It was the year 410 A.D. The Visigoths had come down from the north, sacking the city of Rome, the capital of the world’s greatest empire. People all over the Mediterranean were in shock, as they heard the story of the ruins and dead corpses laying in the streets. This was the “9/11” event of their day.
The pagans blamed the Christians, and they had their reasons…… Pardon some of the anachronisms, but I can imagine their rant…..
“Within a few decades, these Christians had gained the political power of the emperorship. Rome’s centuries of pagan gods were then officially abandoned by the government. Now these Christians had messed up everything. They had put a bunch of ‘Bible-thumping’ idiots into power, offending our pagan moral sensitivities, and leaving the empire vulnerable to their northern enemies.
The once-great empire was now on the verge of total collapse, no thanks to these ‘Bible thumpers.’ These Christians are to blame for our troubles!”
….. so thought the pagans, in their mockery.
Most Christians were unable to effectively respond to these charges. After all, Christianity had finally ascended to the top echelons of Roman society, and now it looked like the whole Roman world was falling apart! The Christian community provided the perfect scapegoat for Rome’s collapse.
Yet one man, the venerable bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, Saint Augustine, rose to the challenge. In his monumental work, City of God, Augustine instead laid the blame for Rome’s troubles on the moral dissolution and steady ethical decline that had plagued pagan Roman culture for century after century. To this day, City of God remains one of the greatest classics of Western culture, and a high watermark for Christian apologetics.
Augustine’s defense of the faith, however, came with a twist. Put in today’s terms, Augustine appeared to have “gone liberal.” But Augustine would not have seen it that way at all. After some reflection, Augustine came to believe that many Christians had misinterpreted the meaning of the “millennium,” the 1000-year reign of Christ, described in Revelation 20:1-6. Augustine, once a confirmed believer in a literal millennium, had basically flip-flopped, and changed his mind. But why?1
Augustine’s Shift Towards a Spiritual Interpretation of the Millennium
For much of his early life as a Christian, Augustine had embraced a literal view of a future 1000-year reign of Jesus, following Christ’s Second Coming, a belief than many Bible scholars today would call historic premillennialism. This early view of the millennium was different than the modern view of premillennialism.
Today’s premillennialism typically associates the establishment of a literal, future 1000-year reign of Christ, with a complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise to national, ethnic Israel. Instead, many Christians in the early church, following the 2nd century church father, Justin Martyr, believed that this earthly reign of Christ would involve mostly Gentile Christian believers, as they believed that the Jews had been punished by God for their unbelief, through the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, in 70 A.D. Christians, like Augustine, had embraced this historic premillennial view (or some form of it), at least since the early 2nd century writer, Papias of Heirapolis, and the late 2nd century writer, Irenaeus.2
But this belief of a literal “1000-years,” or chiliasm, in the Greek, was challenged early on by more allegorical interpreters of the Bible, such as the late 2nd century, Origen and Clement of Alexandria, and even Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome. Nevertheless, Augustine was not persuaded by the logic of these allegorical Christian interpreters. In those days, he could see no reason to dismiss a literal 1000-year earthly reign of Christ. Augustine is often remembered today as a defender of allegorical interpretation of the Bible, but the story is more complex. In fact, Augustine viewed over-allegorization of the Bible as downright dangerous.
However, Augustine became aware of a different menace at the opposing extreme. He became more concerned with the chiliast teachers of his day, who went too far. Many Christians, who took this view, had come to the belief that the future, literal millennium would start at any moment. They saw the sack of Rome as a prophetic sign that the end of the world was at hand. Augustine became increasingly alarmed by the “End Times” speculations that were typically associated with this belief.
These chiliasts grounded their view in a particular interpretation of certain Bible texts. Like many Young Earth Creationists today, these chiliasts believed that the earth was a only a few thousand years old. However, these chiliasts also believed that the six, creational days of Genesis 1 also must be interpreted within the light of Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8, which say that a day in God’s mind is like a thousand years. In other words, the “days” of Genesis 1 have multiple meanings.
Various teachers, who helped to inform Augustine’s early chiliasm, reasoned that the six days of creation were correlated to the 6,000 years of earth’s history, culminating with the literal 1,000 year millennium of Revelation. This millennium would be the seventh day of cosmic history, whereby God would finally give the world its Sabbath rest, under this future reign of Christ. Earth’s history would then be complete after 7,000 years. Different calculations put the date of the Second Coming, the beginning of the literal millennium, somewhere near 500 A.D., within mere decades of the sack of Rome.
With the sack of Rome, Augustine’s chiliast colleagues seized upon the catastrophic current events of the day. Jesus’ Second Coming was obviously imminent, so the church would be soon done with the distress of this present world. Some even taught that the Christians during the millennium would enjoy wonderfully carnal delights. But before then, the world would simply “go to hell in a hand basket.” This teaching is eerily reminiscent of what many Islamic jihadists promote today, the idea that if you fly planes into skyscrapers, then God will reward you with a harem full of women and sensual pleasures in the next life. 3
For Augustine, this line of thinking became an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. Augustine cared deeply about taking Scripture seriously, and as literally as possible. But Augustine was also an apologist. He would shirk away from his “literalism,” if such “literalism” was leading towards tarnishing the reputation of the Gospel.
Augustine began to believe this literal view of the millennium to be unnecessarily foolish, making Christianity vulnerable to the mocking critique of the pagans. Those who preached about carnal delights, in the soon-to-be future millennial reign of Christ, had become too “worldly” in their thinking. Instead, Augustine refused to speculate on when the Second Coming might happen. But in order to see how this more thoughtful view fit within his larger understanding of the Bible, he had to rethink the meaning of the millennium.
What Made Augustine Rethink the Millennium
A renegade, but very talented, Bible teacher, a man by the name of Tyconius, helped Augustine out here. Augustine did not agree with all that Tyconius taught, but Augustine was intrigued by the idea that the “binding of Satan” in Revelation 20:2-3 happened, not at Christ’s Second Coming, but rather at his First Coming. Christ bound Satan at His work on Cross in the 1st century A.D., at the very beginning of the millennium. Satan’s influence was not fully eliminated, but his power was greatly restrained, at least until he would be later “released” towards the end of this millennium (verse 3).
- 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
In the City of God, Augustine therefore encouraged his readers to trust that Christ still had Satan under His thumb, so they should not be fearful. Though Satan still manages to threaten with terror from his horrid pit, Christ’s death on the Cross had won the ultimate victory, binding the restless Satan into submission. As God continues to build his church from among “the nations,” the church will not be deceived. Only at the very end of the millennial period would Satan temporarily have his way, and that time had not yet come.
So, even if the Roman empire were to perish, it did not mean “the end of the world.” Jesus would still rule and reign in his church. People should put their trust in God, and not in political empires. As a result, Augustine understood the “millennium” to be synonymous with the age of the church, and that the “1000 years” should be interpreted figuratively, ending at an unknown time, thus avoiding the temptation of the chiliasts, who are forever trying to fix dates for Jesus’ return.
Augustine’s argument eventually won the day. The old Roman empire, as the people knew it at the time, eventually did crumble. The northern hordes did further plunder the riches of Roman cities. But the church, over the succeeding centuries, was able to preach the Gospel among these barbarians, and eventually win them over to Christ. From those many nations, Christ continued to build His victorious church. This demonstrated that despite the loud rancor of Satan, he was still bound, and his power was limited. The flow of history appeared to vindicate Augustine’s views.
Chiliasm, as associated with the belief in historic premillennialism, soon faded from view, and Augustine’s amillennial interpretation maintained dominance, for the most part, in the minds of Western Christians, until about the 17th century. The fracture of European Christendom, occasioned by the events of the Reformation, led some Protestant thinkers to eventually rethink the meaning of the millennium. But it was not until the 19th century birth of dispensationalism, with its emphasis on God’s future purposes for national, ethnic Israel, and the founding of the modern nation-state of Israel in 1948, that premillennialism once again flourished within the thinking of the evangelical church.
Was Augustine Right?
How should Christians view their relationship to political empires, within the context of the expectation of Christ’s return? Saint Augustine’s solution in The City of God was to take a “long haul” approach to building God’s Kingdom. Yes, Christ may come again at anytime. But until then, the church has work to do. Christians may participate in the political realm, but they should also be wary of associating any political regime with the Kingdom of God itself. Augustine’s change in how he viewed the millennium, mentioned in the Book of Revelation, sought to move Christians in his era away from a premature expectation of Christ’s return, towards a more concentrated focus on the long-term mission of God’s people.
So, was Augustine right? Some say the great African bishop was more enamored by Tyconius’ cleverness, than by the plain reading of Scripture. Others say that Augustine was sensibly steering the church away from an obsession with overly materialistic ways of thinking. The debate over Augustine’s interpretation of the millennium continues to this day. But one thing is certain. Augustine’s influence has been enormous in the history of Christian thought. Augustine’s ideas, as he read the Bible, are worth thinking about, as they tell us a lot about the unfolding of history, and our place within God’s world today.4
1. The inspiration for this blog post, and most of the historical details, came from two sources covering this same topic, a Christian History magazine article by Frank A. James, III, a scholar at Biblical Seminary, and another Christian History magazine article by David Wright, a scholar at the University of Edinburgh. An article by Irish theologian David McKay summarizes Augustine’s teaching of Revelation 20. Edward Gibbon, the 18th century historian and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, popularized the view that puts the blame of the fall of Rome on the shoulders of the Christians. But Gibbon was basically repeating the same charge made by Roman pagans, in Augustine’s time period, including the Greek historian Zosimus. I have only read bits and pieces of Augustine’s monumental City of God, but the whole book is on my reading list! ↩
2. Papias believed that the millennium started at the time of Christ’s resurrection. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, on the other hand, believed that the millennium would begin after the second coming of Christ. A good example of the difference between modern views of premillennialism and the historic premillennialism, associated with the early church, is in how the rebuilding of the “third” temple in Jerusalem is to be understood. Several church fathers, such as Chrysostom and Jerome, did not believe in a future, rebuilt temple. But among those who did accept that a third temple will be rebuilt, they did not accept the idea that the idea of Jews rebuilding the temple would be a good thing. Instead, they believed it would be the Antichrist who would seek to rebuild the temple, falsely luring people into convincing them that he, the Antichrist, was the true Messiah. In his On the Antichrist, Ireneaus taught, “The Savior rose up and showed His holy flesh like a temple [at Christ’s resurrection], and he [the Antichrist] will raise a temple of stone in Jerusalem.” The point I am making here, as in my review of Joel Richardson’s, otherwise well-argued, When A Jew Rules the World, appealing to the early church fathers to defend a contemporary view of premillennialism, that emphasizes the full, future restoration of the Abrahamic land covenant with national, ethnic Israel, does not work very well. ↩
3. Hippolytus of Rome, in the early 3rd century, at first sought to dampen enthusiasm for Christians prematurely hoping for the return of Christ, and the coming millennium. Nevertheless, he calculated the Second Coming to occur in the year 496, at the end of the 6,000 years, of the popular 7,000 year “End Times” model, based on Hippolytus’ interpretation of the Book of Daniel. Presumably, by dating the Second Coming so far ahead into the future, Hippolytus was hoping to dissuade “End Times” enthusiasts in his day, much to the frustration of Augustine in the 5th century. One early church heretic, Cerinthius, was well-known for his views concerning a carnal, sensual view of a literal millennium. I am indebted to the work of Paula Frederiksen, particularly her essay “Tyconius and the End of the World,” a fascinating look at Tyconius’ influence on Augustine. For a different slant on Tyconius’ influence of Augustine in other matters, particularly in Augustine’s refined views towards the Jews, consider Fredriksen’s scholarly Augustine and the Jews. ↩