Historically Christian premillennialism has also been referred to as "chiliasm" or "millenarianism". The theological term "premillennialism" did not come into general use until the mid-nineteenth century, the modern period in which premillennialism was revived. Coining the word was "almost entirely the work of British and American Protestants and was prompted by their belief that the French and American Revolution (the French, especially) realized prophecies made in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
The concept of a temporary earthly messianic kingdom at the Messiah's coming was not an invention of Christianity. Instead it was a theological interpretation developed within the apocalyptic literature of early Judaism. In intertestamental Judaism there was a basic distinction between the current age and the “age to come.” The “age to come” was commonly viewed as a nationalistic golden age in which the hopes of the prophets would become a reality for the nation of Israel. On the surface, the Old Testament prophets revealed an “age to come” which was monolithic. Seemingly the prophets did not write of a two-phase eschaton consisting of a temporary messianic age followed by an eternal state. However, that was the concept that some Jewish interpreters did derive from their Old Testament exegesis. Their conclusions are found in some of the literature and theology of early Judaism within the centuries both before and during the development of the New Testament. R. H. Charles in his commentary on Book of Revelation concluded that Jewish eschatology must have developed the concept of an earthly temporary messianic reign prior to the eternal state at the latest by the year 100 B.C.E..
The earliest instance in Jewish literature that teaches an earthly temporary messianic age prior to an eternal state began with “The Apocalypse of Weeks” contained in 1 Enoch 91-107. This work likely dates to the early second century and shows a schematization of the divine history divided into ten ambiguous periods of time called “weeks.” In the apocalypse, weeks 1-7 (93:1-10) retell the biblical history from the creation of humanity to the author’s time of writing (possibly during the Maccabean crisis). However, after the seventh "week", the temporary earthly messianic age begins and occurs for a period of three more “weeks” (93:12-15). After the temporary messianic kingdom, the creation of the new heavens and the new earth occurs (93:16).
An additional piece of early Jewish literature which explicitly teaches a temporary messianic reign prior to the eternal state is the apocalyptic work 4 Ezra. 4 Ezra likely dates from soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.. The apocryphal book was apparently an attempt to explain the difficulties associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple to the Jewish people. During one of the visions in the book, Ezra received a revelation from the angel Uriel. The angel explained that prior to the last judgment, the Messiah will come and establish a temporary kingdom lasting 400 years after which all of creation will be obliterated including the Messiah. (7:28) Seven days after this cataclysmic event, the resurrection and the judgment will occur followed by the eternal state (7:36).
Supplementary early Jewish literature that refers to a temporary messianic kingdom prior to the eternal state may be found in 4 Ezra 12:34; 2 Baruch 24:1-4; 30:1-5; 39:3-8; 40:1-4; Jubilees 1:4-29; 23:14-31; b. Sanh. 99a. The Jewish belief in an earthly temporary messianic age continued during and beyond the time of the writing of Book of Revelation. A sample of the rabbinical contributions to the concept are listed as follows:
For the larger part, Christian eschatology through the second and third centuries was chiliastic. Many early Christian interpreters applied the earlier Jewish apocalyptic idea of a temporary Messianic kingdom to their interpretation of chapter 20 of John's apocalypse. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all made explicit references to the concept of a thousand year earthly kingdom at Christ’s coming.
Justin Martyr in the second century was one of the first Christian writers to clearly describe himself as continuing in the “Jewish” belief of a temporary messianic kingdom prior to the eternal state. According to Johannes Quasten, “In his eschatological ideas Justin shares the views of the Chiliasts concerning the millennium.” He maintains a premillennial distinctive, namely that there would be two resurrections, one of believers before Christ's reign and then a general resurrection afterwards. Justin wrote in chapter 80 of his work Dialogue with Trypho, “I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built. . . . For Isaiah spoke in that manner concerning this period of a thousand years.” Though he conceded earlier in the same chapter that his view was not universal by saying that he “and many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.”
Irenaeus, the late second century bishop of Lyon was an outspoken premillennialist. He is best known for his enormous tome written against the 2nd century Gnostic threat, commonly called Against Heresies. In the fifth book of Against Heresies, Irenaeus concentrates primarily on eschatology. In one passage he defends premillennialism by arguing that a future earthly kingdom is necessary because of God's promise to Abraham, he wrote “The promise remains steadfast . . . God promised him the inheritance of the land. Yet, Abraham did not receive it during all the time of his journey there. Accordingly, it must be that Abraham together with his seed (that is, those who fear God and believe in Him), will receive it at the resurrection of the just.” In another place Irenaeus also explained that the blessing to Jacob “belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom when the righteous will bear rule, after their rising from the dead. It is also the time when the creation will bear fruit with an abundance of all kinds of food, having been renovated and set free. . . And all of the animals will feed on the vegetation of the earth. . . and they will be in perfect submission to man. And these things are borne witness to in the fourth book of the writings of Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp.” (5.33.3) Apparently Irenaeus also held to the sexta-/septamillennial scheme writing that the end of human history will occur after the 6,000th year. (5.28.3)
Irenaeus and Justin represent two of the most apparent premillennialists of the pre-Nicean church. Other early premillennialists included Pseudo-Barnabas, Papias , Methodius, Lactantius, Commodianus Theophilus, Melito, Hippolytus of Rome, Victorinus of Pettau and various Gnostics groups and the Montanists. Many of these theologians and others in the early church expressed their belief in premillennialism through their acceptance of the sexta-septamillennial tradition. This belief claims that human history will continue for 6,000 years and then will enjoy a Sabbath of 1,000 years (the millennial kingdom), thus all of human history will have a total of 7,000 years prior to the new creation.
The first clear opponent of premillennialism associated with Christianity was Marcion, who is considered to have been a heretic by most scholars. Marcion opposed the use of the Old Testament and most books of the New Testament that were not written by the apostle Paul. Regarding the Marcion and premillennialism, Harvard scholar H. Brown noted,
Throughout the Patristic period, particularly in the 3rd century there had been rising opposition to premillennialism. Origen was the first to openly challenge the doctrine. Through allegorical interpretation, he had been a proponent of amillennialism. Although Origen was not always wholly "orthodox" in his theology, he had at one point completely spiritualized Christ’s second coming prophesied in the New Testament. Origen did this in his Commentary on Matthew when he taught that “Christ’s return signifies His disclosure of Himself and His deity to all humanity in such a way that all might partake of His glory to the degree that each individual’s actions warrant (Commentary on Matthew 12.30).” Even Origen’s milder forms of this teaching left no room for a literal millennium and it was so extreme that few actually followed it. But his influence did gain wider acceptance especially in the period following Constantine.
It should also be noted that Dionysius of Alexandria stood against premillennialism when the chiliastic work, the The Refutation of the Allegorizers written by Nepos, a bishop in Egypt had become popular in Alexandria. Dionysius convincingly argued against Nepos' influence and convinced the churches of the region of amillennialism. The church historian Eusebius reports this in his Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius also had low regard for the chiliast, Papias and he let it be known that in his opinion Papias was "a man of small mental capacity" because he had taken the Apocalypse literally.
Jerome acknowledged that during his time, "It is a common belief that the world will last 6,000 years". Culligan E. The Last World War and the End of Time. The book was blessed by Pope Paul VI, 1966. TAN Books, Rockford (IL), pp. 113-115).
Although he is now known as being against premillennialism, Augustine was an advocate of it for some time. The following is from perhaps his most famous writing, The City of God,
The evangelist John has spoken of these two resurrections in the book which is called the Apocalypse...the Apostle John says in the foresaid book, "And I saw an angel come down from heaven. . . . Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." Those who, on the strength of this passage, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of Sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created, and was on account of his great sin dismissed from the blessedness of paradise into the woes of this mortal life, so that thus, as it is written, "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day," there should follow on the completion of six thousand years, as of six days, a kind of seventh-day Sabbath in the succeeding thousand years; and that it is for this purpose the saints rise, viz., to celebrate this Sabbath. And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. Augustine. The City of God, Book XX, Chapter 7).
The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that this writing from Augustine shows that he was in support of the millennium, but that in later writings Augustine changed his mind. Kirsch J.P. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon. Millennium and Millenarianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Oxford theologian, Alister McGrath has noted that "all medieval theology is ‘Augustinian’ to a greater or lesser extent. Augustine’s (354-430) influence shaped not only the Middle Ages, but it also influenced the Reformers, who constantly referred to his teaching in their own debates. His teaching is “still one of the most potent elements in Western religious thought.” Therefore, to analyze what happened to premillennialism in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, it is necessary to observe the Augustinian foundation.
As shown above, in his early period, Augustine held to the sexta-/septamillennial view common in early Christianity (see above section on Patristic Age). In accordance with this view, Augustine divided history into two separate dispensations, first the church age (the current age of 6,000 years), and then the millennial kingdom (Sermon 259.2). Nevertheless, early in his career Augustine converted from premillennialism to amillennialism. Anderson locates three reasons that may account for Augustine’s theological shift:
After moving away from premillennialism to amillennialism, Augustine viewed the Sabbath rest of the sexta-/septamillennial scheme as “symbolically representative of Eternity.” Moreover, the millennium of Revelation 20 became for him “symbolically representative of Christ’s present reign with the saints.” Landes observed the fourth century as a time of major shift for Christian eschatolgoy by noting that it "marked a crucial moment in the history of millenarianism, since during this period Augustine repudiated even the allegorizing variety he himself had previously accepted. From this point on he dedicated much of his energy to ridding the church of this belief.
Augustine’s amillennial view laid the eschatological foundation for the Middle Ages which practically abandoned premillennialism. The theological term “kingdom” maintained its eschatological function, though it was not necessarily futuristic. Instead it consistently referred to the present age so that the church was currently experiencing the eschaton. Julian of Toledo (642-690) summarizes the medieval doctrine of the millennium by referring to it as “the church of God which, by the diffusion of its faith and works, is spread out as a kingdom of faith from the time of the incarnation until the time of the coming judgment.”
A notable exception to normative medieval eschatology is found in Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), a Cistercian monk, who to an extent, stressed premillennial themes. Joachim divided earth's history into three periods. He assigned each age to a particular person of the Trinity as the guiding principle of that era. The first era was the Old Testament history and was accordingly the age of the Father; the current age of the church was the age of the Son; and still in Joachim's future was the age of the Spirit. For Joachim, year 1260 was to mark the end of the second and the beginning of the third and final golden age of earth's history.
During the Reformation period, amillennialism continued to be the popular view of the Reformers. The Lutherans formally rejected chiliasm in the The Augsburg Confession. “Art. XVII., condemns the Anabaptists and others ’who now scatter Jewish opinions that, before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall occupy the kingdom of the world, the wicked being everywhere suppressed.’ Likewise, the Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger wrote up the Second Helvetic Confession which reads "We also reject the Jewish dream of a millennium, or golden age on earth, before the last judgment. Furthermore, John Calvin wrote in Institutes that millennialism is a "fiction" that is "too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation. The Anglican Church originally formalized a statement against millennarianism in the Anglican Articles. This is observed in the 41st of the Anglican Articles, drawn up by Cranmer (1553), described the millennium as a 'fable of Jewish dotage.' but it was omitted at a later time in the revision under Elizabeth (1563).
Contrarily, certain Anabaptists, Huguenots and Bohemian Brethren were premillennial. Michael Servetus taught a chiliastic view, though he was denounced by the Reformers as a heretic. A few in the mainstream accepted it, such as Joseph Mede (1586-1638) and possibly Hugh Latimer (d. 1555), but it was never a conventional belief throughout the period.
In the Modern Age millenarianism gained a surprising acceptance among the Pietists of Germany during the 17th and 18th century. And although they were not premillennial, the English theologian Daniel Whitby (1688-1726), the German Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), and the American Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) “fueled millennial ideas with new influence in the nineteenth century.” It was authors such as these who concluded that the decline of the Roman Catholic Church would make way for the conversion and restoration of the nation of Israel. Edwards taught that a type of Millennium would occur “1260 years after 606 C.E. when Rome was recognized as having universal authority.” His Puritan contemporaries Increase Mather and Cotton Mather openly proclaimed a belief in a literal millennium. Increase Mather wrote “That which presseth me so, as that I cannot gainsay the Chiliastical opinion, is that I take these things for Principles, and no way doubt but that they are demonstrable. 1. That the thousand apocalyptical years are not passed but future. 2. That the coming of Christ to raise the dead and to judge the earth will be within much less than this thousand years. 3. That the conversion of the Jews will not be till this present state of the world is near unto its end. 4. That, after the Jews’ conversion there will be a glorious day for the elect upon earth, and that this day shall be a very long continuance.”
Between 1790 and the mid-19th century, premillennialism was a popular view among English Evangelicals, even within the Anglican church. Thomas Macauly observed this and wrote “Many Christians believe that the Messiah will shortly establish a kingdom on the earth, and visibly reign over all its inhabitants.” Throughout the 19th century, premillennialism continued to gain wider acceptance in both the US and in Britain, particularly among the Irvingites, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians , Church of God, and Seventh-day Adventists. Premillenialism continues to be popular among Evangelical, Fundamentalist Christian, and Living Church of God communities in the 20th and 21st centuries, expanding further into the churches of Asia, Africa and South America.
Many traditional denominations continue to oppose the concept of a literal millennial kingdom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches an amillennial position asserting that “Already they [the saints] reign with Christ; with him ‘they shall reign for ever and ever.” (Article, 12. II. 1029). On the Protestant side, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod explicitly states “When Christ returns, “new heavens and a new earth” will be created (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Nowhere, however, do the scriptures teach that at His return Christ will establish a this-worldly, political kingdom or ‘millennium.’”
Whalen has noted that modern premillennialism is “criticized roundly for naïve scholarship which confuses the poetic and inspirational prose of prophecy with fortune telling,” though “Premillennialists retort that they merely follow the Word of God, regardless of ridicule.” He then notes that, nevertheless, “the virtual theology which surrounds premillennialism is today stronger and more widely spread than at any time in history.”
Contemporary premillennialism is divided into two schools of thought.
Dispensational premillennialism generally holds that Israel and the Church are distinct entities. It also widely holds to the pretribulational return of Christ, which believes that Jesus will return before a seven year Tribulation followed by an additional return of Christ with his saints (though there are post tribulation dispensationalists, such as Robert Gundry).
Dispensationalism traces its roots to the 1830s and John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a Calvinist theologian and a founder of the Plymouth Brethren. In the US, the dispensational form of premillennialism was propagated on the popular level largely through the Scofield Reference Bible and on the academic level with Lewis Sperry Chafer’s eight volume Systematic Theology. More recently dispensationalism has been popularized through Hal Lindsey's 1970s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth and through the Left Behind Series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. Popular proponents of dispensational premillennialism are John F. MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Ray Comfort, Todd Friel, Dwight Pentecost, John Walvoord (d. 2002), Tim Lahaye, Charles Ryrie (in the notes for the Ryrie Study Bible) and Charles Feinberg. It should be noted that Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock have developed a form of dispensationalism that is growing in popularity known as progressive dispensationalism. This view understands that an aspect of the eschatological kingdom presently exists, but must wait for the millennium to be realized fully.