Millennial Views Following the Ante-Nicene Church: Augustine and Amillennialism – Part 2

augustine-amillennialismAUGUSTINE

Augustine was the bishop of Hippo, living from AD 354 to 430.  He remains a vaunted theologian, having a profound influence on Christianity in the West in his day and later on Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.  Augustine serves as the cardinal figure in the turning away from Premillennialism.  He once held to the doctrine before formulating the first truly developed alternative.

In The City of God, the bishop wrote on his transition:

There should follow on the completion of six thousand years, as of six days, a kind of seventh-day Sabbath in the succeeding thousand years; and that it is for this purpose the saints rise, viz., to celebrate this Sabbath.  This opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion.  But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can only be believed by the carnal.  They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians.[1]

Augustine refuted an argument never put forward by his opponents, a straw man fallacy.  Premillennialists, whether in the early centuries or now, did and do believe that the joys in the Millennium are spiritual.  They are, however, not only spiritual.  And these blessings are certainly contingent upon God’s presence.  Augustine insulted Premillennialists for anticipating the enjoyment of food and drink.  This is an unfair characterization.  Such an expectation is not based on carnal desire, but on the plain reading of several prophetic passages, including Isaiah 25:6 and Matthew 26:29.

The quote is especially instructive in revealing Augustine’s worldview.  His disdain for what is physical suggests that his years of studying Greek philosophy had a lasting influence.  Additionally, Augustine had once lived a life of hedonistic pleasure before converting to Christianity and becoming an ascetic.  Perhaps he projected this life experience onto the Bible before interpreting it.  Lest anyone think that Augustine’s tendency to spiritualize Scripture was limited to prophecy, be assured that is not the case.  He started doing so at the very beginning of Genesis.  Augustine early developed a spiritual exegesis of the creation story, affirming that “reproduce and multiply” (Gen. 1:27–28) meant a “spiritual reproduction” when the command was first given, not a physical production of offspring (Gn. adv. Man. 1.19.30).[2]

AUGUSTINE’S ALTERNATIVE

After declining to refute Premillennialism on each point, Augustine proceeded to show how he believed Revelation 20:1–7 should be understood.  He put forth two possibilities as to the meaning of the one thousand years.  First, it could refer to the final millennium before Jesus returns to set up his eternal kingdom.  This option takes the length of time literally but applies it to the end of the present age.  Second, the thousand years could refer to the entire duration of the world, representing the perfected fullness of time.  It is perfect in that one thousand is ten cubed.  Furthermore, the number one hundred is said to indicate totality.  This is based on Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:30 that sacrificial servants will receive a hundred times what they left behind.  And in the number one thousand there are ten hundreds.[3]

Augustine placed the binding and imprisonment of Satan for the thousand years in the present age.  He identified the chain as a restraining force that prevents the Devil from gaining possession of believers.[4]  The abyss that the angel throws Satan into is said to represent the countless multitude of the wicked whose hearts are unfathomably deep in malignity against the Church of God.[5]

On the rule of Jesus and his saints:

But while the Devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming . . . the Church could not now be called His kingdom or the kingdom of heaven unless His saints were even now reigning with Him, though in another and far different way; for to His saints He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”[6]

The Church is essentially made to be one in the same as the kingdom.  Since it is virtually impossible to argue that the saints are now reigning according to the regular sense, Augustine had to find another one.  The fact that Jesus remains with the saints is taken to mean that they are currently reigning with him.

Augustine agreed with Premillennialism in taking the second resurrection literally and in placing it at the end of the thousand years.  He differed in interpreting the first resurrection to indicate those who have been revived from the death of sin and continue in a renewed life.[7]

These interpretations on the thousand years, the binding of Satan, the reign of the saints, and the first resurrection provided the basis for what came to be known as Amillennialism.

AMILLENNIALISM

Amillennialism is the name for the view that there is no literal and earthly reign of Jesus before the Eternal State.  When the prefix a is attached to the beginning of a word it negates the meaning.  Thus, Amillennialism means no millennium.  In general, amillennialists contend that the rule of the saints, as depicted in Revelation 20, with Christ is only spiritual.  It started with the First Coming and will end with the Second.  The present age, is then, the thousand year kingdom; the number is only symbolic or spiritual.  Satan is now bound in that his power is limited in some sense.  The first resurrection of the dead is considered to be a synonym for the regeneration and/or salvation of the believer.  Finally, many of the promises made in the unconditional covenants to Israel are considered fulfilled or as currently being fulfilled with the Christian church.  Notably, Jesus is viewed as presently sitting on the throne of David, though in heaven and not on earth.[8]

Amillennialists utilize a hermeneutic that allows for spiritual or non-literal interpretations of unfulfilled prophecy.  This is despite the fact that they strongly affirm the literal fulfillment of a great many prophecies with the First Coming.  On the need to be consistent in interpreting First and Second Coming prophecies, the evangelical-champion J.C. Ryle wrote:

As He came the first time in person, so He will come the second time in person.  As He went away from earth visibly, so He will return visibly.  As He literally rode upon an ass, was literally sold for thirty pieces of silver, had His hands and feet literally pierced, was numbered literally with the transgressors, and had lots literally cast upon His raiment, and all that Scripture might be fulfilled, so also will He literally come, literally set up a kingdom, and literally reign over the earth, because the very same Scripture has said that it shall be so.[9]

Such a dedication to the consistent literal interpretation of prophecy underscores the primary deficit in where the amillennialist is coming from.  Yes, their views can be responded to on a point by point basis.  However, the issue on who is correct will always revert back to what method of approaching God’s word allows for it to have the final say.

RESPONSE

The best refutation of a position often comes from providing the better option.  This has been the desired goal and focus in expounding on the Millennium in the many articles cataloged here on Apple Eye.  Therefore, just a few general responses to Amillennialism are provided.  First, whether or not the thousand years is a set number or just representative of a specific period is not the primary issue.  The premillennial position is based on an intermediary period where covenantal promises to Israel can be fulfilled and a great number of prophecies can find a home.  Even if the amillennialist is correct in claiming that the number of years is symbolic or spiritual, the underlying basis for Premillennialism remains untouched.  Questioning the literalness of the thousand years is merely a tactic used to obfuscate and avoid the far more significant scriptural basis for Premillennialism.

That the blessed Thousand years are not yet begun, is abundantly clear from this, we do not see the Devil bound; No, the Devil was never more let loose than in our days.[10]  This observation, by the Puritan Cotton Mather, is strongly supported by several New Testament passages.  Jesus explained that Satan was a murderer, the father of lies (John 8:44), and the ruler of the world (John 14:30).  Well after the ascension of Jesus, Paul referred to Satan as the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4).  The apostle further described Satan as the prince of the power of the air and the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2), as an active tempter (1 Thess 3:5).  James instructed the early Church to resist the Devil (Jas 4:7).  Peter warned his brethren that they should be on alert, for their adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8).  Satan was such a present danger to the churches of Revelation 2–3 that he is mentioned six times, as both a direct and indirect persecutor (Rev 2:9, 10, 13, 24; 3:9).  Without a doubt, Scripture depicts Satan as an unchained menace that the saints must oppose.  Moreover, the abyss that Satan is to be thrown into was spoken of as a real place where demons are afraid to go (Luke 8:31).  The abyss is not said to represent the hearts of the wicked or anything else that would allow for the conclusion that Satan is currently imprisoned there.

In an effort to support the notion that the first resurrection of Revelation 20:5–6 is not of the body, amillennialists look to John 5.  Jesus did in fact refer to those who are saved as having passed out of death into life (John 5:24).  Jesus specifically defined what is meant by this “resurrection.”  The first resurrection of Revelation 20 is never given any special definition that would make it mean something other than what it usually would.  Jesus also spoke of a time coming when all in their tombs will hear his voice.  Some will be resurrected to life, while others will be resurrected to face judgment (John 5:28–29).  The amillennialist takes these resurrections as referring to two classes of people within an overall one-time raising of the dead at the end of the age.  Nothing in the plain reading of Revelation 20 contradicts John 5.  Jesus’ purpose was not to provide an eschatological timetable, but rather to teach on his authority as it applied to the areas of resurrection and judgment (vv. 21–27).  The point, then, is that both the just and unjust will be resurrected for different purposes.  Jesus never said that both groups would be resurrected together.

In the normal use of language, the same word used in the same context maintains its meaning.  If one resurrection in Revelation 20:5–6 is of the body, then so is the other.  Additionally, the two resurrections are used as bookends to the Millennium.  If the first resurrection meant salvation, then why is it placed only at the beginning of the Millennium?  Is it not the case that people are saved throughout the present age?

[1] Augustine, City of God, 785. Chapter VII.

[2] Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, 69.

[3] Augustine, 785–786. Chapter VII.

[4] Ibid., 786. Chapter VII.

[5] Ibid., 786. Chapter VII.

[6] Ibid., 790. Chapter IX.

[7] Ibid., 793. Chapter IX.

[8] Some premillennialists also hold this view.  However, they still anticipate a future reign of Jesus upon the earth.

[9] Ryle, Coming Events, 14.

[10] Mather and Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World, 69.

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  1. […] is not restricted from doing so in the present age (e.g. John 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8).  The same criticisms made on the amillennial interpretation of the binding apply here as […]

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