Chiliasm, or millenarianism, is an issue common to many periods of church history. Its driving issues are as diverse as its historical manifestations: politico-sociological, canonical, ecclesiastical, apologetic, and hermeneutic concerns all play a role. That last factor is our main concern, but Stanley Gundry notes that we will go wrong if we ignore the other concerns. A merely hermeneutical understanding of the issues will be insufficient (Gundry 1976).
Chiliasm and the Crusades
When Urban summoned the knights to the Crusades, the common folk were quick to join in. You see, they saw a crusade as an almost messianic expedition to the heavenly city. Norman Cohn notes that theologians had already treated Jerusalem as a figure or symbol of the heavenly city. So among the masses the earthly Jerusalem took on fantastic significance.
No wonder that—as contemporaries noted—in the minds of the simple folk the idea of the earthly Jerusalem became so confused with and transfused by that of the Heavenly Jerusalem that the Palestinian city seemed itself a miraculous realm, abounding both in spiritual and material blessings. And no wonder that when the masses set off on their long pilgrimages the children cried out at every town and castle: “Is that Jerusalem?”—while high in the heavens there was seen a mysterious city with vast multitudes hurrying towards it. (Cohn 1957, 45)
Speaking about medieval millennarian expectations, Cohn says,
Generation after generation was seized at least intermittently by a tense expectation of some sudden, miraculous event in which they world would be utterly transformed, some prodigious final struggle between the hosts of Christ and the hosts of Antichrist through which history would attain its fulfillment and justification. Although it would be a gross over-simplification to identify the world of changeable exaltation with the world of social unrest, there were many times when needy and discontented masses were captured by some millennial prophet. (Cohn 1957, xiii)
Chiliasm and Modern Totalitarianism
He moves on from this to identify chiliasm with the spirit of modern totalitarian movements. He insists that the features that make totalitarian communism and Nazism alike “are best elucidated by reference to that subterranean revolutionary eschatology which so often sent tremors through the massive structure of medieval society” (Cohn 1957, xv). Jewish and Christian appearance, he says, provided the raw material for this eschatology (Cohn 1957, l).
Though I can’t follow Cohn’s facile identification of millennarianism and totalitarianism, I agree with his observation that sociologically difficult times prove ripe for chiliasm expectations.1 Joel Gregory is right on target when he says, “Chiliasm seems to have survived in those communities where persecution maintained the desire for a compensatory reversal within the historical order” (Gregory 1983, 4).
Conversely, societies where the church was “at ease in Zion” often proved less receptive to millenarian prophets.2
Sociological forces do not, by themselves, explain the Church’s diverse attitudes toward chiliasm. Even the issue of canonicity comes into discussions of chiliasm, because some have questioned the canonicity of Revelation, the book from which the doctrine finds its wellspring (Rev 20:1–6). It talks of resurrected martyrs who reign with Christ, after that resurrection, for a thousand years. It seems clear enough in its support for the millenarian position until we look at its obviously figurative context.
But when we look for a more clear, precise (i.e., less figurative) expression of the doctrine, we come up with nothing more explicit. We get nothing that could serve as a dogmatic clarification of John’s millennia language. So the question repeatedly arises: What do we do with this passage? Do we reject its canonicity or downplay its importance for developing eschatological theology? Do we make it the hinge pin of our eschatological framework and force other texts to fit it?
R. H. Charles’s approach is to discount the logical cohesion of this section of Revelation. He complains that the book falls into disorder after Revelation 20:3, and this is not explainable merely by transmission errors:
For no accident could explain the intolerable confusion of the text in xx.4–xxii, and apparently the only hypothesis that can account for it is that which a comprehensive study of the facts forced upon me in the beginning of 1914, and this is that John died either as a martyr or by a natural death, when he had completed 1.xx.3 of his work, and that the materials for its completion, which were for the most past ready in a series of independent documents, were put together by a faithful but unintelligent disciple in the order which he thought right.3
Question of Authorship
Eusebius even reported that some in the early church thought someone like the rogue Cerinthus had written the book of Revelation (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.28). As a whole, the book of Revelation was slower to gain universal recognition than many other New Testament books, often because of its chiliastic flavor.
Apologetic concerns also came into play as the doctrine developed. Apologies aimed at Jewish, Gnostic, and secular powers all tended towards millennialism. J. N. D. Kelly says, “The Gnostic tendency to dissolve Christian eschatology into the myth of the soul’s upward ascent and return to God had to be resisted,”4 so apologies targeting Gnosticism emphasized the literal character of the kingdom.
Apologies addressing the Jews emphasized that Jerusalem was to be ruled by Jesus Christ, the seed of David, and by the faithful.5 Apologies fighting secularism emphasized that the earth would be ruled by Christ and his church, not by whatever power was presently in ascendancy.
- Barnes, T. D. “Legislation Against the Christians.” Journal of Religious Studies 58 (1968): 41.
- Charles, R. H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John. 2 volumes. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920.
- Cohn, Norman Rufus Colin. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Fairlawn: N.J.: Essential Books, 1957.
- Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History.
- Gregory, Joel C. “The Chiliastic Hermeneutic of Papias of Hieropolis and Justin Martyr Compared with Later Patristic Chilasts.” Ph.D. diss. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 1983.
- Gundry, Stanley N. “Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatologies?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20 (March 1976): 45–55.
- Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. 5th revised ed. London: A. and C. Black, 1977.
- Propst, J. Henry, Jr. “The Relation of Pessimism to Millennial Ideas.” Th.D. diss. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1962.
- Wilken, Robert L. “Toward a Social Interpretation of Early Christian Apologetics.” Church History 39 (December 1970): 437–58.
- For the influence of social difficulties see Propst 1962; Barnes 1968; Wilken 1970.
- By the time the opposition to millennialism was considered to be the orthodox position, the church’s position in the Empire was much changed from when John’s Apocalypse was written and during subsequent periods of enthusiasm.
- Charles 1920, 2:147. It’s amazing how often language like “unintelligent” crops up in arguments against chiliasm.
- Kelly 1977, 465. Although Irenaeus’s chief structural motif, recapitulation, is the main influence on his well-developed changeable, there can be no doubt that his concern to fight a contemporary form of Gnosticism also helped inform his chiliastic emphasis on the literal earthly reign of Christ and the saints.
- But see Basil’s complaint about Apollinarius that his was a Judaizing interpretation, in the section on “Christian Opposition.”