The Premillennialism of Irenaeus

Ante-Nicene Church Father Irenaeus Irenaeus lived from A.D. 120 to 202, and he served as the bishop of the church in what is now Lyon France.  He was a pupil of the bishop of Smyrna and martyr Polycarp[1], himself a student of the apostle John.  Irenaeus being only one teacher removed from the disciple whom Jesus loved (e.g. John 13:23), makes the father’s extensive writings all the more valuable.  His magnum opus, Against Heresies was written to address and defeat the false doctrines and lies of the Gnostics.  The last five chapters of book five are so favorable to Chiliasm or Premillennialism that they were left out of the Latin translations in the Medieval Era by the doctrine’s opponents, only to be supplied again in 1575.[2]

Not surprisingly, Irenaeus held to the sexta-septamillennial construct:

For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: “Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works.”  This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.[3]        

He teaches that after six one thousand year periods, the seventh will follow: the day of the Lord.  Out of desperation some will argue that Irenaeus might have believed that the seventh day was eternal, meaning he was not premillennial.  This is easily disproven.  Elsewhere Irenaeus writes that it is only after the seventh day kingdom when the New Jerusalem will descend upon the earth.[4]  Those who are to come to an end at the completion of the sixth thousandth year are those who took the mark of the beast.  To Irenaeus, the mark’s number is six hundred and sixty-six, because it was a, summing up of the whole of that apostasy which has taken place during six thousand years.[5]


Irenaeus understood the seventh day or the Millennium and the kingdom as one in the same:

For what are the hundred-fold [rewards] in this word, the entertainments given to the poor, and the suppers for which a return is made? These are [to take place] in the times of the kingdom, that is, upon the seventh day, which has been sanctified, in which God rested from all the works which He created, which is the true Sabbath of the righteous, which they shall not be engaged in any earthly occupation; but shall have a table at hand prepared for them by God, supplying them with all sorts of dishes.[6]

After quoting from the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:12-13), Irenaeus asks and answers when these rewards will be given.  It will happen during the millennial kingdom which is also the true Sabbath.  Because God rested on the seventh day of creation, the saints will do no work during the Millennium but will instead enjoy a great banquet prepared for them by God.

The father explains that blessings of this kind could not be found in a heavenly realm but only on the earth after the resurrection:

…[Christ], after he had given thanks while holding the cup, and had drunk of it, and given it to the disciples, said to them: “…But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of the fruit of this vine, until that day when I will drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  Thus, then, He will Himself renew the inheritance of the earth, and will re-organize the mystery of the glory of [His] sons; as David says, “He who hath renewed the face of the earth.”  He promised to drink of the fruit of the vine with His disciples, thus indicating both on these points: the inheritance of the earth in which the new fruit of the vine is drunk, and the resurrection of His disciples in the flesh.  For the new flesh which rises again is the same which also received the new cup.  And He cannot by any means be understood as drinking of the fruit of the vine when settled down with his [disciples] above in a super-celestial place; nor again, are they who drink it devoid of flesh, for to drink of that which flows from the vine pertains to flesh, and not spirit.[7]

Irenaeus perceives that it will be during the kingdom in which Jesus will again drink wine with His disciples.  This proves that those in Christ are to inherit the earth and do so in resurrected bodies.  Irenaeus makes a cogent point, for Jesus ate fish to prove that He was not merely a spirit but had resurrected in the flesh (Luke 24:41-43).  The kingdom is realized after the resurrection when Jesus will renew the face of the earth (Ps. 104:30).


One of the key reasons for Irenaeus’ Premillennialism is that he was convinced that prophecy must be understood plainly.  In criticizing those who interpret otherwise, he writes:

If, however, any shall endeavour to allegorize [prophecies] of this kind, they shall not be found consistent with themselves in all points, and shall be confuted by the teaching of the very expressions [in question]. For example: “When the cities” of the Gentiles “shall be desolate, so that they be not inhabited, and the houses so that there shall be no men in them and the land shall be left desolate.”  For, behold,” says Isaiah, “the day of the Lord cometh past remedy, full of fury and wrath, to lay waste the city of the earth, and to root sinners out of it.”  And again he says, “Let him be taken away, that he behold not the glory of God.”  And when these things are done, he says, “God will remove men far away, and those that are left shall multiply in the earth.”  “And they shall build houses, and shall inhabit them themselves: ad plant vineyards, and eat of them themselves.”   For all these and other words were unquestionably spoken in reference to the resurrection of the just, which takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule; in [the times of] which [resurrection] the righteous shall reign in the earth.[8]            

Irenaeus quotes from Isaiah 6:11; 13:9; 26:10; 6:12 and 65:21.  He requires just one book to make his point that there are numerous prophecies that can only be fulfilled when the righteous will rule the earth.  And this rule can only happen after the rise and fall of the Antichrist and the resurrection of the saints.  Those who disagree with Irenaeus’ placement of when such prophecies will come to pass must resort to allegory to make them fit elsewhere.  The father warns that those who do this do not even find consistency among themselves and are refuted by the very verses they abuse.

His reason for taking prophecy plainly is summed up with:

…and nothing is capable of being allegorized, but all things are stedfast, and true, and substantial, having been made by God for righteous men’s enjoyment.  For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically…For since there are real men, so must there also be a real establishment…[9]


Irenaeus sees the times of the kingdom or the Millennium as being based in Jerusalem.  And this is predicated on the land promise in the Abrahamic Covenant:

Thus, then, the promise of God, which He gave to Abraham, remains stedfast…Thus he did await patiently the promise of God, and was unwilling to appear to receive from men, what God had promised to give him, when He said again to him as follows: “I will give this land to thy seed, from the river of Egypt even unto the great river Euphrates.”  If, then, God promised him the inheritance of the land, yet he did not receive it during all the time of his sojourn there, it must be, that together with his seed, that is, those who fear God and believe in Him, he shall receive it at the resurrection of the just.[10]

He reasons that if God made a promise and it has not yet come to pass then it must yet be future.  Only after Abraham is resurrected will he and his seed finally inherit all of the Promised Land.  Irenaeus elaborates in writing that Israel will be gathered from all the nations and dwell in the land that was promised to Jacob.[11]  The apocryphal book of Baruch 4:36-5:9 is quoted entirely to support that the rule of the saints will be centered in Jerusalem.[12]  This section of Baruch anticipates Jerusalem standing on high when the throne of the kingdom is established and the world is reshaped to suit Israel.

The father can only recognize such blessings as having a tangible fulfillment:

Now all these things being such as they are, cannot be understood in reference to super-celestial matters; “for God,” it is said, “will show to the whole earth that is under heaven thy glory.”  But in the times of the kingdom, the earth has been called again by Christ [to its pristine condition], and Jerusalem rebuilt after the pattern of the Jerusalem above, of which the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, I have depicted thy walls upon my hands, and thou art always in my sight.”  And the apostle too, writing to the Galatians, says in like manner, “But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” [13]

This is just one more example of Irenaeus deriding the relegation of kingdom prophecies to some vague heavenly location or application.  He sees the millennial Jerusalem as being based on the original in Heaven and provides Isaiah 49:16 and Galatians 4:26 for support.  Concerning the Jerusalem in Heaven Irenaeus writes, And in the Apocalypse John saw this new [Jerusalem] descending upon the new earth.  For after the times of the kingdom, he says, “I saw a great white throne, and Him who sat upon it…  Revelation 21:2 is referenced as being just after where John wrote on the kingdom in Revelation (i.e. the Apocalypse).  It can be almost certain then that Irenaeus understood the Millennium in Revelation 20 as concerning the kingdom. Thus an important distinction is made not only between the millennial Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem but also between the Millennium and the Eternal State.


Irenaeus begins his most significant teaching on the Millennium’s ecology by looking to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob.  After quoting Genesis 27:27-29, the father writes:

If any one, then, does not accept these things as referring to the appointed kingdom, he must fall into much contradiction and contrariety…For not only did not the nations in this life serve this Jacob; but even after he had received the blessing, he himself going forth [from his home], served his uncle Laban the Syrian for twenty years; and not only was he not made lord of his brother, but he did himself bow down before his brother Esau…Moreover, in what way did he inherit much corn and wine here, he who emigrated to Egypt because of the famine which possessed the land in which he was dwelling…?  The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food… [14]

If nations are to ever bow down to Jacob (Gen. 27:29) then he must be resurrected in order for them to do so.  It is at this time that God will give him the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth and much grain and wine (Gen. 27:28).

This leads to Irenaeus relaying a non-canonical teaching of Jesus:

…the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes[15] of wine.  And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.”  In like manner [the Lord declared] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds (quinque bilibres) of clear, pure, fine flour; and that all other fruit-bearing trees, and seeds and grass, would produce in similar proportions…[16]

Grapes From the Wadi of EshcolIrenaeus foresees multitudes of gargantuan talking grapes in the Millennium!  It is this teaching in particular that opponents of Irenaeus’ Premillennialism will mock him for.  However, even if Irenaeus is applying these words as strictly as possible it is only because he has great faith that the blessing to Jacob will materialize in the most wondrous ways imaginable.  Where others see fantasy, Irenaeus sees the power of God.  The huge grapes from the Wadi of Eschol (Num. 13:23) were a free sample of what will be available from the land when the inhabitants are in obedience to God.  Not only will grain and wine become numerous and massive, but the fatness of the earth will likewise manifest in all produce and kernels.  Formerly carnivorous animals will be sustained eating from these productions alone, allowing them to be in harmony and subjection to man.[17]

Isaiah 11:6-8 is provided and then Irenaeus follows up with:

And it is right that when the creation is restored, all the animals should obey and be in subjection to man, and revert to the food originally given by God (for they had been originally subjected in obedience to Adam), that is, the productions of the earth.  But some other occasion, and not the present, is [to be sought] for showing that the lion shall [then] feed on straw.  And this indicates the large size and rich quality of the foods.  For if that animal, the lion, feeds upon straw [at that period], of what a quality must the wheat itself be whose straw shall serve as suitable food for lions?[18] 

Irenaeus could not perceive how Isaiah’s prophecy could have already come to pass in the present world.  He could only see the plain meaning as applying to the future times of the kingdom and the restoration of creation.


[1]  Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., the Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume I – the Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 309.

[2] Ibid., 313.

[3] Ibid., 557.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXVIII.

[4] Ibid., 566.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXV.

[5] Ibid. 557.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXVIII.

[6] Ibid., 562.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.

[7] Ibid.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.

[8] Ibid., 565.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXV.

[9] Ibid., 566.   Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXV-XXXVI.

[10] Ibid., 561.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXII.

[11] Ibid., 563.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIV.

[12] Ibid., 565.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXV.

[13] Ibid. 565-566.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXV.

[14] Ibid., 562. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.

[15] A metrete was a unit of liquid measurement in ancient Greece, equivalent to 37.4 liters.

[16] Ibid., 562-563.   Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.

[17] Ibid., 563.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.

[18] Ibid. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. V, ch. XXXIII.


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    The Premillennialism of Irenaeus

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