Amillennialism in the Early Church

While writing an impassioned essay on the historical and scriptural merits of amillennialism, the author writes:
"There is this common misconception by some Christians that Augustine (A.D. 400) was the author of 'what is today called' the amillennial view of the kingdom of Christ. This statement is untrue. Others credit Origen (3rd century) as the chief architect. But we should be careful to understand that the term amillennial, was not known to either Origen or Augustine. It is true that they were instrumental in bringing this teaching back to the forefront of the Church of their day, but this view by no means originated with them. In the same way as the Reformation was the restoring of doctrines faithful to Scripture (not the start of them), so Augustine's noted preaching of what the Scriptures say about the Kingdom, was in response to error, not a new teaching. What is commonly 'called' amillennialism today, is as old as the Scriptures themselves, and though not known by this name, it has always been the biblical teaching of the Church."
Is what he says about the historical roots of the amillennial understanding of the Scriptures correct?
Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult for us to know precisely what the early church taught about eschatology for a few reasons. First, they don't appear to have written much on the subject. Second, we don't have much of what they did write. And third, they do not appear to have been in total agreement with one another.

In support of this third point, I would refer you to the very early discussion of the millennium by Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) in his Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 80. Therein, Justin defended the position of Historic Premillennialism, but added that "many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise" (ANF, vol. 1, p. 239).

One example of those who thought otherwise in the early church can be found in Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria. In his Fragments, part 1, chapter 1, Dionysius expresses his disagreement with the doctrine of Nepos that there will be "a (temporal*) reign of Christ upon the earth" (ANF, vol. 6, p. 81). Eusebius refers to the controversy between Nepos and Dionysius in his Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapters 24 and 25 (wherein he quotes at length the existing fragments of Dionysius referenced above). Therein, Eusebius stated that Nepos' doctrine had been that "there would be a certain millennium of sensual luxury on this earth" (ch. 24).

*Or as we find it translated by Boyle in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, "earthly."

With regard to the argument that amillennialism is the biblical doctrine, however, I am in total agreement. The New Testament teaches with incredible regularity that the kingdom of God is now present on earth, and also that it has not yet reached its fullness. This fullness will be obtained only when Christ returns, at which point the resurrection and the last judgment will take place. A great work on this subject is Herman Ridderbos' The Coming of the Kingdom (P&R, 1962). Based on my understanding that this is the doctrine the Bible teaches, I also believe that it is reasonable to assume that this view was represented in the early church, perhaps being the position of Dionysius and of those "others" mentioned by Justin Martyr.

Now, there are various shades of amillennialism. My own view is that Scripture does not reveal the shape or condition of the millennium. Thus, the postmillennial scenario is a possibility (assuming one does not insist on a literal 1,000 years), but not a necessity. On the other hand, things could be very bad before Jesus returns, or they could continue on a relatively even keel.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.