When Did Our Belief in Jesus’ Millennial Reign Begin?
By Jonathan C. Brentner
I talked with a gentleman a few weeks ago who told me that belief in Jesus’ millennial reign was relatively new in church history. He asserted that it did not begin until late in the late nineteenth century. Was he correct?
Absolutely not! Premillennialism, the belief in Jesus’ thousand year rule upon the earth before the eternal state, dominated the first three hundred years of the church.
In essence, there has been a rewriting of church history that ignores the existence of early church beliefs regarding Jesus’ future reign. One researcher put it this way, “Of course, the historical attack on dispensational premillennialism ignores the overwhelming evidence that the church fathers of the first three centuries AD were uniformly premillennial, not amillennial or postmillennial.”[i]
Philip Schaff, a high respected church historian, said this about the premillennial beliefs of the early church fathers, “…the most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism [Jesus’ thousand year rule on earth], that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.”[ii] Philip Schaff, who rejected the premillennial viewpoint himself, nevertheless verified that it was the predominant belief of the early church.[iii]
Let’s look at the evidence of an early belief in Jesus one thousand year rule based in Jerusalem.
Papias (AD 70-163)
We do not have any writings directly from Papias that have survived, but an early church historian named Eusebius (AD 263-339) quoted Papias as writing this, “There will be a millennium after the resurrection of the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on earth.”[iv] Papias believed in a future return of the Lord to setup a literal millennium or reign of Jesus upon the earth, which would begin after a resurrection of the dead. Papias’ testimony regarding the millennium matches a literal reading of Revelation 20.
Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)
Justin Martyr, another significant leader in the early church, also affirmed a belief in a literal kingdom. Justin became a believer in about AD 133 after which he vigorously defended the Christian faith before his martyrdom in AD 165. Here is Justin Martyr’s testimony concerning the millennium:
But 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 be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah 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…”[v]
Irenaeus (AD 130-202)
Irenaeus was a prominent early church theologian who wrote one of the more significant works of his day, Against Heresies. In his writing, he describes the end of the tribulation and Jesus’ return:
But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that “many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.[vi]
Irenaeus interpreted prophecy literally. He regarded the time of the antichrist, the return of Jesus in the clouds, and the setting up of the kingdom as future events when he wrote in AD 180. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 110 years before Irenaeus wrote about a still future antichrist sitting in the temple.
Although Irenaeus also said that the church was the new Israel and did not believe in the restoration of Israel, he still wrote about a future temple that the antichrist would defile during the tribulation and believed in the future millennial reign of Jesus over the earth.
Despite his beliefs regarding Israel, Irenaeus adopted a literal interpretation of the book of Revelation all the way through his book, Against Heresies. He regarded Revelation 20:1-10 as literal and still future.
Tertullian (AD 155-240)
Tertullian, another key early church leader and theologian, referred to the millennium in his book, Against Marcion. In it, Tertullian affirmed “the literal reality of both the thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth as well as the reality of the New Jerusalem…“[vii]
This additional testimony from Tertullian confirms that the premillennial viewpoint not only existed in the second century church but was the predominant viewpoint in the early church, as the church historian Philip Schaff affirmed. How else can we account for so many important and respected leaders voicing strong beliefs in a thousand year reign of Christ on the earth?
Lactantius (AD 240-320)
The continuance of the premillennial position into the third and fourth centuries AD can be seen in writings of Lactantius, an early Christian writer who later became an advisor to the Roman Emperor Constantine after the Edict of Milan. In his writings, he referred to a thousand year rule of Jesus. Speaking of Christ he said, “But He, when He shall have destroyed unrighteousness, and executed His great judgment, and shall have recalled to life the righteous, who have lived from the beginning, will be engaged among men a thousand years, and will rule them with most just command.”[viii]
In his book, Divine Institutes, Lactantius added more details about this future millennium showing his belief that some would enter the kingdom in natural bodies while those who had been raised from the dead would rule over them. His words show a literal belief in Revelation 20, “Then they who shall be alive in their bodies shall not die, but during those thousand years shall produce an infinite multitude, and their offspring shall be holy and beloved by God; but they who shall be raised from the dead shall preside over the living as judges.”[ix]
Lactantius’ belief that people entered the millennium in natural bodies matches today’s premillennial positon.
The Nicene Council (AD 325)
In AD 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine called all the leaders of the church to participate in the famous church Council of Nicea. He called the gathering to refute the false teaching that had crept into the church during the previous centuries.
In his book, Triumphant Return, Dr. Grant Jeffries quotes from Nathaniel West regarding the Nicene Council:
Gelasius Cyzicus, a Greek historian of the fifth century (A.D 476), was fortunately able to gather together the historical records of the teachings endorsed by the Council of Nicea. Cyzicus published a history of the council that demonstrated the Church’s adherence to the doctrine of the resurrection and the premillennial return of Christ. Despite years of attacks on the doctrine of the Millennium and the authority of John’s Apocalypse by the new teachers of the allegorical interpretation (supported by the Gnostics and Origen’s school at Alexandria), the orthodox bishops of the Council of Nicea…strongly endorsed the book of Revelation as canonical, including its teaching on the coming Millennium.[x]
Our belief in the millennial reign of Jesus existed in the earliest years of the church in spite of various views regarding the future restoration of Israel.
Even those who asserted that the church had replaced Israel still believed in a literal tribulation where the antichrist defiled the temple (even 110 years after the Romans destroyed the one in Jerusalem). They still maintained a belief in Jesus’ thousand year rule in Jerusalem.
The Nicene church council rejected the allegorical interpretations of Origen that denied the biblical teaching regarding Jesus’ thousand year rule. It was not until the time of Augustine in the fifth century that the church moved away from its belief in this. Influenced by Plato and a hatred of Jews, Augustine popularized the amillennial viewpoint that denied the teaching of Revelation 20:1-10 and asserted there would be no millennium or reign of Jesus on the earth.
Beliefs in both the rapture and millennial rule of Jesus were common in the early church. Do not let anyone deceive you into thinking otherwise.
I cannot explain why church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus rejected the notion of Israel’s future restoration, yet believed Jesus would reign over the world for one thousand years in Jerusalem, which would be restored according to the prophets. Would they maintain their positions today in light of Israel fulfilling prophecy? I would like to think they would follow their literal interpretation of prophecy to the biblical conclusion that Jesus will someday reign on the throne of David over a fully restored Israel.
I have included many footnotes of my source data. The evidence is on the side of those who maintain that a belief in the thousand year reign of Jesus before the eternal state dominated the church until the fifth century A.D. and held up under scrutiny of the Nicene church council in AD 325.