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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Millenarianism, in the strict sense, is the belief that,
before the final judgment of all mankind, Christ will
return to the earth and, together with resurrected
saints, will reign over a glorious kingdom which will
last a thousand years. The authority for this belief is
Revelation 20:1-5, which relates how the cosmic bat-
tles between the divine and the Satanic powers will
in part end with the fall of the latter's stronghold,
“Babylon.” An angel will come down from heaven and
imprison the “dragon” for a thousand years (Revised
Standard Version
). After this millennium Satan is to
be loosed once more. He will gather the nations of
the earth for one grand last stand, at “Armageddon,”
but he will be defeated. Then he will be thrown into
the “lake of fire” and the universal judgment will
occur, followed by the establishment of the eternal
heavenly state. Events often incorrectly associated with
the millennium, such as the coming of a “new heaven
and a new earth,” are to occur only after this final
victory of God.

Thus the millennium is only an interval in the war
of good and evil which the Christian revelation, fol-
lowing the tradition of Hebrew apocalyptic, sees as
the pattern of all history. It utilizes Jewish predictions
that a Messianic Deliverer will lead the armies of the
chosen people and will annihilate their enemies. In the
later Jewish tradition, the messianic leader is to reign
over the whole world. He comes to combine qualities
of wisdom and benevolence with those of the warrior.
The Son of Man of the Book of Revelation, identified
with the Christos, exhibits this combination. The
chosen people, originally only Israel, is, in Christian
teaching, the whole body of the saved. Although the
idea of the millennium is found specifically only in the
Revelation, it came to incorporate Daniel's vision of
the four images and the ten horns, and the mystical
numbers of Daniel were utilized in attempts to foretell
the exact date of the Parousia (Second Coming).

Christian teaching took over the basic rationale of
Jewish apocalyptic. The messianic hope solves the
great dilemma of the Jewish prophets: although the
righteous, chosen people were promised temporal
prosperity and happiness, most of the time they were
persecuted or in captivity. Since there was in the Old
Testament little anticipation of immortality, with
heavenly rewards, a deferred earthly happiness was the
logical explanation of the great incongruity between
the promises of Yahweh and the facts of history. Daniel,
thus, predicts a resurrection of saints to reign in “an
everlasting kingdom” (Daniel 12:2).

The decades immediately preceding and succeeding
the founding of the Christian church were permeated,
in the Jewish world, by expectation of the imminent
appearance of the Messiah. Various claimants to this
office appeared during the Roman occupation of Israel
(beginning in 63 B.C.). Many books of apocalyptic na-
ture were composed. The Secrets of Enoch, first half


of the first century A.D., is particularly close to the
Christian Apocalypse. The creation is to last for seven
“days” (each representing a millennium). There is,
logically, to be a Sabbatical seventh day, a messianic
age. After the end of the temporal “week,” as in the
Revelation, the “great day of the Lord” and the trans-
formation of the earth into heaven will occur. The Ezra
of the same period, distinguishes between
a temporary and a permanent messianic kingdom. The
former will last 400 years, compensating exactly for
the four centuries of Egyptian captivity. The idea of
this earthly kingdom resembles that of the Revelation,
in that the righteous dead are to be raised in a first
resurrection and will not suffer death again.

The idea of the messianic kingdom has a potentially
revolutionary character. The established, all-powerful
rulers of this world are, ordinarily, evil and tyrannical
oppressors in prophecy. They are, however, doomed
to be overthrown in a great, decisive revolutionary
struggle. The kingdom is to be a kind of holy utopia,
not a heavenly state; the inhabitants are to be human
beings in the flesh, on this earth, and living in a society.
This utopia, moreover, is brought about only by violent
conflict in which the decisive factor is a divinely ap-
pointed, mysterious general-king. Against him is ranged
another mysterious but apparently at least partly
human figure, the “Antichrist.”

There is throughout history a class division, where
social, political, and religious qualities are sharply
distinguished. The whole atmosphere of Jewish proph-
ecy implies an association between evil rulers and
riches, luxury, and what we should call exploitation;
and the oppressed, of course, are the opposite—poor,
virtuous, and just. There is here, then, a kind of scenario
for revolution with a blank cast which can easily be
filled by individuals and groups drawn from contem-
poraneous circumstances. It can even be secularized,
as in Marxism, where the proprietary class is “Babylon”
and the workers are the people of the promise. There
is, in Marxist practice, usually also a heroic leader who
strongly recalls the messianic hero. The great and
lasting appeal of the millenarian idea thus may be
attributed in large measure to two elements: its prom-
ise of a utopian age, when the positions of oppressed
and oppressors are reversed, as the culmination of
history; and its suggestive outline of a revolution and
a redeemer who will be able to break down the seem-
ingly impregnable fortress of power and injustice.

Early Christians embellished the prediction of the
millennium with vivid descriptions of a lush paradise
from late Jewish apocryphal apocalyptic. Cerinthus,
Papias, the Ebionites, Saint Justin Martyr, Lactantius,
and Commodianus expected an imminent return of the
Lord. Saint Irenaeus, the Greek Church Father (second
century), referring to the persecuted Christian, ex
plains the enduring rationale of the Millennium: “...
in that Creation wherein they laboured, or were
afflicted... in that same it is meet for them to receive
the fruits of Suffering:... and in what creation they
endured slavery, in the same they should reign”
(Adversus haereses, trans. John Keble, V:32:1). Com-
mentators on the Revelation have throughout the
centuries emphasized the same point: that a heavenly
reward is not logically the true end of creation; the
world must be restored to its Edenic condition, and
the just should be vindicated on this earth.

Millenarian ideas have been effective, also, in that
they have been conflated with many kinds of other
historical theories. The result has been many apoca-
lyptic works interpreting and prophesying the course
of events in many periods. The Sibylline Books (ca.
350), is one; another, the Pseudo-Methodius. The latter,
which is the basis of many subsequent apocalypses,
predicts that an emperor is to rise from the grave and
defeat the powers of darkness; after a time of peace
and happiness, the Antichrist will appear, and Christ
will descend to kill him. Here two redeemers are
postulated, one of whom is a mortal, even though
superhuman. This apocalypse combines, probably, with
folklore to produce such legends as those of Emperor
Frederick Barbarossa and King Arthur, in that they are
sleeping, awaiting their summons to save their people.

By the time of Saint Augustine, the failure of the
millennium to arrive had encouraged a new inter-
pretation. The millennium, Augustine explains, is to
be considered as only allegorical—of the last stage of
the redemption, which began with Christ. The “thou-
sand years” is only a round number signifying a long
time. Satan, the head of the City of Man, which is
always at war with the City of God in the human
community, is even now “bound” in that his power
of deceiving men is restricted (Augustine, The City of
20, 8). The “first resurrection” is of course an
allegory of the revival from spiritual death through

With Augustine—whose doctrine became official in
the medieval Church—there are completed two op-
posing attitudes towards the prophecy. One, known
as pre-millennialism, holds that, after a long period of
sorrows, Christ will return to inaugurate the millennial
age. The post-millennialist opinion regards the millen-
nium as some form of allegory, and expects the Advent
only after it is completed. Augustine certainly did not
think of the millennium as a temporal utopia, but it
was possible to believe that some kind of kingdom in
which Christian principles would be triumphant would
crown the advance of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, however, minority groups
reverted to the pre-millennialist faith to explain injus-
tice and the puzzling problems of social change.


Almost always there was a revolutionary character to
these movements. The Jacquerie revolt (1358) and the
Peasant revolt (1381) had a chiliastic background. The
eschatological hope was joined, in the “Free Spirit”
movement, with the exaltation of “Holy Poverty.” Piers
envisions a millennial age in which, the world
having been freed of avarice and pride, true spiritual
and social equality will be realized. The very influential
Book of a Hundred Chapters, in the early sixteenth
century, tells how the “Emperor from the Black For-
est,” the resurrected Frederick, is the messianic hero.
The Jews are no longer the chosen people, but the
Germans are: a source of Germanic anti-Semitism. The
primitive chiliastic drama was finally enacted in the
revolution inaugurated by a group of Anabaptists in
Münster in 1525. But the rule of the saints turned into
a reign of terror that was overthrown with great

Despite the ensuing fears of millenarianism, the idea
that the Book of Revelation must be interpreted liter-
ally took root among Protestants, who emphasized the
importance of plain reading of Scripture to correct the
“errors” introduced by the “false Church.” The revo-
lutionary potential of the idea was made real again
during and after the Great Rebellion in England
(1642-60). The very title of these groups—“Fifth
Monarchy Men”—shows their inspiration; for the “fifth
monarchy” was the final kingdom of God which, ac-
cording to Daniel's vision of the five images, would
end history (Daniel 2). This is a political and economic
movement, but the deliverance is to be miraculous and
“Lord Jesus” is to rule.

There were many predictions of an exact time for
the Parousia. In the nineteenth century many mille-
narian but nonrevolutionary sects, such as the Miller-
ites, were founded. Fundamentalist Protestants in gen-
eral, including the Mormons and the Southern Baptists
Conference, are millenarian; thus a very large segment
of Protestantism today is of this persuasion. The version
of millenarianism most common among Funda-
mentalists is part of “dispensationalism,” a new form
of the seven-day theory of the history of creation.

Post-millennialism also has had a great influence on
recent centuries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, English-speaking Protestants, both of the
Establishment and Dissent, widely accepted a theory
that the course of all history is predicted. The Anti-
christ is the Papacy (or the Papacy and feudalism in
conspiracy) which has prevented true Christianity from
being preached throughout the world. The “pouring
out of the seven vials” (Revelation 15-17) prefigures
progressive defeats of the false Church. The high point,
of course, is the Reformation. When the last “vial” was
poured out, it was believed, the spirit of true Chris-
tianity would be able to dominate the world and the
triumph of Christian principles would produce a
utopian age.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is an important expo-
nent of this idea. This is a version of the concept of
progress; such events as the advance of science and
technology are seen as preparations for the millennial
utopia, although there would also have to be bloody
confrontations before the entrenched powers of false-
hood and privilege were finally put down. The Ameri-
can Civil War was seen, by many preachers, as a
pouring out of one vial; and a common belief in the
United States then was that the Anglo-Saxons, and the
Americans in particular, are the new chosen nation,
called to complete the foreordained plan for the com-
ing of the kingdom of God.

The millennial idea has exercised a greatly diversified
effect on modern times—even on persons and groups
far from orthodox. Mary Baker Eddy's Science and
(1875), expressed a confidence that the great
hope is soon to become fact. The resemblances of the
Marxist pattern of history to millennial ideas are too
striking to be entirely coincidental. The idea of inevi-
table progress was certainly encouraged and probably
in part inspired by the ancient belief that God will
crown his plan for mankind with the millennium.


On the biblical background of the idea, see R. H. Charles,
Eschatology (1899; reprint New York, 1963); F. E. Hamilton,
The Basis of Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids, 1942); and H.
Schoeps, Theologie und Geschichte des Judenschristentums
(Tübingen, 1949). On medieval millenarianism: N. Cohn,
The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, N.J., 1957). On
post-Reformation aspects of the history of the idea, see E.
Tuveson; Millennium and Utopia (Berkeley, 1949) and idem,
Redeemer Nation, The Idea of America's Millennial Role
(Chicago, 1968). For social implications of ideas originating
from millenarianism, see Millennial Dreams in Action, ed.
Sylvia Thrupp (The Hague, 1962). On the transformations
of the idea among non-Western peoples, see V. Lanternari,
The Religions of the Oppressed, A Study of Modern Messianic
(New York, 1963). Most of these works contain exten-
sive bibliographies of the vast literature on the subject.


[See also Christianity in History; Marxism; Progress; Proph-
; Reformation; Utopia.]