A number of popular Christian books and movies revolve around the idea of Christ’s coming reign on earth, an event often described as the “millennium.” It is easy to mistake this idea with Christian belief in a heavenly afterlife, since both imagine faithful Christians living with Christ. However, these two images of the end of time are distinct in the Bible and in Christian thought.
What is the millennium according to the Bible?
The Christian idea of a “millennium,” a word derived from the Latin term for “thousand,” comes from the final chapters of the book of Revelation where the author describes a thousand-year period when Christ reigns on earth with those who have been martyred because of their faithfulness. It is an image of the reversal of fates that comes with God’s justice. While the language of “millennium” is associated primarily with Revelation, the idea of a future resurrection of the faithful and a period in which those God rewards his people in the face of their adversaries has a long history in Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic thinking (e.g., Dan 12; 1 Enoch 93).
In Revelation, the millennium is made possible by Christ’s defeat of Satan, who is chained up and imprisoned in the Abyss, a place associated with Hades or Hell, for the thousand years (Rev 20:1-15). Even though the reign lasts for a long time, Revelation offers only a brief description of the period as one in which those who have been beheaded for refusing to worship the Beast sit upon thrones and have the authority to judge alongside of Christ. Albeit long, this reign is temporary and the millennium ends when Satan is released and allowed to engage in a final war against God’s people, which ushers in the final judgement (Rev 20:7-15). The story does not end there, however, since Revelation also describes a coming new Jerusalem where God’s people will live together with God and Christ (Rev 21-22).
How have Christians interpreted Revelation’s description of the millennium?
Despite the brevity of Revelation’s explanation of the thousand-year reign, the idea of “the millennium” captured the imaginations of Revelation’s interpreters early on and continues to play a significant role in Christian end-time thinking. Irenaeus, a second-century Christian author and bishop, offers one of the earliest interpretations, suggesting that the millennium will be an earthly reality. It will be a time of such abundance, he imagines, that clusters of grapes will call out to be picked so as to become wine for the faithful (Against Heresies 5.33.3). Other ancient interpreters resist Irenaeus’s eager anticipation of a physical millennial reign. Augustine in particular derided “chiliasts,” a name derived from the Greek term for “thousand,” who believed that the millennium would be a physical and not spiritual event. Instead of the immoderate feasts described by chiliasts, Augustine suggested that the millennium exists in the present among the faithful, including both the living and the dead, who reign with Christ (City of God 20.7-9).
While Augustine’s view of the millennium became the dominant perspective for the church, millennial thinking remained important for many Christians and has become an obsession for some. Given the proliferation of different perspectives, modern scholars of Christianity often categorize perspectives on the end times as amillennial, premillennial, or postmillennial. Even though scholars debate how the terms should be applied, amillennialism typically refers to the belief, like that of Augustine, that the thousand-year reign is metaphorical or allegorical. Premillennialism, the dominant perspective among most evangelical Christians and therefore the view most often portrayed in modern media, envisions the physical second-coming of Christ to usher in a literal thousand-year reign. Premillennialist thought is replete with debate over the various scenarios that will lead to the second coming. Among the biggest debates is whether the millennium will be preceded by a period of tribulation marked by war, famine, disease, and unrest. Similarly, premillennialists differ on how Christ’s second-coming (Parousia) and the “rapture” of the faithful (being taken into heaven), events described in 1Thess 4:13-17, fit with the millennium’s timeline. Postmillennialism describes the perspective that Christ’s return and millennial reign depends upon the followers of Christ creating a peaceful and just kingdom on earth. As such, postmillennialism perspectives are often accompanied by revivals and reform movements.