Millennialism (from millennium, Latin for "a thousand years"), or chiliasm (from the Greek equivalent), is a belief advanced by some religious denominations that a Golden Age or Paradise will occur on Earth prior to the final judgment and future eternal state of the "World to Come".
Christianity and Judaism have both produced messianic movements which featured millennialist teachings - such as the notion that an earthly kingdom of God was at hand. These millenarian movements often led to considerable social unrest.
Similarities to millennialism appear in Zoroastrianism, which identified successive thousand-year periods, each of which will end in a cataclysm of heresy and destruction, until the final destruction of evil and of the spirit of evil by a triumphant king of peace at the end of the final millennial age. "Then Saoshyant makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur" (Zand-i Vohuman Yasht 3:62).
Scholars have also linked various other social and political movements, both religious and secular, to millennialist metaphors.
Millennialist thinking first emerged in Jewish literature of the tumultuous intertestamental period (200 BCE to 100 CE), producing writings such as the Psalm 46, the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, Esdras, Book of Daniel, and the additions to Daniel.
Passages within these texts, including 1 Enoch 6-36, 91-104, 2 Enoch 33:1, and Jubilees 23:27, refer to the establishment of a "millennial kingdom" by a messianic figure, occasionally suggesting that this kingdom would endure for a thousand years. However, the actual number of years given for the duration of the kingdom varied. In 4 Ezra 7:28-9, for example, the kingdom lasts only 400 years.
This notion of the millennium no doubt helped some Jews to cope with the socio-political conflicts that they faced. This concept of the millennium served to reverse the previous period of evil and suffering, rewarding the virtuous for their courage while punishing evil-doers, with a clear separation of those who are good from those who are evil. The vision of a thousand-year period of bliss for the faithful, to be enjoyed here in the physical world as "heaven on earth", exerted an irresistible power over the imagination of Jews in the inter-testamental period as well as on early Christians. Millennialism, which had already existed in Jewish thought, received a new interpretation and fresh impetus with the development of Christianity.
Gerschom Scholem profiles medieval and early modern Jewish millennialist teachings in his book Sabbatai Sevi, the mystical messiah, which focuses on the 17th-century movement centered on the self-proclaimed messiahship (1648) of Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676).
Christian millennialist thinking is primarily based upon the Book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 20:1-6, which describes the vision of an angel who descended from heaven with a large chain and a key to a bottomless pit, and captured Satan, imprisoning him for a thousand years:
The Book of Revelation then describes a series of judges who are seated on thrones, as well as his vision of the souls of those who were beheaded for their testimony in favor of Jesus and their rejection of the mark of the beast. These souls:
Thus, John of Patmos characterizes a millennium where Christ and the Father will rule over a theocracy of the righteous. While there are an abundance of biblical references to such a kingdom of God throughout the Old and New Testaments, this is the only reference in the Bible to such a period lasting one thousand years.
During the first centuries after Christ, various forms of chiliasm (millennialism) were to be found in the Church, both East and West. It was a decidedly majority view at that time, as admitted by Eusebius, himself an opponent of the doctrine:
Nevertheless, strong opposition later developed from some quarters, most notably from Augustine of Hippo. The Church never took a formal position on the issue at any of the ecumenical councils, and thus both pro and con positions remained consistent with orthodoxy. The addition to the Nicene Creed was intended to refute the perceived Sabellianism of Marcellus of Ancyra and others, a doctrine which includes an end to Christ's reign and which is explicitly singled out for condemnation by the council [Canon #1]. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the 2nd century proponents of various Gnostic beliefs (themselves considered heresies) also rejected millenarianism.
Millennialism was taught by various earlier writers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Commodian, Lactantius, Methodius, and Apollinaris of Laodicea in a form now called premillennialism. According to religious scholar Rev. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, "Justin's 'Occasional Chiliasm' sui generis which was strongly anti-pretribulationistic was followed possibly by Pothinus in A.D. 175 and more probably (around 185) by Irenaeus". Justin Martyr, discussing his own premillennial beliefs in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Chapter 110, observed that they were not necessary to Christians:
Melito of Sardis is frequently listed as a second century proponent of premillennialism. The support usually given for the supposition is that "Jerome [Comm. on Ezek. 36] and Gennadius [De Dogm. Eccl., Ch. 52] both affirm that he was a decided millenarian."
Around 220, there were some similar influences on Tertullian, although only with very important and extremely optimistic (if not perhaps even postmillennial) modifications and implications. On the other hand, "Christian Chiliastic" ideas were indeed advocated in 240 by Commodian; in 250 by the Egyptian Bishop Nepos in his Refutation of Allegorists; in 260 by the almost unknown Coracion; and in 310 by Lactantius. Into the late fourth century, Bishop Ambrose of Milan had millennial leanings (Ambrose of Milan. Book II. On the Belief in the Resurrection, verse 108). Lactantius is the last great literary defender of chiliasm in the early Christian church. Jerome and Augustine vigorously opposed chiliasm by teaching the symbolic interpretation of the Revelation of St. John, especially chapter 20.
Christian views on the future order of events diversified after the Protestant reformation (c.1517). In particular, new emphasis was placed on the passages in the Book of Revelation which seemed to say that as Christ would return to judge the living and the dead, Satan would be locked away for 1000 years, but then released on the world to instigate a final battle against God and his Saints (Revelation 20:1–6). Previous Catholic and Orthodox theologians had no clear or consensus view on what this actually meant (only the concept of the end of the world coming unexpectedly, "like a thief in a night", and the concept of "the antichrist" were almost universally held). Millennialist theories try to explain what this "1000 years of Satan bound in chains" would be like.
Various types of millennialism exist with regard to Christian eschatology, especially within Protestantism, such as Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. The first two refer to different views of the relationship between the "millennial Kingdom" and Christ's second coming.
Postmillennialism sees Christ's second coming as subsequent to the millennium and concurrent with the final judgment. In this view "Christ's reign" (during the millennium) will be spiritual in and through the church.
Amillennialism basically denies a future literal 1000 year kingdom and sees the church age metaphorically described in Rev. 20:1–6 in which "Christ's reign" is current in and through the church.
The Catholic Church strongly condemns millennialism as the following shows:
The early Christian concept had ramifications far beyond strictly religious concern during the centuries to come, as it was blended and enhanced with ideas of utopia.
In the wake of early millennial thinking, the Three Ages philosophy developed. The Italian monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (died 1202) claimed that all of human history was a succession of three ages:
It was believed that the Age of the Holy Spirit would begin at around 1260, and that from then on all believers would be living as monks, mystically transfigured and full of praise for God, for a thousand years until Judgment Day would put an end to the history of our planet.
The New Age movement was also highly influenced by Joachim of Fiore's divisions of time, and transformed the Three Ages philosophy into astrological terminology. The Age of the Father was recast as the Age of Aries, the Age of the Son became the Age of Pisces, and the Age of the Holy Spirit was called the Aquarian New Age. The current so-called "Age of Aquarius" will supposedly witness the development of a number of great changes for humankind, reflecting the typical features of millennialism.
Bahá'u'lláh mentioned in the Kitáb-i-Íqán that God will renew the "City of God" about every thousand years, and specifically mentioned that a new Manifestation of God would not appear within 1000 years (1893-2893) of Bahá'u'lláh's message, but that the authority of Bahá'u'lláh's message could last up to 500,000 years.
The Theosophist Alice Bailey taught that Christ (in her books she refers to the powerful spiritual being best known by Theosophists as Maitreya as The Christ or The World Teacher, not as Maitreya) would return “sometime after AD 2025”, and that this would be the New Age equivalent of the Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ.
The most controversial interpretation of the Three Ages philosophy and of millennialism in general is Adolf Hitler's "Third Reich" ("Drittes Reich"), which in his vision would last for a thousand years to come ("Tausendjähriges Reich"), but which ultimately only lasted for 12 years (1933–1945).
The phrase "Third Reich" was originally coined by the German thinker Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who in 1923 published a book titled Das Dritte Reich. Looking back at German history, he distinguished two separate periods, and identified them with the ages of the 12th century Italian theologian Joachim of Fiore:
- the Holy Roman Empire (beginning with Charlemagne in AD 800) – (the "First Reich") – The Age of the Father and
- the German Empire – under the Hohenzollern dynasty (1871–1918) (the "Second Reich") – The Age of the Son.
- the "Third Reich" – The Age of the Holy Ghost.
Although van den Bruck was unimpressed by Hitler when he met him in 1922 and did not join the Nazi Party, the phrase was nevertheless adopted by the Nazis to describe the totalitarian state they wanted to set up when they gained power, which they succeeded in doing in 1933. Later, however, the Nazi authorities banned the informal use of "Third Reich" throughout the German press in the summer of 1939, instructing it to use more official terms such as "German Reich", "Greater German Reich", and "National Socialist Germany" exclusively.
During the early part of the Third Reich many Germans also referred to Hitler as being the German Messiah, especially when he conducted the Nuremberg Rallies, which came to be held at a date somewhat before the Autumn Equinox in Nuremberg, Germany.
In a speech held on 27 November 1937, Hitler commented on his plans to have major parts of Berlin torn down and rebuilt:
After Adolf Hitler's unsuccessful attempt to implement a thousand-year-reign, the Vatican issued an official statement that millennial claims could not be safely taught and that the related scriptures in Revelation (also called the Apocalypse) should be understood spiritually. Catholic author Bernard LeFrois wrote:
Millennial social movements are a specific form of millenarianism that are based on some concept of a one thousand-year cycle. Sometimes the two terms are used as synonyms, but this is not entirely accurate for a purist. Millennial social movements need not be religious, but they must have a vision of an apocalypse that can be utopian or dystopian. Those who are part of millennial social movements are "prone to be violent," with certain types of millennialism connected to violence. The first is progressive, where the "transformation of the social order is gradual and humans play a role in fostering that transformation." The second is catastrophic millennialism which "deems the current social order as irrevocably corrupt, and total destruction of this order is necessary as the precursor to the building of a new, godly order." However the link between millennialism and violence may be problematic, as new religious movements may stray from the catastrophic view as time progresses.