The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Polebridge Press, 1999, Santa Rosa, California and by Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: The End of the Millennium
The year we call 2000 is a human convention created by western culture, projected upon the planet as a convenient way of measuring historical time. In the natural world of celestial bodies, the year 2000 has no actual existence, let alone significance. Not one of the astronomical cycles within our solar system (giving us days, months and years) is a simple multiple of the others, nor are any of them naturally divisible by thousands.
The factors leading to the convention now called ‘the millennium’ are various. In the first place, our ancient ancestors created a 10-digit numbering system only because we happen to have 10 fingers. There are plenty of other possible systems, some of them now considered better than our decimal system. Even to speak of a millennium, or 1,000 years, is to impose one particular numbering system on the measurement of time -- and a humanly invented one at that.
Secondly, the calendar which numbers the years from the supposed birth year of Jesus of Nazareth was established by Christians, and is peculiar to the Christian tradition. It has never been shared by other cultures. The Jews, for example, number their years from the first day of the creation of the world, as calculated from the Books of Moses. This they determined to be 3,760 years before the beginning of the Christian era. The year 2000 AD. for Christians will be the year 5760 - 5761 for Jews. The Jewish year does not begin on 1 January but on Rosh Hashanah, which varies slightly from year to year, according to the cycles of the moon.)
The Muslim calendar differs further from the Christian calendar. The Islamic year consists of 12 exact lunar months (or cycles of the moon around the earth) and hence is shorter, by about 11 days, than our solar year (the time of a cycle of the earth around the sun). The Islamic calendar starts neither from the birth of Jesus nor from the birth of Muhammad but from the Hijrah (‘flight’) of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, which resulted in the establishment of the first Islamic state.
Thus the Christian calendar is far from being observed worldwide. Only about one fifth of humankind is even nominally Christian. It is chauvinistic of Christians to assume that the other four-fifths of the human race should have any special interest in the year 2000 and the transition it marks from the second to the third millennium.
The year 2000 has, moreover, become suspect even for Christians. Although the calendar starts from the supposed birth of Jesus Christ, no one really knows what year Jesus was born. The year 4 BC is now seen as more likely. (That is why a group of leading New Testament scholars, known as the Jesus Seminar, named their 1996 conference Jesus at 2000.) 1
So when we refer to the end of the second millennium and the beginning of a third millennium we are talking only about a human construct. And if we pay too much attention to the year 2000 we are in danger of being deceived by our own cultural creation, like a spider entangled in its own web. People, who make plans to travel the world in order to view the dawning of the new millennium, are caught in a similar sort of web. For they are observing yet another convention -- the now universal practice of imposing on the globe a meridian passing through Greenwich, a line arbitrarily chosen by the sea-faring people of Britain. Sunrise in the Chatham Islands off New Zealand’s east coast on January 1, 2000, has no meaning in the natural world. By endowing such ‘millennial’ events with some kind of absolute significance, we humans merely dupe ourselves with our own creations.
Any meaning associated with the year 2000 rests solely on certain religious beliefs held exclusively by Christians. For Christians the year of the birth of Jesus Christ was a year of cosmic significance: one by which, as they believed, the divine Creator of the universe and Lord of history had inaugurated an entirely new era for the world. It marked the moment when God had chosen to cut human history in two. Everything which came before that event was to be measured backwards, occurring, as they later said, so many years Before Christ (or BC). Everything which came afterwards was in a particular year of the Lord, Anno Domini (or AD).
Even in this more secular age, people in the western world tacitly, even if unintentionally, acknowledge Christian faith when they refer to a particular year by number, since the words Anno Domini, strictly speaking, are always implied. Some secular protest in the west against the continuing use of the traditional calendar might perhaps have been expected. Indeed, when Auguste Comte (1798-1857) promoted his new Religion of Humanity in the mid nineteenth century, he introduced a calendar of 13 months, named after such people as Moses, Aristotle, Caesar, Shakespeare and Descartes. The year of the French Revolution was Year One of his Positivist Calendar.
The year we call 2000 CE is not only religiously based, and hence culturally relative, but it is also based on doubtful calculations. It was a Scythian Christian monk called Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short), living in Rome in the sixth century, who first suggested that our years should be dated from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In 525 AD, at the request of Pope St John I, Dionysius prepared a new schedule for the calculation of Easter; almost as an addendum, he suggested a reform which was little noticed at the time. He discarded the current Alexandrian practice of dating the years from the beginning of the rule of Diocletian (284 AD) on the grounds that it perpetuated the name of the Great Persecutor, and proposed that the years be numbered from the ‘Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ’. (Coptic Christians retain the Alexandrian calendar to this day on the grounds that it honors the martyrs put to death by Diocletian.)
Dionysius argued that, just as the Romans had come to regard the foundation of Rome as the beginning of the civilization of ancient Rome, so the coming of Jesus Christ into the world marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the world -- the Christian era. He placed that event in the year 753 of the Roman calendar. By then Christians were already celebrating 25 March (nine calendar months before Christmas Day) as the Feast Day of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. So Dionysius put the New Year’s Day of the first year in his new calendar on that date, believing it to mark the time of Jesus’ conception in the womb of his mother Mary. (Only in 1582 was New Year’s Day restored by Pope Gregory XIII to January, where Julius Caesar had earlier placed it.)
The acceptance of the ‘Christian era’ of Dionysius spread because of the use made of his new Easter tables. It was promoted by the influential ‘Doctor of the Church’, Isidore of Seville (c.560-636). In England the Christian era was adopted at the Synod of Whitby in 664, but it did not become general in Europe until the eleventh century, and in the Greek world not until the fifteenth.
The Christian era was perfectly consistent with the way Christians had come to understand the world. For them, the birth of Jesus Christ was a turning point in world history, a cosmic event just as basic to the universe as the creation of the earth, sun and moon, and the creation of humankind. Did not the biblical story of the birth of Jesus report that a new star appeared in the sky to mark the event, and that this enabled the magi of the east to find their way to Bethlehem? Was not Jesus Christ referred to in the New Testament as the new Adam? Such things made it clear to them that the coming of Jesus Christ was on a par with the creation of humankind.
This conviction about the central place of Christ in human history seemed convincing at that time and came to be universally accepted throughout the Christian world until less than 200 years ago. As Christians approached the beginning of the second Christian millennium (which, according to some authorities, they more correctly calculated to be the first day of 1001 AD), a huge crowd gathered in Rome, expecting the end of the world, and others flocked to Palestine to witness the Advent of the Savior as the Last Trump sounded. There was not even a hint in those days that the Christian picture of the universe would not stand up to careful scrutiny.
As we come to the end of the second millennium, however, we are aware of the subjective foundations of the Christian calendar, and of the legendary character of the data used by Dionysius Exiguus. The date of 25 December for celebrating the birthday of Jesus cannot be traced back with any certainty beyond 336 AD, and has no historical connection with Jesus. It probably resulted from the Christianization of the Mithraic festival, held at the winter solstice, which celebrated the rebirth of the unconquerable sun, Invictus. (Mithraism was the chief religious rival to Christianity in the pre-Constantinian days of Rome.) The Christian festival of the Annunciation on 25 March was arrived at simply by going back nine months from the supposed birthday of Jesus.
In fact we know neither the day on which Jesus was born, nor the year. Just how Dionysius calculated the year of Jesus’ birth we cannot be sure, but it is not consistent with what we find in the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born ‘in the days of Herod the King’. Since we know that Herod the Great died in what would now be reckoned the year 4 BC, Jesus was perhaps born no later than that year. Luke also assigns the birth of Jesus to the days of Herod but goes on to associate it with an enrollment ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But the rule of Quirinius is now reckoned to be about 6-9 AD, more than a decade after the death of Herod. Thus Luke’s dates, and other clues in the New Testament, are not at all reliable, partly because they were written nearly a century after the event and partly because they were determined by religious interests rather than by a concern for historical accuracy. Modern attempts to date the birth of Jesus by astronomical calculations concerning the brightness of a star are not reliable either, since the visit of Wise Men from the east is almost certainly legendary. Our traditional dating of the years thus rests upon quite late and unhistorical traditions, and in no sense does it mark a supposed significant event with historical accuracy.
Today, even the significance of the birth of Jesus is open to question. Jesus may still be regarded as a wise and innovative teacher who has exerted a great deal of influence during the course of the last 20 centuries, but he is now coming to be seen as one great teacher among others, rather than the incarnation of the one and only God, and the absolute Savior of all humankind. The date of his birth, if we could know it, would still hold some significance for Christians, but it has lost its universal meaning as a turning point in history.
Within the Christian tradition, however, the millennium is also regarded as significant for reasons quite other than the supposed birth-date of Jesus Christ. Some of this has to do with a numbering system based on the numeral 10. We all use the figures 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 as handy approximations for particular periods of time and these all occur frequently in the Bible, as they do in other religious traditions. The millennium, or a period of 1,000 years, can thus be seen as a convenient way of delineating a substantial piece of time. But the millennium has come to mean much more than that, largely because the Judeo-Christian tradition believed that God not only created the world but was unfolding its history step by step according to a divine plan.
The twentieth-century philosopher of history, R.G. Collingwood, judged the early Christians to be the first to conceive of writing a universal history of the world going back to the origin of humankind, and instanced Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340). But, long before Eusebius, the ancient Israelite scholars had laid sketch plans for such a universal history in their Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), and this was carried further by the Jewish scholar Josephus (37 -100 AD) in his book, Antiquities of the Jews.
These early Israelite traditions (compiled in their present form during the period of the Babylonian Exile) were set out in eras divided by strategic turning points, such as the Great Flood (which led to a new beginning for humankind), the Tower of Babel (which led to the dispersion of peoples), the Abrahamic migration (by which the offspring of Abraham became the ‘chosen people’), the Exodus from Egypt (which led to the possession of the Promised Land) and, finally, the establishment of the Kingdom of David. It was in such ways that figures and events became milestones on the path of a universal history which revealed the supposed plan of divine salvation. History was viewed through theological spectacles, effectively imposing a supposed divine plan on the sequence of historical events.
Belief in such a plan motivated not only the calculations of Dionysius in 525 but also those of Bishop Ussher (1581-1656) a thousand years later. Ussher, noting the time of Herod’s death, decided that Dionysius must have been in error and placed the birth of Jesus in the year 4 BC. Already, the Venerable Bede (c.673 -735) had carefully calculated from the Hebrew Bible that the Creation occurred 3,952 years before the birth of Christ. Ussher, influenced by the fascination with millennia which had become an integral part of the Christian schema, had little difficulty in making a few minor corrections to Bede’s calculations. He concluded that the Creation occurred exactly 4,000 years before the birth of Christ, in 4004 BC -- at noon on 23 October. (His calculations were still being printed in the text of the King James Bible well into the twentieth century). Since, according to the Bible, the world had been created in six days, and 1,000 years are but as a day for God, Ussher believed that the world would last 6,000 years. (This conclusion had already been reached by the ancient Christian scholar Lactantius, c.240-320). The building of Solomon’s temple was finished at the halfway mark, 3,000 years after Creation. Christ came 4,000 years after Creation; this left a further 2,000 years to run. By his calculation the world should have ended in 1996.
This brings us to an even more important reason for the current interest in the new millennium, one which has very ancient roots. The special significance attached to a period of 1,000 years eventually became so widespread that the term millennium now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a period of happiness and benign government’. Such a meaning can be traced back directly to a few verses in the biblical book of Revelation (Chapter 20:1-7). The writer, purporting to reveal the future of the world, speaks of a period of 1000 years in which Satan will be held chained to a bottomless pit. During this period Christ, along with all those martyred for their faith in him, will reign, unhindered by the evil designs of Satan. But after the 1,000 years Satan will be released from his prison, and the nations from the four corners of the earth will engage in a gigantic conflict until fire comes down from heaven. Satan, Death, Hades and all people whose names are not found written in the Book of Life will be thrown into a lake of fire.
The writer of this strange apocalyptic book regarded the millennium as an interlude before the final cosmic battle -- an interlude in which peace and joy reign supreme and all evil is completely, if temporarily, suppressed. In his 1957 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn examined the influence of this belief in European history. He found that, between the end of the eleventh century and the first half of the sixteenth century, there was a succession of highly emotional mass movements, motivated by the desire of various groups to see the material conditions of their lives greatly improved. These movements varied in tone from violent aggression to mild pacifism, but their motivation could all be traced back to Jewish and Christian prophecies in the ancient world, of which the few verses about the millennium in Revelation are the best example. They are therefore often called chiliastic movements (chilias being the Greek word for ‘thousand’).
Cohn was interested in the possible similarities between these chiliastic movements and the twentieth-century totalitarian movements of communism and German national socialism. These latter, in a far more secular age, lacked the supernatural elements of the earlier more apocalyptic movements (which reflected the mediaeval beliefs of the time), but they did have strong religious overtones. Each was led to ruthless and irrational behavior because of the eschatological ideals. Communism looked to the imminent coming of the classless society and Nazism was committed to the achievement of the pure Aryan race. Hitler’s Third Reich was intended to last for 1000 years.
But where did the idea of a glorious future age come from? What led to the expectation that there would ‘shortly be a marvelous consummation, when good will be finally victorious over evil and for ever reduce it to nullity; that the human agents of evil will be either physically annihilated or otherwise disposed of; that the elect will thereafter live as a collectivity, unanimous and without conflict, on a transformed and purified earth’?2
Some 20 years later, Cohn published his findings in Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993). Until some time around 1500-1000 BC, peoples as diverse as the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians, Canaanites and pre-exilic Israelites all had myths implying that, in the beginning, the world had been organized and set in order by immutable divine decrees, but that this order was continually under threat from evil and destructive forces. The conflict between the intended orderly cosmos and the ever-threatening chaos was given symbolic expression in a combat myth, in which a young hero god, or divine warrior, was charged by the gods with the task of keeping the forces of chaos at bay, and in return was awarded kingship over the world.3
Cohn contends that the Iranian prophet Zoroaster made a break with that static, yet anxious and unstable world view. (Cohn dates Zoroaster about 1200 BCE, while other scholars date him later, as far down as 588 BCE.) Zoroaster, according to Cohn, introduced a radical re-interpretation of the Iranian version of the combat myth. In Zoroaster’s view the world was not static, but was already moving, through incessant conflict, towards a consummation which would result in a perfect and conflict-free state. This perfect time would come when, in a prodigious final battle, the supreme god and his supernatural allies would defeat the forces of chaos with their human allies, and eliminate them once and for all. From then on, the divinely appointed order would be established for all time. Physical distress and want would become unknown. No enemy would threaten. Within the community of the saved there would be absolute unanimity. In other words, the world would be for ever untroubled and secure.
The impact of Zoroastrianism on Judaism (and hence on Christianity and Islam) is now widely, though not unanimously, accepted. As D.S. Russell noted, ‘The influence of Zoroastrianism, and indeed of the whole Perso-Babylonian culture, is amply illustrated in the writings of the Jewish apocalyptists’.4 There are a number of elements which the Judeo-Christian tradition and Zoroastrianism have in common, which do not appear in Judaism until after it came into contact with Zoroastrianism from 540 BCE onwards. They include the naming of angels (Michael, Raphael and so on); a personal Devil (which Satan later became) with accompanying demons; a Book of Life which records the deeds of people during their lifetime; a coming cosmic conflict in which the forces of evil will be finally overthrown; the separation of the soul from the body at death; a general resurrection and a universal judgement; and an afterlife with rewards and punishments. Of particular interest is the division of time into successive significant periods (usually a millennium in length); in Zoroastrian teaching the world would last for a period of 12 millennia, consisting of four eras of 3,000 years each.
R.C. Zaehner claimed that ‘from the moment that the Jews made contact with the Iranians they took over the typical Zoroastrian doctrine of an individual afterlife in which rewards are to be enjoyed and punishments endured … the idea of a bodily resurrection at the end of time was probably original to Zoroastrianism’.5 Cohn also concluded that the similarities between Zoroastrianism and the ideas found in the Jewish Apocalypses were too remarkable to be explained by coincidence.6
Only some Jewish parties, such as the apocalyptic writers of Daniel, I Enoch and Jubilees, and the Qumran Sect and the Pharisees, embraced some or all of these Zoroastrian notions before the beginning of the Christian era. The Pharisees, practicing a puritan and separatist form of spirituality, accepted the belief in a general resurrection (the more conservative Sadducees rejected it) and they left a huge deposit in subsequent rabbinical Judaism. There were other Jewish groups more marginal to the life of Judaism and these later included the Christians. As Cohn points out, Zoroaster’s view that ‘the time would come when, in a prodigious final battle, the supreme god and his supernatural allies would defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies and eliminate them once and for all’ deeply influenced certain Jewish groups which, in turn, ‘influenced the Jesus sect, with incalculable consequences’.7
Since the 1890s New Testament scholars have been rediscovering the importance of apocalyptic literature among Jews and Christians in the ancient world, represented in the books referred to as Apocalypses, which offer visions, revelations of the future, and other divine mysteries. The term ‘apocalyptic’ refers to a religious outlook which contrasts the present, temporary and perishable age with a new age which is to be imperishable and eternal; it contains the belief that this new age is of a transcendent order which, in the imminent future, will suddenly break in from beyond by divine intervention. It is now acknowledged that much of the New Testament was written within a context of apocalyptic or eschatological thought, in which the early Christian movement looked towards the imminent end (eschaton) of the present age and the breaking in of the new age (the Kingdom of God).
There is much evidence of these views in the Gospels, where they are placed by the Evangelists in the mouth of Jesus, in Mark 12, Matthew 24 and Luke 21. While these are the longest and most explicit examples of apocalyptic thinking, there are many shorter examples. Scholars still debate the extent to which Jesus shared these apocalyptic beliefs and intended his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God to be interpreted in their light. Certainly apocalyptic beliefs were dominant among the early Christians and pervade the New Testament. They are clearly present in Thessalonians 4, 5, the earliest of Paul’s letters.
The Apocalypse of John is not so out of keeping with the rest of the New Testament as much later readers were inclined to think. Indeed, by the second century it had become the most frequently quoted New Testament book. Although this was the only Christian apocalypse to gain inclusion in the New Testament canon, there were other early favorites such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas. Further, the Jewish Apocalypses remained popular among Christians for several centuries -- and it was Christians and not Jews who were responsible for their survival.
Just as the Apocalypse of John made the specific reference to the miraculous character of the millennium, so Papias (60-130 CE), bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, expressed apocalyptic and millenarian convictions. He held that, in the 1,000 years after the general resurrection soon to come, Christ would establish his Kingdom on earth in material form; he believed that Jesus had described the coming millennium thus: ‘The days will come in which vines shall appear, having each 10,000 shoots and on every shoot 10,000 twigs, and on each twig 10,000 stems, and on every stem 10,000 bunches, and in every bunch 10,000 grapes, and every grape will give 25 metretes of wine’.8
By virtue of being canonized in Holy Scripture, the many pieces of apocalyptic writing in the New Testament, including the Apocalypse of John, have become permanently associated with the cardinal Christian doctrine of the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, as expressed in the Creed: ‘He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead and his kingdom shall have no end.’
It has been mainly at times of cultural change and social crisis, however, that apocalyptic beliefs and millennialism have been revived in Christian thought and practice. At other times this kind of thinking has been marginalized and strongly discouraged. The reason is simple. The apocalyptic has a special appeal to the downtrodden, the persecuted, the dispossessed and the wretched, for whom the idea of a sudden period of bliss brings new hope. The Jewish Apocalypses were written to bring hope and comfort to the Jews suffering domination by the Greeks and Romans. The Christian Apocalypses flourished in a time of the Roman persecution of the Christians. But in more settled times, and particularly after the Constantinian adoption of Christianity as the state religion, the church looked with disfavor on any movement which threatened the status quo.
There was an outbreak of apocalyptic thought and activity in the late second century, led by the prophet Montanus and his women supporters Prisca and Maximilla. Even the great Tertullian (c.160 -- c.22o), second only to Augustine among the early theologians of the western church, embraced Montanism. Over the course of history the years 500, 1000, 1260, 1420, 1533 (the supposed fifteenth centennial of Christ’s death), 1843, 1844, 1845, 1847, 1851 and 1914 have in turn been awaited expectantly as the beginning of the millennium.
Amid the unsettled times of the Protestant Reformation millennial expectations were championed by the radical Protestant reformer Thomas Münzer (c.1490-1525), who became the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. There were further apocalyptic outbreaks in the nineteenth century and these gave rise to new sects, such as the Millerites, the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. William Miller, the founder of the Millerites, had a following of more than 100,000 and announced that Christ would return and engulf the world in a conflagration in 1843. The millenialist sects have fallen into two groups, differing in their conviction as to whether Christ will return before the millennium (the pre-millenialists) or after the millennium (the post-millenialists). It is only to be expected that the approach of the year 2000 would once again revitalize millenarian expectations. In the 1970s the evangelical preacher Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 25 million copies around the world. In this and later books he prophesied the imminence of the battle of Armageddon, which would start in a war between Israel and the Arab peoples and end with the destruction of all the major cities before the Advent of Christ and the coming of a new world. The same message was being preached by the American tele-evangelists and eagerly accepted by millions of viewers, including, it has been claimed, Ronald Reagan and some of his supporters.
In the expansion of Christianity around the world in the wake of European colonialism, new converts from the various indigenous peoples have not infrequently fastened on the apocalyptic component and blended it with their own cultural beliefs to create fresh millennial movements which offer their people hope of deliverance from imperialistic conquest and the arrival of a new age of bliss. Mainline Christian denominations have distanced themselves from millenarian and apocalyptic thought, finding its presence in the New Testament something of an embarrassment. But, as we shall see in later chapters, the mainline denominations have been declining. The conservative and more fundamentalist denominations are growing and these usually set much store on millennialism and the Second Coming of Christ. Ironically, although they commonly pride themselves on being the guardians of a pure and unadulterated Christianity, they unknowingly reflect the long-term influence of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster.
This serves to illustrate the first theme of this chapter: that cultural influences are often at work in ways that are both unexpected and undetected. This, we have seen, is true of the Christian calendar and the millennium: they are simply cultural conventions, dependent on the Christian civilization that produced them.
But what is the future of Christian civilization? There are many signs that all is not well. To this topic we now turn, for, just as the ancient Roman calendar disappeared with the decay of Roman civilization, the decline of Christian civilization may ultimately lead to the adoption of a new and non-Christian calendar for universal use around the globe. If this is so, then we could be living through the end of the millennium in more ways than one. The year 2000 AD could be marking the end of the last Christian millennium, and the end to all Christian millennia.
1. Marcus J. Borg (ed.), Jesus at 2000.
2. Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come; The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, Foreword.
3. Ibid., p. 227
4. D.S. Russell, Between the Testaments, p. 22.
5. RC. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, p. 58.
6. Cohn, op. cit., p. 222.
7. Ibid., pp. 227-28.
8. Ibid., p. 198.