Tertullian Reported that the New Jerusalem Appeared During His Lifetime

New Jerusalem

The Ante-Nicene Church Fathers as a whole are believed to have taught some unusual or bizarre doctrines.  Quite often this reputation stems from readers neglecting to understand the material carefully in its given context and not taking into account the different writing styles that were common to the ancients.  However, there are times when something especially exotic is stated with little or no explanation.  One of the best examples of this comes from Tertullian:

“But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem,“let down from heaven,” which the apostle also calls “our mother from above;” and, while declaring that our πολίτευμα , or citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven. This both Ezekiel had knowledge of and the Apostle John beheld. And the word of the new prophecy which is a part of our belief, attests how it foretold that there would be for a sign a picture of this very city exhibited to view previous to its manifestation. This prophecy, indeed, has been very lately fulfilled in an expedition to the East. For it is evident from the testimony of even heathen witnesses, that in Judæa there was suspended in the sky a city early every morning for forty days. As the day advanced, the entire figure of its walls would wane gradually, and sometimes it would vanish instantly.”[1]

Tertullian was a profound Premillennialist and this quote serves as a fine example.  He held to the minority view among the Chiliasts which was that the New Jerusalem would exist on the Earth during the millennial reign of Christ (instead of after).  All of this would be of academic interest but hardly shocking.  What does provoke special interest is where the exposition leads into commentary on the New Jerusalem appearing in the sky shortly before this book was written.

The New Jerusalem is a massive city that is likely cubed shaped with sides of approximately 1,400 miles in length (Rev. 21:15-17).  This colossal structure was said to be observed over Judea for forty days even by those who were not pre-disposed to believe in its existence (heathens).  Moreover, New Jerusalem was reported to appear on the spectrum from totally opaque to translucent.  At times, the city would even vanish suddenly.

This entire account is not substantiated by any other writer from any period, let alone a contemporary of Tertullian.  And yet, Tertullian was by all accounts a devoted follower of Jesus and a brilliant theologian.  After all, it was Tertullian who gave the Christian world the term, “Trinity” and so famously defined it as, “tres personae, una substantia.”  Tertullian is considered to be the father of Latin Christianity and the Origen of the West.  Therefore, Tertullian is someone worthy of taking seriously.  It is hard to believe that he is simply lying about the New Jerusalem’s appearance.  No more evidence is provided but a theological reason for the city’s incredible manifestation is:

“We say that this city has been provided by God for receiving the saints on their resurrection, and refreshing them with the abundance of all really spiritual blessings, as a recompense for those which in the world we have either despised or lost; since it is both just and God-worthy that His servants should have their joy in the place where they have also suffered affliction for His name’s sake.”[2]

It is difficult to be certain, but Tertullian seems to be implying that the New Jerusalem appeared for a time to pick up the souls of recently departed Christians.  Perhaps Tertullian viewed the appearance of the city as a sort of first fruits?  This would make sense given that Tertullian adamantly believed that the New Jerusalem would sit upon Earth in the future.

Yes, some early church fathers had some novel ideas that bordered on the whimsical.  Yet, even with this most telling of examples the heart and mind of the writer was on the power and reality of God’s wonders.

[1] Tertullian, Against Marcion, Bk. 3, Ch. 24

[2] Ibid.

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