The year 2000: Will it usher in the millennium?

Hollywood splashes it across the screen. From serious journals to frivolous tabloids, it receives treatment that is both scary and garish. The world of computers is working feverishly to prevent a crash or a meltdown of their programs. Theologians from the left to the right talk and write about it as though it does not matter or as though it is the only thing that does matter.

Millennium! That’s the magic word. As the year 2000 draws near, will the century lead history toward a new opportunity or chaos? Will humanity race toward a communication crisis that will affect all electronic information vital to life, such as bank accounts, legal records, chemical formulas, stocks and bonds, taxes, and academic records? Will it critically disrupt airline transportation and unleash an atomic holocaust?

Religious leaders are seizing the opportunity to launch a new age of faith. A few foresee the end of all things, but those less inclined to speculative excitement see the year 2000 as a benchmark from which to proclaim the beginning of a new age for religion, generally one readjusted to the expectation of a transformed world. One element is the papal call for an assembly of religious leaders of all world faiths in Jerusalem in the year 2000.

The past two centuries have brought about a sweeping transformation of religious self-understanding, especially among Christians. From the beginning of time, religion has dealt with the active interface between nature and the supernatural. Medieval Christianity’s curatorship of this boundary was shown to have flaws so serious that the Enlightenment of the late 1700s succeeded in discrediting virtually every claim to belief in the supernatural, leaving the desiccated shell of a Christianity reduced largely to a social service organization, with claims to the supernatural tenuous at best, deceptive at worst.

The end product: a mainstream Christianity focused on ideas, but no longer certain about God. Within this vacuum, alternate explanations developed to provide meaning and a worldview, for example through Darwin’s evolutionary theory, supported by fossil sequences, melded into an amalgam that displaced the supernatural Bible version. As biblical ideas fell away as myth, religious enterprise turned to human concerns. Biblical texts were dissected, evaluated by human logic, and the Christian intellectual community embarked on the search for a historical Jesus. Science became the guide to the future and biblical prophecy was reduced to after-the-event writings, with eschatology a wistful hope of uncertain events.

But the barrenness of such religion, robbed of its purpose of connecting humanity with God, drives people elsewhere. Today a new generation is in full swing, people in search of satisfying answers to penetrating questions. Supernaturalism, long dismissed as defunct, has emerged at the cutting edge of religious interest. Again miracles are in vogue. Angels are everywhere, in the literary world, the entertainment industry, even among theologians long dubious of their existence. New Age mysticism permeates contemporary music, literature, philosophy, education, and even health-care theory. Evangelical Christians, now numbering some 400 million believers, no longer can be ignored. Restorationist fundamentalism now exerts a profound force in non-Christian religions.

Toward a millennial utopia

From this resurgent platform, today’s religious leaders hope to launch a mighty revival that will involve all religions and bring about the utopian world of peace, prosperity, progress, and unity—long a part of another brand of the millennial dream.

How can an assembly of diverse, disjunctive, competitive, and often contradictory religious traditions be combined to usher in the utopian ideal? The proposed formula is found in a relatively simple block of elements:

  1. Non-judgmentalism. One faith can no longer be treated as superior to another.
  2. Merit. Each tradition carries validity in its own sphere, so merits respect by all.
  3. Acceptance. As each religious tradition is valid, its place must be assured within a pluralistic whole.
  4. Diversity. Within such plenary acceptance, every person must be allowed to practice his or her own way, free of any whiff of proselytism.
  5. Commonality. The focus must center about one common element—humanitarian service.
  6. Subjectivity. Everyone can transcend partisan beliefs and practices to share the inner experience that all religions hold in common. After all, it is a relationship with the divine as one conceives it that actually counts.

Despite such a formula of utopian millennialism, the Bible in fact points to a millennium totally different in fact, purpose, and meaning.

The biblical millennium

When we turn to the Scriptures, surprisingly only a few passages make direct reference to the millennium, although it is embodied in the fuller biblical teaching. By far the most explicit passage is Revelation chapter 20. The gospels say nothing of the millennium, and Paul does so only tangentially. Related themes such as judgment and final consummation appear throughout the Scriptures, but in the direct search for a tie to the specific 1000 years, we come to limits.

To encompass the full biblical teaching we note several passages theologically related to one another. Paul tells the Corinthians of the coming resurrection at the last trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). Although he makes no direct reference here to Christ’s return, for he is focusing on Christ’s triumph over death, quite clearly he assumes that the church at Corinth had knowledge of what at that very time he was teaching the believers in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-12). Christ’s coming is the core event around which both the end of the world and resurrection cluster. Paul was founder and first teacher of the Corinthian church, spending possibly two years with that congregation (Acts 18:11, 18). It seems unthinkable that his basic teaching of Jesus’ return does not stand behind what he says in 1 Corinthians 15. Despite this, nowhere in Paul’s writings does he directly link the events of the second advent with a specific time period.

The Apostle Peter makes two references to 1,000 years in the same verse: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 RSV). However, the intent is clearly rhetorical rather than prophetic. Peter is not giving a specific prophetic time period or interpretive method, but simply underscoring the truth that God stands above time, contrary to human experience.

John uses the expression “thousand years” six times in Revelation 20. In summary form, he foresees the grand climax of history. Satan, the archenemy, is seized and confined for a thousand years (vs. 1-3). The righteous rise in the first resurrection and reign with Christ in heaven a thousand years (vs. 4-6). At the conclusion of the 1,000 years, Satan is released to lead his now-resurrected followers in an assault on the saints and the holy city (vs. 5, 7-10), whereupon fire from heaven destroys all the evil ones.

Peter’s brief statement in 2 Peter 3:8, where he quotes from Psalm 90:4, has given birth to an amazing variety of proposals, based on the contention that here he is offering a formula for interpreting the many biblical references to days, generally outside any prophetic setting. Based on the assumption that the seven days of Creation are parallel to seven 1,000-year epochs of earth history, some add an additional premise that the sixth thousand-year period ends with A.D. 1999. Proponents of this theory advance the idea that with the year 2000 we will enter a fulfillment that parallels the seventh literal day of Creation—a millennium of peace and prosperity. This argument first appeared in Jewish speculations prior to the time of Jesus and has resurfaced on occasion in later Christian writers, but it has no true scriptural basis.

Another question may be asked: Where will the people of God spend the thousand years? The answer is found in other New Testament passages. The first resurrection is that of God’s people, to occur at Christ’s second advent (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17) when the resurrected are “caught up together with them [the living saints] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (vs. 17, RSV). Jesus Himself promised to return to take the believers to His Father’s house (John 14:3). The redeemed will spend the thousand years in heaven, where they are given a part in the judgment (Revelation 20:4), following which they return with New Jerusalem to witness the end of sin (Revelation 21:2-8). Efforts to portray the millennium as a magnificent era with Christ presiding over an earthly kingdom do not fit at all with the biblical teaching on last-day events.

Even though most Christian interpreters of the millennium argue for dispensational theories that posit a soon-to-appear messianic kingdom in which Christ reigns over the earth, Adventists part company with them as we follow Peter and Paul to teach a total devastation of the earth at Christ’s coming. That event renders the earth uninhabitable to humans, hence a place appropriate for Satan’s confinement. Based on the Book of Revelation, we foresee at the close of the thousand years the eradication of evil and restoration of all to pristine purity, a world “wherein dwelleth righteousness.”

Millennial theories

Today the word millennium has given birth to a new meaning. Beyond simple reference to the biblical thousand-year period, it is becoming an organizing schematic for tracing coming events to the end. At its more superstitious levels it absorbs elements plainly suspect, such as numerological speculations and quite specific predictions built upon strings of logic strung between paltry data.

This kind of speculation has a long history. Beginning between the time of the Old and New Testaments, Jewish teachers discussed a coming Messianic kingdom. In Jesus’ time some of this undoubtedly clouded the popular concepts He confronted in trying to explain the nature of His kingdom.

Fourth Ezra, an apocryphal book, presents a good example. According to it, the Messiah would be revealed, set up an earthly kingdom where all would prosper and rejoice for 400 years, following which the Messiah and all humans would die, returning the earth to primeval silence. Then a general resurrection would occur, followed by an earthly paradise with a restored Jerusalem.

From the Talmud we learn that, depending on one’s choice of speculations, the days of the Messiah would last 40 years, or 70 years, or three generations. Some rabbis opted for 400 years, 365 years, 7,000 years, or 2,000 years (Sanhedrin 916). Often the golden age, whatever its length, is presented in terms of lavish prosperity, houses and lands, abundant crops and offspring, tables groaning with loads of delicacies, satisfaction of every sensual drive, and triumph over every enemy. Such ideas, now labeled chiliastic, soon made their way into the Christian vision of a coming millennium.

When would all this begin? Would it follow 85 jubilees, as some argued? Or after 7,000 years, 6,000 years, 5,000 years, 2,000 years, 600, or just when? Rabbi Akiba argued for only 40 years. A half-dozen schematic systems pepper the pseudepigraphic writings, and some of them came to be adopted by influential Christians such as Irenaeus (c. 170), Justin Martyr (c.150), Eusebius (c. 325), and others. Jerome (c. 380) argued for a world history of 6,000 years, followed by a millennial Sabbath. Even some non-Christians like Persian Zoroastrians and the early Etruscans in Italy taught that the human race would last 6,000 years. Due to the gross materialism incorporated into developing Christian ideas of the millennium, other church fathers rejected the very idea of a millennium, even to denying canonicity to the Apocalypse.

But it was Augustine (d. 430) who captured medieval Christendom with his novel view that the millennium is not a span of time but an experience, beginning with conversion and climaxing in an inner spiritual exhilaration comparable to the second coming of Christ (City of God, 20:6,7).

These ideas underlay public excitement over the approach of the year 1000. Based on Augustine’s thinking, Christians began to look for solemn events in that year. As the year approached, even as the notably corrupt Sylvester II sat on the papal throne, tensions rose, but nothing remarkable happened. Although considerable speculation circulated in monasteries, the Vatican played down fears of the end of the world. In 998 the Council of Rome imposed on Robert, King of France, seven full years of penance for a grievous violation of canon law, and the German emperor, Otto III, continued to devise his plan to conquer and restore the ancient Roman Empire.

Adventists today and millennial speculation

Being deeply interested in prophecy, Seventh-day Adventists are particularly vulnerable to unsound speculations. Throughout Adventist history we have faced time-setting speculators, active despite biblical warnings and Ellen White’s discrediting all efforts to predict coming time events.

Today we need to address the 6,000-year agitation in Adventist circles. Generally those who advance specific calculations build arguments on Ellen White’s affirmation of a short earth chronology of about 6,000 years. By coupling this idea with a futurist day-for-a-day reapplication of historic time prophecies, such advocates argue we can gain new light for our time, beyond standard readings of prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Some interpretations rest on the ancient 6,000-year theory. In fact, however, biblical chronology is complex and includes several uncertainties that render exact calculations chronologically uncertain. These do not affect the message of the Scriptures, but they keep us from dating biblical events with precision earlier than the time of the Hebrew kings.

Ellen White made no effort to create a chronology. Over her 70 years of writing, she made 43 references to 6,000 years and 42 to the mathematically related 4,000 years. Generally she simply cited Ussher’s chronology printed at the head of columns in her Bible. The pattern is one of approximation, not rigid dating. In 1913 she wrote that the earth is “nearly 6,000 years old.” At times she used other modifying words, such as “nearly 6,000” (nine times), “about 6,000” (three times), “more than 6,000” (twice), “almost 6,000” (once), and “over 6,000” (once). On the whole, careful students of the Bible and Ellen White’s writings will avoid building exact chronologies on this type of evidence.

Principles to protect us

Thus the question arises: Are there sound principles that can help us deal with millenarian speculations and protect us from being misled? The following would help:

  1. Millenarian speculations have a long (and uniformly mistaken) history.
  2. Craving for superficial prophetic novelty must yield to careful Bible study.
  3. Time-setting for the end is itself a faulty enterprise unsupported in the Scriptures.
  4. Ellen White firmly endorses the historicist approach to prophetic interpretation, never proposing futuristic recycling of apocalyptic time prophecies.
  5. Sound study of Bible prophecy remains a valid and essential component of the Adventist message, but it must not lead to any form of exact time setting for the return of Jesus or other events prophesied to occur in connection with His return.

George W. Reid (Th.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and a senior consultant for Dialogue. His address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A.