Revelation 20:1-10 speaks of Christ reigning for a thousand years, which is taken as a literal kingdom of Jesus on earth after his second coming by premillennialists. Amillennialists, on the other hand, understand the thousand-year-reign of Christ to refer to the era of the church, which will conclude with the second coming and final judgment.

This debate is ancient. Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (composed around 160 AD) is the earliest extant work to explicitly weigh in on the issue. Justin takes a premillennialist view, prefacing the discussion with a disclaimer that faithful Christians are not in agreement on it (ch.81). Irenaeus also advocated premillennialism. Eusebius, himself amillennialist, gives an interesting report of a debate on the issue in Alexandria taking place in around 250 AD (Ecclesial History 7.24-25). In City of God (dating to the early 5th century), Augustine reports his own switch from premillennialism to amillennialism, with a brief but compelling argument for why this is correct (Book XX).

As I understand it, amillennialism was far-and-away the dominant view from the time of Augustine until the Reformation. Calvin dismisses premillennialism as "too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation," (Institutes Book 3, XXV.5), but he seems to misunderstand it as postulating that the resurrected saints will only live for that thousand years.

In the present time, the situation seems to have changed. Premillennialism is an integral part of Dispensationalism, which remains quite popular in American churches. But even outside Dispensationalism, one finds many premillennialist theologians, such as John Piper or Wayne Grudem or [reportedly] Charles Spurgeon.

My question is: Among non-Dispensationalist theologians, why has premillennialism returned? Does the resurgence of historical premillannialism have anything to do with the advent of dispensational premillennialism?

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    Up-voted +1 for a very concise history of the division.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 27 at 15:13
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    Paul Boyer wrote a very detailed history of pre-millennialism in his book When Time Shall Be No More. (NOT to be confused with the book by the same name by Salem Kirban!) Commented May 27 at 22:23

4 Answers 4


The research done by the OP is most helpful, noting that Justin Martyr (c. 160) likely was the first to write in favour of premillennialism but pointing out his disclaimer that faithful Christians were not in agreement. Irenaeus also advocated premillennialism. Eusebius (an amillennialist) wrote of a debate on the issue in Alexandria (c. 250). Augustine reported his own switch from premillennialism to amillennialism (c. early 5th century). From the time of Augustine, amillennialism dominated. At the Reformation, Calvin dismissed premillennialism and that remained the case amongst Protestantism as a whole until more recent times. Premillennialism has now become strongly linked to dispensationalism, also being found in Protestant non-dispensationalist groups. The question is, why has premillennialism ‘returned’ among non-Dispensationalist theologians, and does the resurgence of historical premillennialism have anything to do with the advent of dispensational premillennialism?

To answer that, the need is to go back to the early 19th century. Here are two quotes about the re-emergence of premillennialism. The first is from a non-dispensationalist, amillennialist who shows in his book how the switch occurred:

“This astounding scheme was recovered from oblivion… largely by the ecumenical meetings for prophecy at the castle of Lady Powerscourt in Ireland. J.N. Darby and other early brethren leaders, many of them clergymen, featured prominently.” The Revelation of Jesus Christ, John Metcalfe, p.15, 1998, http://wwwjohnmetcalfepublishingtrust.co.uk/contact_us.htm

Metcalfe then links in the American Dr Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, born 1843, with supporting this, plus dispensationalism. Scofield was highly influential, as was his book The Scofield Bible. It was first published in 1909, a second edition came out in 1917. Here is another quote from a Reformed Protestant scholar who, likewise, is a non-dispensationalist, amillennialist. This is about The Scofield Bible:

“It may fairly be called one of the most influential books… thrust into the religious life of America during the twentieth century. So far as I know, it is not looked upon as a valuable adjunct to Bible study in any of the regular theological seminaries throughout our country, but in numerous Bible schools, it is one of the chief text-books, and in many circles an appeal to the Scofield Bible is the end of all controversy.” The Scofield Bible, Albertus Pieters p. 5, Telos. Pages 14 to 17 deal with Scofield’s doctrine of Dispensations.

There are many publications from amillennialist, non-dispensationalist, Protestant sources that express horror at the millennialist, dispensationalist enthusiasm that has arisen since the 1830s. Pieters lists 23 Protestant works exposing it, written from 1897 to 1990.

The answer to your question as to “what is the cause”, is that premillennialism has returned due to initial influence by early brethren leaders, including J.N. Darby, in the early 1830s, bolstered massively by C.I. Scofield, who hugely promoted it and dispensationalism, at the end of that century. But this does not touch on theological schemes and intrigues going back centuries. If this is what is really looked for, I will have to write another answer, much longer than this one.

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    Thoroughly excellent. To myself, this is the kind of quality (both the question and the answer) which makes SE-C worthwhile. Up-voted +1, without a moment's hesitation.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 27 at 18:52
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    @AlanFuller Since the idea started up (probably mid-2nd century) there have likely been proponents of it to greater or lesser degrees throughout church history. Since its resurgence from the early 19th century, it has wrongly been assumed by millions of Protestants as mainstream, biblical teaching. I recommend the 600+ page book by John Metcalfe (in my answer) to see why this is such a misleading teaching.
    – Anne
    Commented May 28 at 6:44
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    Oh, I should add that Justin Martyr isn't the first to advocate premillennialism (that title presumably goes to Papias of Hieropolis, whom Irenaeus and Eusebius both claim was premil but whose writings are now lost) but the author of the first extant work to advocate premillennialism. Commented May 28 at 11:08
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    May be of interest on history pre-Darby christianobserver.net/the-history-of-dispensationalism/….
    – SLM
    Commented May 28 at 18:47
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    I realize that Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and some others are believed to be premillennial. That's not my opinion. I think the confusion comes from what is sometimes referred to as the Adamic millennium as expressed by Philo of Alexandria before the book of Revelation was written. It is essentially amillennial and is based on Genesis 2:17. Irenaeus refers to it as does Justin Martyr, although they don't mention Philo. Tertullian calls the first resurrection spiritual, which is not a premillennial belief either. I'm also aware of Eusebus' opinion of Papias and Irenaeus. Commented May 28 at 21:52

What is the 'Cause of the Re-emergence of (Historic) Premillennialism?
It is true that, as other Answers have noted, that there was some Premillennial tendencies in the Church Fathers---as well as other views of the millennium of John. And it is true that from then on through the Reformation, there was a turn to Amillennialism.

Prophecy Sects But, also as noted, the 1800s saw many sects arise in Christianity that were based on particular---and peculiar---views of the alleged "End Times." Mormonism, 7th Day Adventism, Russellism (J.W.), Apostolic Faith (Edward Irving), et al.

One of the other sects was the one started in the early 1800s by John Darby of the Plymouth Brethren group. It was later called by the name, Dispensationalism. It was marked by aggressive distribution both in the U.K. and in America. Darby made several trips across the great pond, and spoke at many American church conventions.

Sure Foothold There were establish several Bible Colleges with the sole presentation of prophecy from the Disp. viewpoint. A study bible was printed by C.I. Scofield that presented only Dispensational footnotes, which greatly influenced the common Christian church-goer. (Many mistaking the notes to be as inspired as the scriptures!) Prophecy conferences dotted the church landscape---with the expulsion of any ministers who didn't go along with this new and novel eschatological belief system.

Technology Then with the advent (no pun intended) of modern technology, and the ease of printing thousands of books---and charts---Dispensationalism permeated every nook and cranny of modern Christianity. Pyro-techno apocalyptic movies proliferated, influencing many, especially those who didn't really read the Bible for themselves. Novels poured out of the printing presses like water over Victoria Falls. Television programs produced by evangelical (sic) pastors touted the glories of Dispensationalism week after week.

But, However There has been a rise of Bible researchers and theologians which have studied the claims of Disp. for themselves---regardless of what the Bible Colleges and Denominational Seminaries have taught them. Even the battleship of Disp., the Dallas Seminary, has fermented controversy over the truthfulness of Disp., and there has been a re-editing of this belief system: a Progressive Disp. which has seen some ideas that were not Gospel, and needed to be revised!

And others have studied the history of eschatological theology, and seen the aberrations of Disp. theology, and have raised serious questions about it. But because of their affinity to some of the major beliefs of Disp. there were not willing to dump the whole barrel full. Because they were raised in a futuristic theological culture, they have not taken the complete step of advancing on to Amillennialism, They were not willing to join the Reformed and Presbyterian systematic theologians who were basically Amillennial, as the reformers were. Such a step was too dramatic...

So, the Move So those disgruntled with Dispensationalism's extremism, instead have embraced Historic Premillennialism. They see it as a Doctrine not unknown to Christianity---quite historic---different from any modernistic sect indoctrination (such as Dispensationalism is). And yet it still allows them to retain an allegiance to a type of futurism, which they are accustomed to. [Physical, futuristic leanings are a great temptation, even though the N.T. presented a spiritual Kingdom in the present, as the kind Jesus instituted---and of which He is King!]

This is the Cause of the re-emergence of (Historic) Premillennialism. Indeed it was the sect of Disp. that surreptitiously moved unlearned congregants away from the teachings of a Present Spiritual Kingdom (Amillennialism), and focused them on a futuristic eschatology. And it is now in this predominantly futuristic Disp. culture that is seeing a drift away from the errors of Disp. yet clinging to a futurism, with an emphasis on a physical future kingdom. Hence a lunge toward Premillennialism.

Resource An in depth survey of this is found in the recent book, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation, Daniel G. Hummel, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2023.

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    Bringing the development up to date is certainly important. The subject is so big, this answer (in accord with that earlier one you noted), I note as being truly helpful.
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 4 at 11:09

There's also a trivial explanation.

Since the time of Augustine the literal premillennial interpretation was suppressed, as it became a heresy against the Catholic Church's interpretation:

The kingdom of God means, then, the ruling of God in our hearts; it means those principles which separate us off from the kingdom of the world and the devil; it means the benign sway of grace; it means the Church as that Divine institution whereby we may make sure of attaining the spirit of Christ and so win that ultimate kingdom of God Where He reigns without end in "the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God"

It wasn't until the 19th century that many American denominations, no longer under the influence of the Catholic Church, began to rediscover this doctrine.

  • That's a whole 300 years after the Reformation... Also, do you have any reference in when the Catholic church first officially enshrined amillennialism as dogma? For example, Joachim of Fiore seemes to have held some premil-like views during the middle ages Commented May 31 at 16:51
  • @DarkMalthorp, the Question says "amillennialism was far-and-away the dominant view from the time of Augustine until the Reformation. Calvin dismisses premillennialism …", It was not accepted from early times by the Church, and continues to be rejected by most Protestant denominations. ¶ This answer wasn't intended to be detailed and satisfying. People expect events of great significance to have great causes (hence conspiracy theories (e.g. JFK was the most powerful person on Earth, so his death couldn't possibly have been one man's action), but usually the real cause is simple and boring. Commented May 31 at 17:31

I am very aware of what Irenaeus says in V.33.2 and Justin Martyr in chapters 80 and 81 of his dialog with Trypho. Just because they mention Revelation 20 doesn't mean they took it literally as do premillennialists. Both fathers understood these things allegorically and mention the principles of the Adamic millennium (Genesis 2:17,5:5.

There is a modern presumption that Irenaeus speaks literally when he talks about the kingdom, but I find it hard to believe that he thought there would be talking grapes during the millennium.

“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 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.” V.33.3

Also note that he believed in what some premillennialists call replacement theology.

“Now I have shown a short time ago that the church is the seed of Abraham;” V.XXXII.2 Children of Abraham, IV.VII, XXI, XXXII, the church

The main difference between Irenaeus and premillennialism is he widely used allegorical symbolism, although he sometimes preferred the literal sense and criticized the allegory of the heretical gnostics. Terms like the kingdom and resurrection of the just are spiritual terms to those who accept that view (Luke 17:21, 2 Cor 5:17).

  • I am not sure how you can interpret Irenaeus this way. Yes, he does cite the Creation week as evidence for his eschatology. However, this does not contradict premillennialism (though it is obviously impossible for dispensationalists). Would you mind expanding on what you think Irenaeus's view was and why? Commented May 31 at 16:55
  • Irenaeus sounds to me nearly indistinguishable from modern classical premils. V.35.1 "If, however, any shall endeavor 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...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..., in which the righteous shall reign in the earth, waxing stronger by the sight of the Lord." Commented May 31 at 17:01
  • Or consider his arguments in V.32-33 seem to hinge on the resurrection to kingdom rule being a future and bodily event. E.g. in 33.4 he explicitly mentions an allegorical reading of "wolves and lambs shall browse together" as not being wrong, but missing the truth of the literal meaning, which shall occur "in the resurrection of the just". Commented May 31 at 17:06
  • So how do you account for Irenaeus explicitly saying that the prophecies shouldn't be allegorized? It is clear that he wasn't a dispensationalist, but my question is not about dispensationalists Commented Jun 3 at 23:45
  • I believe he is speaking of the allegory of the gnostics V.XXXV.2, super-celestial allegory II.XV,XXI Now all these things being such as they are, cannot be understood in reference to super-celestial matters; Commented Jun 4 at 14:13

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