The eschatology of the earliest Christians is called “Chiliasm” (kill’-E-az-um), from the Greek word “chilia” which means a thousand. The term “Chiliasm” is nearly equivalent to our modern term, “millennialism.” However, it does not only refer to the “millennium” of Christ’s reign mentioned in Revelation 20, but also man’s time on earth living under the curse is divided into a series of six previous millennia. The seventh millennium is the “Seventh Day,” the Millennial “Sabbath,” which will be Christ’s reign from Jerusalem. This primitive eschatology has the literal, earthly Millennial reign of Jesus Christ in common with what is today called “Premillennialism.” But that is where the similarity ends. Pristine Chiliasm was far simpler and much more unified than modern Dispensational Premillennialism, holding the following truths:
- All of the redeemed share a common eternal inheritance through a common resurrection at Jesus’ return. The inheritance is the restored earth (not heaven). This is based on the Son’s promised inheritance of all nations and the whole earth (Psalm 2), and the Land inheritance promised to Abraham and to his ‘Seed,’ who is Christ.
- The time of “great tribulation” of the the Olivet Discourse and Revelation (the 70th week of Daniel 9) is entirely future, a seven-year period of tribulation just before Jesus returns. The two prophets of Revelation 11 will preach repentance for 3.5 years and then Antichrist will reign for 3.5 years. The resurrection and gathering of all the redeemed is at the end of these final seven years.
- The future reign of Christ on earth from Jerusalem over the nations is the seventh millennium, the Sabbath Rest, after exactly six millennia have been completed. After all the wicked are judged and destroyed, the Kingdom of God on earth will continue forever.
The earliest Christian writers defended Chiliasm using Scripture and Apostolic oral tradition. Contrary to what is claimed by modern prophecy experts, the earliest Christians after the Apostles had a well-developed systematic eschatology. Yet, the standard reaction by modern Christian leaders to Chiliasm is to dismiss it, disparage it, and even smear its ancient proponents. They claim the earliest Christian writers were not as sophisticated as modern scholars and prophecy experts. This is simply because modern Christian leaders do not like what they had to say. Primitive Christianity does not look like modern Christianity. There are major differences between what the earliest Christians taught and what most Evangelical Christian leaders teach. These differences touch on many important topics, including the nature of God and His Son, baptism, the security of the believer, the nature of free will, the destiny of the righteous and fate of the wicked, and of course eschatology. Someone must be wrong. Our scholarly veneer and sophistication (as well as our modern world view) drive most Christian leaders to conclude that the early Christians must have been wrong on so many levels. Yet, such a supposition is highly suspect given the fact that these primitive Christian apologists were personally acquainted with the Apostles and/or their oral tradition.
Disparaging and dismissing Chiliasm and its ancient proponents, using underhanded and deceptive tactics such as editing their written works to remove their Chiliasm, is nothing new. When Amillennialism first began to displace Chiliasm within a few centuries after the Apostles, some writers attempted to “poison the well” by attributing Chiliasm to a Gnostic heretic named Cerinthus. However, a serious obstacle to Amillennialism remained. Written works of some very ancient authors close to the Apostles remained in circulation and were highly regarded by many Christians. To counter this embarrassing problem, early witnesses were personally smeared by later writers. For example, when writing about Papias (a student of John’s who had interviewed many of the hearers of Jesus), Eusebius (AD 263 – 339) wrote: “The same writer [Papias] gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical things. To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses.” The other ancient writers who also taught Chiliasm were said to have borrowed their ideas from Papias’ books rather than from their teachers, the Apostles. Papias’ five books have been destroyed long ago by early Amillennialists. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains why. “The cause of the loss of this precious work of an Apostolic Father was the chiliastic view which he taught.”
Plymouth Brethren scholar, F. F. Bruce, commented on the earliest writers’ Chiliasm, especially regarding their commentaries on Revelation:
“The first commentators interpreted the Apocalypse more literally than their successors: in particular, they accepted the ‘chiliastic’ view of the millennial reign of chapter xx. These writers were acquainted with the original interpretation of this chapter. But this interpretation was soon displaced by the spiritualizing methods of Alexandria. Tyconius, adopting these methods, rejected the literal interpretation of chapter xx., treated the millennium as the period between the first and second advents of Christ. Jerome and Augustine followed, in the footsteps of Tyconius, and a realistic eschatology was crushed out of existence in the Church for full 800 years. Justin, Irenaeus and Hippolytus all belonged to this school, and Victorinus followed in their steps. Like them he was a Chiliast, and still preserved elements of the true and ancient interpretation of the Apocalypse according to the contemporary historical method.”
The ancient commentary on Revelation by Victorinus (3rd cent.) was later edited by Jerome (5th cent.) to remove his Chiliasm. Jerome replacing Victorinus’ explanation of Revelation 20 with statements from Augustine’s amillennial work, “The City of God.”
“Jerome is responsible for an extensive revision of Victorinus’ commentary, dated to 398, which he particularly undertook at the request of a friend to adjust Victorinus’ commentary in those verses and passages displaying interpretations which were taken to be chiliastic / millennialistic, a theological opinion which had since been rejected by the Church at large …. Consequently, essentially two versions of Victorinus’ commentary have come down to us: his original and the Hieronymian edition. I have undertaken to translate Victorinus’ original and only Jerome’s letter to Anatolius (which serves as a prologue to Jerome’s version) and Jerome’s ending of the work (which replaces Victorinus’ commentary on chapters 20 and 21 of the Apocalypse). A relatively poor translation of Jerome’s version is included in the Nicene-Post Nicene Fathers collection.”
After editing Victorinus’ commentary, Jerome then appended the following statement to the end of Victorinus’ revised commentary:
“Therefore they are not to be heard who assure themselves that there is to be an earthly reign of a thousand years; who think, that is to say, with the heretic Cerinthus. For the kingdom of Christ is now eternal in the saints, although the glory of the saints shall be manifested after the resurrection.”
We should not be surprised when modern Christians dismiss and disparage Chiliasm, and even use similar underhanded tactics and personal smear campaigns to undermine anyone who teaches it simply because they do not like its implications, how it exposes or disturbs their own feel-good eschatology or world-view.
The earliest Christian pastors and apologists were intimately familiar with the historical context and culture in which the New Testament was written, and with many very ancient manuscripts of the Scriptures which we do not have. They spoke the same Greek language in which the Septuagint and New Testament were written. The Apostles and their associates placed some of these men in leadership of the early churches they founded. We would be wise to consider what the most ancient Christian pastors and martyrs had to say about the end of the age given the great advantages they possessed, rubbing shoulders with the Apostles and their associates. If we assume that they were utterly misguided and largely in error, would that not strongly imply that the Apostles failed in their primary mission to make disciples and ground them in the pure and mature teachings of Christianity? The Apostles claimed to have done just that, delivering to the next generation the mature and perfected Christian Faith. Paul wrote, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” This was “the Faith once for all delivered to the saints” for which Jude insisted that the early Christians must “earnestly contend.” Those men who followed the Apostles contended for the Faith valiantly, dealing with the flood of Gnostic heresies on the one hand, and Roman persecution on the other. This is why we have so much of their written apologetic material exposing the errors and defending what the Apostles handed down to them and was universally believed in churches founded by the Apostles and their associates. “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”
Modern Christianity tends to place far too much trust in modern scholarship. We neglect to consider the wisdom of the ancient Christians who stared down wild beasts and stood unflinching as they were burned at the stake for their faithfulness to Christ. We cannot discern the fact that we are basing our modern views on unproven presuppositions and a great deal of accumulated theological baggage. Why do we suppose that the men personally trained by the Apostles, who were entrusted with the apostolic writings and oral tradition, whom the Apostles gave the responsibility to lead the local congregations, were unsophisticated and ignorant men? Yes, that is precisely what most modern Christian leaders do, brushing aside these ancient witnesses as irrelevant and naïve simply because they may not happen to agree with some of their denomination’s distinctive doctrines. A humbler approach would be to admit that we are the ones who are naïve. We are the ones separated from the Apostles by nearly two millennia, living in a far different culture and speaking a completely different language.
This series of posts is a call to reconsider the most ancient Christian eschatology – Chiliasm.
 Eusebius, Church History, Bk. III, ch. xxxix
 Edgecomb, Kevin P., St Victorinus of Poetovio: Commentary on the Apocalypse, st-victorinus-of-poetovio-translated-by-kevin-edgecomb.pdf (wordpress.com)
 Victorinus, (Revised) Commentary on the Apocalypse, Ch. 22
 Matt. 28:18-20
 Acts 20:27
 Jude 1:3
 1 Cor. 11:19 KJV