Before the time of Augustine in the fifth century, premillennialism dominated the early church. Most of the early church fathers voiced a strong belief in a future one thousand year reign of Jesus.
Although on the surface it might seem to be an insignificant change, amillennialism profoundly changed the church in the centuries after Augustine. It altered the church’s view of Scripture, as well as of prophecy, and the negative impact of Augustine’s doctrine of future things continues to this day.
In previous posts, we have examined how amillennialism, also referred to as “replacement theology,” discredits Scripture and distorts the biblical worldview. In this article, we will look at its long-term harmful impacts upon the church.
1. Started the Combining of Scripture with Platonism
The first prominent theologian in the early church to advocate amillennialism was Origen, who lived AD 184-254. He derived his views on the millennium by combining Scripture with the views of Plato, an ancient philosopher who regarded material things as insignificant or evil and thus placed a greater value on spiritual realities.
Origen allegorized prophecy to make biblical teachings regarding the Lord’s future kingdom fit with the philosophy of Plato. The Nicene Council of AD 325 condemned the teachings of Origen that also included reincarnation and universal salvation.
Like Origen, Augustine (AD 354-430) adhered to some of the teachings of Plato. Although he disagreed with much of what Plato taught, Augustine nevertheless incorporated Plato’s pagan scheme of reality into his theology.[i] While Augustine regarded Christianity as an improvement on the thinking of Plato, he did not reject Plato’s world view that placed the immaterial above the physical.
We see the influence of Plato in Augustine’s objection to the literal view of the millennium. He said that the idea of a millennium “’would not be objectionable if the nature of the millennial kingdom was a ‘spiritual one’ rather than a physical one.”[ii] He objected to the thoughts of “carnal banquets” he visualized might be part of such a kingdom.[iii]
This combining of biblical prophecy with Platonism continues today. Randy Alcorn said this about it, “Christoplantonism has had a devastating effect on our ability to understand what Scripture says about Heaven, particularly about the eternal Heaven, the New Earth. . . . Christoplantonism has closed our minds to the possibility that the present Heaven may actually be a physical realm.”[iv]
As a result, many today believe that it’s “unspiritual” to think of spending eternity in resurrected and immortal bodies despite the fact that this is clearly taught in Scripture.
2. Led to an Unbiblical View of the Church
After many decades of persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, a monumental event occurred in AD 313. The Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan that “legitimated Christianity and impressed upon it the Empire's stamp of approval.”[v] The Roman government’s sudden approval of the Christian faith dramatically changed the course of church history for over a thousand years.
“From a theological perspective -- specifically an eschatological one -- the Edict of Milan also signaled a monumental paradigm shift -- from the well-grounded premillennialism of the ancient church fathers to the amillennialism or postmillennialism that would dominate eschatological thinking from the fourth century AD to at least the middle part of the nineteenth century.”[vi] While premillennialism continued to prevail after the edict, the shift away from it gained strength with Augustine and his allegorical approach to biblical prophecy.
Dr. Grant Jeffrey describes the transformation of the church after the time of Augustine in this way: “Consequently, as the Church formed powerful alliances with the kings of Europe, it lost interest in the literal prophecies about Christ’s coming Kingdom . . . and leaders of the medieval Church set out to change humanity and to rule the world themselves and in alliance with Christian rulers.”[vii]
As the church took upon itself the role of God’s kingdom on earth, it sought to exert its power through human government. It began to rely on physical power to covert people to Christianity rather than on the presentation of the Gospel.
It was not coincidental in my mind that all these factors led to the church soon becoming the means of salvation as well as the dispenser of God’s grace. The Edict of Milan combined with the emergence of amillennialism contributed to this distortion of the Gospel as well as the purpose of the church.
3. Leads to Anti-Semitism
The connection between amillennialism and anti-Semitism is well-established in history.
Recently, in response to a book written by Andy Stanley promoting replacement theology, Ryan Lambert, a Messianic Jewish teacher and outreach director for First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) ministry, said this: "I don't think Andy Stanley is an anti-Semite. But this kind of rhetoric, which speaks of Judaism as something that has been replaced and that is characterized as 'self-righteous' and 'eroding' the ekklesia can and has led to common negative Christian stereotypes of both Judaism and Jews. Too often throughout history, such stereotypes and characterizations have led the way toward hostile, violent, and destructive actions toward the Jewish community by the hands of Christians."[viii]
Does the anti-Israel perspective of amillennialism lead to anti-Semitism? Yes! Tragically, this has been true throughout church history and remains so today. I could provide many, many examples of this. Although God greatly used Martin Luther, his anti-Semiticism caused great harm to the Jewish community of his day.
In a class I taught on future things, it turned out that the strongest objector to my premillennial views also possessed a passionate dislike for the Jewish people. I am sure this hatred influenced his unbiblical belief in preterism.
4. Opens the Door to False Teaching
Unfortunately, the longer term impact of denying a literal millennial has also opened doors to much false teaching, even views that deny the tenets of historic Christianity.
While many amillennialists start their literal interpretation of the book of Revelation with 20:11 to the end, a growing number continue their allegorical approach through 22:21. In doing do they deny the future bodily resurrection of believers, which Paul regarded as an essential aspect of the Gospel (see 1 Cor. 15).
During the early seventeenth century, a Jesuit priest name Luis de Alcazar first developed the Preterist approach to eschatology in the in response to the Reformer’s allegorical view of the book of Revelation. Although most amillennialists today regard the book of Revelation as an allegory of the church’s struggles with evil in the first century, the reformers applied this struggle to the abuses of the Catholic Church.
Alcazar responded to this overt condemnation of Catholicism with his own view of John’s writing, which came to be known as preterism. He regarded the prophecies of the book of Revelation as having been fulfilled in the past. Alcazar taught that the prophecies in Revelation covered the first 500 years of the church depicting her struggles against Judaism and later against paganism. He believed Revelation 21-22 depicted the glories of the Papacy and the Roman Church during the fifth century.[ix]
Besides preterism, dominion theology is another rapidly growing false teaching that has grown out of replacement theology. This view asserts that someday the church will convert the entire world to Christianity and usher in the millennium itself with Jesus returning at the end of this glorious church age.
5. Leads to the Missing of Prophecy in Current Events
The denial of all Old Testament prophecies relating to Israel causes amillennialists to overlook the evidences of fulfilled prophecy in our current world. It’s not that experience validates Scripture, but it’s quite evident to many, including myself, that the very existence of Israel today is a miraculous fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Consider the prophecy of the antichrist controlling all buying and selling throughout the world. Until the last twenty years, very few could envision how he could do that. With today’s technology along with the ever expanding field of artificial intelligence, we now know that such a system could easily be brought into existence in the near future. Given what we see in the news, it’s no longer a matter of how, but of when.
This tragic impact of amillennialism leaves many Christians in the dark regarding future things. Rather than watch for Jesus’ coming as He commanded (Matt. 24:40-44), many Christians today believe it’s highly unlikely for God to fulfill any biblical prophecy in their lifetime.
Sadly, this attitude of affects more than those in amillennial churches. So many today are not ready, are not watching for Jesus’ return. They remain unaware of all the signs pointing to the soon beginning of the tribulation and hence to the rapture, which I believe happens before it.
While on the surface, amillennialism seems rather harmless and admittedly there are many godly teachers and writers who advocate it, it’s the long-term effects of this teaching that have been devastating in both church and in secular history.
We see this in the combining of Scripture with pagan philosophies, in how it later leads to false teachings such as preterism, and in its anti-Semitic impact throughout history.
[i] Williams, Thomas, Augustine and the Platonists, A lecture given to the Freshman Program of Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University, 23 October 2003
[iv] Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), pp. 52-53.
[v] Allen, D. Matthew, Theology Adrift: The Early Church Fathers and Their Views of Eschatology, A paper published on the Bible.org website
[vii] Dr. Grant Jeffrey, Triumphant Return: The Coming Kingdom of God, p. 129
[viii] Ryan Lambert as quoted in: Pastor Stanley's Words Are Dangerous': Messianic Believers Say 2nd Biggest US Church Should NOT Ditch Old Testament on the CBN News website.
[ix] Reagan, Dr. David R., The Fallacy of Preterism, an article published on the According to Prophecy Ministries Website.