By: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.
I was sitting at my regular spot having a morning bagel and a glass of tea when I overheard three men having a heated discussion regarding the return of Christ. One argued this time of year should be the perfect time to remind people if you claim to believe Christ rose from the dead then you can believe he will return to call and collect his faithful followers.
Another of the men suggested the church needs to stop perpetuating some ridiculous myth that doesn’t do a thing to increase the power of Jesus’ message to love one another.
The third man in this group said all Christians should be assured of three important things –
1) Jesus was raised back to life;
2) He is returning at a time and in a fashion of God’s choosing; and
3) we ought to be getting ready for the great tribulation period promised during the “end times”.
When he said the last part I was uncomfortably reminded that many good intended Christians foolishly find themselves unaware of mistakes and misleading errors of religious leaders in history.
Imagine a diplomat being sent to a foreign land without accurate knowledge of that country’s history. The diplomat’s function would be greatly hindered through a series of unnecessary mistakes due to the lack of understanding regarding both the successes and failures in the country’s past.
Imagine a current day scientist tackling the monumental dilemma of energy production and delivery while being completely unaware of the volumes of both positive and negative work already produced by tens of thousands of researchers before his or her efforts began. Because of “ignorance” there will be unnecessary mistakes made as well as the false hopes created by the “rediscovering” of already produced successful outcomes.
How unproductive it is to be unaware of past triumphs and failures. Yet that is exactly what far too many folks do concerning both Biblical and religious developmental history. End times preaching or “millennialism” and “millennialist thinking” have existed since the beginning of the Christian revolution. In fact, this category of Christian understanding has caused controversy after controversy regarding when, why, how and to whom the end times experience will happen. So, beloved, in my ongoing attempts to increase Biblical literacy, I thought I would take just a few paragraphs to quickly describe the highlights of end times teaching to all of you seriously searching for greater depth of Biblical understanding.
Within Christianity, millennialism is the teaching that Jesus will have an earthly reign of a thousand years on earth. Millennialists differ as to whether the earthly reign of Christ proceeds or follows the Second Coming.
Postmillennialism, which has largely died out today, teaches Jesus will come at the end of a thousand years.
Premillennialism, popular among most fundamentalists today, teaches the thousand years begin with Jesus’ Second Coming, which, according to their teaching, immediately follows a seven year period called the tribulation.
There are posttribulationists who teach Christians will go through the tribulation and midtribulationists who teach that Christians will go through half of the tribulation. There are also pretribulationists who argue Christians won’t go through the tribulation at all.
Even before Christianity came into being, millennialist thinking entered Israel’s cultural consciousness through the Zealot party of Judaism. The Zealots expected a military Messiah who would rule the world for a thousand years with his capital at Jerusalem. In the second century, not long after the Christian revolution got off its fledgling feet, a new Christian convert by the name of Montanus claimed to be a special emissary of the Holy Spirit and promptly announced the New Jerusalem would descend from Heaven “very soon” into the township of Phrygia. Therefore, Montanus became the first Christian to set a date and place when the end times would begin.
Like many end times preachers who claim “special” or “secret knowledge” from God, he developed a large following of eventually disappointed believers.
In the year 230 CE, about two centuries after Christ’s death, an official group of church leadership called a Synod gathered in the city of Iconium and declared than baptisms performed by the Montanist sect were invalid. The Council of Constantinople in 381 CE supported the Synod of Iconium and further declared millennialism to be heresy – not just because of Montanus, but because it was considered simply wrong in its understanding and they wanted to make it crystal clear they were issuing a general rejection of millennialism and not just of Montanus’ teachings.
Although what we now recognize as the last book of the Bible contains no direct statement regarding Jesus’ thousand year reign on earth, the millennialists were known for using this letter to support their claims. Because of the connection between this group and the Revelation of John, the Church was quite slow to accept Revelation as scripture. To this day, Orthodox churches still don’t use Revelation for scripture reading during worship.
Modern millennialism is largely based on the teachings of John Darby, who lived in the 19th century. Among other things, The Rev. Darby taught that the British were the ten lost tribes of Israel and the church had vanished from the face of the earth in the early centuries and needed to be restored to its “original” primitive form and intention. He made a translation of the New Testament to support his teachings, which is known as the Darby version.
A religious group called the Plymouth Brethren spread the doctrine through fundamentalist churches, which at that time were unaware of Montanus and other teachers who agreed with him, the Synod of Iconium, the Council of Constantinople, and the position of the Protestant Reformers regarding its association with false and destructive teaching.
At present, millennialism is strongly rejected as heresy by Orthodox churches and somewhat less strongly by Lutheran churches and is basically just tolerated in other settings.
Millennialism is the majority view in fundamentalist churches, which often consider millennialism to be a test of “right thinking” and in rare circumstances even a prerequisite for membership.
There are so many examples of ancient heresies parading around in current teaching that it would take years to document them all. However, this one example should help to illustrate how easy it is to be swayed into believing something that “sounds good“ but does not offer any real, practical and sustainable growth opportunities in the life of the Christian believer.