphasizing that in the kingdom, “man will live on earth,” he should expect to enter his rest after the six days of creation.[8] This rest is the seventh day, again interpreting each day to be one thousand years; this rest will be the millennium “in which they (the just) will exercise imperishability after the creation has been renewed for those who have been preserved for this.” [9] This is the final note in Irenaeus’ thought and answers the question, in response to the Gnostics, of man’s final destination. We are made physical by God in order to experience a final material kingdom, and those who follow him “will take back their bodies and rise perfect, that is, bodily, as also the Lord rose, and thus will come to the vision of God.”[10]

Summarizing Irenaeus

Unfortunately the scope of this essay does not afford us the opportunity to fully explore Irenaeus and the totality of his theology and writing. What we can surmise, however, is that Irenaeus picked up the banner of historic premillennialism from Justin and, in so doing, responded to the Gnostic controversy in his context. Irenaeus centered on the importance of flesh and blood, as indeed he says, “For if the flesh were not to be saved the Word of God would not have become flesh (John 1:14) and if the blood of the just were not to be requited the Lord would not have had blood.”[11]

Irenaeus’ understanding of Christ in the flesh allowed him to sufficiently refute the claims of the Gnostic thinkers of his day. His logical thought regarding the material reality of the Christian faith provided the basis for his view on the coming millennial kingdom. This kingdom is also a material reality, a hope to look forward to in tandem with the resurrection and was only to be understood as a corporeal existence. Irenaeus concludes, “For God wanted his firstborn Word to descend into his creation and be held by it, and in turn for the creation to hold the Word and ascend to him, thus surpassing the angels and coming to be in the image and likeness of God.”

[1] Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 28.

[2] Ephesians 5:6-14.

[3] Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 30.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997),  pp.178-182.

[6] Ibid., 183-184.

[7] Ibid., 184.

[8] Ibid., 185-186.

[9] Ibid., 186.

[10] Ibid., 178.

[11] Ibid., 168.


One thought on “The Millenium: What the early church believed, part 3 of 4

  1. To answer your question on the previous post, yes and no. Of course I am not as eager for class as Bobby who showed up a week early. I am really excited about the Apostolic Fathers class, History of Gospel Preaching with Hannah, and getting one step closer to being done with Hebrew and my ThM—I can’t believe it’s my last year.

    Anyway, back to early church eschatology—I know I have said it already but you have done a good job with this series. I think the most beneficial thing for me is seeing the distinction between historical and dispensational premillennialism. Also, what is fascinating to me is the consistent succession of full doctrine, such as this issue being past from Justin to Irenaeus. I think there is a tendency in evangelicalism to write off history but these guys took the passing of doctrine so seriously that we shouldn’t be so quick to blot it out. I’m looking forward to part 4 because I want to see something about the Rapture. Hot topic as of late but in all of my searching, I can’t find the Rapture anywhere before the late 19th century (red flag).

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