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Millennialism is the belief in the spiritual or physical "end of the world," generally brought about in such a way that certain favored people will survive into paradise and the rest of the world will perish. The term originated out of the Zoroastrian concept that each 1000 years, the earth ends and is reborn.
Millennialist movements are found in many religions, including Judaism (especially the Kabbalistic variety), Christianity, cargo cults, Rastafarianism, the Sioux interpretation of the American Indian Ghost Dance religion of the 1880s, and the Nation of Islam.
The best-known version of millennialism today is that in Christian theology, which is the eschatological belief that the last judgment will be preceded by a period of one thousand years during which Christ will rule the world in an age of peace and prosperity. This belief is based on the Revelation 20:1-6, which mentions an angel chaining and imprisoning the Devil in an abyss, after which some faithful martyrs "reign with Christ for a thousand years." The rest of the dead will rise later for the Last Judgment.
Some Christians use millennialist beliefs as justification for trying to establish a theocracy in the United States. Others use millennialism as a means by which to influence United States foreign policy.
Predictions of the end times are regularly proved wrong each time the end fails to happen. Despite this, millennialist beliefs persist due to the tremendous spiritual rewards offered to followers and disastrous punishments threatened for unbelievers, and the excitement people get from thinking that the world is about to end.
Contemporary types of millennialism
Believers in millennialism usually inhabit the fringes of Christianity. They differ among themselves over when exactly this period of a thousand years might happen, especially in relation to the Second Coming of Christ. Some believe the millennium will happen before the Second Coming, others believe it will happen after the Second Coming.
The major division is between pre-millennialists and post-millennialists. Pre-millennialists are further divided into post-tribulational pre-millennialists and pre-tribulational or dispensational pre-millennialists. Are you confused yet?
Catastrophic millennialism, another subdivision, preaches that the millennium will be achieved suddenly through divine intervention. This is similar to pre-millennialism, except that catastrophic millennialism is frequently pessimistic because believers expect the world to get worse until Jesus returns and sorts things out.
The majority of Christians who do not believe in millennialism, many of whom have argued emphatically against it, are known as amillennialists.
Post-millennialists believe that the Second Coming and the Last Judgement will occur after (post-) the millennium, which post-millennialists see as a period of time during which the "Kingdom of God" gradually gains ground against the forces of evil. Post-millennialists differ on whether this Kingdom of God will exist merely as a general expansion of Christian belief, or as an outright Christian theocracy. The latter minority belief eventually evolved into Christian Reconstructionism.
Post-millennialists differ on the exact duration of the millennium, with some believing in a literal millennium lasting 1000 years, while others consider it a more symbolic period of time.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, post-millennialism operated in churches working actively for social reform and social justice, this being thought the way to bring in the Millennium.
Post-millennialism also has links with dominionism, since many post-millennialists believe that they have a duty to advance the cause of Christianity in preparation for the Second Coming, and that legislation is one acceptable way of doing so.
Post-tribulational (historic) pre-millennialism
As opposed to post-millennialists, pre-millennialists believe that the millennium will begin with the second coming of Christ, and that he will reign over the Earth in person during this time, until the Last Judgement at the end of that millennium. Post-tribulationalists further believe that the second coming will follow a period of persecution of Christians by the Antichrist, an episode known as the Tribulation.
Pre-tribulational (dispensational) pre-millennialism
Pre-tribulational (dispensational) pre-millennialism differs from the post-tribulationalist variety in the belief that the second coming of Christ will effectively occur twice: once before the time of the Tribulations and once after. The first second coming will bring about the event usually referred to as the Rapture, when a group of selected true believers are immediately taken away to Heaven. Those remaining on Earth are then subjected to seven years of Tribulations, after which Christ will return in the second second coming, along with those he took with him in the Rapture, to defeat the Antichrist and begin the millennium.
This view is also called dispensational pre-millennialism because it is connected with a school of theology known as dispensation theology. This doctrine believes that God administers, or dispenses, his grace to mankind according to how well they handle a set of tests or trials. The time of the Tribulations is seen as the final one of these trials, and so it is usually understood that those unfortunate enough not to be part of the first Rapture will have the opportunity to convert (and presumably suffer martyrdom) during the Tribulations.
Of course, other Christians believe that no one can be saved after the Rapture, meaning anyone who wanted to get saved or was about to say the prayer right before the Rapture happened now has no future but going to Hell. One theory states that no one will even know that the Rapture even happened, as the event will be explained away by some other phenomenon. Any "sinner's prayers" during the Tribulation will fall on deaf ears, as you apparently had your chance to get saved before the Rapture but you didn't, so you're screwed. So much for a merciful God.
Most mainstream Christians would classify as amillennialists, in that while they may or may not believe in a Second Coming and Last Judgement, they deny that it will be preceded by a specific period of one thousand years or by anything similar to the Tribulations.
The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches both lean toward an amillennialist viewpoint, although neither has declared an official eschatological position binding on their respective memberships (for example, via a decision at an ecumenical council). Lutheranism embraces amillennialism in Lutherans' Augsburg Confession and the Reformed Second Helvetic Confession does likewise.
Some pre-millennialists in particular have tried to show that their beliefs are supported by the writings of the early (1st to 2nd century CE) Church Fathers, who commonly held that the return of Christ was imminent and would herald the beginning of the 1000-year long Kingdom of God. This historical premillennialism was tarnished by the development, in some quarters (but not in the case of the majority of its adherents), of decadent sensual imaginings regarding the thousand-year rule of Christ; as a consequence, millennialism fell out of favor with many in the early church, but nevertheless remained within the sphere of permissible orthodox opinion. Some opponents have falsely claimed that this eschatology was condemned at an ecumenical council (they most frequently cite the First Council of Constantinople in 381). However, an actual examination of the canons/pronouncements of the ecumenical councils reveal that no such action was ever taken — in fact, the subject had not even been formally addressed.
Regardless, this early form of millennialism is quite different from the more contemporary forms discussed above, which for the most part date back to the 19th century.
United States foreign policy
Despite their mythic nature, millennialist ideas have had an influence on the shaping of U.S. foreign policy by being espoused by a number of prominent wingnuts and televangelists who have the ear of policy-makers. This is often done by trying to shoehorn the behavior of nations like the late Soviet Union, Iran, and Israel into the framework of the Book of Revelation instead of using reality-based analysis.
So why does this matter?
As mentioned above, these beliefs are for the most part, with the exception of amillennialism, only found among evangelical and fundamentalist denominations of Christianity, and not in the more mainstream branches. As such, it may not be immediately obvious why apparently minor theological technicalities, like those that separate pre-millennialists from post-millennialists, should matter. This may especially be the case for many non-Christians, who probably find even the underlying concepts of a "resurrection" and a "second coming" quite alien in the first place.
One needs to understand, however, that what may seem like small theological differences in fact often result in world views that are significantly different from one another, and which in practice lead to different conclusions regarding the role religion should play in society and politics.[note 1] This is also the case on the issue of pre- vs. post-millennialism.
As explained above, post-millennialists view the millennium as a period during which the Kingdom of God, i.e. the reign of Christianity, gradually expands until it culminates in the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. In this view, the church takes an active role as an instrument in bringing about this expansion and, in the case of those post-millennialists who do not believe in a literal 1000-year millennium, may even be able to hasten it, and by extension the Second Coming. This often leads to the conclusion that Christians should work toward a general Christianization of society through, e.g., legislation and litigation.
By contrast, pre-millennialists believe that the Second Coming will occur either without warning or after a specified period of tribulations, without the church having any particular role to play. They also believe that it is the Second Coming itself that will herald the beginning of the millennium and that Christ himself will do what is necessary to bring it about.
This means that, speaking in broadly general terms and all else being equal, post-millennialists have taken a more active stance than pre-millennialists towards the setting of public policy, trying to influence politicians and other decision makers, promoting initiatives and legislation aimed at bringing secular law into line with what they consider to be divine law (the Dominionists are well-known for this) in order to create an entirely Christian society. In other words, they aim for an "evangelism from above". Pre-millennialists, on the other hand, are more likely to direct their attentions towards "evangelism from below", focusing on converting individuals and preparing for the Coming. Their political efforts are thus seen as vastly secondary in importance, and they also aim to ensure that their evangelism can continue apace, rather than curtailing anyone else's religious freedom.
As can be seen, we have two schools of thought where an apparently small theological difference leads to the adoption of two quite different political strategies. This in turn requires their opponents to respond to them in very different ways. So again, although these are differences that from the outside may seem insignificant and more or less equally irrational, it is nevertheless quite important to understand where these people are coming from, and which assumptions and world views form the basis of their actions, especially if one is to form a meaningful opposition against them.
The concept of the end of the world giving birth to a utopia is naturally not limited to religious fundamentalist movements and cults, as the teachings of religions are not inspired by any actual deity, but were invented by the same wish-fulfilling primate cerebrums that fashioned the secular ideologies as well.
Some secular ideologies of a radical nature can take the trappings of a Millenarian movement. Atheist blogger and skeptic Rebecca Bradley specifically points out such traits occurring in more radical hard-left circles, but also includes in this category Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, "Free-market fundamentalism", fascism, Marxism, and hard greens ideology. To this may be added "singularity" hopefuls, doomsday preppers, UFO cults and similar fringe movements, like the one spawned from the brief and relative success of the Zeitgeist films.
As opposed to a religious deity causing the end of the world, however, the cause for the end of the world is generally given a more seemingly grounded explanation, such as a revolution, a nuclear apocalypse, or some other non-religious explanation for why there will be a sudden mass-die out and overthrow of modern society that would result in their ideology becoming the dominant force throughout the world. When analyzing whether or not a movement could "reasonably" be called Millennialist, it may be useful to see if it emulates the structure of many millennialist religions. For instance:
|The Second Coming
|A second American Civil War
|Freedom from big government
|USA during and after World War 2
|The New Left
|Empowered Neo-Con Presidency
|The End of History
|A universal market
|The World Wars
|New Atheism[note 3]
- Brahma Kumaris — a new religious movement with Hindu roots
- List of predictions of the end of the world
- Red heifer, a cow which will prefigure the millennium
- The trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia by Peter Worsley
- "Millennialism in the Caribbean" by Barry Chevannes, in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, Edited by Catherine Wessinger
- The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 by James Mooney (1991) University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803281773.
- Millennialism (Millenarianism, Chiliasm) by Richard Landes (archived from May 21, 2019).
- Next Year in Jerusalem
- Catastrophic millennialism
- Righting America at the Creation Museum by Susan L. Trollinger & William Vance Trollinger Jr. (2016) Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 1421419513.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §676
- Article XVII: "[The Lutheran churches] condemn also others who are now spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed."
- Chapter XI: "We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth."
- Strategic Implications of American Millennialism
- Given the tendency of religious institutions to codify their opinions into dogma, even minor differences in belief can and have escalated into schisms.
- Yes, we know this is a bit arrogant of us, but a lot of other websites that aim to be bastions of rationality tend to fall short in one area or another (LessWrong and Religions Wiki, for instance, have an excessive vindictive streak (and, yes, we know that's a tone argument, but we still criticize ideas based on their own merits rather than just the character of their proponents)). RationalWiki ain't perfect, sure, but at least we try to be fair even to viewpoints we disagree with. If we are viciously attacking an idea, it's generally a sign that it is genuinely illogical and/or dangerous.
- Yes, we know that New Atheism has a track record of treating religion like the social equivalent of cancer and ignoring its positive contributions to human prosperity and development, but this is a model of millennial comparisons, and the original New Millennium isn't all sunshine and roses on account of Satan still trying to ruin everything.