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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. CHILIASM IN ITS TWO FORMS.—There are two forms of Chiliasm or Millenarianism. The exaggerated form is heretical, while the more moderate is simply erroneous.

a) The heretical form of Chiliasm may be traced partly to the Jewish expectation of a temporal Messias and partly to the apocryphal writings of the Old Testament, which abound in fables. The Chiliasts of this school conceived the millennium as a period of unbridled sensual indulgence. Eusebius the church-historian says of Cerinthus, a Gnostic heretic who flourished towards the end of the first century: “He held that at some time in the future Christ would reign on earth; and as he was addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, he imagined that the reign of God would consist of such things.” This error was shared by the ancient Ebionites and Apollinarianists and, in a somewhat more respectable form, still persists among the Mormons and Irvingites.

b) Moderate Chiliasm had a number of adherents among Patristic writers, notably Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Nepos, Commodian, Victorinus of Pettau, and Lactantius. Its favorite text was Apoc. 20:1 sqq. Papias believed that the Resurrection of the flesh would be followed by a glorious reign of Christ, in which the Saints would enjoy a superabundance of earthly pleasures for a thousand years. These pleasures, however, were to be spiritual, or at least morally licit. In developing this idea its champions parted ways. Some expected the millennium between the General Judgment and the Resurrection of the dead, while others believed it would occur after the General Resurrection, immediately before the assumption of the just into Heaven. A third, still more moderate group of Millenarianists, which is not yet extinct, contents itself with asserting that an era of universal peace and tranquillity will precede the second coming of Christ, to be suddenly interrupted by the great apostasy and the forerunners of Anti-Christ.

2. REFUTATION OF CHILIASM.—Chiliasm in both its forms is untenable.

a) Heretical Chiliasm stands condemned in the light of the moral law, which excludes intemperance and unchastity from the kingdom of Heaven. It is blasphemous and an insult to God to assert that Christ, who is all-holy, will found an earthly paradise for libertines. No wonder even those Fathers and ecclesiastical writers who entertained Chiliastic ideas vigorously condemned this grossly sensual species of Millenarianism as heretical.

b) It is not so easy to refute the more moderate form of Chiliasm, for it seems to have a basis in Sacred Scripture and primitive Tradition.

The New Testament as well as the early creeds speak of the Resurrection of the flesh, the Last Judgment, and the end of the world in terms which make it apparent that these three events are to follow one another in close succession, leaving no time for a millennium.

α) The favorite passage of the Chiliasts is in the Apocalypse and reads as follows: “And I beheld an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.… They [i. e. the just] came to life again, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead came not to life until the thousand years were accomplished. This is the first resurrection.… And when the thousand years are accomplished, Satan shall be loosed from his prison, and he shall come forth to lead astray the nations which are in the four corners of the earth …”

This is undeniably one of the most difficult and obscure passages found in Sacred Scripture, and no one has yet succeeded in explaining it satisfactorily. But it proves nothing in favor of Millenarianism, which has no claim to our assent unless it can show that its tenets do not conflict with the general teaching of the Bible. Among the more probable interpretations of the Johannine text suggested by Catholic writers we may mention that of St. Augustine, which was adopted by Pope St. Gregory the Great. These two Fathers think that the imprisonment of Satan refers to the first coming of our Lord, and his temporary loosing to His second coming (parousia) at the reign with His saints on earth (the “first resurrection”) signifies the kingdom of Heaven, where the Blessed reign under the headship of our Lord before the “second resurrection” (i. e. the Resurrection of the flesh). Similarly, the term “first death” is applied to the separation of the body from the soul, whereas “second death” refers to eternal damnation. If this theory is correct, the number one thousand is not to be taken literally, but simply indicates an indefinite period of considerable length.

β) Despite appearances to the contrary, Chiliasm has no foundation in Tradition. Among its early advocates Lactantius, Nepos, Commodian, and Victorinus may, in the light of the Decretum Gelasianum, be set aside as worthless witnesses. The same could be said of Sulpicius Severus if he were to be reckoned among the Chiliasts, which is, however, extremely doubtful, as his extant writings contain no trace of this error. Of the remaining writers who are quoted in favor of Chiliasm we may disregard Papias because he was uncritical, and Tertullian because he was a heretic when he embraced Millenarianism. St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus, the only two remaining witnesses who are absolutely trustworthy, did not inculcate Chiliasm as an article of faith, but merely proposed it as a personal opinion. Whether St. Melito, Bishop of Sardes, harbored Millenarian notions, is uncertain. St. Hippolytus, who is numbered among the Chiliasts by Bonwetsch, has not written a single line, in the works that have come down to us, which must necessarily be interpreted in a Chiliastic sense. Bonwetsch himself is constrained to admit that Hippolytus discarded some of the eschatological notions held by Irenaeus and Tertullian.

Among the opponents of Chiliasm were Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, and Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, whom Eusebius honored with the title of Great and St. Athanasius called a Doctor of the Catholic Church.

READINGS:—J. B. Paganini, Das Ende der Welt oder die Wiederkunft unseres Herrn, 2nd ed., Ratisbon 1882.—J. Bautz, Weltgericht und Weltende, Mayence 1886.—J. Sigmund, Das Ende der Zeiten mit einem Nachblick in die Ewigkeit, oder das Weltgericht mit seinen Ursachen, Vorzeichen und Folgen, Salzburg 1892.—J. A. McHugh in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, pp. 552 sq.—J. Tixeront, History of Dogmas, 3 Vols., St. Louis 1910–1916, see Index s. v. “Judgment.”—St. Thomas, S. Theol., Supplem., qu. 49–91.—B. J. Otten, S. J., A Manual of the History of Dogmas, Vol. II, St. Louis 1918, pp. 422 sqq.

On Chiliasm see H. Corrodi, Kritische Geschichte des Chiliasmus, 1794.—H. Klee, De Chiliasmo Primorum Saeculorum, Mayence 1825.—Wagner, Der Chiliasmus in den ersten Jahrhunderten, 1849.—J. N. Schneider, Die chiliastische Doktrin und ihr Verhältnis zur christlichen Glaubenslehre (pro-Chiliastic), Schaffhausen 1859.—J. P. Kirsch, art. “Millennium,” in Vol. X of the Catholic Encyclopedia, pp. 307–310.—Chiapelli, Le Idee Millenarie dei Cristiani, Naples 1888.—L. Guy, Le Millénarisme dans ses Origines et son Développement, Paris 1904.—Franzelin, De Scriptura et Traditione, P. II, thes. 16, Rome 1896.—H. Kihn, Patrologie, Vol. I, pp. 120 sqq., Paderborn 1904.—J. Tixeront, History of Dogmas, Vol. I, St. Louis 1910 (see Index s. v. “Millenarianism”).—Shirley Jackson, The Millennial Hope, Chicago 1918.








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