I have recently been studying eschatology and have been looking at the main views of eschatology.

So far, I have found four (I apologize in advance if I have misrepresented your view. I would appreciate any corrections, but that is beyond the scope of this question.):

  • Amillenialism: Jesus' Ascension began the "Church Age/Millennial Kingdom"; this age will be one of peace but will eventually turn into a period of tribulation against the Christians. Armageddon, the Rapture, Jesus' Return, and the White Throne will end this age and usher in eternity.

  • Post-Millennialism: The period between Jesus' Ascension and the Destruction of Jerusalem will be the Tribulation. The "Church Age" began in A.D. 70; at some point, the earth will develop a "Christian" culture ushering in a spiritual millennium of peace. The Great Rebellion, the Rapture, Jesus' Return, and the White Throne Pit will end the millennium and begin eternity.

  • Historic Pre-Millennialism: Jesus' Ascension began the "Church Age"; this age will be one of peace but will eventually turn into a period of tribulation against the Christians. Armageddon, the Rapture, Jesus' Return, and the Bottomless Pit will end this age and will begin Jesus' physical reign on earth of exactly 1000 years. The reign will end with the Great Rebellion and the White Throne to usher in eternity.

  • Dispensational Pre-Millennialism: Jesus' Ascension began the "Church Age"; this age will end unexpectedly with the Rapture. A literal tribulation of 7 years will begin on earth. Armageddon, Jesus' Return, and the Bottomless Pit will end the tribulation, and Jesus will begin his physical reign on earth of exactly 1000 years. The reign will end with the Great Rebellion and the White Throne to usher in eternity.

What view did the early church have? Did they hold on to one of these views or did they hold on to a view that I have not listed?

I appreciate the help.

  • Millennialism is a nineteenth-century concept, so was on that basis alone not a hypothesis held by the early Church. Any serious coverage of eschatology has to go beyond ideas of 'rapture' or different styles of Millennialism. – Dick Harfield Sep 10 '15 at 5:09
  • 1
    The Catholic Church doesn't believe in any flavor of millenialism. – Matt Gutting Sep 10 '15 at 12:18
  • 1
    @DickHarfield In regard to the first half of your comment, you said that Millennialism is a nineteenth-century concept; do you have any references for that? Also, do you know what the early church believed in regard to eschatology? – Mathematician Sep 10 '15 at 13:44
  • Early Christian believed in a second coming. Paul and 'Mark' believed it would be within their generation. Some later Christians thought Jesus would reign on earth for a thousand years (I suppose a primitive millennialism). John Nelson Darby introduced the Rapture concept and dispensationalism in 1830s. Scofield Reference Bible gave Darby's ideas the appearance of biblical authority. Suggested book: The Rapture Exposed:The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago. – Dick Harfield Sep 10 '15 at 21:27
up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is a difficult question to answer, because the early church did not approach the question in the same way that many people do today. The earliest fathers expressed their belief in various eschatological views, like the immortality of souls, the return of Christ, the resurrection of God's people, and a general judgment, but they did not develop systematic understandings of eschatological doctrine. Louis Berkhof summarizes the situation this way:

In the very first period the Church was perfectly conscious of the separate elements of the Christian hope [...] but these elements were simply seen as so many separate parts of the future hope, and were not yet dogmatically construed. Though the various elements were quite well understood, their interrelation was not yet clearly seen. (Systematic Theology, 6.1.B)

Thus, the best we are going to be able to do is gain a high-level understanding of what eschatological aspects the fathers accepted, and maybe the order in which such things would happen.

Millennium

The first big question is, what did the church fathers believe about the millennium of Revelation 20? That in itself is a big question, but I'll briefly describe the two major views: Chiliasm (post-tribulation premillennialism) and amillennialism.

Some of the earliest Christian writers appear to have believed in a thousand year earthly reign of Christ. Fragments from Papias (d. ~163) say that he believed:

that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth. (VI)

Several other major church fathers appear to have been of the same opinion, including Irenaeus (d. 202). A later writer, Eusebius (d. 340), critiques them but gives us some insight as to the extent of these beliefs:

  1. To these [writings] belong [Papias's] statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures.

  2. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenæus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views. (Ecc. History, 3.39)

As the quote from Eusebius suggests, after the first couple centuries, Chiliasm was largely superseded by amillennialism. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Origen (d. 254), and especially Augustine (d. 430) contributed to establishing amillennialism as the standard view of the church. Augustine believed that the millennium of Revelation 20 referred to the church age:

the whole time which this book embraces,—that is, from the first coming of Christ to the end of the world, when He shall come the second time,— [...] during this interval, which goes by the name of a thousand years. (City of God, 20.8)

Tribulation

Among those who believed in an earthly millennial reign, the fathers believed that the church would undergo the tribulation. Hippolytus (see his Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 64) and Irenaeus are two good examples, the latter of which wrote:

And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, “There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.” For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption. (Against Heresies, 5.29)

Preterism

Preterism is not one of the views you listed, probably because you are focusing on futurist understandings of the eschatological passages in the Bible. However, there is evidence that at least some early Christians understood Jesus's predictions in the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) as fulfilled in the AD 70 fall of Jerusalem. Eusebius discusses this at length, arguing that the tribulation, death, and famine described by Jesus had already happened. For example:

[Josephus] also shews plainly the fulfilment of the prediction of our Saviour [...] for he has put it on record, how the women roasted their children by the fire and ate them, on account of the pressure of the famine which prevailed in the city. (On the Theophania, 4.18–20)

In the interest of brevity, I won't analyze other writings that proponents of preterism argue are evidence of early support for their viewpoint. Suffice to say that an understanding of early church eschatology requires realizing that a futurist interpretation was not always applied to passages commonly considered to be unfulfilled prophecy today.

Summary

We need to avoid the temptation of attempting to squeeze the views of the church fathers into our convenient little boxes. They did not approach eschatology in the same systematic way that many do today. Furthermore, many of the earliest writings have been lost, making an analysis like this even more challenging.

For more information, I'd recommend Gregg Allison's Historical Theology.

  • 2
    This is a great answer, I wonder though if your assertion that "we can't squeeze the views of the church fathers into our convenient little boxes" is a little too simplistic. I agree we could never conclude "the church fathers were xyz-millenialist" but perhaps we can draw out lines of agreement or compatibility. – Jacob Sep 19 '15 at 0:25
  • @jacob I wasn't trying to be glib with that line; it is there just to remind readers that though most of the post uses familiar language to modern ears (amilleniallism, etc.), in order to "draw out lines of agreement or compatibility," it would be a mistake to assume that this father or that father "agrees with my eschatology". It's just not cut and dry, as the Berkhof quote indicates, and would take an answer much too long for this format to fully address. If you have more specific suggestions for improvement though I'm all ears. – Nathaniel Sep 19 '15 at 1:24

To understand what the church fathers said about eschatology, we first need to understand that they interpreted the scriptures differently than post-enlightenment scholars.

The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us

They believed there was a spiritual level of interpretation that was more important than the literal. For instance, Papias, a disciple of John, said:

Taking occasion from Papias of Hierapolis, the illustrious, a disciple of the apostle who leaned on the bosom of Christ, and Clemens, and Pantænus the priest of [the Church] of the Alexandrians, and the wise Ammonius, the ancient and first expositors, who agreed with each other, who understood the work of the six days as referring to Christ and the whole Church.

IX

The six day six thousand year interpretation was common in the early church.

The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it.” Gen. ii. 2. Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years.” Ps. xc. 4; 2 Pet. iii. 8. Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter XV.—The false and the true Sabbath.

Now we have understood that the expression used among these words, ‘According to the days of the tree [of life] shall be the days of my people; the works of their toil shall abound’ obscurely predicts a thousand years. For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ (Ps. xc. 4; 2 Pet. iii. 8.) is connected with this subject. And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place. Just as our Lord also said, ‘They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but shall be equal to the angels, the children of the God of the resurrection.’ Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter LXXXI.—He endeavours to prove this opinion from Isaiah and the Apocalypse.

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. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies V.XXVIII.3

"And 6,000 years must needs be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day “on which God rested from all His works.” For the Sabbath is the type and emblem of the future kingdom of the saints, when they “shall reign with Christ,” when He comes from heaven, as John says in his Apocalypse: for “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years.” (Ps. xc. 4.) Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled. And they are not yet fulfilled, as John says: “five are fallen; one is,” that is, the sixth; “the other is not yet come.” (Apoc. xvii. 10.) The interpretation by Hippolytus, (bishop) of Rome, of the visions of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, taken in conjunction."

There are many other references to the six thousand years that you can find on the web.

Early Christian Writings

Augustine explained this views to the best of his ability.

The evangelist John has spoken of these two resurrections in the book which is called the Apocalypse, but in such a way that some Christians do not understand the first of the two, and so construe the passage into ridiculous fancies. For the Apostle John says in the foresaid book, “And I saw an angel come down from heaven. . . . Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Those who, on the strength of this passage, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of Sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created, and was on account of his great sin dismissed from the blessedness of paradise into the woes of this mortal life, so that thus, as it is written, “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,”( 2 Pet. iii. 8.) 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. City of God, Book XX, Chapter 7.

also check;Of the Six Ages of the World. On the Catechising of the Uninstructed — St. Augustine

The view is best expressed in the NT in Hebrews.

Heb 4:1 Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. Heb 4:2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. Heb 4:3 For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. Heb 4:4 For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. Heb 4:5 And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Heb 4:6 Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:

It is related to the Jewish pre-Christian allegorical view expressed by Philo of Alexandria.

(16) What is the meaning of the expression, "Ye shall surely die?" (#Ge 2:17). The death of the good is the beginning of another life; for life is a twofold thing, one life being in the body, corruptible; the other without the body, incorruptible. Therefore one wicked man surely dies the death, who while still breathing and among the living is in reality long since buried, so as to retain in himself no single spark of real life, which is perfect virtue. But a good man, who deserves so high a title, does not surely die, but has his life prolonged, and so attains to an eternal end. Philo of Alexandria, QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON GENESIS, I*

Early Jewish Writings

Similar views can be found outside of Judaism in Hesiod's ages of man, the Pythagoreans ages of man and the ages of Zorastrianism.

Summary

The church fathers saw a more philosophical view of eschatology. Jesus said the scriptures were about Him (John 5:39, Luke 24:44). This was understood in a spiritual way as an embodiment of the Gospel in the church, the believer and mankind. Perhaps St. Methodius gives the best summary in his symposium speech of Thekla.

Thekla

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.