Chiliasm (Part 6): Irenaeus and Hippolytus


Heresy Fighter

Icon of Irenaeus of Lyons

As Bishop of Lyon and a distinguished theologian, Irenaeus probably did more than anyone else to establish chiliasm in the west. He give the first really systematized version, furnishing it with extensive rationale. He was, above all else, a fighter against heretics. His magnum opus is Detection and Overthrow of the Pretended and False Gnosis, a tract against the leading heretical notion of his time.

The development of his chiliasm came in the context of his effort to demolish those heresies. In the fifth of his books, during a discussion of the resurrection, he spelled out his extensive chiliastic rationale (Cox 1899–1900, 1:311). He said the Apostle John clearly foresaw the first resurrection of the just, and “the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth” (Haer., 5.36.3). This, he thought, was an indispensable part of orthodoxy:

Inasmuch, therefore, as the opinions of certain [orthodox persons] are derived from heretical discourses, they are both ignorant of God’s dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom which is the commencement of incorruption, by means of which kingdom those who shall be worthy are accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature (capere Deum). (Haer., 5.32.1)

Chiliasm Integral to His System

With Irenaeus, we get the first theologian for whom chiliasm was integral to his entire system.

Recapitulation not Allegorization

The anti-Gnostic slant of his chiliasm was important; however, even more important was his theory of “recapitulation” in Christ. He explicitly linked Revelation 20:1–21:4 with 1 Corinthians 15:24–28 (Haer., 5.36.2–3). And though he nowhere used the expression “thousand years” in this discussion, he treated the hope of a resplendent earthly Jerusalem as traditional orthodoxy, protesting any attempt to allegorize away the great texts of the Old Testament, and the New Testament book of Revelation, which appear to look toward it (Haer., 5.33–36, esp. 35:1).

If any, however, shall endeavor to allegorize prophecies of this kind, they will not be found consistent with themselves in all points and will be confuted by the teaching of the very expressions in question. (Haer., 5.35.1)

This object seems to be aimed at a Gnostic-type teaching, for he continued, insisting that the Word doesn’t speak of “any thought of an erratic Aeon, or of any other power which departed from the Pleroma, or Prunicus, but of the Jerusalem which has been delineated on God’s hands” (Haer., 5.35.2).

The present world would not be annihilated, though the present corruptible state would give way to an incorruptible state where nothing grows old or loses its freshness (Isa 61:22). Those that produce a hundred-fold would go up to heaven; those that produce sixty-fold to paradise; those that produce thirty-fold to the city. (i.e., Jerusalem, Haer., 5.36.23)

The presbyters, the disciples of the apostles, affirm that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; also that they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father, and that in due time the Son will yield up his work to the Father. (Haer., 5.36.2)

Chiliasm A Weapon against Gnosticism

Apparently he saw chiliasm as the strongest counterpoint to Gnostic theology, which removed their god from the universe by aeons of the πλήρωμα. He saw Gnosticism as the worst menace that church faced in his time, and chiliastic thought provided key weapons for doing battle with it. Christian salvation is won in situ via the incarnation of Christ “in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life through a victorious one” (Haer., 5.21.1). Salvation was won, and must be realized, in time and space; thus, Christ recapitulates the history of mankind, even dying on the sixth day (Haer., 5.23.1).

This radical insistence that redemption is won through historical and temporal recapitulation could never be satisfied with a non-chiliastic denouement of history. The cessation of earthly history and the immediate inauguration of the eternal order would leave a lacuna inconsistent with Ireneaus’ entire scheme (Gregory 1983, 272).

Redemption as Reversal

This insistence on salvation in situ via recapitulation is saturated with the strains of a reversal motif. Every damage done in Eden is reversed in Christ. Thorns give way to fecundity, death to life, pain to pleasure—and this in the world God created for man to rule and enjoy. This “materialism”, therefore, is not to be disdained as something less than spiritual.

For it is just that in that very creation in which they toiled or were afflicted, being proved in every way by suffering, they should receive the reward of their suffering; and that in the creation in which they were slain be revived again; and that in the creation in which they endured servitude, in that they should reign. (Haer., 5.32.1)

Pastoral Concern for Persecuted Church

Pastoral concern for persecuted believers in Lyon and Vienne in southern France infused Irenaeus’s ministry. Eusebius described social, economic, and physical difficulties that Roman law imposed (Hist. Eccles., 5.1.5–10). In this context the promise that Christ had overcome the world might well take on more material connotations than comfortable spiritualizers might think necessary.

Chiliasm Essential

Notice that chiliasm moved from being optional during Justin’s time to being required during Irenaeus’s time. This may be explained by to reasons. First, life and death struggles with Gnostics would surely have provoked Irenaeus to take a hard line against their anti-materialistic heresies.1 Second, a more clearly developed doctrine compels adherence by all right-thinking believers. In its undeveloped forms, it could be more optional than the form that Irenaeus developed. For example, Justin’s form of chiliasm was not necessary to his entire theological system; but Irenaeus’s extensive rationale for chiliasm carried with it the corollary that opposition to chiliasm would mean opposition to the teaching that Christ’s work redeems all creation.

Day/Year Scheme and Death of Adam

Just as Justin had, Irenaeus cited Isaiah 65:18 (Irenaeus, Haer., 5.34.4, cf. Justin, Dial., 81), and he also followed the year-day speculation about the death of Adam (Irenaeus, Haer., 5.23.1–2, cf. Justin, Dial., 81). But he was not content merely to restate Justin’s work; he went on to provide chiliasm with its most persuasive and thorough rationale.


The anti-Pope bishop Hippolytus, whom Photinus identified as a disciple of Irenaeus (Quasten 1953, 163–64), demonstrated a basic chiliasm in his Antichrist (ca. AD 200) and his Commentary on Daniel, the earliest known exegetical work of the church (ca. AD 204). He indicated that the pattern that Irenaeus had outlined was common in later Judaism (early third century);2 he said the Jews believed the warrior Messiah would fight against the nations then gather the Jews into Jerusalem where he would reign over them. Another way, in which the Messiah would be killed, would ensure; then this universe would come to and end, to be followed by a new age, general resurrection, and judgment.

Symbolic “Thousand”

Some question whether we can rightly classify Hippolytus as a chiliast. Though you expect to read a clear expression of the millennium at any time when reading his writings, it never comes. In fact, Hippolytus differed from Irenaeus’s exegesis of Revelation 20:2–5. He said the 1,000 years do not refer literally to the duration of the kingdom; rather, it’s a symbolic number pointing to the splendor of the kingdom (Cap. c. Caium [GCS 1, Pt 2, 246f.])

Cosmic Week

Still, Hippolytus surely reflects the language common to other theologians of undoubted chiliastic credentials, such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Lactantius:

And 6,000 years must needs be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day “on which God rested from all his works” For the Sabbath is the type and emblem of the future kingdom of the saints, when they “shall reign with Christ,” when he comes from heaven, as John says in his Apocalypse: for “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.” Since then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled. (On Daniel, 4)

Here he refers to the millennium as the eschatological “Sabbath” in the manner of the Epistle of Barnabas 15. He cites Psalm 90:4, only alluding to John’s Apocalypse, in the manner of Justin (Dial., 81). And he develops the cosmic-week speculation, even establishing a date for the beginning of the millennium: five hundred years after the birth of Christ (Dan 6).

Different Concerns from Other Chiliasts

Clearly he is a chiliast. Where he differs from the others is in his date-setting, in the lack of a description of the millennium (no Papian fecundity is mentioned), and in the lack of any extended rationale for his position. His concern with the Antichrist speculations dominates to the exclusion of other issues. In Hippolytus we see the beginnings of the downfall of chiliasm in his speculations about date-setting and phobia about the Antichrist (see his Treatise on Christ and Antichrist,  ANF, 5).


The Montanists looked to Montanus, who thought himself the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, to the “Spirit of Truth” who was to reveal coming things. Around Montanus there gathered a bunch of visionaries who kept having fantastic millennarian visions.

The theme of their illuminations was the imminent coming of the Kingdom: the New Jerusalem was about to descend from the heaven on to Phrygian soil, where it would become the habitation of the Saints. The Montanists accordingly summoned all Christians to Phrygia, there to await the Parousia, or Second Coming, in fasting and prayer and bitter repentance (Cohn 1957, 9).

Works Cited

  1. Cohn, Norman Rufus Colin. “The Pursuit of the Millennium,” 1957.
  2. Cox, A. Cleveland. “Introductory Notes to Irenaeus’s Against Heresies,” 1899–1900.
  3. Gregory, Joel C. “The Chiliastic Hermeneutic of Papias of Hieropolis and Justin Martyr Compared with Later Patristic Chilasts,” 1983.
  4. Quasten, Johannes. “Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus,” 1953.


  1. Note that opponents often accuse chiliasts of being materialistic. Chiliasts might just as well reply that their opponents are anti-materialistic—like the Gnostics.
  2. Some Christian opponents of chiliasm stigmatized it as “Jewish.”

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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