Knowing the Players:
A Guide to Terminology in the Study of Millennial Movements

Jennifer Snow


The specialized terms used in the study of millennialism can be a bit daunting and confusing. Most of them have been derived from the study of Christian eschatology, but can be and are applied to non-Christian and secular groups as well. Whether they will continue to be adequate for the study of apocalyptic movements in other religious traditions remains to be seen.

We can begin with the simple term millennial, and the related term chiliastic. The term was originally derived from the "millennium" mentioned in Revelation 20--the thousand years of peace and justice, the reign of the saints and Christ on earth--which was due after the Great Tribulation and the battle of Armageddon also prophesied by Revelation. During this thousand year period, there would be no hunger, no thirst, no pain or illness, no ignorance or oppression; those on high would be brought low, and the humble exalted so that the meek inherited the earth. Throughout Christian history, various groups looked for the soon-coming of Christ, which would usher in the millennium. The basic dynamic of apocalypticism is actually a dynamic of hope. For one to say that the end is near is really to say that it is almost time to begin.

Though "millennial" and "chiliastic" both mean approximately the same thing--one is derived from the Latin word for "thousand," and the other from the Greek--they may have slightly different connotations for the researcher. "Millennial" may carry the particular implication that the group is waiting for a cycle of a thousand years to be completed, while "chiliastic" may imply that the group or individual expects to play a part in bringing about the millennium. (See apocalyptic glossary.) These terms have been extrapolated from Christianity to describe secular movements which look towards a future "golden age" or utopia for humanity (or for a certain portion of humanity); their rhetoric often closely resembles Christian millennial rhetoric.

Apocalyptic needs little explanation. The general sense is clear to an English speaker; it has come to mean any person or group or literature looking for or prophesying the end of the world. It is actually derived, however, from the title of a rather famous Greek book, Apocalupsis. The word means Revelation or Unveiling or Revealing, and the Apocalypse of John, the last book of the Bible, is the literary source for much of Western millennialism. The term is also applied in a technical sense to an entire genre of similar literature written in the time between the closing of the Old Testament canon and the closing of the New Testament canon (also known as the intertestamental period).

The early Church was almost certainly millennial in its outlook, expecting Christ to come at any moment. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, was the first to shape the millennial aspect of Christianity into amillennialism. An amillennialist believes that there will be no earthly millennium, or that the "millennium" is occurring now, spiritually, in the hearts of believers (Augustine's interpretation). Christian amillennialists generally hold that the Second Coming of Christ will end the world and usher in eternity, a "new heaven and new earth," whereas Christian millennialists hold that there will be a millennium here, within time and on our own earth, before eternity begins. Amillennialism was the official viewpoint of the Catholic church down to our own times, and many of the heresies and sects of the medieval and later periods were millennial in reaction. Such sects used millennial rhetoric to deride the "worldliness" of the Church, where they themselves were committed to the new world that was on its way. Often, the Pope was identified with the Antichrist, and the Church with the whore of Babylon, two figures culled from the Book of Revelation and extremely important in the growth of apocalyptic legend.

Several Protestant sects, such as the Anabaptists, were extremely millennial. Luther and Calvin also used millennial rhetoric, and their success owed much to this. However, Calvinism is theologically amillennial, and it is easy to find examples of Calvinist "owls." (see owls and roosters.)

Protestantism today is divided on issues of eschatology (the study of the last things). Premillennialists believe that Christ will come to inaugurate the millennium. There are various forms of premillennialism. Some premillennial sects, such as the Layman's Home Bible Movement, believe that Christ has in fact already come, though not in visible form, and that the millennium is currently under construction by His spirit. Others, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, believe simply that the coming could be at any time, though it is likely to be soon, and that the millennium will begin afterwards. Much of their literature describes the wonder of this coming period, and much of their success can be attributed to their sincere belief that it is coming soon--despite the fact that the Witnesses have set dates for the end three times (1914, 1975, and 1984) and have three times been proven wrong. The ability of millennial groups to bounce back from this sort of "cognitive dissonance" is the measure of the durability of the hope millennialism promises.

Premillennialism comes in several theological varieties. One is historicist premillennialism. This, the older form of premillennialism, teaches that some of the prophecies of Revelation have been fulfilled in history since then, and so one can expect more prophecies to be fulfilled in current events. The historic premillennialist thus is prone to setting timetables--ie, this happened in 1798, so this will happen in 1843--and to predicting when further prophecy will be fulfilled. Historic premillennialism is the source of the year-day-theory. That is, when interpreting Biblical prophecy, the historic premillennialist will take any mention of "day" to actually be equal to one year, and construct timetables and target dates from this information. The most famous example of historicism in American history was the Millerite movement in the 1840s, which created such excitement in upstate New York that, reportedly, fifty thousand people stood on hilltops in white "ascension robes," waiting for the end on an autumn day in 1843. While the movement may not actually have been so extensive, it was highly publicized and thus discredited historicist premillennialism in America for quite some time.

Out of the wreckage arose futurist premillennialism. Futurist premillennialism teaches that no prophecy has been fulfilled since Revelation; all unfulfilled prophecy will be fulfilled in the future, after the current age is ended. Futurism thus avoids the rock of "date-setting" which sank the Millerites and other historicist movements. By far the most common form of futurism in America is dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, originating in the works of an Irish clergyman in the 1830s, became popular in America in the latter half of the nineteenth century and has remained so ever since. Its theological pecularities include a distinction between Israel and the Church, a literal interpretation of the Bible, an expectation of the Rapture of true believers, and a millennium with a decidedly "Jewish flavor." Dispensationalists hold that the Jews remain God's chosen people, and that, after the Church Age--the period of time from Pentecost to the yet-awaited Rapture--has ended, God's attention will be turned back to ethnic Israel. The millennium will be a time of glory for Israel on earth, while the glorified Christians will help Jesus rule over the millennial world. The most famous prophecy writers in America today, such as Hal Lindsey and Jack Van Impe, are dispensationalists. Although they constantly try to fit current events into the framework of prophecy, they do not believe that prophecy is actually being fulfilled today. Rather, they teach that current events are preparations for the fulfillment of prophecy in the future. While this is a fine line, it is important theologically to the dispensationalist position.

Dispensationalists believe in the Rapture of true believers before the Great Tribulation, the seven years of trouble before the Second Coming and inauguration of the millennium. The Rapture occurs when Christ comes to meet believers "in the air" and gives them their glorified bodies. Pretribulationism, the belief that the Church will be taken out of the world by Christ before the Tribulation, is the dispensationalist position. Posttribulationism teaches that the Church will be Raptured at the actual Second Coming: they will go to meet him in the air and then come with him back down to earth. Midtribulationism is the belief that the Church will have to suffer through the first three and a half years of the the Tribulation, but will be Raptured at the midpoint, before things get "really bad." Posttribulationists and midtribulationists often are survivalists, people who are concerned with physically surviving the coming Tribulation, stocking up on everything from guns to canned goods. The partial rapture position holds that believers will be Raptured individually, throughout the Tribulation, as they prove themselves spiritually worthy. This position is not held by many people, at least partially because it comes dangerously close to "salvation through works," which is considered close to heresy by many Christian denominations.

There are also secular premillennialists. While they do not believe that Christ will come to change the world, they do believe that an outside force is waiting in the wings to radically renovate the current order. The modern UFO movement is an example. And of course there are non-Christian premillennialists who are not secular, such as the Kala Jnana movement in Hinduism, awaiting the avatar of righteousness who will establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. (See our Recommended Links page for more examples.)

Postmillennialists believe that the millennium will be created by the work of human beings. While premillennialism tends to be religious, focussing on an outside agency interfering with the order of the world as it stands, postmillennialism can be either religious or secular. Christian postmillennialism expects that, after human beings have created a just and good society and upheld it for one thousand years, Christ will return. At the turn of the century, Christian postmillennialism tended to be focussed on the social gospel. Today, conservative Christian postmillennialism includes Christian Reconstructionists, the militias, and other groups which aim towards the destruction or subversion of the current social order in favor of "Old Testament law." Liberal Christian postmillennialism is a component of the ecumenical movement--something which conservative Christians consider a forerunner of Antichrist.

From Christianity, the term "postmillennial" can be applied to the many secular movements which are working for a utopia. Although they don't usually believe that Christ will come as a result of their works, their vision of the future society is often strikingly similar to the Christian millennium. Because, like Christian postmillennialists, they believe that it is the duty of human beings to create this society, secular postmillennialists tend to become political or even revolutionary. Like religious postmillennialism, secular postmillennialism can take positive or negative forms. Marxism is probably the most famous example of secular postmillennialism, but pacifists and environmentalists can also be included in this category. Nazi Germany is an example of Christian postmillennialism going extremely wrong--the utopia or good society envisioned isn't necessarily something everyone would agree on.


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