Chiliasm (Part 7): Tertullian, Lactantius, and Others


Quintus Florens Tertullian (AD 160-220)

Tertullian, who followed the Montanists, after establishing the reality of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, went on to caution that this does not exclude the earthly kingdom too. In fact, the latter will come before the former and will last for 1,000 years, centered in Jerusalem, which has come down from heaven. He did, however, show some tendency to spiritualize the doctrine, referring it to the Lord’s flesh (De resurr. carn., 26, 11). After mentioning “the figurative interpretation” applied to Christ and the church, he says:

But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, “let down from heaven,” which the apostle also calls “our mother from above”; and, while declaring that our πολίτευμα, or citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven. (Against Marcion, 3.25)

But then he continued in a remarkable fashion:

This prophecy, indeed, has been vary lately fulfilled in an expedition to the East. For it is evident from the testimony of even heathen witnesses, that in Judea there was suspended in the sky a city early every morning for forty days. As the day advanced, the entire figure of its walls would wane gradually, and sometimes it would vanish instantly. We say that this city has been provided by God for receiving the saints on their resurrection. (Against Marcion, 3.25)

Followed the “New Prophecy”

The main difference we see in Tertullian’s chiliasm from that of the others we have studied is that he based his on the new prophecy of the Montanists, who taught that they were living in the age of the Paraclete. The world history of Tertullian was not only a cosmic week; it was also a redemptive history divided upon into the Old Testament age, the age of Christ, and the age of the Spirit. He embraced Justin’s chiliasm, referring to the same hopes and turning to the same books Justin mentioned; in other words, his content was the same, but he embraced an additional authority alongside Scripture.

Much like Papias, who wanted an immediate authority for his teaching and had based his chiliasm on a saying handed down from the elders rather than on a writing, Tertullian grounded his chiliasm in the new prophetic activity rather than a so-called dead letter.

Salvation in Time and Space

But in spite of these substantial differences, there were also substantial similarities with the earlier chiliasts. Most notably, he reflected Irenaeus’s emphasis that salvation must come in time and space; for “it is both just and God-worthy that His servants should have their joy in the place where they have also suffered affliction for His name’s sake” (Against Marcion, 3.23).

Note also the similar apologetic thrust necessitated by controversy with Marcion, who demeaned the god of the Old Testament saints as less worthy than the spiritual god of the New Testament revealed in Christ.1

After thousands of years, he expected that the world would be destroyed in “the conflagration at the judgment,” and we would be made like angels in incorruptible substance and be moved to the kingdom in heaven (Against Marcion, 3.25).


Use of Sibylline Oracles

One final major figure in chiliasm remains to be discussed. Lactantius’s major contribution lay not so much in content, but in his enthusiastic use of the Sibylline Oracles as a source. He concluded that the Sibylla had prophesied better than they knew. Being ignorant of the meaning of the Hebrew prophetic past tense, they failed to understand that their own prophecies actually referred to the Christian eschaton (Div. inst., 7.24–25). The Erythrean Sibyl spoke of the reign of Christ (7.20), and Chrysippus mentioned the renewing of the world (7.23).

Earlier Jewish Use of the Sibylline Oracles

As we have noted, the Jews has already adapted the Sibyllines to their own use, and other Christians after Lactantius would make vigorous use of them (Moffatt; Collins 1974; Kurfess 1965). In fact, their popularity with Christians seems to be what moved them out of favor with rabbinic Judaism.

Coming in the fourth century, Lactantius reinforced his personal evangelism with promises of a bloody overthrow of the wicked and with wonders of the millennium. The heavenly bodies would become brighter, the earth would flow with milk and honey, and all animals would live in harmony (Div. inst., 7.24). He was quite willing to go into detail about all of this, reminding his readers that Christians have the inside track on such things.

Use of the “Cosmic Week”

Speaking about the cosmic week, he said,

Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed…. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of truth, know the beginning and the end of the world, respecting which we now speak…. Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodeled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of the Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from his works. But this is the Sabbath day, which in the language of Hebrew received its name from the number, when the seventh is the legitimate and complete number….

Therefore, since all the works of God were completed in six days, the world must continue in its present state through six ages, this is, six thousand years. For the great day of God is limited by a circle of a thousand years, as the prophet shows who says, “In thy sight, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day.” And as God labored during those six days in creating such great works, so His religion and truth must labor during these six thousand years, while wickedness prevails and bears rule. And again, since God, having finished his work, rested on the seventh day and blessed it, at the end of the six thousandth year all wickedness must be abolished from the earth, and righteousness reign for a thousand years; and there must be tranquility and rest from the labors which the world now has long endured. But how that will come to pass I will explain in its order. We have often said that lesser things and things of small importance are figures and previous shadowings forth of great things; as this day of ours, which is bounded by the rising and setting of the sun, is a representation of that great day to which the circuit of a thousand years fixes its limits. (Div. inst., 7.14)

And just as man was created on the sixth day and introduced into an entire creation prepared for him,

so now on the great sixth day the true man is being formed by the word of God, that is, a holy people is fashioned for righteousness by the doctrine and precepts of God. And as then a mortal and imperfect man was formed from the earth, the he might live a thousand years in this world; so now from this earthly age is formed a perfect man, that being quickened by God, he may bear rule in this same world through a thousand years. (Div. inst., 7.14)

During this period, when the prince of devils is bound, there will be a millennium of God’s rule:

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. But the nations shall not be entirely extinguished, but some shall be left as a victory for God, that they may be the occasion of triumph to the righteous, and may be subjected to perpetual slavery. (Div. inst., 7.24)

Attempts to Keep Chiliasm Alive

Methodius (d. 311) tried unsuccessfully to keep alive the belief in the millennium, at least in a modified form (Cross 1960, 178–79; Schaff 1892, 809–10), which had dried up in the withering attack of Origen (Symp., 9.1, 3f.; 10.5). He rejected its more “carnal” aspects (Conv., 8.1).

Apollinarius was apparently about the only champion of chiliasm that could be found among the fourth-century writers, and Basil was busy attacking his millennia notions (Basil, Letter, 263.4).

Ambrosiaster (pseudonymous writer, ca. 375) saw the collapse of the Roman empire as a sign of the end. After Christ destroyed the Antichrist, he would reign over his saints for a 1,000 years.

Commodianus (5th cent. Latin poet) saw the Messiah return at the head of a host made up of members from the ten lost tribes who had survived in some unknown location. These hidden people would be so virtuous that they would avoid bloodshed, even to the point of vegetarianism.

Because of this, it was also a divinely favored community, being immune from fatigue, sickness, and premature death. With God’s blessing, the host would crush all resistance, devastating lands and destroying and looting cities on their way to liberate Jerusalem, “the captive mother.” The Antichrist would flee to the north in terror, from whence he would return with the forces of Gog and Magog, only to be defeated and cast into hell.

As for the Holy People themselves, they live forever in a Holy Jerusalem—immortal and unaging, marrying and begetting, unaffected by rain or cold, while all around them a perpetually rejuvenated earth pours forth its fruits (Cohn 1957, 13).

Works Cited

  1. Cohn, Norman Rufus Colin. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Fairlawn: N.J.: Essential Books, 1957.
  2. Collins, James. Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. SBL Dissertation Series 13. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1974.
  3. Cross, F. L. Early Christian Fathers. London: Duckworth, 1960.
  4. Kurfess, A. “The Christian Sibyllines.” In New Testament Apocrypha, edited by E. Hennecke, 2:703–44. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965.
  5. Moffatt, James. “Sibylline Oracles.” In Dictionary of the Apostolic Church.
  6. Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Christianity AD 100–325. Vol. 2, History of the Christian Church. 6th ed. 7 vols. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1892.


  1. Accusations that chiliasm is a Judaizing exegesis might be answered with the reminder that it was the Gnostics, Marcionites, and allegorizers who were the earliest opponents of chiliasm.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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