Bible Myths and their Parallels in other Religions Being a Comparison of the Old and New Testament Myths and Miracles with those of the Heathen Nations of Antiquity Considering also their Origin and Meaning
Page: 135The doctrine of the millennium and the second advent of Christ Jesus, has been a very important one in the Christian church. The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion. In the primitive church, the influence of truth was powerfully strengthened by an opinion, which, however much it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity, has not been [Pg 240]found agreeable to experience. It was universally believed, that the end of the world and the kingdom of heaven were at hand.[240:1] The near approach of this wonderful event had been predicted, as we have seen, by the Apostles; the tradition of it was preserved by their earliest disciples, and those who believed that the discourses attributed to Jesus were really uttered by him, were obliged to expect the second and glorious coming of the "Son of Man" in the clouds, before that generation was totally extinguished which had beheld his humble condition upon earth, and which might still witness the calamities of the Jews under Vespasian or Hadrian. The revolution of seventeen centuries has instructed us not to press too closely the mysterious language of prophecy and revelation; but as long as this error was permitted to subsist in the church, it was productive of the most salutary effects on the faith and practice of Christians, who lived in the awful expectation of that moment when the globe itself and all the various races of mankind, should tremble at the appearance of their divine judge. This expectation was countenanced—as we have seen—by the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew, and by the first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians. Erasmus (one of the most vigorous promoters of the Reformation) removes the difficulty by the help of allegory and metaphor; and the learned Grotius (a learned theologian of the 16th century) ventures to insinuate, that, for wise purposes, the pious deception was permitted to take place.
The ancient and popular doctrine of the millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ Jesus. As the works of the creation had been fixed in six days, their duration in the present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years.[240:2] By the same analogy it was inferred, that this long period of labor and contention, which had now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years, and that Christ Jesus, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth until the time appointed for the last and general resurrection. So pleasing was this hope to the mind of the believers, that the "New Jerusalem," the [Pg 241]seat of this blissful kingdom, was quickly adorned with all the gayest colors of the imagination. A felicity consisting only of pure and spiritual pleasure would have been too refined for its inhabitants, who were still supposed to possess their human nature and senses. A "Garden of Eden," with the amusements of the pastoral life, was no longer suited to the advanced state of society which prevailed under the Roman empire. A city was therefore erected of gold and precious stones, and a supernatural plenty of corn and wine was bestowed on the adjacent territory; in the free enjoyment of whose spontaneous productions, the happy and benevolent people were never to be restrained by any jealous laws of exclusive property. Most of these pictures were borrowed from a misrepresentation of Isaiah, Daniel, and the Apocalypse. One of the grossest images may be found in Irenæus (l. v.) the disciple of Papias, who had seen the Apostle St. John. Though it might not be universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers; and it seems so well adapted to the desires and apprehensions of mankind, that it must have contributed in a very considerable degree to the progress of the Christian faith. But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ Jesus' reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism. But although this doctrine had been "laid aside," and "rejected," it was again resurrected, and is alive and rife at the present day, even among those who stand as the leaders of the orthodox faith.
The expectation of the "last day" in the year 1000 A. D., reinvested the doctrine with a transitory importance; but it lost all credit again when the hopes so keenly excited by the crusades faded away before the stern reality of Saracenic success, and the predictions of the "Everlasting Gospel," a work of Joachim de Floris, a Franciscan abbot, remained unfulfilled.[241:1]
At the period of the Reformation, millenarianism once more experienced a partial revival, because it was not a difficult matter [Pg 242]to apply some of its symbolism to the papacy. The Pope, for example, was Antichrist—a belief still adhered to by some extreme Protestants. Yet the doctrine was not adopted by the great body of the reformers, but by some fanatical sects, such as the Anabaptists, and by the Theosophists of the seventeenth century.