Premillennialism and Chiliasm in the Early Church

Premillennialists accuse Amillennialists of spiritualising the prophecies and promises to Old Testament Israel because Amillennialism teaches that they are fulfilled in and by the Church.  Premillennialists call this “Replacement Theology.  But the New Testament itself spiritualises these prophecies and promises.  For example, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus broke down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and brought them together to become one body – the Church (Eph 2:11-22).  And the Church will last until the end of time (Eph 3:10, 21).  More examples can be seen in John 18:36; Acts 15:14-17; Romans 2:25-29; 9:8; Galatians 4:19-31; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 2:9-10, to mention just a few. 

Premillennialists also insist that modern-day Premillennialism was the prevailing view of the early Church until theologians such as Origen and Augustine changed it by their influence and teaching.  However, the eschatology of the early Church was that of Chiliasm.  John Calvin wrote “….shortly after the chiliasts arose, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years.  This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation.  Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which they extracted a gloss for their error (Rev 20:4), the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the church, but only to the various troubles which await the church militant in this world” (Institutes Book 3, Chapter 25, 5).

Eschatological Views in the Early Church

The doctrine of a premillennial return of Christ (also known as ‘chiliasm’ or ‘millenarianism’) was not necessarily held universally, nor regarded as orthodox doctrine by all in the early centuries of the Christian church.  The Church historian Eusebius writes about the views of an early Christian named Papias (70-155 AD).  Papias wrote of himself that he received the truths of Christianity from those who were acquainted with the apostles.  Eusebius (263-339 AD approx.) was one of those who did not hold a premillennial view; he says of Papias: “he set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature.  Amongst these he says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Fragments of Papias” p 154, Hendrickson Publ). 

And Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), in his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, admitted that while he himself held to a chiliast (millenarian) view, not every Christian did.  The discussion is as follows: “And Trypho to this replied, ‘I remarked to you sir, that you are very anxious to be safe in all respects, since you cling to the Scriptures.  But tell me, do you really admit that this place, Jerusalem, shall be rebuilt; and do you expect your people to be gathered together, and made joyful with Christ and the patriarchs, and the prophets, both the men of our nation, and other proselytes who joined them before your Christ came?’……..‘I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing, and think another.  I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise’” (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Dialogue with Trypho”, Justin Martyr, p 239, Hendrickson Pub.).

“The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church”, in its entry “Millenarianism” has: “In the early Church, Millenarianism was upheld principally among the Gnostics and Montanists, but also accepted by more orthodox writers, such as St Justin Martyr, St Irenaeus, and St Hippolytus of Rome.  But though primitive Millenarianism lingered on in some places down to the end of the 4th cent., it received its death blow from Origen [185-254]…..At the Reformation the Anabaptists, as well as the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren, were Millenarians in the strictest sense, while the 17th cent. Independents in England appear to have held similar views.  In Germany the Millenarian view gained its widest currency in the Pietist Movement of the 17th and 18th cents., while in the 19th cent. new advocates of apocalyptic and Millenarian views arose in the USA and in Great Britain, among them the Irvingites, Mormons, and Adventists” (1963, p. 900-901).

But the form of Premillennialism held in the early Church was quite different to the Premillennialism of today.  In Chiliasm, there was no rapture, no Great Tribulation, and no restored national Israel in a thousand reign of Christ on earth.  The Israel of Chiliasm was a spiritual Israel i.e. all who confessed Christ as Saviour, regardless of ethnic or national origin.  The Israel of Chiliasm was the Church that Jesus was building (Matt 16:18; Eph 2:13-22 cf 3:10, 21).  And, despite that Augustine contributed to the abandonment of Premillennialism by the churches because of his so-called spiritualising of the prophecies, Chiliasm, in fact, died a natural death in the process of centuries, as first one date and then another for the return of Christ came and went.  The doctrine changed repeatedly as Christians developed a better understanding of how the prophecies concerning Israel, the Church, and end-times, should be understood.

Dispensational Premillennialism is a false gospel because it has a restored national Israel reigning with Christ for a thousand years, with a fully restored Levitical priesthood complete with altar and animal sacrifices.  And in order to implement this, Christ’s work on the cross and his unique priesthood (Heb ch 7) is shoved aside so that the “better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Heb 8:6) i.e. the New Covenant, could be revoked and replaced by the temporary and faulty Old Covenant (Heb 8:8-9); and God’s people put back under Mosaic law (Heb 8:10-13).  Such a doctrine is utterly blasphemous, yet Premillennialists reject and vilify Amillennialism, which is thoroughly biblical and a faithful expression of the gospel and the New Covenant.  They would dethrone God and nullify Christ’s finished work on the cross just so they can promote their own false gospel. 

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.  But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.  As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed (Gal 1:7-9).