Christian interpretation of the thousand-year reign of the martyrs and other faithful with Christ, also called the †millennium, has been quite diverse. 8 Some early and highly respected Christian teachers, including Papias (d. 135), Justin Martyr (d. 165), Irenaeus (d. 202), Tertullian (d. ca. 220), and Victorinus (d. 303), expected a literal thousand-year period of an earthly paradise when Christ and the saints would rule the nations and biblical prophecies about a transformed creation (e.g., Isaiah 65:17–25) would be fulfilled within history — a view called †Chiliasm or †Millenarianism. A common idea was that history would follow the pattern of creation. After the first six days (each a thousand years in accord with Psalm 90:4), a sabbath of one thousand years of Messianic earthly reign would precede the eternal kingdom.
However, belief in a millennial earthly paradise before the eternal kingdom came to be associated with hopes for extraordinary material prosperity and bodily pleasure. In reaction, other ancient writers such as Origen (ca. 185–254), Dionysius of Alexandria (ca. 198–264), and Jerome (ca. 347–420) interpreted the millennium in an allegorical and moral sense: Armageddon became the "triumph of God over sin and vice," and the thousand-year reign became the period when people embraced "obedience and chastity, for Satan is bound whenever people resist evil thoughts." 9
In the early fifth century, Augustine (354–430), following Tyconius (ca. 380), taught that the thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints began with Christ's first coming and continues in the Church until Christ's second coming — a view called amillennialism. 10 The first resurrection is spiritual and occurs in Baptism; the second resurrection is the general physical resurrection of the just and the unjust at the end of history. The thrones of 20:4 are the sees of bishops. The conversion of Constantine and the spread of Christianity through the empire shows that Satan is confined to the hearts of unbelievers, and the reign of the saints has begun.
In the present reign of the Church, the wheat and the tares remain mixed together until the last judgment and the beginning of the †eschatological kingdom. Before that occurs, the devil will be released and will test the Church. Augustine's interpretation became the dominant one through the early Middle Ages and beyond.
Late medieval interpreters such as Alexander Minorita (d. 1271) and Peter Olivi (1248–98) speculated that the thousand years refers to the Church's ascendancy that began with the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, and would end with the release of satan in the fourteenth century. The occurrence of the Great Western Schism (1348–1417) and the bubonic plague (1346–53), called the Black Death, confirmed this interpretation in the eyes of some. The Reformation period saw various revivals of †millenarianism, as well as revivals of Augustine's interpretation by the leading Reformers. Catholic interpreters of the sixteenth century also inclined toward Augustine's view. The Jesuit commentator Francisco Ribera (1537–91) interpreted the thousand years to be the period between Christ's death and the coming of the anti-christ. In contrast to Augustine, however, Ribera held that the millennial rule belongs to the souls of the faithful departed in Heaven rather than to the Church on earth. 11
Some subsequent interpreters expected the millennial kingdom to come gradually as the Church fulfills its mission, culminating in Christ's return—referred to as postmillennialism. Revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) expected the millennium to be inaugurated through outpourings of the Spirit. Likewise, Charles Finney (1792–1875) envisioned the millennium as being inaugurated by evangelism and social reform such as the end of slavery and the promotion of temperance, with the timing of its arrival dependent on people's response (See 2 Peter 3:12). Twentieth-century Protestant advocates of the "social gospel" likewise adopted a postmillennial view. Some Catholics today expect a temporal era of peace, triumph, and unity for the Church before satan's final assault, the return of Christ, and the eternal kingdom. 12
The leading interpretation of the millennium among fundamentalist and some evangelical Christians today, premillennial †dispensationalism, arose in the early nineteenth century. According to this interpretation, Christ will return before the great tribulation (see sidebar, "The Great Tribulation," pp. 146–47), raise believers who have died, and †rapture—snatch up—all true Christians to Heaven. After seven years Christ will return with the Church and defeat the beast, the false prophet, and their armies. Then the Church will reign with Christ for a thousand years on a transformed earth, fulfilling Isaiah 65:18–25, "in a time of universal peace, prosperity, long life, and prevailing righteousness." 13 While the faithful Christians whom Christ has raised will live forever, the people who survive the tribulation and live during the millennium will enjoy long lives (Isaiah 65:20). Then satan will be released for a short time and organize an uprising that takes the form of a military assault against the reign of Christ and the saints in Jerusalem. God will intervene to send fire from Heaven to consume the armies of Gog and Magog and to cast satan into the lake of fire. Then the unrighteous who have died will be raised and judged, and God's eternal reign will begin.
The Catholic Church rejects †millenarianism, interpretations like dispensationalism that expect a visible earthly reign of Christ before the final judgment. 14 The Church also rejects the view that Christ's kingdom will come to pass through a human political program, through a "secular messianism" (Catechism 676), or even through the "progressive ascendancy" of the Church (Catechism 677). Rather, the kingdom will come "only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil," and the descent of the new Jerusalem from Heaven (Catechism 677).
(Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Revelation, Peter S. Williamson)