Chiliasm (Part 8): Christian Opposition

The third century saw the first concerted moves to discredit chiliasm. Origin, with his Greek imagination, was more taken with the prospects of progress in this world that continued in the next than in any material enjoyment. The church had enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace, was favored with an acknowledged position in the world.

Outmoded Dreams of Paradise

Prosperous Powerful Church

During the fourth century, Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, thus enjoying great influence throughout the Mediterranean. In this environment, ecclesiastical condemnation of chiliasm became emphatic. The prosperous, well-ordered church of that time had little use for outmoded dreams of a new earthly Paradise, and Augustine himself began teaching that the spiritual allegory of Revelation was being fulfilled in the church.

Council of Ephesus

This became the orthodox position, and chiliasm was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) as a superstitious aberration. Cohn remarks,

The very fact that the eminently respectable Irenaeus could have regarded such as belief as an indispensable part of orthodoxy was now felt to be intolerable. Determined efforts were made to suppress the chiliastic chapters of his treatise Against Heresies, and to such good effect that it was only in 1575 that they were rediscovered in a manuscript which the expurgators happened to have overlooked.1

Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria[a] (ca. 184–ca. 253)

The church succeeded in subduing this sort of apocalyptic interest, but it didn’t entirely go away; people were always apt to turn to the book of Revelation and the many commentaries on it.


With Origin, the move away from general acceptance of chiliasm as orthodoxy gained momentum.

Accusted Chiliasts of Reading the Scripture “like Jews”

He castigated the follies of literalist believers who read the Scriptures like the Jews and cherished dreams of dwelling in an earthly Jerusalem after the resurrection, where they wold eat, drink and enjoy sexual intercourse to their heart’s content (De princ., 2.11.1–2). The flip side of this distaste for literalism in descriptions of the blessings of the saints is that he also spiritualizes the sufferings of the damned: “Each sinner kindles his own fire… and our own vices form its fruit” (De princ., 2.10.4; cf. Jerome, in Eph. 5.6). Origen (d. 254) allegorized the millennium, speaking of it as a reign of Christ in the heart of believers, which subjects them to the Father (De princ., 2.1; 3.6).

Eastern Church and the Book of Revelation

The Eastern church tended to reject the book of Revelation, along with a materialistic millennia hope. Dionysius of Alexandria, a pupil of Origen, discredited the belief in the millennium, linking this attack with a rejection of the authenticity of the book of Revelation. Speaking of this, Eusebius even mentioned that some believed that Cerinthus or Papias had written the book of Revelation (Hist. Eccles., 3.28; 7.24–25).


Basil of Caesarea
Saint Basil of Caesarea (AD 329-379), 15th century micrography from Mount Athos

A century later, the anti-chiliastic camp was prevailing. In a letter dated in 377, Basil (ca. 329–79), the bishop of Caesarea, went after a number of his contemporaries whom he thought were teaching error, blasting the chiliastic teachings of Apollinarius with a particular vigor:

Next comes Apollinarius, who is no less a cause of sorrow to the Churches. With his facility of writing, and a tongue ready to argue on any subject, he has filled the world with his works, in disregard of the advice of him who said, “Beware of the making of many books.2 …. He has written about the resurrection, from a mythical, or rather Jewish, point of view; urging that we shall return again to the worship of the Law, be circumcised, keep the Sabbath, abstain from meats, offer sacrifices to God, worship in the Temple at Jerusalem, and be altogether turned from Christians into Jews. What could be more ridiculous? Or, rather, what could be more contrary to the doctrines of the Gospel? (Letters, 263.4)

Jerome and Augustine

Jerome had little use for the millenarian idea of an earthly kingdom (In Is., 18). Augustine confessed that he had at one time been attracted to millennarianism, but he later was repelled by gross dreams of carnal indulgence, and he began to favor an allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation.

The first resurrection would be our restoration from the death of sin to Christian life, the reign of Christ and his saints would be the apostolic mission of the church on earth, and the thousand years would refer to the total duration of the earthly church (City of God, 20.6.1–2; 20.7.2; 20.9.1).

Earliest known portrait of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-450), in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Augustine looked for no actual second advent of Christ before the final judgment; his coming occurs continually in the church and its members, and the first resurrection symbolizes the change in status as converts rise to new life. The thousand year reign of Christ on earth actually began with Jesus himself, for it is the Christian church wherein the saints reign (City of God, 10.6–7).


  1. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn: N.J.: Essential Books, 1957) 14.
  2. Eccles. 12:12, LXX translation.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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