The Historical Case for Amillennialism

There's a popular conception that premillennialism is the oldest and most orthodox of the eschatological views, but I believe this is based on a misreading of the earliest evidence through the lens of later patristic debates. Contrary to this popular view, there is a strand of amillennial eschatology which has deeper roots in the Jewish tradition than premillennialism. This Jewish strand of amillennialism stands in stark contrast with the later dehistoricizing, anti-creational, and individualistic eschatology of the Alexandrian school. Here are six short propositions in favor of this strand of amillennialism. One day I hope to develop this into an actual thesis, but for now I welcome any questions or arguments in the comments below. 1. The prevailing outlook towards history within the Jewish worldview, both in the Old Testament and in the Second Temple period, was that it was divided neatly into two distinct ages: (a) the current age, characterized by the curse of the fall, by sin and injustice, by Israel’s exile and the dominion of pagan nations, and (b) the age to come, characterized by the curse undone, by the forgiveness of sins, by righteousness and peace, by Israel’s return from exile and her exaltation over the nations, and ultimately by Yahweh’s becoming king and returning to dwell in the midst of his people forever.

2. Only after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 do we begin to see the development of the idea of a temporary messianic kingdom between this age and the next, most notably in the apocalypses of 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. It appears that this view of history, commonly called "chiliasm", was a later and more scattered belief which likely arose in order to support various messianic movements while taking into account the eschatological difficulties associated with the recent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, none of the speculated lengths for such a hypothetical period seems to have stuck in the prevailing Jewish worldview.

3. Within the more traditional, non-chiliast scheme of Jewish thought, the age to come was always conceived of in very “earthly” and “this-worldly” terms. But it would be a naïve mistake to retrojectively label this prevailing outlook “chiliast” in nature, as many have done, for it lacked any interim messianic reign on earth between this age and the age to come, which is the basic tenet of chiliasm. Rather, as Strack and Bilerbeck say in Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash, “Only the post-Christian synagogue distinguishes between the days of the Messiah and the final perfection in the ‘olam ha-ba, that is, in the future world” (Vol. 3, p. 824). Or, likewise, as Hans-Alwin Wilke says in Das Problem eines messianischen Zwischenreichs bei Paulus, “Besides in the Apocalypse of John, the idea of a Messianic intermediate kingdom appears in the pseudeprigraphic apocalypses only in 4 Ezra—possibly also in Syriac Baruch” (p. 48).

4. We do find a striking development away from the two-stage view of history in the New Testament writings. But this development does not rightly qualify as chiliasm. Instead, the NT writers develop a three-stage view of history as the result of their conviction that the messiah had already come and inaugurated the kingdom for which Israel had longed. In the view of the earliest Christians, the present time between Jesus’ resurrection and parousia is an age of overlap between the age of sin and death and the age of righteousness and life. In other words, while the worldview articulated throughout the New Testament does express the belief in an interim messianic reign, that “reign” is consistently seen as being coterminous with this present intra-advent age, this time of “already but not yet”, and never with a future transitional period after the second coming (e.g. Acts 2; 1 Cor 15; 2 Thes 1; 2 Pet 3).

5. Revelation 20 may seem like the one exception to this particular three-stage view of history, but all the attempts to establish some form of chiliasm from that chapter end up relying mostly on other passages for the content of their view (passages like Isaiah 65:17-25, which in their own contexts actually speak of the earthly age to come) and on the thoughtless insertion of the themes of those passages into the “thousand year” framework of Revelation 20. In contrast, I have found the content of Revelation 20 to be much more in keeping with the rest of the New Testament’s portrayal of this present age of “already but not yet”, albeit with the kind of imagery appropriate to an apocalypse.

6. Those early church fathers who adopted a chiliastic scheme seem to have relied more on the late Jewish apocalypses than on Revelation, as witnessed both by their allusions to these apocalypses and by their rejection of a heavenly intermediate state, which Revelation depicts frequently. Throughout Revelation we see the souls of the martyrs “resting” in God’s heavenly temple, not waiting in Sheol as in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra (see Regnum Caelorum, by Charles E. Hill). Combine this with the fact that Revelation 20 lacks almost all of the distinctive features of a chiliast reign such as we find in the aforementioned Jewish apocalypses, and it becomes clear that, far from reading Revelation on its own terms, the early Christian chiliasts arrived at their particular eschatology through very different sources, and only by means of superimposing that eschatology onto Revelation did they turn their chiliasm into a distinctively Christian (or should we say quasi-Christian?) eschatology.