Premillennialism and the Early Church
The place to begin to evaluate the assertion that premillennialism was the only view of the early church would be to survey the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, the writings of the early church prior to the drafting of the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325. The thing of it is, we don’t have all the writings or opinions of Christian pastors and/or writers of that era. There were no printing presses, recording devices, or retrievable blog posts. What we have available to us are copies of works that were written and have survived.
Many Latin and Greek texts remain untranslated, including those beyond the fourth century. Frank Gumerlock has been translating Latin texts that show that a preterist interpretation of Bible prophecy was popular among many writers on the book of Revelation, Matthew 24, and lesser-studied passages like James 5:3-5. According to Gumerlock, “At least four medieval commentators on the Epistle of James interpreted the ‘day of slaughter’ in James 5:5 as the first-century destruction upon Jerusalem and Judea at the hands of the Romans.”1
In this short article, I will first deal with the obvious historical errors made by dispensational authors who claim that premillennialism was the only position held by early church fathers.
Dwight Pentecost writes the following about Justin Martyr’s (c. 100-165) evaluation of non-premillennial views in the second century:
Justin evidently recognized premillennialism as “the criterion of a perfect orthodoxy.” In his Dialogue with Trypho, where he writes: “some who are called Christians but are godless, impious heretics, teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish,” he shows he would include any who denied premillennialism in this category, since he included in it those that denied the resurrection, a companion doctrine.2
Unfortunately, Pentecost was quoting a secondary source and failed to check the original. Just prior to the sentence that Pentecost quotes, Justin had written:
I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another. I admitted to you formerly, that I and many3 others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.4
Pentecost overstates his case for premillennialism. In fact, there were some in the second century — Justin says “many” — who did not agree with Justin’s eschatological perspective. Justin is charitable and wise enough to state that they too “belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians.”
The heretics that Justin describes are those “who say there is no resurrection of the dead.”5 Those who hold to a different millennial position are said to “belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians.” Those who deny the resurrection “are called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics.”6 It’s obvious that Justin has two groups in mind: those who disagree on eschatology (“true Christians) and those who deny the resurrection (“called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics”).
Charles Ryrie maintains that “Premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church.”7 But not all agree. Take, for example, a master’s thesis presented to the faculty of the Department of Historical Theology of Dallas Theological Seminary, a dispensational premillennial school. The author writes that “he originally undertook the thesis to bolster the system by patristic research, but the evidence of the original sources simply disallowed this.” His following comments show that premillenialism, contrary to Ryrie and other premillennialists, is not the historic faith of the Church:
It is the conclusion of this thesis that Dr. Ryrie’s statement is historically invalid within the chronological framework of this thesis. The reasons for this conclusion are as follows: 1). the writers/writings surveyed did not generally adopt a consistently applied literal interpretation; 2). they did not generally distinguish between the Church and Israel; 3). there is no evidence that they generally held to a dispensational view of revealed history; 4). although Papias and Justin Martyr did believe in a Millennial kingdom, the 1,000 years is the only basic similarity with the modern system (in fact, they and dispensational premillennialism radically differ on the basis for the Millennium); 5). they had no concept of imminency or a pretribulational rapture of the Church; 6). in general, their eschatological chronology is not synonymous with that of the modern system. Indeed, this thesis would conclude that the eschatological beliefs of the period studied would be generally inimical [i.e., contrary] to those of the modern system (perhaps, seminal amillennialism, and not nascent [i.e., emerging] dispensational premillennialism ought to be seen in the eschatology of the period).8
So then, it’s amillennialism that shows up in the early church. Amillennialism and postmillennialism are very similar in that many of the millennial blessings are manifested during the “church age,” and there is no personal reign of Christ on the earth. A reading of Revelation 20 will show that there is no mention of an earthly reign of Christ, a rebuilt temple, the institution of animal sacrifices, or the reestablishment of the throne of David. Boyd continues in his work by challenging his fellow-dispensationalists “to be more familiar with, and competent in, patristics,9 so as to avoid having to rely on second-hand evidence in patristic interpretation.” He suggests that “it would seem wise for the modern system [of dispensational premillennialism] to abandon the claim that it is the historic faith of the church (for at least the period considered).”10
Another graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary comes to a similar conclusion relating to a pretribulation rapture, a major pillar of dispensationalism: “An intensive examination of the writings of pretribulational scholars reveals only one passage from the early fathers which is put forth as a possible example of explicit pretribulationalism.”11
A “Hint” of Evidence
Where, then, is the historical evidence for premillennialism? What was once considered insurmountable evidence, has now turned out to be scant evidence. This conclusion is made even by scholars from within the dispensational camp.
Thomas Ice says that “there’s absolutely no one in the early church that even gives a hint that they believe that things were fulfilled in 70 A.D.” But according to Justin, there were people who did hold a non-premillennial position. This is at least a “hint” of something else, perhaps even the possibility of an A.D. 70 fulfillment.
Since we do not have all the opinions of the church fathers, or of all the teachers and preachers of that period, it is impossible to be dogmatic concerning what the early church believed about eschatology. We do know, however, that the early church was not unanimous in its view of the millennium, contrary to what Pentecost, Ice, and other dispensationalists might assert. In fact, we should not put too much confidence in the views of the early church since they were often mistaken on more fundamental doctrines. Boyd writes:
It is this writer’s conviction that historical precedent cannot be employed to disprove a system of belief, but only Biblical precedent. There is much error in the Fathers studied in other areas of theology (e.g., soteriology–incipient baptismal regeneration, a weak view of justification; ecclesiology–incipient sacerdotalism), so it should be no occasion for surprise that there is much eschatological error there.12
One last point needs to be made. Thomas Ice claims that no one in the early church believed in an A.D. 70 fulfillment of much of the prophetic literature, especially Matthew 24:1-34. This would indeed be a strong argument for a dispensationalist like Ice against postmillennialism if it could be proved to be true. Yet, Eusebius, who was present at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, and “played a very prominent part”13 in its proceedings, believed in a preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:1-34. This is an important point since there are some who assert that the Nicene Creed advocates premillennialism. Again, Ice overstates his case by maintaining that “there’s absolutely no one” who held to an A.D. 70 fulfillment. Only one person has to be found to prove him wrong.
Eusebius, in recounting the writings of Josephus and his recounting of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, writes that “it is fitting to add to these accounts the true prediction of our Saviour in which he foretold these very events. His words are as follows: “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day. For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.”
The discerning reader will recognize that these verses are found in Matthew 24:19-21, verses that dispensationalists say are yet to be fulfilled. But Eusebius tells us that “these things took place in this manner in the second year of the reign of Vespasian,14 in accordance with the prophecies of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who by divine power saw them beforehand as if they were already present, and wept and mourned according to the statement of the holy evangelists….”15 What statement of the holy evangelists? Eusebius quotes verses from Luke’s description of the destruction of Jerusalem: Luke 19:42-44; 21:20, 23-24. The passages in Luke 21 parallel those in Matthew 24:1-34.
- Francis X. Gumerlock, Revelation and the First Century: Preterist Interpretations of the Apocalypse in Early Christianity (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2012), 163. [↩]
- J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,  1974), 377. [↩]
- Notice that he does not say “all.” [↩]
- Justin, “Dialogue with Trypho,” chapter LXXX. In Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 1:239. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Justin, “Dialogue with Trypho,” 239. [↩]
- Justin, “Dialogue with Trypho,” 239. [↩]
- Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loiseaux Brothers, 1953), 17. [↩]
- Alan Patrick Boyd, A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (Until the Death of Justin Martyr), submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Theology (May 1977), 90-91. [↩]
- Patristics: Relating to the church fathers (from the Latin pater) and/or their writings. [↩]
- Boyd, A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (Until the Death of Justin Martyr), 92. In a footnote on this same page, Boyd questions the historical accuracy of the research done on the early church fathers by George N. H. Peters in his much consulted three-volume work, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel,  1988).
Boyd sides with the evaluation of the amillennialist Louis Berkhof when he writes that “it is not correct to say, as Premillenarians do, that it (millennialism) was generally accepted in the first three centuries. The truth of the matter is that the adherents of this doctrine were a rather limited number.” (Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines [London: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1969, 262). [↩]
- William Everett Bell, A Critical Evaluation of the Pretribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology (School of Education of New York University, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1967), 27. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Boyd, A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers, 91, note 2. [↩]
- Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Prolegomena: The Life and Writings of Eusebius of Caesaria, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans  1986), 19. [↩]
- September 8, A.D. 70. [↩]
- These quotations from Eusebius are found in The Church History of Eusebius, “Predictions of Christ,” Book III, Chapter VII. [↩]