Tidbits on Millennial Beliefs
by Ethan Longhenry
I just finished Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages, by Eugen Weber. It was an excellent book, with two things that really stood out to me:
1. Obsession about dates. Weber notes that obsession about dates is a relatively modern phenomenon. The idea of fin de siecle have only been around for the past two or three centuries. In the first century, time was reckoned mostly by who was ruling and when, and little concern existed for dates for their own sake. This is important to remember, since we are rather date-centered while the New Testament is not.
2. Demonstration of the quintessential nature of apocalyptism.
Dates on which people were certain that the world was going to end, that Jesus would appear, and everything would be over:
- sometime between 799-806
- sometime between 1300-1340
- ca. 1419
- 1420 (February)
- 1533 (October 9 at 8am)
- 1763 (February 28)
- 1843-4 (March 1843, October 22, 1844)
People or groups of people who were ascertained to be the Antichrist:
- Frederic II of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE)
- Name your pope
- Roman Catholic church
- Charles I of England
- Emperor Rudolf II of the HRE
- Louis XIV of France
- French Revolutionists
- Any King of England
- League of Nations
- the UN
- European Common Market
- Saddam Hussein
- Bill Gates
People who represented the return of the Messiah:
- John of Leiden, 1530s
- William Hackett, 1591
- A child born in Paris, 1792
- Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte do Saint-Simon, early 1800s
- Jean-Baptists Digonnet, 1840s
- Various individuals in SC, 1889
- Cyrus Teed, late 1800s
- Luc Jouret, 1970s-1994
- Shoko Ashara, 1980s-1990s
- David Koresh, 1980s-1990s
As can be seen, this is a pretty vast list, and is surely incomplete. It tells one compelling story, what I call the preeminence of the present for apocalyptists.
Notice that essentially since the end of the Apostles, some people professing Christ have believed that the "end times" of Revelation were happening before their very eyes. It was felt acutely in 500 as 1300 as 1500 as 1700 as 1800 as today. It does not matter how good or bad the general human condition may happen to be, who in particular is ruling, or even how positive or negative, overall, times really are. It's always bad, there's always something wrong, there's always something to latch onto as the reason why the end is now and not later.
Yet look at all of those numbers and people. We have no reason to doubt their sincerity, nor their competence in understanding God's word. The difficulty that they all have-- along with so many today-- is this imminent expectation of destruction and Christ's millennial rule. Few reflect upon why John would write regarding their particular timeframe to Christians in Asia needing encouragement in the late first century CE; even fewer seem to be bothered by the long list given above and the manifest futility of their own attempts. All of the above have come and gone, and it's quite likely that the current time will pass by also. Even if Christ were to return, it would not be on account of the accuracy of the modern "prophets", nor would it happen as they would expect.
This kind of millenarian nihilism is too often prevalent. It taints the vision of the present and future and intentionally makes everything seem a whole lot worse than it perhaps really is. By all accounts, people in 1000, 1348, 1618, 1664, 1765, 1914, and 1941 had far more reason to fear the destruction of everything than we do now. Our human condition, while morally repugnant in many ways, is actually much better than it was previously: in America, most of us can read, most of us have food, and most of us live quite well. Yet so many view the world in the same way as people centuries earlier without the same cause.
Should we trust in this world, which is passing away (I John 2:15-17)? No. Should we get comfortable in it or with it? No. At the same time, however, we cannot automatically expect the end to come in our generation or in the next generation, or try to find specific "signs of the times" to indicate the end. Those "signs" have been there for 2000 years, and there has never been a lack of people who desire to point them out. Better indeed to heed Matthew 25:1-30, and realize that we must live our lives as if the Lord will return at any time. It might be this hour, this day, this week, this year, this decade, this century, or this millennium-- or maybe not.