The Millennium, Christ's Thousand Year Reign on Earth
(The Pre-Christian Origins of)
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19 August 2000
This year, being Anno Domini (the year of our Lord) 2000 in Christendom's calendar, has brought to the fore in the public's interest, the notion of a Millennium, a Thousand Year Age, which will see Christ's kingdom established on earth. This article attempts to identify how the notions of a Millennium arose from ancient Greek religious motifs of the "Pre-Christian" era, and an attempt is made to explain how these motifs were transformed by the Early Christians.
Scholars have pointed out that a text reflects the age in which it was composed. Christianity arose in the 1st century A.D., and eventually came to be a predominately Gentile Church through St. Paul's missionary efforts. In order to win converts, Paul had to present the Christian message in a manner that the Gentiles could relate to and comprehend -from their present religious understandings- which were mainly "Greek" in nature.
Based on my research I understand that Christianity is a "syncrestic religion," a combining of Hellenistic Greek religious motifs with Jewish concepts. Paul has been rightly regarded by several modern scholars as being the real founder of Christianity (cf. Hyam Mccoby, The Myth-maker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1986, ISBN 0-06-250585-8).
Paul's writings and those of the Early Apostles, reveal how Greek motifs were given "a new twist" and adapted to the story of Christ. As more Gentile converts flooded into the Early Christian church, they brought with them Greek religious notions which were re-formatted into a Christian "Gospel". The original Jewish element represented by James (Christ's brother), eventually was replaced by Paul's Gentile church. Judaism could not tolerate the heretical Christian church which had embraced Greek religious notions, and a break was inevitable.
Bound up with notions of a Millennium is the idea of a Judgement of the Dead and punishment of the wicked. The Old Testament does not portray Hell or the Underworld (called Sheol in Hebrew) as a fiery place. There is no mention of a Lake of Fire, or of individuals being bound and tormented (punishments) in the Underworld. An unrighteous King, Saul, goes down into Sheol to dwell with a righteous Samuel, who appears "clothed" in a robe when summoned by the witch of En-dor (1 Samuel 28:14). The Early Christians are apparently drawing upon Greek myths about the Judgement, punishment and resurrection of the dead after a thousand years, as preserved in Plato's writings.
Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.), in his Gorgias, has Socrates describing the judgement of the dead. He stresses that the dead are all naked when judged, so that the judges are not swayed by fine clothes, noting that in earlier times, the guilty were poorly judged because their fine apparell swayed the judges. This Greek motif may lie behind the Early Christian notion of the Dead "being Naked" as they are driven away from before Christ, their Judge, and consigned to Hell. Also noteworthy is the Greek concept that THE JUDGE HIMSELF MUST BE DEAD, perhaps this lies behind Christ's having "to die" first, before he becomes "the Judge of the dead"? (Gorgias 523-4, p.304, Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns, Editors, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters. [Bollingen Series LXXI], Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, , 1996, ISBN 0-691-09718-6).
"Then Zeus said, 'Well, I will put a stop to that. Cases are judged badly now,' said he, 'because those who are tried come to judgement with their clothes on...they must be stripped naked of all these things before trial, for they must be judged after death. And THE JUDGE MUST BE naked too and DEAD, scanning with his soul itself the souls of all immediately after death, deprived of all his kinsmen and with all that fine attire of his left on earth, that his verdict may be just." (Gorgias 523, p. 304, Hamilton)
Plato also has Socrates noting that the Judgement of the dead occurs in a meadow, at a crossroads, the righteous are allowed to follow a road to the Greek paradise, the Isles of the Blest, while the condemned must take the other road to Tartarus (the lowermost part of Hell) and punishment:
"And when these are dead, they will hold court in the meadow, at the crossroads from which two paths lead, one to the Isles of the Blessed, the other to Tartarus. And Rhadamanthus will judge those who come from Asia, Aeacus those from Europe, and to Minos I will grant privileges of court of appeal, if the other two are in doubt, so that the judgement about which path men take may be as just as possible." (Gorgias 524a, p.304, Hamilton)
Perhaps Early Christian notions about a narrow pathway to Heaven and a broad pathway to Hell (Matthew 7:13) is borrowing from the above Platonic notion of "a path" to the Isles of the Blest and "a path" to Tartarus (Hell)?
Plato has Socrates telling Callicles that the Judges carefully examine the fleshly bodies of the dead and their souls for signs "of marks" indicating they led dissolute or criminal lives. Perhaps this motif lies behind Revelation's notion that "the unrighteous bear a mark," by which they can be distinguished and sent to Hell? The early Christians understood that the righteous dead bear a seal, assuring their arrival in paradise.
"Death, in my opinion, is nothing else but the separation from each other of two things, soul and body, and when therefore they are separated from one another, each of them retains pretty much the same condition as when the man was alive, the body retaining its own nature, with all the marks of treatment or experience plainly visible. For instance if a man's body was large either by nature or through diet or through both causes while he was alive, after death too his corpse will be large, and if fat when living then fat too after death, and so on, and if again he habitually wore his hair long, his corpse too will be long-haired. And further if a man was a jailbird and bore traces of the blows he received when living, in the form of scars on his body inflicted by the lash or from other wounds, you may see the same marks on his body after death too, or if any of his limbs were broken or distorted in his life-time, the same things are evident in death. And, in a word, of the physical characteristics acquired in life all or the greater part are visible some time after death. And so I believe that the same thing is true for the soul, Callicles; once it has been stripped of the body, everything in the soul is manifest- its natural characteristics and the experiences which a man's soul has encountered through occupations of various kinds. When therefore they arrive before their judge- those of Asia before Rhadamanthus- he halts them and scans the soul of each, quite unaware whose it is, but he will often lay hold of the Great king or any other king or potentate and see that there is no sign of health in his soul but that it is torn to ribbons by the scourge and full of scars due to perjuries and crime- THE MARKS BRANDED ON THE SOUL BY EVERY EVIL DEED- and that everything is crooked through falsehood and imposture, and nothing straight because it has been raised a stranger to truth...and seeing this he sends it away in ignominy straight to the prison house, where it is doomed on its arrival to endure the sufferings proper to it." (Gorgias 524-5, pp. 304-5, Hamilton)
"As I said then, whenever Rhadamanthus receives one of these, he knows nothing else about him, his name or origin, only that he is evil, and when he perceives this he dispatches him straight to Tartarus AFTER FIRST SETTING A SEAL UPON HIM TO SHOW WHETHER HE APPEARS TO HIM CURABLE OR INCURABLE, and on arrival there he undergoes the appropriate punishment.
Socrates exhorts Callicles to take part in "THIS CONTEST" of righteousness versus evil, just as Paul exhorts Christians to "enter a race" for the struggle of the soul to be righteous (a type of "Contest," cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24):
"...I am considering how I may present to my judge the healthiest possible soul, and so I renounce the honors sought by most men, and pursuing the truth, I shall really endeavor both to live and when death comes, to die, as good a man as I possibly can be. And I exhort all other men to the best of my power, and you above all I invite in return to share this life and to ENLIST IN THIS CONTEST WHICH I MAINTAIN EXCELS ALL OTHER CONTESTS...let us follow the guidance of the argument now made manifest, which reveals to us that this is the best way of life- to live and die in pursuit of righteousness and all other virtues. Let us follow this, I say, inviting others to join us..." (Gorgias 526-7, pp.306-7, Hamilton)
Christ is portrayed as separating the righteous from the unrighteous in the Judgement of the Dead. The righteous are likened to being sheep, the unrighteous, goats. The righteous are placed to to Christ's "righthand," while the sinners go to his "lefthand" and both are then sent to either Paradise or Hell (Matthew 25: 32-33, 41, 46). This Christian notion of the righteous dead being set "to the right" and the sinners "to the left" and thence "ascending" to Paradise or "descending" into Hell (Tartarus) appears to being drawing from Greek motifs preserved in Plato's Republic and the so-called "Myth of Er." Er is slain in battle, his soul visits the underworld, and beholds a judgement of the dead. He is later restored to life and tells his tale:
""...the tale of a warrior bold, Er, the son of Armenius, by race a Pamphylian...He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and above them and over against them in the heaven two others, and that judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgement they bade THE RIGHTEOUS JOURNEY TO THE RIGHT and UPWARD through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and THE UNJUST TO TAKE THE ROAD TO THE LEFT and DOWNWARD, they too wearing signs of all that had befallen them..." (Republic 10.614c-e, p.839, Hamilton)
Er tells us that A THOUSAND YEARS passed for the souls in Heaven as well as in Hell, before they made contact with each other to relate their experiences at a meadow, ON THE EARTH'S SURFACE (the righteous descending to the earth, the unrighteous, ascending from Hell). Er goes on to explain that approximately 100 years is set aside for a human being, and that the reward or punishment for a soul's good or evil is mulitplied ten-fold, thus arriving at a sum of ONE THOUSAND YEARS, before the return to the Earth's surface by the righteous and unrighteous.
I suspect these Platonic-Greek motifs lie behind the Book of Revelation's notion of a thousand year reign of the righteous on earth and and the resurrection of the dead at the conclusion of this thousand year period, the so-called "MILLENNIUM". The Early Christians have of course, given a "a new twist" to this ancient myth.
Er on the THOUSAND YEARS wait before the resurrection of the dead to the meadow on the Earth's surface:
"And so he said that here he saw, by each opening of heaven and earth, the souls departing after judgement had been passed upon them, while, by the other pair of openings, there came up from the one in the earth souls full of squalor and dust, and from the second there came down from heaven a second procession of souls clean and pure, and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those who came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others. And they told their stories to one another, the one lamenting and wailing as they recalled how many and dreadful things they had suffered and seen in their journey beneath the earth- IT LASTED A THOUSAND YEARS- while those from heaven related their delights and visions of beauty beyond words. To tell it all, Glaucon, would take all our time, but the sum, he said, was this. For all the wrongs they had ever done to anyone and whom that had severally wronged they had paid the penalty tenfold for each, and the measure of this was by periods of a hundred years each, so that on the assumption that this was the length of human life the punishment might be ten times the crime...and if any had done deeds of kindness and been just and holy men they might receive their due reward in the same measure."
(Republic 10.614-5, p.839, Hamilton)
As the earth is to be the Messiah's kingdom in Christian thought, the thousand year reign to be enjoyed as a reward for the righteous, replaces Er's notion that the righteous are dwelling in Heaven, not on earth. The righteous and unrighteous meeting again on earth in Er's scenario has been transformed by the Early Christians into the righteous witnessing the destruction of the unrighteous dead in a Lake of Fire. The Er myth stresses punishment for a thousand years and rewards for a thousand years, Christianity apparently took these "dual concepts," and, reformatting them, made the righteous rule the earth with Christ for a thousand years as their reward, while the dead waited for one thousand years, for their final Judgement.
Greek myths mention Tantalus' punishment as being bound and emersed in a body of water, up to his neck which recedes when he lowers his head being thirsty and wanting to drink, and the fruits of a tree over his head which withdraw when he raises his head to eat. Greek myths mention a "river of fire" in the underworld called Phlegethon meaning "the flaming," also called Pyriphlegthon meaning "flaming with fire." Perhaps the Christian notion of a "Lake of Fire" as a place of punishment is a new twist on the Tantalus motif and the fiery river of Hell?
Plato notes "fiery men" in Hell who torment the unrighteous, this motif probably lies behind Medieval Christiandom's imagery of Satan and his Demons assaulting the sinners. Hell's entrance is described as "a mouth" (a mouth to the opening in the earth's surface leading into the underworld?). Hell's mouth in Christian imagery appears to be drawing from Platonic notions. It might be that Plato's "Fiery-men" in the underworld conjured up for the Early Christians, the notion that the unrighteous are to be consumed in fire (or in a Lake of Fire), they becoming Plato's "Fiery-men"? :
"Now this Aridaeus had been a tyrant in a certain city of Pamphylia just a thousand years before that time and had put to death his old father and his elder brother, and had done many other unholy deeds, as was the report. So he said that the one questioned replied 'He has not come,' said he, 'nor will he be likely to come here. For indeed this was one of the dreadful sights we beheld; when we were near THE MOUTH and about to issue forth and all our other sufferings were ended, we suddenly caught sight of him and others, the most of them, I may say, tyrants. But there were some of private station, of those who had committed great crimes. And when these supposed that at last they were about to go up and out, THE MOUTH would not receive them, but it bellowed when any one of the incurably wicked or of those who had not completed their punishment tried to come up. And thereupon, he said, 'savage MEN of FIERY ASPECT who stood by and took note of the voice laid hold on them and bore them away. But Ariaeus and others they BOUND HAND AND FOOT and head and flung down and flayed them and dragged them by the wayside, carding them on thorns and signifying to those from time to time passed by for what cause they were borne away, and that they were to be HURLED INTO TARTARUS." (Republic 10.615-6, p.840, Hamilton)
Early Christian notions about "the binding" with chains of Satan and his angels, hurling them into the bottomless abyss, might be drawing upon Plato's motif of the wicked being bound and hurled into Tartarus, which is described as far removed from earth as is heaven (the lower-most portion of Hell reserved for punishments of the wicked). The incorrigible Titans were bound in chains, and kept in Tartarus in Hesiodic myths.
The Book of Hebrews makes "a rather strange statement." It tells Christians that if they perservere in the faith until death, that their reward will be that they will enter into God's Rest and not have to toil anymore:
"So, then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enter's God's rest ALSO CEASES FROM HIS LABORS as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest...(Hebrews 4:9-11)
The Old Testament has no notion of man entering into God's rest after death, nor any idea that the dead will "labor or toil" after death. I suspect that the Early Christians picked up the motif of the wicked having to toil after death (being denied the right to enter God's rest, and freedom from labors) from Pre-Christian Greek myths. Pindar (5th century BCE) stated that the unrighteous dead would suffer "terrible toil" in the underworld after their deaths. So, a Greek audience would relate to what Hebrews' author is stating about entering into God's Rest, and avoiding Toil or Labor. Even today, Christian tombstones frequently have carved upon them "REST IN PEACE," or "R.I.P." alluding probably to Hebrews 4:9-11.
Pindar, as noted by Turner:
"Pindar wrote of an afterlife where bad men endure 'toil which is terrible to behold.' " (cf. p. 28, Alice K. Turner. The History of Hell. San Diego, Harvest Book [Harcourt, Brace & Co.], 1993, ISBN 0-15-600137-3)
Hesiod's Theogony (8th century B.C.), a history of the Greek gods and of the world, portrayed mankind's history as a succession of Ages, man becoming more debased and depraved as the metals associated with that age, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron (the Flood ending the Bronze Age). The Roman poet Virgil (Vergil) about 40 B.C. wrote his widely celebrated so-called Fourth Eclogue, which predicted the birth of a child, a son, who would lead the peoples of the world to a return to the Golden Age, man would be reconciled with the gods, he would become virtuous, and the old religiousity would be restored, harboring an age of peace and plenty. Virgil's widely disseminated work "set the stage" for Christianity and its notion of a Messiah who would "shortly" bring about this Golden Age. Evidently the Roman propaganda worked wonders on the Jews too, this "Golden Age" witnessing the revival of Jewish yearnings for a Messiah as promised by Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-66), and consequent fruitless rebellions against Roman rule by various self-proclaimed Messiahs (40 B.C. to 135 A.D.).
In conclusion, for some two thousand years Christianity has been enthralled with the notion of "the end of the world and a Millennium," a period of A THOUSAND YEARS- this research has attempted to identify such beliefs as re-interpretations of ancient Greek motifs, grafted onto Jewish notions of a world-ruling Messiah as portrayed in Deutero-Isaiah. If I am correct in my suppositions, it goes without saying that the day will never come for "Christ's Millennium," its all a myth, a beautiful myth, giving hope to mankind through the ages.