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The Beginnings of Millennialism



Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1–2)


The Christian Church has always been fascinated by the mysterious Book of Revelation. Preachers have reached into its mysteries to illustrate theological points, create new doctrines, identify the antichrist, or unravel events in history.

One of the most noteworthy attempts at using prophecy to predict a future event was done by a Baptist layman by the name of William Miller. After a diligent study of prophecy, particularly the 1290 days of Daniel found in Daniel 12:11, he determined that Jesus would return to the earth on October 22, 1844. The popularity of this prediction was evidenced by the fact that as many as 100,000 people gathered together in various places across the northeastern part of the United States awaiting this momentous event. When Jesus did not return as predicted, these people quietly returned home to their churches, and some were so disappointed that they lost their Christian faith altogether. People should have been forewarned, as Miller had previously predicted the return of Christ in 1843. The excuse for this failure was attributed to Miller’s not taking into account the transition in the calendar from b.c. to a.d., thus throwing his calculation off by one year. The 1844 debacle became known as The Great Disappointment.

Speculative prophecy did not die with Miller and The Great Disappointment, it was then, and continues to be, an attraction in most mainline and evangelical churches.


Millennialism Introduced Into the Church


Millennialism appeared in Christian theology as far back as the second century. The idea of a millennium was adopted by a man named Cerinthus based upon the common teaching of the Jews that Messiah would reestablish the kingdom of Israel and reign on earth for a period of one thousand years. Modern teachers like to use the fact that the Jews believed in a millennium as justification for carrying this belief into Christian theology. Some among the millennialists believe that Christ would have set up the kingdom of God and reigned on the earth had it not been for the crucifixion. In their thinking, the crucifixion stopped God’s plan for history, causing God to come up with the church age in the interim, and to later set up the kingdom in a millennium at some indefinite future time. As absurd as that may sound to amillennialists and many premillennialists, the introduction of millennial teaching into the church is even more absurd.

Cerinthus, the father of supposed Christian millennialism, was a gnostic and was condemned as a heretic by the early Church Fathers. Cerinthus was less than Christians as he followed the Jewish law; he denied that God made the physical world; and, he rejected the divinity of Jesus. He taught that, at the second coming, Jesus would establish a thousand-year reign of sensual pleasure which would be followed by the general resurrection. Irenaeus wrote that Cerinthus claimed to have been inspired by angels. It is said that the Apostle John called Cerinthus an enemy of truth, and it is felt by some scholars that he may have been one of the people John had in mind when he wrote 1 John 4:2–3: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.”

The next advocate of millennialism was a man by the name of Papias who lived from 70–163 a.d. Eusebius writes of Papias in his Ecclesiastical History:


The same historian also gives other accounts, which he says he adds as received by him from unwritten tradition, likewise certain strange parables of our Lord, and of his doctrine, and some other matters rather too fabulous. In these he says there would be a certain millennium after the resurrection, and that there would be a corporeal reign of Christ on this very earth; which things he appears to have imagined, as if they were authorized by the apostolic narrations, not understanding correctly those matters which they propounded mystically in their representations. For he was very limited in his comprehension, as is evident from his discourses.[1]


Origen opposed this teaching of Papias and brought it into general discredit in the Church.

The next proponent of a millennium to surface in the Church was a man named Nepos, who was a bishop in Egypt around 255 a.d. Eusebius writes of him:


He taught, that the promises given to holy men in the Scriptures, should be understood more as the Jews understood them, and supposed that there would be a certain millennium of sensual luxury on this earth. Thinking, therefore, that he could establish his own opinion by the Revelation of John. . .  He asserts that there will be an earthly reign of Christ.[2]


Nepos was a strict literalist and believed the Bible to be true in a literal sense—including the Book of Revelation.

H. M. Riggle in his book Christ’s Kingdom and Reign[3] cites Dr. Schaff’s History, p. 299 where it reads: “Though millennialism had been suppressed by the early church, it was nevertheless from time to time revived by heretical sects.” I have not been able to locate that citation. However, in Volume II of Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, pp 424 & 425 we do find a similar comment with regard to a sect known as the Montanists. Montanism was an ascetic influence originating in the province of Phrygia that worked itself into the church in the late second century based on the teachings of a priest by the name of Montanus. The sect formed around his teachings was considered heretical by the church. Schaff writes:


Another of the essential and prominent traits of Montanism was a visionary millennarianism, founded indeed on the Apocalypse and on the apostolic expectation of the speedy return of Christ, but given it extravagant weight and a materialistic coloring. The Montanists were the warmest millenarians in the ancient church, and held fast to the speedy return of Christ in glory . . . They lived under a vivid impression of the great final catastrophe, and looked therefore with contempt upon the present order of things, and directed all their desires to the second advent of Christ. . . . The millenarianism of the Montanists has reappeared again and again in widely different forms.


It was not really until the Reformation that any form of millennialism became accepted in the Christian church. Initially, Martin Luther identified the pope with the antichrist of the Book of Revelation. As Protestantism grew and studying Scripture became acceptable for the clergy, scholars began to associate the 1000 years of Revelation chapter 20 with some form of a millennium.


Millennialism In Modern Times


Earlier, I mentioned the The Great Disappointment of 1844. While people backed away from the fanaticism that caused this debacle, interest in Bible prophecy continued. What appeared to be a new form of millennialism was developed by Reverend John Darby and the sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. Darby developed a dispensationalism that was essentially a revival of Rabbinical millennialism with a Christian face. He did not specify any dates, but he did establish an order for the events of the end-time and the millennial reign of Christ. These teachings were picked up by Cyrus Schofield in 1909 and were incorporated into the notes of his Schofield Reference Bible. Moody Bible Institute and the Dallas Theological Seminary became major players in introducing dispensational millennialism into the theology of most evangelical churches. There are two excellent works refuting Reverend Darby’s millennialism, as well as certain other errors espoused by Darby: Daniel Steele, Substitute for Holiness, published in 1887; and, Philip Mauro, The Gospel of the Kingdom, published in 1928. (Both books are available for reading on this website.)

When we speak of millennialism, it is important to understand that there are four different approaches to millennialism.

The first is Amillennialism, which denies a real 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth. This view interprets the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation chapter 20 as a symbolic period of time as opposed to a literal 1000 years. There is to be no literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth.

Next is Postmillennialism. It is characterized by the following: Revelation chapter 20 depicts Christ’s second coming happening after the millennium; however, the millennium is not necessarily a literal 1000 years but a figure indicating a long period of time. The expectation of postmillennialism is that the kingdom of God will be established on earth by Christians and not by Jesus Christ. Through the spread of the gospel, it is believed that the world will become better and made ready for the return of Christ. In this view, the millennium will be a golden age of Christian prosperity and dominance.

Historic premillennialism. This view believes that the present age of grace was intended by God and prophesied through the Old Testament. This view originated with those mentioned in connection with the early church and was advanced by the Reformers during the 16th to 18th centuries. Proponents of this view of millennialism have different viewpoints, but generally they see the end time events as: (1) Antichrist appears, (2) Seven-years of tribulation, (3) The Rapture where Christ and His Church return to earth to rule for 1000 years (although some adherents do not believe in a Rapture),  and (4) After the millennium, the faithful will spend eternity in a cubical structure 1380 miles high, wide, and deep that will have descended onto the earth. (The heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 21)

Dispensational premillennialism. This form of millennialism is based on a literal method of interpreting the Book of Revelation, which, to its adherents means there will be a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth. There are essentially two schools of thought among the dispensational premillennialist: Historic premillennialism, and Dispensational dispensationalism.

Historic premillennialism (dispensational, not the same as the above) views the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation as depicting the history of the church in symbolic form. This view looks for a national salvation of the nation of Israel immediately preceding the millennium. In this sense, Israel and the church play the same roles in prophecy and there is no distinct and separate role for Israel.

Dispensational premillennialism is the most prevalent view. In this form of millennialism the next event in eschatology will be the tribulation. While a rapture of the church is involved, there are differences of opinion as to when the rapture will take place: pre-tribulation (before the tribulation), mid-tribulation (at the middle of the tribulation), and post-tribulation (after the tribulation). Following the tribulation will be the millennium, which will be a literal 1000 years. Christians that reign with Christ will have glorified eternal bodies and rule with Christ during the millennium; Jews will have normal bodies. The Jews will have dominion over the entire world, the temple and priesthood will be restored. At the end of the millennium, the devil will be loosed to battle with the converted Jews, who will suffer martyrdom for the sake of the gospel.

There are different beliefs on many of the points of dispensational millennialism, as there are with other forms of the teaching. About the only approach to millennialism where all adherents are agreed is amillennialism—all are agreed there is no millennium.




The teaching of millennialism has had a long history beginning with the Jewish longing for Messiah and then attempts to bring that teaching into the Christian Church. Initially, millennial teaching was held to be heresy, but after several hundred years, it was tolerated but not given any prominence. It is only in relatively recent times that millennialism has been elevated to prominence in most Christian circles, with dispensational premillennialism being the most accepted form. In the present time, with all of the political turmoil and terrorism in the Middle East, modern day prophets are continually seeing fulfillment of prophecy in the daily events happening around the world. We know that the Second Advent is close at hand. We must be prepared for Christ’s return, but we should not be so concerned about all the prophetic wrangling.

[1] Quoted in Christ’ Kingdom and Reign, by H. M. Riggle, Gospel Trumpet Company: Anderson, IN, 1918, ppg. 18 & 49.

[2] Ibid, page 50.

[3] Ibid, page 50