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Millennialism

Millennialism (or Chiliasm) in Christian theology, literature and folk religion, is a belief not universally held by Christians, that history will end with a Golden Age, a Paradise on earth when universal peace will reign, when all of the inhabitants will dwell in prosperity and the cosmos will be healed. These expectations have usually, but not always corresponded with the expected Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Millennialism is also a doctrine of Zoroastrianism concerning successive thousand year periods, each of which will end in a cataclysm of heresy and destruction, until the final destruction of evil and of the spirit of evil by a triumphant king of peace at the end of the final millenial age (supposed by some to be 2000 C.E.). "Then Soshyant[?] makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur" (Zand-i Vohuman Yasht 3:62).

See also:

Table of contents

Christian millennialism

For Christian millennialism, the decisive event that will happen sometime in the future is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (sometimes also referred to as Doomsday[?]). Christ is going to come into this world a second time in order to end the world and to pass a Last Judgement on all humankind, both living and dead. Thereafter there will be no earthly existence or earthly history but only Heaven and Hell. Picturing that moment as a time of universal joy and happiness, when the lion would lie down with the lamb, and swords would be re-forged into ploughshares, the early Christians in the midst of persecutions were gladly looking forward to it. In medieval Christianity, as Christians settled into the official endorsement of their religion by the Roman Empire, the dark side of Judgement Day expectations became more prominent. Christians too, and not just the unbelieving world, were warned of dies irae (the Day of wrath[?]). Especially important in Western monasticism, the day of wrath became a warning to all men — as we are all sinners — to dread the coming of the Lord, and to use the present opportunity to prepare for the destruction of the present world. In any case, the Millennium always stands for a great reversal of the present state of affairs.

Pre-Christian millennialism

Although never officially recognized by the Catholic Church (and actually pronounced a heresy already in 431 AD), millennialism, which had clearly been there in Jewish thought before, received a new interpretation and fresh impetus through the arrival of Christianity. A millennium is (a) a period of one thousand years, and, in particular, (b) Christ's thousand-year rule on this earth, either directly preceding or immediately following His Second Coming (and the Day of Judgement).

The millennium reverses the period of evil and suffering; it rewards the virtuous for their courage while punishing the evil-doers, with a clear separation of saints and sinners. The vision of a thousand-year period of bliss for the faithful, to be enjoyed here on earth ("heaven on earth"), exerted an irresistible power. Although the picture of life in the millennial era is almost wilfully obscure and hardly more appealing than that of, say, the Golden Age, what has made the millennium much more powerful than the Golden Age or Paradise myths are the activities of the sects and movements that it has inspired. Throughout the ages, hundreds of sects were convinced that the millennium was imminent, about to begin in the (very) near future, with precise dates given on many occasions.

Premillennial sects look for signs of Christ's imminent appearing. Other chiliast sects, such as the prophetic Anabaptist followers of Thomas Müntzer[?], have believed that the millennium had already begun, with only their own members having realized this fact. Consequently, they have attempted to live out their own vision of the millennial life, radically overturning the beliefs and practices of the surrounding society. In doing so, they offered a model of the good life and expressed their hope that soon the rest of the world would follow and live like they did.

See Christian eschatology for a discussion of "premillennialism" and "postmillennialism".

Transition to the Millennium

Millennial sects typically have believed that the transition from the present to the millennium would be anything but smooth, what with the Antichrist having to be defeated and Jesus Christ's reign on earth having to be established. At times, this expectation of disastrous wars which bring an end to the present age, have been undertaken by leaders of the movement as their responsibility to bring about.

On the other hand, also those who did not believe in the millennium imagined the end of the world as chaotic and catastrophic. The word Apocalypse has been used for this final phase of human history as we know it, with Armageddon as the site of the last decisive battle on the Day of Judgement.

An (or the) Apocalypse [from Greek apo "off", "from", "away", "un-" and kalyptein "cover"] is,

  • in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a revelation of God's purposes with the main intention of encouraging an oppressed and suffering minority to have faith in God and of proclaiming his ultimate triumph;

  • in particular, the revelation of the future granted to St John (one of the four evangelists) in the isle of Patmos, written in Greek in the 1st century AD and burning with the conviction that the world is about to be destroyed and that Christ's Second Coming is at hand;

The Book of Revelation is not easy to interpret. Numerous painters and sculptors have produced works of art dealing with the Apocalypse. For example, they portrayed the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing pestilence, war, famine, and death.

Millennialism and Utopianism

The early Christian concept had ramifications far beyond strictly religious concern during the centuries to come, as it was blended and enhanced with ideas of utopia.

In the wake of early millennial thinking, the Three Ages philosophy (Drei-Reiche-Lehre) developed. Making use of the dogma of the Trinity, the Italian monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore[?] (d. 1202) claimed that all of human history was a succession of three ages:

  1. the Age of the Father (= the Old Testament)
  2. the Age of the Son (= the New Testament)
  3. the Age of the Holy Spirit (= the age of love, peace, and freedom)

It was believed that the Age of the Holy Spirit would begin at around 1260, and that from then on all believers would be living as monks, mystically transfigured and full of praise for God, for a thousand years until Judgement Day would put an end to the history of our planet.

In the Modern Era, with the impact of religion on everyday life gradually decreasing and eventually almost vanishing, secularized versions of millennial thinking cropped up. With God dethroned and science and reason elevated in his place as the new messiahs, the French Revolution seemed to many to be ushering in the millennial reign of reason. Also, the philosophies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (d. 1831) and Karl Marx (d. 1883) carried strong millennial overtones (such as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as the new beginning of an everlasting period of history, actually lasting for the rest of time). As late as 1970, Yale law teacher Charles A. Reich[?] coined the term "Consciousness III[?]" in his then best seller The Greening of America[?], in which he spoke of a new age ushered in by the hippie generation.

Millennialism and Nazism

The most grotesque parody of the Three Ages philosophy and of millennialism in general is Hitler's "Third Reich" ("Drittes Reich", "Tausendjähriges Reich"), which, however, was to last for twelve rather than a thousand years.

The phrase "Third Reich" was coined by the conservative German thinker Arthur Moeller van den Bruck[?] (b. 1876, suicide 1925), who in 1923 published a book entitled Das Dritte Reich, which eventually became a catchphrase that even survived the Nazi regime.

Looking back at German history, two "glorious" periods were distinguished:

These were now to be followed -- after the shameful interval of the Weimar Republic (1918 - 1933), during which constitutionalism, parliamentarism and even pacifism ruled -- by

  • the "Third Reich" of Adolf Hitler.

In a speech held on 27 November 1937, Hitler commented on his plans to have major parts of Berlin torn down and rebuilt:

[...] einem tausendjährigen Volk mit tausendjähriger geschichtlicher und kultureller Vergangenheit für die vor ihm liegende unabsehbare Zukunft eine ebenbürtige tausendjährige Stadt zu bauen [...].

[...] to build a millennial city adequate [in splendour] to a thousand year old people with a thousand year old historical and cultural past, for its never-ending [glorious] future [...]

Conclusion

It appears from this evolution of millenniarian ideas, that there is a close relationship between millennialism and utopianism. Millennialism looks for the recovery of paradise on earth, a return to the Garden of Eden. Millennialism places hope in the future realization of an idyllic[?] state of affairs lost to mankind, dimly remembered or constantly dreamt of, but romantically hoped to be not beyond the possibility of attainment, just as utopianism does. For a wider discussion of Millennialism as a sub-type of utopianism, see the entry on Utopianism.



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