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Millennialism (or chiliasm), from millennium, which literally means "thousand years". Primarily a belief in some Christian denominations, literature and folk religion, that at some point in the future there will be a Golden Age, a Paradise on earth when universal peace will reign, when all people will dwell in prosperity, the cosmos will be healed, and "Christ will reign". This is not the "end of the world", but the penultimate age, prior to when it is believed that the world will end. Some believe that between the millennium and the final end of the world there will be a brief period to allow a final battle with Satan, or a time of the Anti-Christ, followed by the last judgment.

Millennialism is also a doctrine of Zoroastrianism concerning successive thousand-year periods, each of which will end in a cataclysm of heresy and destruction, until the final destruction of evil and of the spirit of evil by a triumphant king of peace at the end of the final millennial age (supposed by some to be the year 2000). "Then Soshyant makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur" (Zand-i Vohuman Yasht 3:62).

Various other social and political movements, both religious and secular, have also been linked to millennialist metaphors by scholars.


Christian millennialism

Christian views on the future order of events diversified after the Protestant reformation. In particular, new emphasis was placed on the passages in the Book of Revelation which seemed to say that Satan would be locked away for 1000 years, but then released on the world in a final battle. Previous Catholic and Orthodox theologians had no clear or consensus view on what this actually meant (only the concept of an end of the world coming unexpected, "like a thief in a night", and the concept of "the antichrist" were almost universally held). Millennialist theories try to explain what this "1000 years of Satan in chains" would be like.

Pre-Christian millennialism

Although never officially recognized by the Catholic Church (and actually pronounced a heresy as early as 431 AD), millennialism, which had clearly already existed in Jewish thought, received a new interpretation and fresh impetus with the arrival of Christianity. A millennium is a period of one thousand years, and, in particular, Christ's thousand-year rule on this earth, either directly preceding or immediately following the Second Coming (and the Day of Judgement).

The millennium reverses the previous period of evil and suffering; it rewards the virtuous for their courage while punishing the evil-doers, with a clear separation of saints and sinners. The vision of a thousand-year period of bliss for the faithful, to be enjoyed here on earth ("heaven on earth"), exerted an irresistible power. Although the picture of life in the millennial era is almost willfully obscure and hardly more appealing than that of, say, the Golden Age, what has made the millennium much more powerful than the Golden Age or Paradise myths are the activities of the sects and movements that it has inspired. Throughout the ages, hundreds of sects were convinced that the millennium was imminent, about to begin in the very near future, with precise dates given on many occasions.

Premillennial sects look for signs of Christ's imminent return. Other chiliast sects, such as the prophetic Anabaptist followers of Thomas Müntzer, have believed that the millennium had already begun, with only their own members having realized this fact. Consequently, they have attempted to live out their own vision of millennial life, radically overturning the beliefs and practices of the surrounding society. In doing so, they offered a model of the good life and expressed their hope that soon the rest of the world would follow and live like they did.

See Christian eschatology for a discussion of "premillennialism" and "postmillennialism".

Transition to the Millennium

Millennial sects have typically believed that the transition from the present age to the millennium would be anything but smooth, with the Antichrist having to be defeated and Jesus' reign on earth having to be established (millennial theories differ as to whether the battle with the Antichrist will occur before or after the 1000 years). Leaders of some movements have seen it as their responsibility to bring about the expected disastrous wars which would bring an end to the present age.

On the other hand, those who did not believe in the millennium also imagined the end of the world as chaotic and catastrophic. The word Apocalypse has been used for this final phase of human history as we know it, with Armageddon as the site of the last decisive battle on the Day of Judgement.

An (or the) Apocalypse [from Greek apo "off", "from", "away", "un-" and kalyptein "cover"] is,

  • in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a revelation of God's purposes with the main intention of encouraging an oppressed and suffering minority to have faith in God and of proclaiming his ultimate triumph;
  • in particular, the revelation of the future granted to St John (one of the four evangelists) in the isle of Patmos, written in Greek in the 1st century AD and burning with the conviction that the world is about to be destroyed and that Christ's Second Coming is at hand;

The Book of Revelation is not easy to interpret. Numerous painters and sculptors have produced works of art dealing with the Apocalypse. For example, they portrayed the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing pestilence, war, famine, and death.

Millennialism and Utopianism

The early Christian concept had ramifications far beyond strictly religious concern during the centuries to come, as it was blended and enhanced with ideas of utopia.

In the wake of early millennial thinking, the Three Ages philosophy (Drei-Reiche-Lehre) developed. Making use of the dogma of the Trinity, the Italian monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202) claimed that all of human history was a succession of three ages:

  1. the Age of the Father (the Old Testament)
  2. the Age of the Son (the New Testament)
  3. the Age of the Holy Spirit (the age of love, peace, and freedom)

It was believed that the Age of the Holy Spirit would begin at around 1260, and that from then on all believers would be living as monks, mystically transfigured and full of praise for God, for a thousand years until Judgement Day would put an end to the history of our planet.

In the Modern Era, with the impact of religion on everyday life gradually decreasing and eventually almost vanishing, some of the concepts of millennial thinking have found their way into various secular ideas, usually in the form of a belief that a certain historical event will fundamentally change human society (or has already done so). For example, the French Revolution seemed to many to be ushering in the millennial age of reason. Also, the philosophies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (d. 1831) and Karl Marx (d. 1883) carried strong millennial overtones. As late as 1970, Yale law teacher Charles A. Reich coined the term "Consciousness III " in his best seller The Greening of America , in which he spoke of a new age ushered in by the hippie generation. However, these secular theories generally have little or nothing to do with the original millennial thinking, or with each other.

Millennialism and Nazism

The most controversial interpretation of the Three Ages philosophy and of millennialism in general is Hitler's "Third Reich" ("Drittes Reich", "Tausendjähriges Reich"), which, in his vision, would last for a thousand years - but which in reality only lasted for 12 years (1933-1945).

The phrase "Third Reich" was coined by the conservative German thinker Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (b. 1876, suicide 1925), who in 1923 published a book entitled Das Dritte Reich, which eventually became a catchphrase that survived the Nazi regime.

Looking back at German history, two periods were distinguished:

These were now to be followed -- after the interval of the Weimar Republic (1918 - 1933), during which constitutionalism, parliamentarism and even pacifism ruled -- by:

  • the "Third Reich" of Adolf Hitler.

In a speech held on 27 November 1937, Hitler commented on his plans to have major parts of Berlin torn down and rebuilt:

[...] einem tausendjährigen Volk mit tausendjähriger geschichtlicher und kultureller Vergangenheit für die vor ihm liegende unabsehbare Zukunft eine ebenbürtige tausendjährige Stadt zu bauen [...].
[...] to build a millennial city adequate [in splendour] to a thousand year old people with a thousand year old historical and cultural past, for its never-ending [glorious] future [...]

Millennialism and Social Movements

Outside of theology, the Hitler's Nazi movement has been described as Millennial or Millenarian in scholarly works. Millennial social movements are a specific form of Millenarianism that are based on some concept of a one thousand year cycle. Sometimes the two terms are used as synonyms, but this is not entirely accurate for a purist. Millennial social movements need not be religious, but they must have a vision of an apocalypse that can be utopian or distopian.


  • Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised and expanded (New York: Oxford University Press, [1957] 1970).
  • Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) (ISBN 0300017251)
  • James M. Rhodes, The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution (Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1980). (ISBN 0817971319)
  • Robert Wistrich, Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985). (ISBN 0312388195)
  • Richard K. Fenn, The End of Time: Religion, Ritual, and the Forging of the Soul (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1997). (ISBN 0829812067 or ISBN 0281049947)
  • Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997). (ISBN 0815626878 or ISBN 0815603967)
  • Robert Ellwood, ‘Nazism as a Millennialist Movement’, in Catherine Wessinger (ed.), Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000). (ISBN 0815628099 or ISBN 0815605994)

See also

Last updated: 08-04-2005 19:06:56
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