The Many Millenniums

Just as the door to the great abyss cannot be located on a map, the duration of the thousand years cannot be located on a calendar. One does not draw nearer to heaven by means of a space shuttle or nearer to the abyss by digging a shaft into the ground, and one does not enter the thousand-year period by turning a calendar page.
Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things (81).

The belief in a millennial promise is controversial within Christianity. While some mainstream faiths, Catholicism and Lutheranism for example, are amillennial and have no doctrine of a literal thousand-year period as important in Christianity, many other traditions, large and small, make the millennium a central point of faith. Though only one chapter in the New Testament, Revelation 20, has specific reference to the promise of a millennium, the concept has fascinated theologians and the laity for more than 1900 years.

Some interpret the passage to mean a thousand-year period of peace on earth leading to the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgement. This belief is called postmillennialism. Others believe in premillennialism, the faith in the Second Coming but placing the event at the beginning and not the end of the millennium of peace. The primary form of premillennialism in North America has been dispensational premillennialism, an interpretation of scripture prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many other opinions and alternate readings of Revelation have been offered. Some, such as the Thomas Brightman and Cotton Mather, offered much more radical interpretations. In light of the various views, it is interesting to look at some of the ways millennial beliefs have influenced the secular world, especially the years 1000 and 2000.

This topic is quite complex and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the subject. The concern of this paper is not to explain all of the scholarship, merely to address millennial beliefs specifically in the context of the period of 1000 years.

Revelation 20

The Book of Revelation is in the genre known as apocalyptic literature. Norman Cohn establishes that apocalyptic texts supporting revolutionary eschatology are generally written during periods of repression (19). The earliest existing text in Judeo-Christian history is chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel which dates to 165 BCE, a time of upheaval and division for the Jewish world and roughly the time of the Maccabean revolt (20-1). These early texts are still mentioned in Jewish millenarian beliefs and also in Christian theology in connection with Revelation. [1]

Christianity arose in the Second Temple period of Judaism, a time of interest in messianic prophecy. Messianic traditions predict a saviour, a redeemer of the faithful; apocalyptic myths regard the present not in terms of creation but of the anticipated "final" events and revelations to come (Paden 76). Millenarian myths point not only to the past which must be regained, but more importantly to a future life for which one must prepare (77). The origins of Millenarian beliefs lie in the Judaic apocalyptic genre. Hans Schwarz identifies two types of apocalyptic expectation, "a national expectation, which hoped for a messianic kingdom with the Jewish people ruling together with the Messiah over the non-believers, after a final war, and a universal expectation, which hoped for the salvation of the faithful beyond the destruction and re-creation of the world" (182).

Christian traditions have explained the millennial kingdom as an earthly kingdom in which Old Testament promises are fulfilled. Usually this belief is based on the book of Isaiah which prophecies a time when the chosen will live long and peaceful lives [2](Koester 183). There is no specific duration for this temporary Messianic Kingdom. In 4 Ezra it is 400 years and so "the Kingdom of God was thus thought of by the Jews in the time of Jesus as a glorious future state. The main conception was of a Kingdom won by and based on force, by the action of God" (Guy 21). Also, the Book of Enoch mentions the coming 'Sabbath,' 1000 years of peace which follow 6000 years of history, followed by a timeless 'eighth day' (149).

There are seven references in the new Testament to "a thousand years," six of them in Revelation 20: 1-7. [3] The remaining reference is 2 Peter 3:8, "be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," (KJV) a passage often mentioned in connection to the millennium. [4] Revelation 20 details when "the martyrs will be resurrected at the first resurrection and Satan will be bound on this occasion for a thousand years so that the martyrs can reign with Christ" (Schwarz 182). It is from this mention of a thousand years that so much debate has arisen.

Numbers recur in Revelation: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven angels, twelve tribes, twelve thousand people from each. Some have argued that the number 1000 is only symbolic. Augustine explained that 1000 "is a perfect number, ideal for allegorical expressions of notions like "lots," or "totality," or "all generations," but not for anything exact" (Weber 36). Following Jesus' death and resurrection, the disciples waited anxiously for his second coming, "an event they associated with the final deliverance of the Jewish people, the end of history, and the beginning of the perfect kingdom" (Rifkin 151). Every Christian tradition addresses the issue of the millennium, if only to dismiss it.


Though it is impossible to know precisely how the author of Revelation thought of the Millennium, some have suggested that the author used the common convention of the phrase "a thousand years" to represent an unspecified lengthy duration, while others have thought the phrase represents the idea of completeness (Guy 150). The dominant belief in the Roman Catholic Church is that apocalyptic literature is spiritual in meaning and the texts "evoke the ongoing struggle between righteousness and evil in human history and within each individual human heart" (Boyer 142). The approach is called amillennial or nonmillennial as it completely dismisses a millennium occurring in history and places "Christ's ultimate triumph outside the temporal realm, not in an actual earthly reign of one thousand years" (143).This belief was espoused by Origen and St. Augustine and is the doctrine of the Catholic Church as well as Lutheran and Reformed Churches (143). For Augustine, the Church itself was the embodiment of the millennium and it is the discussion of millennium in his 426 CE book City of God that directly led to the rejection of millennialism at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (Bloom 222).

Amillennialism promises no future golden age on earth but instead says that Christ exercises his power within the spiritual sphere, in the individual soul or in the Church. Amillennialism contains no vision of hope for the future prior to the Last Day. On the Last Day, Christ returns to manifest the perfect and eternal kingdom (Schwarz 187). For the Church, all of time is only the interval between the first and Second Coming; time is only a waiting period (Rifkin 158). By the fourth century, the Christian Church was discouraging any sort of explicit expectation in a specific period of millennium (Barnes 20).


The delayed Second Coming is the domain of the postmillennialists. Postmillennialists believe we are living in the last days of a sinful world and they must actively prepare earth for the Second Coming and may even be able to alter the timing of the millennium (Shupe 196). Though both pre- and postmillennialists believe in a thousand years of peace before the final judgement, premillennialists have "a pessimistic interpretation of human history, believing that events on earth will go from bad to worse until Jesus Christ personally comes to inaugurate the millennium. The postmillennialist view is ... optimistic: the saints' efforts will succeed in establishing the millennium, and Jesus will come only at the end of this human effort" (Introvigne 230). The period prior to the judgement may not be a thousand years. The millennium may be a "latter-day prosperity" prior to Christ's coming (Schwarz 186-7). The return of Christ will introduce not a temporal kingdom but an eternally peaceful state brought on by the good works of the Church (187).

The binding of Satan during this time is not the literal reign of Christ but rather the reign of the church in society (Peters 29). The thousand years, be it a literal thousand or merely 'a long time,' is referred to as the golden age of the church (29). This millennium is a time of conversion when both Jews and Gentiles will come to the church (29). The binding of Satan "represents the power of the gospel to work victory in the heart of the believer, bringing him or her from unfaith to faith" (30). The primary advantage of a thousand-year period of peace from the postmillennialist point of view is the opportunity to save many more souls. In 1758, Joseph Bellamy (1719-90) calculated that the ratio of saved to damned would be more than 17,000 to 1, a feat impossible if the Judgement is an immediate and sudden event (Moorhead 76).

For many, the new world of North America represented a fresh beginning and the place to set the foundation for the postmillennial effort.

Postmillennialism in America

The Puritan movement in the eastern United States was founded on the belief that it was possible to create the New Jerusalem in the wilderness of the new world (Smolinski 36). Postmillennialists would see the United States, through concerted evangelical effort, gradually turned into a wondrous millennial kingdom (Williams 190). The seventeenth century was a period of renewal in apocalyptic thought in which many theologians posed varying theories of the nature of the golden age: spiritual, literal, heavenly or earthly and also the timing of the millennium (Smolinski 37-8).

The creation of the United States "promised victory over yet another set of foes: slavery and the sinful, decadent slave-holders" (Williams 190). Postmillennialism was tied to American Protestantism when Methodist Jesse Peck (1811-83) wrote in his book The History of the Great Republic of the "epic postmillennial drama with the United States as the central actor in the history of the world ... a civilization dedicated to the gospel and political liberty was to usher in a new epoch for humanity. Heretofore, the taint of slavery and despotism impeded that mission; but now, with the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation was fully ready to assume its destiny" (Moorhead 86). Julia Howard's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also tied the apocalyptic struggle to American history including such images as "He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword" (Williams 213). In the progress of the nineteenth century, prior to the civil war, there had been a period of optimism which, to many, hinted that the promised millennium was already upon us (Peters 30). To others, however, the same signs that indicated great promise also warned of great danger. Premillennialists believed the worst times were to come.


The principle feature of premillennial belief is the awaiting of an imminent Second Coming. The sequence of millennial events from the premillennialist point of view is that Christ will return bodily and rule earth from Jerusalem. The righteous dead will rise, the first resurrection, and will participate in this new kingdom. The Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt and Satan will be bound for a thousand years in which there will be peace on earth (Peters 31). Christ will see humanity through the last stage of history. The millennium is the literal thousand years that Christ will rule over the earth and Satan will be bound and all nations of the earth will be subject to the theocratic rule of Christ (Schwarz 186). According to premillennial belief, the Second Coming will be preceded by war, pestilence, misery, and widespread social disorder and only through Jesus himself can the millennium begin (Shupe 196). Following the Second Coming, Christ and his angels will defeat the forces of the Antichrist and bind Satan for a thousand years and create the millennial kingdom under the reestablished throne of David (Schwarz 188). After the thousand years have passed, some humans will reject the enforced peace and will follow the released Satan in an effort to conquer the Holy City (188). The uprising will be crushed and Satan completely defeated, which is followed immediately by the second resurrection and the Final Judgement (188). Judgement Day "has been conceived as the great award day. This is especially evident in the [millennial] hopes of a 1000-year rule over and at the expense of others" (Schwarz 259).

William Miller (1782-1849), a Baptist biblical scholar and itinerant evangelist from western New York, focused on Daniel 8:14 which reads "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed" (KJV). Using the conversion of one year for one day and the year 458 BCE, the year the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple began, as the beginning of the 2300 years, Miller placed the return of Jesus about the year 1843 (Boyer 145-6). Others in the Millerite movement would later come to the exact date of the Second Coming as October 22, 1844 and the movement gained many followers as the date approached (146). The movement collapsed almost overnight when the promised day came and went, an event known as "The Great Disappointment," but one faction that remained faithful would later become known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church, one of the most influential groups in forming premillennialist beliefs into the present day (146, 157).

Dispensational Premillennialism

Premillennialism lost favour after the collapse of the Millerite movement and did not gain a popular following in the United States again until the rise of dispensational premillennialism in the late 1800s. Former Church of Ireland priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) believed that history is a series of "dispensations," stages "in each of which God dealt with humanity in different ways, and in which the means of grace differed ... For example, he saw an absolute distinction between God's plan for the Jews and God's plan for the Gentiles" (Boyer 149). The most important contribution of Darby to millennialism was the introduction of the concept of Rapture, the bodily raising of the saintly into heaven which would immediately proceed the Great Tribulation and the reign of the Antichrist (150-1). It is in the doctrine of the Rapture that Darby created the lasting belief that, to avoid the horrors of the Great Tribulation, one should be as sinless as possible (151).

It is dispensational premillennialism which still dominates Protestant understandings of the millennium and directly influenced the writing of the Scofield Reference Bible, an annotated version of the King James Bible originally published in 1909 and still common in Evangelical Christian homes (155-6).The Scofield Bible divides history into seven successive dispensations, characterized by God's dealing with the human race (Peters 32). The dispensations according to Scofield were innocence, conscience, civil government, promise, law, grace, and the kingdom and we are currently between the periods of grace and the kingdom (32). In each dispensation, humankind is tested by some aspect of God's will and each time humankind fails, we are judged by God, and then set back on the path under a new covenant (Schwarz 187).

The Fundamentalist Christian approach to the millennium would become post-Tribulation and premillennial, placing the return of Jesus after a period of turmoil and before the a thousand years of peace (Boyer 165). This belief became prominent following the Second World War as the threats of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation became the accepted sources of the horrors of the Tribulation (165-70); the creation of the nation of Israel was seen as one of the most notable signs of this coming event (171). This would continue to be the theme in millenarian groups through the New Age movement and isolationist groups such as the heretical offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Branch Davidians (Moorhead 103).


Many other interpretations of the millennium have been offered. Thomas Brightman (1562-1607), for example, believed that the rule of the Byzantine Empire of 306-1300 CE was the thousand years of the binding of Satan (Smolinski 38). Brightman did not believe the binding and the reign of Christ were concurrent but instead consecutive; 1300 to 2300 would be the period of Christ's millennial reign and Judgement Day would follow (38).

Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a pastor of the Second Church of Boston, used evidence from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Papias and Polycarp to argue "Christ will appear at the beginning and end of the millennium; the first and second resurrection are both literal and corporeal; the raised saints of the first resurrection would rule visibly in a literal New Jerusalem in the heavens" (Smolinski 49).

Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), a postmillennialist, focused his interpretation on the connection of Romans 11 to Revelation and believed that only the destruction of Antichrist and his allies prior to the millennium will make the promises of heaven on earth possible (Smolinski 55).

Founder of the Watch Tower Tract Society Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) believed the millennium would begin in 1914 and he saw the beginning of World War I as proof of the coming cataclysm (Koester 16). Russell died before the war ended and his followers went on to form the millennial Jehovah's Witnesses (16).

America theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) believed it would take roughly two hundred and fifty years to convert the entire world to Christ, and so believed the beginning of the millennium would be around the year 2000 (Koester 14). Edwards was one of the first theologians to point specifically to the year 2000 as a millenarian date.

Years 1000 and 2000

There is extensive debate on the question of apocalyptic beliefs in the year 1000. Many call it anachronistic "to speak of a tenth and eleventh century as if those who lived in them knew about them" (Weber 49). However, there is evidence that at least some in the clergy were considering Millenarian concepts. The coronation robe of Emperor Otto III in 996 was embroidered with apocalyptic scenes (50). Despite signs and portents such as the return of Haley's comet in 992 and widespread famine and disease in 1033 (roughly the millennium of the crucifixion) (50-1), "careful scholarship has long since punctured the notion that the year 1000 was a major focus of expectancy, [though] it is possible that a waxing nervousness at the approach of that date contributed to a general trend toward belief in an approaching consummation" (Barnes 21). Others argue, however, that in 1000 millenarian hopes were extremely high because many believed the interpretations that promised a millennium would elapse between Christ's first bodily appearance and his return (Schwarz 183).

Current eschatology is marked by the millenarian belief in human progress and the faith that history itself can become perfect (Moltmann 194). Millenarian beliefs have found their way into the secular world, most frighteningly when Adolph Hitler proclaimed the founding of the "Thousand Year Reich" (185). According to some, the creation of a new and improved world was the motivation of the left-wing revolutions of the twentieth century (Cohn 285). More recently, the concerns of the Y2K computer error caused millennial fears across western society. Ted Peters predicted in 1978 that "if present trends in population growth, resource use, and population continue unabated, then we will meet a worldwide calamity just beyond the year 2000. This draws our attention ... to the feeling that the power of change itself is beyond human control" (Peters 19).

Harold Bloom notes in Omens of the Millennium that there were, as of 1996, 10 million premillennialists and more than 100 million that believe in a Second Coming (219). Bloom predicted in 1996 that "the year 2000-2001 will not be a comfortable period in the United States of America, not because we will experience either a rupture or rapture, but because there are extremist groups among the premillennialists, and their disappointment could lead to violence" (223-4). Though this did not come to pass, Bloom was correct in writing "the great mass of American premillennialists will not attach their hopes to the specific years 2000 and 2001" (224).

The millennium has become increasingly secularised. With the publication of Francis Fukuyama's article "The End of History," the millenarian consummation of history is complete (Moltmann 195). According to Fukuyama, history itself is on the edge of becoming irrelevant, or to use the millennialist term, 'eternal.'


Speaking of the millennium, Jeremy Rifkin wrote "the great states and civilizations in history, those that have endured the test of time, are precisely those that have possessed a compelling image of the future" (154). It is this faith in a promising future that has driven many of the millennial groups to both noble and tragic extremes.

The search for the future is key to millennial faiths. By finding a vision of the future, believers can be assured that they play an important role in the future of the human race. Millennial beliefs are more than merely a countdown, they constitute the promise of a time when evil is subdued and the righteous can live in peace and harmony. In the shadow of September 11, that is a promise we would all hope to fulfil.

Appendix: Revelation, chapter 20, King James Version

1: And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
2: And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
3: And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
4: And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgement was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
5: But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
6: Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
7: And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,
8: And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
9: And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.
10: And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
11: And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
12: And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
13: And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14: And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15: And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Works Cited

Barnes, Robin Bruce. Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Bloom, Harold. Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

Boyer, Paul. "The Growth of Fundamentalist Apocalyptic in the United States." Stein 140-178.

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Guy, H.A. The New Testament Doctrine of the 'Last Things': A Study of Eschatology. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Introvigne, Massimo. "Latter Day Revisited." Robbins 229-246.

Moorhead, James H. "Apocalypticism in Mainstream Protestantism." Stein 72-107.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Moltmann, Jurgen. "Liberating and Anticipating the Future." Liberating Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Letty M. Russell. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999. 189-208.

Paden, William E. Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Peters, Ted. Futures - Human and Divine. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978.

Rifkin, Jeremy. Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History. New York: Touchstone, 1989.

Robbins, Thomas and Susan J. Palmer, eds. Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Shupe, Anson. "Christian Reconstruction and the Angry Rhetoric of Neo- Postmillennialism." Robbins 195-206.

Smolinski, Reiner. "Apocalypticism in Colonial North America." Stein 36-71.

Stein, Stephen J. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 3: Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and the Contemporary Age. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1998.

Schwarz, Hans. On the Way to the Future, Revised Edition. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979.

Weber, Eugen. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1999.

Williams, Peter W. America's Religions: Traditions and Cultures. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.


[1] The terms millenarianism and millennialism are often, erroneously, used interchangeably. Millenarianism refers to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs in a golden age to come, including Jewish, Muslim and other traditions. Millennialism, on the other hand, is specifically related to the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20.

[2] Isa. 65:20-21

[3] The King James version Revelation 20 is attached as an appendix for convenience.

[4] The passage in 2 Peter is a paraphrase of Psalm 90:4, "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night."

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