The Error of Chiliasm

Yesterday and today we are presenting a series of four articles on the heresy of Chiliasm, or Millennialsm—that is, that Christ will have a literal, earthly kingdom lasting for 1,000 years at the end of time. This belief, popular amongst many Protestants today, arises from a misinterpretation of Scripture, and our saints and holy elders hold for us the key to properly understanding Scripture, and the end times, as far as it is given to us to know.

This third article is an excerpt from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Fr. Michael Pomazansky (St. Herman of Alaska Press).

See the first article in the series by Elder Cleopa (Ilie) of Romania.

See the second article in the series by Bishop Alexander (Mileant).

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Very widespread at the present time is the teaching about a thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth before the universal or last judgment; this teaching is known by the name of "chiliasm" (from the Greek chiliasmos, a thousand years). The essence of this teaching is as follows: Long before the end of the world, Christ will come again to earth to overcome Antichrist and resurrect only the righteous, to establish a new kingdom on earth in which the righteous, as a reward for their struggles and sufferings, will reign together with Him for the course of one thousand years, taking enjoyment of all the good things of temporal life. After this there will follow a second, universal resurrection of the dead, the universal judgment, and the universal and eternal giving of rewards. Such are the ideas of the chiliasts. The defenders of this teaching found themselves on the visions of the seer of mysteries (John the Theologian) in the twentieth chapter of the Apocalypse. There it is said that an angel descended from heaven and bound satan for a thousand years, and that the souls of those beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection (Apoc. 20:5). And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations (Apoc. 20:7-8). Soon there follows the judgment of the devil and of those who were deceived by him. The dead will be raised up and judged according to their deeds. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire ... This is the second death (Apoc. 20:15, 14). Upon those who have been resurrected in the first resurrection, however, the second death will have no power.

Chiliastic views were spread in antiquity chiefly among heretics. However, they are also to be encountered in certain ancient Christian writers of the universal Church (for example Papias of Hierapolis, Justin the Matryr, Irenaeus of Lyons). In more recent times these views were resurrected in the Protestant sects; and finally, we see attempts in certain modernist theologians of our times to introduce chiliastic ideas also into Orthodox theological thought.

As has been indicated, in this teaching there are supposed to be two future judgments, one for the resurrected righteous ones, and then a second, universal one; there are two future resurrections, first one of the righteous, and then another of sinners; there are two future comings of the Saviour in glory; there is a future, purely earthly—even though blessed—reign of Christ with the righteous ones as a definite historical epoch. Formally, this teaching is based on an incorrect understanding of the expression "the first resurrection;" while inwardly, its cause is rooted in the loss, among the masses of contemporary sectarianism, of faith in life after death, in the blessedness of the righteous in heaven (with whom they have no communion in prayer); and another cause, in certain sects, is to be found in utopian dreams for society hidden behind religious ideas and inserted into the mysterious images of the Apocalypse.

Fr. Michael Pomazansky Fr. Michael Pomazansky
It is not difficult to see the error of the chiliastic interpretation of the twentieth chapter of the Apocalypse. Parallel passages in Sacred Scripture clearly indicate that the "first resurrection" signifies spiritual rebirth into eternal life in Christ through baptism, a resurrection through faith in Christ, according to the words: Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light (Eph. 5:14). Ye are risen with Christ, we read many times in the Apostles (Col. 3:1 and 2:12; Eph. 2:5-6). Proceeding from this by the thousand-year reign one must understand the period of time from the very beginning of the kingdom of grace of the Church of Christ, and in particular of the triumphant Church of heaven, until the end of the world. The Church which is militant upon earth in essence also is triumphant in the victory performed by the Saviour, but it is still undergoing battle with the "prince of this world," a battle which will end with the defeat of satan and the final casting of him into the lake of fire.

The "second death" is the judgment of sinners at the Last Judgment. It will not touch those who have part in the first resurrection (Apoc. 20:6); this means that those who are spiritually reborn in Christ and purified by the grace of God in the Church will not be subjected to judgment, but will enter into the blessed life of the Kingdom of Christ.

If it was at one time possible to express chiliastic ideas as private opinions, this was only until the Ecumenical Church expressed its judgment about this. But when the Second Ecumenical Council (381), in condemning all the errors of the heretic Apollinarius, condemned also his teaching of the thousand-year reign of Christ and introduced into the very Symbol of Faith the words concerning Christ: And His Kingdom will have no end—it became no longer permissible at all for an Orthodox Christian to hold these opinions (One of the leading Fathers of the early Church who combated the heresy of chiliasm was Blessed Augustine; see his discussion of this in The City of God, 20, 7-9, pp. 718-728. He connects the "binding" of the devil for a thousand years (Apoc. 20:2) with the "binding" of the "strong man" in Mark 3:27 (see also John 12:31, the words of Christ just before His Passion: Now shall the prince of this world be cast out, and states that "the binding of the devil is his being prevented from the exercise of his whole power to seduce men." Orthodox Christians who have experienced the life of grace in the Church can well understand what Protestants cannot: that the "thousand years" (the whole period) of Christ’s reign with His saints and the limited power of the devil is now.

A related error, widespread among contemporary Protestants, is that of the "rapture." Unheard of before the nineteenth century, this belief has it that during the "great tribulation" near the end of the world (either before or after the "millennium," according to various versions), true Christians will be "raptured" into the air to escape the sufferings of those who remain on earth. It is based on a misinterpretation of 1 Thess. 4:17, which teaches that at the very end of the world believers will be "caught up in the clouds," together with the resurrected dead, "to meet the Lord" Who is coming for judgment and the opening of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. The Scripture is quite clear that even the elect will suffer on earth during the "tribulation" period, and that for their sake this period will be shortened (Matt. 24:21-22).

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See the fourth article in the series by Fr. John Whiteford.

Comments
Warren Haley1/22/2021 7:14 pm
Remember this is a letter to the 7 churches with many echos and references to the old and new testaments and meanings that John and the churches would understand through the culture of the day. Between 400BC and AD200 there were many Jewish eschatological writings (e.g 4th book of Ezra). John was testifying to everything he saw - the word and the testimony of Jesus (1:2), Why was John on Patmos - because of the word and the testimony of Jesus (1:9). Revelation showed John what he already knew but in many different ways through pictures and imagery (Christ is seen 5 different ways in Revelation). This why the visions cannot be viewed as literal. It is about who sits on the throne, who holds the future rather than what the future holds. About the destructive nature of sin, the judgement and the kingdom to come (the kingdom of the world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ 11:15). It is folly to interpret the book from 21st Western culture.
Michael P Hays7/6/2020 12:16 pm
Greetings To Charles Kriessman: Not at all. The wheat was gathered into the barn and the chaff was blown away by the Roman general Titus. All return to the land prophesies are pre-Cyrus. It is is heresy upon heresy to say "God has two chosen peoples." As modern chiliasts do. To John Bidwell: It is true that God told Daniel to seal the vision because the end was not yet. But God told John to NOT seal the vision because the time was at hand. Rev 22:10. Twice in the first three verses of chapter one and multiple times in 22 is the immediacy of the fulfillment stated. As far as allegory goes, every Biblical allegory is clearly defined. See Gal 4 for example. But also God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, Ps 50:10. This 'thousand' metaphor is used over 50 times and NEVER means literally or exactly 1000. The last days referred to the end of the stone temple era in which God's grace allowed 40 years of repentance then judgment. Acts 2:17, Heb 1:1-2.
George Young5/1/2020 7:55 am
A couple of interesting thoughts here. I have been taught the thousand year reign is literal, and I still believe it to be so, but it is not a paradise like most Christians think. See Amos 5:18, Matthew 10:34, 24:39 for starters. There are several other passages that declare Christ's return is not going to be a pleasant experience. It will be like a rod of iron. I suspect this flood is already underway. Consider the horrors of the world wars and all the insanity that has and is happening around the world. Never before have we seen such an unprecedented explosion of evil on earth. Revelation 17:17 says it all.
Charles Kriessman4/13/2020 4:32 pm
Sir Did you not forget the Jews? What Bible are you reading?
John Bidwell2/14/2020 1:20 pm
An appeal to what Christian scholars thought historically is no basis for Biblical hermeneutics. We must also be careful not to allegorise texts that may not be intended as allegory. Meanings of texts may be supernaturally "sealed" until revealed as Daniel was told by the angel when he gave a prophecy to Daniel. He was told that the words are "sealed" until the time of the end. (Daniel 12 v 4 and v 9) If passages are not understood then there is a tendency to give them "spiritual" as opposed to literal meaning, rather than that the words are sealed. If we close our thinking and appeal to what was thought in the past, then there is a problem similar to what the Pharisees faced when confronted with Jesus. They failed to re-interpret the scriptures in the light of what was in front of them.
Mayssan Haddad3/27/2019 3:36 am
I accidentally hit on button 1 in the rating.

I really loved the article :)
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