Losing The Faith (5/22)
The Kingdom of God
In the second century, Christian hopes were still centered upon the return of Christ and his coming millennial reign on the earth. But when a hundred years had passed and the Lord had not come, the concept of the kingdom on earth began to change. It was thought to be in heaven – or it was the church itself – ideas that are still retained in Christendom.
Historians agree that the millennial hope was prevalent in the early church. Many of them also recognize pagan influence led to a diminishing of that hope. “The more modern [third century] theologians, especially at Alexandria … endeavored to set forth a Christianity relevant to the concerns of urban intellectuals … Speculative theologians employed the traditional formula but, especially by using the allegorical method, tended to dissolve them into philosophy” (R. M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine: The Rise of Christianity in the Roman World).
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, p. 405, the historian Gibbon observes: “The assurance of a Millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was preceptor to the son of Constantine … The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon earth was at length rejected.” This rejection fulfilled the ultimate sense of the apostle’s warning: “They shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:4).
Papias (AD 60-130), who had personal contact with those who had been taught by the apostles, asserted that “the Lord used to teach concerning those times, that there will be a period of a thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth” (Fragments of Papias, iv, vi).
The author of the Epistle of Barnabas (written about AD 138) teaches a seven-thousand year plan, the sabbath representing the coming millennial reign of Christ on earth (ch. iv). And he writes: “we … shall live ruling over the earth … When? When we ourselves also have been made perfect so as to become heirs of the covenant of the Lord” (ch. vi).
The Millennium and the Apocalypse
As we know, the millennial teaching in the Apocalypse is very clear. Theologians in almost every age have, for this reason, either attacked the authenticity of the book, or attempted to explain away its depiction of the 1000-year kingdom. Gibbon relates how the Revelation barely escaped being excluded by the church from the New Testament canon. “In the council of Laodicea (about the year 360) the Apocalypse was tacitly excluded from the sacred canon by the same churches of Asia to which it is addressed; and … their sentence had been ratified by the greater number of Christians (Decline and Fall, I, 404). Providentially, the book of Revelation remained in the canon despite these subversive efforts.
The apostle John was certainly not the first inspired writer to describe a literal Messianic reign on earth. This teaching harmonizes with both the gospel of Christ and the witness of the prophets. Psalm 72, Isaiah 35, Daniel 2:44; 7:27 are but a few of many Old Testament references that can be cited.
Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes: “… there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” This is from his dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, where Justin further declares, “There was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem…” (Dialogue, lxxx, lxxxi).