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

When I was in grade school, I had a shirt with a statement which read, “In case of rapture, this shirt will be unmanned.” It was cartoony and cute, but it revealed an eschatological foundation upon which I was raised. I was taught (and still believe) that Christ would return to gather up his saints in the end of days. My church context did not afford me specific lessons upon millennial discussions, but there was an ever-present reality that Christ was to return and we Christians were to be ready at all times. We didn’t know what we were specifically supposed to be ready for, but we knew we needed to be on our best behavior. What might have served us better was an understanding of our true Christian hope, the return of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies unto glory. Somehow this teaching got buried along the way. We saw in part 3 that this reality was central to the eschatological understanding of Irenaeus. Against the Gnostic notion of disembodied spiritual release, the Christian hope is a fleshly renewal of life to be shared for eternity with our Lord. A new heaven and new earth lies in our future, one in which Christ reigns supreme in a very real and physical sense. This kingdom begins with a one thousand year reign of Christ on earth before final judgement is executed. This is undoubtedly the expectation of early church fathers such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and found in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers by the likes of Barnabas.

As I conclude this study on the hope of the early church I walk away with new insights, and new challenges. Perhaps we should reconsider the eschatological views of the early fathers of the faith, those most closely linked to the apostles and prophets of our Lord Jesus Christ. Isn’t it possible that these fathers were teaching what they heard from disciples of apostles who heard it from the apostles themselves who heard it from Christ? Isn’t is probable that those writing in the late first and early second century of the church (like those writers found within the collection of the Apostolic Fathers) had a closer insight to teaching regarding the last days than those of the 4th and 5th centuries and beyond? These are the questions I have begun to ask myself through this study, and perhaps you will too. We should not so easily dismiss views which are so closely linked to the life and ministry of Christ, should we? Though no eschatological view regarding the millennium holds orthodox primacy over another, it would serve us all to reevaluate the hope we have as Christians to see if it aligns with the hope of those who came before us. Those great men of the faith were just as indwelt by the Holy Spirit and were seeking to build up the body of Christ in their day, as we are in ours. May God grant us wisdom as we continue to hope in the return of Christ and the resurrection unto eternal life!

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Conclusion

We began by bookending our view of the second century church with two authors who first set up the canvas and also placed the finishing touches on the masterpiece of historic premillennialism in the second century church. In between these two we saw two artists working one after the other to bring the painting together. Justin, responding to persecutions and accusations, sketches the outline of a bodily resurrection and a future kingdom in a millennium following the return of Christ. In doing so, he makes Christianity distinct and refutes the claims of outside critics. Irenaeus, taking up the easel and brush, colorfully fills in the sketching. His response to the Gnostic community further places the emphasis on the bodily resurrection and future millennial kingdom to come. If Christ was flesh and was raised in the flesh, so shall we be and live in the flesh with him forever.

In the final analysis, it’s helpful to note two things. First, while I believe that Justin and Irenaeus arrive at their conclusions based largely on Scripture, their eschatological response is but a footnote to their greater concern at hand, whether that be acting as the apologist or the adversary to heresy. Second, even as a footnote, their dedication to their claim is evident and should not wholeheartedly be dismissed only as a rhetorical response. I believe that the context and circumstances drove them to respond in such a way, and in so doing, their premillennial views were reinforced. This does not deny the truth of their claims; rather it helps clarify their reasons. It is clear that the bulk of their writing deals with their contextual circumstances, and their responses seek to answer those circumstances. They did not write a systematic theology for the purpose of establishing doctrine. I conclude as Irenaeus in Against Heresies, “In and through all this the same God the Father will be shown forth.”[1]


[1] Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997), 186.
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